Crossing the Kennebec
Editor’s note: Although many have safely forded the Kennebec, doing so incurs serious risk. This article is meant only to offer a fair representation of these dangers. To be clear- we do not encourage anyone to attempt fording the Kennebec River. Be smart, the ferry is free.
People from Maine have a saying: ‘you can’t get there from here.’
And the phrase has never been truer than while navigating around the Kennebec River, snaking powerfully down from its headwaters in Northern Maine to the Atlantic Ocean, splitting Maine in two.
For an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker heading North, the first sign of the Kennebec is the sound of it. Abruptly, the forest dissolves into an open clearing where grassy banks roll into rushing water. Compared to the small, rocky streams on the rest of the A.T., the Kennebec looks like a lake. Squinting in the bright sun, our hiker can see where a white blaze continues, seventy yards away.
And waving at them in the distance is a man with a canoe.
When Myron Avery first envisioned the Appalachian Trail, he expected it to cross the Kennebec below Wyman Lake and for hikers to secure boats by either calling on a phone stationed there or – in true Maine fashion – striking an old sawmill blade for attention. But while these plans were being laid out, Caratunk hotel owner Ralph Sterling had built the Pierce Pond Camps (known as the Carrying Place Camps today) and established a ferry service across the river to connect his two businesses. Despite the potential satisfaction of clanging a hiking stick against a rusty saw blade in the morning mist, Avery and the Maine Appalachian Trail Club were eventually convinced by Sterling to route the trail through Caratunk and make use of the amenities that already existed.
But Sterling’s ferry service closed only a few years later, long before the first thru-hiker, Earl Shaffer, ever set foot on Georgia’s Mount Oglethorpe in 1948. The crossing was reduced to an unofficial boat tied up on each bank.
A helpful guide returned Shaffer’s boat to the far bank after he crossed, but the trail’s second thru-hiker had no such luck. During his 1951 hike, Gene Espy made three trips across the Kennebec to ensure that the boats remained where they belonged. Espy, who had spent his college years undertaking long camping trips on the boats he and his friends built, was surprised by the difficulty of the crossing. “Before I could make a second stroke with my pole, the boat was about twenty yards downstream.”
It seems that the boats were gone by the time Grandma Gatewood reached the Kennebec in 1955. Gatewood was given a lift across by a forest warden – who then had to return to fetch the rain jacket she left.
During the following decades, the handful of thru-hikers developed myriad solutions to the problem of crossing the Kennebec. Some hikers made rafts from the logs that were being floated downriver by a paper mill. Local canoeists often offered rides to hikers when they were passing through. Some hikers hired boats and others even walked a thirty-mile detour to reach the bridge in Bingham.
But in the seventies the trail, which had seen 59 thru-hikers since it’s conception, suddenly witnessed a ten-fold increase. Fording the Kennebec became a common practice, with hikers using plastic inner tubes left by the banks to float their packs in front of them. By the eighties, hundreds of people were attempting the trail annually, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy began to grow concerned about the difficult crossing.
In addition to rain, which unpredictably changes the height of the river, there are two dams which release water into the Kennebec and cause it to swell. Long Falls Dam releases water from Wyman Lake, downstream from where the Appalachian Trail crosses the Kennebec. And 18 miles upstream of the trail crossing sits the largest generation capacity dam in Maine. When the Harris Dam releases, the water level rises several feet in a matter of minutes.
Many thru-hikers probably have a happy memory of Pierce Pond shelter, where loons’ cries drift over the water at night. In 1985, hikers wrote in the Pierce Pond shelter log about bright night stars, eating pancakes at the Carrying Place, and fording the Kennebec. As the last shelter before the bank of the river, the log here served as a collective of information for hikers planning to ford. “Fortunately I’ve been carrying a four-man rubber raft since GA,” wrote ‘The Fool’ in his bid for most appropriate trail name. ‘The Polar Bear’ wrote, “Left a raft for next hiker. Logs underneath. Good for one dry pack if current not too swift.”
In the midst of all the information and entertainment common to a shelter log, it’s very easy to overlook mundane entries like the one left on August 25th: “Rain all day. Will go to the Kennebec about dark. Wade across tomorrow. – Alice and George.”
