This story package is featured in the December 2011 issue of Canoe & Kayak, available on newsstands now.
By Justin Beckwith
On August 28, as Tropical Storm Irene pummeled Vermont with 8 inches of rain in six hours. Ryan Mooney and I paddled Mill Brook, a Class V tributary of the Mad River that pours straight down the local ski mountain. The creek was rising fast the whole time we were on it, gathering speed like a runaway locomotive and smashing everything in its path. As we ran our shuttle afterward, the creek was eating away at the road, undercutting its banks and pulling mature trees into its flow.
That evening the Mad, which usually runs around 300 cfs, peaked at 22,900 cfs. The historic flood presented an irresistible opportunity to complete a mission I'd been scheming about for years: to paddle from my home town of Waitsfield, Vermont to Lake Champlain—a journey of some 60 river miles—in a single day.
I started on Mill Brook in Waitsfield early the next morning, launching my 14-foot Wavehopper below the steep stretch we'd run the day before. It dumped me quickly into the Mad, which had dropped overnight to about 5,000 cfs. That whisked me eight miles to the mouth of the Moretown Gorge, which constricted the torrent into a quarter-mile of exploding waves and boiling eddylines. It was pretty much the best whitewater you can imagine running a Wavehopper through. A swim there could mean curtains, but all went well.
After the gorge opened up above the town of Moretown, I portaged a ravaged powerhouse—its 40,000-volt power line was still unaccounted for—and entered the Winooski River. At sharp river bends, where the main current drove anything in its clutches through the woods on the outside of the turns, I took shortcuts through flooded pastures and cornfields. I'd find a promising line and commit to it, following the tendrils of current through these bayou-like backwaters, staying clear of the debris that collected against the fence lines. I was lucky. I never had to backtrack, which could have been major no-good for my timeline.
As I approached Burlington, I faced the most sobering moments of the trip—manhandling my 14-foot race boat into must-make eddies above three dams and one surprise gorge. The water was boiling and revolving well into the riparian tree line. My life depended on catching those eddies so that I could scout and, if needed, portage.
Near the Chase Mill Dam and rapids in Winooski I caught the peak flow of nearly 40,000 cfs. The streets were barricaded with news crews and police. I have somewhat of a history with the cops and trips like this one. A previous high-water trip of mine had ended with a run-in with the law, followed by an unflattering piece in the local newspaper. So to avoid a spectacle or, worse, an arrest, I portaged through the city center, staying one block inland of the oblivious lawmen. I slipped back into the roiling river below an apartment building and enjoyed a swollen ride through the final eight miles of the meandering Winooski into Lake Champlain, where I turned south toward the Burlington Waterfront. I finished at dusk, after 14 hours of paddling.
—Justin Beckwith coaches nordic skiing at Green Mountain Valley School in Waitsfield, Vermont. The endurance junkie is well-known in New England paddling circles for his oddball kayaking missions (see HERE) and relentless pursuit of precipitation. As told to Alan Panebaker