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Get Out and Paddle Along Our Rivers This Spring

Rivers are the lifeblood of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. They define our region’s history, from transportation and sources of food for the original inhabitants of our beautiful valley to powering the age of industry. Today, our rivers provide exceptional recreational paddling opportunities for residents and visitors to our region.

May is a great time to get out and paddle. The water is warming up, and water levels are still good for river paddling. Here at TLGV, we’re happy to help you learn more about the best locations for paddling in the region. The Paddle Guide we created in 2016 documents almost 90 miles of paddling on the region’s three main-stem rivers — the Quinebaug, Willimantic and Shetucket.

Each of these three rivers has sections that are National Recreation Water Trails, a designation achieved after a rigorous application process undertaken by TLGV and then approved by the Secretary of the Interior. A water trail is a combination of paddle routes and segments with public access that are clearly described in maps and guides. To be designated a National Recreation Water Trail means the trail is “exemplary.”

Our three main-stem rivers have something for all paddlers, no matter their ability. Some locations offer an easy flatwater paddle up stream and a float back to the launch location, while others have paddling on faster moving water of 5 miles or more between launch and landing.

The Paddle Guide for the Quinebaug, Willimantic and Shetucket rivers is available for purchase at the TLGV online store for $5, including postage, by going to the following link: https://shop.thelastgreenvalley.org/collections/Gifts or you can download for free a printable version from our website at: http://thelastgreenvalley.org/explore-the-last-green-valley/recreation-guides/paddling/.

The guide offers details on each segment of the National Recreational Water Trails and important safety notes to help paddlers decide whether a segment is suitable for their abilities.

I’m often asked to reveal my favorite place to paddle. I have several favorite paddle trips to choose from, but on any given day picking which one depends on several factors.

The first and most important factor in deciding when and where to paddle is the location’s water conditions. Heading out and looking at the river is not always going to tell you what conditions you may experience downstream. The river may drop in elevation, become wider or narrower in sections, resulting in water levels that may vary significantly from one end of the paddle to the other.

Luckily, the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintain a network of river gages that register water level and flow data online every 15 minutes in The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. The USGS online stream gages measure both the river level and volume of water passing by the gage every 15 minutes 24/7. The site also displays recent trends and historic averages.

I draw attention to these gages because as spring turns to summer, water levels decrease in our rivers. There is nothing more disconcerting than starting a paddle only to find it turning into a hike – a muddy trudge, dragging a boat behind you.

It is important to not only understand the minimum water thresholds for paddling, but also to understand the maximum levels, because your safety depends on your skill, equipment and judgement. At any level of river flow, what is safe and easy for a skilled paddler may be life-threatening to a less experienced paddler.

To locate a stream gage search online for “USGS stream gages” and the state you’re interested in checking. A map of the state will appear with the heading USGS Current Water Data, and a green dot will represent all active gages. Click on the gage you’re interested in viewing, and you’ll want to focus on the graph showing “Discharge, cubic feet per second.” As an example, for the Quinebaug River gage in Putnam, a reading of less than 300 cubic feet per minute indicates the probability of a “rocky” trip downstream. During flood conditions, I have seen the Putnam gage read 3,000 cubic feet per second – not a safe time to be on the river regardless of your skill level.

The second factor in determining what stretch of river I’ll be paddling is who is paddling with me, and what their level of experience is. Each year I’ll lead a few group paddles for TLGV, and I try to pick locations where I know everyone will have an enjoyable paddle with the least amount of chance of folks going for an accidental swim. Each of our three main-stem rivers have perfect locations for groups of paddlers of all abilities, and when I am leading a group paddle, I’ll stick to these areas.

The third factor I look at before heading out on a paddle is the weather forecast. These days we have very reliable weather forecasts. While I don’t mind paddling in cloudy, cool or even wet conditions, if I have an option and especially if I am leading a group paddle, I’ll look for sunny and relatively warm weather.

If you are looking to paddle the rivers of The Last Green Valley, I hope you’ll check out our information about paddling at: http://thelastgreenvalley.org and click on the “Explore” tab, then the “Recreation” tab and then the “Paddling” tab. You’ll want to get your hands on our paddle guide as well.

We live in a beautiful region with amazing natural resources just outside our doors. Exploring our hills, valleys, fields and forest are a great way to appreciate all we have. But for me, traversing our rivers from a canoe is special, too. I hope you’ll join me as we explore this place we call home — The Last Green Valley.

Bill Reid is chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org.