Paddling can be a broad term. For some, the word “paddling” brings to mind a high-energy, fast-paced sport on turbulent rivers — the perfect activity to replace skiing during warmer months. For others, paddling induces thoughts of a more relaxing day on one of Maine’s lakes, watching bald eagles soar overhead, or of spending a night at a boat-access tentsite on an island in Casco Bay. Others envision a day of floating off of New England’s rocky coastline, watching as seals and whales surface just beyond the break.
New England’s whitewater paddling doesn’t necessarily compare to some Western destinations like Wyoming, Colorado, and Oregon when it comes to consistent and reliable paddling conditions. But whitewater paddlers in New England live for the spring thaw, when the high-altitude snow begins to melt, transforming small and steep mountain streams into raging whitewater runs, ready to test even the most-experienced paddlers. This, combined with the diversity of available paddling styles — ranging from relaxed flatwater to multi-day sea kayaking excursions — make New England a renowned paddling destination.
For this reason, there are a number of paddling clubs throughout the region, perfect for paddlers of all experience levels.
“Going with a club is beneficial because you can learn from experts,” said Suzie Laskin, a veteran paddler of more than 40 years and founder of the now-defunct Mount Washington Valley Paddlers Club. “You’ll also meet people who you can paddle with all of the time. It’s really about friendship and camaraderie.”
Regardless of the type of paddling adventures you’d like to embark on or your skill level, there are countless clubs and paddling destinations to choose from throughout the Northeast.
New England paddling clubs
Vermont Paddlers Club
For the past 57 years, the Vermont Paddlers Club has been organizing both whitewater and flatwater canoe and kayak trips as well as instructional courses. In addition to a novice paddling course, the Vermont Paddlers Club offers swiftwater rescue, Class 2 and creeking courses, as well as pool sessions, although classes are currently limited due to COVID-19 (as is the case with most clubs).
The club also offers group trips, such as a recent weekend of paddling in Ottawa. Such trips are perfect for becoming involved with a community of fellow Vermont paddlers.
The club website (www.vtpaddlers.net) also is a great resource for paddlers who want to stay on top of conditions or help provide updates to other kayakers through its forum. The group also provides links to current water flow data and updates on scheduled dam releases throughout the region.
The annual membership fee for the Vermont Paddlers Club is $15, but to avoid additional fees incurred by the American Canoe Association, it is recommended participants become a member of that group as well. A bundled Vermont Paddlers Club and American Canoe Association membership for an individual is $45 per year.
AMC NH Paddlers
While the Appalachian Mountain Club, or AMC, is well-known for its hut systems and educational hikes in New Hampshire’s Crawford and Pinkham notches, the AMC does have a paddling club in the state.
The organization, which prides itself on its conservation efforts, offers trips consistently on weekends from March through October. Like other clubs, these trips range from leisurely flatwater paddling outings to advanced whitewater trips. The AMC also offers a variety of free (or cheap) courses, including wilderness expeditions, sea kayaking, quiet water paddling, and whitewater paddling.
Quiet water courses generally consist of flatwater paddles where participants are allowed to try different types of boats — perfect for those trying to dip their feet into the world of paddling. The touring course focuses on longer-distance paddling on rivers and lakes, how to properly portage, and necessary safety skills. The AMC whitewater course is just that — an introduction to paddling Class 2 river rapids, how to read the river, how to conduct a wet exit, and other mandatory skills to enter the world of whitewater. The AMC’s sea kayaking course does have content that overlaps with other courses — like how to roll a kayak, which is a common skill for whitewater paddlers — but focuses mainly on paddling coastal estuaries and bays.
An annual AMC membership, which is inclusive of all AMC benefits, including discounts on gear and lodging, costs $50 for an individual, $25 for seniors or those under 30, and $75 for a family, which covers two adults and all children under 21. (amcnh.org/paddling)
Ledyard Canoe Club
Ledyard Canoe Club, established in 1920, is one of the older clubs in the region. Based out of Dartmouth College, the club offers canoe, kayak and standup paddleboard rentals in addition to hosting events, races, trips and clinics.
Due to COVID-19, all 2020 trips were canceled and there is currently nothing on the schedule for 2021. But as the world begins to normalize again, it is worth checking in periodically to keep up to date on trips and clinics. Until then, rentals are available for daily and nightly rates, or free for a day of use by members, which costs a $90 annual fee for non-students. (www.ledyardcanoeclub.org)
Southern Maine Sea Kayak Network
Based in Portland, Maine, the Southern Maine Sea Kayak Network is a peer-to-peer organization focused on paddling tidal waters. There are no specific trip leaders or instructors — group members who have been designated an “organizer” by leadership host their own trips for other members to join.
While there are some trips in estuaries, most outings take place in the open ocean, which means a proper sea kayak of at least 16 feet is recommended.
