Rafting pioneer Suzie Hockmeyer’s wild, 41-year ride.
By Virginia M. Wright
Photography by Tony Luong
From our June 2017 issue.
Suzie Hockmeyer steps onto the coffee table and plops into the green-leather glider balanced on its well-scuffed surface. She places her hands on the chair’s bentwood arms, crosses her rubber-sandaled feet, and playfully offers a banknote-portrait smile.
“Hail to the queen!” teases a young man stuffing gear into a dry bag. “All hail the Queen of the Kennebec!”
That’s as regal as it gets in this backwoods throne room, the unfinished barn loft where Northern Outdoors rafting guides gather before trips into the Kennebec River Gorge, scene of some of the most challenging whitewater rapids in the eastern United States. The throne, draped with faded-pink buoys, is typically reserved for the trip leader, but who’d deny Suzie a seat? She’s a legend here, the woman who pioneered rafting in the state with her then-husband, Wayne Hockmeyer, 41 years ago, spearheading a new economy based on outdoor recreation just as another one, logging, was fading. She’s the first woman to get a Maine whitewater guide license. And she’s the guide who holds the unofficial record for most runs on the Kennebec. “Oh, it’s hundreds and hundreds of times — 800 to 1,000,” Hockmeyer estimates. “I can still do it in the back of my head. It’s like riding a bike — you never forget.”
The air is dew kissed and cool on this blue-sky morning in The Forks, at the junction of the Kennebec and Dead rivers, but the heat is rising and with it the promise of a good day on the water. In front of the barn, several guides are securing a pile of bright-yellow rafts on a flatbed trailer. An old school bus, painted forest green, ambles up the gravel driveway on its way to pick up 40-odd guests at the Northern Outdoors lodge on Route 201.
They pushed off, hurtling down the river, their raft spinning like a drunken top. The raft quickly filled with water, and the men bailed with their hats and boots.
If you drove 15 minutes in either direction, you’d likely see similar preparations underway at some of the nine other outfitters scattered along this forested section of highway, 40 miles south of the Quebec border. Northern Outdoors is the oldest and biggest of the bunch, with rental cabins, a restaurant, a brewery, 10,000–13,000 customers each season, and the one and only Queen of the Kennebec at its helm. The affectionate moniker was bestowed upon Suzie decades ago by her fellow (and, at the time, all male) guides. Now 66, she’s pretty much sidelined from guiding by rheumatoid arthritis (“I can get down the Kennebec no problem, but I wouldn’t want to have to rescue someone.”). She’s looking to retire, but she’s in no rush: it could take a few years to sell the resort — it’s currently listed at $4.5 million, but Hockmeyer’s co-owners, Jim Yearwood, 61, and Russell Walters, 55, are open to staying on with a new partner.
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An hour later, Suzie and I are climbing into one of five rafts below Harris Station, Maine’s largest hydroelectric dam, the starting point of our 14-mile, five-hour Kennebec River adventure. Our rafting companions are a mixed group — moms, dads, and their teenage kids; a pair of newlyweds; a retired couple; college chums. Everyone’s pumped: This is a turbine-test day, something that happens only four times a year. In a few minutes, Brookfield Power will release 8,400 cubic feet of water per second into the Kennebec, nearly twice the usual daily release and the maximum amount Harris Station can pass. That means bigger waves, steeper holes, stronger crosscurrents — an all-around rollier roller-coaster ride on powerful, intimidating class IV whitewater. A good guide, Suzie tells me, aims to hit each rapid at the right spot at the right time without flipping over, allowing for maximum heart-leaping thrill. “The river pulses. It goes up and down,” she explains. “It’s kind of like skiing: you’re always looking for the perfect run.”
With a blast of siren, we’re off, skipping over Taster, the first set of rapids at the throat of the gorge, then Funk Wave, so named by Suzie because it crashes in all directions. And then, before anybody but the guide and Suzie can brace themselves, our raft is shooting up a mountain of a wave called Big Momma, and suddenly we’re airborne, all our eight butts lifting off our seats, all our eight paddles flailing in the wind.
“YOU’RE ALL GONNA DIE!”
