An Unlikely Rescue in the Kennebec Gorge — And Its Aftermath

A close call on the Kennebec interrupted author Franklin Burroughs’s life. Two years later, he reflects on the accident and on the changes since — for him and for all of us.

By Franklin Burroughs
Illustration by Jon Krause
Published as “Catch & Release” in our August 2022 issue

Remember two summers ago? Post-COVID, pre-vaccine. Nobody understood the virus; handwashing and social isolation were the order of the day. On March 15 of that year, Governor Mills announced a state of emergency in Maine. Businesses closed down; tourism dried up.

In camp, new rules: one member at a time, three nights maximum, disinfect all surfaces before leaving. Then, a full day before the next member comes up. All of us are high-risk geezers, burdens upon the Earth but in no hurry to leave it. We have the upper Kennebec and Dead rivers to live for — Kennebec in the mornings, upstream from The Forks; Dead in the evenings, downstream from Grand Falls.

August normally means dry weather, warm water, slow fishing. The summer of 2020 was even drier than usual. Most Augusts, I’d just wait until September, but not that year. My turn came up, and up I went.

Better-than-expected fishing on Friday and Saturday. I poled the canoe up from The Forks, stopping here and there to fish. Caught some, lost some — one big. The Forks itself was a ghost town. The state of emergency had shut down commercial rafting. School buses no longer left the inns and campgrounds every morning, taking rafting parties, guides, and rafts up to Harris Station Dam, at the head of the Kennebec Gorge, so they could go bucking and plunging, whooping and hollering down through the gorge and back to The Forks.

Geezers rise early. On Sunday, August 23, 2020, my last morning in camp, I headed up to fish the gorge at Magic Hole, aka Maytag. Thirty-five years earlier, the year we built the camp, we fished there pretty often. At Maytag, two miles downstream from Harris, high water reached us about 10:30. We’d wade ashore, stand and watch a few rafts come by, some almost backflipping when they plunged down into Maytag and up the standing wave beyond it. Then, back to camp, a quick lunch and those long, long June afternoons for lugging, measuring, sawing, leveling, spiking, and nailing lumber. Sills, joists, subfloor, floor. Frames, rafters, ridgepole, collar ties, roof. Boards, battens. By mid-July: Hey! Presto! Fait accompli! A camp! No electricity! No running water! Furnished out of attics and auction barns! Second-hand mattresses scavenged from Bowdoin College! Live-in mice who look after it when we close for the winter and greet us when we return each spring! Maine! The Way Life Should Be! We were all youngsters then, most of us still in our 40s, which is also The Way Life Should Be.

I went to Maytag that Sunday in 2020 for the same reason we did back in 1985, to abbreviate my fishing time. I’d quit at 10:30, then walk the rim trail back to Carry Brook, where I’d left the truck, and get to camp with plenty of time to eat lunch, nap, clean up, disinfect, and head home to Topsham; be there by suppertime.

At Harris Station, the dam looms up over a pool. Three long flights of steep wooden stairs go down to it. In a normal year, the first busloads of rafters get there a bit before 10. At 9, a siren sounds; early-bird anglers in earshot wade ashore. To warn those out of earshot, the gates on the dam open enough to boost the overnight minimum flow, 340 cubic feet per second, up to 700. If you’re standing in the water, you can feel the difference that makes, and you go ashore. As you are getting off the water, the rafters are getting onto it. At 10, the dam opens, the flow goes up to 5,000 cfs, and the Kennebec rises four or five feet in a matter of seconds. Generators whir, rafters come bobbing and bouncing down. Your trout river is gone; the cash flow is on.

I had three hours of utterly private and devout fishing — the Lord is in His holy temple, let all the earth keep silence before Him, that sort of thing. The mists and freshness of predawn twilight last longer down in the shadow of the gorge. But it’s an awkward place to fish: bare rock and trees crowd in behind you; the river in front of you drops off to black depths just a few feet from shore. You plant your wading staff firmly before every step; before every cast, you check to see how much room your backcast will have. And you watch the water in front of you for the dimple of a rising fish or a ghostly mayfly drifting on the current.

