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.

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.

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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 in the Lakes District of the Charles River (Part II)

Charles River Canoe and Kayak sits in an old MDC police station on Commonwealth Avenue and has a wide variety of paddle craft to rent. Earlier, The Son and I rented a two-person kayak and headed upstream towards the Lower Fall Dam: Paddling in the Lakes District of the Charles River (Part I).

Today, we rented a canoe and headed downstream toward the Moody Street Dam in Waltham. It’s that dam that backs up the Charles River and creates the lake-like feeling in this section of the Charles River.

The slow-moving water creates abundant habitat for waterlife. We spotted many turtles and an impressive great blue heron.

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 10 miles from downtown Boston.

One tip for paddling in a canoe with a young kid is to sit in the boat backwards. That way the heavier adult (Does this canoe make me look fat?) is moved toward the center of the canoe, better distributing the weight with a small kid up front. The kid does not need the leg room, so the stern seat (now at the front) should be far enough away from the stern bulkhead for the kid to have legroom.

After trying out the canoe, I going to stick with a kayak for my Charles River journey. The canoe is much harder to paddle with only one person doing the bulk of the work.

It was a pleasant day for paddling so I dug the paddle in and headed downstream, past 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.

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 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 Dam.

A Visit to the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

A few days ago I took The Son to the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation in Waltham. (The Daughter came along in her stroller.) Its a fun museum.

You can read more about the visit in my latest post on Geek Dad: GeekDad Visits the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation.

You can also see some of the photos of the visit in my Flickr Collection: Charles River Museum of Industry.