I’m no stranger to the kind of kayak trip that people call a “mission.” Accidentally spending a night on the river in Mexico. Postholing tits deep in northern NH with a kayak strapped to my back. The list goes on; I’ve had my fair share of brutally long devil’s club infested paddling outings. So when I say that Bourne Brook, a little-known crack in the earth nestled in the hills above Manchester, VT, is one of the most significant “missions” I’ve been on with my kayak, I’m not joking. This little slice of hair-boating has it all: a 4×4 shuttle road; a steep bushwhack down to the river; scary – and scarily limited – portaging riddled with loose rock and mud; a mile long paddle out through some of the worst whitewater I’ve had the pleasure of kayaking. Some big (still) un-run rapids. Some even bigger un-runnable rapids.
It was first run sometime in the early 2000s. Rumor has it that it was run regularly by Barney Bonito and a friend in those days, but I think that might be just that – a rumor. It’s one of those “once every few years” kind of runs for us mortals. You know, the kind that you’ll only go back to when your memories of it begin to fade – your memories of clinging to the gorge wall hoping to god that you don’t fall victim to the same fate as the big rock slab you just kicked loose while portaging. This same rumor mill has claimed that there’s VHS video out there of the biggest vertical falls in the gorge being run, but I’m not even sure what a VHS is.
This fall, Justin Beckwith, Ryan Mooney, and I decided it was about time to get in there – I mean, I’d hiked the thing two years ago and still hadn’t paddled it – so we planned it for Green Race Saturday in early November and set about making the weather cooperate. We succeeded, and flows seemed good when we arrived at the takeout. At 2:30pm. We would’ve gotten there earlier, but Ryan had to take his SATs that morning in Montpelier. No worries, it only took me 2.5 hours to canyoneer the thing with no water in it, how long could it possibly take us to paddle it? Let It Rain recommends a minimum of five hours to get down the river, but guidebooks always overstate these things. Besides, Justin had done it a couple times before, just not in a few years.
The first rapid of significance is a massive, multi-stage 100′ slide. We reached the horizon line and Ryan turned to me and said, “When you described 100′ slide, I thought you meant 100′ long. Like 30′ tall or something.” Nope. It really is 100′ tall. We ran the first piece of it, a big, bouncy beast by its own right, and hopped out in the tiny pool to begin portaging the rest. It’s a huge, bouncy, near-vertical slide that lands in a pool with a five foot wide window between two huge boulders. The portage is actually pretty straightforward – just walk down the steep, slippery bedrock on river left next to the rapid.
After this, some mellower slides lead quickly into one of the few rapids documented by photographs prior to our descent – “90 Degrees Left.” As the name proscribes, it is a steep slide into a wall that turns at a right angle towards the left. It belies what happens after the abrupt turn, though: a vertical drop into a narrow crack followed by a sticky hole in a walled in corridor. Ryan and I watched Justin nearly knock his face off flipping in the crack and decided it wasn’t something we wanted to contend with, which we quickly realized presented us with some new challenges. With limited daylight, the high portage wasn’t an option – other groups have spent over an hour walking this rapid. We ended up throwing our boats down the rapid into the pool below where Justin corralled them. We then traversed across the river left gorge wall till we found a point from which we could jump. Aside from knocking a massive slab of rock loose and nearly falling, it went relatively well and we were quickly making downstream progress again.
The river opens briefly before the walls close in again and the drops stack up like nothing any of us had seen before. Except Justin, of course, the last time he was there. Horizon-line after horizon-line, we’d scout, paddle off a waterfall, scout again, portage, repeat. In here, the gorge shows its true character – steep, walled in, crammed full of boulders squeezed into places you’d never think they’d fit. After a fun portage-boof-portage combo, we found ourselves at the lip of a 20′ waterfall that, when hiking the river a few years prior, I had dubbed “Mandatory Piton Drop.” Sure enough, it looked bad, but we had no options. Young gun Mooney decided he was going to seal launch into it, crossing the current and hopefully boofing into a narrow window of not-piton. He greased it and Justin and I soon followed suit, finding ourselves two small drops above the lip of Airbourne Falls, the un-run 40′ waterfall.
There are a lot of problems with the waterfall and with sunset coming fast, we didn’t have time to mess around, so we made quick work of the portage river right, a relatively straightforward but exposed traversal above the gorge. It’ll get run one of these days, though.
Below the waterfall is a short stretch of some of the finest boating anywhere. First, a narrow corridor where the gorge walls come straight down to the river and you have a few hundred yards of continuous smaller rapids. Then, it steepens up again with a three-drop finale: two clean 15′ waterfalls (first one had wood, for us, unfortunately) followed by one of the most unique rapids I’ve ever seen, a bedrock tube that drops close to 30′ total.
It opens up below this drop and falls over one last cascading (more or less unrunnable) 25′ rapid before turning into a low volume, wood-choked bouldery mess that Hurricane Irene left behind. Paddle as much of it as you can or hike out from here. There’s a trail somewhere on river right that leads out to a road – Ryan and I paddled most of it but opted to switch to the trail as the sun set; Justin managed to paddle the whole thing. He beat us to the car.
When you finish a trip like this, the standard move is to high five, crack a beer, and talk about how awesome you are. Not wanting to break tradition, we obliged, then reflected on a few things we’d make sure to do next time:
- Bring water.
- Put on with more than three hours of daylight.
All photos by Ryan Mooney unless otherwise stated.