The first trip through Zoar Gap on the Deerfield River in Western, MA is a rite of passage for fledgling New England white water paddlers. The Gap is a short, typically friendly stretch of class 3 white water that consists of three drops of about 3-4ft each and is largely devoid of any “munchy” holes. There are many lines that lead through the set of rapids to a large pool that’s ready to catch you at the bottom. By-and-large, Zoar Gap provides a nice challenge for the beginner white water paddler looking to step up their river running game but not quite ready to take on any significant risks. It’ll get you revved up for sure!
My first trip through Zoar Gap took place during the Deerfield River Festival in 2010. The festival makes for an especially memorable first run as hundreds of on-lookers take to the banks of THE GAP to cheer on or heckle the paddlers brave enough to test its waters. At the time, I was celebrating my 10th season as a sea kayaking instructor but it was my first season of white water paddling. I blame my friends at the MIT outing club for talking me into this new paddling scenery as I had been promptly recruited to their ranks after volunteering to teach winter pool sessions (Thanks Deb, Jeff, and Greg!). During the Spring paddling season, they had fast-tracked me along some beginner rivers with the hope that my skills as a sea kayaker would translate over to the white water realm. I was met with mixed success and the nickname “Sir Flips-a-lot.” Despite the tribulations I began to develop more confidence on the river and in my combat roll. By the time that the festival rolled around I was ready and excited to take on Zoar in the Gap!
The day started out pleasantly enough. I paddled with members of the MITOC group and some loosely affiliated AMC paddlers on the 2-3 mile stretch of river above the Gap. Here we spent time working on eddy turns and playing in some smaller, class 2 rapids. My friends pushed me hard to capsize in these smaller rapids to gain confidence in my roll in preparation for the bigger rapids to come. Their persistence and my determination paid off in my first swim-free day as we approached the top of Zoar Gap. The river began to narrow and the current picked up a notch. Ahead, the banks were lined with onlookers numbering in the hundreds and you could hear their cheers over the roar of Zoar. It was go time!
That morning our group had spent about half an hour scouting the gap from its banks. We had agreed that the published river right line looked the cleanest and that anything right of center would get us through without much of a problem. We eddied out at the top of the gap on river right and I was coached up. The message: “Just stay upright and to the right side of center” seemed easy enough! One-by-one the MITOC group peeled out of the eddy and hit the desired line. I was the last to go and I couldn’t really see anyone through the raging rapids. As soon as I peeled out I was grabbed by the current and pulled toward the center. So much for that easier river right line! I drove toward the first drop with some solid, forward strokes. Here goes nothing!
The noise of the crowd was quickly drowned out by the river. My focus narrowed as I entered the thick of the rapid. Suddenly, I was lifted over the first drop and came down with a great splash! I braced hard on my left and took a forward stroke on the right to re-orient. I couldn’t see the next drop in the spray but I didn’t really care. I was so exuberant in making the first drop cleanly that I raised my paddle in celebration. Zoar didn’t appreciate this very much and I was punished by the second drop which came up faster than I had anticipated. This time I landed upside down. Calmly, I tucked hard to protect my head in the shallow water and reached high into the set-up position. Here I waited for a good time to roll but then I felt the river drop out from underneath me. Splash! It must have been the third drop and I was still upside down. I set-up and tried for a roll but missed. I tried again, missed again and was gassed.
Swimmer! Was the first thing I heard when I surfaced in the pool below the gap. I took stock of myself and was no worse for the wear. A pair of safety boaters retrieved my kayak and paddle as I swam toward the banks and climbed onto the rocks. The crowd cheered briefly at my misfortunate show and apparent safety but quickly returned their attention to the rapids for more carnage to come. What came next was insult to my injured pride. A man donning nothing but a pair of swim trunks with one hand raised high into the air entered the top of the Gap. His mode of transportation: a blow-up dolphin! Not only did he make it through the Gap cleanly on the back of a dolphin but he did it one-handed for in his raised hand was an open can of beer. Here I was, a seasoned and sober paddler, donning a PDF and helmet and I had all I could do to get through the Gap upside down! Maybe I should consider putting a dolphin sticker on my whitewater kayak to see if any magic rubs off…
Whitewater paddling is inherently dangerous and should not be attempted without the proper instruction, experience, team, river knowledge and gear. The above description of Zoar Gap may no longer be valid due to changes in the Deerfield River that took place during the flooding associated with Hurricane Irene in 2011. The dynamics and safety of the rapid are largely a function of water level so check the appropriate guide books and scout before attempting a run. Finally, I do not recommend running any sort of white water on the back of any sort of inflatable animal especially without the proper safety gear and definitely not while intoxicated!