Arguably the best whitewater run in Maine, Orbeton Stream flows from Redington Pond on the north slope of the Saddleback Mountain Range in Franklin County and tumbles southeasterly to the Sandy River near Phillips. From the normal put-in on rugged Potato Hill Road, it is a short five miles of continuous Class II, III, IV & V whitewater to Reed’s Mill Bridge and another three miles of easier rapids to Toothaker Pond Road Bridge just before it joins Sandy River.
The run begins with about two miles of tight, technical non-stop Class II/III rapids with a moderate to steep gradient until Grisham Falls. A precipitous, twisting, boulder-strewn cataract pockmarked with holes, I rate Grisham Falls an easy Class V. At the end, the current flows almost directly into and sometimes over a large, ragged rock which obstructs most of the channel. I’ve watched many good boaters flip, roll or swim after meeting up with Grisham’s unforgiving rock, and have also had my share of collisions and underwater misadventures there. Grisham becomes more difficult and a lot less attractive at lower levels; whereby most boaters practice their portage slalom skills hiking around a troublesome boulder pile on river right. A short distance below, Perham Stream enters on the left.
After Perham, with the additional volume and a steeper gradient, the character of the stream changes and becomes almost uninterrupted Class IV whitewater until Reed’s Mill Bridge – making it Class IV/V at most water levels. A mile below Perham, the main current flows to the right of an island and First Island Rapid begins. A series of a dozen or more steep attenuated drops, First Island is as close to Maryland’s Upper Yough in difficulty and character as anything I’ve experienced in Maine. Hopping from eddy to eddy, the paddler has to boat scout: peering over the edge of horizon lines, punching through holes, boofing over rocks and catching the next eddy for a moments respite before plummeting downward. Eddies are small and turbulent, invoking the one boat per eddy rule and allowing no opportunity to commiserate with fellow paddlers. Shortly after, Second Island Rapid begins on the left. The longest, steepest and narrowest falls on the river, I rate it Class IV/V. A five-stage drop filled with holes and inconveniently located rocks, there is little room for error. Although I’ve witnessed such attempts, backwards is not the recommended technique. The next major obstacle is Bridge Rapid, not as intimidating as Second Island, but the maze of massive boulders makes it very difficult to find unimpeded routes.
By the time I pass under Reed’s Mill Bridge, I’ve generally exhausted my daily ration of adrenaline. Fortunately for us elderly folks, calmer waters await. After some Class II rapids, the river turns abruptly left, and the paddler confronts a long, moderately steep boulder garden with no obvious paddling route. The secret is to pick your way through the rocks to far river left, where a very narrow channel avoids the worst of the congestion. Then easy rapids and a fast current carry one to a significant ledge drop that forms some nasty holes that can be evaded by aggressively paddling down a tongue left center. From there, quick water takes you to the lower take-out.
Short of standing on the bridge staring down at the painted gauge on the lower left abutment in Reed’s Mills, determining the Orbeton Stream water level is an imprecise exercise in gauge extrapolation. Most regular Orbsters use the online USGS gauge at Madrid (pronounced Mad-Drid) on Sandy River as an indicator of the probable water level. If the online gauge is around 300 cfs, Orbeton is probably runnable. However, depending on whether or not the water is rising, falling or the Orb has a mind of its own, it could be as low as 1.0 or high as 4.5 on the painted gauge when you actually get to Reed’s Mill Bridge. Not a service available to everyone, I use the “Ask Randy” method. If my friend Randy says it’s runnable, it will usually be between 1.0 and 4.5 when we get to Reed’s Mill Bridge. In my opinion, the optimum level is between 1.75 and 2.5. Lower levels become increasingly scratchy and the steep drops can be very tight, bumpy, boat (or body) beaters, particularly Grisham Falls. Because much of the Orb has a creek-like character; higher levels get very pushy and at some personally subjective point the fun ends and survival begins.
Almost every day on the Orb has a story to tell and I’ve had many memorable experiences. Perhaps the most remarkable run of Grisham Falls I’ve witnessed was when teenage Amanda Shorette ran it. Possessing Class III skills and despite lots of boldness, I fully expected Mandy to take the hike on river right. Instead, she pushed aggressively through the approach boulders, punched a couple of holes in the narrow entrance slot and ran up onto Grisham rock; which catapulted her backwards and violently slammed her against the rock wall on river left. Abruptly flipping onto a downstream rock, she attempted several rolls before coming up smiling. Impressive would be a serious understatement.
Several years ago, First Island Rapid was the scene of an extended river misadventure and rescue. Legendary Morrill Nason the Waterman was shredding with my wife Nancy, when they missed a “must catch” eddy about half way down the falls, crashed into an immoveable rock midstream and flipped. Shredders don’t move rocks or roll. Not surprisingly, there was a concerted effort to rescue Nancy, leaving The Waterman floating downriver largely ignored. Randy and I caught up with her a couple of drops below clinging to a rock just above a steep fall with a very unpleasant looking hole, directly beneath. From a boulder about 40 feet upstream on river left, we got a throw bag to her and offered these very basic instructions, “once we start pulling, don’t let go no matter what.” We pulled so hard, she was completely submerged until we were able to grab and pull her ashore. After salvaging the shredder, somebody remembered The Waterman who was impatiently waiting wrapped on his own rock further downstream. Something analogous to the captain being last to leave a sinking ship seems an appropriate explanation for his delayed rescue.
