TOHICKON OR BUST

November 6th, 2013 by chaseoutdoors

The plan was basic and one we’d mastered in the past. Verify the dam release, make reservations to camp or motel, drive 425 miles and go paddling on the Tohickon River in eastern Pennsylvania. Two days of surfing waves and running ledge drops. This time we had a minor glitch. Well, actually, a major glitchyola. The Tohickon didn’t have any moisture in it. The power guys weren’t releasing water from the dam. You couldn’t run a bar of soap down that almost dry riverbed. A damn, dam problem had ruined everything. Worse, no one knew who to blame. One of the scores of disappointed paddlers wandering aimlessly at the take-out said, “Obama’s to blame.” I responded that I was prepared to blame Obama for just about anything but this truly wasn’t on his watch.

My two companions and I were in a quandary. What to do now that we’d driven so far; had two days to play and no playground. The benefits of traveling with youthful companions can sometimes be debated but not this time. Ryan pulled out his IPod and we almost instantaneously had a revised plan. Drive a couple of hours to Delaware and paddle Brandywine Stream. The American Whitewater website said there were twelve dams and several rapids to run in just six miles. And, they promised water! An old man and two kids were excitedly on their way.

Arriving in beautiful Brandywine Valley, we crossed the stream just below an appealing Class III drop with adequate water. Life was looking up. Driving a short distance further upstream, a vehicle with a whitewater kayak magically materialized out of a collage of beautiful fall colors. The “Brandy” was his river, the driver said. He gave us precise directions on how to run every dam. On a good day, I can’t remember if I took my blood pressure medication an hour later, so memorizing his description of twelve different dams wasn’t in the cards. And, I don’t trust anyone’s river description anyways – have been burned too many times. So my game plan was the same as always; boat scout when possible but if I can’t see downstream – get out and look. Actually, this isn’t esoteric whitewater rocket science, rather common sense. Something I usually exercise but not always. Others may dispute how often but they’re not writing this little epistle.

Abdullah or “Abby” as we call him decided twelve dams constituted a dam too far, so he gracefully bowed out. The Abster is no “crazy Turk.” Ryan and I were left with the lofty burden of representing Maine paddlers in Delaware. The “Brandy” was a hoot. Some washed out dams, a few vertical drops and several shallow slides. Committing in advance to scout when we couldn’t see what was downstream, it was a good plan. For the uninitiated, it’s almost impossible to see what is beneath a dam from a kayak until you’re virtually on the lip of the drop – a precarious place to make a decision. Some of the dams had serious downriver hazards and all of the vertical drops had backwash that challenged our confidence and skills. We ran everything except the dam we called “Fish Ladder.” A misdirected run there could have ruined an otherwise pleasant afternoon.

Arriving early at the take-out left us stressing about whether or not the Abster had gotten lost, found a Saturday night date or worse. Truthfully, I was more worried about me. He had my wallet, car key and dry clothes. After what seemed a long brutal tease, his suicide red CRV made an appearance – true star power.

The damn dam didn’t run again on Sunday. After serious contemplation, we chose a hike to the high point in New Jersey, aptly named High Point. We experienced beautiful fall conditions and a very pleasant hike. The Monument Loop Trail over the summit would have pleased Goldilocks; it was just right. Carve another notch in my bucket list. Maybe you don’t notch a bucket list. Not sure.

My assessment: We made lemonade out of a lemon.

(Ron Chase is an avid four season outdoorsman and freelance writer, who co-authored the mountain guidebook, Mountains for Mortals – New England. Stay tuned for his new book – the working title, The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery. One of his favorite things is paddling a new river on a warm sunny day. Visit his website at www.ronchaseoutdoors.com for more information about his guidebook and other outdoor adventures.

ILLEGAL TRAFFICKING IN ACADIA NATIONAL PARK

October 25th, 2013 by chaseoutdoors

Coping with the Shutdown was our challenge. While the rest of the civilized world struggled to survive with “our” National Parks closed, an intrepid group of cyclists decided to face the daunting challenge head on. We would test our mettle and ride the Acadia National Park Loop Road. The dangers were obvious; Essential Park Rangers might be laying in ambush, we could be fined by our government for biking on our road. The rewards were equally beneficial; the best bike ride in New England when there is no traffic. We were up to the task. Beginning as near to Jordan Pond as possible, without running artificial barriers built by non-essential Park Rangers; we climbed steadily on the two way traffic section of the Loop Road to the Cadillac Mountain Road. But there was no two way traffic, just occasional walkers and cyclists. It was soooo sweet. The great descent to a park gate that was closed but still open was well, very satisfying. Marvelous views without hundreds of mindless drivers from New Jersey traveling at three times the posted speed limit. Crowds of walkers had hiked into Thunder Hole and Sandy Beach. We stopped at virtually every scenic spot. Serious milling was pervasive throughout the ride. I’ll cast my ballot now; let’s have a shutdown every Columbus Day Weekend. Better yet, a suggestion for the National Park Service, close the Park Loop road to all vehicular traffic permanently. Start a movement to get idle, obese America of its fat rear end. Message to the buffoons in Washington: Acadia National Park was given to us, the people, by John Rockefeller. It’s ours not yours to close.
(Ron Chase is an avid four season outdoorsman and freelance writer, who co-authored the mountain guidebook, Mountains for Mortals – New England. Stay tuned for his new book (the working title), The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery. Visit his website at www.ronchaseoutdoors.com for more information on the guidebook and other outdoor adventures.)

SKIING MOUNT LOGAN

June 6th, 2013 by chaseoutdoors

My fourth winter trip to the Chic Choc Mountains on the Gaspe Peninsula in eastern Quebec, they just get more spectacular and majestic with every visit. Our group of eight assembled in the tiny hamlet of St. Octave on the northern edge of the Chic Chocs about 20 kilometers south of the coastal community of Cap Chat.

