Discovering the Headwaters of the Charles River

When we decided to paddle the entire length of the Charles River, one persistent question was “where does it start?”

Our paddling adventure only partially answered that question. We started where we could float the kayak and paddle downstream. That left the unnavigable stretches of the Charles River out of our scope. But our adventure would not be complete without putting boots on the ground to find the headwaters and see where the Charles River begins.

The Charles River starts at Echo Lake in Hopkinton. The lake was originally a swamp, but a dam impounds the water between high rocky ground. It’s now part of the Milford Water supply.

Echo Lake

There are several streams that run into Echo Lake, but none have been deemed worthy enough to carry the title of Charles River. We hiked around a portion of Echo Lake, but never made it to the dam or the trickle of water that starts the official beginning of the Charles River. Given the dry weather, we may have passed right over it and not noticed.

Echo Lake looks like it would be a nice place to paddle. However, it is drinking water for MIlford so paddling is not allowed.

From Echo Lake the Charles River water trickles south. You can easily see the channel along Milford’s Upper Charles River Trail. This rail-to-trail project runs to the Charles River and runs parallel for a short stretch. There was little water to see. Most people would not notice that it was the Charles River unless they looked a the map. That little puddle was the only water we saw in the channel.


We went to further point on the trail and found another impoundment at Wildcat Pond. It’s hard to envision that this wet ditch is start of the mighty Charles River.

Charles river as it leaves Wildcat Pond

The water quality was poor and the was no flow. The Charles River was just a dirty puddle at this point in its run to Boston Harbor. Wildcat pond at the source carried a sign that it was part of the Milford water supply and off limits to paddling. It would not have been worth the effort to carry the Kayak out to this dirty little pond anyhow.

Our next glimpse of the Charles River was Milford Pond, just North of Milford town center. The pond is formed by the Hayward Field Dam. The water quality is very poor. It’s an unnatural shade of brown and green, with a sheen of petroleum.

hayward Field Dam

The quality of the water did not improve at our next glimpse of the river at Central Street in Milford. The channel splits in two, with most of flow directed under the Archer Rubber Plant. A bypass heads to the left into a tunnel.


That is the last we saw of the river until our put-in at Howard Street in Milford. The dingy grey water at our start is now no longer a surprise.

The water was not much to see and certainly nothing that could be paddled.

From the Beginning: Paddling Through Box Pond and the Bellingham Meadows

Charles River

When I tell someone that The Boy and I are paddling the length of the Charles River, the first response is usually: “Where does it begin?”

Everyone in Boston is familiar with the Charles River between Boston and Cambridge. Many have paddled on the river at the Charles River Canoe & Kayak location in Newton as the river comes back under Route 128 for the third time.

It’s no surprise that the river gets smaller and smaller as you travel further upstream. Eventually, there will not be enough water flow to paddle. The Boy and I were not looking for the source of the Charles River. We were looking for the point where you can start paddling.

According to Ron McAdow in his guide, The Charles River, Exploring Nature and History on Foot and by Canoe, “[t]hose wishing to canoe the whole Charles River can begin at Howard Street [in Milford].”

And so we did.

We also ignored McAdow’s later warning:

“Although a run of this section is possible, it should be undertaken only be determined and experienced canoeists. The convenient outings lie farther downstream.”

That is an understatement.

We ignored the warning and put in at Howard Road in Milford, next to railroad tracks. Boating Barry was willing to take on the adventure and joined us. The river water looked dingy, like used dishwater. Despite a bit of rain earlier in the week, the river was low. The river gage at Medway was pegged at 1.18 feet.  That’s not a lot of room to float a kayak.

As expected, we soon had to jump out of the kayak and drag the boats downstream. Even worse we soon encountered downed trees, fallen branches, and other obstructions. Even when the river bottom was deep enough to paddle, it was tough to get downstream.

After clearing an obstacle, we paddled around the corner to see Boating Barry photographing our first encounter with wildlife.


Maybe, not so wild. The herd of cows clearly was not used to seeing people paddling on the river.  They stared at us with confused curiosity.

Outflow from the Milford Wastewater Plant

Soon we encountered a big milestone: the Milford wastewater treatment plant. Its outflow goes straight into the Charles River. McAdow’s guide stated that the plant’s outflow greatly increased the river’s flow. But it said nothing about water quality. We did not know what to expect. I feared the river would become fetid.

We were pleasantly surprised to see the water improve. The water coming out of the plant was clearer than the water upstream. We could see the river bottom. The dingy, gray dishwater was replaced with crystal clear water. There was sharp line as the dingy upstream water collided with the clearer water cascading down from the plant.