It was a chilly, windy May afternoon in 1976, and Volney Phillips, the ancient dam keeper at Harris Station, was glaring at the motley group of men pushing and tugging a bulky, 22-foot-long British Leyland assault raft over the dam, from Indian Pond to the raging Kennebec. Their ringleader was Wayne Hockmeyer, a Boston waterbed salesman-turned-fishing-guide in his late 30s. With him were Sonny Wade, a bear-hunting guide from Rockwood, along with eight of Wade’s clients, lured with the offer of a free rafting trip into the unknown.
No one had ever taken a boat into the Kennebec River Gorge, the 10-mile-long V-shaped canyon just below the dam, at least not that anyone knew. The gorge was bounded by steep, impenetrable forest; there were no roads in (there’s still just one today). The river was frequently choked with pulpwood, as logging companies dumped hundreds of thousands of cords into the water every year, sending logs downstream to paper mills in Skowhegan and beyond. But the log drives were coming to an end in October, and Wayne was convinced that a prosperous future for whitewater rafting waited in the gorge.
He had been obsessed with the gorge since the day he’d bushwacked in search of fishing holes to an area he’d later name The Cathedral, where the cliffs fall away and the river widens. He’d acquired the raft from a guide named Jon Dragon, who’d introduced recreational rafting to West Virginia a few years earlier. Dragon had agreed to help scout the Kennebec, but cancelled at last minute. “Jon gave Wayne instructions on how to run a raft,” Suzie recalls. “He said that judging from the info we’d sent him, we either had the best rafting whitewater in the country or they were all going to die.”
Now, here was Volney Phillips saying the same thing. But Wayne’s party was in no mood to turn back. They’d already floated 2½ miles down the Kennebec’s East Outlet from Moosehead Lake in Rockwood. Then, using a balky 5-horsepower motor, they’d puttered eight miles across Indian Pond, a wide section of river where the East and West outlets meet. It had taken five hours. They were tired and they were cold. Death be damned! They weren’t going back across that pond.
So they pushed off, hurtling down the river, their raft spinning like a drunken top in a relentless rush of waves and foam. The boat quickly filled with water, and the men bailed frantically with their hats and boots.
Waiting downriver at The Forks was Suzie, 24 years old and eight months pregnant, with a 1-year-old in tow. When her husband failed to show up, she headed to the general store, where, to her embarrassment, she learned she’d been waiting by the wrong river — the Dead. The owner pointed Suzie to the community ball field on the Kennebec, and she arrived just as the men were pulling the raft ashore. “A couple of the guys kissed the ground,” she recalls. “They were elated. They’d had the time of their lives.”
One day, he beckoned Suzie and her brothers to the cornfield. “He said, ‘See the raccoon?’ Ka-pow! Boom!”
In all those hours of waiting, Suzie had never worried. “I don’t know why,” she reflects. “Maybe it was because I was so young and I was so used to Wayne doing crazy things.”
Nor was she scared that fall when she made her own first trip down the river, although she remembers few details today, only the wind and the water and the river’s awesome, exhilarating power.
Petite, her pale-blonde hair fading to white, Suzie Hockmeyer has always been at ease in the wilderness and with fast outdoor sports. She grew up in Andover, Massachusetts, in a family of snow and water skiers. She spent summers on her grandparents’ farm on Long and Great ponds in Belgrade, where, as a baby, she was bounced on the knee of L. L. Bean, Maine’s most famous outdoorsman and her grandfather’s friend.
Her Grammy and Grampy were both hunters. “My grandmother was probably the better shot,” Suzie says, but it was her grandfather who memorably modeled a practical, unsentimental view of the natural world. One day, he beckoned Suzie and her brothers to the cornfield, where a raccoon was feasting on the ears. “He said, ‘See the raccoon?’ Ka-pow! Boom! Until then, I hadn’t noticed that he was carrying a shotgun,” says Suzie, about 5 at the time. “We asked why he shot it. He said, ‘He was eating our corn.’ Then he turned and walked away.” It didn’t upset her. “If anything, it made me feel he was going to take care of us. I remember thinking, ‘Don’t mess with my Grampy.’”
She was a teenager when she took a job at Wayne Hockmeyer’s waterbed store in Boston. Wayne, 13 years her senior, seemed worldly and exciting, a veteran of exotic adventures like African safaris. Like Suzie, he’d grown up spending summers on the ponds of rural Maine. She was 20 when they married in the early 1970s, and when he proposed they move to Rockwood to start a fishing and hunting guide business, she was all in.
