Near-Tragedy On Webster Stream

Near-Tragedy On Webster Stream post image

A tragedy was narrowly avoided on our recent paddling trip down Webster Stream during the Wilderness Canoe Expedition Semester. Near the end of the stream there is a half-mile carry around an unrunnable falls known as Grand Pitch. The take out is about 25 yards upstream of the horizon line for the falls, which means that you can’t see the falls, but they begin right there. It’s marked by a single metal stake in the ground. While we were there carrying our gear, one of our guys had hung his orange shirt on the metal stake. A summer camp group who had been demonstrating questionable safety practices such as staying on the river during a thunderstorm and running the class 3 ledges without scouting pulled up and began carrying their gear. Our guy was there to get his shirt, and the trip leader thanked him, saying that they would have missed the take out if it weren’t for his shirt.

I was floored when I heard this. It made me incredulous at first, and then angry. Then really pissed off.

First, it seems obvious to me that the trip leaders were not qualified or experienced enough to be in charge, as they didn’t know the river and had no idea the implications of missing that takeout. To think that there were parents at home who had put their sons in the care of this camp, and that what saved them from going over the falls was only the orange shirt from a member of our party still makes me angry. Clearly that camp needs to reevaluate their approach to safety on the river, and I will be contacting the camp director soon.

Second, most of Webster Stream runs through Baxter State Park. I understand that the park wants to maintain it as a wild river, thus minimizing the hand of man, to provide a wilderness experience, but in my opinion a small sign marking the take out and warning of the falls would not ruin anyone’s experience. On the carry trail there were logs that had fallen across the trail that had clearly been sawn and moved. I’d rather have to navigate around obstacles on the carry trail than pull dead kids from a river. They’re clearly maintaining the trail. Would a sign that could save lives really be any different? I left a voicemail for director of Baxter State Park stating my opinion on this.

Two things have been running through my head since the event. The first is what if it were my kid on that trip? The second is what if that orange shirt hadn’t been there and that group had gone over the falls and one or more kids died? It still makes me mad. It probably always will.

What do you think? Where is the line between keeping people safe versus maintaining an authentic wilderness experience?

UPDATE: I had a great talk with the director of Baxter State Park about this and they’re aware of the issue of unsafe camp groups and are internally discussing solutions.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Scott August 19, 2014, 3:17 pm

    Scary stuff Tim. It sounds like this is a real issue. When I was just out on the Machias, an experienced Guide was telling us about his experience last year following a youth group down the East Branch of the Penobscot. He said they were way over their heads, wrapped two canoes (which they abandoned and made no effort to retrieve), and very easily could’ve lost someone crashing through rapids far above their level.

  • Sam Larson August 19, 2014, 3:55 pm

    It’s great that you callled both places. Many more lives would be saved if guides like you made an effort to keep things safe. Way to go Tim!

  • Tim Smith August 19, 2014, 4:19 pm

    What strikes me Sam is that they make it challenging to obtain a guide license, but anyone can lead a camp group on a remote whitewater trip.
    Thanks for the feedback.

  • Tim Smith August 19, 2014, 4:19 pm

    Scott the Webster Stream trip is just above Grand Lake Mattagammon, and the East Branch is below it. Many camps, this one included, do both trips at once. We did. It was likely the same camp that wrapped a boat last year.

    Thanks for the feedback.

  • Chris Noble August 19, 2014, 6:19 pm

    Hi Tim,

    At the end of the day, I agree with you and the sign. And that is mostly because of the kids being in the care of a camp and it is the right thing to do. However, there is still a part of me that says let the gene pool do its thing.

    FWIW, I interview the camp counselors that my kids are in the care of and know exactly what and where they are doing something.

    It doesn’t hurt to scout a river before getting on it too. I have found this website very helpful, http://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/River/view/ (click on your state). I still get out and scout EVERY TIME it looks like I should though.

    Best, Chris

  • Tim Smith August 19, 2014, 7:50 pm

    Thanks Chris. Good advice about interviewing camp counselors. Obviously we’ve gotten to this point in history with no sign. Joe Polis didn’t have one when he was guiding Henry Thoreau down Webster Stream. I don’t think a sign would solve the problem of recklessness, but if it saved one kid I think it would be worth it. In addition to the falls being un-runnable, there is no road access to anywhere near them. The closest access is half a mile of river, 9 miles of lake, and 30 miles of back road to a small town, so no easy evacuations. I haven’t seen any data on fatalities in this location, nor have heard of any anecdotally. Maybe there haven’t been any since the log driving days. With regards to the gene pool I appreciate your point, but I’m thinking about the unknowing people who have faith in a reckless leader or guide. I don’t feel like it’s my job to make the wilderness “safe”, but this incident has definitely made a mark on me.