A monthly column in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Canoe-Camping: The River Awaits

Enjoying a shady lunch on the river.

A few cool things about paddle-camping.

After years of dreaming about canoeing a long stretch of the Connecticut River and camping along its banks, I finally did it.

As my son and I paddled, we found ourselves comparing our trip to adventures of earlier summers, like car-camping and backpacking. We resolved that canoe-camping is a pretty cool way to get around and see the great outdoors.

With that backdrop, here are a few things to keep in mind about canoe-camping.

Every river has its own personality

We chose to paddle-camp on the Connecticut River, the stretch between Bellows Falls and Vernon, Vt. There are a plenty of good campsite choices, all outlined in the handy Connecticut River Boating Guide, published by the Connecticut River Watershed Council. The stretch has plenty of mid-summer water, and some parts are accessible by canoes or kayaks only, which was fine by us.

We could have chosen other rivers. There’s the close-to-home Contoocook River, with its calm waters and beautiful places. But it doesn’t have the big water character and camping options of the Connecticut.

There’s the sandy Saco River in New Hampshire and Maine, with loads of camping options and outfitters who can help pick you up or drop you off. The Saco’s reputation as a party river is starting to wane, but sometimes it can still seem like a riparian version of Spring Break.

There’s the mighty Merrimack River, the wild Allagash in Maine, the rugged Deerfield in Massachusetts. The list goes on, and each river has plenty to offer.

You can bring lots of stuff

Unlike backpacking, where every ounce weighs on your shoulders, you can haul a few extras in the canoe. You can bring camping chairs, a lightweight table, tarps and extra rain gear or all kinds of things to make your trip more fun and comfortable. You can even bring a cooler, full of all kinds of great food and beverages.

But all that stuff has its limits, too. More weight means harder paddling and can complicate packing and portaging. Test-packing will help you decide whether you need it or leave it. 

Keep your gear dry
No matter how careful you are, there’s always a chance you’ll dump your canoe. If it happens, just hope that no one is watching and take a few simple precautions to keep your stuff safe and dry.

You can use dry bags, like the many kinds offered at EMS and other sporting goods stores. They come in sizes small enough for maps or snacks or big enough to fit your sleeping bags, tent and plenty more. You can also get dry boxes and pouches for cameras or cell phones. A cheaper option for storing gear are 5-gallon pails or plastic storage boxes, both with tight lids, of course.

If you’re really paranoid about losing your stuff, you can clip your dry containers into a rope. 

Water, water to drink
Like backpacking, you want to stay hydrated, especially when you’re paddling in the hot sun. Pack a full, collapsible 5-gallon water container and keep it handy. You’ll need it. If you can’t refill it along your journey, bring a water purifier or tablets.

You can refresh your provisions!
As we paddled our stretch of the Connecticut in the boiling heat, one of the nicest sights was the Chesterfield-Brattleboro bridge. On the other side is an easy pull-out and a store with ice cream, ice and beer. Just a short paddle downstream, we could have stopped for a meal at the Marina in Brattleboro.

If you’re paddling the Allagash, you won’t have options like that. But when you pick a river, stores and pit stops like that are good options to keep in mind.

It’s fun for kids

Not every child will enjoy canoe-camping, but some will love it. They don’t have to paddle all the time; sometimes they can sit back and enjoy the ride.

Depending where you go, the paddling can offer lots of cool things to see around every bend. To break up the tedium of long, straight stretches, take breaks, go swimming or use that rod and reel.

The river can move you
Our stretch of the Connecticut River had a little current to move us along, but most of it was flat. If you want the river to do some of the work, you really have to do your homework and find stretches with current that’s strong enough to keep you moving, but not so strong to turn your placid camping trip into a crazy whitewater nightmare.

Remember that dams and their release schedules can have a big influence on flow. A nightly release at Bellows Falls, for instance, raised the river a few inches and significantly increased the flow.

By the way, remember that a dam’s release schedule can impact your choice of campsite. Camp too close to the river and you may find the river lapping against your tent at night!

It may be mid-summer, but the year’s best times for canoe-camping are still ahead. The bugs will soon be gone, the air will get better and the river awaits.

Eric Aldrich
writes from his home in Hancock.