A resort that also rents cabins and operates a gear shuttle service to huts in the Chic Chocs is located in St. Octave. The snowmobile shuttle service allows skiers to travel from hut to hut with just day packs; a wonderful thing. Upon our arrival, the abrupt, businesslike resort receptionist announced in broken English that showers were available after our trip for a mere $10 and a new, much –improved, eminently popular ski trail had been groomed to the Park Gaspesie boundary. The trail sounded great; $10 for a shower, criminal. I made a mental note to forego the shower. After all, I was riding in Bruce’s car.

Following a cramped, crowded night in one of the cabins, we began our journey embarking on the new, much-improved, eminently popular ski trail. It was an inelegant beginning, as we were forced to ski the plowed edge of an icy road for two kilometers before merging right onto a moderately used snowmobile trail, then skiing up and down a protracted hill on an icy surface. Turning left at the park boundary, the new, much-improved, eminently popular ski trail descended gradually on a hard-packed, slick, uneven surface while winding narrowly through a dense, stunted conifer forest. A wild, bumpy, tree-grabbing ride, I survived without mishap until 100 kilometers from the park trail, where I slipped, bumbled and crashed to the finish. Most of my companions had a similar experience or did the sensible thing: removed their skis and walked. The new, much-improved, eminently popular ski trail gets two thumbs down from this less than satisfied customer.

Donning ski skins for the lengthy, steep ascent into the mountains, we began to fully appreciate the glorious weather and spectacular panoramic views we had been granted entering nothing short of a mountain paradise. Reaching Le Huard Hut on Lac Thibault early afternoon, there was time for exploration. Two companions and I skied a few kilometers to Lac Noir, a small frozen body of water surrounded by precipitous, wooded mountains. My French is a little lacking. Actually pathetic would be more accurate. But I think noir means dark, which makes sense in this case. Latin was my foreign language of choice in high school and I excelled, having spent three years studying Latin I and Latin II. I skipped foreign languages in college. Find friends who can speak the language is my philosophy. With an icy, downhill gradient, we were able to double pole most of the trip back. I love double poling; my preferred definition of Nordic skiing.

There were two choices for our ski to the La Chouette Hut at the foot of Mont Logan on Day Two: the long way and the short way. We separated into two groups of four and my group went the long way, skiing the Le Noroit Trail, a more gradual 18 kilometer ascent. The conditions were near perfect: sunny, light winds, warm temperatures and soft snow for climbing. Arriving at the hut, we had breathtaking views of rugged Mont Logan. Almost flawlessly located, La Chouette Hut only has one drawback, water is a half kilometer away and the return trip is all up hill. Melting snow is the alternative. My arthritic right knee finally provided a benefit; I was informally excused from water carrying duties. I’d rather carry the water and be young again!

We had another glorious day for our climb to the summit of Mount Logan: warm, sunny and light winds. The trail to the summit cone is gradual up and down with constant views. Most of us used snowshoes for the final steep ascent with a couple climbing with skins. From the summit, we had breathtaking views of the entire Chic Choc range. After an extended stay, we split into several groups to explore the higher elevations on skis. Sporting a wounded knee, my choice was a solo gradual descent through the glades. Perhaps my most enjoyable day of backcountry skiing ever, I spent hours traveling circuitously down to the hut with idyllic conditions while savoring continuously spectacular views of the snow covered mountains below.

Reluctantly departing La Chouette, we again separated into smaller groups to travel to the final hut on our journey, La Carouge. A 17 kilometer trip for Team Long Route; unseasonably warm, sunny conditions were again on our menu. Much of the trip was a gradual descent, allowing for long periods of double poling with a few steep, icy treacherous moments that captured this senior citizen’s attention.

La Carouge is located in a densely wooded valley between the peaks Mont des Loupes and Mont Jacques Ferron. The hut is located on the shore of scenic Lac Choc with Lac Chic is a short distance away. For the first time on our trip, we encountered typical Chic Choc weather conditions. Clouds gathered as the day ended and we experienced snow showers throughout the night.

The threat of rain showers motivated us to rise early for our final day of skiing. Sections of our return trip twisted and turned steeply through a mountainous conifer forest and then descended precipitously to the new, much-improved, eminently popular ski trail. Since protecting my knee was of paramount concern, I used skins for the ski down and wisely continued using them on the new, much-improved, eminently popular ski trail. Arriving at St. Octave, ten dollars for a long, hot, luxurious shower seemed a small price to pay. Bruce was thankful, too.

(Ron Chase is an avid four season outdoorsman and freelance writer, who co-authored the mountain guidebook, Mountains for Mortals – New England. When not visiting the Chic Chocs in the spring, he can often be found paddling a perfect one foot on the Swift River in New Hampshire. Visit his website at www.ronchaseoutdoors.com for more information on his guidebook and other outdoor adventures.)

WINTER PEAK BAGGING – OWLS HEAD AND THE WEEKS PEAKS

March 15th, 2013 by chaseoutdoors

There are a lot of addictions in the world, some good, others compellingly seductive, a few really bad.  I lucked out and got addicted to winter mountaineering about 30 years ago.  My affliction worsened when I learned that the premiere goal in the northeastern United States was climbing the One Hundred Highest Peaks in New England in the Winter (OHHPNEW).  Finishing in 1997, I immediately entered a 12-step recovery program, simultaneously promising myself never to pursue another mountaineering list.

 

By and large, I’ve avoided further addictive behavior, at least concerning mountaineering.   When my friend Gary decided to climb the OHHPNEW a second time, I sportingly agreed to join him on many of his hikes while making it unequivocally clear that mine was purely a benign endeavor to smell the roses. No more lists for me.

