Pull of Rhode Island’s Rivers is Powerful

Three of the four paddlers completed the eight-day trek in canoes. The group’s journalist used his kayak.

Three of the four paddlers completed the eight-day trek in canoes. The group’s journalist used his kayak.

Foursome becomes first to paddle and portage their way across the Ocean State

Story and photos by DAVID SMITH/ecoRI News contributor

It seems that there were three phases to the eight-day, 18-town, 101-mile-long Paddle Across Rhode Island and denial was not one of them. The four of us who made the trip starting on July 6 knew exactly what we were up against.

Well, we didn’t know about the chafing, blisters and sunburns that awaited us, but then again, perhaps we didn’t want to know. Could that be considered denial? Maybe.

Anyway, the first phase, at least in my case, tested whether my body could take the wear and tear. The second phase entailed the realization that giving up was not an option. Early on so many people praised our effort to bring awareness to the rivers and natural beauty of Rhode Island. Too many other people were vested in the trip and us.

And before you say that Rhode Island is not 101 miles long, let me explain that we didn’t travel in a straight line. Our route took us up rivers and on portages that traveled east to west.

That brings me to the third phase: a quiet elation that set in on July 11 when we got to the Pawcatuck River and had only a handful of portages ahead of us and one river to follow to the sea. No more paddling against the current or long portages.

By this point the grueling 5-mile-plus trek down Allens Avenue in Providence and along Narragansett Boulevard on Day 2 with fully-loaded boats in unforgiving heat was a distant memory. Many passersby made comments during our portages along city streets and bike paths. A common comment was, “Those things work a lot better in the water.” We just smiled and waved.

Many people recognized us and wished us well. One guy stopped on Allens Avenue and said, “Good luck.” There were others who were waiting on bridges and at other points along the river to give us a wave and encouragement, such as Jeff Ulricksen at Burlingame Camping Area on the Pawcatuck with a sign made by his wife.

This encouragement helped with the pain of the 4-mile portage on Day 4 along bike paths, where my kayak cart wheel melted and I was beginning to fade. I said a lot of prayers and splashed water on the wheel as I limped past Concordia Falls in Coventry. A call out to friends resulted in Jim Schroer lending me one of his carts several miles later when we stopped at Zeke’s Bridge. I will never buy another cart that is metal-on-plastic. Bearings in the wheels are a must.

“You think it’s going to be a physical challenge,” said fellow adventurer Bill Luther, 62, of Seekonk, Mass., “and then you see how demanding it really is. We had a couple of breaks, but we were humping. It captures your attention.”

The first-aid kits got a workout. We all were dipping into supplies of salve, moleskin and Band-Aids. I needed cushioning for chafed heels, where sand and neoprene wore away a layer of skin.

And then there was that 10-mile “grand portage” on Day 5 that started with a 2.5-mile trek down dirt roads, from Big River and up a long hill to Route 3. We followed Route 3 and then took a right on Austin Farm Road, before heading off to more rocky trails in Arcadia Management Area on our way to a put-in on Route 165 into the Wood River.

Fellow paddler Jim Cole, 67, of Charlestown called Day 5 “a walk in the park, but the first mile was hell.” It was his suggestion to take Austin Farm Road instead of Route 165. The shade on Austin Farm Road and the lack of traffic proved to be a winning choice.

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Chuck Horbert checking the journey’s Facebook page at the a group’s Big River campsite.It was Chuck Horbert, 46, of Smithfield who came up with the idea for the trip. He and Cole worked out the details regarding portages and paths through the woods to get us to our put-ins.

Along with Luther and myself, the group represented years of paddling experience on rivers and lakes across the Northeast. We were referred to by one media outlet as Horbert and his “three graying companions.” I guess that is true. It was a nice way of saying we weren’t all youngsters. I would like to think that a bit of wisdom and seasoning proved to be an advantage.

The point of the journey was to show that if you wanted to have an adventure, you didn’t have to travel out of state. Rhode Island has a lot to offer. And, with a bit of planning, the trip is possible.

Horbert’s favorite phrase was, “We are having more fun that anyone on the planet.” In fact, he used that one on the Facebook page that was designed to chronicle the trip. He would check it every night by the campfire. His online checks were usually followed by him charging his phone with battery packs supplied by Cole or myself. Near the end of the trip the page had more than 600 followers.

A photo taken of us on the morning that we left had 1,240 views by 7 that night.

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Jim Cole paddling on the Pawtuxet River.The first night we camped in River Island Park in Central Falls and were awakened by a freight train at 2:45 a.m. that made a painfully slow journey past our site. The brakes were tested several times, and it was loud. The engineer blasted his horn a few times, too, for good measure.

On the second day, there was a lot of talk about crossing the bay on the way to our upstream paddle of the Pawtuxet River. The question was how strong would the wind be blowing?

We would soon find out that it was going to be tough.

In the meantime, Central Falls Mayor James Diossa greeted us in “Chocolateville” right before one of our portages. He was gracious enough to extend the key to the bathroom at our first campsite — River Island Park Campground on the banks of the Blackstone River.

