Paddling in the Lakes District of the Charles River (Part I)

I finally convinced The Boy to get a paddle in his hands. We rented a double kayak from Charles River Canoe & Kayak on Commonwealth Avenue in Newton and set off to explore the Charles River.

It was beautiful day on the Charles. The trees were showing a few wisps of the upcoming colors of fall.

The Lakes District is formed by Moody Street Dam in Waltham. It impedes the flow of the Charles, flooding the low lying areas to create a power supply for the mill that used to operate at the base of the dam. The power need for the dam has long passed, but the dam stays in place, helping to control downriver flooding.

But rather than heading downstream into the Lakes District, we headed upstream to the dam at Newton Lower Falls. I figured it was time to start linking together some of my trips on Charles River.

Heading upstream from Charles River Canoe & Kayak gets you zig-zagg under the highway bridges of I-90 and I-95 and a railroad crossing. Other those massive intrusions, it’s a nice stretch of river.

Until you get to the old Grossman’s site in Wellesley. That site had sat vacant for years. Now they are finally re-developing the site. Unfortunately, they decided to cut down nearly all of the trees, bushes, and plants on the riverbank that abuts the site. The de-nuded slope is a disaster.

It was also close to our turn-around point. The water level was low and we scraped the bottom in a few places, finally forcing us to turn before we could see the upstream dam.

Along the way we got buzzed by a great blue heron. We payed visits to the dozens of turtles sunning themselves on the riverbank.

The Boy did very little paddling, but said he had a great time. Most importantly, he said he wanted to go again.
The yellow line marks our journey.

Commuting Along the Charles River

Brian Mardirosian used his red kayak to commute using the Charles River, traveling from West Roxbury to Beacon Hill. Mardirosian started out on the Charles River at 5:30 a.m. on June 26 near Marie Louise Kehoe Park and Bridge Street and he arrived at work at around 11 a.m.

He documented the journey with a waterproof camera, which automatically took pictures every 30 seconds. He mashed those stills together to create the video below.

You will see the Hemlock Gorge paddling trip portion of the route starting at 1:30, Echo Bridge at 2:00 and ending in Newton Lower Falls at 3:00. Someday I will paddle the rest of the Charles River.

From the story: West Roxbury man kayaks to work on the Charles River by Carol Lawless for Wicked Local Roslindale

Postcards of the Charles River from the Boston Public Library

The Boston Public Library has posted a collection of Newton post cards using Flickr. Several of the pictures show how the Charles River used to look in its run through Newton.

This looks like the dam at Upper Falls (the Silk Mill Dam):

You can compare this to my recent picture of the dam at Upper Falls from my paddling trip through Hemlock Gorge:
SIlk MIll Dam

It was interesting to see what the area around Horseshoe Dam looked like prior to the construction of Route 9, as seen in this picture:

Massachusetts Oyster Project

From the Boston Globe’s Green Blog: Oysters help clean the Charles River.

Oysters eat silt, in addition to the phytoplankton that drift in the currents. As they eat, they also ingest some of the bacteria and organic compounds contained in sewer overflow, which Jay said runs untreated into the Charles from houses and streets during heavy rains.

So the Massachusetts Oyster Project dropped 150,000 oysters into the Charles River Basin around Constitution Marina this past weekend.

Oysters may be able to offset point pollution sources such as partially treated sewage coming out from Combined Sewage Overflows (CSOs). The number, flow, and impact of these has been reduced dramatically by the work of the MWRA and the cleanup of Boston Harbor. But it will be difficult to totally eliminate CSOs entirely.

Paddling on the Bellingham Meadows

The Bellingham Meadows are part of the Natural Valley Storage Project. The Army Corps of Engineers uses stategic areas of wetlands along the Charles River to slow the progress of flood waters headed to Boston. Sensibly, the Army Corp recognized the ability of wetlands to hold back flood waters and have preserved 7800 wetland acres along the river. Bellingham Meadows is Area S of the Natural Valley Storage Project. I paddled through Area G of the project in the Stop River Confluence trip on the river.

For those of you who have only seen the Charles River lying between Cambridge and Boston, you would not recognize the river in the Bellingham Meadows, closer to the headwaters. At times the river was as narrow as the length of paddle. In several places it was even narrower. It started off as as a very peaceful and pleasant. It was a bit colder than it was earlier in the week.

