3 days, 70 miles.
My friend Bob and I recently spent three days paddling on the upper Connecticut River. We had a lot of fun and learned a few lessons. I spent a lot of time planning and asking questions for this trip and am grateful for the excellent advice others offered. Many thanks especially to Stacey and Don Campbell. And also to Noah Pollock, Armand Buteau, the folks at the Vermont River Conservancy, and Lake Francis State Park. We also found the CT River Paddlers’ Trail map extremely helpful, a steal at $10.
I drove up to NH on Tues., July 28, and met Bob near Concord. His Honda carried us, my 12-footer, his 17-foot sea kayak, his inflatable kayak, and ungodly amounts of gear and clutter from there to Bloomfield, VT. We camped at the Belknap campsite near the river and on Wed. morning continued to Pittsburg, where we put in just below the Bacon Street covered bridge. Don Campbell met us there, waited patiently while we sorted gear, etc., and shuttled our car to Canaan, VT, where we would finish a few hours later. I cannot say enough about how kind and helpful he and his wife, Stacey, were to us. As it turned out, we would need their help again later in the trip, and they went above and beyond for us.
The USGS gauge on the CT River at Indian Stream read ~475 cfs when we put in. From my research, this is a good summer flow. It was bumpy and shallow for much of the way, and I had a hard time imagining how this stretch could be paddled at lower summer levels of 200-250 cfs, but supposedly it can be done. We encountered quite a bit of Class I/I+ rapids and a few short spots of Class II, most notably on both sides of the Rte 3 bridge. Bob paddled in his inflatable (many thanks to Armand for making it clear that his sea kayak would have been a poor choice for the 10 miles to Canaan) but decided to get out at Rte 3 and walk to Beecher Falls, where he would help me with the likely portage.
At Beecher Falls, I got out to scout just after passing under the bridge, beside the large stone foundation of a vacant restaurant on the right bank. I wasn’t sure what to expect here—the CT River Boating Guide made it sound like Niagara, the map called it Class III, others said it might be a mild Class II. To my eyes, it looked like a Class III, at least, and though tempted, I decided to portage. This required a VERY steep scramble up the wooded, rocky bank. Luckily, as I poked my head out from some tall weeds, there was Bob as promised, and he had brought help, a 20-year-old kid from nearby Clarksville. We found the easiest spot to carry my boat up, a gravelly path that ran along the stone foundation of the restaurant, and then carried it a few hundred yards along the road before climbing over the guardrail and back down to the river where the bank was not ridiculously steep. From there I had a very short, very flat paddle to the hydro dam at Canaan, where the portage/takeout access is clearly marked on the right bank. The 10 miles from Pittsburg took a little more than 3 hours.
From Canaan, we drove across the river to West Stewartstown and stocked up at one of the best grocery stores I’d ever seen, which also had the world’s undisputed greatest air conditioning in history. We then drove up to Lake Francis, went for a swim, and met some Rhode Islanders who had paddled the same run the day before and enjoyed flipping their kayaks at Beecher Falls. Afterwards, we checked out Murphy Dam, where I left off paddling in August 2012, and Bob checked his email at Grampy’s Diner. Then we went back to Canaan and set up camp at the field at the town access and cooked a feast of scallops and mussels with Bob’s camp stove. I took another swim, and then we walked up the road for a couple drinks.
The next morning we got up late and had breakfast at the Spa Restaurant across the river, where the waitress kindly filled my water bottles and gave me my fruit and yogurt bowl for free because she thought it looked too watery. That would not have happened in Connecticut.
Back at the access, we took our time packing our boats since we would not see Bob’s car again until we reached Lancaster, where the Campbells would leave it for us. Bob traded in his inflatable for his sea kayak. We expected to paddle only 12 miles to Columbia campsite, especially with the late start, but with a swift current to help us, we would far exceed this.
