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Opinion / Analysis / Essays


Feel the release

Go with the flow on the Deerfield River -- after you first find out when the next one is

CHARLEMONT -- The Deerfield River gathers momentum in southern Vermont before spilling into Massachusetts in the Franklin County town of Monroe. As it leaves the mountains down the eastern slope of the Berkshires in its dash to the Connecticut River, the Deerfield gains volume and loses altitude. That can mean only one thing for thrill seekers: white water.

But don't plan on tackling this river without checking the dam release schedule first. Negotiations in the 1990s between the hydroelectric companies that own the seven dams on the river, government agencies, environmentalists, sporting groups, and purveyors of outdoor adventure led to a water-release schedule under a 40-year license that will last into the 2030s. When water is released, the river comes to life, heightening the recreational possibilities.

A set number of guaranteed release days are scheduled each year. There are also non-guaranteed days, on which there is a likelihood that a rafting trip will run, but you don't know for sure until 7 p.m. the night before.

The dams determine the sections of the river. The heavy white-water action takes place in the Monroe Bridge section. Seven miles of Class IV rapids take about 2 1/2 hours to traverse, and have provocative names like ''The Terminator," ''Devil's Odds," and ''Dragon's Tooth."

If you have never been on the river before, consider going with one of the three companies that organize rafting trips. Some also offer individual instruction on how to negotiate rapids in smaller vessels.

The path of the river, through verdant slopes that angle steeply on either side of the water, offers some of the most breathtaking scenery in Massachusetts. The horizon is overhead. The banks are thick with vegetation and signs of wildlife. Black bears show up, though not often. Beaver dams and turtles sunning themselves on rocks, as well as predatory birds dipping and soaring through the canyon, remind humans of their visitor status.

Since you have to be at least 14 to participate in a trip through the rapids, and my date for a recent outing was my 9-year-old daughter, we signed up instead for a trip down the Fife Brook section of the river. This is a decidedly more relaxed approach to rafting, with a number of gentle rapids and one short passage through a patch of gurgles, churns, and buffeting currents known as Zoar Gap. It's a taste of the rough stuff, providing a thrill that won't, however, have your life flashing before your eyes and might just whet your appetite for the real deal.

I booked with Moxie Outdoor Adventures. Maisha and I were instructed to show up at Berkshire East, a ski resort off Route 2, just past Charlemont. The lodge was serving as a makeshift training center for the assembled whitewater novices. That day's group included two Boy Scout troops from the Springfield area as well as another dad, Chris Flaherty of Norfolk, on an outing with his children, Sam, 10, and Rebecca, 8.

After a brief safety lecture that included instructions on ''defensive swimming" (if you are thrown from the craft, adopt a sitting crouch and face downstream) and admonitions to grasp your paddle (the ''most dangerous" thing on the water) by the T-grip and never let go, we were issued water shoes, helmet, life jacket, and a paddle.

Then we crammed into a steaming hot yellow school bus for the 20-minute ride upstream. The excitement built as we spotted stretches of river we would be traversing. We disembarked at the top of a steep driveway leading to the bank. Dozens of other adventure seekers, some on their own and some with instructors, were there already, girding themselves for the water release that had just begun. We were a few dozen yards downstream from the dam.

The Moxie staff divided our group among the guides who were waiting by the rafts, which resembled large buoyant balloons. Our raft would include guide Seth Hahn, along with Flaherty and his children. After showing us how to position ourselves on the gunwales, tucking a foot under a crossbar for stability, Seth pushed us off for a few practice maneuvers in the water that by this time was rushing along underneath us.

The passengers are called upon to provide much of the brawn in this operation while the guide maneuvers, a skill that requires a deft reading of the current as well as strength. On Seth's commands, Flaherty and I dug into the water on opposite sides of the raft. In a couple of minutes, we had crossed to the opposite bank without losing much distance. Seth then showed us how to press against the downstream side of a rock, using the eddy that swirls back underneath to maintain position in the river.

Once the scouts were all in their rafts (each raft carries six to eight passengers), our flotilla headed downstream.

The youngsters took their paddling chores, when they arose, earnestly. But the river did most of the work. Once we rounded the first bend, the feeling of sharing this swath of natural splendor with hordes of other boaters abated. Our group of about eight boats formed a unit. The next gaggle of rafts was a good distance behind us (the three companies on the river arrange to stagger their groups), and the beauty of the surroundings loomed larger than all the commotion.

I learned that Flaherty had sojourned on this stretch of river 12 years ago. It was his bachelor party.

''We basically did the same trip," he said, and returning had been in the ''back of my mind" ever since. His wife was off with girlfriends from college this particular weekend, so he came here.

Organized rafting on the Deerfield goes back to 1989, according to Karen Blom, who owns Zoar Outdoor with her husband, Bruce Lessels. They are also rock climbing and cycling outfitters. In the early days, catching the water releases was hit and miss, she said.

''We'd call the dam keeper," she said, ''and if he liked us, he'd tell us, and if he didn't, he'd hang up on us."

Though kayaking is more individual, and puts the boater closer to the water, Blom said, ''rafting is a great way to see white water and to get your feet wet. It's hard to get into trouble."

During our trip we passed several individuals and small groups lolling their way downstream with nothing but bathing suits and an inner tube. One group had a tube in tow that held a cooler. Blom insisted that it's a big mistake not to wear a life preserver.

Going with a group is a great introduction to the river; you tend to get caught up in the energy of the other rafters. Being with two Boy Scout troops, for example, won't make for a placid and sedate family outing: We weren't on the river very long before water fights broke out among the vessels in our small fleet. Each boat was equipped with a veritable cannon that, like a syringe, sucks up a load of water that can be shot 20 feet. So our day on the river was marked by some adolescent antics that the children (and the adults, too) enjoyed and participated in. Getting soaked by marauding youths is almost as much fun as exacting your revenge when they come back into range.

Jeff Minardi, a leader of Troop 90 out of Longmeadow, said the best part of the trip for him was ''to see the scouts working together as a team." I wasn't sure whether he was talking about navigating the rapids, or soaking the other boats.

At the end of the trip, which included a stop at a picnic area with sandwiches and homemade brownies provided by the outfitter, we hoisted our crafts out of the water for a much shorter bus ride back to the base.

Once all the equipment was checked in and dry clothes were donned, we crammed into an alcove in the lodge to watch a slide show. The outfitter had sent a photographer to two points on the route, one on a railroad bridge over the river, the other at the Class III rapid at the Zoar Gap. We all got to see ourselves in the throws of mild panic and sheer delight as we splashed our way through the most hair-raising part of the trip. Individual photos were available for sale as prints or on disk.

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All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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