Skip to main content
Original Issue


Rafting down the Kennebec and the Penobscot rivers with Wayne Hockmeyer, a former water-bed salesman, is no somnolent experience

Wayne Hockmeyer sat in a little rubber raft one momentous day three years ago and gazed down the wild Kennebec River Gorge in west-central Maine. "You'll be killed," a man shouted to him from a nearby dam abutment, but Hockmeyer knew he had a chance: the state had recently banned log driving from its rivers, so the Kennebec was uncluttered; and Hockmeyer had been a water-bed salesman for five years. He needed all the help he could get and, as the gorge closed in, the raft did feel like a water bed—in a tidal wave. But Hockmeyer survived the hairy run to become New England's first professional rafting guide.

Last year his Northern Whitewater Expeditions took 3,500 adventuresome souls through the gorge as well as down the nearby Penobscot. The customers came from 35 states and pumped more than $500,000 into the depressed local economy, and that should be just for starters—if the rivers keep flowing. That's the problem. Some people see the Kennebec and the Penobscot and start looking for a raft. Others see the rivers and start counting kilowatts. Two hydroelectric dams have been proposed, and each would turn a splendid stretch of wild river into a lake. One would provide electricity for the Maine public, the other would supply it to a paper mill—and even Hockmeyer turns on the lights at night to read a newspaper. He always looks for articles about the rafting and the dams.


So reads a sign posted at Harris Station Dam, above the Kennebec River Gorge.

"O.K., let's go," said one of Hockmeyer's impatient customers who stood on the riverbank. But Hockmeyer began waving a paddle and shouting, "I don't want to scare anyone, but I can't have people thinking nothing can happen to them. Today's trip will be tremendously exciting. At times you'll be wondering if we're going to make it.

"If you get dumped into the water in the gorge, don't try to swim. The current is 10 miles an hour. You'll just get exhausted, and it'll be downhill very quickly after that. Don't go into a blind panic, thinking you're going to die. Just get on your back with your feet downstream and your mouth shut, and you'll ride it out. It may be two miles and you won't enjoy it, but you'll ride it out."

Hockmeyer paused. The 50 suddenly subdued men and women in wet suits shuffled to a waterside ledge, settled into five 22-foot rubber rafts and paddled into the gorge. Ahead, the river was a torrent; there was no place to stop and reconsider. The rafts entered the rapids, bouncing like dice in a cup, and the rafters were soon ankle-deep in water. Hockmeyer gestured madly downstream and shouted, "The Three Sisters!"

Then the river entered a narrowing gorge. Three successive stone obstructions kicked up three towering waves. The Sisters. Sister No. 1 is 10 feet tall, and the momentary view the rafters got as they passed her, their raft pitching upward abruptly, was mostly sky. No one saw the second Sister, as necks were snapped back and eyes were snapped shut by the jolting encounter. Water from the third Sister crashed down, projecting the rafts into a seemingly endless alley of three- and four-foot waves. Then, suddenly, the river broadened into a pool, a section Hockmeyer calls "the Cathedral." The gorge walls rose higher, but less vertically. A great dome of sky arched overhead, and a beam of light illuminated the pool, setting the mood for tamer pleasures—intraraft water fights and dips in the cool river.

As the rafts drifted together, Hockmeyer spread his arms and said, "Take a good look around you. The Kennebec River is 150 miles long, but this is the last truly wild stretch. Fewer than 4,000 rafters have ever seen what you've seen—the Three Sisters, the Cathedral, the gorge. You'll be telling your grandchildren about this day, and soon it may all be gone, flooded by a dam."

He gestured to where Cold Stream entered the river and said, "This is where Central Maine Power Company wants to build Cold Stream Dam. Has a nice ring, doesn't it?"

A representative of Central Maine Power, which already operates Harris Station Dam and 35 other hydroelectric plants in Maine, has said, "We recognize that there are two sides to this thing. But we're overly dependent on Middle Eastern oil, and there is significant opposition to nuclear plants. Our job is to put forth the best solutions we can find and let the appropriate authorities make the final decisions."

The trip ended at 3 p.m. in the hamlet of The Forks, headquarters for Northern Whitewater Expeditions and the first sign of civilization in the 12 miles below Harris Dam. Hockmeyer ferries his Kennebec parties the 20 miles from The Forks to the dam each morning, a 35-minute ride in his wheezy old school bus. He has followed this same routine Monday through Friday during the rafting season (May to September) almost since his first mad solo run. A spokesman for Central Maine Power has said, "We always encouraged boaters and fishermen, but farther downstream."