Alice Ference did not complete her wade across the next day, but instead became a cautionary tale and a catalyst for change. Following her drowning, the A.T.C. jumped into action and began publishing instructions for safely fording the Kennebec, until legal council urged them to advise against fording altogether. They began looking for an alternative.
In 1986, part of Alice’s unfortunate legacy came in the form of a full-time ferry service funded by the A.T.C. and the M.A.T.C. and run by Rivers and Trails Northeast, Inc. There would be a $10 fee for hikers to use it, but it was deemed safer than fording.
The trail community does not often accept changes in trail policy as well as it accepts changes in the weather, the scenery, or the terrain – perhaps because no organization can match the authority of nature. In the early days of the Kennebec ferry service, many hikers continued to ford rather than pay the fee. Some of them believed that the only true way to thru-hike the whole trail was to ford. The A.T.C. responded by designating the ferry as the ‘official route’ and painting a white blaze on the bottom of the canoe.
That canoe was piloted by Steve Longley, who came to be known simply as ‘the Ferryman’. The first ferryman officially contracted by the M.A.T.C. since its beginning, Longley would row 19,000 hikers across over the following two decades. But in those first years, Longley struggled against not only the river’s current but also those hikers who remembered a time before the ferry.
In 1989 and 1994, following a subversive culture of fording, the A.T.C. formed a committee to look at alternatives to the ferry. They considered solutions ranging from bridges to cable cars to extensive trail re-routes, ultimately rejecting all of them for environmental or historically significant reasons. In the end, they decided to continue the ferry service, only with one change: in an effort to discourage fording, the ferry would be free.
As the years moved on, fording decreased. Steve Longley passed away a well-loved and respected figure and in 2008, Dave Corrigan took over the position of ferryman. ‘Hillbilly Dave’, as he is affectionately known in the trail community, was the person who ferried me across during my 2013 thru-hike. “The Kennebec is totally unpredictable,” Corrigan said as a sort of mantra, “I have been paddling on it for over 25 years and there are times when it still surprises me.”
When I reached out to him for comment on this article, his words echoed with the conscience of a man who has been charged with safely shepherding people for nearly a decade:
“Every year we have some people who successfully ford across, but we have a higher number who try but do not make it across, and several of them have very dangerous experiences. Every year for the last nine years I have seen at least one or two who would have died without intervention from myself or another hiker.”
Corrigan’s main concern is attitude: “ simply seem to believe that rules and safety warnings are for someone else, and that they do not apply to thru hikers. This isn’t just a problem at the Kennebec, but all along the Trail. It is the same problem that could get us locked out of Baxter.”
But some people remember a different time on the river. One of those people is Warren Doyle.
Doyle, a self-professed social change educator, has hiked over 34,000 miles on the Appalachian Trail – more than anyone else. He set the first endurance record at the age of 23, and has been hiking the trail ever since. Every five years, he leads a group through the rigors of a thru-hike, supporting them via van and hiking south each day while they hike north; this year he led his ninth expedition. Despite the average age of his groups (in the case of this one, 57) and the rigorous, four-month schedule of his hikes (most thru-hikers take five to six months), he does have a remarkably high completion rate. And his people trust him implicitly.
A controversial aspect of Doyle’s expeditions is that he still takes these groups across the Kennebec by fording. On his website, though, he clarifies that “No one in the expedition will consciously take another route… The only exception to this expectation is the fording of the Kennebec River in Maine which may be done by canoe for those individuals who have an unreasonable fear of fording it by foot.”
When this year’s expedition went to ford the river, I decided to go with them. There wouldn’t be better conditions than this; the summer had been unusually dry. The rivers were running low and most of the box springs were reduced to dirt. So, my hiking partner Little Spoon and I drove to Caratunk, following route 201 up along the Kennebec on our way to meet the river.
It’s not a requirement,” Walking down to the riverbank with his characteristic hustle, Doyle admits, “I’m surprised that everyone wants to ford. Usually about 90% want to ford but I don’t shame anybody.”
Doyle, who is prone to quoting Muir and Thoreau, is sometimes branded as a sort of thru-hiking demagogue. Someday a book will be written about him, but for now it’s fair to say that he can be a polarizing figure.
