If you’ve been to the Champlain Valley, you’ve probably seen the Winooski River from the window of a plane, train or automobile. The murky torrent of water snakes through Vermont’s most heavily trafficked transportation corridor. Over the years, it’s been used as a commercial waterway, an energy source and a dumping ground.
But float down the river in a boat, and you’ll see it in an entirely new way. The Winooski offers stunning views of the Middlesex Gorge, narrow passages between pockmarked limestone cliffs and access to one of the last intact floodplain forests in Vermont — not to mention flowers, fish, birds and various other critters you can’t see from the road.
This June, the Montpelier-based non-profit Friends of the Winooski River will give canoe and kayak paddlers a chance to rediscover the familiar waterway during the third annual Winooski River Sojourn. The six-day guided tour begins on June 22 at the Winooski’s source in Marshfield and ends on June 27 in Burlington, where the river empties into Lake Champlain. Participants can sign up for one day, multiple days or all six.
Linda Setchell, FOWR’s 33-year-old communications director, paddled the Montpelier-to-Middlesex leg last summer. She lives on the North Branch of the Winooski, but the Sojourn was her first time boating on it. “The most fascinating part for me was that I knew I was next to Route 2 in the back of my head, but I didn’t even notice it,” she says. “It was a total change of pace.”
Though the Winooski is a convenient destination, it’s not exactly accessible. The many dams make frequent portages necessary, and the access points aren’t always marked. “Most of them are difficult to get in and out of unless you have a guide, or can go with someone who knows where they’re going,” Setchell says. Hence the guided tour. The Sojourn gives newbies an opportunity to learn from experienced paddlers, who give them tips on topics such as the best way to approach the Winooski’s Class I and II rapids.
I’ve never been on the Sojourn, but I did canoe the Essex-to-Winooski leg in 2006 with Charles Fish, author of In the Land of the Wild Onion: Travels Along Vermont’s Winooski River. Incidentally, I highly recommend Fish’s informative and entertaining book to anyone who lives in the Winooski River watershed.
Like Setchell, I was struck by how wild the river feels, even as it meanders through Chittenden County. My favorite part was the stretch that flows through the nooks and hollows of the Lime Kiln Gorge. It’s eerily secluded, but just a stone’s throw from Route 15.
My own experience on the Winooski changed my relationship to the river. I’m definitely more conscious now of what goes into the storm drain in my street. And that’s the ultimate point of the Sojourn — to help people see the connection between the choices they make in their daily lives and the preservation of this natural resource.
After all, FOWR isn’t a tourism group; it’s an organization dedicated to the protection and restoration of the Winooski River and its tributaries. Founded 10 years ago by students from the University of Vermont, FOWR has staff and volunteers who monitor water quality, study invasive species, examine agricultural impacts and organize river cleanups.
The organization also restores wetlands and wildlife habitats along the banks. Its volunteers have collaborated with the Winooski Headwaters Community Partnership to plant five miles of riparian buffer along the upper part of the river in Cabot, Plainfield and Marshfield.
“We do work that other people don’t always have time to take care of,” explains Setchell.
That work includes promoting recreational uses of the river. FOWR executive director Ann Smith started the Sojourn in 2007 to lure more people out onto the water.
Participants don’t just paddle; the itinerary includes stops at noteworthy spots, where naturalists help interpret the landscape. This year’s theme is the flora and fauna of the Winooski. Activities include an edible wild herb walk at Two Rivers Center in Montpelier, an exploration of the floodplain forest habitat about a mile north of Richmond, and a session in Winooski on the mammals of the watershed, with Susan Morse of Keeping Track. Three of the evening events are open to the public (see schedule).
The Sojourn is BYOB — Bring Your Own Boat — but FOWR has arranged transportation to the river and campsites along the way, and has partnered with restaurants and food vendors such as River Run in Plainfield and Red Hen Baking Co. to provide meals. At $365 per person — $70 for a single day, or just $30 for a half-day — the trip is a pretty good deal.
Setchell emphasizes that most of the Sojourn is appropriate for participants of all abilities, though the first day, with its narrow, curving course, is recommended only for experienced paddlers. Two half-day paddles on Thursday and Friday may appeal to beginners, or to those who just want to pop in for a day. Sunday’s stretch, from Winooski to the mouth of the river, is a mellow, lazy ride.
Setchell describes the Sojourn as the perfect getaway for people who don’t really want to go far. “You’re so engrossed in what’s happening on the water that you completely forget where you are,” she marvels. “You don’t think that you’re going to be escaping, but you really are out in the wild.”