THE BIG DROP
Many people who saw the riverman only in his worst moments-that is, in town after the drive was in, unkempt, drunk, roaring, and fighting-forgot or never knew that those moments of violent relaxation formed only three weeks out of fifty-two in the man's hard life. It was pretty apparent that a riverman was strong in the back, but most people thought he must be weak in the head.
-Robert E. Pike, Tall Trees, Tough Men
My stern partner Ed Green ties the canoe to a large rock on shore with the bow painter. It is late afternoon on a chilly, slate-colored day in May. Now and then the skies let loose with a cold lashing rain, and the big black river is still frigid with the ice and snowmelt of winter. We are both damp and tired from a long day of scouting and running tough rapids, but we still have a few miles to paddle to our take-out.
There is a persistent rumbling sound, like a convoy of heavily loaded semi-trucks crossing a plank bridge coming from around the bend downstream. The wind shifts and a fine damp mist, like wave spume on a windy day at the beach, drifts upstream and over us, adding to the penetrating chill we already feel.
Though we can't see around the bend, we know where we are. The blind corner, the thunder, the heavy pounding vibration tells us we are at Nesowadnehunk Falls, or "Soudyhunk," as the locals call it, on the West Branch of the Penobscot River in northern Maine.
The ancient portage trail around the horseshoe-shaped falls leads up and over a high rocky ledge on river left. Leaving the canoe, we stretch our cold, cramped muscles and scramble up for a better look. As we top the rise, the falls come in to view below us, and the rumbling grows louder until we must shout to communicate.
"No way," I lean over and holler near Ed's ear while looking at the falls below. "Not this one." The entire brawling river is leaping and churning through a set of roiling rapids before plunging over an eight-foot drop. Not only that, but there is a haystack-sized standing wave leaping skyward at the bottom of the pitch. "Even if we make it through the rapids and over the big drop," I shout and point, "that standing wave will eat us alive. There's no way we can get through that in an open canoe!"
Ed doesn't hear me. He's concentrating, and his eyes are narrow slits glinting with excitement.
I look back at the falls, trying to see what Ed is looking at, hoping he's not contemplating running this pitch. Already today we have run Big Ambejackmockamus, and the Horse Race, and several other legendary West Branch rapids. And now, as we watch this scale-model Niagara, which my paddler's guidebook says is "unrunnable," I suddenly realize that I know a story about this very spot. Even though I have never been here before, I'm certain this is the place. It all fits, and the sense of recognition jolts me like a mild electric shock.
In college I had taken a course in American folklore, and some of the tales that most captured my imagination were about loggers in the Great North Woods. One of the stories was about a big, tough 260-pound Native American woodsman named Big Sebattis Mitchell, a real-life folk hero who worked on the West Branch drive back in the 1870s during the long-log days when the big white pines were floated down to the mills in Bangor.
The Penobscot River men called themselves the Bangor Tigers, and they were the best river drivers the world has ever seen. Logging companies all across the country sought their services. According to one story, a logging executive in Minnesota was watching his crews on a river drive one day when he noticed a particularly able young man dancing nimbly from log to log in the white water, picking jams and generally doing the work of several men. When the boss called the young man over and asked him where he was from, the river driver took a bite from his plug of chewing tobacco, spat, and said, "From the Penobscot, b'God!"
One reason the Penobscot men were so successful at running the logs down turbulent waterways was their quick, responsive watercraft. Designed and built in Old Town and Bangor, the Maynard Bateaux, called "the Great Maynards" by the rivermen, were built for extremely dangerous work picking log jams in the middle of violent rapid rivers. To free a log jam required experience, nerve, and athleticism. It also required a fast, stable boat to paddle up below the jam, pick the key stick holding back hundreds of tons of wood, and paddle away before being crushed to death when the logs came plunging downstream driven by the pent-up force of the river.
The Great Maynards were that kind of nimble boat, and the rivermen called them "catty." But out of the water, the Maynards were anything but lithe dancers. At thirty-two feet long, seven feet wide, and weighing between eight and nine hundred pounds, they were miserable to carry around the many long rapids on the West Branch between Ripogenus Gorge and the junction with the East Branch.
