Tuesday, July 15, 2008

NFCT Upper Ammonoosuc West Milan to Groveton

In our summer goal of canoeing on the NFCT we chose to spend two days on the Upper Ammonoosuc River on the first week end in June. A few weeks earlier we had done the CT river section and ended up where we would finish our weekend on Sunday. We arranged for a local motel owner in Groveton to give us a ride back to our car on Sunday and got permission from the general store owner at the put-in to let us park our car overnight in their parking lot. The local folks have been very friendly no matter where we have paddled on the NFCT.

The kids ate an early morning ice cream from the general store in West Milan while we got the boats set and into the water. A short paddle under a bridge and we entered the Upper Ammonoosuc proper and we were off. The upper section of the river is very a enjoyable and peaceful paddle. Winding and tree lined it’s a beautiful section to canoe. The moderate current helps things move along at a pleasant pace and there are new things to see around each turn. At one point we were paddling along with a gentle breeze and there were thousands of maple keys gently spinning down from the Silver Maples that line this section of the river. It was almost like it was snowing. The keys would accumulate in eddies and the kids would quietly scoop them up and toss them back into the water and watch them float away. It was one of the most peaceful moments I’ve had in a long time.

This isn’t a wilderness river, we could hear the road now and then but the noise was filtered by the trees and wind. There are several camps and homes to pass and bridges to go under. We saw very little trash on the river; it’s an extremely clean section of water to travel on. There was none of the junk that one often sees on rivers, no cans, no Styrofoam, and other floating human reminders. I don’t think that the river sees a lot of use. We did see an occasional tire half buried in the sandy bottom and at one point we floated over a 10 foot diameter steel circle on the bottom. Right as we passed over it I realized that it was a trampoline that must have been washed away in a spring flood. The water was remarkably clear and since there was very little agricultural runoff I felt fine filtering it for drinking.

Our first stop was at the new Cordwell Campsite. We tied the canoes to some bushes on the river bank and Brad climbed the steep 6’ bank to get to the site. According to the log book only one group had used the site this year. Sally discovered the composting toilet and was fascinated by it. She has used outhouses before but never one with no walls or a door. We told the folks at The NFCT headquarters we would report on the site so we looked around and headed off downstream under the railroad bridge. Everything was in order and I hope more folks use the site. If you choose to camp here remember that a train goes by sometime during the night.

Mid morning we came two the first of two unexpected obstacles. The kids had a great time playing while Patty and I carried around the first strainer. In general I don’t mind portages but these were kind of a pain. We had to get out and scout a way to get the boats out of the water and up the bank, around the blow down, and back into the water. I realized at this point how hot it was. On the river it was a very pleasant temperature, generally we were in the shade and the cold water kept us very comfortable. Once out of the river it was very hot and humid. We had to unload the boats, ferry loads a hundred feet, and then get everything down the bank and back into the canoes. A lot of work for not much distance, it’s all part of canoeing.

We followed the meanders a while until we came to a nice sand beach suitable for a picnic. Patty brought cold cuts and tuna sandwiches with vegetables sticks. Nuts and M&Ms for desert. The kids decided to swim and had a great time in the current. There were lots of animal tracks on the beach for them to look at. Brad has a guide to animal tracks that he put to good use.

Back into the canoes after lunch and off again. We had to do one more carry around a second strainer and I started to worry that we were getting behind schedule. I’m not sure if the kids paddling helped or slowed us down. I knew we had several sets of rapids to deal with and even though they were easy I wanted to scout and hold open the possibility of lining if they looked to dangerous. I really wanted the kids to have a good experience and since they are only 6 and 8 I didn’t want to take any chances of going over in the white water.

The first set of rapids at the highway rest stop was short with a few big waves; it was exciting with a few ups and downs and one rock to dodge. Both kids loved it and were looking forward to more. A few more easy sets of rapids led us to a longer and more difficult set above Stark. The AMC guide rates this at Class II. Patty and I got out and scouted. We decided that if it was the two of us we would have gone to the outside of the bend on the left and tested our skills a bit. Because we were both paddling solo with a child and gear in each canoe we decided to play it safe and run the rapids on the inside of the bend in slower and shallower water. It was not a time to be aggressive and put our trip at risk. Patty has more experience in moving water than I do but both of us agreed that we should be conservative on this trip. The kids loved the rapids which get gradually easier as you get towards the famous covered bridge in Stark. I almost tipped when I let my guard down near the end and went over a rock that I should have seen and avoided. I was gawking at the cliffs above town when I should have been paying attention to the river.
There was a wedding at the church to the left of the covered bridge. The bride and bridesmaids were out having their pictures taken in front of a beautiful lilac bush in full bloom beside the river. Several of the guests were on the bridge, they waved and cheered us on as we passed by the wedding party and floated underneath them. The quick water continued on for a while and gently let up as we approached the sharp turn to the north that went under a train bridge and then to the Frizzell campsite.

