The Middlebury Gorge

Outside Middlebury, VT tucked away just beyond the prying eyes of passing leef peepers lies one of the most dramatic bedrock river gorges in the state. Its sculpted corridor houses four back-to-back waterfalls, the final two hidden beneath overhanging walls poised to collapse any millennium now.

Tom Neilson paddles into the heart of the gorge.
Tom Neilson paddles into the heart of the gorge.

The whitewater run is roughly two miles long with the gorge proper – the “Birth Canal” – appearing early, followed by 1-1.5 miles of “run-out.” Of course, depending on water level, the “run-out” can be a deserving run in its own right, but it lacks the grandeur of the sheer-walled cathedral upstream. Nowadays, with the details of the river well known, people often put in at the bottom of the Gorge, either because they’re working up to it or because the water is high. Many groups hoping to paddle the whole river choose to scout the gorge from the rim before their first time down. When it was first run by the Kern brothers in the mid ’90s, they approached it quite differently. Willie told me they “[just put on and] approached it like running a river,” climbing high to scout.

For those of us who live locally and paddle the Middlebury as our staple run, it’s hard to imagine looking down into the shadows of the room between the final two rapids and wondering what sort of monsters made their home there. I didn’t scout the entrance waterfall my first time down, but I knew generally what to expect, so when we rounded a corner to see the walls rise up and close in over an obvious horizon line…well, I wasn’t surprised. I didn’t think, “How on earth do I scout this? Can I get out below? What if there’s – god-forbid – an ‘un-un’ down there?” I’ve had my fair share of those experiences, scrambling up high on shore trying to get a glimpse at the questionably runnable but un-portageable rapids far below, but the Middlebury doesn’t fall into that category in my mind. Yes, the rapids change year to year (it’s one of the more volatile riverbeds in VT), and yes, every spring I’m worried about unportageable wood in Rebirth. But usually I hike in from the rim to check for wood before the first run of the year and call it good. And regardless of the subtle changes to the lip of Fallopian or the transformation of Cunnilingus from perfect watery boof to unpredictable wall-ride, the basic character of the rapids never changes. So, every year, we paddle in knowing more or less exactly what to expect.

It’s not something I regret, necessarily, but writing this article, I find myself thinking about something Doug Ammons’ wrote adamantly about the Stikine: “[limiting beta] is the real shit. It’s how I recommend every group approach things, and especially the Stikine.” The Stikine is on a different plane than the Middlebury, but thinking about the Middlebury in this light has helped me understand Doug’s point. There’s something that’s lost when you know exactly what’s downstream. Boofing waterfalls into gorgeous places is a big part of why we kayak, but there’s an aspect of it that isn’t just about having fun. People don’t climb Everest because they like taking short, incredibly difficult oxygen-deprived steps up a mountain. There’s an aspect of adventure, of exploration, to kayaking that is becoming harder and harder to find, and the Middlebury has fallen victim to that trend.

Not that all is lost – even without the feeling of exploration, the Birth Canal remains an amazing place. My first time rounding the corner and dropping off the entrance waterfall stands out to this day as a favorite moment in my kayaking career; in my life. So, for those who run it regularly… don’t forget to really experience it. Get out and scout sometimes; spend some time in there. For everyone else…when you’re ready, come to VT, drive up Route 125 until you can see the river and put on. There’s a gorge down there somewhere, and eventually the river crosses underneath 125 again at the takeout. You can scout everything with some effort. And don’t watch my Youtube video of the river.

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