(State #18/50) The day: sunny and warm. The water: clear and sparkling. The mountains lining the valley: a patchwork of green. As for Trevor and I… we were both nervous and excited. Well, maybe just nervous.
We had arrived in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts the night before, camping where the Deerfield River wound against a steep, forested mountain. With the rainy cold conditions of Rhode Island behind us, we cracked open beers, made camp and watched a beaver waddle up onto the opposing bank and root around in the fern covered earth. Musically inept, I asked Trevor to tune my guitar. He sat on a log, tuned it and tried recalling songs. “Are you gonna light that fire or what?” Trevor asked as he swatted biting gnats. I told him I was thinking about it.
We had more beer as the western sky radiated salmon hues. Trevor and I took turns playing as the glow of the fire replaced the light of day. We were set for a relaxing evening when we noticed the beach was disappearing — they were releasing water from the dam upstream. Trevor grabbed smoking logs and I put on an oven mitt and shoveled coals into a frying pan. We transferred the fire to higher ground and fried up leftover fish ‘n chips with a side of beef curry.
The next morning we went to the local outfitters for advice. A staff member pointed to Zoar Gap, a Class III rapid, on a wall map. “About 50% of the canoes make it through without flipping,” a guy said with a smile. “But, there’s a way to portage around it if you’d like.”
Down the road, we ate a late big breakfast at a cafe (which I probably shouldn’t have kept referring to as our last meal). “If we flip, we check each other, then gear and then canoe. Then we swim it to shore. Make sure you float upstream of the boat… that’s what I’ve read,” I instructed. “Now you’re making me nervous,” Trevor said, fiddling with the straw in his ice water. I was nervous too; even if we skipped the class III, I didn’t know what I was doing in whitewater. “We’ll be fine, they wouldn’t let us die in this river… it’d be bad for business!” I said, attempting to be cheery.
Up at the launch point, a half dozen people, wearing helmets and wetsuits, geared up short whitewater canoes. Meanwhile, Trevor and I stood in bathing suits and flip flops. “Hey, are we gonna be okay running Zoar Gap?” I asked. A middle-aged man with a beard looked us over. “Do you guys have float bags?” he asked. “Float bags?” I responded. “So, without float bags, you’ll take on water after the first drop. You’ll swamp, your canoe will sink and then wrap around a rock and break in two.” Our own safety was one thing, but my canoe, in danger? Hell no. “Well, I guess we’ll portage the gap then!” I said, relieved, but likely not as relieved as my compadre.
We hit the river at noon. The Deerfield surged through the winding valley, over a path of polished stone and around large granite boulders. I tried to keep us straight in the current and away from rocks as we entered our first class II rapids. Trevor shouted directions from the bow — “Rock, 40 feet on the left, keep straight, keep straight, good line. Rock! Right! Left, left, left!” We strained muscles and pulled at the river, knowing even a little mis-stroke might lead to disaster.
After navigating between the gaps of protruding boulders and submerged shelves, we’d shoot out into huge sets of standing waves. I’d do my best to hit them strait on and Rider would rock up and crash down as buckets of water dumped in on Trevor. Even a few gallons spread over the floor of the canoe made it unstable — magnifying each tilt by all sloshing to one side. Immediately after completing a rapid section, we’d have adrenaline pumping and feel ready for more. But, we’d have to find a bank, toss out the dry bags and dump the canoe. By the time we got back on the water, nerves replaced invincibility.
Portaging Zoar Gap along the road, we stared down at river guides training in blue rafts on the class III rapids. “No way in hell we’d get through that,” Trevor and I agreed. “If we had floats, it’d be possible, but it’s too big a drop.”
A mile down from Zoar Gap, the river funneled into another narrow spot, maybe 30 feet wide. Trevor and I ran the rapids down as it narrowed, avoiding the boulders, keeping straight and staying on our chosen line. At the narrowest part of the gap, the water dumped into another series of the largest standing waves we’d seen. We flew into the v and waves with little choice. Cresting the first one, I gave a triumphant yell as we rode down the steep slope. But, after we crested the second, water dumped in over the gunnels like the old log ride. The canoe rocked up and over the third wave and more water poured onto Trevor and into the canoe, extinguishing my enthusiasm. “Water, water, WATER!” Trevor yelled as we hit the fourth wave. I tried to keep her balanced. “Keep it straight!” I started to yell, but it was too late.
