29 Jul 08 Pioneer Rafting Days on Maine’s Kennebec River – Part 1
“We were either going to discover one of the best rivers to raft in the country, or we were going to die.”
This was the encouraging phone call to the Hockmeyers from West Virginia rafting friend Jon Dragan (founder of Wildwater Ltd. on the Gauley River in 1968), the night before the pioneer 1st run ever of the Kennebec River. It was the spring of 1976, says Northern Outdoors Co-founder Suzie Hockmeyer. They’d never paddled whitewater, had one huge raft (32” tubes), heavy wooden paddles, no helmets, no bailing buckets, and wore jeans, wool shirts, and wimpy life jackets. They put on at Harris Station and had no idea what was around the corner.
Northern Outdoors ran the very first rafting trip on the Kennebec River, and the first rafting trip in the state of Maine. We went on to do first descents of Maine’s Penobscot and Dead Rivers as well, leading the way in whitewater rafting in New England. It all started when Wayne Hockmeyer hiked into the Kennebec Gorge in 1975 in search of the next “ great, undiscovered fishing spot”. He realized he couldn’t get past the big rapids and decided that rafting was the thing to pursue on the Kennebec instead.
Wayne and Suzie hired Allan Haley, the first Maine Registered Guide, to join their first descent on the Kennebec. Allan was the only one in the group with any whitewater experience at all, from canoeing. The plan was to have their friend and experienced whitewater rafting friend from West Virginia, Jon Dragan, join them for the first descent. As luck would have it, Jon and his guides had to cancel right before the launch day, and he actually talked Wayne through how to steer a raft on the phone the night before. Since they didn’t have their WV crew coming, Wayne and team picked up some bear hunters who were hanging out in camp during the day, to round out their crew. Suzie was 8 months pregnant and was to meet the group at the takeout. Suzie went on to become the first woman to be a Registered Maine Whitewater Guide in the state of Maine. (Wayne and Suzie’s son and daughter Kyle and Avery went on to become expert kayakers and raft guides, developing strength and confidence that guides them today in their careers as film producer and ER nurse, respectively.)
Find out more in Part 2 – Kennebec Rafting History, coming up next.