Paddling the Last Stretch of the Charles River to the Ocean

The last leg of our Charles River journey was through the basin to the harbor, perhaps even into the harbor. I loaded up the big red kayak with The Boy, The Girl, and snacks.

Charles River Kayak
Ready to start paddling

We started off in Brighton, from the same spot we stopped after coming down river from Waltham. This section of the river would be very different from the rest of the Charles River. The river is much wider. The current is mostly gone. The wind would likely move us quicker than the current, and not necessarily in the right direction. We would have to contend with traffic.

Traffic on the Charles River
Traffic on the Charles River

We stayed close to the river bank. There were dozen of rowing shells of all sizes moving quickly along the river. They go fast, but do not turn fast. We get to face forward and see where we were going at our much more leisurely pace. We gave rowers plenty of room.

After bending through the Harvard portion of the river, we passed under the Western Avenue Bridge and the River Street Bridge to come into the BU portion of the river. Off to the left is Magazine Beach, so named because it was the old site of a powder magazine for the defense of Cambridge.

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The BU Bridge and the railroad bridge

We passed under the BU Bridge. Theoretically, we could be a boat passing under a train, passing under a car, passing under an airplane. As it turns out, the flight traffic from Logan was going in a different direction and trains rarely use the lower bridge.

From the Charles River Dam to the BU Bridge the Basin is two and one-half miles long and up to two thousand feet wide. Passing under the bridge we got a panorama of the Boston skyline.

As we entered the lower basin, the water became choppier. The wind was sweeping across the water, stirring up waves and larger boats were leaving wakes. Fortunately, we could tuck into the shelter of the esplanade lagoons.

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Esplanade Lagoons

The first is the Storrow Lagoon, the middle is the Canoeway, and the third is the Concert Lagoon.

We emerged from the lagoons at the Community Boating docks, just upstream from the Longfellow Bridge. There are breakwaters to quell the waves pushed across the basin.

We hugged the side of the river, trying to stay far away from the duck boats, sailboats, and other boats, all of which were much larger than out little red kayak.

Just around the corner is the Museum of Science. It sits atop the old Charles River Dam. When the dam was built in 1910 it limited the flow of salt water in the Charles River. It turned the Charles River Basin from a tidal salt water estuary into a pond. The tides no longer affected the water river and a stable water level could usually be maintained.

Museum of Science and the Old Charles River Dam
Museum of Science and the Old Charles River Dam

Just to the right is old lock for the dam, which is our passageway to head closer to Boston Harbor. The lock is narrow with high walls. It’s especially intimidating when you are paddling behind a Duck boat, with another coming upstream on the other side, and a third behind you heading downstream. The red kayak felt very small.

We had to pass under the railroad bridge that connects North Station with the rail lines that are on the other side of the river. The kayak is small enough to fit under the bridge when it’s down. There was a bigger boat heading upstream from the harbor, so when we first saw the bridge, both spans were up.

Railroad Bridge and the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge
Railroad Bridge and the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge

We continue paddling behind Boston Garden and under the Bunker Hill bridge. The river in this section is highlighted with new parks, a result of the Big Dig environmental offsets. The concept is to reclaim some of this lost riverfront as the New Charles River Basin and reconnect it to the heavily used basin waterfront.

We arrived at the New Charles River Dam. On the left side are big grates. On the right are three locks separating the Charles River from Boston Harbor. One lock is much larger than the other two to handle the bigger boats.

Charles River Dam
Charles River Dam

Behind the grates on the left are six diesel-powered, 2700 horsepower turbo-charged engines that drive six pumps with a combined capacity of about 3.7 million US gallons per minute. The purpose of the dam is to control the surface level of the river basin. Otherwise the water level in the Charles River basin would rise and fall with the tide. It would also flood Boston in times of heavy rain and high tide. That was the failing of the old Charles River Dam.

I had heard that small boats, like our kayak, could use the locks to enter and leave the harbor. We sat around waiting for the green light to come on and the big doors to open. After a few minutes, I thought it was not true. But then the doors opened and a boat emerged. I assume the wait was just for that upstream traffic. The doors stayed opened and the green light stayed on. So in we went.