The next thing I knew I was in the freezing water. So was Trevor and Rider was tipped sideways, mostly submerged in the fast-moving stream. “Eric!?” Trevor called from in front of the canoe. “Yeah,” I said in a croak. I could barely speak; I must have inhaled water when my face smacked the river. I grabbed my paddle and tried again to speak, without success. In only a moments time, we had gone from 2 men at the height of their river prowess to a floating, confused wreck.
Trevor hollered for me to get my ass over to the boat. I swam towards him and the canoe as the current slowed. Trying to swim the swamped canoe towards the calm waters near a gravel bank felt akin to moving a boulder. I worried we wouldn’t be able to get her to land before the next rapids. But, slowly, eventually, we made it to the gravel bar.
We pulled the canoe up and dumped it out. “You okay? Banged up?” I asked Trevor, surveying his body for bruises. “I’m fine,” he reported. I checked my dry bags; my camera and phone were fine. My largest bag, containing the first aid kit and spare clothes had water in it, but that wasn’t a problem. After inspecting our bodies, the canoe and all the gear we determined we were okay. “I lost the bag of sunflower seeds. They were in my pocket,” Trevor said. That’s when I realized I still had a mouth full of them. “Well, no wonder you couldn’t talk!” Trevor said.
Standing in silence, drying in the sun I said, “Well, I have a name for this post now, Tippy Canoe and Trevor Too!” Trevor shook his head, unamused. “I can’t believe we flipped, it’s just frustrating,” he said. “It was bound to happen eventually,” I said. “Yeah, but it had to be one I did with you,” Trevor said, as if I or others would blame him (which I totally do). “I’m not sure what we could have done differently there. Without float bags, there was no way to not take on water,” I said. I was happy we didn’t get hurt or lose any gear and the unplanned bath was indeed refreshing. I’d go as far to say I felt a little bad-ass after surviving such a harrowing ordeal. However, any macho feelings vanished when we learned we had swamped in a section known as… wait for it…“Baby Gap.”
Nevertheless, the Deerfield was the most extreme water I’ve canoed during this entire Canoe 50 Campaign, even if it is child’s play to a whitewater canoeist. Back in the car, we took the scenic route to Boston and reviewed the latest chapter in “The Wild Adventures of Trevor and Eric.” After a thorough and unbiased investigation, we concluded, unanimously, that swamping the canoe was not our fault in the slightest. Accepting these results, Trevor and I stopped at Walden Pond to share the good news with the grumpy and disinterested ghost of Henry David Thoreau.
River Stats and Fun Facts:
- Deerfield River, Massachusetts
- Miles Canoed: 8.5
- Date Canoed: 5/24/2017
- Weather: Mostly sunny, highs in the low 80’s with lows in the 60’s
- Launch Point: .25 miles from “Dropin Point” (42.679489, -072.987156)
- Campsite: Close to, but certainly not in the Zoar Picnic area, up the road from the Nelson Family Cemetery
- Takeout Point: Zoar Outdoor take out (42.627267, -072.885543)
- Songs Sung on River: Mr. Jones by The Counting Crows and Sweet Baby James by Massachusetts own, James Taylor. That night on the river, I’d like to think I lulled Trevor to sleep with the lyrics “Well, the first of December was covered in snow. So was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston. Though the Berkshires seem dreamlike on account that frostin’, with 10 miles behind me and 10,000 more to gooooo…”
- Big thanks to the staff at Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort (800-532-7483). They gave us advice, let us take out on their property and even gave me a lift back to my car (refused a tip too!). Friendly and professional outfit, which does lots of rafting trips and kayaks. Thanks to Mary & Kevin for the beef curry!
- Delicious Local Restaurant: Cold River Cafe & Restaurant for the tasty huge proportions (which was great as we skipped lunch and didn’t eat dinner until late that night in Boston) and the friendly waitress.
- Wildlife Spotted:
- Birds: ducks, Canada Geese, merganser, kingfisher and red wing black bird.
- Mammals: 1 ornery beaver
- Noted Species: Black bear
- Dominant Vegetation: white pine, birch, oak and beech
- Ecoregion: Northern Highlands, (58c) Green Mountains/Berkshire Highlands
- Current Threats: Dumped chemicals (motor oil), invasive species such as the Japanese Knotweed and hydroelectric development (already several dams altering the natural river flow)
- Trash collected: some beer bottles and a glass insulated from our campsite.