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Upper Saco R. (NH)

Saturday Apr 10, 2021
Participants:
Kayak: Paul C, Sarah C, Jamie D, Chris F, Ryan K, Jim P, Tony S, Chris W
Inflatable: Eric B
Organizer: Tony Shaw
Difficulty: intermediate WW
Level: medium low
Gauge (ft): 4.0
Gauge (cfs): 750
USGS Gauge Name/Link: Saco R., Bartlett NH
Author: Tony Shaw

By Easter, April 4th, the snow at the Mt Mansfield stake was barely half as deep as normal for the date, and our prospects for a rollicking month of mud season boating were looking dimmer by the day. Thankfully we had been out on the Lower New Haven and Lower Mad a few times already, so the whitewater season wasn't going to be a total bust. The forecast for the week ahead included several days in a row of 70+ degrees and sunshine, which ordinarily would bring a bunch of VT rivers up in early April to prime levels. This year, no such luck. So I started looking east, where New Hampshire's colder/higher White Mountain snowpack lingers longer into the spring.

A relatively new USGS real-time gauge on the Upper Saco in Bartlett NH gives a good idea of what's happening with runoff in the Whites, broadly speaking. With fingers crossed, online, I watched the Upper Saco flow climb on subsequent days from ~320cfs (5pm Wednesday) to ~450cfs (5pm Thursday) to ~600cfs (5pm Friday), leaving me confident we'd be above the (AW) minimum recommended 650cfs for our planned run on Saturday. In actuality by 5pm Saturday the flow was closer to ~750cfs - a still low but very boatable level.

On the drive home Eric commented on the water quality as well as the unspoiled natural setting/valley, both of which make the Upper Saco special. Lots of tourists were out sightseeing up and down US302 from Bartlett to Crawford Notch, and the roadside waterfalls (Flume Brook and Silver Cascade, among them) were truly spectacular. My favorite (pretty) spot on the river was the confluence with the Sawyer River, where a friendly couple wearing bathing suits stood on the gravel bar with their son and their dog. I bet the lovely swimming hole there is PACKED on a sunny July afternoon!

Earlier in the day, actually about 1/4 mile into the run, at "the gorge", another young couple of river-loving sightseers provided Paul with the wherewithal to pry a broached kayak off a rock in the middle of the river. Their assistance came in the form of a thick/long/dead tree limb they tossed into the river and floated downstream to the rock where Paul was perched (and the kayak was pinned). Between back-to-back swims in the gorge and the broached kayak/rescue, we gave that couple something to tell their family and friends over dinner Saturday night! In hindsight we coulda/shoulda stationed someone with a throw bag at the top of the gorge, as a precaution.

The rapids immediately below the gorge were class II at this level, not III-IV as advertised on the AW website, with barely enough water in some places. The farther down we went the more channelized the river seemed to become (and also it helped that the level was rising). There are a few bouldery rapids and bedrock ledges along the way that would perhaps rise to a III-IV rating in higher water, but today really III at most. By the time we reached our Sawyer Rock takeout - where the river returns to US302 for the first time - everyone seemed satisfied that we had been on the river long enough, so we did not go all the way to the River St./Bartlett take-out AW recommends, and we forewent a contemplated second lap.

In all, nice river, nice level, nice folks, nice day.

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