Sunday, August 10, 2008

A summer's flood on the Connecticut River

It seemed like a fine day for a boat ride. There was just one thing . . . we've had so much rain that the river is flooded. Trees were swept away, and they crushed docks at the marinas, and scared boaters off the river. "You're nuts to go out there," the owner of my marina said. But how could I miss this - a chance to run the whole river without worry about water depth?

And Zodiacs like mine are built to be rough-water patrol boats. I set out from the State Ramp at Northampton. At first glance, the river seems idyllic, blue and gentle.



What you don't realize is that the river has climbed two-thirds of the way up the flood control dike in the background, and that's all that stops the Connecticut River from cutting a new channel through the center of Hadley. We see this every spring, but this is the first time in the 40 years I've lived here that we've seen water like this in August.



When you look a little closer, you realize the water is brown with silt and debris, and it's sweeping away trees and riverbank at a good clip. Sometimes you meet the trees, headed downriver at five miles an hour, the pace of the flood current in that area. The usual summertime current is about one mile an hour.

With a current like yesterday's, you get swept off your feet in water just above the knees. You hear it rustling as it passes. But since it's summer, the water is warm. Ever other flood I've seen, it's been spring, and the water is 38 degrees.

Most of the time, the river is too shallow for boats to reach Sunderland. Yesterday, though, I had sixteen feet of water at the Sunderland bridge, and whitewater around the bridge piers. No water depth problems here.

Fifteen miles north, my part of the river dead-ends at the Turners Falls dam. In the past, I've picked my way up there but it's an all-day journey, threading your way past rocks and sandbars and long stretches of knee deep water. Yesterday, the water was fast and deep all the way. At the junction of the Deerfield and Connecticut Rivers there were huge whirlpools that kicked the boat violently as I powered through them toward the dam.

These were the kind of whirlpools where you toss in a life jacket, and it vanishes and pops up downstream a minute later. You do your best to remain in the boat in places like that.

It took more and more throttle to move the boat against the pull of the current. At one point, the engine was moving me fifteen miles an hour and the GPS said I was standing still. Actually, though, I wasn't standing still. I was edging slowly sideways toward rock. Luckily, the boat had enough power to move ahead and I approached the power station, which is normally the source of the river below the dam.



In normal times, the dam (which is still a mile upstream) holds back all the river flow. The water goes down a canal to this station, where is turns electric generators and returns to the riverbed at the base of the river. Here's a shot of one of the discharge gates, which at this moment is about fifteen feet under water:



You can see how the inspection walkway is just about submerged. It's usually a second-story balcony over the river.

There's far too much water for the turbines, so quite a lot is shooting down the spillways. Here's a water level view, something few people see:



There was fifteen feet of depth in the white water at the bottom. But there was even more water surging down, from the overflow at the main dam. I headed up in search of it. Now my depthfinder began showing shallower water, and it still ran fast - ten miles an hour.

I was climbing the dry riverbed, which was now full of flood water. This was the last picture I could take, before hitting rapids. In the photo below, you see some ripples, at a safe distance of a few hundred feet.



As I approached, I realized they weren't safe at all. They were three-foot-high up and down waves, moving fifteen miles an hour, maybe more. All of a sudden, I found myself climbing a hill in the boat, and it took full throttle to extricate myself. At the top, I saw more whitewater ahead, and with six feet of water below I could see trouble coming. I spun the boat around and headed back the way I came.

Now that was a sight to behold. Never before have I taken my boat down a flight of stairs, but that's what it looked like. I hit the throttle again, and spun the wheel to hit the waves at an angle, because I knew things could get bad if the boat buried its bow in the back of one of those rollers.

At best, I'd be staggering, full of water, and at worst I'd be upside down. Neither of those outcomes was desireable given the water conditions. I suddenly understood the value of crash helments in certain boating situations.

But it didn't come to that. With the power up, my Zodiac rose with the water, and I hardly took any spray in the cockpit. In just a few seconds, I was through. At that moment, I didn't know what I'd run, but I looked at the maps at home. It's an eight foot high stone cliff in a field of boulders. And that's why they named this stretch of river Turners Falls, a few hundred years back.

On the way back, I was buzzed by a predatory bird



I met a train, crossing the river at South Deerfield:



And I saw a balloon through the trees:



Most of the bridges I passed had logjams on the piers. Trees and debris catch there, and if they build up enough, they can take the bridge down. That hasn't happened on the Connecticut in 80 years, but the way these rains are going, it could happen again despite the flood control structures.





When I got the boat out of the water, I saw I'd knocked one of the blades on rock, and bent the lower skeg extension of the motor. In the rush at the rapids, I never noticed, but I must have hit bottom going down those rock stairs.

Now that was quite a ride. White water rafters run stuff like that all the time, but people don't usually take motorboats into places like that.

7 comments:

Sheri Nugent said...

Wow - what a great adventure. LOVED the pictures. That was cool!

Niksmom said...

incredible pictures! glad you realized you could get into trouble and high-tailed it out!

v-ness said...

hey john, that's a great shot of the 'bird of prey'! is it an osprey?? fantastic bird. valerie

John Elder Robison said...

Valerie, I don't actually know what kind of bird it is. Perhaps another blogger can identify it.

Melanie Avila said...

What an adventure! I really felt like I was right there with you!

snayl said...

Hmm... I don't think it's an osprey, as the tail feathers don't look quite right. I would be curious to know for sure. Stay safe, JER!

Sustenance Scout said...

All amazing, John, especially those photos! K.