Active Outdoors: Try a paddle-pedal this summer
Rivers are marvelous things. Like living creatures, they move and change constantly, and most of them seem to reside in beautiful places. Even urban rivers are beautiful.
Rivers are especially wonderful when you paddle on them in a kayak or canoe. Some rivers flow fast and rocky. Real whitewater is nothing to fool around with, and should only be paddled by people with the correct equipment and the knowledge and skills to use it safely. But most rivers have quieter sections of flat water or easy quickwater where the currents are more manageable and almost anyone can paddle safely.
On some of these, you can – if the water level and current are right – put in at one place, paddle upstream for a distance while you are feeling fresh, then turn and paddle back to your launch point with the current helping you. But on many rivers, you paddle with the current or not at all.
Like most people in New England, my sweetheart Marilyn and I have a river not far from our house. “Our” river has some very serious whitewater stretches – which she avoids, though I’m slowly learning the skills I need to tackle them. But “our” river also has several easier sections that are perfect for paddling on a warm spring or summer afternoon. A couple of those sections can be paddled both upstream and down much of the time, but when the water’s high, it’s a one-way street – downstream.
The trouble with one-way paddling is the need to shuttle cars and boats. You have to somehow drop your boats off upstream before you start, and pick them up downstream when you are done paddling. That usually means two cars and a couple of trips between the put-in and take-out spots. If you go with a group, that’s pretty easy, but when it’s just the two of us, that means taking two cars from home, dropping one at the takeout, driving back to the put-in, paddling down river, driving back to the put-in to get the car with the kayak racks, driving back down the river to get the boats. It’s a lot of wasted gas.
So we’ve perfected the “paddle-pedal,” which means one car, exactly half the driving, and some fun exercise as a bonus. Here’s how it worked on a recent outing:
The section of river we wanted to paddle is about eight miles long following the twists and turns of the river, but it’s less than five miles by road. We loaded two kayaks and our tandem bike (a solo bike works, too) on the car, drove to the take-out, where we locked the bike to a tree. Then we drove to the put-in, stored our bike shoes and helmets in the kayaks, donned our PFDs, picked up our paddles and launched the kayaks. The river was high, the current was fast and the paddle downriver actually went faster than we would have liked. It would have been nice to savor the beautiful day and the flowing river a little longer.
At the takeout, we pulled the boats up onto shore and locked them with the bike lock, pedaled the five miles to our car in less than half an hour, then went back and picked up the boats. If we’d been at a higher-traffic take-out where we were worried about boats, paddles or PFDs being stolen, Marilyn would have brought a book and a camp chair and stayed with the boats while I pedaled a solo bike back to the car. Of course we could have reversed the whole procedure and done the pedaling before the paddling, leaving the car at the takeout. Whatever works.
The real point is a paddle-pedal adventure involves less driving, takes only one car and adds another bit of fun to your wonderful day on the water. Try it!
Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!
Scout and be safe
The degree of difficulty and danger on any river can vary greatly with the water level. A river you paddled easily and safely when the water was at low or moderate flow can easily put you in real peril when the current is hammering. And things can change in a hurry.
On the day we paddled “our” river, the water was up and the current strong from recent heavy rains. All the dams on the river were dumping water in preparation for even more rain to come. A quick check of the website erh.noaa.gov/nerfc indicated the river wasn’t in flood. And the site water.weather.gov/ahps/region.php?wrr=1 showed that the water had risen in the past few days, but not dangerously so. You can use these two sites to check most rivers in New England.
Still, we decided to do the section we knew best, and even then we stopped at several points along our route to look at the river before we launched. There aren’t any rocks in this section and the river is wide enough here that there’s always enough room to avoid “strainers,” which are fallen trees with at least one end lodged in the bank. Paddlers who get pinned against a strainer by fast-flowing water are in a world of trouble.
Turns out we had a very pleasant, very easy paddle on the swift current – no troubles at all. Our only problem: the eight miles of river went by too fast.
But on another section of that same river that same day, three kayakers had not done their homework. They found themselves caught in the heavy current and were swept into the barrel-barrier above a dam. One made to shore, one was rescued by bystanders, but the third had to be rescued by emergency responders. Bet everyone involved wished they’d made wiser choices.
Rivers change from day to day. Make sure you know what you are facing before you launch your canoe or kayak.
If you don’t have your own boats or don’t want to get involved with doing your own shuttle, there are a host of businesses that rent and shuttle (if needed) kayaks and canoes on the rivers of the Northeast. If you are interested in playing with a river this summer, I have a list. Drop me a note and I’ll get it to you.
(Tim Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)