“I am definitely not saying in all my words that the Kennebec is safe to cross at anytime. I am challenging that the Kennebec is unsafe to cross at anytime – that’s a falsehood.”
When Jenn Pharr Davis broke the supported record in 2011, Doyle was there to guide her across the Kennebec. “I’m looking for my favorite rock,” Doyle leans over the bank of the river and squints into the rushing water, “This is where Jen and I crossed right here, we used that as an eddy.”
He gestures upstream toward the rock bars and talks about the time his expedition played a game of hearts in the middle of the crossing. Another time, they took turns playing ‘torpedos,’ floating downstream to knock each other over.
As a teacher, Doyle is fond of answering one question with another.
“Who dies in the end of Les Miserables?” He asked us as his group walked the few feet of trail they had cut off with their ford, intent on hiking past every white blaze. “Javert, the authoritarian. I am not an authoritarian; I am an educator. I do not set rules. It should be a goal of any educator to reduce one’s unreasonable fears. Less fear leads to more freedom. More fear leads to more control.”
I came to understand that the phrase “unreasonable fear” played a large role in Doyle’s trail philosophy. We checked the water level on his rock one more time – it hadn’t moved. Seeing this, he walked unwaveringly into the water, bracing himself against the downstream with his pole as he leaned into the upstream.
Now it was my turn.
I planted my pole and walked forward. The rocks were slippery and my wet shoes had very little traction left from a summer of hiking. I struggled to keep my purchase, leaning into the water and pushing with my pole. At the strongest part of the river, I felt my feet losing their grip. I heard Corrigan’s words in my head, “Even at the lowest water levels, the River is dangerous.”
The water was above my waist, lapping at my chest as I leaned into it. I slipped over the rocks, searching for a sandy flat space, trying to get my toes on solid ground. I knew if I went in now, I would simply have to paddle and ‘bodysurf’, as Doyle suggested, until I reached the other side. But I didn’t go down.
The current weakened, my steps grew easier, and the water level decreased. I found rock crush and then sand, stepping onto the rock bars. My partner Little Spoon was visibly nervous during the crossing, although at 6 feet 3 inches the water never went higher than his waist. We had parked in Caratunk, which meant that we had to ford back again to get to our car. But this time we would cross with more company; Doyle’s group prepared to ford across with us.
Doyle injected levity into the tension, shouting challenges into the river and belting out ‘Born to be Wild’ as the tumultuous water swelled around him. But as the group approached the heavy current, their laughter subsided and their faces became masks of determination and muted fear. By the time they reached the eddy, several of them had a look of genuine terror. Nearly chest deep on the shortest member of the crew, the current in this part of the river was intense, pushing with great force at the legs of the jostled forders. Most of them linked arms, crossing in twos. Slowly, one foot after another, they made it safely to the north bank, where they gathered to cheer for each new arrival.
The crossing was starting to look pretty successful when one of the members in the group began to flounder. A tall, lanky man, he seemed to be having a hard time getting a grip on the bottom. Soon we watched his body bobbing and then floating away down the river. He fought to swim against the current. Doyle shouted to him, offering to help, but he seemed determined to make it on his own. “I’ve got it! …I’ve got it.” He struggled to keep his head above water, and eventually began to panic. Either by listening to Doyle’s ministrations or his own inner voice, he began to calm down and seek footing again. After battling for about ten minutes, the bedraggled hiker crawled out of the river downstream and rejoined his group.
They smiled and patted him on the back, talking about the all-you-can-eat buffet up ahead (a hiker’s favorite thing) and how he had done well. The atmosphere was molded back into a genial one.
The rock near us had the same watermark from that morning; the river had not risen, the dams hadn’t released. There hadn’t been rain in weeks. This was the lowest, in fact, the Kennebec might be all year. And all but one of the hikers had done this without backpacks, without gear to weigh them down. Looking at the man who stood dripping and shaking on the shore, I wondered, what would this have been like under different circumstances?
On our way out, a man passed us with a paddle and a life vest, heading to work for the day. A 2005 thru-hiker, Craig Dickstein works for the M.A.T.C. and operates the Kennebec Ferry one day per week to give Corrigan a break. And like his fellow paddler, he feels strongly about the ford.
