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Doing Time on the Jail Branch

Saturday Mar 24, 2012
Kayak: Ryan McCall, Tripp Burwell, Daphnee Tuzlak, Aliye Tuzlak, Nick Gottlieb, Ben Schott
C1: Alden Bird
Organizer: Our low water spring
Difficulty: advanced WW
Level: low boatable
Gauge (ft): 1132.50
Author: Alden Bird

With late March's 80 degree temperatures already having melted 2012's historically low snowpack, and with our favorite Vermont and New Hampshire creeks having run off during a depressingly short period, on March 24th seven of us put on the Jail Branch in Barre, Vermont, with just enough water - just enough - for an adventure.

The "Jail" Branch? Flowing from the East Barre "Detention" Reservoir? It didn't sound auspicious. Nor did our pre-paddling scout, which revealed we'd been sentenced to low water. That none of us had run an oft-navigable, roadside creek in one of Vermont's largest towns tells one that we'd done our best to stay out of trouble and avoid the Jail Branch. Having done hard time myself - bank scouting down steep, loose shale along Route 302 - I knew what life was going to be like on the inside: sharp rocks, trees across the river, and all manner of junk car parts.

But just a half-mile into our incarceration, we found the Jail Branch to be less of a corrective measure than we thought. Our pre-run scout had not convinced us that the ten-foot breached dam below the Route 110 bridge did not land on a piton rock. Fortunately we had not yet become hardened inmates, and found ourselves still considering a run. Then Nick - the only free-boat-receiving paddler in our group (and proof that even Ivy League graduates end up in the Jail Branch sometimes), paddled off the edge. As fate would have it, he barely hit at all, and as subsequent runs confirmed, the dam was little more than a fun slide, with barely a boof (though several rolls at the bottom) required.

Then the Jail Branch took off downhill and we entered the most violent period of our sentencing. With any reasonable amount of water, the following section would have been pushy. As it was, it was jarring. Below the Route 302 bridge we made a long portage around a series of constricted rapids that were blocked by trees fallen from the spectacularly eroding bank. At one point, I boofed what appeared to be the rusted remains of a car's entire front end, and then stepped on a discarded granite tombstone on the portage, all in the same 100-yard stretch. At that point, I did not doubt that I would emerge from the Jail Branch a changed man.

Another brief portage and a mile-long shallows brought us to Spaulding Falls, where we found ourselves imprisoned in a walled gorge through which the creek dropped 40 feet ahead: first over the requisite too-shallow entrance ledge, followed by an impressive 25-foot cascade. For my part, I could not believe that none of us except Ryan had heard of such a large and marginally runnable drop right in Barre. For Ben's part, he decided that Spaulding Falls was eminently runnable. He completed the first descent with confidence and style.

No one else was convinced to run however, except Ben himself - who scaled the gorge again, boat in tow, and made the second - cleaner - descent ten minutes later. At that point, having been deemed fit to return to society, Ryan and I lowered our boats to the base of the falls and finished the remaining half-mile with Ben over several wide ledges to the Spaulding High School take out. There we met the others, who, hiking down the road in brightly colored drysuits, looked like the Jail Branch's own prison work crew.

Now that I'm out, I'll probably try to hold myself on the straight and narrow and avoid a return to the Jail Branch. That said, temptations abound, and I'm not naïve enough to doubt that with the combination of more water, fewer trees, and the wrong crowd (and especially following the trial of another low-water season), I might not just find myself back in the Jail Branch.

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