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Serendipity and serenity at the Pawcatuck River’s serpentine headwaters

As the four of us zigzagged our kayaks down the skinniest, twistiest river I have ever paddled — over and around beaver dams, through lily pads, as well as beneath overhanging poison ivy vines and brambles — I heard Rick Sanford call out, “Uh-oh” from somewhere around a bend.

I thought: Now what?

Rick’s father, Tom, Maggie Jones and I caught up and saw the problem — a giant tree had fallen, completely blocking the waterway. A few yards downstream, a second, smaller tree also lay toppled across the river.

After rafting together, we came up with a plan: Rick would squirm out of the cockpit and crawl onto the first horizontal tree, using a line to drag his kayak over the trunk. Then he would let the boat drift with the current until it rested against the second tree, and scramble back to the first tree to help the next paddler, and the next, and so on.

You know the riddle about a farmer trying to cross a river in a small boat while transporting a chicken, a fox and a bag of corn, wondering how to leave two behind on each trip, mindful that the fox might eat the chicken and the chicken might eat the corn? Well, this was way more complicated. 

Welcome to the headwaters of the Pawcatuck River, which begins as a lazy creek exiting Worden Pond in South Kingston, R.I., and ends 38 miles later in a wide, tidal outlet at Little Narragansett Bay on the border between Stonington and Westerly.

Tom and Rick organized a voyage of the river in stages, and they invited Maggie and me to accompany them. Last week, the four of us completed the first leg; I’ll write about subsequent sections as we work our way downriver.

We launched from a public boat ramp at the south shore of the pond named for the Worden Family, who purchased land surrounding the sprawling, 1,042-acre lake in 1695. Our first challenge: find the unmarked river entrance, more than a mile to the northwest.

After a couple of false forays into dead-end coves, we located the opening, partially obscured by tall grasses and phragmites just west of Case Point. A slow but steady current pulled us into headwaters contained within the 3,500-acre Great Swamp Wildlife Management Area. Acquired by the state of Rhode Island in 1950 and preserved for wildlife diversity, the swamp — the largest in New England — also is the site of a 1675 battle between colonists and the Narragansett Indian Tribe.

Soon we were enveloped in a mossy world of chattering birds, towering cedars, colorful wildflowers and lush foliage that might be mistaken for Borneo or Madagascar.

It feels like we’re in “another country, a different world,” said Maggie, director emeritus of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic. “The American Elderberry and floating mats of forget-me-nots in full bloom are an added bonus, providing food for bees, flies, wasps and pollinators, and cover for turtles, snakes and river wildlife,” she added.

Maggie noted that the name for the forget-me-not is derived from a legend involving a German man who planned to present a bouquet of the delicate, blue blossoms to his lover but slipped off a riverbank.

As the current pulled him under, he supposedly cried, “Forget me not” before tossing the flowers and disappearing below the surface.

This wasn’t a pleasant image to conjure as we scrambled over mud-covered logs and weaved through constricted stretches of tumbling rapids.

Happily, the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association, which promotes river conservation in a 14-town region along the waterway, had cleared dozens of other overhanging trees and branches, so we encountered no more significant obstructions.

At one point, my eyes caught the reflection of what appeared to be a smooth, medicine ball-sized rock half-buried in the mud. Then it moved — an enormous snapping turtle that slid into the inky depths.

After we passed beneath a railroad bridge just past the confluence of the Usquepaug River, the banks widened on our approach to the tiny village of Kenyon.

Here, Kenyon Industries remains as the last surviving factory in a region once awash in textile mills. As The Day reported in Judy Benson’s 2015 series about the Pawcatuck River, the dam that once powered the mill was replaced six years ago with a stepped series of rock weirs and resting pools to allow such anadromous fish as herring, eels and shad to swim upstream to spawn.

As many as eight dams once interrupted the Pawcatuck; when the final one was replaced with a fish ladder in 2017 as part of a nationwide river restoration effort, fish once again could travel unimpeded all the way from Little Narragansett Bay to Worden Pond, the first time in more than 250 years. 

We kayakers, though, were reluctant to paddle through the new fish ladder on our downstream journey. Lack of rain in recent weeks had lowered the river level, exposing a minefield of boulders that could pin or capsize our boats, so we decided to detour around 100 yards or so of churning whitewater.

“I don’t see a good place to get out,” I called, after paddling ahead to scout both sides of the river.

The west bank rose steeply — more than 20 feet — to a row of private homes, many with fences and no-trespassing signs. We decided that the east side presented the better option, even though it was lined with mud and choked with briars and thickets that would have stymied Lewis and Clark.

After struggling to land our boats and preparing for a nasty portage, we heard a whistle from across the river.

A man standing on a balcony shouted and waved his arms. Was he berating us? Warning us?

No — he was beckoning, and over the roaring water, we heard him invite us to use his dock.

So we clambered back into our kayaks, shoved off from the muddy bank and paddled across the river.

“Much easier on this side,” said our Good Samaritan, Robert Baxter. Easy is a relative term: We still had to lug our boats up two flights of stairs and then carry them another hundred yards to a downriver launch site.

Meanwhile, Robert, a therapist/instructor for his healing business, The Wellness Factor, drove his truck to inspect a bridge to make sure we would be able to paddle our kayaks safely beneath it.

“All clear!” he announced upon his return.

Paddlers and hikers often encounter people like Robert who brighten the day and restore faith in humanity.

Thus buoyed, Tom, Rick, Maggie and I resumed our voyage, confronting only one other challenge: a portage around the picturesque horseshoe waterfall in the village of Shannock.

The takeout was only a few yards from the lip of the tumbling cataract, and there were no warning signs, gates or safety cables. One careless slip of the paddle and over you’d go — yikes.

Once safely ashore, we nibbled on snacks before carrying our kayaks another hundred yards to a makeshift launch site. Soon we were paddling to the day’s final destination, Shannock Mills Historical Site at the border between Richmond and Charlestown.

Here, another dam had been removed, thanks to efforts by the watershed association with support from federal grants.

The Knowles Mill Park now offers a riverside respite where textile mills once dumped industrial waste into the water.

With all the twists, turns and portages, we had covered only a little over 5 miles in about six hours.

“It’ll get easier once the river widens,” Tom promised.

Assuming we don’t tumble over any waterfalls, I’ll write the next installment in a couple weeks.

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