Hockmeyer had been thinking of guiding fishermen into the gorge, of lowering them over the sides by rope, which is the only way to reach that part of the river without a boat. But when Hockmeyer tested the fishing and found it to be spotty, he decided that profits lay only in rafting. And profits are especially important to him, because he thinks money—for himself and others—clinking into the cash registers of local businesses is the best way to counter the dam builders. Hockmeyer's customers spend $150 apiece in Maine for lodging, food and transportation, according to questionnaires he has them fill out. On the bus to The Forks he told the rafters, "We're going to bring back the economy of this area, if we can do it before they get those permits to build the dam."

And if the 40-year-old Hockmeyer's stamina holds up. He had run the Kennebec for five straight days and his voice was fading fast, but at 5:30 on the next morning, Saturday, his weekend schedule began. Central Maine Power usually stops the water flow at Harris Dam on weekends, so on Saturdays Hockmeyer takes his parties on the much longer ride to the West Branch of the Penobscot.

There is no warning sign for boatmen at the McKay Station powerhouse on the Ripogenus Gorge of the West Branch, just as there are no signs at the start of interstate highways telling people not to play in the traffic. No one but Hockmeyer has guided rafters down the Ripogenus Gorge on a regular basis, though two other Maine companies have begun competing with him elsewhere. They run the Kennebec Gorge just as he does, but when they take parties out on the West Branch they put in a little more than a mile downstream from Ripogenus. Now those who had rafted down the Kennebec the previous day were startled to hear Hockmeyer say, "There is an element of danger here that you don't find on the Kennebec. I consider the West Branch to be the toughest river for paddlers in the country." Certainly few rivers are tougher to enter. The rafts were lowered down 80-foot cliffs by rope. Hockmeyer's party clambered down a steep path, and he gave his warning speech, alluding to a fearsome wave he calls the Exterminator, 300 yards from the start.

Ripogenus Gorge is a great foaming gutter, reaching a tumultuous crescendo at the Exterminator. In the early stage of extermination, the rafts swept over a beetling ledge and ran into a wave, sliding up its face and stopping. But their sterns kept on going, mashing the rafters together in narrowing Vs. Then, suddenly, the rafts were bouncing down the Staircase, a 50-yard-long rocky pitch. It felt like a ride down a staircase—on a bicycle. Near the bottom of the Staircase, the West Branch slowed at Little Eddy, and the rafters momentarily lay back and drifted, the inside of their rafts shin-deep in river water. But Little Eddy is where you had better bail, and after Hockmeyer explained that the Troublemaker, a half-mile-long rapid, lay 500 yards ahead, the rafters went madly to work and pails started flying. The Troublemaker seemed to extend for five miles, and a woman reporter trying to take notes was asked, "Do you do wills?" A sneak wave reached up and ripped the tiller oar from Hockmeyer's hands, and it bobbed off downstream. "Oh, no," he shouted, "we're in trouble."

Hockmeyer's raft was out of control. It missed a 10-foot drop through a narrow chute, which was the easy way down the next stretch. Instead, it swept down a steep rapid and over a rock onto a "keeper," a wave that curls upstream and can hold a raft forever. That is what the next 10 minutes seemed like. Finally the raft filled with water, settled, and an undercurrent edged it off the keeper. It moved ponderously down a 12-foot chute and five minutes later reached Big Eddy.

Big Eddy is prime landlocked salmon water, and a group of fly-fishermen began waving the rafters away. But any conflict between the two groups is outweighed by a common goal, the preservation of the West Branch. For most of the past year the Great Northern Paper Company has been testing two places on the river as sites on which to construct a dam to power its mill. A three- or six-mile lake would be created, depending on which of the sites was chosen, and for two years the project has been a cause cèlèbre in Maine. On one side are Hockmeyer and those who oppose the dam. On the other is Great Northern, one of the state's largest employers, with 4,200 workers and a payroll of $97.4 million. The company's land holdings, 2.1 million acres, amount to 10% of the state.

Hockmeyer formed the Protect the Kennebec and Penobscot Society and requests that all his customers write Maine newspapers and politicians, protesting construction of any dam. Hundreds of letters have been published, and last July Great Northern announced it was shelving the dam project because it had found a more economical source of power, a boiler that burns waste bark. But the bark boiler provides only 25% of Great Northern's power needs; the rest comes from oil-fired boilers that have been in operation for years. Hence, the announcement concluded, "Obviously, if oil becomes scarce or more expensive...we would have to take another look."