I doubt the water was drinkable. I’m not even sure it was fit for swimming. Hopefully, it was clean enough for walking, because we still had lots of of walking ahead.

And climbing. The river continued to be littered with obstructions to paddling downstream. A few fallen trees looked like the work of beavers. We saw at least one gnawed trunk that would soon be a fallen tree. However, most of the obstructions looked like trees that stretched too far into the sunny part of the river and lost the strength to stay upright. One fallen branch usually grabbed more debris flowing downstream to make a continually growing obstacle.

Before we got to the Hartford Avenue bridge we encountered the most difficult obstacle of the day: a reed-filled swamp.

The Swamp
The Swamp

The reeds were so tall that we could not see anything except the tops of the trees at the edge of the river. The reeds were so thick that it was nearly impossible to paddle in most places. The reeds were solid enough that they impeded forward progress. I tried to get out and push, but the bottom was too deep and too soft for me to push.

We were stuck.

But we couldn’t quit. There was nowhere to go. The car was far upstream and the truck was miles downstream. Onward. We had no choice.

It was a slow pace, but we finally reached the Hartford Avenue bridge and the end of the reeds. It was back to paddling, walking, and bushwhacking.

Bushwacking downstream

Eventually, the river began to widen as we entered Box Pond. The pond’s surface was thick with plant growth. Unlike the reeds, it was soft and pliable. We could get through it.

The pond did offer a surprise. I noticed a mound of mud that looked odd to me. it appeared even more odd when I noticed it had a head.

The brave snapping turtle

We paddled closer and the turtle dropped his (her?) head under water. We got closer. He popped his head up, stared at us, and put it back under. This continued. It reminded me of a young child saying you can’t see him because his eyes are closed.

The most difficult part of paddling through Box Pond was finding the outflow. There was a dam somewhere. Box Pond is actually an impoundment of the Charles River. I kept listening for the telltale sounds of a waterfall, but couldn’t hear it. I noticed a small bridge. This turned out to be the top of the Box Pond Dam.

The Box Pond Dam

Downstream from the dam, the water quality improved again. I assume thick plants in the pond were filtering the river and the dam was holding back sediments. The water was clear, but shallow.

Shortly we reached the Bellingham Meadows and the paddling became much more enjoyable. This is a nice stretch of the river.

The tough part is maneuverability.  The Charles River makes tight turns, zig-zagging back and forth as slowly cuts its way through the meadows. I had a hard time getting around many of the corners. In some cases, I would have to come to stop and pull a hard sweep to get the nose around. Other times we went careening into the riverbank as I failed to get the kayak going in the new direction. The 14-foot double kayak is about as big as you want to take through the meadows.

Paddling through Bellingham Meadows
Paddling through Bellingham Meadows

The Bellingham Meadows are part of the Natural Valley Storage Project. The Army Corps of Engineers uses strategic areas of wetlands along the Charles River to slow the progress of flood waters headed to Boston. Instead of dams and levies, the Army Corp recognized the ability of wetlands to hold back flood waters.

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. At times the river was as narrow as the length of paddle. the Charles River is more narrow and turns much more than the similar storage area between Millis and Medfield.

The biggest obstruction in the meadows is the I-495 bridge that cuts through it.

I-495 bridge
I-495 bridge

You can in the picture see that the bridge is relatively low. During high water it’s a tight squeeze. During really high water, you can’t fit through.

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. Eventually the river thickens as it reaches the North Bellingham Dam impoundment. Downstream from the dam, the river is low, swift and rocky. There is a long portage to get around the dam and downstream past the rocks and a large blockage.

The section of the river downstream from the North Bellingham Dam was once again narrow and over grown. It was full of debris and fallen branches.

After nearly eight hours we were happy to finally come to the small pond at the Caryville Dam.

Caryville Dam

Other than the Bellingham Meadows, it is terrible section of the river to paddle. We are glad that we can say that we paddled it. We’re even more glad that we won’t be paddling it again.

The GPS tracker puts the route at 12 miles. But it took 7:45 to go from end to end. That is a much, much, much longer time than we expected to be on the river.

The question I have is whether this stretch of the Charles River would have been better if the water level was higher. I’m not sure. Certainly, there would be less walking in the calm sections. Some of the rapids would be passable. The swamp of reeds would probably be more easily traversed. But while the water level would push up the the boat away from the river bottom, it would also push your head up into the obstructions. We were able to pass under lots of trees and plant growth that hang over the river looking for free space to grow. If the river were higher, we would more likely get stuck in that plant growth.

A little more water would make this section better, but high water might make it harder to paddle through. I suppose I could come back when the water is higher. I’d likely have better things to do.

map milford and bellinghm