Exploring The Last Green Valley – The Willimantic River – A National Recreation Trail

The Willimantic River – A National Recreation Trail

To the lost man, to the pioneer penetrating a new country, to the naturalist who wishes to see the wild land at its wildest, the advice is always the same – follow the river. The river is the original forest highway. It is nature’s own Wilderness Road. Edwin Way Teale 

There is something about slipping a canoe or kayak into a flowing river and letting the current carry you away. Depending on river conditions – water levels, flow and speed, rocks, and strainers (downed trees) – a paddle can provide either a unique calming effect on the soul or it can be exhilarating and a bit nerve-wracking. I have experienced both and have come back to paddle again and again.

Over the past year or so this column has focused on the rivers that we are blessed to have here in The Last Green Valley. Today we explore the Willimantic River.

Rising out of Stafford at the confluence of the Middle River and Furnace Book, the Willimantic River flows southward for 25 miles with just over 22 of those miles designated by the U.S. Department of Interior as a National Recreational Trail. It is a river ideal for paddling.

The Willimantic River flows south through Stafford and then serves as the border between Ellington and Tolland (west) and Willington (east), Coventry (west) and Mansfield (east), Columbia and Lebanon (west) and Windham (east). In Windham it joins the Natchaug River to form the Shetucket.

Like many rivers in the region, the Willimantic powered textile mills during the 19th and 20th centuries. A mile-long stretch in Willimantic drops almost 100 feet. This section was named “Wilimentuck” or “land of swift moving waters” by Native Americans and was a logical site to locate mills.

To the paddle enthusiast, the Willimantic River offers a wide variety of paddling from smooth flat water to small riffles to active white water. Paddlers with less experience can find safer slower water, and those with more experience can find moving water and greater challenges.

The Willimantic is a mid-sized river when compared to the wider Shetucket and wider and longer Quinebaug River. It is a meandering river with several twists and turns that can be challenging with high and fast water. The river also tends to run too shallow for paddling in the summer months – especially the upper sections from Stafford into Mansfield.  The best time of year for paddling the upper river is during spring and early summer.

The preferred section for summer paddling (as well as for beginners and families) is from River Park in Mansfield to Eagleville Pond. This is a flat water segment and paddlers can leave from the launch at River Park and return to the same location due to the lack of strong current.

The river has several legal launch and takeout locations that are ideal for kayaks and canoes. The Last Green Valley has teamed with the Willimantic River Alliance and many other partners to create an on-line paddle guide to the Willimantic River that can be found at www.thelastgreenvalley.org. Click on the “Explore” tab then “Recreation Guides” and “Paddling” to find the Willimantic Paddle Guide.

Each of the paddle segments is described in detail and the guide has a glossary of paddle terms, helpful links, and lots of safety tips and information.

For more information about the Willimantic River, look at The Willimantic River Alliance website at www.willimanticriver.org where you’ll find lots of helpful information about the river and the efforts of the Willimantic River Alliance to preserve and protect this important waterway.

Another group that is doing great work to promote the river is the Willimantic Whitewater Partnership. They have extensive plans for development of a whitewater park in Willimantic. Visit www.willimanticwhitewater.org, to find plans for the park and other pertinent information.

In 2012, The Last Green Valley worked with many partners to gain National Recreation Trail designation for most of the Willimantic River. The final stretch of river from Columbia to Willimantic was designated as a National Recreation Trail this spring.  We are proud to see the Willimantic so-designated and especially grateful for all of the partners that helped gain this important recognition.

If you’re looking for a great opportunity to learn more about the Willimantic River and to join others for an enjoyable paddle, come to the Willimantic River Festival on Saturday, May 14th. You can find the whole schedule of paddling, vendors, food, music and more on the Willimantic Whitewater Partnership website.

Registration for the paddle begins at 10 a.m. at 28 Bridge Street in Willimantic. You need to provide your own boat and you must have a life preserver.

At 11:30 a.m., everyone is invited to a ribbon cutting ceremony for the newly-constructed connection between Connecticut’s Air Line and Hop River State Park Trails.  The ceremony will be held at the new pedestrian bridge on the railroad trestle near the CT Eastern Railroad Museum.  Parking is available at 55 Bridge Street.

At 12:30 p.m., we’ll have a second ribbon cutting ceremony just downstream as we dedicate the final segment of National Recreation Trail as well as a new kayak and canoe landing. This new landing is also where the river paddle will end.

At 2:00 p.m., “Spring Outdoors” on a walk hosted by Willimantic Whitewater Partnership and The Last Green Valley to learn about the trail connections and how they came to be.

May 14th promises to be a good opportunity to learn more about this important river, to get out and enjoy a nice paddle, have some great food, and listen to local music.

We are fortunate to live in a region with exceptional natural resources. Our rivers are the life blood that flows through the National Heritage Corridor. They belong to us and are here for all to experience. I hope you’ll join us as we promote, enjoy, and care for the rivers, streams, ponds and lakes that make this region so special.

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

The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the preceding article.  The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work