Review: U.S. Rafting – Penobscot River

I’ve come to realize that the group I go rafting with is just plain special. Every year we sit on the bus and listen to the safety speech which always starts with “Most of these things will never happen, but here’s what you need to know if they do.” While the newbies sit back and giggle, my group listens on. We aren’t quite veterans yet, but we’re getting there. Falling out as Big Mama crested? Done. Breaking an ankle on the Kennebec? Unfortunately. Getting re-circulated on the Dead? Ugh, yes. Busting a raft? Mmhmm. Performing epic rescues? Check… erm… triple check. Been a human ping pong ball among underwater boulders? Been there. Starting to know how to read the water before it even hits? Hell yeah. Considering a white water rescue course? Why yes we are.

This year, U.S. Rafting ever so kindly offered to bring up the adventure crew (myself, Rob, Eric, Lori, Carin, and Chris) to run the Penobscot. For those unfamiliar with New England’s river systems – there are 3 well known powerful rivers home to some of the best rafting and white water kayaking in the entire region: the Kennebec, the Dead, and the Penobscot. At the kinder end is the Kennebec with a wide variety of Class III and IV rapids (Magic Falls can be Class V). It’s a technical river full of fun features that you can either hit or run right past. In the middle is the Dead. The Dead is a funny river in that it does a great job of hiding the many Class IV features that hide below the surface. Surf holes pop up out of nowhere and there’s some sections that are notorious for re-circulation. And the rapids? When you hit them, they go on forever. And finally, there’s the Penobscot – lovingly referred to as the Nob by many. What it lacks in repetitive quantity, it makes up for in terrifying quality. The bigger rapids are heart racing and undeniable Class V… or stronger. This is a river you don’t want to swim.

Instead of regaling the day with long descriptions of everything that happened – I’ll just sum it up with this. Following true to form, as we are not a normal group this was not a normal trip. We aced the Nesowadnehunk Falls (Class IV 12 foot waterfall), cruised through the Exterminator and the Staircase (both Class V), almost got eaten alive on The Cribworks (Class V), and suddenly Big Ambejack seemed like flat water. The question at the end was not “Who swam?” but instead “Who has a golf ball size bruise or is bleeding?”. Epic? Oh yes.

Watch the video and you’ll start to understand the Penobscot.

In the event you’re looking for some details, here we go:

Where: U.S. Rafting calls West Forks, ME their home base so a trip to the Penobscot is home away from home for everyone. This year the guides and all the guest rafter called Big Moose Inn Cabins & Camping in Millinocket base camp for the epic weekend adventures. For something that feels so far in the middle of nowhere, Big Moose has an awfully nice setup with a beautiful inn, restaurant, local beers on tap, and great food. The camping was pretty phenomenal too. Massive sites ranging from lean to to group camping… with access to showers and toilets (if you do the Kennebec and camp at Indian Pond you will understand why this is amazing).

Getting There: It’s a long drive no matter where you’re coming from. We made it in about 5 hours with a stop for lunch in Scarsborough, ME. Fortunately the entire journey is pretty well populated and has oddly great cell phone service. Also – for once – dirt roads are at a minimum. We were actually able to drive my Ford Focus without killing it. w00t!

What Else: The journey there basically ends in the seriously beautiful Baxter State Park which is home to Mt. Katahdin – the highest mountain in Maine and home to some of the gnarliest hikes I’ve ever heard of (Knife Edge). You’ll see it quite a few times during the final section of the drive and on a clear day, the entire mountain will just keep popping out of nowhere are you come around turns on the Penobscot. You’re probably going to want to climb it… just saying.


Once again, a massive thank you to U.S. Rafting. Year after year they’ve trusted this insane group of newbies with newfound skills and confidence, and we have no idea what they’re thinking – but we love it. A special thank you to Elliot who put up with my infinite questions and showed me around the cliffs above the Penobscot. And a massive thank you to Jeremy, our guide, for once again blowing our minds, keeping us all in one piece, and giving us quite the ride.

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About Jillian Bejtlich

Hey! I'm Jillian Bejtlich. I’m a lifelong New Englander with a serious love of the outdoors, adventure, and a pretty serious inability to sit still. I’m plagued by the travel bug, and it seems I’ll try any relatively sane and safe thing once. My big goal in life: Get people outside!