Canoeing and Camping the Upper Connecticut

Posted June 4th, 2008

Jason and Parker Densmore paddle towards the Percy Peaks. Photo by Lisa Densmore.

With a lazy pull, my paddle sliced through the water. I felt the canoe glide forward, slowly, effortlessly. The day was sunny, and the river aided my progress with its gentle, yet persistent, flow. As the bow of my boat rounded the tip of a low, marshy island, the cattails suddenly burst to life. Fifty Canada geese sprinted across the water, their large bodies lumbering upward as they honked an ear-splitting warning to fellow waterfowl. They were perhaps 10 feet from my boat before the scramble to take off.

I was paddling on the Connecticut River, just below North Stratford, NH, and was part of a two-family flotilla, which included two canoes and two sea kayaks crewed by four adults and three kids. For several years, the four adults had humped increasingly larger packs up increasingly larger mountains with the goal of giving our children increasingly larger outdoor adventures. Last summer, we decided to replace backpacking with canoe camping, at least until our kids were big enough to carry their own backpacking gear. We selected the 23-mile stretch of the Connecticut River between North Stratford, NH (Bloomfield, on the Vermont side), and Guildhall, NH, because that is where the river transitions from shallow, irritable rapids to a placid, meandering waterway. This section of the river is also part of the newly christened, highly publicized Northern Forest Canoe Trail. The adults in our small group hoped for some pristine views and the chance to disconnect from our electronic leashes for two days. We figured the swimming and fishing would provide enough entertainment to keep the kids engaged. What a bonus to find a plethora of wildlife, too!

One of 14 American Heritage Rivers in the United States, the Connecticut is the largest river eco-system in New England. From its source at Fourth Connecticut Lake, where the northern tip of New Hampshire pokes into Canada, the river flows over 400 miles to its mouth on Long Island Sound, near Old Saybrook, CT. Early Native Americans called it “Quenticut” (long tidal river), but for the last 150 years, with the construction of numerous hydroelectric dams, it has become much more susceptible to the whims of man than nature. And man has not always been kind to this natural resource.

By the mid-twentieth century, the Connecticut River was a sewer. People, factories, and farms dumped untreated filth directly into it. The fish disappeared and the water was unfit for swimming. With the passage of the Federal Clean Water Act in 1972, the river began its remarkable recovery. Today, healthy populations of pike, bass, and trout thrive below its surface. In 1998, the entire Connecticut River watershed was named the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge to preserve its biodiversity. Raptors, such as eagles, turkey vultures, and osprey scout the river from the sky. Mink and otters are among the many small mammals who watch with a wary eye as paddlers pass by. It’s common to see the head of a muskrat skimming the surface of the water, or to hear the loud whap of a beaver’s tail daring you to follow it to its secret hideout.

We launched our canoes at a town recreation area in North Stratford. With the current tugging at our boats, I reminded the boys who manned the kayaks to avoid turning sideways to the small chop on the water, which could capsize them without warning. About a mile below the put-in, we accelerated noticeably as we approached the Horse Race, a stretch of low-key whitewater (class 3 in spring). We herded everyone to the middle of the channel where the river was deepest and passed through unscathed.

After the Horse Race, the river calmed down, meandering through a designated natural area.

Motor boats are not allowed here, though fishing is permitted. The fish are wild (not stocked) and wily. I trailed a fly-line behind my boat, scanning the water for signs of fish, but the bottom looked sandy and barren.

Suddenly I felt a small tug on the line. I grabbed my rod just before an annoyed fish pulled it into the water. The fish felt small as I reeled it in, but I was still curious to see what I’d hooked—a six-inch brook trout. I showed it to my fellow paddlers, taking credit for the first fish of the trip—our only fish—and then watched it wriggle away as I released it back to the river.

