Kayaking the Swift River Falls

The Swift River in New Hampshire flows eastward along the beautiful Kancamagus Highway. There are three commonly paddled sections known as the Upper Upper Swift, the Upper Swift, and the Lower Swift. The three sections are separated by two “easy” class 5 waterfalls, Upper Falls (aka Rocky Gorge) and Lower Falls.

I paddled the Upper Swift in 1996, my second season as a kayaker. It was the first and only time I’ve seen Upper Falls. I remember looking at it, thinking “certain death!”, and carrying around it (as did the whole group). I’ve paddled the lower section, putting in below Lower Falls, several times. I carefully scouted Lower Falls as recently as May 2010—and I’ve always decided it is beyond what I am interesting in paddling.

On October 2 2010, I had the pleasure of paddling both the Upper and Lower sections with Greg, Deb, Sam, and a group of rafters from the MIT Outing Club. Deb had just come back from spending the whole summer in Alaska paddling and wasn’t going to be intimidated by a couple of “easy” class 5 falls! Surrounded by hundreds of spectators who came expecting to see only the changing fall foliage and beautiful waterfalls, we spent at least 30 minutes scouting each rapid and ultimately decided we felt safe running them.

I confess that my decision to run these rapids was at least partly influenced by the fact that one of the rafters, Ben, had brought along a 300 frame-per-second video camera. How could I resist getting such dramatic high-speed footage of the biggest rapids I’ve ever run? Clearly, I couldn’t. :-)

Viewing tips:

  • It’s a bit hard to see my boat at the start of Upper Falls. I am about 1/3 of the way off the left edge of the video, at the top of the falls, in front of 3-4 people visible standing on the bank behind me.

  • I run Upper Falls in two stages, catching an eddy (a pool of calm water) after the first part of the drop. My run over the main drop is … well … not as skillfully executed as I might have liked, but it works out fine in the end.

  • I run Lower Falls in two stages as well, again catching an eddy after the first drop. The video of Lower Falls is zoomed in so that you cannot see the whole rapid at once. For the second segment, the drop from the first segment is visible in the upper right corner of the frame.

  • The video is in slow motion with no sound.