“If Warren wants to do it with his own people, that’s on him – but he should not be promoting it for others.” said Dickstein, who carries a flotation device to his post in the morning in case he spots early morning forders who need help.
Dickstein is skeptical about the amount of research required to safely ford. Both Harris and Wyman Pond Dams make their dam release times available to the public. And of course, weather information for the area can be found online. But, “it’s a lot of information that would have to be digested to judge when it’s best to cross and thru-hikers aren’t going to do that.”
Dickstein isn’t blind to the desire of some hikers to test themselves against the river, or the ability of many people to make it, “… but what about the weekender? What about the mom and pop hikers?” He wonders.
A NOBO appeared on the shore across from us, blinking in the morning sun. Dickstein excused himself and hopped in the canoe, paddling towards a man who was 151.2 miles away from the top of Katahdin.
Watching them canoe back across, I tried to sort out how I felt. Researching the Kennebec was not dissimilar to wading into its deep water, struggling to find my own voice in the face of invisible tides much older than myself. If I am meant to have an answer after both taking the canoe and fording – I don’t. Because the truth is, it comes down to every individual’s choice.
But because of the complex culture around this trail, that choice is not simply fording or ferrying.
In the words of Dave Corrigan, it is a choice between life and death. In the words of Warren Doyle, it is the choice between being an earpiece for education or for authority. In the words of the A.T.C., it is a choice between doing your research and taking risks. And for most of Doyle’s expedition on that calm, dry day – it was only the choice between wet and dry pants.
For me, the choice is between unreasonable fear and its counterpart: unreasonable danger. They are both old friends of mine, but I’ve learned to listen to one over the other. By ignoring unreasonable fear, I have bike-toured thousands of miles over the years – but I let unreasonable danger counsel me to wear a helmet. I battle unreasonable fear when I rock climb, but I heed unreasonable danger when I wear my harness on easy routes. It was challenging my unreasonable fear that let me begin my Appalachian Trail journey, but awareness of unreasonable danger that allowed me to finish. Finding my own balance with these two unreasonables has allowed me to do the things I love – within reason. I know how easy it is to lose your gear, your plans – or much more – by making a choice.
The Kennebec ferry’s hours are:
It is there rain or shine, with either ‘Hillbilly’ Dave Corrigan or, if you should happen through on the right day, Craig Dickstein behind the paddle. It is free of charge, takes about five minutes one way, and can transport two hikers at a time (or two hikers and one dog).
Glossary of terms:
Fording: walking across a body of water with both feet on the bottom, as opposed to swimming or boating (for larger bodies of water), or rock hopping (for smaller streams and rivers).
A.T.C. Appalachian Trail Conservancy
M.A.T.C. Maine Appalachian Trail Club
Thru-hiker: Someone who walks the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in less than one calendar year.
Northbounder (or NOBO): a thru-hiker traveling North from Georgia to Maine, the opposite of a Southbounder (SOBO).
Eddy: A break in the current.
Rock bars or gravel bars: shallow embankments protruding from the water.
Some of my sources:
This information was gathered from an assortment of sources. Some of my facts are from published articles, but many come from private correspondence with A.T. historians or archival materials that have been buried by time. If you have a question or correction about any of the facts stated in this article, let me know in the comments or via email and I’d be happy to send you the specific source information I used…
If you disagree with any of the opinions in this, well, that’s what comments were made for. This site is also a bulletin board, so tell me your thoughts.
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Nice article Chuckles! I crossed the Kennebec on the canoe ferry last year on the last leg of my 15-year section hike. But the first time I crossed was during my 1973 SOBO thru-hike. That time I forded early in the morning before the hydroelectric activity upstream provided an afternoon avenue for pulpwood. The water was flowing hard, very cold and nearly crotch deep. Fording was the only way I knew of to get across, so I did it with my friends Jim Smith and Bob Brugmann. Jim left the trail in NY, and Bob tragically drowned at the Mill River in Vermont trying to cross the river on a fallen log at Clarendon Gorge. The decision to implement the canoe ferry was a wise one. Apparently the river is a tougher foot ford these days than it was when I was 21 years old. (Please don’t do the math). My son used the canoe ferry on his SOBO 2000 thru-hike, and my daughter did as well on her SOBO thru-hike in 2004. I am still going strong and taking my daughter to Ireland for two weeks of rugged hiking on the Dingle Peninsula. If you like novels, read mine, THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story. Stay vertical and keep walkin’!