As the day waned, we came upon the Railroad Trestle Site Campground, a primitive campsite near Brunswick, VT, and the only designated campsite along our route. The sandy pullout was obvious below the large stone footing in the middle of the river, where a railroad bridge once crossed. The campsite is cleverly laid out along the old railroad right-of-way, with a fire pit, a picnic table, a privy, and enough room for several tents. As the adults unloaded the gear, the kids ran to the sign-in box nailed to a tree, intent on recording their names in the ledger. Instead of a log book, they found a pile of shredded paper happily inhabited by a half-dozen field mice. All primitive campsites along the Connecticut River are available on a first come, first serve basis. Apparently we were the first to come to this site in quite awhile.

The next day confirmed the fact that this stretch of river is largely undiscovered. We paddled another dozen miles without seeing another boat. The twin Percy Peaks dominated much of the morning skyline to the east. As we passed under the Maidstone Bridge, an old steel truss that dates back to 1885, we got the impression that this section of river has not changed much since the bridge was built. Its banks are still largely undeveloped except for the occasional farm, and we had yet to see another person.

Just beyond the bridge, the river passes through a series of tight oxbows. There are natural sandy beaches at each bend, and so many bends that it’s tough to choose where to stop for a picnic and a swim. The sunlight sparkled serenely around us. The water was clear and warm. This was a trip that need never end.

As we approached Groveton, NH, evidence of civilization crept toward the river banks above us. The Upper Ammonoosuc River joined the Connecticut River at Groveton, adding substantially to the Connecticut’s size, though it still remained mellow and lake-like.

Just below the confluence with the Upper Ammonoosuc, we glimpsed the hulk of Mount Moosilauke and the White Mountains beyond. From there we kept watch for the Guildhall-North-umberland Bridge and the pull-out just above Wyoming Dam, which marked the end of our journey and an introduction to canoe-camping that’s worth repeating.

Connecticut River Joint Commission:
Connecticut River Watershed Council:
Northern Forest Canoe Trail:
The Connecticut River Boating Guide, by John Sinton, Elizabeth Farnsworth, Wendy Sinton (FalconGuides, 2007)
While mainly a flatwater paddle, the Upper Connecticut River between North Stratford and Guildhall can move quickly, depending on the time of year, amount of recent rainfall, and dam activity. The section from North Stratford to Guildhall is rated from class 1 (flat) to class 3 (intermediate whitewater with some obstacles).
Here are a few things to keep in mind to insure a safe voyage:
Be aware of changing water levels. Beach your boat high above the water line and tie it up.
Avoid “strainers” (trees that have fallen part-way into the river) which can capsize a canoe and trap a paddler underwater.
A strong headwind can create waves and current effect in a northerly direction. To continue south, stay close to shore and allow extra time to reach your destination.
Avoid walking on exposed river banks, which are prone to erosion and which are usually dotted with bank swallow nests (holes).
When approaching Wyoming Dam at the end of the trip, hug the Vermont bank well above the breach to reach the pullout ramp. The Wyoming Dam is extremely dangerous to boaters, with rebar sticking out of the old concrete.
Respect the rights of landowners along the river.
Use only public access sites and designated campsites.
Paddle out everything that you paddle in.
Extinguish campfires thoroughly before departing.
Wear a PFD (life jacket)!
Carry an extra paddle.
Wear sunscreen! The air often feels cool in a canoe, but water magnifies the effects of the sun. Don’t forget to apply it to the exposed part of your thighs and the tops of your feet, the place where canoeists most commonly get sunburned.
Wear secure sport sandals or paddling shoes at all times. You never know when you might need to walk your canoe over a shallow gravel bar or jump onto a rough shoreline.

Lisa Densmore

A award-winning writer and photographer Lisa Densmore has spent much of her life outdoors in Vermont. She is the author of seven books, including Best Hikes with Dogs: New Hampshire & Vermont (The Mountaineers Books) and Hiking the Green Mountains (FalconGuides). A long-time contributor to Vermont Sports, her words and photos have also appeared in many publications including, Vermont Life, Vermont Magazine, Stratton Magazine, Okemo Magazine, Woodstock Magazine and Best of Burlington.