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Shepard Brook, on our day off

Tuesday Apr 11, 2017
Kayak: Chris Weed, Jamie Dolan, Paul Carlile, Noel Bailey
Open Canoe: Tony Shaw, Steve Melamed
Inflatable: Eric Bishop
Organizer: Tony Shaw / Chris Weed
Difficulty: int-adv WW
Level: medium high
Gauge (ft): 5.74
Gauge (cfs): 2300
Author: Chris Weed

On April 6, one of us (Chris Weed) had been browsing the Mad River Valley on Google Maps, and noticed a stream that comes down along North Fayston Road, called Shepard Brook. In an email exchange that day it was discovered that Jim Fecteau had run it many years ago. When Jim was included, he replied with one sentence:  "Yes, boulder garden and somewhat steep in spots with a smattering of waterfalls on the upper side of the run."

The following Sunday (4/9), Chris and Jim talked about it at the Lower Mad takeout. Later that afternoon, Chris drove up North Fayston Road to explore. When Tony proposed that I paddle something with him on his day off (Tuesday, 4/11) I got to thinking about Shepard and Mill Brook, which comes down along Route 17 (and is better known).

Chris, Tony, and Eric carpooled early from Richmond to allow time for scoping out Shepard and possible put-in and takeout locations. It quickly became clear that the creek had plenty of water in it. It also became clear that the chances of encountering strainers was high. Exactly how high would soon become evident.

The takeout selected was a small bridge adjacent to a house just up from Route 100. The put-in options were by a bridge where Center Fayston Road crosses the brook, and farther up the mountain at the Hedgehog Trailhead (Big Basin Road). We tentatively chose the Center Fayston Road bridge to propose to the full group. It is 4.6 miles upstream of the takeout. The trailhead parking area is another 1.1 miles upstream.

With that assessment we headed back to Route 100 and up Route 17 to look at Mill Brook. We then headed back to the junction to meet the rest of the group at the Valero convenience store. The conclusion of the discussion was that Shepard Brook was too interesting to bypass, and might not be runnable after that week, whereas Mill Brook would be benefiting from ski trail runoff for some time. We organized the shuttle and headed for North Fayston Road.

After leaving vehicles on the shoulder near the takeout bridge we headed up to Center Fayston Road, which peels off where North Fayston Road ends. At the bridge we discussed whether to put in there or farther downstream at another bridge, where Airport Road crosses the stream. There was real trepidation about the speed of the flow and the lack of eddies, with the possibility of river-wide strainers on everyone's mind, but we decided to stick with the initial choice.

Within minutes after heading downstream, we encountered our first river-wide strainer (2 closely spaced logs) and had our first swim. By the time the situation was resolved, two members of the group (Steve and Eric) had elected to get off the river, head down to the next bridge, and assess what was to come. The remainder of us started a somewhat difficult hike in calf-deep snow on river-right, on what seemed to be an old logging road. Another river-wide log was visible downstream, followed by another. Most of didn't consider putting on again until Jamie gave us the all-clear, after probing some distance downstream.

The brook at this point was little more than class 1, but was moving at a good pace. We were all on edge in anticipation of more strainers, but encountered none that forced us out of our boats until we arrived at the Airport Road bridge. By that time the gradient had markedly increased, and the whitewater was continuous class 2, shading into class 3.

Approaching the bridge, Steve and Eric signaled from shore that we need to pull out and do some scouting. The reason was another river-wide log, followed by a much bigger and more complicated assemblage of big logs farther downstream around the next bend, on the river right side of a long boulder/gravel bar. On river left was a yellow house. Its occupant came out to cheer us on. (We later discovered that he was the son of the owner, and the house was the former home of Rob and Kay Henry, founders of Mad River Canoe.)

It was becoming clear that the flow was increasing. This worked in our favor, because it produced a runnable flow on the river left side of the boulder bar that allowed us to sneak by the jumble of logs. Otherwise a portage would have been unavoidable.

At this point the gradient increased more. We were now in fast-moving class 3, with the same ever-present concern about wood. The next example was a large log suspended above a right-to-left bend, with a pourover on river left formed by another log mostly buried in gravel and cobblestones. The big log was high enough to run underneath, as long as one didn't get too far right. Behind the pourover was an eddy, where we gathered our wits for what would prove to be the most intense whitewater of the run—solid class 3 shading into class 4, with a flow of at least 700 cfs. During this sequence we had two more swims, which prompted the swimmers to end their runs. (One of them had taken a hard shot to the head in the initial capsize.) The rest of us (the kayakers) finished out the run at the takeout bridge. It should be mentioned that near the finish was yet another river-wide tree with attached branches, mostly submerged, that provided a reasonably safe slot to pass through towards river-right. At lower water this might not have been an option.

Later examination of Shepard Brook's course on Google's terrain map indicated that it drops about 360 feet from the Center Fayston Road put-in, i.e., over a distance of 4.6 miles. Only about 60 of those feet occur in the first 1.75 miles or so, so the gradient in the remainder of the run is about 100 feet per mile.


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