I’d managed to catch and release three fat, frisky 12-inch salmon, and it was almost quitting time. Fewer insects were on the water, and fewer fish were rising. But one dimpled the current, just within range. I cast; the fly drifted true and disappeared in a small swirl. I set the hook and whoa! A good one, much better than the others. He ran a long way upstream, ripping off line, then reversed direction and came back by me, headed for a run of water a dozen yards downstream from where I stood and close in against the bank. If he got below that run, I wouldn’t be able to work him back against the current. I snubbed him up short; he jumped high, twisting and thrashing in midair. The fly flew. Fishermen refer to this as a long-distance release.

All of us are high-risk geezers, burdens upon the Earth but in no hurry to leave it. We have the upper Kennebec and Dead rivers to live for.

With that excitement over, I felt the current tugging more insistently at my pant legs. The 700-cfs flow was arriving. No need to hurry. I waded carefully ashore, sat on a rock, uncoupled my rod and put it in its case, took off my heavy wading shoes and laced on ordinary hiking boots. I put the shoes in my landing net, picked up my wading staff, and stood up, ready for the walk back to the truck.

And there, right in front of me, was a whitewater raft, just entering the run of water where I’d lost the salmon. Immediately behind it was another, and another behind that. They were strangely silent — no whooping and hollering. The six paddlers in the closest raft, perched opposite each other on the bolsters, were all business, perfectly erect, eyes fixed on the river, and they were perfectly in sync, paddlers on each side simultaneously digging in hard. The sternman — who, with a raft full of customers, would have been shouting out instructions and switching from side to side with his longer paddle, trying to hold the raft on course — was as silent as his crew, laying back and using his paddle as a steering oar.

I’d never thought much about whitewater guides. I knew that they had to be licensed by the state and that the licensing procedure involved a week of rigorous training, overseen by experienced guides. It always takes place before the summer season has begun. The trainees pay good money to put in very long days. They obtain their licenses only if they demonstrate proficiency in advanced first aid and CPR, plus an ability to cope with all sorts of emergency situations on the river — passengers overboard, rafts hung up on rocks or flipped over entirely, with everyone, including the guide, going into the river, requiring the next raft to rescue them. And they have to know this particular stretch of river, at various stages of water, just as well as a golf pro knows a home course. Both they and their instructors have to discipline their adrenaline-fueled addiction to whitewater but not lose it. I knew all this because two of my friends had undergone this training. One liked it so much that he gave up fishing, guided whitewater-rafting trips on the Kennebec, the Dead, and the Penobscot all summer long, then went down to Chile, taking advantage of the austral summer and making whitewater rafting his career for a few years. The other completed the training to prove to himself that he could, then hung up his wet suit and went back to fishing.

What I did not know was that some years earlier, the rafting guides had begun staging an annual Olympics, open only to their fellow guides. Competitors included those who’d been guiding for years as well as those who’d gotten licenses in the spring, so the event gave instructors and students an opportunity to compete, to measure themselves against each other. These Olympics are always held late in the summer. They are, in part, a valedictory ceremony concluding another season and, in part, a refresher course, but surely the main motive is for guides to get together and have themselves some good, clean, serious, strenuous fun.

I have no idea why the guides chose to stage the Olympics in 2020, after a summer in which there had been no commercial rafting. The Olympics are not a commercial event, so holding them was technically legal. Perhaps doing so was an act of faith or hope (is there any difference?). The guides would have at least one fine memory from that lost summer to tide them over through the winter. As it turned out, my last morning of fishing was on the day they’d chosen for their event.

I had three hours of utterly private and devout fishing — the Lord is in His holy temple, let all the earth keep silence before Him, that sort of thing.

I stood and watched. Once the lead raft was through the salmon run, it angled across the current, toward the far bank. The trailing rafts followed in a strict line. They looked like middle-distance runners, still in a tight pack, pushing the pace, but no one yet trying to break away. They had materialized unexpectedly, out of nowhere, the way things do in dreams, and the complete silence of their intense and beautiful effort enhanced that effect. Soon, sunlight would touch the river on the far side; already the ranks of pines and firs between the river and the rim of the gorge were glowing in it.

But I had my hike ahead of me. With the rod and landing net in my left hand and the wading staff in my right, I started up the path that leads to the rim. I wanted to be very deliberate about it. The first part runs over a boulder about the size of a VW Beetle, its surface covered with thick moss and stunted firs, and the faint trail skirts the edge overlooking the river. The trail is plenty good enough for goats, suboptimal for geezers. With each step, I planted my staff solidly in the mossy scruff of the downslope, put my weight on it, then looked back down at the rafters. I reflected — I remember this — that they were traveling faster than the flow, because they were paddling. They were in danger of overtaking the bony, bumpy minimum flow just ahead of them or, if they held back, of being overtaken by the avalanche of the cash flow, rushing down from behind. Like the voyage of life, I thought to myself, all wry and philosophic. The first rafts were disappearing around a downstream corner. The cast was going offstage; the show would soon be over.

