Whitewater SUP: Paddleboarding Maine Rivers

Once you stand up you may never sit down…

SUP, friends! Ever walked on water? That’s what stand up paddle boarding feels like. Lakes, rivers, oceans, surfing, yoga, wildlife viewing, fishing, the versatility of paddleboards is part of their appeal. Before I knew about whitewater SUP, I bought a touring board to paddle lakes. Because it was an inflatable SUP I thought I could run rivers on that narrow 12 foot Starboard. I did try! But broke my fin and fell a lot. Then I met John Philbrick, owner of Adventure Bound (Northern Outdoors partner outfitter focused on youth groups.) For those of us who are years of practice away from SUPing the upper gorge of the Kennebec River, John’s many trips through Magic Falls are downright heroic. John is the reason I’m now happily riding an NRS Whip, falling a little less and tackling more rivers.

Whitewater SUP Interview with Adventure Bound’s John Philbrick

A river running beginner interviews a paddling pro… who crashes into whitewater like everyone else who plays at this awesome sport.


Whitewater SUP - Paddleboarding Rivers

When did you first get into river paddleboarding?

About 5 years ago. We are always seeking new adventures for our youth programs so I get to be the guinea pig.

Was the Kennebec River the first whitewater you SUPed?

Yes, and then I paddled the Seboomook and portions of the West Branch of the Penobscot River.

Did you SUP the lower Kennebec River before attempting the gorge?

We started at the boat landing on Wyman Lake in Caratunk (a great place to swim, see The Forks Area Recreation Map.) The next day we carried our boards down the Carry Brook stairs to SUP the lower portion of the Kennebec River gorge.  After a few “practice” runs I found some partners to try the upper river class III-IV rapids with me. It continues to be a great challenge.

How many runs through Magic Falls before you could stay on your board? On your feet?

Kneeling on the board it was probably the third or fourth trip. I have attempted SUPing the upper Kennebec gorge around 20 times. I’ve stayed on my feet once running the Magic Falls raft line. It might be easier to take the sneak route to right, but what fun would that be?

What’s going through your head when you approach a big rapid? All I can think is “oh boy, oh boy.”

I’m paddling rivers that are very familiar to me — so I am able to focus on balance, and gaining the momentum to navigate to a particular spot to attempt to make a clean standing run.  Once I have lost my balance? I would use the term “liquid chaos” to describe my head. Making sense of the chaos is one of the challenges.

SUPpah Time at Nesowadnehunk Falls

The Penobscot River, September, 2015

 Your paddleboard of choice?

I’ll try anything. I have only used inflatable SUPs, mostly from NRS. Last summer I paddled the NRS Whip and NRS Quiver a lot.  We have the NRS inflatable paddleboards, and a Boardworks Element available for our Adventure Bound trips.

Tips for those new to whitewater SUP?

Start on the lake and learn to move around on your board. I had some knowledge of running rivers in other crafts before starting and that is important.  [Note: John has more than “some” knowledge. He’s been a river guide since the 90s, has been managing rafting operations for over 25 years, and trains new Whitewater Guides.]

Rivers are a great source of enjoyment but require our respect, and demand that we understand what is going on with the moving water.  If you don’t have experience paddling on rivers, find somebody that does. The whitewater paddling community is welcoming to new paddlers.  If you let people know you are just beginning, you will be amazed at how supportive people can be. It doesn’t matter the craft, we are all just trying to have some fun.

The supportive river community is the reason I can SUP the class IV rapids of the upper gorge — thanks to those running safety kayaks and rafts alongside. To connect with paddlers in Maine check out the Maine Flows Facebook group (and also the Whitewater SUP group for paddlers from all over.)

Do you lead guided SUP tours on the Kennebec River? For what ages? Tell us about the tours.

We have introduced SUPs on our overnight rafting and camping trips, where we paddle and camp on Indian Pond above the Kennebec gorge. We also SUP the lower stretch of the Kennebec River below The Forks down to our Adventure Center on the river in Caratunk. 10 is the minimum age for our trips.

As someone who has tried to SUP a few shallow rivers, I appreciate that the Kennebec River is deep and reliable with daily dam releases from May through October. Other reasons the Kennebec is great for a SUP trip?

The Kennebec has several access points and different classes of whitewater for paddling. Paddleboarders can work their way up different sections on the river — from Wyman Lake to the lower lower float trip to the Carry Brook stairs mostly class II section to the class III-IV rapids of the upper gorge.

The river community in The Forks has lots of options for restaurants, music in the evenings, lodging, and campgrounds. Adventure Bound has a youth-oriented, family-friendly, alcohol-free campground and adventure center, or you can visit the brew pub at Northern Outdoors resort three miles up the road for a cold beer on the deck.  Add some hiking, biking, or rafting to round out your trip.

Paddleboards, kayaks, rafts… what else have you ridden down river?

Mostly rafts, but kayaks, canoes and possibly a cooler a few years ago.

Any final words for our whitewater SUP friends?

Talk is cheap, Let’s go Boatin’!

Paddleboarding the Kennebec River

Thanks, John and Adventure Bound. Hope to follow you down river soon!

Spread the word about whitewater SUP and comment below if you’re game to paddleboard rivers…


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2 Responses

  1. Yes! I’m game…just need a board 😉 Does Northern Outdoors have whitewater board rentals?

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