At the time, western Maine was even wilder and more sparsely settled than it is today. Most of the roads were dirt, even in Greenville, the region’s biggest town. “Anyone traveling through were either Americans on their way to Quebec or Quebeckers on their way to Old Orchard Beach,” says Howard Trotsky, one of Maine’s early environmental activists and a guide for the Hockmeyers during the 1980s and early 1990s. “No one stopped except a few hard-core fishermen.”
Funny and charming, Trotsky was voted the customers’ favorite guide 13 times, but his biggest contribution to Maine’s nascent rafting industry was made a few years before the Hockmeyers’ arrived in Rockwood, when he was a University of Maine biology graduate student investigating the upper Kennebec’s declining fishery. Trotsky became a leading agitator against log drives after concluding that the Kennebec’s water — a root-beer–colored, methane-bubbling stew of pulp debris and bark — was wiping out the fish. He sued Scott Paper Company, arguing that its heavy log drives interfered with the public’s right to use of the river. After the Maine Attorney General took up the cause, the state legislature passed an act to phase out log drives by 1976.
The timing was fortuitous for the Hockmeyers, who’d had a tough time making a living as hunting and fishing guides. After a few years, Suzie says, “we were thinking something’s got to give or we’re going to end up back in Boston.”
Suzie was the type of guide who worked day in and day out. She never got in trouble. You never had to patch her boat.
After Wayne’s harrowing first trip into the gorge, the Hockmeyers borrowed $15,000 from Suzie’s father and hired Alan Haley, an expert whitewater canoeist from Dexter, to be their chief guide and trainer for their fledging business, then called Northern Whitewater Expeditions. Haley, who’s writing a book about Maine’s rafting history, remembers Wayne’s greeting: “We might not be able to do this without killing some customers.”
That first summer, Alan and Wayne guided trips in a river that was often filled with pulpwood, the logs bumping and sometimes sliding into the boat. On trip mornings, Suzie would alert Scott Paper not to launch any logs from its sluiceway at the head of the gorge until after the boat had passed — an arrangement that usually worked, though there were some close calls. Sonny Wade supplied more bear hunters for the first few trips, then stopped sending them over, worried that the odds of losing one of his customers were rising. So Wayne, Suzie, and Alan went around to bars and restaurants, recruiting people looking for a thrill.
The venture was driven for the next few years by an exhilaratingly rebellious energy. There were no laws regulating the sport, so the guides winged it. Once, they rebuilt a deteriorating dam on Spencer Lake in order to get a good spring run on the Dead River. Over on the Penobscot, where Great Northern Paper Company had erected a gate to keep them out, guides railed to their customers about The Man, getting them so fired up that they would help push the rafts over the fence and into the water. “It was the wild, wild west,” Suzie says.
Trained by Haley, Suzie was on the river almost daily, for a time the lone female guide for an outfitter specifically marketing to he-man types — cops, firemen, rescue workers, and the like. “They’d look at me and say, ‘No. Her? No.’” Suzie recalls, laughing. “We’d have to talk them into having me. I’d tell them, ‘You’re the motor, I steer. Do what I tell you, and you’ll be fine.’ I can’t muscle it, so I got good at using my crew to get the most out of them.”
She wasn’t a hotshot, but instead plied the river with a conservative, workmanlike style. “Suzie was never a real crafty boatman,” says Haley, who makes a distinction between good guides (that’s personality) and good boatmen (that’s technique), “but she was the type of guide who worked day in and day out. She never got in trouble. You never heard complaints from her customers. You never had to patch her boat. You never had to evacuate any of her people on the river. And in the end, you don’t need superstars. You need people who put the bit in their mouths and do the job, and in that sense she was an excellent boatman.”
Suzie also was the yin to Wayne’s yang. “Wayne had an extremely large vision for this. That was one of his strengths,” Haley says. “But boy oh boy, when it came to the day-to-day operations, he was atrocious. He was quite confrontational and he would invariably make arguments — with the locals, with the state legislature, with everybody. Suzie was the moderating influence. She was young, very attractive — she had this flying, curly blonde hair — and she’d smooth things over.”
