By Christian Woodward, Photos by Nick Gottlieb
“Hi!” the boy had yelled to me from the footbridge. “I canoe in Estonia!”
A minute later, he stepped off an ice shelf into my boat. I handed him the paddle.
He wore sweatpants and a Yankee cap, and took hurried strokes that seemed likely to dump us under thick ice just downstream. His family, seemingly unconcerned, waited on the bridge.
It was almost April, but this short stretch of Otter Creek was one of the only pieces of open water around. After weeks of sub-zero, all of the rivers were bandaged in ice. Usually the gradual rivers are open by early March.
These valley streams, like the Mad, Winooski, Lamoille, White and Connecticut, are some of the best beginner runs in the state, with moving water less than class III. Whitewater is classified into five grades, with beginner friendly streams class I-II. While Vermont is home to many challenging creeks (class IV and V), more gradual streams suitable for beginners flow through all of its valleys.
You can paddle these rivers in almost any type of boat. Some of Vermont’s best paddlers started in aluminum canoes or borrowed fiberglass. You’ll also need a paddle, lifejacket (Look for a Type III, usually printed on the back foam panel) and helmet. You’ll be happier with a sprayskirt on anything class III or higher.
You’ll also need a wetsuit or a drysuit. Spring kayaking, especially during snowmelt, is too cold for wool sweaters. Largely because of the cold and high water, kayaking is most dangerous in the spring. Flooded streams have fewer eddies for pulling out to assess the rapids downstream.
If you have the gear — even if it’s not perfect — find a knowledgeable friend and get on the water. You can only learn if you’re paddling, and folks will often lend you equipment.
The Vermont Paddler’s Club (individual membership is $10 annually) is one of the best ways to find friends to lead you down unfamiliar rivers. The Club schedules trips throughout the state, many within reach of beginning paddlers. Their website is www.vtpaddlers.net and their trips and forum pages have all the current information.
Local paddling shops are also a great place to get started with both gear and instruction. If you plan to paddle in the Mad River valley, visit Clearwater sports in Waitsfield, and Umiak Outfitters in the Stowe-Burlington areas. They run clinics, rent and sell gear, and will bring you up-to-date on the current river conditions. (See other kayaking and boating shops around the state in a sidebar on this page.)
For more general river information, including photos of rapids, suggested lines, and links to the USGS gages, visit www.americanwhitewater.org. This non-profit negotiates for river access across the country, and compiles statewide river levels in one, simple interface.
But, don’t read up more than you have to. Get on the water and figure things out for yourself — you’ll learn more in a few minutes of paddling than hours of watching videos or checking levels. Get off the bank, and get a paddle in your hands.
Back under the footbridge, I asked my new Estonian friend’s name.
“Oh, like a hand?” I said. “Or Emmanuel?”
“No, just Mano.”
“An Estonian name?”
“It’s an international name,” he said. “You say it Mano in English, too.”
He held the paddle in a clumsy fist grip, but ferried us smoothly across the current. His tongue worked back in forth, concentrated between his lips. He must canoe in Estonia, after all. A merganser surfaced in the small scrap of open water, holding an algae-covered stone in her bill.
I took us upstream through the rapid. Mano held the gunwales, and a small wave soaked his glove. He snatched his hand back, laughing, and motioned downstream. When we reached the ice, he ran with flailing arms back up to his family.
“Thank you!” he yelled down. I paddled for another hour, watching the river fill with snowmelt in the sunny afternoon. The next day it finally overtopped ice to release big plates downstream. I put in and floated down the high spring water.
Christian’s Top 5 rivers for Class I & II whitewater
1. Otter Creek in Middlebury (where Mano and I paddled) offers year-round moving water. Put in below the falls in town, and work on ferrying, paddling upriver, and ogle the drop upstream. This is a great spot to learn, with lots of consequences, good scenery, and good sandwiches within walking distance. Otter Creek Gorge, north of town on Belden Falls Road, offers a more prolonged and difficult section, with class II+ rapids through a short, bedrock gorge. (Do not do this at high water as the rating goes up dramatically.)
2. The Mad River between Waitsfield and Middlesex is a jewel. The green water has sculpted bedrock into surprising fins and potholes. Though most of the run is suitable for beginners in any craft, the final pitch between Moretown and the Winooski confluence is an intermediate run that demands solid skills, a guide, and the right gear. Talk with the folks at Clearwater Sports in Waitsfield to determine which section of the Mad is right for you.
3. The West River in Jamaica is Vermont’s most popular beginner river. Scheduled releases in April and September make this a reliable option to find paddlers sharpening their skills on several miles of continuous class II. Check on www.americanwhitewater.org for release dates and flow information.
4 & 5. The White and Connecticut Rivers are close to one another and provide similar whitewater experiences. Though both are class II at normal levels, the Connecticut through Hartland Rapids fluctuates daily. Check with Wilderness Trails in Quechee for level updates and gear rental.
Paddling outfitters in Vermont
Abenaki Outfitters & Guide Service
Abenaki provides lessons and guided tours throughout the Champlain Valley and the Adirondacks in New York on Lake Champlain, Lake George, Dead Creek and Otter Creek.
Appalachian Trail Adventures
ATA offers guided flatwater or stream kayaking with guides on sections of the Ottaquechee River, Otter Creek or nearby ponds and lakes.
Battenkill Canoe Ltd.
Battenkill provides guided canoe trips on rivers throughout Vermont on the Winooski, Lamoille, Clyde, Black, Battenkill, White and others.
Green Mountain Adventures and Middlebury Mountaineer
In addition to a full retail shop, Middlebury Mountaineer offers paddle trips down sections of the Otter Creek and on Lake Champlain. Tours are open to beginner and advanced paddlers; canoes and kayaks are available for sale and rental.
Great River Outfitters
Great River offers a number of options of self-guided day-trips on the Connecticut River ranging from two to eight hours on kayaks, canoes, rafts and inner tubes.
Bert’s Boats LLC
Formerly Smugglers’ Notch Canoe & Kayak Tours, Bert’s Boats has guided and self-guided tours and lessons on the Lamoille and Winooski Rivers to Lake Champlain. Ken “Bert” Roberts also offers rentals.
Clearwater offers tours and rentals for standup paddleboarding, canoeing and kayaking on the Winooski and Mad Rivers, plus guiding and instruction.
Clyde River Recreation
Clyde River provides self-guided paddle trips, canoe and kayak rentals, group outings, fishing trips and bird watching trips of varying distances on the Clyde River in the Northeast Kingdom.
Stowe and South Burlington, Vt.
Phone: 802-253-2317, and 802-651-8760
In addition to rentals at the Waterbury Reservoir, the Stowe store and in South Burlington, Umiak provides on-water instruction in standup paddleboarding, kayaking, whitewater and certification courses for the American Canoe Association. The outfitter also offers guided trips.
Vermont Adventure Tours
Vermont Adventure Tours offers flat water and white water kayaking and canoeing courses from beginner to advanced levels. The company also offers summer camps and courses in wilderness survival.