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Raft the Kennebec River in Maine with Northern Outdoors

Updated on January 30, 2014
Frank Sturm profile image

Frank Sturm considers himself an avid New England adventurer and has 15 years of experience in the lawn care industry.

Conquer the Kennebec River

For a moment picture the following: It is late June and a beautiful 70 degree day. Clouds as soft as a down blanket roll over each other. A slight breeze on autopilot gently whisks across your cheeks. You can actually taste relaxation on your taste buds. You can’t remember when you've tasted something better.

You are miles away from work, deep in the forests of Maine. You are far enough from the traffic and bright lights, but close enough to civilization where you don't fear becoming some hill-billy’s pet. Then suddenly the silence breaks. You feel your stomach drop and you cascade down a 7 foot wave. It barrels into you and your fellow rafters. The waves begin to grow when you feel a hand grab your life jacket and yank you backwards. “You were falling out!” Your guide warns. He then leans back, digs his paddle into the water, throws the boat into a second set of rapids and yells for everyone in the raft to “Hold on!” Not one to argue, you and your raft mates reach down to grab a rope. Your raft pitches once more into the unpredictable river.

So, phew. Sound like the type of excitement you need and want? I've been there. That was my experience rafting the Kennebec River.

Me being tossed out of the boat to become initiated. My first trip down the Kennebec. 2008
Me being tossed out of the boat to become initiated. My first trip down the Kennebec. 2008 | Source
My group's picture from the bridge. 2013
My group's picture from the bridge. 2013 | Source

Why I Rafted with Northern Outdoors

Back in college--the good ol' days--I was a member of my school’s Outing Club (i.e., UMass Dartmouth Outdoor Club). If you don’t know what that is, these organizations do exactly as they sound. They hike. They kayak. They camp. They climb and fall off things. And they enjoy being “one” with nature. Many times , literally.

In the spring of 2008, I both joined the Outdoor Club and was elected its president. Yes, its members elected me their leader at the end of the spring semester. Imagine if things worked like that in the "real world." You just walk into an office on your first day of work and your colleagues promote you to CEO.

Well, anyway, because the Club had been planning summer rafting trips with Northern Outdoors since at least 2006, we kept with tradition following my election. The Club's alumni and current members planned to use the trip as my "informal" initiation into office. More specifically, the moment they threw me off the raft and into the raging Kennebec River was when they "informally recognized me as the Club's president." (See the inserted picture above.)

That was the first and last summer we spent together. Many of the people who attended the trip had already graduated from UMass Dartmouth. They were both Outdoor Club and UMass Dartmouth alumni. I remember that day being warm. The sky was clear. Hundreds of people lined the river; however, it was not too overcrowded. Instead, the river held just enough rafters where you didn't feel too small against the backdrop of Maine's sprawling wilderness.

Summary of Northern Outdoor's Rafting Experience

As with most rafting companies in Maine, you can choose between rafting the Kennebec, the Dead and the Penobscot River. The Penobscot is about 1.5 hours from the resort.

I’ve rafted the Kennebec 5 times. It offers class II, III and IV white water, which winds through Maine’s pristine wilderness; however, there are plenty of areas for you to relax and float down stream. You won’t see a road or complex until you reach the end of your trip where a photographer takes a picture of your group from an overhanging bridge. (See inserted picture to the right.)

The 170 mile Kennebec River is located entirely in Maine and joins the Dead River at West Forks. As the source of much historical trading, it was the route for over 1000 American Revolutionary War soldiers who used the waterway during Benedict Arnold’s journey into Quebec in 1775.

I know, gotta love some history, right?

Raft guide presents to the group prior to our departure to the Kennebec. 2012
Raft guide presents to the group prior to our departure to the Kennebec. 2012

Before our trip: My group gathered around 8 am in their main building (i.e., the Main Lodge) where a guide detailed gear rentals and safety precautions. After the walk through, we picked up our helmet, paddle, life jacket, wet suit attire (optional), booties (optional) and jumped on a bus. It is about a half hour trip to the drop-off point. The beginning of your day will likely unfold in a similar fashion.

Once at the drop off point, groups gathered their supplies and dragged the 8 man rafts down a few flights of stairs to the loading dock. We started rafting from the Harris Station Dam—a giant dam that looms ominously over the river.

If you have never rafted before, the Kennebec is the perfect river to get your feet wet (pun intended). Although there are some nice rapids, it won’t send you into a total panic.