Richard,,when I graduated high school in ’73, I hiked the AT from Katahdin to Ct. starting sometime in late Sept. Can’t remember. The winter cold knocked me off the trail and also ran out of money. Anyway, when I got to the Kennebec, someone directed me to a big old farm house on the river right next to the trail. The owner, about 65+ years old, had a flat bottom pole boat that he gave rides across on. It was early morning, so he invited me in while he shaved. Said his wife wouldn’t talk to him until he did. The guy was as strong as an ox. He pointed the boat upstream at an angle and pushed across so we landed directly across the river, not downstream. I didn’t ask ahead of time what the cost was, seeing as how it was the only way. I figured 2-3 dollars. When he told me 10, I just about crapped in my pants. That was a whole weeks worth of groceries in ’73. Thought about just grabbing the pack and running, but after seeing how strong he was I figured better not. I sucked it up and paid up.
$10 in 1973 is the equivalent of $56.43 in 2018. Yikes!
($2-3 is $11.29-16.93)
Interesting article! It leads me to a completely unrelated question. After seeing the back page from the shelter log, I was able to find an online copy of the full Pierce Pond log from 1985. Almost all the entries were signed with proper first/last names. I wonder when trail names became the standard. I almost never see ‘real’ names in today’s logs.
I’ve always wondered about using the bridge at Bingham. A crossing there would also provide lodging and resupply if needed.
Excellent article, one of the best I’ve ever seen on here (and I’ve read every one!) Thank you and well done!!
This article has inspired my group to ford the river this coming thru hiking season! Sounds awesome!
Great article. I don’t remember a canoe service in 1978. If it was there, it would have been controversial so I would have remembered it. Our SOBO group of 6 (current vernacular: “bubble”) forded in August, at around 7am or so, in waist high water, one of the most exciting experiences of my life. We checked the weather and the dam release schedule at Caratunk the night before. I guess that planned & scheduled dam releases predict high water upon release, as well as low water during recharge of the reservoir. That is the only rationale that I see for the idea that fording now is more risky that fording in the ’70s – no release, no slack water preceding release.
Still, MATC blaised canoe or not, the Trail lies upon the riverbed, not in the canoe. Others mileage will vary, example:
I took a very expensively constructed steel bridge across an I recalled gorge in (?)VT, built by the heart-broken parents of a thru-hiker who died in that crossing. HYOH.
I love this series. It has been decades since I have talked or written about my thru-hike.
I was directed to this blog from another which told of a drowning may 18th of a 3-year-old long distance hiker.
I used to live in Skowhegan and I am very familiar with this ford. We used to take the canoe along at stretch, and a few times we would serendipitously arrie at the ford just as hikers were on the western shore. We would let them us the canoe to get across ( often by telling them to paddle it themselves while we watched from shore).
I hiked that section of trail in 2001 with my daughter and we forded it. Yes, we did. The water level was low – there was no upstream dam release. The rocks that lied the bottom were very very slippery.
BUT, I do not recommend this to just anybody.
The ford itself is deceptive. It is sited at a relatively wide shallow spot just upstream from the upper end of Wyman Lake. Here is the problem: if you get swept off your feet and float downstream only a short distance, you will enter Wyman Lake. All of a sudden, the water is well over your head, and the shore is many more yards further on each side. the river current pushes you further and further into the lake like a rip tide. If you are not prepared to abandon your stuff including your boots, you will drown.
So? take the canoe ride!
I hiked the entire AT in 1975 from March to August. I crossed the Kennebec River on foot at a very low level wearing my hiking boots that gave me good traction. My pack weighed in at 55 pounds and I weighed 135 pounds! I got across with no problems. I changed into my sneakers to pick my mail and food supplies at the post office. Must have been a good day on the Kennebec.
I can understand someone wanting to ford the river to honor tradition, or doing it as a personal challenge. But there is a line that separates brave from stupid. Fording the Kennebec comes under the heading called “Thinning the Herd”.