Exploring The Last Green Valley – A River Runs Through It – The Shetucket River

Exploring The Last Green Valley, A River Runs Through It – The Shetucket River

Two weeks ago this column focused on the Willimantic River and the recreational opportunities it offers to paddle enthusiasts. In keeping with our spring season water recreation theme, today we explore the river that flows from Windham to Norwich, and serves as one of the most important rivers in our region – the Shetucket River.

The Shetucket River begins at the confluence of the Natchaug and Willimantic Rivers in the Willimantic section of Windham, and then continues to flow through Windham, Scotland, Sprague, Lisbon, Preston and Norwich.

I have paddled the entire length of the Shetucket on several occasions and will do so again with a group of hearty paddlers on June 4th and 5th for Connecticut Trails Day. To me, the Shetucket is two rivers – scenic and rural in the upper stretches and industrial and urban in the lower sections. With 20 miles of paddling, the Shetucket offers excellent water recreation for both experienced and novice paddlers.

The first 10 miles is very scenic and rural with mostly woods and forests on either bank. Paddlers wishing to explore this stretch of the Shetucket will be rewarded with a long paddle, beautiful scenery, and abundant wildlife.

This section flows through Windham, Scotland and down to Sprague. Along the way, paddlers pass land that is permanently protected from development as well as privately-held land with tree-lined shores with a few smaller streams and tributaries entering the river.

Depending on the time of year and rain conditions, the river in the northern section is relatively slow moving. This is especially true as you approach the Scotland Dam that stretches across the river from shore to shore. Scotland Dam is a hydroelectric facility operated by First Light and Power. The dam holds back the river water to create a large storage pond which is then released to power the hydroelectric turbines.  The dam operators are currently in the process of converting from the “pond and release” operation to a “run-of-river” operation.  This may impact water levels for paddling below the dam in the future.

Scotland Dam has a very good portage on the west side (river right) of the dam with easy access for canoes and kayaks up a slight hill to the right of the dam and down the other side to a well maintained launch area. This is also a good place to rest, have a snack and enjoy the scenery.

From Scotland Dam to Sprague the river drops in elevation creating a quicker-moving current. The increase in water flow is also impacted by the narrowing of the river bed as well as operation of the hydroelectric facility at the Scotland Dam. This section of the river is also a favorite for anglers and includes some of the best trout and salmon fishing in the region.

Beyond Scotland Dam, paddlers can take out at Salt Rock Campground on the eastern side of the river (river left) or paddle about a mile further to Sprague River Park in Sprague, also on the eastern side of the river.

There are two active bald eagle nests on the Shetucket – one in the northern section and one in the southern section. These majestic and beautiful raptors rely on the river for fish, their primary food source, and are a common sight. In addition to bald eagles, I frequently see great blue heron, belted king fisher and other birds. I have seen river otter, muskrat, and water snakes, as well as painted and snapping turtles.

To paddle the lower section of the Shetucket, paddlers can launch at Sprague River Park and paddle approximately 1 mile to the Occum section of Norwich. You’ll need to portage the Occum Dam on the eastern side of the river (river left) then paddle for 3 miles to the large impoundment and dam at the Taftville section of Norwich at Ponemah Mills. You can also launch at Red McKeon Park just beyond the Occum Dam. The paddle between Occum and Taftville is slower with less current due to the large Taftville impoundment. There is an excellent boat landing on the Lisbon side (river left) of the impoundment.

To continue paddling to downtown Norwich requires a portage at the large Taftville Dam. There are a number of steps down the side of the hill on the Lisbon side of the dam and paddlers can carry their kayak or canoe down these steps to launch at the base of the dam.

Just beyond the Taftville Dam, the Shetucket is joined by the Quinebaug River. At approximately 70 miles in length, the Quinebaug includes water from the French, Five Mile, Moosup and Pachaug Rivers.  From the confluence with the Quinebaug River, it’s a short paddle to the Greenville Dam portage on the east side of the river (river left).

The portage at Greenville is not too difficult, but be beware of mud at the landing area. From there it is a short paddle to downtown Norwich and the landing at Brown Park.  In Norwich Harbor, the Shetucket is joined by the Yantic and this is the confluence of the Thames River. From there the Thames River flows for 15 miles to Long Island Sound.

In my opinion, unless you are determined to paddle the entire Shetucket River, I would not bother paddling the section from Taftville to Brown Park. The portages are not easy, and for me, paddling through the city is just not as enjoyable as the upper more rural and scenic sections.

This past November The Last Green Valley submitted an application to the US Department of Interior to nominate the Shetucket River as a National Recreation Trail. Both the Quinebaug and Willimantic Rivers have already received this notable distinction and we are hopeful to add the Shetucket as the 3rd National Recreation Trail within The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor.

Feel free to contact me for more information on paddling the Shetucket. To learn more about efforts underway to preserve the river, I suggest you check out The Friends of the Shetucket River Valley. This is a non-profit group working to protect the river and the land it flows through. You can find out more about their important work and how you can get involved by going to their website http://shetucket.org.

Here is a quote from their website that clearly states the importance of the river. “Much of the Shetucket watershed is still covered with forests and fields. Despite all the commercial and residential development in the Atlantic states and New England, the Shetucket and its tributaries continue to support a rich ecological environment. By preserving these rivers and streams and the land around them, we preserve nature, clean water and air, peace of mind, and property values.”

The rivers we enjoy here in The Last Green Valley are critically important to the quality of life we have come to enjoy in this region. Our rivers were sources of food and navigation for the native inhabitants of the region. They powered our industrial age and are responsible for the region’s growth and prosperity during the 19th and 20th centuries. They remain today a resource for us to enjoy, to share and to pass on to a future generation.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 30 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org

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