Inside the Charles River Dam Lock
Inside the Charles River Dam Lock

The kids waved to the operator in the catwalk high above us. The doors behind us swung shut. The water level increased about one foot to match the tide level in the harbor. The big doors on the far end swung open, the green light came on, and we were now in Boston Harbor.

We had transitioned from paddling in the river to paddling in the ocean. Unfortunately, our little red kayak is not really built for ocean paddling. Fortunately, the wind was calm and the waves were small. Off to the left was Charlestown, the Bunker Hill Monument and the U.S.S. Constitution.

Kayaking and the Constitution
U.S.S. Constitution

We swung by the oldest commissioned warship. It was an impressive sight from the water. The dock was fenced off with a warning that it was a restricted area and the “use of force authorized”. I was not about to test the guns of the warship.

We turned right and paddled across the Coast Guard station, the Aquarium, and Rowes Wharf towards Fort Point Channel. The waves were small, but choppy. Boat traffic sent wakes crashing into us and bounced us up and down. As we passed under the Old Northern Avenue Bridge and into Fort Point Channel, the waves subsided.

We passed the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum.

Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum
Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum

The Beaver and the Eleanor are replicas and part of the history lessons at the museum. A popular misconception is the belief the Tea Party Ships were British. Not true. The vessels were built in America and owned by Americans. It was only the cargo of tea they were carrying from London to Boston that was British, goods from the British East India Company. The Beaver was owned by the Rotch family from the Nantucket Quaker family. The Eleanor was one of several vessels owned by the Boston merchant, John Rowe.

We unexpectedly crossed paths with the pirate ship, the White Pearl.

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Pirates in Boston Harbor

I had noticed a small dock, garishly adorned with a pirate flag and treasure chest next to the Northern Avenue bridge. The White Pearl came around the dock with water guns firing in all directions. This was our first encounter with the Kids Pirate Adventure run by the Boston Harbor Shuttle.

Our takeout was the new kayak and canoe dock in the Fort Point Channel. P&G Gillette built the dock as part of the restoration of the channel after the Big Dig and as part of its Chapter 91 license for its nearby buildings. Unlike other docks on the waterfront, this dock is low to the water and designed for canoes and kayaks. Motorized boats are not allowed to use it. There is free parking for using the dock and designated parking spaces for using the dock. Unfortunately, those spaces were occupied. From the look of the vehicles, they were not parked there to use the dock.

Fort Point Channel dock
The Boy and The Girl at the Fort Point Channel dock

It was a pleasant end to our quest to paddle the entire Charles River.

Our route:

Paddling through the Charles River basin

Gently Paddling Through the Lakes District of the Charles River

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The Lakes District of the Charles River 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.

The dam was our end point. We started several miles upstream at Newton Lower Falls.

Just downstream from Newton Lower Falls
Just downstream from Newton Lower Falls

After the recent rain, the river was perky, running fast and deep. The river gage in Waltham has risen a half foot to 1.6 feet.

There is a parking lot just off Washington Street that is empty on the weekends. It offers a few easy spots to slide into the Charles. The property owner discourages parking in the lot for this access during the week.

It’s a gentle peaceful stretch of the river. The quiet of the river gets punctuated by the whoosh-whack of golfers patrolling the Leo J. Martin Golf Course that lines both riverbanks.

After the golf course there is the series of massive intrusions. First, the Charles River passes under I-95 for the third and final time, making its run to Boston Harbor.

Charles River passing under I-95
Charles River passing under I-95

Then there is Recreation Road, a railroad bridge, a pedestrian bridge, a Mass Pike off ramp, the Mass Pike and Commonwealth Avenue.

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After the bridges you run into river traffic at Charles River Canoe & Kayak. It sits in an old MDC police station on Commonwealth Avenue and has a wide variety of paddle craft to rent. 

In the Lakes section the water sits idle in many coves and inlets, spreading out between the higher ground in Newton, Weston and Waltham. At times, it’s hard to believe that you are only 12 miles from downtown Boston.