And then I was sitting, my back against the base of the mossy boulder. I had no memory of having fallen and no consciousness of being injured. But I was having a hard time standing up, and I felt around for my staff. I was not 10 feet from the edge of the river, just upstream from the run of water where the salmon had jumped. And here was a raft heading into the run, the paddlers all in sync, facing downriver. But not the sternman. He was looking directly at me.

I saw him calling out something to the paddlers, then ruddering the raft, so that it angled in toward the shore as it came through the salmon run. It thumped against the bank; I heard the splashing of the crew getting out, and then the sternman — looking stern indeed: bearded, intent — was squatting in front of me. I asked him if he could help me up — I’d had a fall, maybe kinked my knee somehow.

“You’re bleeding,” he said. “Bleeding a lot.”

I later learned that an alert kayaker — also a rafting guide, but kayaking today — had seen me there or possibly seen me as I fell. She — Emily by name — had, as they all had, some sort of fancy shortwave radio, as cell phones don’t work down in the gorge. She radioed the sweep raft, the raft that trails all the others, not competing but riding herd on them. If there was trouble — a paddler thrown off the side, a raft hung on a rock — the sweep raft would notify all other rafts ahead, telling them to pull in to shore. Once the problem was resolved, the race would resume. The grave-looking man in the sweep raft, whose face was the first thing I saw, was Alex.

I do not remember his bandaging my head, but it must have been a quick, expert job; no blood got into my eyes. I do remember the six paddlers arriving, carrying a stretcher, putting it down, and lifting me onto it. I lay flat on my back. Perhaps my wrists and ankles were buckled down, to keep me from turning onto my side or trying to sit up. Perhaps they put a neck brace on me. They laid me in the raft, and then we were moving, bobbing along downstream. Once or twice, water splashed over the bow and into my face. I must have been in shock — I felt no pain. I remember laughing and saying that this was pretty good — I was getting a free rafting trip down the river, deluxe service. A paddler said, “Don’t forget — we’ve got your wallet too.” That seemed to me very funny.

I remember them pulling into the eddy at Carry Brook, where I’d left the truck, and I remember the rafters carrying my stretcher up the rustic staircase that goes to the top of the gorge. The staircase was familiar to me — I’d occasionally take a canoe down it to float and fish through the lower section of the gorge. At the top of the stairs, they put me into the back of a truck parked just beside mine. They laid some kind of padding under the stretcher and held some more of it down over me, so that I could not bounce or roll — the first few miles of the road were rough. Someone told me that they had radioed ahead to the Skowhegan hospital and that an ambulance was being dispatched northwards. I’d be transferred to it. That seemed to make sense, although I felt no pain, had no other awareness of being seriously hurt. As the truck bounced along, I think I remember some friendly conversation about fishing and rafting, but I cannot be sure.

From that point on, I apparently faded in and out of consciousness. No recollection of being transferred from truck to ambulance or from ambulance to the Skowhegan hospital. Distinct memory of a CAT scan, an MRI, and X-ray in the Skowhegan hospital, and of someone faceless — wearing a surgical mask, perhaps off to one side, out of my field of vision — telling me the results, and that I would be transferred to Maine Medical Center, in Portland. But no memory of that ambulance trip either.

Maine Med was a rerun of Skowhegan. My memory resumes with me on my back, on a stainless-steel table: a CAT scan, an MRI, an X-ray. A voice — technician, doctor, physician’s assistant? — told me exactly what I’d been told in Skowhegan: I had cracked my skull, fractured the second vertebra in my neck, broken my right clavicle, my sternum, a rib, and damaged several vertebrae in my tailbone. Plus a lot of scalp wounds, which accounted for all the bleeding. The voice said everything looked fine and prophesied a complete recovery. But apart from the voice, the prophesy, and those machines, I might as well have been laid out for an autopsy. My memory of the experience resembles the residue of nightmares: the same sense of powerlessness, of being both a participant and an observer.

