A couple of years ago, a mirco-cell thunderstorm stalled over the town of Florida, Ma. and nearby areas. The news service reported that over 7 inches of rain fell in the two hour duration of the storm. I chose that day to invite my Uncle on a paddle trip down Fifebrook. A year later I met a homeowner while catching a Dryway shuttle. He told me that he used to own a field on a riverbend that was now a pond, He liked the pond better. I have heard people say that a trip down Fifebrook is more like a float trip than a whitewater paddle. This trip however, proved to be as memorable as any I have taken.
10am at Monroe Bridge and it is already brutally hot. The sun beats down from a beautiful, robins-egg blue sky, unmarred by the presence of even a single cloud. The siren has already sounded, announcing the lowering of the dam gate to release the cool waters of the reservoir into the waiting riverbed below. Anxious to escape the sweltering heat, I shoulder my boat and push past the throng of rafters to join the line of paddlers snaking their way down the long stairway to the put-in.
I am bathed in sweat as I finally enter my boat and slide off the concrete dock to drop maybe a foot into the water below. There are several groups already in the water, everybody is just kind of paddling around and rolling in the cooling water. Nobody has started downstream. Wanting to get in a quick dryway run before meeting my Uncle at Fifebrook, I am among the first to turn and head downstream through factory rapid.
I don’t spend a lot of time playing as I make my way through Split Hair and past Dunbar, I told my Uncle I would meet him at noon so I have to press forward. I am alone by the time I am through Dragons Tooth and Labyrinth and arrive at the take-out. The clock in my truck reads 11:20 as I load up my boat and head to the Zoar parking lot. It also says 99 deg.
The Zoar lot is packed with people, all trying to escape the relentless summer heat. There are all manner of floatation devices, from brightly colored pool toys to rafts. Everybody is in the water. The weather report has called for scattered thunderstorms later this afternoon, but it looks like they lied. The sky is still cloudless as my uncle pulls into the lot.
My water bottle is almost empty and I am afraid that I will have to paddle most of Fifebrook without water. It is not a pleasant prospect. Uncle Dick however, has had the forethought to bring several frozen bottles with him. They are already partially thawed, so I greedily grab one and drink almost all of it. I am already dehydrated from my Dryway paddle.
I don’t get to see my Uncle all that often. I spent quite a bit of time with him when I was younger as his son Mac is my age and we both enjoyed spending time together tromping through the small streams that ran past our respective houses. I was looking forward to spending some time with him on the river doing something that I felt we would both enjoy.
We arrived at the put-in a little before 1 and started inflating the sea eagle. I had bought the inflatable canoe in hopes that my wife would paddle more often with me. That didn’t work out all that well but it is really comfortable to paddle as long as you stay in class II or II+ water. While I have had it on the Tohickon, it’s a little too flexible for heavier water. I thought it would be perfect for Fifebrook.
We start downstream, and while we still cannot see a cloud, we start to hear some distant rumblings of thunder echoing through the mountains that rise on either side of the river. Past the railroad bridge, we round a headland and there it is, a massive black cloud, low to the earth and obscuring the tree tops and oozing its way over the ridge down into the river gorge. The wind starts to pick up and lightning is everywhere, thunder reverberates through the gorge and the rain starts to fall. Concerned about the lightning, we pull off of the river to wait out the storm.
Its raining hard, really hard and the river is starting to take on a chocolate color as swollen streams cascade down the mountain and dump into the river. We wait another 20 minutes or so and the storm seems to abate slightly, the wind drops and while it is still raining, there does not seem to be much lightning although thunder can still be heard in the distance. We decide to put back on and continue downstream. Several other groups around us decide to follow suit.
While we cannot see it from where we are, another monster cloud is lurking, hidden from view about a ½ mile downstream. We round another headland and run straight into the maw of the beast. The lightning is horrific and the wind is howling in its fury as we pull of once again. The rain, already heavy intensifies as we join a group of perhaps 20 people huddled together at a flat spot on river left.
I have never seen rain like this. It comes at us in waves, driven horizontally upstream by the howling winds. The river surface is a mass of whitecaps and it seems as though the current has reversed itself, defying the law of gravity to obey instead the will of the wind. There are leaves, branches and limbs falling all around us but it still seems on shore than out on the water. The temperature has dropped drastically and our group stands shivering, wet and cold in the tempest.
Uncle Dick and I had removed or life jackets when we stopped but I soon realized that was a mistake. I go get them so that we can put them on for a little insulation against the cold. Uncle Dick puts one over his shoulders but can’t seem to catch the zipper, his hands are shaking too badly. I decide to help but it seems that I have the same problem but between the two of us we manage to get them both zippered. The rain comes down harder.
Everyone around is in good spirits despite the misery. It is ludicrous that we are out in weather like this. The storm is by far the most violent that I have ever witnessed and here we are standing in the middle of it. At times we laugh even without saying anything as none of us can imagine how hard it is raining and the ridiculousness of our current situation. Uncle Dick tells me he is having a great time and thanks me for inviting him on the trip. He says that maybe he will turn down the next invitation. The rain comes down harder.
I’m starting to get a little concerned about exposure. It has gotten really cold and we are not prepared. I am freezing and I know that my Uncle is also. We need to get out of here and back to the truck. It is a hard decision to make, but we decide to brave the risk of lightning and get back in the boat to start paddling downstream. To my surprise, most of the people who stood on the bank with us follow. Everybody has had enough. The rain comes down even harder.
The river has risen well over two feet in the 45 minutes that we have waited on the bank. Coffee colored water is steaming down the mountainside from everywhere. We paddle hard against the wind, into walls of water, joined by countless fallen branches. Someone dumps a bucket full of water down my back and I look around to see who it is. There is no one there. Is it even possible that it can be raining so hard?
Finally we arrive at the takeout. Earlier in the day, I had planned to run through the gap but I have no idea what it would look like at this level and want no part of it. I open the valves on the boat, deflating it so as not to be tempted to change my mind. We negotiate the torrent of water that was formerly a pathway and arrive at the road. The rain starts to slow as we slog past the gap to the parking lot.
The thermometer in the truck reads 68 degrees as we start back up river road towards the put in. The rain has almost stopped but there are trees down all over. It takes almost 2 hours to run shuttle as we wait while road crews, residents and paddlers work to clear the road. We turn up the heat and start for home.