Easily my most memorable day on Orbeton began on a warm sunny morning in April 1994. We were a group of five open boaters: Brent Elwell, Doug Field, Colby Libby, the late Ted Lombard and I. This was a different paddling era. Back then, real men (and real women) paddled real canoes, not the mamby-pamby, microscopic present-day canyaks. Instead, our smallest boat was a 12 foot beast, which was considered tiny in those days. Just back from a successful trip in Chattooga country, I was feeling particularly cocky. That would come to an abrupt halt shortly.
The Reed’s Mill gauge was running on the high side, my recollection is a little under 3.0, and there was a substantial snow pack with some remaining ice shelves along the shore. Using some convoluted form of misguided group think, we decided to attempt what we believed then (and I’ve never heard it contradicted) a first descent of Perham Stream.
Beginning in East Madrid (pronounced East Mad-Drid) about a mile above Orbeton, we almost immediately encountered a multitude of strainers and a large logjam that had to be portaged; in a steep, narrow, continuous creek. As we progressed downstream, the intensity increased as it was very tight (read that more than attenuated) and precipitous. Brent probed a long, narrow drop, jumped from his boat and frantically signaled me to move hard left. I only made it to center before I was upside down and rolling on rocks. A fistful of bloody knuckles foreshadowed the remainder of the day.
Above us, the weather was not cooperating. Temperatures rose dramatically, a violent thunderstorm developed with a continuous downpour and the water level started rising dramatically. Scouting the last rapid at the confluence with Orbeton, we concluded there was no line. All of us walked except Ted, who had a phenomenal run in his Mohawk XL 13. A perfectionist, Ted had the most precise paddling skills that I’ve observed. I swear he could run Magic Falls Rapid on Maine’s Kennebec River and punch the hole with three paddle strokes. Of course, he’d flip and roll if there was a large, adoring audience.
Orbeton Stream was no longer a stream, rather a raging torrent. Doug remembers water surging two feet or more on the shore. Besides lightning, thunder and pouring rain, the fog was so thick we only had a few feet of visibility. Doug rammed into a rock and dragged his boat off the river. Somehow, Colby got ashore, whether he swam or not is unclear. Brent came out of his boat and swam at First Island Rapid but managed to self-rescue and haul his boat up on the snow bank. Although I could hear people yelling, I lost sight of everyone in the fog as Ted and I mindlessly paddled on. Somewhere in First Island Rapid, my boat loaded up and I grabbed a tree branch with one hand and bailed with the other. Shortly after leaving the moving eddy, I accidentally side-surfed a large hole and filled up again. This time there was no branch to grab and I plowed awkwardly downstream in a 400 pound unmanageable barge until flipping near or in Second Island Rapid; the fog was so dense I couldn’t tell where I was. Missing a roll, I jumped ship fearing a long upside down submerged journey that might not end until Reed’s Mill Bridge; or worse. My boat continued without me. Staggering in a couple of feet of wet snow, I heard Ted yelling that he was stuck in a hole and needed help. I bawled back that I couldn’t see him and didn’t have a throw bag. A harsh invective was his response – then silence.
Reeling on in deep snow, I stumbled into Doug and Brent and then Colby towing four canoes (including mine) in the snow behind him. Converging on Reed’s Mill Bridge, we wondered aloud about the fate of our remaining companion. We found the perfectionist still in his boat in an eddy below the bridge searching for the gauge. It was a futile endeavor as the gauge was completely underwater. Our best guestimate is that it was at least six feet and climbing!
We were exhausted and it was getting dark, but this was a day in which wisdom and common sense were scarce commodities. For inexplicable reasons that escape me now, perhaps it was a case of dueling bad judgment, Brent, Ted and I decided to continue on to the Toothaker Road take-out. Doug and Colby would pick us up. Persisting downstream as darkness approached, we skirted big waves in what is usually a boulder-strewn rapid while there was still minimal visibility. Soon after, there was near total darkness. Huddling close together as the flooded stream propelled us rapidly along, our game plan was simple; when we heard the roar of falls that would signal we were close to the ledge drops and we’d pull out and drag around. Finally, something went right.
I’ve been back to Orbeton many times since. Never once have I failed to pause and recall the exploits and mishaps of that day. Not just our misadventures but Ted’s truly remarkable open-boat run; in the fog in a storm with the level over 6 feet. It was probably his best paddle ever. Sadly, he died a young man in his early thirties later that fall. Nowadays, when I get to Reed’s Mill Bridge, if the water level is much over 3 feet, I walk away; often to the chagrin of Randy.
(Special thanks extended to Doug Field and Brent Elwell for sharing their recollections. Ron Chase is an avid four season outdoorsman and freelance writer, who co-authored the mountain guidebook, Mountains for Mortals – New England. Visit his website at www.ronchaseoutdoors.com for more information on his guidebook and other outdoor adventures.)