Then, I awoke to find myself lying on a hospital bed at Maine Med, in Portland, flat on my back, wearing a rigid neck brace. From that point on, time resumed its ordinary continuity, except for the fact that I slept through so much of it. After a day or so in the hospital, I was taken a few blocks to a rehab center and spent a couple of weeks there. Every four hours, I was given pain pills; they worked for three hours. The brace kept me staring straight ahead, like a Buckingham Palace guard. I was not to lie on my side — doctor’s emphatic orders. I could press a button and the hospital bed would convert into something like a lounge chair, so that I could eat my meals, watch television — a wall-mounted set, up near the ceiling — and read for a few pages, holding the book stiff-armed out in front of me. Susan brought from home Richard Ford’s new collection of stories, Sorry for Your Trouble. What could be more apropos?

Every afternoon, the therapist came, raised the bed so I could sit up, lowered the side rail, and helped me swing my legs over and put my feet on the floor. As I stood up, she held one of those four-legged walkers for me to grasp, and we shuffled out of the room, across the hall, and into the therapy room. It was a cheerful place, sunlight coming in through large windows along one wall and with furnishings and a general ambience that suggested a day-care center. There might be as many as eight or 10 other patients with their therapists. Most of us were old, but we resembled toddlers as we did our exercises, wobbly on our feet, pushing walkers ahead of us or side-stepping along a counter, using our hands for balance or, with banisters on both sides to hold, laboring — half walking, half pulling ourselves — up a gently inclined plane or a short flight of low steps. Gerontology recapitulating phylogeny: we were evolving into bipeds all over again.

Susan came daily, sometimes with one of our daughters. They would stand at the foot of the bed or lean over it, so I could see them. They were emissaries from the real, whole, and solid world: Bowdoinham, Topsham, and The Way Life Should Be. Finally, one day, I was led out into the warm sunshine of a September morning, maneuvered from the walker into a van, and taken home.

A year and a half later: February 28, one week shy of my 80th birthday and time for my annual physical examination, preceded by the usual routine lab work. When he had first agreed to become my primary caregiver, the doctor had been a young man, his children barely of school age. Those children were now in college or the early stages of medical school; he was in the prime of life. Over the years, my health never gave us much to talk about. By luck of the genetic draw, I had an excellent metabolism, a sound skeleton, freedom from chronic disorders, addictions, allergies, etc. The consequences of such minor mishaps and surgeries as I from time to time incurred were dealt with by physical therapy, and I had become, and remain, a great believer in it. As I reached my mid-70s, I began noticing some slowing down, but when I grumbled about it, the doctor would almost laugh: “Look, regardless of age, you’re the healthiest person I’ll see this week. This month.”

I had left the Maine Med rehab center and returned home in September of 2020. For the first few weeks at home, I spent most of my time just as I had at Maine Medical Center — flat on my back, in a rented hospital bed. I still used the walker to move around the house. Three days a week, physical therapists from the local health-care agency visited. They concentrated on strengthening my legs, improving my balance, and so gradually emancipating me from the walker. I soon could ride in the car. That was a pure treat; I looked forward to it like a dog looking forward to its walk. But driving was still out of the question, as the neck brace allowed me only forward vision. As a passenger, my view was limited to the road ahead, the sidewalks, and road shoulders. The vistas of field and forest, rivers, marshes, and bays were beyond my scope.

At night, out of old habit, I try to remember long poems I once knew perfectly well. . . . Now, I stumble over the opening stanzas.

Twice a month, Susan drove us to Portland, back to Maine Med. I would have my weight and vital signs checked, then new X-rays would be taken — first, of the rib cage, sternum, and clavicle, which the orthopedist would go over with us, then of the neck and skull, for our appointment with the neurologist. The broken bones mended quickly, the neck and spinal column more slowly. But just before Christmas of 2020, four months after my fall, the neurologist looked at the X-rays and said I need not wear the neck brace any longer. We had not expected to hear that. Hearing it made me feel, if not quite like Prometheus Unbound, then at the very least like Fido Unleashed, free to run and caper and investigate every pissing post in sniffing distance, chase cats, howl at the moon, whatever.

But not so fast. Fido was no frisky young pup. I’d lost 14 pounds over the past four months, nearly a tenth of my body weight. That didn’t make me any skinnier, only flabbier — the lost weight consisted of atrophied muscle. The brace had borne most of the weight of my head; it had also affected my posture. I’d had virtually no exercise involving my torso, neck, shoulders, or arms. So when the brace came off, I was referred to a PT and sports-medicine clinic in Brunswick, with instructions that I undergo “gentle manual therapy and progressive upper back and shoulder strengthening.” Progress was incremental but real. I regained at least some of the lost strength, weight, and flexibility. Since the PT ended, I’ve continued doing exercises at home — an hour each morning, another hour each evening. An old dog, unable to get up to his old tricks, still has his doggedness.