 

Three of my least favorite OHHPNEW trips are Owls Head, the two Weeks Peaks and Scar Ridge, all essentially viewless peaks in New Hampshire.  Down to seven in his quest for the sequel, all four summits were on Gary’s remaining list. Because I’m the consummate good friend, I agreed help him with Owls Head which I had already climbed twice in the winter.  It’s all about Gary.

 

Gary, his wife Suzanne, and I met at the Lincoln Woods Trailhead on the Kancamagus Highway near Lincoln early on a cold, windy January morning.  Several other potential invitees had found convenient excuses to drop out, Saturday is laundry day or the car needed to be washed – so it was just us three.  Normally an 18 mile trek, we would shorten it “a little” with two bushwhacks.  Fortunately, there were hikers ahead of us, so we wouldn’t have to break trail which would have added several hours of tedious, exhaustive trail breaking; always fun for the first five minutes.

 

Initially, hiking was easy, bare booting the well packed Lincoln Woods Trail paralleling the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River for three miles to Black Pond Trail junction where we donned our snowshoes.   Reaching the Pond, we bushwhacked steeply over a ridge and dropped abruptly down to the Lincoln Brook Trail on the south end of Owls Head proper.  Sporadic views of our intended 2,000 foot ascent loomed over us as we followed a ragged trail along the brook to our next bushwhack, essentially straight up.   After thrashing in precipitous, dense scrub for about a mile, we joined the normal hiking trail somewhere near the summit.

 

“Somewhere near the summit” is the operative phrase.  I’ve danced this mountain rumba before.  The exact location of the high point is unclear, and the summit area is plateau-like, about a mile or more in length.  On my first visit, my companion and I found three locations on the ridge that recorded the supposed summit elevation of 4023 feet on his GPS.   My second trip was similar.  GPS and I are not compatible and Owls Head is one of the reasons; an acute fear of modern technology being the other.  Arriving ahead of Gary and Suzanne, I hiked to the point that appeared to be higher than all others and declared it the summit.   When Gary arrived with his GPS in search of the true high point, I refused to bite; standing firm and gobbling big hunks of dark chocolate instead.

 

Being old and nursing a dying right knee, going down on snowshoes is not easy for me.   The good old days when I descended steep trails using my snowshoes like downhill skis are but a memory.  Now, when in doubt, I sit down and slide.   The drawback being that copious amounts of snow navigates through the outer clothing layers and snuggles inside next to your skin; adding a soggy, chilling effect to the mountaineering experience.

 

It was almost dark when we met four backpackers on the Lincoln Brook Trail heading to the summit of Owls Head, wherever that is.  I wished them well.  One of my over 60 rules: never sleep in a tent on a remote mountain in subzero temperatures when you can be in a warm motel room with a hot tub, which was next on my agenda.

 

A couple of weeks later, I again joined Gary and Suzanne to climb the two Weeks Peaks.  Actually, there are three.  North and South are New England One Hundred Highest and Middle is a New Hampshire One Hundred Highest.   I had more enthusiasm for this hike as I would finish the New England One Hundred Highest Peaks Any Season for the second time, but who’s counting?   Although shorter than the Owls Head hike, this time we had a lot of trail breaking, and because it was an out-and-back hike, we climbed five peaks.  Traveling north to south, we finished on South Peak and returned over Middle and North.  It was a tiring five chocolate bar hike.

 

Gary’s on his own for Scar Ridge, a bushwhack that entails wading across usually open Hancock Stream.  I’ll just do the hot tub instead.  Besides, I’ve already climbed Scar Ridge twice in the winter and I’m cured!

 

(Ron Chase is an avid four season outdoorsman and freelance writer, who co-authored the mountain guidebook, Mountains for Mortals – New England.  Several of the New England One Hundred Highest Peaks are included.  Cured of his peak bagging addiction, he now hikes purely for aesthetic purposes.  Visit his website at www.ronchaseoutdoors.com for more information on his guidebook and other outdoor adventures. )

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MAGDALEN ISLANDS, OUTDOOR PARADISE

December 18th, 2012 by chaseoutdoors

An archipelago located in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence between Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island, the Magdalen Islands are a mecca for sea kayakers, cyclists, hikers and wind sports. A remote, spectacular place with rugged, cliff-lined coasts, small mountains (buttes) and dozens of miles of sand dunes and beaches, the islands are “only” a five hour ferry ride from Prince Edward Island.

Accompanied by Quebec friends, Pierre and Josee, my wife Nancy and I rented a cottage on the cliffs of Ile du Havre aux Maisons overlooking picturesque Entry Island about six miles to the west. Our lodge was situated at the foot of Butte Ronde with a hiking trail to the summit beginning almost at the doorstep. Base jumpers and hang gliders cascading down from the summit were an almost constant part of the view during the afternoon and early evening hours.

For me, cycling was a daily part of the island regimen. Five of the islands (Gross Ile, Ile aux Loups, Ile du Havre aux Maisons, Ile du Cap aux Meules and Ile du Havre Aubert) are connected by expansive sand dunes and small bridges. A paved road with bike lanes extends for over 50 miles; almost the entire length of the linked archipelago offering an exceptional combination of challenging hills to climb and scenic riding along the beaches. Each island has several small communities contributing additional opportunities to explore in a biker friendly environment.

The islands are abundantly populated with small mountains called buttes that offer gentle hikes to open summits providing panoramic views. Trails parallel many of the cliffs that surround the main islands offering numerous additional hiking options.

A good one word description for the Magdalens would be “windy.” An appropriate two word depiction might be “very windy.” On any given day, one can finds scores of wind surfers and kite boarders sailing on the island’s many lagoons or gusting gracefully along the beaches. Barrier islands protect extended, shallow sections of water along much of the inter-island coastline providing safe, world class wind sport conditions.

