Paddling Through Elm Bank and Charles River Village


We started our kayaking trek on a glorious Fourth of July day with bright sunshine, high humidity, and average river levels. The starting point was the end point for our paddling trip through Rocky Narrows and Broadmoor: the South Natick Dam.

A gentle push got us going in the moderate flow over the scratchy, rock-strewn run just after the dam. A little way downstream, we came across the beautiful Cheney Bridge spanning the river.


The Cheney bridge provides access to Elm Bank: 182 acres of woodlands, fields, and an old estate property surrounded on three sides by the Charles River. Elm Bank was given its name in 1740, when Colonel John Jones acquired the land and planted elms along the banks of the Charles River. The site was eventually sold in 1874 to Benjamin Pierce Cheney. The Olmsted Brothers, were hired to design and improve the gardens.  The entire site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987 and is currently owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and leased to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.

There is a marshy area on the left where Waban Brook enters the Charles River. If you peek over your shoulder as you pass, you can catch a glimpse of the Waban Arches. If the water is high enough you can paddle up Waban Brook to the structure. It was and we did.

Waban Arches
Waban Arches

The Waban Arches support the Sudbury Aqueduct which carried water from a reservoir in Framingham to the Chestnut Hill Reservoir in Boston. The kids thought it looked like Echo Bridge in Newton. It does. That’s because Echo Bridge is another part of the Sudbury Aquaduct.

The Bays Region Stretches three miles to the Cochrane Dam. It’s pocked with backwaters that lead back up the course of the river, but are abandoned channels. They were formed as the river changed course as it flooded and re-formed in the flat-bottomed valley between Needham and Dover.

The river is broad and flat through this section, meandering back and forth. The lazy river is further slowed by the impoundment from the Cochrane Dam downstream.

A key landmark is the South Street Bridge.


Just beyond this bridge is the Cochrane Dam. It can sneak up on you if you are not paying attention. Beyond its precipice is a significant drop onto boulder strewn waters.

The place was first dammed in 1675 and used to power Fisher’s gristmill. The dam site evolved over the years and was used to power a paper mill in 1796. There is a raceway on the left side that was used for power. Today, there is no industry here. You can find several foundations and walls on both sides.

There is a take-out on the left just beyond the bridge. But it is a steep climb. Then it’s a long portage over the bridge and down Mill Street to a launch site. There is a better takeout on Fisher Street before the bridge. But you are left with a much longer portage.

Downstream from the dam is some swiftwater. It’s rocky and can be scratchy in low water. We were able to bounce through the rapids.

Then downstream is what looks like an old low dam. If you look off to the right bank you can see a water level gauge. This is the USGS guaging station in Dover. (The water level was at 1.5 feet.) The station measures both the water level height and the discharge in cubic feet per second.

Eventually, the river returns to the slow pace and meandering that you expect from the Charles River. We did not expect to see two big snapping turtles.

snapping turtles on the Charles River

You can see snapping turtles occasionally on the river. But I’ve never seen two together. I’ve definitely not seen two turtles engage in what we saw next.

turtle wrestling

We could not tell if it was two males battling for territory as they wrestled with each other. Or if it was a male and female that were …. um…. making baby turtles.

There is a good exit just after the Dedham Avenue bridge, off South Street in Needham. But we missed it and ended up at the Lyons Bridge, just before the I-95 bridges. It’s a terrible place to exit the river. Construction debris and mud line the river banks, held back by a dam of hay bales. You need to trudge through that sticky, gloopy mess to get up to road.