A $20 annual membership will gain you access to the meetup page, which is where organizers post trips for members to join. Currently, a few trips lined up include overnight paddling and camping trips on some of Casco Bay’s islands and an evening surf session on a break in Kettle Cove, just south of Portland. (www.smskn.net)
Where to paddle
West River, Vermont
The West River, which originates in Skylight Pond, just south of Bread Loaf Mountain, is a 60-mile tributary to the Connecticut River in southern Vermont. The upper section, located in Jamaica, is home to exhilarating Class 3 rapids during dam releases, which happen only a handful of times per year. Novice paddlers with some basic whitewater experience, however, might want to opt for the lower stretch of the river. The Class 2 and Class 3 rapids in the lower section — which are located in Londonderry and on a stretch of river about five miles long — run in the early spring when the snow begins to melt, and again in the fall when there is a dam release.
Kennebec River, Maine
The 170-mile Kennebec River flows through Maine from Moosehead Lake to the Gulf of Maine in Bath. Along its journey, the river meanders through a variety of ecosystems, including tidal marsh, dune habitats, and pine woodlands. In fact, the estuary is home to more than 20 percent of the state’s tidal marshes as well as more than two dozen rare plants. The banks of the Kennebec also provide some of the best opportunities for viewing bald eagles in Maine.
Whitewater paddlers typically put in just below the Harris Dam in Somerset County, which is released daily. This section of river contains rapids up to Class 4 during the release. The high-flow nature of the river requires paddlers to have comfort and experience paddling similar terrain — it’s not for beginners. Below Carry Brook, which is approximately six miles downstream from the dam, the water mellows out with sections of Class 3 rapids being the most difficult.
Those looking for a more relaxed trip might want to consider the lower stretches of river. A popular 18.5-mile stretch flows between Waterville and Augusta, and while there are some small navigable rapids, much of it consists of calmer riffles, runs, and pools. As the river approaches Bath, mountainous landscapes give way to dunes and marshes, where the endangered Atlantic sturgeon occasionally can be spotted.
Allagash River, Maine
While the Allagash River itself is only 65 miles long, it is part of a larger 92-mile canoe trail — the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in northern Maine. This remote network of lakes, ponds and river was established in 1966 as a wilderness waterway, four years before the U.S. Department of Interior designated it as the first state-administered section of what would eventually become the National Wild and Scenic River System.
While there are rapids along the way, the long-distance trip is primarily a wilderness expedition, and the most serious of rapids can be skipped by portaging. Like many of Maine’s major waterways, such as the Kennebec and Androscoggin rivers, the Allagash was an important component of the state’s logging industry until the 1970s, and some of the historical remnants remain, telling the story of Maine’s industrial past.
Today, the waterway is largely untouched, save for the animals who inhabit it. Those who embark on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in its entirety should plan on a full wilderness experience — there are no towns for supplies, no cell service, and no Wi-Fi. For this reason, those who choose to paddle this route should be competent with remote backcountry travel and paddling of up to Class 2 rapids.
Casco Bay, Maine
Composed of the coastal water between Cape Elizabeth and Cape Small, Casco Bay is a 229-square-mile bay along 578 miles of Maine coastline. There are 785 islands and exposed pieces of land in the bay, some of which have campsites available to boaters and paddlers.
Since Casco Bay is coastal water — much of which is exposed to the open ocean — those heading out to paddle should be comfortable with sea kayaking and have an appropriate boat, complete with spray skirt. Of course, some areas of Casco Bay are more sheltered than others, and a route should be chosen based on level of comfortability, weather and, forecasted sea swell.
While a day paddler can enjoy exploring Maine’s rocky coastline, watching seals, whales, porpoise, and other wildlife, overnight excursions are the best way to truly experience paddling the coast. One of the most popular islands to camp on is Richmond Island, which actually is home to a herd of wild rams. Despite it being only a mile off the coast of Kettle Cove in Cape Elizabeth, the island has a sense of remoteness unrivaled by other accessible destinations. Cow Island and the Goslings are two other islands that allow camping in the bay, but many of these islands require advance reservations.
Umbagog Lake, New Hampshire/Maine
Straddling the border between New Hampshire and Maine, just east of Errol, N.H., Umbagog Lake is a 7,850-acre body of water with 33 boat-access campsites. Like many remote campsites, reservations are required in advance.
While Umbagog does have a remote feel, it isn’t necessarily a wilderness experience that requires multiple days or advanced backcountry training (although it’s smart to be prepared to handle an emergency). The campsites are boat-access only, but rarely is more than a few miles of paddling required to reach them — the lake is 11 miles long from north to south. Paddling trips on Umbagog can be the perfect outing for a family or those who would like to test their skills and dial in their systems before heading out on a more remote trip.
That’s not to say Umbagog isn’t a worthwhile destination. It’s easy to get away from crowds, paddling to and from primitive campsites, watching bald eagles overhead. Moose, bobcats, and osprey all call the ecosystem around the lake home, making it a great place to watch for wildlife.