Paddling the Housatonic

Thursday, August 14, 2014

ACTIVE OUTDOORS

Paddling the Housatonic

Among the roll call of the great rivers of New England, one that’s likely to be overlooked is the Housatonic that flows about 139 miles from northern Massachusetts down the west side of the Berkshires and the Litchfield Hills to Long Island Sound.

Tubers enjoy rapids on the Housatonic River near the West Cornwall Covered Bridge in Cornwall Thursday ahead of columnist Tim Jones and his kayak.

Erin Covey / Republican-American 

 

That’s too bad, because the Housatonic is close to home for a lot of people and provides some wonderful paddling opportunities. I know because, two days ago, I was in a kayak on the river, thoroughly enjoying the experience.

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.

On this particular day, I’d gotten up early and driven down from my home in New Hampshire with the Housatonic as my goal. I’d picked up the Housatonic in Great Barrington, Mass., and had followed its winding course south through changing scenes of green hillsides, valley lands and towns that once drew their very lifeblood from the river. Nice ride, need to do it on a bike.

Next time.

I’d rented a kayak and booked a seat on the earliest shuttle (10:30) run by Clarke Outdoors (860-672-6365; clarkeoutdoors.com). They are fanatic paddlers and have been in business for 37 years and operate an efficient system.

In addition to selling canoes and kayaks, 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 have rafts, which are the hardest to paddle but safest, canoes, and kayaks.

Their website describes this section as being suitable for novice paddlers. More on that in a moment.

In the days before my trip, I’d read everything I could on paddling on the Housatonic. Some of the best information was at hvatoday.org/assets/PDFs/ ConnPaddleGuide.pdf. This is simply a marvelous guide to the river in Connecticut (a companion volume details the river in Massachusetts). I focused on “Section K” from Falls Village down and some of what I read 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 (the site number for Falls Village is 01199000, which makes finding the data you want much simpler). 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, one vacationing in the area from London, England. They were paddling rafts. Also with me was another kayaker, Cathy Kosak, a local who had read about my upcoming visit to Connecticut and had decided this was the time to explore 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.

FLATWATER , QUICKWATER

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+, at least if you keep 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.

Active Outdoors columnist Tim Jones (R) paddles the Housatonic River near the West Cornwall Covered Bridge in Cornwall Thursday. Reader Cathy Kosak of Terryville (L) joined him for the adventure.

Erin Covey / Republican-American 

 

A few sections of quickwater brought us to the covered bridge in West Cornwall, and that’swhere things started to get interesting. The river guide describes this as a quarter mile of Class II-III rapids, and even in low water, it looked pretty formidable when we pulled out to eat lunch and scout it.

Active Outdoors columnist Tim Jones points out rapids along the Housatonic River near the West Cornwall Covered Bridge in Cornwall Thursday.

Erin Covey / Republican-American  

 

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 I could touch 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 said, watching me go though, 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.

Cathy says she’s looking for a local paddling partner, preferably another retired woman, so she can do this again more often. If you’re interested, drop me a note and I’ll connect you.

Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

CAUTIONS

First of all, I want to make it clear that this section of river is, in my opinion, probably not suitable for a newbie kayaker or canoeist. If you really don’t know what you are doing, I’d recommend paddling a canoe or kayak on the flatwater section above Great Falls or using a raft below.

It’s just a matter of caution and common sense. In either case, Clarke Outdoors has the shuttle service and boats you need.

Speaking of boats. I own a Dagger Katana 9.7 “crossover” kayak I bought specifically for paddling rivers like this. It would have been absolutely perfect. But for simplicity on this trip I left my own boat at home and rented a Liquid Logic “Coupe” from Clarke Outdoors.

This is an excellent sit-ontop for moving water and it was a lot of fun to paddle. But a big part of paddling in turbulent water is being able to trust the boat you are in and predict what it can do.

I had a wonderful time, but wished I brought my own boat that I knew and trusted. Cathy used her own boat and it made a difference for her.

If you don’t own an appropriate kayak, by all means rent one. But if you are going to do this more than once or twice a year, you will want to get your own boat and learn it.

Tim Jones is executive editor of the online magazine EasternSlopes.com and writes about outdoor sports and travel. Email: timjones@easternslopes.com.

Copyright (c) 2014 Republican-American 08/09/2014

 

 

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