I ran into the spookiest part of the entire river when I got to the Interstate 495 bridge.

1-495 Tunnel / Conduit
1-495 Tunnel / Conduit

You can in the picture see that the bridge is very low over the water. At the water level that day, I just barely fit under the bridge. I paddled for a few hundred yards in pitch darkness as the roof of the tunnel got lower and lower. By then end of the tunnel I had to duck down in the kayak to fit through. It is not just the parallax effect in the picture, the opening at the far end of the tunnel is about two feet shorter than the opening at the entrance.

The tunnel is intentionally low as part of the Natural Valley Storage Project flood control. The I-495 bridge acts as a culvert restricting the flow of the river. During times of high water, it acts as a dam limiting the flow of water downstream and backing the water into the Bellingham Meadows.

Downstream from the I-495 bridge the Bellingham Meadows gradually give way to uplands. Throughout the Bellingham meadows the river zigs-zags back and forth with sharp S-turns. High Street in Bellingham is actually a causeway across the meadows with a narrow bridge allowing the river to pass through.

Eventually the river reaches the North Bellingham Dam. That is where the day went downhill.

The North Bellingham Dam is a low structure that is crumbling and in disrepair. Downstream from the dam, the river is low, swift and rocky. There are also a few short ledge drop offs.

North Bellingham Dam
North Bellingham Dam

After my swimming experience at the Cordingly Dam during my trip on the Hemlock Gorge section of the river, I was very tentative about paddling through rocky swiftwater. I portaged the kayak about 100 yards from the dam to Maple Street. There is a large industrial building on the far side of Maple Street. I walked along the parking lot scouting for a place to get back in the river. The rocky fast water continued for several hundred more yards. This was a bad omen. Then the foliage between the parking lot and the river grew impenetrable. this was a bad omen. The other side of the river was wooded put looked passable so I portaged the kayak for half a mile through the woods, vines and thorns along the river bank. It was nasty hike. I should have noticed the lack of portage route as a bad omen.

I should have taken all of these omens to heart and not continued. I ignored the omens. I was halfway between my bike and the truck in an unfamiliar section of Massachusetts. I thought it would be better to continue downstream than to turn around and back upstream.

I thought wrong.

The section of the river downstream from the North Bellingham Dam is a miserable stretch of the river. It is narrow and over grown. It is full of debris and fallen branches. It is rocky and shallow. It is barely passable. I spent as much time using my hands to push the kayak off obstacles as I did using the paddle. I needed a saw more than I needed a paddle. At one point there was picnic table blocking the river. The only redeeming thing was the sudden appearance and disappearance of an eight point buck along the river.

Caryville Dam
Caryville Dam

I was happy to finally come to the small pond at the Caryville Dam. Even the takeout was miserable. The sides of the pond were overgrown and impenetrable. The only way out that I could find was a climb up a three foot high concrete wall next the dam. That means I had to pull myself and the kayak three feet straight up. Across the street from the dam is an abandoned factory. An ominous end to my week.

Caryville Factory
Caryville Factory

You can the rest of my paddling trips laid out on a map: Paddling Trips.

Paddling in Elm Bank and the Bays Region of the Charles River

It was another beautifully warm and sunny October day, so I went back to the Charles River. I put in just downstream from the South Natick Dam.

South Natick Dam
South Natick Dam

A little way downstream, I came across the beautiful Cheney Bridge spanning the river.

Cheney Bridge to Elm Bank
Cheney Bridge to Elm Bank

The Cheney bridge provides access to Elm Bank, a state-owned property with two miles of frontage on the river. The 182 acres of woodlands, fields, and old estate property is 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 later occupied by the Loring, Broad, and Otis families before being sold in 1874 to Benjamin Pierce Cheney. At the time of Cheney’s death in 1895, the property contained over 200 acres (80 hectares), and passed to his eldest daughter Alice in 1905. In 1907, Alice and her husband, Dr. William Hewson Baltzell, engaged an architectural firm to build a neo-Georgian manor house, and the most prominent landscapers of the day, 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.

