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Time to Hit the (Water) Trail

By Dennis Stuhaug - April 23rd, 2002

From the remote granite islands of Maine to a string of parks along an easy flowing California River, from Colorado whitewater to the Hudson River Gorge and back to Wisconsin's playful Wolf, it's time to enjoy our water trails.

It's time to hit the trail - the water trail, that is - and no where on this wet blue planet can you find more incredibly beautiful and varied paddling than along the immense reaches of the Maine Island Trail. Sharp-cut granite ledges, flower-bedecked meadows on one island and only enough soil for a single tree on the next, narrow passages with the bottom crystal clear beneath you alternating with the open breath of the Atlantic, seals basking in the sun and tiny villages. The Trail is 325 miles long, from Casco Bay to Machias along a chain of 80-odd publicly and privately-owned islands. The public islands are open to all, the private ones to MITA members.

Muscle Ridge Islands:

A nine mile round trip in western Penobscot Bay, that in four hours of paddling combines the awesome power of the open Atlantic with the beauty and shelter of a cluster of islands and ledges. Plan on an early start from Ash Point to beat the wind in the one mile crossing to Otter Island. Every time you paddle through this archipelago you'll find a different route on the arc from Graffam Island on the south north along Dix and Ash before returning to your launch site. The current in Muscle Ridge Channel between Ash and Otter can push along, and you can expect chop. Watch the wind from the south or west, because you can be left exposed on a lee shore. Watch the ledges and rocks, these islands are home to a large population of harbor seals. You may also see an incredible variety of ducks as well as hosts of shorebirds. Best spot to break for lunch and explore the shore is on the Maine Island Trail Association-managed Birch Island, between Dix and High. Membership in the MITA opens the island to you, as well as offering paddling directions.

McGlathery Island: A seven mile, two to three hour round trip in eastern Penobscot Bay transiting an incredible host of islands. If you can look away from the scenery long enough to pick up a camera, you'll discover that you didn't bring along enough film.

Paddle south out of Stonington, and when you clear George Head Island bear east past Wreck and to Round islands. Swing north at McGlathery, clear Ram, and then aim at the Stonington tower to return to the launch site. Isles au Haut (part of Acadia National Park) is to the southeast. Steve, Harbor, and Potato Islands are Maine Bureau of Public Lands Islands open for day use. The MITA has a number of island sites open for camping.

Contact the MITA at: P.O. Box C, Rockland, ME 04841, (328 Main St., Rockland, ME 04841, (207) 596-6456, islands@ime.net.

Stanislaus River, California.

Barely an hour east of San Francisco, a series of parks with camping facilities are suspended along the Stanislaus River like a string of pearls - creating a de facto water trail that depending on water flow and section runs the gamut from mild to wild. The parks are anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours easy paddling apart, with 50 river miles starting at Knights Ferry. Russian Rapid, below Knights Ferry, tests open boats at 500 cfs, and will swamp most open boats at 800 cfs or more. The portage trail is marked. The rest of the route is runnable at 1100 cfs. Easiest paddling is below Oakdale. A weekend route is to put in at the Army Corps of Engineers park headquarters at Horseshoe, camp overnight at Valley Oak (two hours), pull out for lunch in Riverbank (three hours), and finish the trip at McHenery Bridge near Modesto (two hours). For more information on the river and parks, contact the Army Corps of Engineers at Horseshoe.

Dense growth along the riverbank means the possibility of strainers and snags. The cottonwood and oaks create a habitat for red tail hawks, kingfishers, herons, muskrat, along with shy coyotes and beaver.

Cache La Poudre River, Colorado:

The Cache La Poudre River flows from the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park, and cascades down the Front Range through Roosevelt National Forest to Fort Collins. It drops a foam-filled 7,000 feet from its headwaters to its confluence with the South Platte east of Greeley, and its spectacular waterway made it Colorado's first National Wild and Scenic River. From Rocky Mountain National Park to the Monroe Diversion Dam, its a booming, bouncy and technical run, with a few Class III drops tossed in to break up the constant Class IV and V rapids with occasional Class VI wake-ups. Not for the inexperienced or fainthearted. The North and South Forks are the same kind of playground. Go with someone that knows the river. Access and camping information may be obtained from the Roosevelt NF Redfeather Ranger District office in Fort Collins.

Hudson River Gorge:

The Hudson, like all rivers, is the sum of its tributaries and you can get off the trail for some great paddling adventures. Head up the Indian River (a tributary) and launch at the Chain Lake Road. The river starts with continuous Class III rapids down the Indian. At three miles the Indian pours into the broad valley of the Hudson, and the paddler has three miles of easy rapids that allow plenty of glances at the scenery. High cliffs mark the return of the circus, with solid Class III drops marked with just enough pools to allow a look at the deep valley and granite outcrops of the Hudson Gorge. The water eases to Class I at the railroad bridge, but don't fall asleep. Bus Stopper, a good rodeo hole, is burbling about a mile below the bridge and a couple of miles above the takeout.

For a leisurely day on the river, you'd have to go a far piece to match New York's Hudson. A mile-by-mile guide to the river, from launch sites through viewpoints and on to camps at the end of the day is one of the benefits of the Hudson River Watertrails Association (P.O. Box #110, 245 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10011). The Hudson River Watertrail Guide by Ian Giddy also suggests day and weekend trips from the New York City area, served up with tips and tidbits for the Hudson paddler.

Wolf River, Nicolet National Forest, Wisconsin:

A Wild and Scenic River that promises fun, excitement, wildlife, and great paddling on 25 miles of Class II and III water from Highway 55 to the Wild Wolf Inn, and delivers a lot more than it promises. For those with a taste for bigger water, the Class III - IV Otter Slide to Big Smokey Falls is on the Menomenee Indian Reservation and requires a tribal river use fee.

Rock gardens, a fair amount of precise maneuvering, the odd tricky patch that will keep you awake - the Wolf demands your attention and is quick to give a bath to those who take it for granted. The Cap Buettner gauge is located just downstream of the Langlade bridge. The Hollister to Langlade section is runnable above 250 cfs (3 on Cap's gauge). At 800 to 1,000 cfs (15 to 18 at Cap's) some rapids become Class III. From Langlade to the Highway 64 Bridge (14 miles) any reading over 10 to 15 at Cap's call for experts only in open boats, with the Class III drops containing waves capable of swamping most open boats.


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