The river changed markedly when the rapids start. I switches from clay and silt to sand and cobbles. There are more sections of quick water and rapids mixed in with some quieter sections. In general the water moves much faster once you reach the first set of rapids.
We arrived at the Frizzell site and it’s a great one. Not as good as the site we stayed at on the CT River but almost. The site is located out at the point of a big bend and is very well situated. With a nice place to land the boats and a sand beach close by for the kids it worked out great for us. Patty and I took care of setting up camp while the kids carried a load or two and then headed off to explore the surroundings. We’ve developed a routine on these trips that seem to work out well for us. While we keep one eye on the kids I set up the tents while Patty sets up the kitchen and begins dinner if the time is right. In any case she gets out a snack to hold the kids over until the meal is ready. The kids need the time to play especially if they have been in boats all day long. They chose to go for a swim and had a great time drifting down river with the current. I like it when they swim because it tires them out and they go to sleep easier. Other activities include tossing sticks in the river and throwing rocks at them, looking for frogs and slugs, and collecting rocks.

An added bonus at this site is a picnic table, someone must move it to higher ground in the winter or else it would surely get washed away by the spring floods. The campsite register said we were the first ones to stay this year and since the grass was thigh high I suspect it was correct. The bugs were only moderately bad, not nearly as bad as they could have been in early June. Soup for the appetizer and Ramen noodles with sautéed vegetables for supper. I took some time by myself and sat by the river and watched a bat fly over the water collecting insects for it’s dinner.
There are no fires allowed at this site so the kids had to have cold marshmallows before bed, they were not happy about this. The kids slept with Patty in the tent and I slept in a hammock in the woods. It was unbelievably loud with animal noises right around sunset. We must have been there right at the peak of courtship season for the birds as well as the frogs and insects. I was fascinating listening to all the sounds with the exception of the June Bugs bouncing off my hammock. At about 9:30 or 10:00 we all got up and went down to the river to look at the stars. It was a clear cloudless night with no background light so we got to see a lot more stars than usual before the bugs sent us back inside the mosquito netting. We even got to see a pretty good shooting star.

I slept well and woke up at dawn to the sounds of the animals again. It was really pleasant just lying there listening to the birds and trying to see how many I could identify by song. I have no idea what sounds frogs make other that bullfrogs and peepers. I guess things went OK in the tent aside from the usual amount of thrashing around that Brad does when sleeping. As usual I was the first up and made coffee. Sally and Patty were up a bit later. Brad sleeps as late as possible and on these trips and we don’t bother him until we have to, besides, he can sleep through anything. I took the fly off the tent without waking him.
After a leisurely breakfast we slowly pack up and get the boats loaded. The kids wanted to swim a little so we let them float down stream for a hundred yards or so. It was just far enough for them to get really cold and want to get into the boats. A beautiful cool June morning with a cloudless sky and great views of the farmland and mountains. We passed a few houses and then went through some pastures lined with big old maples and White Pines. The current was strong and we moved along at a quick pace as we enjoyed the scenery.

The river takes a large bend around a mountain and the current slows for a bit and then picks up again as you approach the beginning of a long stretch of easy rapids except for one tricky bend which is probably Class II. Patty had to land quikely in order to avoid getting stuck in a strainer and we had a brief few minutes of anxiety as we lined the boat around the danger. The river was braided at this point into at least three branches and none of them seemed to be the obvious one to take so we may have missed a better and safer channel. A long and very enjoyable stretch of river follows this section, Quick water and continuous Class I that we had a great time on and made very good progress.
The Upper Ammonoosuc eventually begins to braid a bit again and if you’re lucky you’ll choose the correct channel and not have to get out and drag your boat across the sand and rocks. This leads to Red Dam which according to the NFCT folks is being dismantled. We were supposed to portage on the left but I easily lifted and dragged my canoe over the remains of the dam. Patty arrived with the other boat and I ran along the dam to the other end to scout the chute on the right, It looked to be a short Class II wave train and Patty and Brad ran it and said it was fun. I had to run back to the other end and get Sally into the boat and paddle hard to catch up. Sally was very upset that she didn’t get to go through the chute as well.

The river after the Red Dam is backed up by the next dam downstream at the mill. We paddled to the carry which was not very enjoyable but it was short and straight forward. We were soon back in the water and on our final leg of the trip. After going under the covered pedestrian bridge in Groveton we arrived at the take out just upstream of the next dam. I headed back to the Sleepy Time Motel to get a shuttle back to my car while Patty and the kids organized gear and disassembled the PakBoat. They had time to walk to a nearby store for ice cream before I returned with the car fro the ride home.

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