All of the groups gather prior to their run on the river at the main lodge
All of the groups gather prior to their run on the river at the main lodge | Source
You will slide the raft down a couple flight of stairs to the Kennebec. It's a relatively easy drag, but you should be physically fit. This is my group back in 2008.
You will slide the raft down a couple flight of stairs to the Kennebec. It's a relatively easy drag, but you should be physically fit. This is my group back in 2008. | Source

Items To Bring/Not Bring on the Rivers

Bring
Don't Bring
Closed toe shoes (optional)
Jewelry
Non-Cotton outerwear (optional)
Phone
Sunglasses that stay on your head (optional)
Wallet
Sunscreen
A bat attitude
Water proof camera (optional)
Non-waterproof camera
Goggles (optional)
Hung over or sick face

Gear Items You Will Receive Before Rafting

Required Gear
Optional
Helmet
Wet-suit (full piece for purchase if you don't have a discount)
Paddle
Top or bottom half (for purchase if you don't have a discount)
Life jacket
Booties (for purchase if you don't have a discount
On the stairs looking at Harris Station Dam. This is where you will begin your journey on the Kennebec. 2008
On the stairs looking at Harris Station Dam. This is where you will begin your journey on the Kennebec. 2008 | Source
Having a little snack mid way through the trip. 2013
Having a little snack mid way through the trip. 2013 | Source
After lunch the river takes it easy. Actually, you both will take it easy. 2008
After lunch the river takes it easy. Actually, you both will take it easy. 2008 | Source

Lunch on the river: Prior to our trip we chose between a steak and chicken lunch. I believe there is a vegetarian option, but don't quote me. The rest is one hundred percent American BBQ, with a few non-alcoholic drinks and a tasty cookie on the side. However, I have seen some daring folks sneak their own camping stoves onto their raft. Careful though, this sly move will likely get the attention of their video reporter who will be thrilled to place you on screen for all to later witness.

After lunch, we hit a couple more rapids before the river flattened out and we had a chance to relax and enjoy the scenery. Jumping ship and floating down stream was optional. The first few times I went, I floated down stream. Last year I stayed in the boat to take some photos. It’s a great way to let the stomach settle.

After our trip: Once back, we had a bit of time to relax and grab a beverage before the guides presented the group with a video slideshow of their day's work. Although I can't upload the video, it definitely had some great laughs and photos of everyone streaming down the river.

If you are a little thirsty, there is plenty of water for everyone! The Kennebec. 2013
If you are a little thirsty, there is plenty of water for everyone! The Kennebec. 2013 | Source
Don't worry. You will have life jackets and plenty of instruction on how to stay in the boat. The  Kennebec. 2013
Don't worry. You will have life jackets and plenty of instruction on how to stay in the boat. The Kennebec. 2013 | Source
Fireworks across from the pub located just north of the Main Lodge. Fourth of July weekend. 2012
Fireworks across from the pub located just north of the Main Lodge. Fourth of July weekend. 2012 | Source

"Northern Outdoors seems to brand itself as family resort that can offer a more luxurious, high-energy vibe than others; however, you are not traveling to Maine’s version of Cancun."

The Main Lodge

Northern Outdoors seems to brand itself as family resort that can offer a more luxurious, high-energy vibe than others; however, you are not traveling to Maine’s version of Cancun. That vacation is another couple of hours drive to the Saco River. There is no nightclub, but occasionally they hire local bands to play on the weekends.There is also a local bar a few miles up the street that has cheap drinks, a wrap around porch and an open courtyard where bands play. The bar is also a great place to view fireworks near the Fourth of July.

When visiting on weekends, I felt a high amount of energy buzzing around the resort. But for those who would rather do without the suburban amenities like hot tubs, pools and bars when outdoors you may have difficulty overlooking the resort's Main Lodge, which is filled with those luxuries.

Band playing outside the local pub. Fourth of July weekend 2012
Band playing outside the local pub. Fourth of July weekend 2012 | Source
The main resort center (left) and presentation room (right) from the basketball hoops and loading dock. 2008
The main resort center (left) and presentation room (right) from the basketball hoops and loading dock. 2008 | Source
"Come, gentlemen, I hope we shall drink down all unkindness." Shakespeare
"Come, gentlemen, I hope we shall drink down all unkindness." Shakespeare

"It is always wise for you to grab a light breakfast before rafting. You don't want a large meal that will make you sick, but something to provide you with enough energy before lunch."

Food and Drinks

It is always wise for you to grab a light breakfast before rafting. You don't want a large meal that will make you sick, but something to provide you with enough energy before lunch. Their on-site restaurant serves a la carte items like bagels, muffins, oatmeal, home fries and bacon ham and sausage. If you feel you can stomach larger items, you can try dishes like the “Log Driver’s Classic,” which consists of two eggs, with your choice of sausage, ham bacon and home fries and your choice of toast or and English muffin.

