I was seventeen the first time I went whitewater rafting on the Kennebec River, and in my mid-twenties when I ventured to the more challenging Penobscot River. To this day, I can recall the exhilaration and excitement that came with smashing head-on into a huge rapid and then gliding over and through the swells until we reached calmer water. I remember the flutters in my stomach as we approached a small waterfall, and the fleeting fear of being thrown from the raft. But more than anything, I remember how fun it was, how adventurous I felt in those moments, and how I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Fast forward about twenty years, and four children later…. is whitewater rafting really safe for kids?!
When my husband suggests a family rafting trip with Northern Outdoors for summer vacation, I hesitated. Our four kids range in age from 10 to 15, with varying levels of swimming strength and abilities. Our 10-year-old son is small for his age and, based on his height, there are still plenty of amusement park rides he’s too short to enjoy!
My husband had never been whitewater rafting, so I told him he clearly didn’t know what he was suggesting. All I could imagine was our family raft, plunging sideways over a waterfall, and our children being launched from the raft in every direction and then drifting down the river away from us. Even if I am a natural thrill seeker, and even if I do encourage the kids’ sense of adventure and love for the outdoors, I am also a mom and this idea just made me nervous.
Not wanting to be a buzzkill, I decided to look into the idea before killing it outright. I expected that at least one of our kids would not be old enough to whitewater raft down the Kennebec, which is the mellowest trip of the three rivers Northern Outdoors offers. But I was wrong. The minimum age for the Kennebec trip is ten, and Northern Outdoors could tailor that trip to accommodate children as young as eight. While I felt more comfortable taking us down the section designated for ages eight and up, our 10-year-old wanted to do the whole thing. Despite my apprehension, it looked like we were taking the kids down river.
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Taking the Kids Whitewater Rafting.
Northern Outdoors has been guiding people down the Kennebec, Penobscot, and Dead Rivers in Maine for over 40 years. Not only did Northern Outdoors pioneer rafting in Maine, making them Maine’s most experienced company, but all of their guides are rigorously trained, spending full days on the river and nights in the classroom, where they learn about the geography and nature of the rivers and prepare for the test. They are all certified whitewater rafting guides. To go to the next level and become a trip leader, a guide needs to have mastered advanced first aid through another 40-hour course. Many Northern Outdoor staff are certified as trip leaders, enhancing their ability to provide a safe experience. Northern Outdoors also supports swift water rescue training in the spring, and many of the staff have Maine Recreational Guide licenses.
Our day started off with a quick meeting at the lodge, where the guides walked us through what to expect for the day, basic rafting commands, the safest and most efficient way to hold a paddle, and proper life jacket and helmet fit. While the guides acknowledged that rafts can – and do – flip over, and people fall out, they emphasized the low probability of either of those things happening. In fact, of about 850 of their rafts that go down the Kennebec per year, only two or three actually flip over! And, in the off chance your raft does flip or happen to fall out, the guides make sure you know how they will help you get back to the raft and how to respond safely (and without panicking).
“Stay calm, try to swim toward the raft and grab on, or float on your back with knees and nose pointed to the sky. Feet first and do not try to stand up. You don’t want a foot caught on the riverbed. Lastly, don’t close your eyes or you won’t be able to time your breath between rapids.”
I was nervous again, but we kept going. Soon after our orientation, we were outfitted with helmets and lifejackets and then sent to the busses for our 30-minute drive to the dam, where we would put in. During the ride, a few guides stood at the front of the bus and helped pass the time by cracking jokes, sharing interesting tidbits about the region’s history and geography, and then by reviewing the key safety tips from the morning’s meeting. By the time the ride was over, I felt prepared and at ease as we made our way to the river.
We put in at the dam and began rafting on 5,000 cubic feet per second, which is the norm for most rafting days on the Kennebec. We got our bearings and had the chance to practice paddling as a team, and how to steer and turn the raft before we approached some of the most impressive rapids in the entire trip.
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The first big rapid was Big Mamma (Class III) and shortly after we made it through that section, we approached Magic Falls, a Class IV rapid. It was probably the “scariest” part of the day. Yes, it’s a waterfall, and yes, as you approach it, the river seems to disappear on the horizon, leading you to wonder how far of a drop you are in for.
“We’re gonna die!” my 13-year-old daughter yelled with nervous excitement.
But, before we knew it, our guide told us to “Hold On” and we lifted our paddles in the air and leaned into the center of the raft to grab safety ropes. Then, following a lot of splashing and rocking back and forth, coupled with screams of delight and excitement, we made it over Magic Falls.
“That was awesome!” my daughter now exclaimed.
If you actively listen to your guide and follow his or her commands on when and how to paddle, you will be taken for a thrilling ride, and the worst that will happen is you will get very wet, very quickly. As we floated downstream and looked back at Magic Falls, feeling proud of what we’d just accomplished, I scanned the kids’ faces – nothing to see but wide grins.
The rest of the trip was wonderful; we had a delicious beach-side lunch followed by a relaxing second half of the day. After lunch, when the river flowed more gently, the kids all jumped off the raft and floated downriver on their backs, taking advantage of the 70+ degree water and tossing aside any apprehension they’d previously had about the river. I did as well. My fears had turned out to be quite unnecessary. The river offered just the right level of excitement for our family.
Back at the Lodge
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Once the trip was over and we had laughed at our outrageous facial expressions from the pictures during the post-trip slide show, the kids all asked when they’d be able to do the more advanced and intense Penobscot or Dead Rivers (not until they’re 14). I have no doubt we’ll be hitting the rapids again in a few years! When asked to summarize their experience rafting down the Kennebec in one word, the kids declared: “terrific,” and “extraordinary,” and “fun,” and “exciting!”
Whitewater rafting with kids certainly is a fun and memorable family activity, and the risk for anything unfortunate happening is truly quite low. (According to American Whitewater, nationwide, the number of fatalities ranges between six and ten per year for an estimated 2.5 million user days on guided trips.) Follow your guide’s instructions, relax, and let go; it’s sure to be a great experience!
These days, kids spend too much time inside and within the confines of structured play and low-risk activities. It’s critical for kids (and parents) to explore their adventurous sides and push the boundaries a bit – and rafting down the beautiful Kennebec in the waning days of a Maine summer is the perfect way to do that.
If this post has calmed your nerves and you think you’re ready to book an adventure, check out Northern Outdoors’ beginners’ tips for whitewater rafting, and make plans to book your whitewater rafting trip with Northern Outdoors!
Still not convinced? Check out the reviews from previous customers as well!