For me, sea kayaking is the primary attraction in the Magdalens. We explored protracted stretches of spectacular cliffs along Ile du Havre aux Maisons, Ile du Cap aux Meules and Ile du Havre Aubert by kayak. The majestic rock formations, pinnacles and sea caves are unparalleled in my paddling experience. Easily the most significant obstacle was choosing an itinerary that offered some protection from the almost perpetual winds. High seas and harsh gales have the capacity to turn a benign trip along the rugged coastline into a nightmarish life-threatening excursion. On our final paddle, Pierre and I encountered such big surf that we didn’t dare land on one beach and finally crashed ashore amongst six or seven foot breaking waves. After unintentionally side surfing my 17 foot kayak on a large frothy wave for about 40 yards before colliding inelegantly onto the beach, I considered myself extremely fortunate to be upright devoid of a massive headache.

Perhaps our most exceptional day was a sea kayak trip to Entry Island. Circumnavigating the island twice, much of it along iridescent, multi-layered cliffs, we spent hours reconnoitering sea caves and investigating gigantic ocean carved rock formations. The dramatic coastline prompted Pierre to observe, “there are more arches here than in Utah.” We concluded our visit to Entry Island by climbing the highest butte in the Magdalens, appropriately called Big Hill.

A trip to Ile Brion is highly recommended. After a bumpy 12 mile ride on a Zodiac from Gross Ile to this imposing, remote island where thousands of birds (but no people) reside, we encountered hundreds of seals on the far side of the island and spotted several relatively rare bird species, including my favorite, puffins. Disembarking on the on the ragged, turbulent shore is no easy task. It requires jumping from the boat into thigh deep water, wading on slippery rocks along cliffs for about 75 yards and then hauling oneself up a rope line to secure ground. It was worth the effort as we enjoyed a picturesque hike to an old, abandoned lighthouse and cooled off with a swim in the beach below.

If you plan to visit the Magdalens, I recommend you pack sea kayaks, bikes, surfing equipment, hiking boots and lots of energy. You’ll want and need them all.

(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.rochaseoutdoors.com for more information on his guidebook and other outdoor adventures).

MEMORIES AND MISADVENTURES ON ORBETON STREAM

December 3rd, 2012 by chaseoutdoors

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.)

CAN U.S. CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION BE TRUSTED?

September 11th, 2012 by chaseoutdoors

My succinct answer is a resounding “no.” When returning from a wilderness whitewater expedition on the Bonaventure River in Quebec, Canada, on June 11, 2011, my paddling companion and I were subjected to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) search and seizure at the Port of Van Buren, Maine, border crossing that was inappropriate and excessive in the extreme.

I enthusiastically support a strong presence on our borders. After a 33 year career enforcing tax laws with the IRS, I understand the need to ensure that our laws are obeyed. We need to protect ourselves from the illegal drug trade and the threat of terrorism. However, obviously honest, law abiding citizens should not be subjected to unnecessary, disproportionate, extreme and illegal searches and seizures. People should not be intimidated and their property destroyed without compensation. Honest citizens should not be falsely accused and agents should not be allowed to destroy their property and cause dangerous situations.

There needs to be some level of accountability when CBP agents can conduct searches while their victims are prohibited from viewing the search. Where property can be damaged or destroyed, hazardous conditions created and there is no means of proving it. Where there is a reimbursement process for damaged or destroyed property that is purposely skewed to prevent reimbursement. Where people can be falsely accused and no one can protect themselves from those spurious assertions. Where one of our most important agencies stoops to covering up its wrongdoings and honest citizens are the victims of their behavior.

The following is a recent letter sent to a CBP regional director asserting that all of the above has occurred:

August 31, 2012

Christopher Sullivan, Port Director
Customs & Border Protection
27 Customs Loop
Houlton, ME 04750

Dear Mr. Sullivan:

Reference the enclosed letter from Patricia Scull, Port Director, Van Buren, Maine, dated June 23, 2012, identifying you as her supervisor.

On June 11, 2011, I was subjected to a search by Ms. Scull’s employees that I assert was inappropriate and unprofessional for several reasons. On June 24, 2011, Fines, Penalties and Forfeiture Offer Clydia Turner stated that I should submit any complaints regarding unprofessional conduct on the part of the searching agents to Ms. Scull. I sent a letter to Ms. Scull on August 2, 2011, detailing the events of June 11 alleging unprofessional, potentially illegal behavior on the part of her employees and requesting she take action and address my complaints. She didn’t respond for over 8 months. On April 8, 2012, I sent Ms. Scull a second letter again requesting a response, this time stating that I wanted the name, address and phone number of her supervisor. Only then did she respond on April 27th.

During the referenced June 11 search, the following occurred:

