Active Outdoors: ‘West Fest’ paddle party is a whole lot of fun

  • This boater, who was playing at “The Dumpligs” on the West River, got flipped but righted himself with a “combat roll.” Tim Jones photos / EasternSlopes.com

  • Gateway Drug. Many paddlers get their first taste of whitewater on a commercial raft like this one on the West River. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)

  • West Fest Staging Area. If you flood it, they will come. A veritable flotilla of whitewater craft showed up at the West Fest. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)

  • It’s fun to watch the kayakers go through “The Dumplings” on the West River, but even more fun to do it yourself.

  • Rinse Cycle 1. Can you spot the kayaker playing in the whitewater on the West River? What you can’t see is the big grin on his or her face. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)

Sunday, October 01, 2017

While many outdoor pursuits are best enjoyed solo or in the company of one or two compatible souls, others seem to attract groups. Periodically the stars align correctly, many groups of friends gather in the same place at the same time and a party ensues. Because everyone shares the same interests, it can be a whole lot of fun.

The most recent example I’ve encountered is the “West Fest” on the West River in the tiny town of Jamaica, Vt., close to Stratton Mountain. I was there for the first time this past weekend and it’s definitely the social event of the season, at least among whitewater paddling aficionados.

Whitewater paddling is an action sport; it requires lots of water flowing downhill fast, over and around immovable objects – usually rocks. It’s like riding a roller coaster except you are (supposedly, most of the time, anyway) in control.

The Ball Mountain Dam was built in 1957 to help reduce flooding risks along the West and Connecticut Rivers. Twice each year, in early May and the last full weekend in September, the Army Corps of Engineers draws down Ball Mountain Lake to keep the water at optimum levels. These scheduled releases, which guarantee flowing water in the rocky riverbed of the West, draw paddlers from all over the northeast to enjoy the Class II (beginner) and Class III (intermediate) runs.

The September release is the biggest party, because predictable flowing water in the fall in New England is rare and precious. Many paddlers head to the West Fest partly because it’s the only sure game around, and partly because it’s fun to get together with so many other paddlers on a great whitewater river.

The epicenter for the West Fest is Jamaica State Park. Campsites here (41 tent sites and 18 lean-tos) typically sell out the first few days they are offered, with eight people maximum per site, but that’s only part of the story. Park authorities tell me another 661 people bought one-day passes over the weekend, but some of those were spectators who walked up to the toughest rapid (The Dumplings). I spent some time watching there and thoroughly enjoyed the show. Local non-profits set up food booths at the park, and several vendors were selling paddling gear at great prices.

The park offers a shuttle service for boaters ($15 for a single ride, $25 for a day pass) and they carried 1,060 boats about 2 miles upriver. You can either launch your boat where the shuttle drops you, or carry it yourself another third of a mile up to the launch point below the dam. But that’s only part of the story there were lots of paddlers who ran their own shuttles from the dam to below the State Park, and even more who did the Class II section by launching below the park.

By the time I’d decided to go to the West Fest, all the campsite at Jamaica State Park were long booked. So I went searching online and found Winhall Brook Camping Area about 10 miles away. What a find! This is a beautiful area with grassy, well-maintained campsites, clean bathrooms, hot showers, a swimming hole – everything you could want. On a perfect September weekend, the place was nearly full, but everyone respected quiet hours and I suspect I got a much better night’s sleep than I would have at party central.

Most people go to the West Fest with a group. I went alone and had no trouble at all finding great people to paddle with. My three runs on Saturday were in the Class II section. My first run, I connected with Vince, a 70-year-old local who showed me the easiest and safest route as a warm-up. It was still challenging and fun. My second run was with people I’d paddled with before in southern New Hampshire (I saw lots of familiar faces). The third run was with a group from the Vermont Paddlers Club. By the time we finished the run, they felt like old friends.

I reconnected with them the next morning, jumped on the shuttle with them and they helped shepherd me through my first-ever full-on Class III run. I made it upright and unscathed thanks largely to their willingness to share their knowledge of the river. Wonderful folks! Wonderful experience! After that, I did a wind-down run on the Class II with a mixed group from several AMC chapters, and then headed for home.

Though I usually avoid crowds, I have to tell you that I really enjoyed the West Fest and already have it on my calendar for next September. If you want to see the best of the local whitewater community, this is the place to do it. Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

Pick your paddle option

I met a few people at the West Fest who were there just to watch others play, and I did see a few daring souls riding the Class III rapids sitting in heavy-duty tubes (not something I’d recommend). But most people had a paddle in their hands.

At least three commercial rafting companies (Zoar Outdoor, Crabapple Whitewater and Berkshire Rafting) offered rides for people who don’t paddle on their own and who want to safely try whitewater. Think of this as your “gateway drug” for future whitewater addicts.

But the majority of people were paddling rafts, canoes, and kayaks. And, I have to say, I think these were the people having the most fun.

If you want to participate next year, there’s plenty of time. I’ve listed many whitewater schools and clinics on easternslopes.com/2014/03/28/go-whitewater-kayaking-instruction-northeast. Zoar Outdoor (zoaroutdoor.com), Outdoor New England (www.outdoornewengland.com), and Great Glen Outdoor Center (greatglentrails.com) still offer intro whitewater clinics into October, but your best bet is probably to get started early in the spring, spend as much time on bouncy water as you can, and be ready to enjoy the West Fest next fall.

(Tim Jones is the
Executive Editor of the online magazine EasternSlopes.com and can be reached at timjones@easternslopes.com)