Charles River Canoe & Kayak
Charles River Canoe & Kayak

CRCK sits next to the Marriott hotel. This was the site of Norumbega Park, a recreation area and amusement park located in “Auburndale-on-the-Charles.” It was a popular “trolley” park, when the trolleys used to run up Commonwealth Avenue and stop at the nearby Riverside station. Norumbega Park opened in 1897 and closed for good on Labor Day weekend 1963. Hundreds of canoes would flood the Charles River on nice day. Like Revere Beach to the north of Boston, Norumbega Park went into sharp decline when automobiles overtook trolleys for transportation.

Off to the left is Norumbega Tower in Weston. In the late 1800s, Eben Horsford became obsessed with the idea that Vikings had set up settlements in this area. He found what he thought was the remains of a Viking fort and built the tower to commemorate the spot.

Further downstream we found a site where the landowners had placed various animal statutes along the river. A life-sized bison and Native American say hello. Further along the riverbank, we discovered his enormous turtle and alligator nestled in the low branches overhanging the slow moving river.

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Off to the right, we went past The Cove Playground, taking in the opposite view we are used to having from the swings.

Eventually, you run into the industrial history of the Charles River. The old Waltham Watch factory towers above you on the right-hand bank. The multiple buildings of the industrial complex sit close to the river bank. I assume the factory took advantage of the river to help power its production and used the flow to help clean up after the manufacturing process.

The Waltham Watch Factory
The Waltham Watch Factory

The pilings in the water next to the Prospect Street Bridge are from the Nuttings-on-the-Charles Dance Hall, a popular jazz-era ballroom. The hall burned down in 1961.

Then we came to the Moody Street Bridge and the dam barricades the river just after the bridge.

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We arrived at Moody Street at lunch time. Margarita’s has an outdoor dining area on the right bank of the river. This was an excellent stop for lunch.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Ditching the Dedham Loop, Paddling in the Long Ditch

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I jumped in the red kayak with The Boy and The Girl to charge downstream with Boating Barry. “Charge” may overstate our efforts. The Girl said “race” so we went full speed for a few minutes. Then age and the lack of conditioning got the better of me.

We paddled as lazily as the Charles River as it gets ready to make its big loop through Dedham. We put in the Charles River in a nice spot off South Street in Needham, with plenty of parking and easy access. After a short paddle, we reached the Lyons Bridge and followed the river’s first trip under Route 128. It was particularly messy with the heavy construction equipment and scarred earth. They are working on widening Route 128 from 3 lanes to 4 lanes in this section. That means they need to rebuild the bridges to handle the wider roadway.

Then we were presented with a choice: paddle the whole loop or take a shortcut. In 1654 the residents of Dedham cut a half-mile long ditch across the Cutler Marsh, where the Charles River heads south. This was the Long Ditch. The original purpose was to reduce flooding further south and downstream.

The entrance to the Long Ditch was under a bridge and over a strong rapid.

The Entrance to the Long Ditch
The Entrance to the Long Ditch

Since I had never been down the ditch, I decided to try the shortcut. While the river meanders its way south around through Dedham, the ditch takes a straight path to the northeast.

The banks of the ditch are straight and tall. The marsh grass heads even further up. It was just us and the river, isolated from the world.

Boating Barry in the Long Ditch
Boating Barry in the Long Ditch

At least until we saw the beaver.

There was a beaver lodge in the ditch. It looks like some fallen trees had made a easy starting point for the beaver to build his home.

beaver on the Charles River
Actually, this is the second beaver. We spotted this one by Kendrick Street.

I had read stories that the Long Ditch was scratchy and difficult to navigate. We had no issues. We never scraped the bottom. None of the fallen trees blocked more than a third of the river, so it was easy to navigate around them.

After emerging from the ditch, we re-joined the Charles River by Millennium Park.

The kids were excited to see a big raft of ducks. They were even more surprised when the ducks came charging over to us. Clearly these were Millennium Park ducks looking for a handout and not the wild ducks we had encountered upstream. The kids threw a few of their precious Pringles into the water for the ducks to battle over.

Feeding the Ducks
Feeding the Ducks

After coming around a bend we spotted two big birds on the left bank. A snowy egret and a great blue heron were wading through the shallows. We’ve seen several of the mighty herons on the river, but never its bright white cousin.

The snowy egret was the first to flee from our presence.