1. The agents involved exhibited a total lack of common sense and good judgment throughout the process. Seizing a 5 year old antibiotics prescription from my wilderness first aid kit and an expired pain medication prescription from my traveling companion, a former heart attack victim, and threatening to charge him with illegal narcotics trafficking are just the best/worst examples. For a more detailed, comprehensive discussion of what transpired that day, reference my August 2, 2011 letter to Ms. Scull.
2. After the antibiotics and the pain medications had been seized, the rogue agents presented us with standard CBP forms to sign acknowledging the seizures. They had lined out a section pertaining to our rights to file claims regarding the seized property and directed us to initial them. This was nothing short of intimidation and frankly I call it extortion. By then, we had been subjected to a nearly 2 hour search according to Ms. Scull (I contend that it was much longer), threatened with criminal charges and thoroughly intimidated. They knew we were behind schedule and used our vulnerability to intimidate us.
3. While conducting the search, which we were prohibited from observing, the agents loosened the straps that secured a large expedition kayak on the roof of my vehicle. They didn’t re-secure the boat and never informed us that it was lose. This created a serious safety hazard for me, my companion and others. Frustrated and offended by this ridiculous charade Ms. Scull calls a “proper and professional” search, I nearly drove away with the kayak still unfastened. Had I not noticed at the last possible moment, the kayak would have been jettisoned from the roof the first time I hit the brakes. One can only speculate on the possible consequences.
4. Sometime during the search, your rogue agents busted my camping headlight. I know this because the light was in good working order that morning and carefully packed in my personal kit. When I found the headlight, it was outside side the kit, loose in my canoe pack, opened and damaged beyond repair. I was instructed by Officer Turner to file a claim for reimbursement, which I did. My claim was denied because “there was insufficient proof of any wrongful or negligent act by a CBP employee” and further “28 USC 2680© of the FTCA specifically bars recovery for property damaged by CBP employees while the property is under detention in CBP custody.” To summarize; your rogue agents didn’t allow me to view the search, they damaged my property beyond repair and failed to disclose the infraction, and Officer Turner told me I should file a claim for reimbursement fully knowing that it would be denied and I wouldn’t be compensated.
5. In Officer Turner’s June 24, 2011 letter, he stated that I had “…indicated you were carrying medications which were all in the proper prescription containers.” I never made that statement, it is patently false. When we were initially interviewed while still in the car, one of the rogue agents asked me if I had any prescriptions and if they were in the original prescription containers. I specifically, clearly and categorically said that I had blood pressure medication but didn’t remember what container it was in. Someone, either Officer Turner or one of the rogue agents, has made a false statement with the obvious intent of covering up an excessive, disproportionate and unnecessary search and seizure. In fact, I answered all questions, both verbally and in writing, honestly and forthrightly because I knew I had nothing to hide and because that’s how I do business in this world. No one ever asked me if I had antibiotics, which are an essential part of a wilderness first aid kit.

It took Ms. Scull eight and a half months to respond to my August 2, 2011 letter alleging unprofessional conduct on the part of her agents. And, only then after I had made a second request and promised to contact her supervisor. Further, her April 17, 2012 letter did not address the appropriateness of any of the specific wrongdoing on the part of her agents that I had detailed in my August 2, 2011 letter.

I hereby request that you address the appropriateness of all of the wrongdoing that I allege on the part of your agents during the June 11, 2011 search. I am not interested in generic, boiler-plate, self-serving bureaucratic platitudes that perpetuate the cover-up; Ms. Scull has already performed that service. I want answers to the specific questions I have delineated below. If you can’t or won’t provide them, please provide the name, address and telephone number of your supervisor so that I can ask them of him or her.

When I was a young Revenue Officer with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) about 40 years ago, I had a case on a delinquent taxpayer who refused to pay his tax debt of about $1000. His only asset was his unencumbered personal residence, which I proposed to seize and sell to satisfy his liability. The action was completely legal and within the scope of my authority. My very sage supervisor intervened, stating something to the effect that the IRS has enormous authority and it was our responsibility and an essential part of our mission to administer those powers using common sense and good judgment. Seizing one’s residence for a $1000 liability was disproportionate and overly punitive irrespective of the behavior of the debtor or the power invested with the IRS. My supervisor was right. I assert that the actions of your rogue agents in this matter were excessive, disproportionate, illegal and exhibited very poor judgment and an almost total lack of common sense.

Please answer the following questions:

1. Do you believe that your agents exercised good judgment and common sense during this entire process?
2. Do you believe that their behavior was “professional and proper” throughout?
3. Do you believe that seizure of a 5 year old antibiotics prescription in a wilderness first aid kit taken from someone obviously returning from a canoe expedition was proportionate and professional? And that your rogue agents exercised good judgment and common sense? I don’t care about the statute authorizing this action, I want an answers to my specific questions.
4. Do you believe that your agents exercised good judgment and common sense when they seized my traveling companion’s expired pain medication prescription even after they had contacted his pharmacy and verified that it was an otherwise valid prescription and that it was prescribed because he was a former heart attack victim?
5. Do you believe that your agents used good judgment and common sense and that their decision-making rose to Ms. Scull’s stated determination of “proper and professional” behavior when they threatened to charge my companion with criminal narcotics trafficking?
6. Do you believe that your agents used good judgment and common sense and met Ms. Scull’s standard of “proper and professional” behavior when they called officers of the Van Buren Police Department to interview us and determine whether or not they wanted to charge us with criminal narcotics trafficking? I should forewarn you that the two officers were almost choking with embarrassment.
7. Is it standard CBP policy and procedure to hand their victims CBP forms with sections already lined out effectively waiving their rights and then pressuring their victims to sign them?
8. What rule, regulation or statute details the procedures that are to be used when obtaining an acknowledgement of seized property and does it provide for coercing victims into signing lined out sections of the forms waving their rights? Do supervisors and managers have any responsibility to ensure that these rules, regulations or statutes are properly followed?
9. What rule, regulation, statute or policy specifically prohibits CBP victims from viewing a search of their vehicle?
10. What responsibilities do your rogue agents have to ensure that they don’t damage or destroy the property of their search victims? What are their responsibilities to inform their victims when they do damage or destroy their property? What supervisory controls and responsibilities are utilized to ensure that rogue agents don’t damage or destroy their search victim’s property? Or, for that matter, that they don’t steal from their victims or plant contraband? How can their victims protect themselves from these actions when they can’t view the search? Apparently, no one else is watching.
11. What is the point in telling victims of property damage and destruction during searches that they can file a claim for reimbursement when no one views the rogue agents during the search, no one can confirm their actions and the statutes are conveniently worded and construed to deny reimbursement?
12. Was the search of my vehicle videotaped? If so, please provide me with a copy.
13. What responsibilities do your rogue agents have to ensure that they don’t create safety hazards during their searches?
14. Are there rules, regulations or statutes that require them to inform their victims when they unfasten, untie or otherwise materially change the conditions of the vehicle they search? Are there supervisory responsibilities in this regard? Since no one can observe the search, how can their victims protect themselves from irresponsible rogue agents?
15. Are rogue agents and their supervisors responsible and liable for damages, injuries or deaths that result from their actions that are clearly negligent during a search? If they aren’t, who is? How do any of the victims of their wrongdoing prove negligence when no one can view the search?
16. In the instant case, didn’t the rogue agents have a responsibility to secure the loosened kayak or report that it was still loose to me? During a phone conversation with Mr. Gadaway, Port Director of Calais, Maine, he stated that he expects that of his agents.
17. Ms. Scull believes the rogue agents behavior was “professional and proper” throughout. Do you believe that it was proper and professional for them to unfasten the kayak, leave it in that condition and fail to report it to me?
18. Someone has intentionally made a false statement by misquoting me by declaring that I said all of my prescriptions were in the proper containers. I never said that. The purpose is obvious, to cover up a ridiculous, farcical search and seizure conducted by out of control rogue agents of questionable competency. Did Officer Turner make that false statement attributed to me? Or, did one of the rogue agents? Was that conversation recorded? If so, please provide me with a copy. Was the vehicle interview video-taped? If so, please provide me with a copy.
19. Do you condone your employees misquoting search victims? Does that meet your definition of “proper and professional” conduct?

