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Going with the flow on the Pawcatuck River, Part III

While I lugged my kayak on a narrow path along the Pawcatuck River the other morning to join the other paddlers who, like me, had decided to detour around a tumultuous stretch of whitewater, I was mystified to see Rick Sanford dragging his boat back in my direction. 

“Where you going?” I asked.

“I changed my mind. I’m gonna paddle it,” he replied.

“Really?”

Rick nodded, and as I stared at the series of steep plunges over rock walls, I could see one narrow, possible route, but it would be tricky. After all, the stone impediments, built to replace a demolished dam, were designed to help fish swim upriver, not kayakers paddle downriver. One boulder jutted menacingly in the middle of the only gap — the main reason I had decided to bypass this section when I’d surveyed it from shore.

The three of us — Rick’s dad Tom Sanford, Maggie Jones and I — watched nervously while Rick shoved off and shot into a roiling current.

He handled the first drop perfectly, right down the middle, but as I feared, while attempting to navigate the second plunge, the imposing rock knocked him off kilter.

Uh-oh, I thought, this isn’t going to be pretty.

Sure enough, Rick’s kayak broached, tossing him into the swirling torrent.

It wasn’t a life-or-death emergency — he was wearing a life jacket and the water was only chest deep. In seconds Rick, sans kayak, was upright and soon managed to wade ashore.

I scrambled down an embankment to help him dump water that had poured into his cockpit, while Tom retrieved an errant paddle. In short order, all of us were back on our way, continuing a 38-mile, staged voyage from the river’s source at Worden Pond in South Kingston, R.I., to its mouth at Little Narragansett Bay between Pawcatuck and Westerly.

In truth, I wasn’t all that surprised by Rick’s derring-do. During two previous legs of our journey, he had expertly taken on the role as expedition scout, leading us over fallen logs and through whitewater sections. (“Conquering the Pawcatuck River’s dreaded Mousehole,” published July 23; and “Serendipity and serenity at the Pawcatuck River’s serpentine headwaters,” published June 25.)

“A valiant effort through the weir,” I said. “You know, so far we’ve handled the rapids in all possible ways: We’ve paddled down them, waded through them, portaged around them, and now, flipped over in them. Well done!”

Our group began this third leg where we left off the previous week, at a state boat ramp off Route 91 in Bradford. We encountered the troublesome weir in less than 100 yards.

After Rick’s brief dunk, we swept along in a steady current down the serene, secluded Pawcatuck, which richly deserves its status as a federal Wild and Scenic River. It has been a recurring delight to realize that such a worthy waterway flows so close to home. 

It was a beastly humid, scorching day, fueled by an oven-like south wind that sent temperatures skyrocketing into the mid-90s.

Even painted turtles sunning on partially sunken logs seemed especially languid. Birds, too, were mostly silent — by mid-summer, the raucous mating season has ended and they are hunkered in nests while caring for their chicks, explained Maggie Jones, director emeritus of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic.

The exceptions were osprey, whose high-pitched cries filled the air throughout one long section.

An adult and three juveniles swooped, dived and skimmed the water, continuously flying just ahead as we paddled downstream. 

“This is amazing!” Maggie exclaimed. The young birds were practicing aerial maneuvers that will help them catch fish, she noted.

After more than seven miles of steady paddling, we arrived at the Potter Hill dam. Over the past 250 years, as many as eight dams blocked the Pawcatuck; thanks to government programs encouraged by such environmental advocates as the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association, all either have been demolished or outfitted with fish ladders.

We carried out kayaks about 100 yards downstream past a steep waterfall, where the ruins of the Potter Hill Mill stand. The Potter Family built a gristmill there in 1762; the complex expanded in the 1800s for the construction of sloops and schooners, as well as gunboats for the War of 1812. The last business, the Pawcatuck Woolen Mill Company, shut down in 1958.

Over the next several miles, we were surrounded by swaths of protected land: The Pawcatuck River Sandbarrens; Wood State Fishing and Hunting Area; and two adjoining tracts named for the Grills Family. The Grills Preserve, owned by the Westerly Land Trust, spreads out over more than 543 acres on the south side of the river, while the Grills Wildlife Sanctuary, owned by the Hopkinton Land Trust, extends an additional 432 acres on the north side.

These parcels are connected by the Polly Coons Bridge, which friends and I crossed a couple weeks earlier while hiking through the Grills Preserve. I’ll write about that outing soon.

Beyond these preserves, we began passing more riverfront homes; the shoreline grew busier and the sound of road traffic grew more insistent.

Cows from the Beriah Lewis Farm in North Stonington meandered down to the water near the site of the Boom Bridge, where construction workers building a new span across the river were taking a lunch break. The old bridge had been heavily damaged during the 2010 flood.

In another mile and a half, we scraped over rocks that are the only remnants of a former dam at White Rock, and then bogged down for more than a mile in thick beds of eelgrass.

“It’s like the Sargasso Sea!” Tom exclaimed.

Mercifully, once we approached the Route 1 bridge between Pawcatuck and downtown Westerly, the weeds thinned and we enjoyed clear paddling to the Westerly Boat Ramp, where we had dropped off cars earlier.

“Well, almost on the home stretch,” I said, as we pulled our kayaks from the water. 

Only about five more miles of easy, unobstructed paddling to Little Narragansett Bay — no more barreling over beaver dams, portaging around fish weirs, ducking under overhanging branches, brushing up against poison ivy vines or weaving through mazes of fallen logs.

I guess it’ll still be fun.

Depending on everyone’s schedules and the weather, we plan to wrap things up next week.

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