If oil becomes scarce or more expensive?

"If the sun doesn't rise tomorrow," scoffs Rob Gardiner, executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. "That dam proposal will never go away," Gardiner says, "unless the river is designated wild and scenic."

Former Governor James D. Longley could have designated the West Branch for protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. That would have blocked the building of any dam forever, but it also would have brought in the federal government, a boogeyman to most Maine outdoorsmen, to oversee the area. The present governor, Joseph E. Brennan, also could request that the West Branch be included among wild and scenic rivers, but that action seems unlikely.

By New England standards, both the Kennebec and the Penobscot are uniquely suited for rafting; and the West Branch may also be the country's finest stream for landlocked salmon, a glorious game fish, especially in moving water. Moving water seems to make everything more interesting. Of course, your nerves must be equal to the task. One night last spring Eddie Reif, a noted flytier from Bangor, Maine was in a rowboat, casting dry flies on Big Eddy. A salmon hit, and in what seemed like two seconds the fish was out of the water 40 feet downstream, near a rapids. "He was a seven-pounder," Reif recalls, "and I had to stop him. So I put the rod in my teeth and rowed like a madman to the downstream end of the eddy. But he was well down the rapids by then, and just as I was beaching the boat, he got to the end of the backing and broke away. My teeth were sore for days."

Clearly fast-water salmon fishermen are no more in control than rafters. Perhaps that is what brings them both back to the West Branch. Now on Big Eddy the rafts moved very slowly; in truth, on most white-water streams the moments of frenzy are relatively brief, though complaints about the brevity are never heard. Nearing a terrifying part of a river, the rafters' concentration is total; after surviving such a stretch, they are buoyed through slow periods by its memory.

The river now turned sharply left, above Big Ambejackmockamus Falls, and Hockmeyer announced that after his first run down them two years ago he found a mangled canoe half a mile below the falls, and a body a short distance downstream. Farther on, below Nesowadnehunk Falls (pronounced Sowdahunk), the rafts drifted across a quiet pool. Neither of the West Branch dams that are supposedly not going to be built would flood the river this far down, and that was nice to know.

Half a dozen weary rafters rolled into the river and bobbed quietly downstream, until Abol Falls appeared. The rapids here were very long, with sudden drops, and unique, as all rapids are, but fatigue was beginning to blur the distinctions. It was 3:30 p.m. and the eight-hour trip was almost ended. By the time the rafters started down the last rapids, Pockwockamus Falls, the rapids seemed like old friends. Hockmeyer has planned the length of his trips well. Soon everyone stepped out and dragged the rafts and themselves into a clear backwater. The place had a sandy bottom, and everyone lingered there, floating in the cool shallows, tired and content, not wanting to leave. Finally the rafts were loaded on a trailer, and the 15-mile, half-hour trek back to camp began.

Hockmeyer stood at the front of the bus, his eyelids drooping. Nothing has ever tired him as much as the rafting business. But nothing had ever mattered as much, certainly not his studies at Tufts University in Boston, where he dropped out as a sophomore. And certainly not the $2 million water-bed business he ran in Boston seven years ago and sold for $80,000. "I hated it," he says, "the lying and the cheating, and I hated the city." He wanted to be in Maine, to hunt and fish, to be around rivers. Now that he is finally there, he wonders how long the rivers will last. So he told the rafters on the bus about his campaign to save the Kennebec and the West Branch. "I don't object to society saying it has to produce all kinds of goods and jobs," he said. "But I do object when it starts to destroy the beautiful things of this earth, the things that no man can create, and no man and no society can create a Kennebec Gorge, or a Ripogenus Gorge."

Even if the dams eventually are built, the rafting will go on for quite a while. The logs are gone for good. For too many years they interfered with boat traffic, and the rotting bark would sink to the bottom and deplete the river's oxygen, killing fish. Now the logs are taken down-state on flatbed trucks, smoke belching, gears low and deafening. It is an imperfect world, even in the wilds of Maine, where the woods and the rivers are never at peace.



At the start the Ripogenus Gorge is placid, but the Exterminator and the Staircase lie ahead.



The foaming Ripogenus Gorge on the Penobscot culminates in the tumultuous Exterminator rapids, where the rafts are at times held back by keeper waves and at times are down the chute and outasight.



When Hockmeyer isn't fighting the rapids on a raft he does his damnedest against dams.