Great Blue Heron and a Snowy Egret
Great Blue Heron and a Snowy Egret

We paddled further downstream through the wide swath of the Charles River as it passes through Cutler Park. These 700 acres comprise the largest freshwater marsh on the middle section of the Charles River. It’s much smaller than the marsh in Medfield and I assume it must be smaller than the marsh in the Lakes Section of the Charles River between Waltham and Newton.

It’s a pleasant paddling spot. You’re just a mile from heavy suburban density, but it’s quiet and tranquil on the river.

We spotted a deer in the park. It’s head was just peaking over the tall grass. The deer’s presence was only obvious when it leaped away from us, bounding in the air, with its white tail flagging a warning. We spotted a second beaver near the Kendrick Street bridge. If you add in the multiple turtles, splashing fish, and Canadian Geese, this section of the Charles River was plentiful with local wildlife.

The Nahanton Park dock makes for an easy exit with no mud. There is plentiful parking.

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The discharge rate at the Dover station was 211 and the gauge height was 1.34, both about average for July, but low for the Charles on a year round basis.

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Paddling Downstream from Moody Street

I’ve paddled through the Lakes District of the Charles River many times and approached the Moody Street Dam. I’ve looked over the edge, with the roar of falling water, wondering what is downstream. Ron McAdow labels that section the “Industrial Corridor” in his exploration guide: The Charles River. Michael Tougias doesn’t even bother paddling this stretch of the river in his Exploring the Hidden Charles. Needless to say, I had low expectations. I didn’t tell The Boy because if we want to paddle the entire Charles River, we need to paddle this section.

The books were wrong. This was an enjoyable stretch of the Charles River. You are not going to mistake it for the tranquil sections upstream where you see few signs of human life. You hear traffic noise. You see glimpses of commercial and industrial buildings. You see trash. But you also see the same wildlife and fauna you see upstream.

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The put-in at Landry Park, just downstream from the Moody Street Dam offers several choices for access. There is ample parking on the south side of the river that is easily accessible by a footbridge.

We started out in the fast water flushed downstream by the Moody Street Dam. Boating Barry decided to come along in his new-ish kayak.  The current took us quickly over the shallow water and we needed to make a few rapid adjustments to avoid the bigger obstructions.

The water stayed rapid allowing us to quickly pass under an old railroad bridge and the Newton Street bridge. Then the river slackens as it impounds behind the Bleachery Dam. We exited on the right hand bank and portaged the kayaks about 100 yards around the Bleachery Dam.  It’s located just behind the Shaw’s Supermarket on River Street in Waltham.

Bleachery Dam
Bleachery Dam

The portage path is now part of the Great Blue Heron Trail that follows the Charles River from Newton to the Dr. Paul Dudley White Bike Path. That made it an easy carry.

After getting back in, we came across goose island. It’s a small accretion of sediment, covered with ducks and geese.  On the right bank, Cheesecake Brook falls down a concrete slope after flowing down the middle of Albemarle Street. Then we passed under the spectacular Blue Heron Bridge.

Blue Heron Bridge
Blue Heron Bridge

The river picked up speed again as we got closer to the Bridge Street bridge. This is the site of the old Bemis Dam. It’s breached so you can go over, but there are rapids and obstructions in the river. Just enough to quicken your pulse and make a few quick digs with the paddle.

The river slackens again as it gets impounded behind the Watertown Dam. It’s a quick portage around and an easy reentry. The water is shallow and it’s easy to get caught on rocks. We did. Fortunately, the water is shallow so it was easy to get out and pull the kayak off the rocks. Boating Barry found deeper water closer to the left bank.

watertown dam

As we passed under the Watertown Square bridge, the character of the Charles River changed. We were clearly entering the basin portion of the river. Heavily traveled roads are on both sides of the river, veiled by a veneer of trees and bushes. As we turned a corner, the Prudential Tower was visible in the distance.

the pru and the charles

The Newton Yacht Club is on the right hand bank and the Watertown Yacht Club is on the left. The Charles River is now wide enough and deep enough for the big boats docked here.

Rowers start appearing in this stretch. The first sign is the new building and boathouse for the Community Rowing on Nonantum Road. The second is the Northeastern University’s Henderson Boathouse. A single sculler pulled up slowly along side us. Then pulled hard and left us in his wake.

We pulled off the river at Herter Park. We still have to tackle the Charles River Basin on another day.