I expect to be reimbursed for the destruction of my headlight immediately. I don’t care about the self-serving interpretation of the statutes that deprive me of basic rights and protections. Send me $35.00 by September 15, 2012, which will cover the cost of the headlight and postage. If that deadline is not met, I anticipate filing a suit in federal court. In that regard, I require the names, grades, years of service of the rogue agents who conducted the search and seizure and a record of all training they have received. Also, the name, grade and years of service of their immediate supervisor and a record of all training he or she has received. In lieu of payment, please provide that information by September 15, 2012.

It took Ms. Scull over 8 months to provide me with a response to my original complaint. I don’t intend to wait that long for your response. If you can’t or won’t respond within 30 days from the date of this letter, answering all of my questions, just send me the name, address and phone number of your immediate supervisor. I will ask him or her the same questions and why you and Ms. Scull couldn’t answer them.

Sincerely,

Ronald D. Chase

CC: U.S. Representative Chellie Pingree

KAYAKING THE UPPER YOUGHIOGHENY

June 13th, 2012 by chaseoutdoors

Running Gun Barrel on the Upper Yough Photo: Bill Blauvelt

Originally, a West Virginia week of rivers trip; this morphed into a day paddle in Maryland due to low water, lack of interest and important distractions on my part. It became a mere introduction to fellow club members Bill & Sally’s Cheat River Festival Trip. They hosted the group at their cabin in the pastoral hills a few miles north of Friendsville, Maryland; home of the Upper Youghiogheny (Upper Yough in the paddling community), one of the finest whitewater rivers in the eastern United States. We were cohosted by cabin lessors, Bob and Elaine, and their beautiful, 6-year old twin daughters. The cabin was a classic paddling base camp with a perpetual flow of whitewater boaters passing in and out throughout the weekend, the grill always ablaze and a relaxing hot tub available on demand.

The Upper Yough includes a 5 mile stretch of continuous Class IV/V creek-like, boulder-strewn paddling with virtually no pools, requiring constant eddy hopping and undivided attention. For me, the normal hydro release of 1.9 on the Sang Run gauge is the optimum level. Years ago, I was told that every inch on the gauge adds another foot of water in the gorge. While probably an exaggeration, it may not be far from the truth. Levels above 2.3 turn this already different kind of animal into to a river beast.

Water famine turned to feast as the area received a deluge of rain just before our arrival. Bill, traveling companion Randy, and I decided to jump on the river early hoping for a more benign natural flow before the hydro release. Our plan was a success. We had 1.8 on the gauge, meaning the release level would be in the 2.4 range. Having previously experienced high water, we were thrilled to have a quality flow early enough to avoid dodging scores of boaters while navigating the steep, tight technical rapids. An added benefit, Bill knew the river better than I, which eliminated the need for me to probe with my aging, fading memory. We had a truly exceptional run with sunny weather and no other paddlers. I made a point of surfing the first wave in Gap Falls an acknowledgment that I wouldn’t be playing much below. I was right. You really can’t scout all of the difficult rapids, there are just too many and it would be too time consuming. “Just do it,” is about the best advice I can give, and boat scout your way down the river one eddy at a time.

After hitting the “must do” boof on the first difficult rapid, affectionately called Bastard, Bill disappeared between a billowing pour-over and a large boulder on the right. Remembering an alternative line from trips past, I went left. That’s the way of the Upper: paddlers perpetually vanishing from sight only to reappear in a hidden eddy downstream. The next challenging rapid is called Charlie’s Choice because there are several different options, all steep, attenuated lines between boulders with obstacles called Mushroom and Toilet Bowl lurking in the area. On this day, it could have been called Ronnie’s Choice, because I insisted on staying left the entire run thereby avoiding the more onerous difficulties. My preference being to limit my toilet visits to non-paddling activities. Triple Drop and Class V National Falls were typically exciting but uneventful. Since Bill and I had experienced misadventures running the center line of Class IV/V Heinzerling in the past, we chose a precipitous, narrow chute on the right called Gun Barrel. Meat Cleaver is the next Class V. We elected to enter by boofing several feet over a vertical drop between two large boulders into a swirling eddy above the cleavers, two protruding jagged rocks. The idea is to run this blind drop in the middle landing safely between the two cleavers. Thought I was on a collision course with left cleaver when I peered over the edge, but the river gods smiled down on me and I sailed harmlessly between them. No one got popped in Powerful Popper and we all had clean runs on the last Class V, Lost and Found. After that, things calmed down to continuous Class IV with rapids called Cheeseburger, Wright’s Hole, Pencil Sharpener and Double Pencil Sharpener on the river menu.