From there, we paddled and then portaged down to Slater Mill, where well-wishes were offered by representatives of the Blackstone River Council, National Parks Service and Janet Coit, the director of the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM).

Coit told us that Slater Mill was once the site of the Industrial Revolution and that Horbert was now starting the “recreational revolution.” “You are an advocate for getting people off their couches, out of the house and outdoors,” she said.

Horbert said he was excited to highlight the Blackstone River and that it was all about connecting the dots and showing others how to do it. “You can have a quality nature experience in Rhode Island,” he said.

We then headed out on a small portage around the Main Street dam. We knew that the wind was picking up to at least 20 mph. A few miles downriver we stopped at Bold Point, opposite India Point, and weighed our options. One was to take the bike path and avoid the paddle, or paddle across toward India Point and seek a lee on that shore and follow it downriver. We opted for the latter, but not everyone was in agreement.

“Hail Mary, full of grace ..., ” Luther said as he hopped into his canoe.

The wind was howling and, as we rounded a turn by a sailboat club, a kid on the dock yelled and asked us if we would paddle farther out because a boat was going to come in.

Horbert answered with a simple, “No.” It seemed like a silly request and one that none of us were ready to oblige. We were struggling just to keep our bows into the waves. A few waves hit me from the side and rolled into my cockpit. It was refreshing and exhilarating.

That was when a decision was made to pull out at Collier Point Boating Access and portage. One highlight of that portage was a friend of Horbert’s who made a point of looking us up. Alisa Richardson bought us some cold drinks to help us rehydrate. It was a godsend. Also stopping by was another paddling friend, Steve Brown.

Our next stop was at Pawtuxet State Park, behind the Rhodes on the Pawtuxet. On this night we were serenaded by planes flying in and out of T. F. Green Airport until 10:45 p.m.

At the campsite, the guys were remembering past adventures and reviewing the past day.

“I wanted an option that made sense,” said Horbert about our march down Allens Avenue. “Using the boat ramp was a good option.”

“A couple of motorboats came screaming up and it didn’t look like there were going to stop,” Luther said. “I thought the wind was going to calm down, but it didn’t. I’m a purist, I wanted to say I paddled the whole thing, not portage it.”

Cole would later echo those remarks. “My biggest disappointment was not going down the bay and into Pawtuxet Cove, but it was really bad.”

The group takes a break along the Pawtuxet River.

The group takes a break along the Pawtuxet River.

On Day 3 we broke camp and headed up the Pawtuxet River, and that’s when we saw it. Between Elmwood Avenue and Warwick Avenue, we surprised a bald eagle. We turned a corner to see a mallard hen with five ducklings in the river. As we approached, the eagle flew out of the tree and glided up the river in front of us. Undoubtedly, the ducks were going to be his prey. We saw him again about a half-mile up the river.

“That’s the best part of the trip,” Cole said. “I saw that eagle a lot better than the ones I have seen in Maine. I was a lot closer to it.”

Luther had similar thoughts. “I was surprised,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it was an eagle this close to civilization. I remember seeing one on the Dead River in Maine.”

A little further up the river we stopped at an access area off Knight Street, where we were met by representatives of the Pawtuxet River Authority & Watershed Council. The group fed us lunch and offered drinks to help keep us hydrated.

“The heat is tough for me,” Cole said. “I’ve drank four times the amount of water I normally drink and I don’t have to go to the bathroom as much.”

We were all constantly drinking water to stay hydrated.

We camped in River Point Park in West Warwick. Up on the hill there was a doubleheader baseball game, bathroom and access to water to replenish our supplies. I tried to carry at least a three-day supply, but with the heat, I was drinking more than I had anticipated. It seemed that on any portage where we passed a store we bought energy drinks and quickly drank them.

Relaxing after a long day of paddling.

Relaxing after a long day of paddling.

On Day 4 we started a lengthy portage on a bike path a few blocks from River Point Park. At one point a woman pulled into a parking lot adjacent to the bike path we were traveling and asked us if we were the guys making “the trip.” She said it was great to meet us in person. She wanted to take our picture but didn’t have her camera and offered to take our picture with one of our cameras.

I handed her mine and she directed us to line up and for Horbert to take off his glasses. She was directing the shot as if she were filming a movie.

The walk soon became an uphill struggle before it leveled off and a sign on the bike trail noted we were entering Coventry. Soon we found our spot to put in at a new river access above Concordia Mills. We were met by Coventry recreation director Guy Lefebvre and more than two dozen youngsters from his Discover Camp. Horbert talked to them about the trip and what adventures await them out on the river.

The last part of our paddle on the Pawtuxet offered a tough slog through mats of military grass that clogged the waterway, making progress difficult. When we portaged over an embankment and into Johnson’s Pond, things started to look up. It was windy but relatively easy paddling down to Hill Farm Road bridge, where Horbert barely slid under the low bridge and the rest of us opted to swim our boats under it. It was a refreshing option.

