Active Outdoors: Paddling the Housatonic in Connecticut
Housatonic Rapids: This was the most difficult set of rapids we encountered - it looked a lot more intimidating when we pulled out to scout it than it does in this photo, but turned out to be a lot of fun to run. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
Put In: You don't get a lot of time to practice in your boat before hitting your first rapids on this section of the Housatonic. While you don't have to be an expert at whitewater paddling, it isn't for newbies. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
Quickwater: My new paddling friend Cathy Kosak relaxing for a moment on a quickwater section of the Housatonic River in northwest Connecticut. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
People from Connecticut come north to play all the time, but people from New Hampshire rarely travel to Connecticut for outdoor fun. But it’s my contention that there’s always something worthwhile to do outdoors wherever you are, and with my spare time on a recent business trip to Torrington, Conn., I decided to paddle a section of the Housatonic River.
It was one of those early-August days you dream about, with temperatures in the 50s overnight – perfect sleeping
weather, especially if you are camping. I should have been camping … maybe at Housatonic Meadows State Park right on the river. Next time.
I have a brand-new Dagger Katana 9.7 kayak I purchased from Contoocook River Canoe in Concord just for doing river trips like this. So, naturally, I didn’t bring it. Instead, I’d rented a Liquid Logic “Coupe” sit-on-top kayak and booked a seat on the shuttle run by Clarke Outdoors (clarkeoutdoors.com) in West Cornwall, about half an hour from Torrington. They offer two different self-guided trips, one on flat water above Great Falls, the other on quickwater and mild rapids from Great Falls down to Housatonic Meadows State Park. They rent rafts (which are slow but safe), canoes and kayaks.
Before my trip, I’d read everything I could on paddling on the Housatonic: hvatoday.org/assets/PDFs/ConnPaddleGuide.pdf is a marvelous guide to the river in Connecticut (there’s a companion volume to the river in Massachusetts). Some of what I read on “Section K” from Falls Village down gave me pause. I’ve taken a number of whitewater paddling classes but I’m not a strong whitewater paddler, and some of this section is rated Class II-III (the higher the number, the more difficult), which is right at the upper limits of my ability.
Before leaving home that morning I’d checked the river flow statistics at waterdata.usgs.gov (an incredible resource for river paddlers). All looked good – the river was running a steady flow, with the gauge height registering 3.5 feet. So the river was neither in flood nor very low. Seemed like paddling conditions should be pretty near ideal, and they were.
On the shuttle with me were two families vacationing in the area from London. They were paddling rafts. Also with me was another kayaker, Cathy, a local exploring a section of the river she’d never paddled before. She was as nervous as I was about the difficulty rating, but decided to try it anyway. Hooray for her!
After a basic safety lecture (“always wear your PFD; if you hit a rock lean toward it and don’t panic; if you end up in the river, don’t try to stand up, instead float with your feet downstream until you can swim to shore”), Cathy and I launched our kayaks and never saw the rafters again. Basically, we had the river to ourselves for the first five miles.
In an ideal world, you’d start out in nice easy flatwater, get comfortable, then practice a bit in faster-moving quickwater, then hit your first rapids. On this section of the Housatonic, you don’t get that luxury. You get about 15 seconds of quickwater paddling as you cross the river immediately below the dam, then you are into “Rattlesnake Rapids,” dodging rocks and getting splashed by waves. In high water, this is a very difficult and dangerous Class IV, but for us in low water, it was probably only Class I+, if you kept to river left as recommended.
Cathy and I made it through this first challenge unscathed, exhilarated and smiling, deciding that maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad after all. The next several miles are moving flatwater – you’d have to really not be paying attention to hit anything. We enjoyed the sunny morning and the glimpses of herons and kingfishers.
A few sections of quickwater brought us to the covered bridge in West Cornwall, and that’s where thing got interesting. The river guide describes this as a quarter mile of Class II-III rapids. Even in low water, it looked pretty formidable when we pulled out to eat lunch and scout it.
Cathy decided discretion was the better part of valor and we portaged her boat around the worst section. I had to try it. Both the guidebook and the folks at Clarke Outdoors had said to stay right of the bridge abutment, then move left quickly, and that’s the line I followed – so close that I whacked the abutment with my paddle. A wave train forms a natural line through and I got heavily splashed, but never had any trouble at all. Cathy, watching me go though, said she regretted not doing it.
But by then the current had carried us well downstream and we were constantly dodging rocks, plunging over small holes, and generally having ourselves a blast all the way to the takeout. I’ve been doing quite a bit of river paddling this year, and this was right up there with the best of them.
I want to make it clear that this section of river is, in my opinion, not suitable for a newbie kayaker or canoeist. If you really don’t know what you are doing, use a raft. Or paddle a different, flatter section of river. It’s just a matter of caution and common sense.
Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!
More local options
This is an absolutely wonderful time of year to get out and paddle a river. A day that’s just a little too damp or chilly for lounging on a beach can be perfect for paddling. There are four easy options near Concord, and no experience is necessary.
∎ Contoocook River Canoe (contoocookcanoe.com; 753-9804) rents canoes and kayaks at four locations and runs shuttles on both the Contoocook and Merrimack Rivers.
∎ Quickwater Canoe (quickwatercanoe.com; 753-0025) also rents canoes and kayaks and operates shuttles on the Merrimack.
∎ Kayak Country (kayakcountry.com; 381-8685) offers group tours on the lovely Blackwater River in Warner.
∎ I’ve never been out with them, but Edgewater Canoe Rental (485-9251) is, apparently, a very laid-back option on a flatwater section of the Merrimack River in Hooksett
(Tim Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)