Active Outdoors: Dry year, less foliage won’t take away from fall paddle sessions

  • There are few experiences that can match a paddle on a river lined with trees in brilliant fall colors. Try it before it’s too late. TIM JONES /

  • Even if the foliage display is just getting started, you can find moments of brilliance along a river during fall. TIM JONES /

  • Leo Freeman and Marilyn Donnelly paddle past a spectacular foliage display on the Aroostook River near Presque Isle, Maine. TIM JONES /

  • Pedaling back to get your vehicle is just part of the fun on a fall foliage paddle-pedal excursion. Often, the road ride is a shorter distance than the river paddle. TIM JONES /

For the Monitor
Published: 10/2/2016 12:11:03 AM
Modified: 10/2/2016 12:10:53 AM

With a prolonged drought in full control across much of New England this summer, the foliage season is a big question mark. The display seems to have started early in some places, not yet in others. Typically, dry years are less colorful.

My advice is to head for water. Usually the very best foliage in a dry year is along water, where the trees get all they need all summer and fall. And paddling a canoe or kayak is the perfect way to enjoy that foliage. Our ponds, lakes and rivers are wonderful places to be when the foliage is lit up by the autumn sun.

And here’s another observation: The foliage is often better along rivers than it is around lakes. That’s because river valleys tend to get earlier, harder frosts, while warmer lake waters tend to keep the surrounding area warmer and may delay the onset of color. Frost is a key ingredient in a great foliage display.

There is nothing more beautiful than a river when the leaves are all aflame on its banks and the surrounding hillsides. It’s magic, pure magic.

The trouble with paddling on a river is that it’s often a one-way journey. If there’s any real current, it’s far easier (and more fun, I think), to paddle downstream. You can travel farther and see more scenery for the same effort.

But one-way travel creates a logistics problem – you often take out miles from where you put in. That can be a problem unless you are traveling in a group with two or more cars. With multiple cars and multiple people, it’s easy enough to leave a car at the take out and one at the put in. It may take several trips, but you can always get boats and paddlers and cars back together.

But what if you only have one car? Maybe you’re paddling alone, or with a friend and you don’t want to take two cars. In that case, one way around the problem is to hire someone to shuttle you up or down the river. In this day of smart phones and ride services, you could probably get Uber or Lyft to shuttle you (I admit, I haven’t tried that yet). Or you can go the more traditional route and work with a company that shuttles boats.

But I think the simplest (and most fun) way to shuttle on a river adventure is by bicycle. I call it a paddle-pedal outing and here’s how it works: First, identify your planned put in and take out locations. Drive to your take out and use a long cable lock to secure your bicycle to a tree in some inconspicuous spot (I’ve never had my bike stolen or tampered with, but I suppose it could happen). Then, drive car and boats to your put in. A lot of rivers meander, so the road distance is often considerably less that the paddling distance.

At the put in, throw all your gear in the boat (including bike shoes, shorts and helmet in a dry bag), park and lock your car and go. Take your time, enjoy the paddling, admire the foliage as it gently glides by, stop for a picnic. Then, when you get to your take out, just change into your bike gear, secure your boat with the bike lock (I tuck my paddle and PFD inside the boat out of sight and have never had a problem), then pedal back to your car. Enjoy the ride – it’s a good way to give your legs and lungs a good workout after all that sitting in the boat. By the time you’re back at your car, your whole body will feel alive, and you’ll feel like you’ve had a perfect fall foliage day.

Three notes of caution: One, the water is cooling at this time of year, so always wear your PFD when you are on the water, even if you are a strong swimmer and not expecting to get wet. Two, don’t get so lost in the paddling experience that you miss your take out point (this actually happened to some friends of mine). And three, be sure you have your car keys with you when you pedal back to your car, otherwise you might be in for more bike riding than you really wanted. I speak from personal experience on this one.

There’s one more caution to add: Foliage season is fleeting. If you hesitate, you are going to miss it. Why not throw a boat and a bike on the car and head out for a paddle-pedal this weekend? Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

Foliage favorites

Any of these rivers are great for a fall foliage paddle. The contacts given rent kayaks and provide shuttle services into the fall. Most stay open through Columbus Day, but call ahead to make sure. If no contact is given, you are on your own, which makes them perfect for a paddle-pedal. For even more options, check out the AMC River Guides (

Androscoggin River, Bethel, Maine:Bethel Outdoor Adventure

Aroostook River, Presque Isle, Maine:Perception of Aroostook

Blackwater River, Andover:Kayak Country

Charles River Newton/Auburndale, Mass.: Charles River Canoe & Kayak

Contoocook River, Peterborough-Bennington: Amazing Grace Marina

Contoocook River, Contoocook-Concord

Connecticut River, North Haverhill:Hemlock Pete’s Canoes and Kayaks

Connecticut River, Brattleboro, Vt.: Vermont Canoe Touring Center

Deerfield River, Charlemont, Mass.:Zoar Outdoor

Housatonic River, Adams, Mass.:Berkshire Outfitters

Housatonic River, West Cornwall, Conn.:Clarke Outdoors

Lamoille River, Jeffersonville, Vt.: Bert’s Boats

Magalloway River, Errol:Northern Waters Outfitters

Merrimack River, Franklin to Penacook

Nashua River, West Groton, Mass.:Nashoba Paddler

Pemigewasset River, Woodstock – Campton

Saco River, N.H.:Northern Extremes, North Conway

Saco River, N.H., Conway: Saco Bound

Saco River, N.H., Conway:Saco Canoe Rental Company

Saco River, Fryeburg, Maine:Saco River Canoe and Kayak

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