Jun 27, 2019

Map 9: Days 26 - 27: S. Branch Dead River

Year Six: Repaddling the NFCT in Sections

Part 6: The S. Branch Dead River

Total mileage this section this trip: Approximately 14 (out of 19 possible)
Paddling Partners: Russ Ford and Karrie Thomas
Boat(s): Dagger Dimension canoe with floatation; Karrie paddled a Prijon Pure kayak


Due to low water levels, I had missed paddling this waterbody in 2011, when I through-paddled the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. The only reason I was able to finally experience this section is due to the generosity of NFCT section-paddler, Russ Ford and the NFCT executive director, Karrie Thomas. Water was up—way up—and the entire river was able to be paddled. But without Russ and Karrie—and Russ's whitewater canoe—this water body most definitely exceeded my paddling skills and comfort level.

2011: A very dead S. Branch Dead River

Unlike 2011, 2019 has been an exceptionally wet spring throughout the midwest and northeast. As I traveled in mid-May, east to Maine across Ontario, rivers were still at flood stage. As of this report, more than a month later, river levels still remain above normal here in Wisconsin.

Leading up to the trip, Russ had us referencing the Spencer Stream USGS gauge as a means of anticipating the flow. See below for those details.

The first part of this year's weeklong section paddle was spread over Monday afternoon and Tuesday. The priority was to paddle the technical sections with the experts. This means we paddled above Langtown Mills Bridge and below Kennebago Bridge, skipping the unimpeded quick water between these two bridges. I'll pick up those five miles as part of my next section paddle when I return to continue north from Flagstaff Lake.

After meeting in Rangeley around noon on Monday, we set out after lunch to scout Fansanger Falls and the take-out and put-in options. Russ had run the gorge over a previous Memorial weekend with his son and another NFCT section-paddler, Chris Gill. On this trip, we also had plenty of water to run Fansanger Falls--sort of. You can read the full story in the trip report Karrie posted in the June 2019 NFCT blog "Voices From The Trail."

The South Branch of the Dead River is a beautiful stretch of the trail and I'm happy I was finally able to travel it. With or without enough water, however, it does present a dilemma for expedition through-paddlers. Without enough water, you may need to miss some or all of this entire trail section. With enough water, one cannot safely run Fansanger Falls while fully loaded. The available portage allows you to safely circumnavigate this stretch of whitewater, and even though the signed take-out has a nice short landing that leads to the road, it is tucked between two sets of short rapids and could be easily missed. My best advice is to check the Spencer Stream gauge, talk to the locals, trust your gut and to keep your eyes glued on river right for that portage signage (of course while navigating the rapids), if you do decide to paddle.

1.3 mile Fansanger Falls portage take-out (first one)
1.3 mile Fansanger Falls portage take-out leading to Hwy 16
Quill Road
Confidence arrow at the end of Quill Road to put-in
River access trail to put-in
Fansanger Falls Portage put-in (August 2016)

There is a second take-out option closer to the head of the gorge—and indeed just prior to that broad east-bearing turn leading the the Class III+ gorge. This one will be harder to catch if you don't know what you are looking for and the falls begins soon after.

Cherry Run and the Barn Doors section are the second set of formidable obstacles. While there is no established portage route, Russ was able to line the ledges (at times, almost waist-deep) and we successfully ran the last of the whitewater through the Barn Doors in the unburdened whitewater boats. The river was broader here and through-paddlers should be able to use available shoreline and floodplains helping to avoid running the most technical ledges and rapids. 

Outside of these specific areas, the river is still pushy and you'll be required to remain vigilant, notably between the Fansanger Falls portage put-it and Langtown Mills bridge and between Kennebago Bridge and the Barn Doors.

Map 9, Day 26: Monday, May 20

Lower Dallas Bridge to Langtown Mill Bridge

Miles Paddled: 5.2 miles in 1.75 hours with one recovery break
Portages: 0
Weather: 60s-low 70s, sunny and intermittent rain showers
Water temperature: 54 degrees.
Overnight: Rangeley State Park

Russ and his outfitted Dagger Dimension
Lower Dallas Bridge parking area put-in

Within the first two miles of Lower Dallas Bridge
River-wide downed tree (2019) prior to
Fansanger Falls Portage take-out
Still within the first two miles
Karrie scouting Langtown Mill Bridge takeout
Langtown Mills Bridge (take-out on
river right after passing under the bridge)
Looking upstream from 
the Langtown Mill Bridge
Same river/same view
during a scouting trip in August 2016

Map 9, Day 27: Tuesday, May 21, 2019
Kennebago Road Bridge to Flagstaff Lake Boat Launch/Eustis

Miles Paddled: 8.75 in 2.5 hours with lunch break
Portages: 0
Paddling Partners: Russ Ford and Karrie Thomas
Wildlife: Eagles
Weather: 50s-60s, overcast, gusting winds, intermittent rain showers

Looking across the river from the put-in at Kennebago Bridge

Departing from Kennebago Bridge on Tuesday
Cherry Run

Cherry Run

Waiting for Russ lining Cherry Run
One of seven, near Barn Doors
Lunch break near river outlet

The Bigelows 
Looking east back to outlet from Eustis boat launch
Flagstaff Lake NFCT kiosk
Checking out Flagstaff Lake from Route 27 bridge

Additional Planning Information 

Courtesy of Russ Ford

Note: This is not a guarantee of predicted flow. You must scout the river at Fansanger Falls and look at water levels for yourself before deciding to run this section.

While we were on the South Branch of the Dead on May 20 and 21, 2019, the Spencer Stream USGS gauge peaked at between 1600cfs and 1700 cfs. 

Lower Dallas Bridge on May 20

Spencer Stream peaked the morning of the 21st. We observed the South Branch at the Lower Dallas bridge camping area to have peaked late in the day on the 20th. So IF the two watersheds received comparable rainfall (which we do not know), the conclusion is that the upper South Branch is a slightly smaller, steeper, ‘flashier’ watershed.

Past observations of South Branch water levels, and how they correlate with Spencer Stream gauge readings, provide three ‘data points’. When it was 300 cfs at Spencer Stream, the South Branch was too low for a thru-paddler. When it was 1400 cfs at Spencer Stream, Chuck Horbert’s group of expert solo open boaters found the South Branch to be ‘ideal’– they paddled everything except Fansanger. And at 1600 – 1700 cfs (at Spencer) we needed to do some lining and appreciated the K-boat scouting in our open ww tandem.

I’m not sure how I would have felt trying to run the lower South Branch at that level in a loaded Penobscot or Minn II. However, I think at lower water levels (above 300, but below 1400) a thru-paddler could consider trying that section rather than wheeling the road.

High Water on the South Branch of the Dead River

May trip photos: Courtesy of Karrie Thomas