The discharge rate at the Moody Street Dam was 211 and the gauge height was 1.68, both about average for July, but low for the Charles on a year round basis.

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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 from Populatic Pond

Paddling Populatic Pond

After the difficult kayaking through Medway, the open expanse of Populatic Pond was a welcome relief. It gave us the opportunity to drift lazily in the breeze and fill our bellies with snacks.

The downstream exit from the pond was just a few hundred yards along the North coast. The Charles River then winds wide through a marsh, actually an extension of the pond itself. The river languishes peacefully with just a gentle current to urge us downstream.

Then there is a sharp turn as we passed under the Myrtle Street bridge. In our high water, there was a set of rapids ahead, giving us a fun, quick ride downstream. But towards a treacherous island in the center over the river. A few quick strokes pushed us around the obstacle. There was a temporary slack as we passed under the power lines, then another big push as the river squeezed through the abandoned railroad abutments of the Medway Branch Railroad bridge.

We hit calm water for a bit more, then we saw an old house straight ahead on the left bank of the river, as the river takes a sharp turn right.

Around the bend is the Pleasant Street bridge. And a nasty set of rapids. According to Ron McAdow’s guide to The Charles River,  it’s best to stay on the left during high water. At medium water, the right side is better. And in low water you may need to portage over the obstacles.

Since we had high water, we went left. First we hit an off camber drop that spun us right, I dug in hard to turn us straight downstream and to skitter through the bumps and troughs of water.

But I missed one near the end and we high-centered on top of a rock with the river rushing past us. Fortunately, it only took me a hop up and down out of my seat to catch some water under the boat to free us.

Pleasant Street Bridge
Pleasant Street Bridge

We quickly reached the Route 115 bridge, then the riverbanks became wild once again. At least relatively wild. The right bank is plastered with warnings that it is used as shooting reserve and not to trespass. The left bank is largely undeveloped and eventually yields to the Cedariver, a Trustees of the Reservation property.

You end up with about 1.5 miles of calm, scenic river to paddle.

The last obstacle is the Forest Road bridge.

Forest Road Bridge
Forest Road Bridge

The bridge sits low over the river. We were riding high water and there was only about a foot and a half of clearance. We were not sure if the bow of the kayak would fit under. Even if it did, we were even less sure that the two of us and the kayak would fit.

There was only one way to find out.

Under the Forest Road Bridge
Under the Forest Road Bridge

It was snug. We didn’t have room to paddle, but we could reach up and push ourselves using the underside of the bridge.

Just past the bridge is a small parking lot that is often under water. The water level had dropped about foot since we were here last weekend paddling through Area F, but the lot was still deep under water.

populatic pond

Paddling Around, Over, and Under the Dams of Medway

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Starting the siege of the Charles River

We knew this would be a difficult stretch of the Charles River. The Medway section of Charles River has two man-made dams: the West Medway dam and the Sanford Mill dam. And we were far enough upstream that we could encounter other obstacles in the thinner water.

West Medway Dam
West Medway Dam

It turns out there were lots of obstacles.

The first obstacle was getting onto the river. We wanted to put in just downstream from the Caryville Dam in Bellingham by the Medway border. After the dam, the river rushes under Pearl Street and into the bowels of an abandoned factory. It’s not clear what the river encounters in that dark tunnel under the factory. Even if you want to find out, you can’t get close. The factory is surrounded by a chainlink fence blocking all access to the river. It looks like there are some good spots to put in at the rear of the building, but the fencing blocks access.

Around the corner on Plain Street, there is an empty lot owned by the town. But there is no path down to the river. You have to hack through trees and undergrowth down a steep embankment. It’s covered in poison ivy. Under the poison ivy is a deep coating of debris, broken glass, and trash. It’s a nasty place to start a kayak trip.

After finally getting in the river, we immediately hit obstacles on the river. There were dozens of trees down in the river. Some we could limbo under. Some we could squeeze around.

Then we encountered big trees completely blocking the river. The first one was so big we got out onto the mostly submerged tree trunk and hauled the kayak over the obstacle. The next big one was three trunks in a row. The Boy hopped out on the first trunk, made his way to the riverbank, walked downstream and walked out onto the third log while I wrestled the kayak over the obstacles.