But one of the highlights was a barbecue set up at Zeke’s Bridge by Alisa Richardson, who was joined by her husband, Brian, and her friend Cheryl Russell. Alisa works with Horbert and wanted to be supportive.

We dined on chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs, pasta salad, grilled vegetables and cole slaw, and enjoyed cold drinks. It was a welcome refueling of protein after a few days of rehydrated meals in a pouch.

Another highlight of the trip came shortly after we set up camp on the Big River. The sound of a helicopter kept getting louder and louder. It was a National Guard Blackhawk apparently on a training mission. It was flying fast at tree-top level and passed directly overhead. The tops of the trees were swaying from the prop wash long after it passed. As we recovered from that, the copter made a second pass over us but a bit higher, adding a little excitement to that campsite.

It was the next day that we made the infamous portage up Congdon Hill Road. What made it bearable was an assist from Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association (WPWA) executive director Chris Fox, who loaded our gear into his truck and took it to our next camping spot — the lawn of the WPWA headquarters at Barberville Dam in Hope Valley.

With lighter boats, it was easier but no less challenging. Along the way we ditched our boats and gear at Mulch ’N More on Route 3 and headed off to the Cornerstone Pub for lunch. When we walked in there was air conditioning, music playing and televisions.

“This is a bit of culture shock,” Horbert said.

For this excursion, Steve Brown stopped by and gave us a ride to the pub. While it was off our route, it was a nice change of pace.

The group was greeted by Discover Camp kids in Coventry.

The group was greeted by Discover Camp kids in Coventry.

Along the journey we saw a variety of wildlife. We spotted muskrats, a lot of different birds, three types of turtles, great blue herons throughout the river system, a white egret and deer. While the scenery was magnificent along the way, as we paddled under Route 95 on the Pawtuxet River the volume of noise from the traffic made conversation difficult on the river below, which really surprised me.

At our put-in off Route 165 into the Wood River at the end of Day 4 , we were joined by Horbert’s wife, Cindy, and Steve Brown, who traveled with us to our camping spot at the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association. At the WPWA, we were fed, compliments of the Rhode Island Blueways Alliance and the WPWA.

This stop allowed everyone to recharge their devices. Every outlet in the WPAW Education Center had phones and/or battery chargers plugged in. And, as Luther said the next morning as we lounged in the conference room at a table and chairs, “We won’t be sharing our breakfast with the mosquitoes.”

Tommy Taylor, another one of the group’s paddling buddies, joined us at WPWA and paddled with us for the remainder of the trip. Brown and Cindy also continued with us for a short while.

At the end of Day 6, we camped at the confluence of the Wood and Pawcatuck rivers, just below Alton Dam. This was a nice campsite, made even more special by the arrival of Erik Eckilson of Woonsocket. He is a member of the Rhode Island Canoe & Kayak Association (RICKA), of which the four of us are members.

That night, Eckilson used a camp dutch oven to make an apple dump cake, served with whipped cream. In the morning, he made us a breakfast of omelets, sausage, home fries and cinnamon buns. It was a tasty way to start that morning’s paddle.

Taking a break along the Pawcatuck River in Westerly.

Taking a break along the Pawcatuck River in Westerly.

On Day 7, we camped at property off Post Office Lane in Potter Hill recently acquired by the state. It was owned by Reggie Kenyon, and features a stone bridge across the river he once used to get his cows to pasture on the north side of the river.

We sat on the bridge and used a fire pan to contain our fire.

“It is sad to see it come to an end,” Horbert said. “This week has flown by.”

“I want a shower, mattress and air conditioning,” Luther said.

“All good things must come to an end,” Cole said.

“I’m really glad you came along,” Hobart said to Cole. “You are my paddling hero.”

“I needed this,” Cole answered.

The last leg of the trip proved rather difficult. We headed down the river past the state boat launch area off Main Street in Westerly. The wind picked up, and as we went further along the wind got stronger. We sought the lee on the west shore as much as possible, but the trip wasn’t ending without a fight. We were also joined by members of RICKA, including club president Sue Engelman.

Paddling across Little Narragansett Bay was a bit easier for me in my kayak, because of my low profile. The people in canoes had a rough time.

Soon enough we made it to the Barn Island Wildlife Management Area boating access in Stonington, Conn. A group of reporters, photographers and family members awaited. Questions were asked and photos taken, but the memory of the trip needed time to digest, and the camaraderie developed on the shared journey would be hard to translate into words.

There were no great speeches, just the end of another day of paddling, the realization of a goal, and one more adventure to share around another campfire with friends.

“With a little imagination you can do some amazing stuff,” Horbert said. “Even if someone doesn’t see it as significant — if it is significant to you, it’s worth it.”

Horbert said that we were the first group to complete the inland trip, but it wasn’t my main reason for going. To me, it was a test of my endurance and skills as a paddler. It was a pass-fail type of test and I believe I passed. And need I say it was an adventure? You have to jump at that chance.

The group later gathered at the Bridge Restaurant in Westerly, overlooking the Pawcatuck River, for a celebratory dinner. A few more stories were swapped before everyone headed their separate ways, no longer tied to the river and its never-ending pull.