And so, when I saw my primary caregiver, the week before my 80th birthday, he looked me over, pushed and prodded, and asked how I was doing. I had complaints. Walking on even ground, I still felt a kind of stiffness and constraint, as though wearing an inflexible corset; on uneven ground, I was likely to lurch and had trouble stepping over obstacles in my path without stumbling. And my mind encountered similar impediments — getting from point A to point B, finding the right word or the right way to spell it, and following my own logic, whether in writing or conversation, had become slow, errant, and laborious.

The conclusion was that I was still healthy for someone of my age and, by octogenarian standards, sound of mind, memory, and body. The accident had perhaps accelerated the aging process; the best way to deal with it was to go on doing what I was doing — remaining physically and mentally active to the best of my ability.

I have done this — rearguard actions against an opponent who never loses. At night, out of old habit, I try to remember long poems I once knew perfectly well and recited to myself as a way to occupy my mind when I could not sleep. Now, I stumble over the opening stanzas. At other times, fragments surface from poems I’ve read long ago and not thought about for decades. Especially this one.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking

I learn by going where I have to go.

Theodore Roethke wrote that in 1953. I read it eight years later, a freshman in college. Then, it fell away, buried under the muchness of life. And now is near, once again something I should know. Nothing seems wiser, more descriptive of the place in which, by falling head-first off a rock in the Kennebec Gorge, or simply by being 80 years old, I find myself. Not exactly The Way Life Should Be, but the way it is.

The weeks and months after August 23, 2020, were eventful in the larger world. With remarkable speed, effective vaccines were developed, distributed, and administered. By the summer of 2021, the inns and campgrounds at The Forks were full again, and the rafting business had resumed. That fall, there was a presidential election, followed two months later by an invasion of our national capitol building, a coup attempt that failed. After those things, there was actually a period — do you remember it? — when we talked confidently of things Getting Back to Normal.

Never such innocence again. Now, we must speak resignedly of the New Normal — the very idea of something called Normality having gone the way of hoop skirts and crinolines, top hats, shoeshine boys, Norman Rockwell, and Malkin’s maidenhead. In politics, as in epidemiology, we’d placed our faith in herd immunity, underestimating COVID’s capacity for generating new versions of itself and overestimating our national capacity for consensus, for agreeing to any version of the recent past that would allow us to move beyond it.

Up in camp this year, new protocols. All of us are vaxxed to the max. And this year, each of us self-administer the COVID antigen test before going up. We hope these precautions, part of the New Normality, will allow us to enjoy something like the old, relaxed conviviality of camp life.

As for the events of that August 23: I still have no recollection of the actual fall. It seems to have happened offstage, although my memories from just before and just after it are exceptionally distinct. The only general precept that seems to apply to what happened that day is that fortune favors fools — and favors them so outrageously that it seems supernatural, an act of God. Providence provided me with the Kennebec River rafting guides, whose training had equipped them to deal with just such an emergency and whose rafts and expertise made them the best — in fact the only — means for a medevac operation from the gorge. And Providence provided them with a test of their skill, training, alertness, and readiness of mind better than any they could have possibly expected or devised — a real emergency, not a simulated one. All the king’s horses, all the king’s men, all the skill and diligence of all the medical professionals — doctors, lab technicians, physical therapists — would have been unavailing had they failed to deal so expertly with a serious accident in a seriously inconvenient place. All of this, so that, two years after the fact, I might sit comfortably in my chair, on a perfect summer afternoon, and tell you about it.

Tonight, I will lay me down to sleep. Tomorrow morning, please God, I will wake, take the antigen test and, barring an unexpected result, head up to The Forks 15 minutes later. The truck sits in the driveway outside my window; the canoe and the canoe pole are lashed to it. The old dog has his unfailing trick. He can still illustrate an old normality. It has been with us for 25 or 30 centuries. In the days of my youth, my elders quoted it at me as an admonition. Or maybe a prophecy? As the dog returneth to its vomit, so the fool returneth to his folly. King James Bible, Proverbs 26:11–13.