The Upper Pemi is one of the most iconic steep creeks in New England. Featuring roughly 3 miles of non-stop action, this Class V run has crystal-clear water, significant drops, and continuous boulder gardens, all with the magnificent White Mountains providing a spectacular backdrop. The Upper Pemi has a wide window for acceptable flows, but it becomes more challenging as flows increase. One of the best parts of paddling this river is the cheers of shock and awe from the tourists visiting popular destinations like the Basin and the Flume.
The most common put-in is accessed from the Basin parking area. Follow the paved path to the first bridge over the river and put in either above or below the bridge. The Class V drop above the bridge begins with a narrow slot before dropping vertically about 6 feet. Immediately below the bridge, the river continues dropping through narrow sluices and over small ledges.
A few hundred yards below the bridge, a few short pools give way to the first major drop, the Basin. A popular tourist destination, the Basin (Class V) is a tricky 10-foot waterfall that plunges through a narrow crack and into an enormous pothole. The river-right side creates a large overhang that causes some trouble for inattentive paddlers. While scouting or portaging, please be respectful of other visitors and the Franconia Notch State Park’s regulations against swimming in the Basin.
Below the Basin, a short section of continuous slides and wave trains lead to Baby Flume (IV+). As the name suggests, Baby Flume narrows and drops a few feet between bedrock walls. The first hole can be rather sticky.
Continuous Class III boogie rapids follow, passing under the Interstate 93 bridges. Be on the lookout for a significant horizon on a slight right bend. This is the North Pole (V+), a boulder pile with several sieves, which drops about 15 feet. Scout and portage from river left.
Immediately below the North Pole, the boulder gardens continue around a corner. Be sure to scout, because this area tends to collect strainers. Another unnamed rapid (Class IV+) funnels between a few boulders and over a slide with a double-fall line. A strainer protrudes from river left into the top of the slide, so be sure to calculate your line carefully. Several continuous Class IV rapids follow.
When the Sentinel Pine Covered Bridge comes into view, eddy out on river right immediately. Wham, Bam, Thank You Ma’am (Class V+) lurks directly beneath the bridge and features multiple lethal sieves. It is possible to eddy hop closer to the bridge, but be sure you know where your last stop is located.
Wham, Bam, Thank You Ma’am is the most iconic drop on the Upper Pemi. Falling in three stages, the river first pours over a 4-foot chute guarded on either side by significant sieves. Since September 2012, when an expert kayaker lost his life in the hard-to-see sieve on river left, nearly everyone portages this first tier. A fixed line has been anchored in a crack between two massive boulders on river right near the bridge abutments. The second tier features a very sticky hole that can be snuck on the far river right. Finally, the final tier weaves between boulders before plunging over a 12-foot falls best run on the far left. A large pool awaits at the bottom.
After leaving the pool below Wham, Bam, Thank You Ma’am, continuous Class IV+ boulder gardens pick up once again. They continue for about a mile, reaching a crescendo near a long slide ending in a boof. Below here, the river eases to Class III for roughly a mile until the takeout.