O.N.G. B.A.K.: O.A.R. Navigators Going Backwards Along the Kennebec

The O.N.G. B.A.K. trip has become a favorite in recent years.  Here’s a look back at how it began: A 2010 Trip Report by Benjamin Schachner.

Arguably one of the most anticipated aspects of Pine Island Camp is the group of trips sent out each summer to Baxter State Park, the St. Croix River, Mt. Washington, and many other mountain, lake, and river destinations across Maine and New Hampshire. For roughly one hundred years PIC has not strayed far from these trips, considered to be staples of a true summer camp experience in Maine. With the coming of the 2010 season on Great Pond, however, a new and exotic trip challenged this postulate.

As I remember, there had been some rumors floating through the ranks of the counselors that there was, in fact, a new rowing trip. The gossip first struck me as rather silly, for where else would our substantial Pine Island Skiffs go other than Great Pond?

PIC2148CL2010-2019(2014)

It was Harry Swan who finally revealed to me the details of this new trip: our skiffs would actually be venturing from Waterville, Maine down to Bath via the Kennebec River. I was astonished, flabbergasted, and wholly convinced that Harry was playing some sort of joke on me. PIC had been my outdoor classroom since I was nine, and I had learned a great deal from my time both on the island and on the trail, so I assumed it was common knowledge that rowboats simply did not go down rivers. And frankly, the idea had never occurred to me. After some arguing, the matter was settled, yet not without one more surprise: Harry and I would be leading the trip now called, O.N.G. B.A.K. (O.A.R. Navigators Going Backwards Along the Kennebec), a reference that I immediately understood as being derived from the Thai movie, Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior. (Duh.)

PIC had never before sent a rowing trip down the Kennebec River and there was much emphasis on the expeditionary nature of our journey; our guide was the Maine Road Atlas. On departure, the echo of “Good luck, boys” from the ever-reassuring Ben Swan rang in my ears as we pushed off from the western bank of the Kennebec just below Waterville and headed south towards our final, but by no means certain, destination of Bath.

As we rounded the first bend in the river, losing sight of our drop-off point, we heard the universally recognizable sound of rapids ahead of us. The dull sound set the hairs on the back of my neck on end as it finally registered that Harry, eight campers and I were actually attempting to navigate rapids in rowboats. Yet, in synchronized movement we all turned our boats 180° and faced the oncoming rips looking over the sterns of our skiffs. We made it through our first batch of swift water in one piece and continued down the river feeling relieved.

Our second day began brilliantly, and we fell into a rhythm, now more comfortable in this new territory. After a few sets of rapids we began enjoying the challenge of slipping and sliding through the rushing waters. Some of us, Quinn and Cole specifcally, experimented with an adapted Venetian gondolier technique.

As we cruised under bridges and through Augusta, the state capitol, we encountered a few bald eagles perched somewhat ominously above a playground. Further along, in Hallowell, we had a coincidental rendezvous with Pine Islanders on the Kennesasabacscot war yacht trip, who greeted us from the shore on their way to their own put-in in South Gardiner. In Gardiner we sat down to a lunch of tomato, mozzarella, and pesto on artisan bread.

Below Gardiner things became interesting. Feeling rested and ready to tackle the second leg of the day, we were greeted with a headwind and a disagreeable current. As we hugged the shoreline and maintained a single-file order we looked for the bridge crossing the river just before Richmond, a sign that we were near the campsite on Swan Island that we would be sharing that night with our Kennesasabacscot compatriots. As the sun dipped lower and lower and the clouds began to gather, we forced ourselves to keep rowing, each upcoming bend in the river filling us with hope that the hazy outline of the bridge would appear. The turns in the river turned into false peaks, and it was nearly five in the afternoon when we spotted the bridge. Soon after we passed under it, the rain began to fall.

It was an epic arrival on Swan Island: we were drenched, blistered, and ex-hausted after a nearly thirty-mile row, and possessed by a crazy, desperate need for red meat. Harry and I, and the Kennesasabacscot counselors Forest Brown and Nicky Isles, immediately began cooking hamburgers under sagging tarps as our campers mingled in the lean-tos and the rain poured down. We had covered twice the number of miles that we had (unaccountably) estimated for that day and we had completed what should have been three days of travel in two.

Day three rolled around, and with a hearty breakfast of bacon and overdone pancakes we set off for Bath, with visions of massive battleships and destroyers. Exiting the slim passage between Big Swan and Little Swan we encountered, yet again, a river that maintained sentiments deeply opposed to ours. The waves tumbled over the sides of the boats, the wind was fierce, and for one of the first times in my life, I actually thought that the Pine Island Skiffs could have been built a little bigger. With the War Yacht in valiant pursuit of us for the first half of the morning, we finally lost site of the billowing white sail as we bore west where the river split into two, heading west towards Bath. With a sigh of relief we were then swept along by a quiet, yet strong current that carried us swiftly towards our final destination.

As we passed under the massive bridge that carries Route 1 across the Kennebec at Bath and caught site of the behemoth ships under construction at Bath Iron Works, our spirits soared (and Robby surreptitiously snapped some photos of navy ships under construction). We had covered 50 grueling miles in three days. We had battled the wind and rain and the river, and we had succeeded in a splendid fashion. I feel certain an affinity for the story of Odysseus blossomed in some of the boys, but what made our momentous landing at the loading dock just past the Maine Maritime Museum so special was our trailblazing and the frontier attitude which we had assumed and maintained throughout the trip. We had claimed the Kennebec for future oarsmen of Pine Island and established a fantastic new trip. We returned joyfully and triumphantly to Great Pond, having earned the joy and the triumph because of what we had experienced, endured, and enjoyed.

It was because of the trail valiantly blazed by the following boys that O.N.G.B.A.K. will continue to be sent out by Pine Island: Will C., Cole G., Noah N., Quinn L., Phil G., Bobby S., Robby L., and Ethan P.

Kennebec River

One thought on “O.N.G. B.A.K.: O.A.R. Navigators Going Backwards Along the Kennebec

  1. Jim Cornwell

    This sounds like a great and memorable adventure! The Kennebec is a fascinating waterway and can be intimidating. I vividly recall moments from a 1960-ish trip in a single war canoe (no doubt a unwise plan – but PIC only had one war canoe) from Gardiner to Popham beach. Along the way was an encounter with a huge Navy ship in Bath, where a shouted challenge was waved off by the duty officer high above us, an encounter with a terrifying whirlpool in Merrymeeting Bay and at journey’s end a several-day encampment on the beach. So much sand! Like so many trips in those days, this one was destined never to be forgotten! Jim Cornwell

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