At the next fallen tree we finally realized something else was at work. There was a long line of logs and smaller branches forming a dam across the river. Off to the side I saw a mound of smaller branches. Beavers!

The riverbanks were very swampy in this area so there was no easy way around. The drop over the dam looked to be no more than two feet, so we decided to go over. We buckled down the dry bags and flew over the drop.

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The result of Beavers hard at work

Now we knew what to look for. As we encountered more fallen trees we could spot the telltale gnaw marks of beavers hard at work. From the look of things there will be several more trees falling in the river soon.

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Beavers at work

Eventually, the river widened and slacked. This was a sure sign that there was big dam ahead and more likely man-made instead of beaver-made. The river forked.  I had to check the map for directions in the slack water. Mine Brook entered from the right.

We quickly came upon the West Medway dam. You can see large stone blocks on the left bank, the site of the old mill. It’s a short portage on the right side of the dam, with a short stretch through the fast water tumbling over the dam.

A dam was first built on this site in 1812. It mostly powered paper mills.

Then it was back to more beaver dams. Or maybe they were just fallen trees. Regardless, we started blaming all of the obstacles on beavers.

Soon we encountered the big rock, a large white rock in the middle of the river. The river widened and slowed. The Sanford Mill dam was just ahead.

Built on the site of the White Mill which burned in 1881, the Sanford Mill was built through the finances and efforts of Milton H. Sanford. Mr. Sanford would become one of the Medway’s greatest benefactors. Sanford owned wool and cotton mills which manufactured blankets for the Union Army during the American Civil War. The mill was later owned by the Fabyan family of New York, and became known as the Fabyan Mill. John Reardon of Medway and later the Reardon family operated it as a textile mill for many years, and around 1990, the building was converted to condominiums. Before it closed, it was one of only a few textile mills still operating in New England.

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Sanford Mill Dam

It is a long portage around the dam. Long enough that my Paddle Boy wheels fell apart. That was disappointing result after only having the Paddle Boy for two weeks.

Downstream is long stretch of rapids. It’s a fun stretch of river.

Of course, after the river left the rapids we encountered more fallen trees. Eventually, we saw a large treeless expanse ahead. We were closing in on Populatic Pond. After a few twists and turns we splashed into that wide open expanse of water.

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Populatic Pond

 

Our route:

Medway Dams

Paddling Though Area F with the Kids

June has been a very wet month and the rain of a few days ago has pushed the Charles River into flood stage. I thought it would be a good day to see how the river looks in flood stage. This section of the river also is part of the flood control measures for the river.

dover flood level

We put in at Forest Road in Millis. Literally at Forest Road. The parking lot and launch area was underwater and we launched the big red kayak from the side of Forest Road. We already had our first taste of the floodwaters and had not even started paddling.

Doug The Boy The Girl and Our Red Kayak

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.

natural valley storage area

This section of the Charles is part 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. The final acquisition totaled 8,103 acres, with 3,221 acres of land acquired in fee and 4,882 acres in flood easement.

These wetlands form a natural reservoir. They soak up the floodwaters and allow the water level to spread over a wide area. Otherwise the heavy flow of water would rush downstream and flood the developed areas along the river, including Boston itself.

Area F is the largest area of the Natural Valley Storage Area and lies in Millis, Medfield, Norfolk and Sherborn.

With all of the rain, Area F would be put to it’s test of holding flood waters.

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Only boats would be parking here today.

The Charles River meanders quite a bit in this section, swishing back and forth through the marshy wetlands. With the high water, we were able to cut across some of the meanderings as the water flowed right over some of the marsh.

On one bank was Millis, on the other Medfield. This area attracted the first settlers of Medfield. The natural hay from these 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. We could hear some shotgun blasts echoing across the valley.

Route 109 Bridge
Route 109 Bridge

I had a bit of concern about our ability to fit under the Route 109 bridge. It’s smallish opening helps hold back some of the water in Area F, pushing it out into the meadows. But we were able to make it under with reasonable clearance.

The next obstacle was the railroad bridge just downstream of 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.

The trestle offered narrow openings and the bloated river was flowing quickly through. A few quick, sharp strokes got the kayak in position, through, and out the other side.