When rafting, you will eat lunch on the river, but when you are not on the river, try their lunch. I’ve never had lunch or dinner there before, but they have a wide range of options. There menu included burgers, fries, hot and cold sandwiches, fried mushrooms and many others. For dinner, maybe you want to get a little down and dirty with their ½ or full rack of BBQ ribs.

And to go with that lunch or dinner, why not a flavorsome beer? In 1997, Northern Outdoors launched their own microbrewery. They brew their beers below the bar—you walk by it when renting your rafting equipment—and offer tours. There brews are not pasteurized or filtered and they allow the beers to condition naturally.

Trust me. They. Are. Delicious.

Drinks: I’m not much into heavy or fruity beers, so I recommend trying their "Let ‘Er Drift Summer ale,” “Magic Hole IPA,” “Dear-In-the-Head Lite,” or “White Water Wheat.” Their summer ale is a light pale ale with malted barley and fresh hops from the Pacific Northwest. The first beer they ever created was their classic IPA, a copper colored India Pale Ale. Their "Dear-In-the-Head Lite"is a lager and their "Whitewater Wheat" is a light, white ale brewed with “Curacao bitter orange peel and coriander spice.”

Have breakfast, lunch and dinner here at their restaurant located at their lodge.
Have breakfast, lunch and dinner here at their restaurant located at their lodge. | Source
Relax with a couple drinks after your long day of rafting on their patio.
Relax with a couple drinks after your long day of rafting on their patio. | Source
Sometimes the resort holds live bands. This is a band playing in the Maine Lodge. 2008
Sometimes the resort holds live bands. This is a band playing in the Maine Lodge. 2008 | Source

Entertainment

Let’s say after your rafting excursion you HAVE to check your e-mail to stay in touch with work associates, clients, or family. Maybe you need to upload photos online. I never had too, but I did find their free wi-fi convenient.

The lodge also has a small fitness room to keep loose, a pool, hot tub and game room. You can watch the football games on the television. Play corn hole out near the patio or glide away in one of the kayaks on the adjacent Martin Pond (located across from the Northwoods Cabins).

Be aware, I have, but a few negative assessments of the luxury items. The hot tub is rather small for the large amount of guests the resort accommodates. Many times you will be elbow to elbow with strangers. So, be ready to make friends. They need to upgrade the tub desperately. Also, the tub's water needs to be warmer and the jets stay on longer. To avoid feeling claustrophobic, visit the hot tub in the evening when it is less crowded.The game room is a nice little feature albeit somewhat small. Children will enjoy it best.


Kayak on Martin Pond
Kayak on Martin Pond
Sometimes things can get a little tight, especially during the summer months. Visit this later in the evening unless you want to make friends.
Sometimes things can get a little tight, especially during the summer months. Visit this later in the evening unless you want to make friends. | Source
Some volleyball anyone?
Some volleyball anyone? | Source
The Patio. This used to be an old, run down tennis court, that was later rebuilt to play backyard games.
The Patio. This used to be an old, run down tennis court, that was later rebuilt to play backyard games. | Source

Lodging

The living room of our Lakeside Cabin. Those stairs lead up to the loft.  That is the main door just to the left.
The living room of our Lakeside Cabin. Those stairs lead up to the loft. That is the main door just to the left. | Source
This bedroom is located to the right of the bathroom, just off screen. Don't mind the lighting. Poor quality camera.
This bedroom is located to the right of the bathroom, just off screen. Don't mind the lighting. Poor quality camera. | Source

Lakeside Cabins

These cabins are a few miles down the road from Northern Outdoor’s headquarters. You will pass the cabins on the way to the front office, but will not see them because they are pushed back from the road.

These were the first set of cabins I stayed in. I brought up a group of 10-12 friends and the cabin fit us perfectly. If heading north, these cabins will be on your left. There is a small, worn sign that indicates the entrance to these lodges. I can't remember what the sign reads; however, when you pull into the cabin area, you will down a dirt road. Veer left and you will see the row of Lakeside Cabins on your right. If you went past these cabins, there is a large building that I believe houses restrooms. I am not sure if they hold showers.

The cabins rest on Wyman Lake. It is not the most beautiful piece of scenery, but it is something to look at. I didn’t have access to the water from the cabin, so we just admired from afar.

The cabins are fully furnished and include 2 main bedrooms plus a loft. They sleep up to 10 people. This is your home away from home, minus WiFi, a telephone or t.v. Actually, I was never bothered by these subtractions. In an age where we are consumed by technology (see the totally unrelated video below, which expresses my feelings).