Our original plan was for Randy and me to join Bob and paddle the equally difficult Top Yough after he finished work. Unfortunately, this old man had used up his entire day’s allotment of adrenaline on the Upper. So Randy and I paddled the Class III Lower Yough Loop during the afternoon instead. There, I promptly got spanked and “endered” in a deep hole on Cucumber Falls. Watching me rolling in the waves below, Randy wisely went right. There truly is no rest for the wicked.

(Ron Chase is an avid four season outdoorsman and freelance writer, who co-authored the mountain guidebook, Mountains for Mortals – New England. He is a frequent Trip Coordinator and enthusiastic supporter of the Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society. Visit his website at www.ronchaseoutdoors.com for more information on his guidebook and other outdoor adventures.)

Skiing the Chic Chocs

May 18th, 2012 by chaseoutdoors

Lost on a Mountain in the Chic Chocs

The Chic Choc Mountains on Gaspe Peninsula in eastern Quebec might be “the” backcountry skiing destination in northeastern United States and eastern Canada. Reservations in their remote huts are at a premium and I stumbled into a Christmas bonanza when a mysterious woman from New Brunswick eerily entered my life. The reputed sister of a friend, Beth had spare reservations at the Taj Mahal of the Chic Choc Huts, Mines Madeline. This was the consummate capitalist transaction: a willing donor and willing recipient; free enterprise at its best.

Beth had reserved all 8 bunks for four nights – one night at Le Harfang Hut and three at palatial Mines Madeline – and couldn’t use them. My mission, if I chose, was to fill the reservations or return the unused bunks to Parks Gaspe and gamble on sharing space with others who might lack the requisite compatibility. Two warring groups in a small cabin in the mountains in winter isn’t fun – been there, done that. Six spaces were filled by me and five long-time friends while the remaining slots were taken by two women from New Brunswick (presumed “friends of Beth”), Fran and Leesa. Coordinating outdoor trips is always problematic and this one was no exception. Organizing my friends was particularly troublesome; something akin to herding cats, especially the inimitable Allen.

After meeting Fran and Leesa in St. Leonard, New Brunswick, six of us (including Ken, Bruce and Allen) caravanned to Le Harfang Hut, arriving in time for an excellent afternoon ski on groomed trails in the area. Veterans Fran and Bruce led us on an interesting 12K climb and descent, while Allen prepared his specialty, grilled steak dinner a` la Allen. We returned just as the remaining two members of our group, Gary and Brent, arrived.

There were two options for our ski to Mines on day two: a 12K climb on a road or an 18K hilly, predominantly backcountry circuitous ascent. We chose the latter and were rewarded with a sunny, scenic climb to the Mines Hut at the foot of Petit Mont Saint Anne.

Our agenda for day three was a climb of Mont Jacques Cartier, high point in the Gaspe and the second highest peak in Quebec. The weather didn’t cooperate. Wind, snow, sleet and thick mountain clouds were on the menu instead. Six of us opted to snowshoe, while Bruce and Brent skied. After climbing steadily for about 2 kilometers, we reached the tablelands and began a traverse in gusty winds with minimal visibility while experiencing significant difficulty finding and staying on the trail. Approaching what we believed to be the upper slopes of Mont Jacques Cartier, conditions worsened with total exposure to the elements. Finally, we lost the trail completely, persisting steadily upwards with near zero visibility and winds estimated to be in the 50 MPH range. A hurried team meeting on the wind driven slope resulted in a consensus decision to abort our summit attempt.

Returning to the Mines Hut early, we took full advantage of its many unique benefits: electricity, gas stove, refrigerator, indoor toilet and, best of all, a shower. An ugly thing happened while wallowing in luxury. As Bruce was showering, the septic system backed up, spewing black, brackish liquid from a floor drain into the communal area. In one brief moment, we went from hut decadence to having to take “sponge baths” and using an outdoor toilet. Fortunately, our less than worldly group was blessed, as a former army veteran who had been stationed in Korea, I was able to educate them on the techniques and benefits of a efficacious “sponge bath.”

During the evening Happy Hour, techies in our group extrapolated GPS data and concluded that we had been climbing the wrong mountain earlier in the day while wandering in the wind and fog. Predictably, being the consummate anti-gadget guy, I was skeptical.

Unusually exceptional weather greeted us when we woke the falling morning: clear blue, sunny skies, gentle winds and warm temperatures. Summiting Mont Jacques Cartier would again be our goal. This time, trail finding was simple, weather superb and we experienced a glorious day of mountaineering. Sheepishly passing barren Mont Le Comte, we recognized it as the peak we had erroneously attempted to climb the previous day. Reluctantly, I acknowledged the techies had been validated – this time. We arrived at the summit with spectacular 360 degree views where we enjoyed a late lunch. Contemplating Le Comte on our return, we collectively decided this was a peak we couldn’t leave behind. After ascending the exposed summit, we enjoyed a leisurely descent to the Mines Hut, where sponge baths and a snow encased outhouse awaited.

It was during evening Happy Hour that we became aware of a disturbing, mysterious revelation. Fran and Leesa were not “friends of Beth.” We were the beneficiaries of hut reservations providentially granted us by a perplexing Beth that no one knew. I had exchanged numerous emails with Beth, but had never met or talked with her. This caused us much angst. We all slept uneasily that night. Dark, cold, middle of the night walks to the outhouse didn’t help.

Our ski out to civilization while leaving the spirit of our beneficiary Beth behind was an easy one. Icy conditions afforded a fast descent at higher elevations with somewhat slower going as temperatures rose. We left the winter paradise called Chic Chocs with memories of great skiing, challenging mountaineering, exceptional comraderie and chilling reminders of a mysterious woman named Beth, who was responsible for of it all.

(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.)