“Wayne’s the father of Maine rafting,” agrees Trotsky, now 77 and living in Bangor. “With his courage and craziness, he set the standard, but the success he enjoyed was because Suzie was involved in it, cared about it, and guided trips herself. She knew all sides of the business, and she kept Wayne in line.”
Playing “good cop,” as Suzie puts it, meant going to the state legislature to lobby for laws requiring training and licensing of rafting guides and a system for regulating the number of people allowed on the rivers at any one time, “so they wouldn’t turn into the Saco,” Suzie says, which is crowded with hard-partying canoeists on summer weekends. She also participated in relicensing hearings for dams on the Kennebec, Dead, and Penobscot rivers, negotiating for guaranteed flows so guides and customers would never again get stuck waiting hours for a release.
By the late ’80s, the Hockmeyers and their crew had transformed Maine rafting into what it is today: a family-friendly activity led by well-trained, state-licensed guides. Customers no longer want to be scared to death (well, maybe a little). They want comfortable rooms, a good meal, and other things to do, like soaking in a hot tub and playing pool. Suzie runs Northern Outdoors with two of her and Wayne’s longtime guides, Jim Yearwood and Russell Walters, who bought out Wayne’s share of the business when his and Suzie’s yin-yang relationship got the better of their marriage 14 years ago. The team, Suzie says, is a “three-legged stool — but it’s a good stool.” They divide the responsibilities according to their strengths — Jim on operations, Russell on marketing, and Suzie on pretty much everything else, like lobbying in Augusta on issues that impact the business.
Four decades since Suzie first dipped her paddle in the river, nearly half of rafting guides are women.
In turn, rafting (along with snowmobiling, which Northern Outdoors also pioneered as a destination activity) has transformed the local economy. For a long time, locals blamed the whitewater hooligans from away for the decline in the paper and logging industries, but that misplaced resentment has now largely faded away. “When I was a kid,” Haley says, “the power brokers in the small communities were the logging families. Today, the important voices are the rafting companies.”
Our raft smacks the water with a drenching splash and hurdles onward, rocking and bouncing for the next two miles. We’re all whooping and hollering like kids on a tilt-a-whirl, but Suzie hardly bats an eyelash. Standing next to her is our guide, Emily Yearwood — Jim Yearwood’s 29-year-old daughter — who braces herself against the back of the raft, digs her paddle into the roiling water, and calmly shouts orders: “Right side only!” “Let it drift!” “All ahead!” A teacher in the off-season, Emily counts Suzie among her mentors. “Suzie’s a female powerhouse,” she tells me. “She’s a strong woman.”
As is Emily, whose power is evident not just here in these nonstop class IV rapids at the beginning of the Kennebec Gorge, but also later on, when she hoists each of us into the boat after we’ve all gone for a swim, grabbing us by our vests and leaning backward, using her own weight as leverage. Today, 41 years since Suzie first dipped a paddle in the Kennebec, nearly half the state’s rafting guides are women, and Emily’s never known a customer to balk upon learning she’d be piloting the raft.
With Big Momma behind us, we shoot into the Alleyway, where we dodge Goodbye Hole (“It’s a raft ripper,” Suzie explains); then White Washer, where a photographer is standing on a ledge, capturing us in all our open-mouthed, wide-eyed glory for the afternoon slideshow; Maytag, which agitates like a washing machine; and Magic Hole, where a submerged rock creates a drop into a big collapsing wave (to the people in the raft behind us, we seem to disappear — like magic). There are many more, but they’re coming so fast and I’m paddling so frantically that I can’t tell one from the next. In the few spots where the river gives us a break, I’m struck silent by the raw, wild beauty of the gorge, its steep, towering walls blanketed in spruce.
About two hours into our trip, we break for lunch on the riverbank. The guides cook up a feast of steak, salmon, and rice and hand out freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies for dessert. Then we set off again on the final stretch to The Forks, a leisurely float, where we swim alongside the raft and paddle around in little yellow kayaks called duckies. Through it all, Suzie is a gracious host and fierce paddler, and she seems perfectly content to let Emily be in charge. With her visor snugged sensibly under her helmet and pretty pink lip gloss that somehow always seems fresh, she looks every bit the river queen.
Wild, vintage rafting photos from our 1984 feature on Kennebec whitewater
Photographs by Martha L. Hoddinott