Leaving Canaan, we found a few spots of quickwater and riffles before the river became wider and smoother. The skies grew cloudy later in the morning, with distant thunder, and at one point a bald eagle soared low right at us, followed by a hawk and then a pair of ducks, as though they were fleeing the storm. Soon a light rain fell. We took a break in Columbia, where it rained heavily for a spell, but we were making great time and decided to continue paddling for Lyman Falls or Bloomfield. We encountered Class I/I+ rapids just before and under the Colebrook bridge and stopped for a late lunch at a sandy beach just after it.
Once we reached Rainbow Rocks, we began the most challenging stretch of the trip. Based on what I’d read and heard, this spot is usually scratchy in summer and often requires boat-dragging. But the river was running strong when we got there, definitely Class I+ and some Class II rapids. Again, for a sense of water level, the Indian Stream gauge upriver was ~470 cfs at this time, and the North Stratford gauge downriver was just below 800 cfs. My kayak parked itself sideways on one rock and bounced impressively up and over a few others. I was definitely keeping busy. Bob’s sea kayak struggled here, so he got out to walk it. When I found calm water, I paddled in place awhile, then walked upstream to help him walk his boat through.
Later on, in the mile or so before Lyman Falls, we found similar rapids and walked the inside bank to avoid one tight turn with strong Class II water and lots of rocks. At Lyman Falls itself, I got out on the gravel bar on the NH side to scout. Everything was exactly as Stacey Campbell had described to me—the gravel bar, a very shallow but safe chute just inches from the NH bank, and hard-to-see chunks of concrete from the old dam in the middle and near the right bank. Bob had had enough of riding rapids and rocks in his sea kayak and left the river here at Lyman Falls State Park, immediately below the dam. I paddled through and was kept alert for another mile or so of Class I/II water and then a swift flow to the confluence of the CT and the Nulhegan rivers at Bloomfield VT/North Stratford NH. Here I walked my kayak a short distance up the Nulhegan to the Belknap campsite where we had stayed on our drive up Tues. night. I took a swim, changed, cooked dinner (pad Thai) on a gravel bank, and made camp in time to enjoy the moonrise over the VT Rte 102 bridge while waiting for Bob to show up. As it turned out, he had called the Campbells once he’d gotten into town and they came to meet us to make arrangements to get Bob’s kayak back to us the next morning. As we finally turned in that night, we realized we’d paddled 25 miles—a personal best for both of us.
Sure enough, Don and Stacey delivered Bob’s kayak to us at 7 a.m. Friday (thank you!) and we had our first fairly early start of the trip. The rain from the day before would boost the North Stratford gauge to 1300 cfs by midday, but we didn’t know this at the time. All we knew was that we had smooth, swift water to paddle all day long with beautiful blue skies and a cloud here and there for shade. This was by far our easiest, most relaxing day on the river, with many views of the Percy Peaks, a long stop at the Railroad Trestle campsite, and an even longer, leisurely stop for lunch and a swim at the Benton campsite. I wished we could have camped there—best beach we saw, beautiful trees and a grassy green field, picnic table, pleasant breeze, privy with a view—but it was way too early to stop. Later, when we got to the dam at Guildhall, there was still so much daylight left that we decided to shoot for Lancaster. The portage here was up a set of well-built stone steps, across the street, and down again to the other side of the dam.
We paddled the last few miles into Lancaster with the light from the blue moon to guide us and with majestic views of the Whites, but, wouldn’t you know, my camera was broken from dropping it on a sidewalk in Guildhall, so my memories of the evening will have to suffice. We also saw and heard plenty of wildlife—ducks, bats, an otter (?), coyotes. Finally we saw the headlights of cars on the Route 2 bridge and the campfires at the campground just beyond. At the boat launch there was our car, reliably delivered by the Campbells, and as we packed up, we realized we had just paddled 35 miles, shattering our records from just the day before. If we were the types who start paddling at dawn and don’t linger, a 50-mile day would have been doable.
On the way out of town we devoured meals from McDonalds and congratulated ourselves on an adventure worthy—for our egos anyway—of Lewis and Clark. Six hours, a coffee, and a cherry Coke later, I pulled into my driveway back home in Connecticut and slept in my car until my girlfriend and son knocked on the window to wake me up. Mission accomplished!