NATIONAL TOBOGGAN CHAMPIONSHIPS

March 15th, 2012 by chaseoutdoors

Liberty Navigators Ed & Author Photo: Nancy Chase

Ed and I grew up in the same small town in Maine when Eisenhower was president, pot was something you cooked in and birth control hadn’t been invented – a good thing for us, I suspect. We played ball together, doubled dated as teens and excelled in misbehaving. My date became my wife, his didn’t. I stood up with him when he finally did marry, 15 years later. Most of the time, we got along fine, but not always. I once broke my hand punching him; he has a wicked hard head.

We’ve grown old but are still looking for new adventures. But now our exploits are all legal. So when Ed invited me to join him in the 2012 National Toboggan Championships at the Snow Bowl Ski Area in Camden, Maine, this winter, I didn’t hesitate. No one has ever accused me of being the brightest candle on the cake.

The last time I was on a toboggan was about a half century ago. It was on School Hill behind the Randolph Grammar School and I probably got hurt, since I usually did no matter what I was doing. Ed was most likely there and he probably got hurt, too. However, this time we had an edge, Ed was a veteran of the 2011 race and he hadn’t gotten hurt, although two members of his team did.

Since Ed was a toboggan racing veteran, I knew he’d get me safely down the hill and we’d undoubtedly walk away with the gold snowball or whatever they award National Toboggan Champions. Plus, unlike in his childhood, Ed was now well connected. He had a sponsor who paid the fees, provided the toboggan and had bought us colorful red, white and blue team shirts. We even had a VIP parking spot. We would be the Liberty Navigators. Our generous sponsor and enthusiastic race supporter, Robert Liberty, is owner of several prestigious lodging houses in the Camden/Rockland area, including the Trade Winds and Navigator Motels. I don’t think he knew much about our histories or we would have been spectators, not members of his distinguished race team.

The day before the races officially started, Ed and I arrived with our toboggan for registration and weighing. I felt conspicuously ridiculous in my gaudy, patriotic team shirt. As I told Ed, “I don’t want to be the only clown in the circus.” They weigh and measure the toboggan, not the participants. Wouldn’t have mattered if they had weighed us, we’re both little guys, albeit colorful, and have never been disqualified from anything because we were too big. Our sled passed with flying colors. The National Toboggan Championships is a weighty event in the mid-coast Maine area and there were scores of food concessions, retail booths, tents, RVs and campers that extended far out onto Hosmer Pond at the foot of Ragged Mountain. Eight thousand cheering, excited spectators were expected.

After a meticulous study of the race chute, we decided to try a couple of practice runs. This was not a slide down School Hill. The sled is carried up to a partially covered wooden structure at the top of the chute. The narrow chute is 70 feet high, 400 feet long and has sidewalls a few inches in depth. It looked a little intimidating to this senior citizen. Racers lie down on the sleds, wrap their legs around their teammates and the attendant flips a wooden switch which drops a trap door. The sled plunges abruptly onto the chute where it quickly approaches a speed of 40 MPH. It’s a noisy ride, as the wooden frame pummels down the icy gradient while sometimes glancing off the sidewalls. The proper racing technique is to keep your head and torso as low and flat as possible with all appendages tight to the body to prevent scraping them against the sidewalls. The only views you experience are a blur of tree branches exploding past and the sky above. In less than 10 seconds, the sled jumps off the end of the chute, uncontrollably spinning in circles while spraying a hail of ice and rockets out across Hosmer Pond for as much as a quarter of a mile. The pond was the site of the two injuries during Ed’s race the previous year. Unlike our youth, I followed Ed’s instructions: “remain flat on the sled until it stops.” “What a rush,” I yelled after I was safely standing unscathed.

Since most of the afternoon remained, I decided to do a fast climb up Ragged Mountain to the chagrin of friends and family. There was much talk and criticism of my obsessive compulsive behavior. What they didn’t understand was the hike gave me an excuse to mention that Ragged Mountain is one of the hikes featured in my mountain guidebook, Mountains for Mortals – New England, available at Amazon.com and other online outlets and retailers. That was my only motivation….honest.

A light, steady snow greeted us on the first day of the races. We were a four-person team, with Dwayne and Russ joining us. It was our first race together and it showed, as we were off-balance entering the chute causing us to lose time dragging along the sidewalls. Our time was an unimpressive 9.66 seconds and we were in the middle of the pack. We needed a herculean effort the next day to qualify for the finals and win the gold snowball.

The four-person teams were scheduled first the following morning. Although it was 20 degrees colder than the previous day, we were too preoccupied devising cryptic strategies to improve our time to notice the frigid temperatures. Since Russ was the largest member of the team, we decided he should be in front while I, being the lightest, would be in the back. I prefer to think I was the anchor similar to the last man on a mountaineering rope team. A bobbing rear end might be a more accurate description. At the last moment, I decided to wear my ski helmet.

This time, our alignment was perfect. The second sled to race, we catapulted down the steep chute without touching the sidewalls. I could see a gold snowball in my future as we crashed onto Hosmer Pond. The violent landing dislodged our entire team and my helmeted head began whiplashing on the ice. Bang, bang, bang, my head bounced for what seemed minutes before we mercifully stopped. My teammates were ecstatic; I was dazed. Our time was a breathtakingly incredible 9.06 seconds! Faster than any time recorded on the previous day. I might have a massive headache but we were toboggan racing gods!

Basking in glory, surrounded by adoring fans, I was mentally preparing my gold snowball acceptance speech. Alas, a sickening realization soon dampened our soaring spirits. All the times were exceptional. The colder temperatures resulted in harder, faster ice. The announcer called times like, “9.01,” “8.79,” ad infinitum ad nauseam. Within a few minutes we were back in the middle of the pack and out of the running. “We’ll get em next year,” said Ed. I was looking for some Tylenol Plus.

(Ron Chase is an avid four season outdoorsman and freelance writer, who co-authored the mountain guidebook, Mountains for Mortals – New England. He’s a mere toboggan racing wannabe. Visit his website at www.ronchaseoutdoors.com for more information on his guidebook and other outdoor adventures.)