Waban Arches
Waban Arches

When I came to the confluence with Waban Brook, I paddled upstream to the Waban Arches. These support the Sudbury Aqueduct which carried water from a reservoir in Framingham to Chestnut Hill Reservoir in Boston.

The Bays Region Stretches three miles from Charles River Street to the Cochrane Dam. These backwaters are abandoned channels 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. There were numerous bays to duck into.

I ran into a few swans and a blue heron grazing in the marshy sides of the river.

Also along this stretch of the river was a diverse assortment of houses. There were simple houses and there were mansions, and everything in between. In particular, there was a striking contemporary with floor to ceiling walls of windows in every room.

A common theme for all the houses was their connection to the river. Almost every house had steps down to the river and many had boats visible in their yard.

The section of the river ended at the Cochrane Dam. Then I had a bike ride up the beautiful Claybrook Road through Dover to fetch the truck.

Cochrane Dam
Cochrane Dam

You can the rest of my paddling trips laid out on a map: Paddling Trips.

Paddling in Hemlock Gorge

Unlike the rather pristine Stop River Confluence area of the Charles River, the Hemlock Gorge section is more urban, passing houses, factories and highways.

I launched from Nahanton Park in Newton. There was plenty of parking here. There was a dock at the park which made the launch very easy. This park is where the Charles River Wheelmen start and finish their Saturday fitness rides. The Needham radio and television towers are visible in the distance once you enter this section of the river. At one point I had represented clients who had bought, sold or leased space on most of the towers. So they served as a visual reminder in front of me for the job I had just left behind.

There are significant industrial buildings along the river. If you remember your history of the industrial revolution in the northeast, this means there are dams along the river. I knew I had a few portages ahead on the river.

There is a modern railroad bridge abutting older stone abutments which mark the location of an older bridge.  This bridge was for the Charles River branch of the Boston and Worcester Railroad. Built in 1850, this rail line was built to bring stone and gravel from Needham to fill Boston’s Back Bay. During its peak, forty car trains of fill ran every 45 minutes.

The Elliot Street Bridge is made of three stone arches and appears just before the Silk Mill Dam. I am glad I remembered this landmark because the dam was not marked. I noticed an old industrial building on the right bank and noted that it looked like an old mill building. Then I noticed that the river seemed to disappear and there was an increasing roar. I had found the first dam. I quickly turned around and paddled upstream to good spot to take the kayak out of the river and start the portage. It was fairly long walk of about 200 yards through Hemlock Gorge Reservation , leading down into Hemlock Gorge between Newton’s Upper Falls and the Echo Bridge.

Just downstream of the Silk Mill Dam is Echo Bridge. It is famous for the wonderful echoes that can resonate back and forth between the arches. Yes, I did holler out as I went under. The echo was very impressive.

Echo Bridge
Echo Bridge

Echo Bridge carries the Sudbury Aqueduct. In 1878, the mainstream of the Sudbury River was diverted via the Sudbury Aqueduct to the Chestnut Hill Reservoir to supply water for the City of Boston. The bridge was built in 1876, spanning 130 feet across the Charles River.

The fall of water at Hemlock Gorge was an attractive power supply for industry. In 1688 John Clark built a sawmill. His sons expanded by adding a fulling mill and a grist mill. In 1788 Simon Elliot bought part of the site and put in a snuff mill.  In 1824 a cotton mill was added, which was later converted to a silk mill. The dam is often called the Silk Mill Dam because of this long running use of the dam.

Horseshoe Dam
Horseshoe Dam

Next on the river was the Circular Dam or Horseshoe Dam. Again, the dam was not marked and was harder to hear because it was right next to the overpass for Route 9. This is also the site of a portage under Route 9 on the Ellis Street underpass, down to Turtle Island. A millrace was put in place here in 1782 for a sawmill. 1792 Newton Iron Works took over and rolled iron bars for 50 years. The millrace is to the right of the dam and is the landing spot for the portage. I certainly looked strange carrying a bright yellow kayak across a busy intersection. (You in the Volvo.  Thanks for yakking on your cell phone and not noticing the guy with a yellow kayak his shoulder.) As expected, this portage was the most dangerous part of the day.

