Wayne Hockmeyer sat in a little rubber raft one momentous day three years ago and gazed down the wild Kennebec River Gorge in west-central Maine. "You'll be killed," a man shouted to him from a nearby dam abutment, but Hockmeyer knew he had a chance: the state had recently banned log driving from its rivers, so the Kennebec was uncluttered; and Hockmeyer had been a water-bed salesman for five years. He needed all the help he could get and, as the gorge closed in, the raft did feel like a water bed—in a tidal wave. But Hockmeyer survived the hairy run to become New England's first professional rafting guide.
Last year his Northern Whitewater Expeditions took 3,500 adventuresome souls through the gorge as well as down the nearby Penobscot. The customers came from 35 states and pumped more than $500,000 into the depressed local economy, and that should be just for starters—if the rivers keep flowing. That's the problem. Some people see the Kennebec and the Penobscot and start looking for a raft. Others see the rivers and start counting kilowatts. Two hydroelectric dams have been proposed, and each would turn a splendid stretch of wild river into a lake. One would provide electricity for the Maine public, the other would supply it to a paper mill—and even Hockmeyer turns on the lights at night to read a newspaper. He always looks for articles about the rafting and the dams.
WARNING: BEFORE LAUNCHING ANY CRAFT PLEASE READ: FOR THE NEXT FEW MILES, THIS RIVER CAN BE EXTREMELY DANGEROUS, AND YOU MAY BE INJURED OR LOSE YOUR LIFE....
So reads a sign posted at Harris Station Dam, above the Kennebec River Gorge.
"O.K., let's go," said one of Hockmeyer's impatient customers who stood on the riverbank. But Hockmeyer began waving a paddle and shouting, "I don't want to scare anyone, but I can't have people thinking nothing can happen to them. Today's trip will be tremendously exciting. At times you'll be wondering if we're going to make it.
"If you get dumped into the water in the gorge, don't try to swim. The current is 10 miles an hour. You'll just get exhausted, and it'll be downhill very quickly after that. Don't go into a blind panic, thinking you're going to die. Just get on your back with your feet downstream and your mouth shut, and you'll ride it out. It may be two miles and you won't enjoy it, but you'll ride it out."
Hockmeyer paused. The 50 suddenly subdued men and women in wet suits shuffled to a waterside ledge, settled into five 22-foot rubber rafts and paddled into the gorge. Ahead, the river was a torrent; there was no place to stop and reconsider. The rafts entered the rapids, bouncing like dice in a cup, and the rafters were soon ankle-deep in water. Hockmeyer gestured madly downstream and shouted, "The Three Sisters!"
Then the river entered a narrowing gorge. Three successive stone obstructions kicked up three towering waves. The Sisters. Sister No. 1 is 10 feet tall, and the momentary view the rafters got as they passed her, their raft pitching upward abruptly, was mostly sky. No one saw the second Sister, as necks were snapped back and eyes were snapped shut by the jolting encounter. Water from the third Sister crashed down, projecting the rafts into a seemingly endless alley of three- and four-foot waves. Then, suddenly, the river broadened into a pool, a section Hockmeyer calls "the Cathedral." The gorge walls rose higher, but less vertically. A great dome of sky arched overhead, and a beam of light illuminated the pool, setting the mood for tamer pleasures—intraraft water fights and dips in the cool river.
As the rafts drifted together, Hockmeyer spread his arms and said, "Take a good look around you. The Kennebec River is 150 miles long, but this is the last truly wild stretch. Fewer than 4,000 rafters have ever seen what you've seen—the Three Sisters, the Cathedral, the gorge. You'll be telling your grandchildren about this day, and soon it may all be gone, flooded by a dam."
He gestured to where Cold Stream entered the river and said, "This is where Central Maine Power Company wants to build Cold Stream Dam. Has a nice ring, doesn't it?"