According to Fannie Hardy Eckstorm, who heard the story of Big Sebattis and Soudyhunk Falls from the loggers and later collected it in her classic book The Penobscot Man, Big Sebattis decided he was tired of carrying the big, heavy wooden bateau around these rapids. So, Big Sebat, as the other drivers called him, turned to his partner, another Native American handy with a paddle, and suggested trying to run the drop instead of making the brutal portage. His partner agreed, and the two of them decided to go for it. If they made it, they would be famous, legends of the Penobscot drive. If they didn't make it-well, they would give it their best shot.
The other drivers had already carried their two bateaux around the falls when they suddenly saw Big Sebattis and his partner crashing over the falls. Miraculously still upright, they disappeared down the river and around the bend. The others raced after them and found them calmly taking their ease, smoking their pipes, as if they did this every day.
The other men, twelve in all, were not to be outdone. Pride was at stake, and they promptly marched back to their bateaux, carried them back around the falls to the top, and attempted to run the drop. Both boats were smashed to toothpicks. Eleven of the men managed to swim to shore. The twelfth man drowned.
I turn to Ed. "Have you heard the story about . . ." I start, but he cuts me off. "We can do it," he says. "Look, you see that rooster tail-that tall curling wave right at the top of the falls? As long as we stay right on top of that, we'll be okay. That will be your job. You've got to steer us right over the crest. Otherwise the curl of the wave will flip us over before we even get to the falls!"
If I am supposed to be reassured by this, I am not. But, like a river driver, I am not to be outdone. Besides, I see he has a point. If we line up perfectly, if we hit the crest, we can shoot the rapids and the falls. And if we do it carrying enough speed to crash through the monster standing wave at the bottom of the falls, we'll be all right. It's just that there's no room for error.
The other canoes in our party opt to carry around. They tell us we are fools but assure us they will pick up the pieces that come floating downstream.
Back in our boat above the rapids, I feel a rush of adrenaline mixed with a hefty dollop of fear. We untie from the rock and paddle hard, angling upstream against the flood to get out into the main current where we can position ourselves to get safely around the blind corner.
"You ready?' yells Ed.
"Let's do it!" I shout back.
And then we turn the canoe and face downstream. The current is violent. It catches the hull and sweeps the boat swiftly toward the chaos ahead. Racing forward, we clear the corner and now I can see the spray hanging in the air above the waterfall. The roar of the falls and the strength of the current intensify as we hurtle toward the edge. My senses are bombarded. I remember to take a deep breath and use my paddle. "This is insane," I think.
In the bedlam I remember to look for the curling rooster tail wave, knowing that if we don't line up properly, we won't have a chance. Scanning ahead, I try to pick it out but I can't see it! The river looks completely different from down here at water level than it did from high above. "Focus," I tell myself, then, "Breathe."
At the last possible moment I see the rooster-tail. It's just ahead and to the right. I react with a quick, powerful crossbow draw and the boat pulls over sharply, aiming right for the top of the curling wave. "Way to go!" shouts Ed, and then we shoot right over the lip.
Time and canoe hang suspended as we free-fall for at least a full second, but it seems much longer. We slide downward violently on the rushing water, then crash right into the trough beneath the towering wave. The canoe seems to shudder, almost stops, but then punches on through. The wave has gone completely over my head. We are soaked; the canoe is filled and is pitching from side to side and threatening to capsize. But we are upright. We made it!
From the bank a loud cheer goes up where the vultures were watching. Ed and I gingerly paddle the wallowing boat to shore, and when we get there our erstwhile companions slap our backs, give us high-fives, and congratulate us on our daring and on our paddling skills. Ed and I feel like modern folk heroes of the Penobscot.
As we empty out the boat, I turn to the others and say, "Hey, have you guys heard the story of Big Seb . . ." But they aren't there. Not to be outdone, they are carrying their canoes back to the top of the falls.