Road Signs on 128
Road Signs on 128

The Charles then follows Route 128/ Interstate 95 for a few miles. Even the road signs on Route 128 are visible from the river. The right bank of the river in this section follows Quinobequin Road in Newton. I was surprised that Route 128 was not more intrusive. Of course you could hear the traffic. But visually you only see an occasional car and those road signs. There are plans to put sound barrier in this area. They will reduce the road noise, but I think they will be much more visually intrusive,

After passing under Route 128, I passed under the Cochituate Aqueduct crossing the river and under 128 on a three-arched bridge. The Cochituate Aqueduct was built in 1848 to carry water from Lake Cochituate in Framingham to the Chestnut Hill Reservoir. It serves a similar purpose to the Sudbury Aqueduct that runs through Echo Bridge.

Cordingly Dam
Cordingly Dam

Just below Water Street in Wellesly is the Cordingly Dam. An experienced paddler would tell you that given the level of the Charles, the water under the dam is very shallow and rock-strewn, making it likely that you could get your kayak stuck on a rock and get swamped. I am not an experienced kayaker.  I got stuck on a rock, the river poured over the side of the kayak into the cockpit and swamped it. This left me flapping in the river like one of the herring in the dam’s fish ladder. Since the river was shallow here I was able to walk with the kayak over to the river bank and empty most of the water out. All of this was a source of great amusement to the people sitting along the river enjoying their lunches. I was nearly at the end of this stretch of the river and it was a warm sunny day so I quickly warmed up.

Newton Lower Falls
Newton Lower Falls

I ended this stretch of the river at Washington Street / Route 16 in Wellesley at the top of Newton Lower Falls. I dried myself off, changed into my biking gear to pedal back to the truck and bring it back for my water-logged gear.

You can the rest of my paddling trips laid out on a map: Paddling Trips.

Paddling in the Stop River Confluence of the Charles River

It has been a long time since I have been in the kayak. Given my current free time, I thought it would it would be a great activity on a beautiful fall day.

I have read that the Stop River Confluence area between Millis and Medfield is a beautiful stretch of the river. It certainly is.  View Map of the Route

I put in at a launching site on Forest Road in Millis.  There is gravel parking lot with space for 5 or 6 cars. It had nice gentle entrance into the Charles.

The weather was beautiful, 70’s and not a cloud in the sky. This section of the Charles is flatwater, with just a gentle current.

This section of the Charles is the largest area of the Natural Valley Storage Project. In 1974 Congress authorized the “Charles River Natural Valley Storage Area,” allowing for the acquisition and permanent protection of 17 scattered wetlands in the middle and upper watershed. final acquisition totaled 8,103 acres, with 3,221 acres of land acquired in fee and 4,882 acres in flood easement, at ta project cost of $8,300,000. The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife manages the fish and wildlife resources in some of the Corps’ fee – owned land.

For those of you who are only familiar with the Charles River Basin between Cambridge and Boston, this upper stretch of the Charles River is nothing like the Basin.

The beauty of the Charles
The beauty of the Charles

The river meanders back and forth for miles.  The leaves were changing, so the there were bursts of red and yellow along the banks. This section of the Charles River is mostly through conservation land.  I saw just a few houses along the banks.

There was a road crossing under Route 109 and you could hear a nearby gravel pit churning along. But those were the only signs that you were within 25 miles of downtown Boston.

On one bank was MIllis, on the other Medfield. This area attracted the first settlers of Medfield. The natural hay from the meadows along the river was valuable fodder for their livestock.

At one stretch, the left-hand bank in Millis is owned by a hunting club. I got stared down by a hunting dog. His hunter came strolling along, only to be disappointed to discover a kayaker instead of something to shoot at.

The day’s route ended at a railroad bridge. This railroad bridge is just downstreamof the West Street Bridge between Medfield and Millis. Originally, this section of Millis was part of Medfield. Since the town’s Puritans lived on both sides of the river, they needed a bridge to get back and forth to the weekly meeting. The original bridge was constructed in 1653.  During King Philip’s War, the Native Americans burned the original bridge in 1676.

My bike was waiting for me at the kayak take-out. I took a quick bike ride back to the truck, through the bike in and went back for the kayak.  I snuck in a few miles of bike riding to go along with the paddle.

You can the rest of my paddling trips laid out on a map: Paddling Trips.