VIDEO: Dam, mill race quench local thirst for white water

For Michael Vechinsky of North Stonington, there are few better places to paddle than the section of the Pawcatuck River just a few miles from his home.

One Sunday in June, he and five other members of the Rhode Island Canoe & Kayak Association paddled six miles from just below the Potter Hill Dam in Westerly to the town boat launch south of downtown, ending the excursion with a celebratory beer at The Bridge restaurant.

After they passed ruins of an old factory below the Potter Hill Dam, much of the way was flat water surrounded by forests, fields and a small dairy farm where the cows graze on the riverbanks.

Until they reached the White Rock Dam a little north of downtown, that is. There, a peaceful day of paddling became charged with a bit of adrenaline.

“This is one of my favorite paddles right here, because it adds a little excitement to the rather flat water,” Vechinsky said, as he and the other paddlers pulled their kayaks up to a grassy strip along White Rock Dam for a break.

The dam, a dingy, leaking concrete structure that helped power a textile mill for several decades starting in the mid-1800s, is a favorite destination for paddlers eager to try their skills on one of the few significant stretches of whitewater in the region.

The derelict dam channels a wide spot in the river into a narrow stone and concrete mill race. Paddlers power through the rapids, trying to avoid rocks and stay ahead of the swift-moving current.

“It’s fun to mix it up, some quiet and some rough,” said Michael Davis of Attleboro, Mass., who came with his wife, Susan, to paddle with the group.

Soon though, paddlers will have to look elsewhere for a whitewater thrill.

White Rock Dam and the mill race, with Westerly on one side and Pawcatuck on the other, are slated to be torn down later this summer as the latest of several projects restoring the river’s natural flows.

Better passage for migratory fish and a healthier river overall are the goals.

“We’re very close to getting the approvals from both states’ wetlands regulatory agencies and Army Corps’ permitting,” John O’Brien, who works in partnership development at the Nature Conservancy’s Rhode Island chapter, said Monday.

The conservancy is spearheading the dam removal project, which is being funded by a federal grant of about $1.2 million.

Work is slated to begin the third week of July, he said, and will be completed by November.

A series of dams at that location has blocked flows there since the 1700s, O’Brien said.

Removing the dam will let the river move in a way it hasn’t been able to for nearly 300 years.

“There won’t be rapids anymore, but a free-flowing river,” O’Brien said. “Taking down the dam will reduce the risk of dam failure and flooding downstream, and will make the paddling safer and more pleasurable for everyone.”

While some paddlers are eager for whitewater, he said, others avoid it. The owner of the dam, Griswold Textiles in Westerly, is supportive of the project.

The successor of the mill that originally used the dam for hydroelectric power, the company now does silkscreen printing and has not used the river for many years, he said.

The same day Vechinsky and the paddlers group ran the mill race, friends Glen Gellow of Fishers Island and Chris Dey of Stonington brought their short whitewater kayaks to play and practice their skills in the mill race.

"This is the local spot," said Gellow, who traversed back and forth through the race several times that day.

His friend admitted to feeling ambivalent about the dam removal. He understands the conservation goals, but will miss what has been a favorite local recreational asset.

“A lot of kayakers are sorry to see it go,” Dey said, “but we’ll find out what it was like here 300 years ago.”

j.benson@theday.com

Twitter: @BensonJudy

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