Paddling Through Elm Bank and Charles River Village

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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.

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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.

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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.

Paddling Through Rocky Narrows and Broadmoor with the Kids

The section of the Charles River running through Rocky Narrows and past the Broadmoor Sanctuary promised to be idyllic. This stretch of the river is mostly bordered by protected land.

kayaking with the kids on the Charles River

Route 27 provides a small parking area for a half dozen cars and a pebbled path down to the river next to the bridge. Rain came down heavily in the previous 48 hours so there was some obvious flow to the river.

The Route 27 bridge is a standard steel and concrete bridge, leaving a rather ugly overhead to start the trip. Just downstream is a railroad bridge. Although it looks abandoned, Conrail uses it occasionally. I have been surprised by a locomotive on the tracks while mountain biking in the area.

We had the treat of watching a model airplane fly overhead. The kids were fascinated by the replica and had no concept of the plane’s size. It could have been 6 inches or 6 feet. There is a popular landing strip next Rocky Narrows. I usually see a great replica or stunt model on a nice weekend day.

Towering up to the left is King Philip’s Lookout in Sherborn Town Forest. This is a 100 feet of bedrock that pushes the river to the right into a marsh. A bit further downstream, the river passes though the twin towers of Rocky Narrows. The granite on the left and right squeezes the river together and adds a quickening, although still gentle, pace to the downstream flow.

Off to the right we saw construction fencing that cut off the backside of Medfield State Hospital from the river. I know there is a great bike trail over there. I’ll have to go back and see what construction is happening over there.

Off to the left is the Rocky Narrows Reservation owned by the Trustees of the Reservation. It’s 227 acres bracket the Sherborn Town Forest resulting in almost 400 acres of protected land on the riverfront. There is a good landing spot marked with a Rocky Narrows sign. It’s a great place to pull out for a picnic and go for a hike. Since we had just started the day, we kept paddling.

The right bank of the river in Dover has a few houses but they are well set back from the river. The Farm Road bridge is another great landing spot, but we keep paddling.

Peters Reservation is on the right bank of the river. Peters Reservation is named for the family who originally purchased the property as a family retreat. The trails and understory plantings were laid out by the landscape architect Fletcher Steele. The property is currently owned by The Trustees of Reservations. The reservation is located across Farm Street from the Chase Woodlands, another Trustees managed property.

After a few more turns, the river leaves Dover and Sherborn and enters Natick. The Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary owns the left bank and a large stretch of the right bank. Indian Brook flows through the sanctuary, floods into a marsh, and eventually leaks into the Charles River. Unlike the Trustees’s properties upstream, Broadmoor has no landing spots.

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The river takes a sharp left hand turn after passing the Sanctuary. This stretch is rocky and there are a few outcroppings to avoid. For us, the water level was still high from the recent rain so we floated over most of the obstacles.

Then houses appear on the left bank of the river, with noisy Route 16 behind them. The idyllic section of the river has ended and suburbia has sprung up.

On a rocky outcropping on the right hand bank appears a statute of the Virgin Mary. It was placed there by Daniel Sargent who purchased both sides of the river in this spot in 1921. The words at her feet state: “Apparverunt in terra nostra flores”. The flowers shall appear on our earth.

Sargent also built the delightful footbridge just downstream from the statute.
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From there it is a short distance to the South Natick Dam. There is parkland on both sides of the dam. However, the left hand side is steep and walled. The right side offers a few spots to softly land and exit the river.


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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.