Railroad bridge at West Street
Railroad bridge at West Street

As we paddled further downstream, the floodwaters spread far across the marshy valley. I was hoping to be able to paddle up Bogastow Brook. This is the largest tributary of the Charles River. With the wide expanse of the floodwaters it was often hard to find the path of the river as it flowed over marshes, bushes and trees that normally cut a path for the flow. This is Area G of the Natural Valley Storage Area.

I thought I might not be able to find the brook. Eventually I saw a bigger opening and an obvious flow of additional water. It was a short, twisted path upstream to South End Pond. I assume this stretch is normally a bit scratchy, but the floodwaters made it easy to get upstream.

After making it to the pond, we headed back to the Charles, downstream to the Route 27 bridge and the takeout.

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Striking a pose at the put in.


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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 with the Kids in Hemlock Gorge

The Hemlock Gorge section of the Charles River is the beginning of the more urban section of Charles River, passing houses, factories and highways, than the upper stretches of the river.

I launched the new red double kayak from Nahanton Park in Newton. The Boy was in the front seat and The Girl was in a jump seat plopped between my feet.

Nahanton Park is one of the newer locations of Charles River Canoe and Kayak. It is a less visible location than it’s main location next to the Marriott, but it’s a much nicer stretch of the river. There is plenty of parking and a dock at the park which makes the launch very easy.

The Needham radio and television towers are visible in the distance once you enter this section of the river. 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. There are three portages ahead, sure to be a challenge in the big new kayak.

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. There are new signs warning of the approaching dam. You can see the river disappear and hear an increasing roar as you pass under the bridge.

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There is a good spot to take the kayak out of the river and start the portage. It was fairly long walk of about 300 yards through Hemlock Gorge Reservation, leading down into Hemlock Gorge between Newton’s Upper Falls and the Echo Bridge. With the weight of the new kayak on my back, I realized I needed to get some wheels for the portages.

Halfway down the portage, there is a great spot atop the rock of the gorge. The old mill building is across the river and you can feel the force of the water poring over the dam.

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.

Silk Mill Dam in Hemlock Gorge
Silk Mill Dam in Hemlock Gorge

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, we all hollered out as we 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.

Horseshoe Dam
Horseshoe Dam

Next on the river was the Circular Dam or Horseshoe Dam. The dam was not marked and it 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. In 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. There is a new spillway put in place that makes the bank a bit more steep and the exit a bit harder.

128 Road Signs in the Distance
128 Road Signs in the Distance

The Charles then follows Route 128/ Interstate 95 for a few miles. 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. The left bank has relatively new sound barriers along 128 that greatly reduce the traffic noise. Vegetation has grown along the walls, but they still look massive and tower above the river.

After passing under Route 128, we 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 Wellesley is the Cordingly Dam. The last time I was here I entered the river to early and floated through the rapids unsuccessfully, leaving me flapping in the river like one of the herring in the dam’s fish ladder. Since I had the kids I was not going to risk tipping the kayak, so we took a much longer portage downstream.

We ended this stretch of the river at Washington Street / Route 16 in Wellesley at the top of Newton Lower Falls.

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Newton Lower Falls and the Route 16 Bridge

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

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Paddling Underground

Joe McCarthy’s grandfather remembers when the Park “Hog” River used to run through downtown Hartford. But today, it’s gone. There are buildings where there used to be a river. Intrigued, Joe looked closer and found the river buried beneath the streets of Hartford.

Joe partnered with fellow artist Peter Albano to map the now underground river and to document their exploration of this underground ecosystem. To help fund their project I backed their Kickstarter project and took a ride with them on their exploration of the underground river.

Joe and Peter took me into this beast of a public works project. At its heart, it’s just a river. But it’s wrapped in thick concrete and studded with outlets and floodways.

I wrote more about the Hog River Revival and the trip on GeekDad: Paddling Underground: The Hog River Revival.

Artwork from their trips along the Hog River will be on exhibit at the Hartford Public Library’s ArtWalk: Peter Albano and Joe McCarthy: The Hog River Revival Collection. The free exhibition opens Friday, December 7 with a reception from 6:00 p.m.–8:00 p.m. and runs through January 20, 2013.