For a family of 10 this cabin might a bit small. Upgrading to the larger Northwood Cabins, which fits 14 guests, might be best. For a group of friends who want to hang out for the weekend, this cabin should be perfect.

The company maintains their cabins very well. The kitchen and bathrooms were spotless. The beds were all folded neatly. Windows didn’t stick when you tried to shut or open them. The door’s and windows all locked. These are all simple things that make a big difference in a guest's experience.

One thing I wished the kitchens had was kitchenware. You want to bring your own pots and pans, dishes and silverware. I recommend bringing paper items to cut down on last day cleaning.

Each of the Lakeside cabins are about 30 yards from each other. Our neighbors were never loud (if anything, we were loud), but this is not a house you want have the rager of the year in. Definitely make sure you respect the other families on the resort.

Lakeside Cabin

Located closest to the street entrance. 2012
Located closest to the street entrance. 2012 | Source

You Don't Need Your Phone in Maine!

King Pine. Northwoods cabin. 2013
King Pine. Northwoods cabin. 2013 | Source

Not Kidding. Those steps are steep.

Arrived a 'lill late to the cabin. We had a surprise hanging above the stairs. 2013
Arrived a 'lill late to the cabin. We had a surprise hanging above the stairs. 2013 | Source

"Despite a few adjustments, these cabins look very similar to the Lakeside Cabins. The main differences lie in their size and interior arrangements."

North Woods Cabins

In the summer of 2013 I stayed in these cabins. They are easily my favorite lodging because of their proximity to the main lodge. A furthest cabin is about 50 yards away, while the closest is about 20 yards. Out of the four, I stayed in King Pine (closest) and Amarak (farthest) away from the Lodge.

The cabins sleep 14 and are located across from Martin Pond. I brought up a group of 20 people in 2013, so first we filled this cabin and then sent the others to sleep a few steps away at the Northern's Logdominums.

Despite a few adjustments, these cabins look very similar to the Lakeside Cabins. The main differences lie in their size and interior arrangements. In the North Woods Cabins, the living room is located on your right as you enter the building. In the living room, two couches surround a center table. The kitchen is to your left as you walk in. It is an open-aired living space. The kitchen table fits about 6 people. There is a refrigerator and kitchen sink, but no dishwasher. Finally, there is a full bathroom straight across from the front door. Two bedrooms are located on either side of the bathroom.

The stairs to the open-aired loft and extra beds are located to the far side of the living room. Extra bedrooms, as well as a full bathroom, are located down a set of rather steep stairs. I suggest you don't walk down these stairs at night without a light.

There is plenty of parking. P.L.E.N.T.Y. You can park right next to the lodge's front porch or out back next to the back entrance.

In terms of privacy, these cabins are a little more private than the Lakeside Cabins. They are not set far back into the woods and you can hear music from the Main Lodge but the cabins are spaced a little further apart from each other.

These are great for large groups and if you'd rather walk up to the resort early in the morning.

Cook up some breakfast in the morning. Both Lakeside and North woods cabins have full kitchens. I suggest bringing your own pots and pans.
Cook up some breakfast in the morning. Both Lakeside and North woods cabins have full kitchens. I suggest bringing your own pots and pans. | Source

Take a Tour Around their Lodge!

Camping and RVs

Maybe you are looking for a more rustic white water experience. Or to take a note from Back to the Future, “Where we’re going…” we don’t need refrigerators, beds and back porches. In that case, just camp away. The grounds are located directly across the street from the Lodge.

My campground was pretty well kept. It had a fire ring, two picnic tables and plenty of space for our group’s tents. We had around 16 people in our group. There are individual and group sites available, as well as RV sites.

Would you ever go white water rafting?

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Location

Northern Outdoors is located in the heart of West Forks, Maine, a town with a sprawling population of about 30. A couple of years ago I hit up one of (if not the only) bar in West Forks and remember thinking that I’m probably looking at the entire town right here. It’s about a 4.5-5 hour drive from Boston, Massachusetts. It is about a 45 minutes from the Canadian border. The resort rests right up against the Kennebec River. You can almost smell it from the main center.

While driving, you'll notice how the the roads wind in and out of gorges cut out by streams and trickling waterfalls. Trees hang over the Kennebec which narrowly hugs the road.

Northern Outdoor's Location. The Forks, Maine

A markerNorthern Outdoors -
U.S. 201, ME, USA
get directions

This is where the Main Lodge is located. Coming from the south it will be on your right.

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© 2014 Frank Sturm

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