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City paddle, country paddle

Explore the urban and rural sides of Rhode Island from its rivers

Sunset over the Pawcatuck River in Westerly.
Sunset over the Pawcatuck River in Westerly.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Welcome to “Around R.I.” Every Thursday we’ll highlight an interesting aspect of life in Rhode Island, from dining to parks to museums to shopping and more. Tell us what you’d like us to check out by sending an e-mail to RInews@globe.com.

Next week: Ed Fitzpatrick checks out some of Rhode Island’s best craft breweries (with a designated driver).

PROVIDENCE -- When the crowds and noise are too much, the water beckons.

If you’re fortunate enough to have a kayak or canoe, or rent one, take some time to slip away on these two easy paddles.

There are many wonderful waterways to explore in Rhode Island, but I’ve chosen these two rivers because they offer such different experiences. One, a gritty city waterway that is transitioning back to its natural heritage. The other, a rural gem with national distinction for its wild river system.


Savor these when you need an escape from the stress and worry of daily life. Take an hour or more on the water, and see Rhode Island in a new way.

The Crawford Street bridge is seen from the Providence River in downtown Providence.
The Crawford Street bridge is seen from the Providence River in downtown Providence. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Providence River, into Waterplace Park and up the Woonasquatucket River, in Providence

Where to put in: South Water Street Landing, near the round gazebo at Harbor View Park, and just down from the giant silver sculpture “Textured Gear,” created by Fall River artist Rob Lorenson. On-street metered parking on both sides of South Water Street.

What to bring: A camera

This is, hands down, the best way to see the heart of Providence.

On the water, the historic buildings rise above you like the ornate walls of canyons. Sculptures along the river by the Rhode Island School of Design appear like small monuments. Across the water, the enormous mural “Still Here,” artist Gaia’s creation of a young Indigenous woman holding the portrait of Princess Redwing, a Narragansett and Wampanoag elder, pops out from its place on Custom House, as if this is the way it was meant to be viewed.


One of the best things about paddling on the rivers here is the feeling that the bustle of Providence is all around you -- sirens wailing past, people walking over the bridges, the motorists driving by -- while you are peaceful on the water, with the wild things.

City wildlife doesn’t scare easily. One recent morning, cormorants lined up on a floating orange boom as though they were waiting for a bus. Two enormous blue herons stood motionless on the shore, giving paddlers the side-eye.

Look down into the water, and you’ll see why the birds are here. Right now, the rivers are thick with menhaden, an important bait species that feeds the osprey, bald eagles, stripers, and bluefish. They are here by the millions in the upper Narragansett Bay, swimming up the Providence River into the Woonasquatucket, coming in with the tides or chased up by gamefish.

Return in the early spring, and watch for migratory river herring, which climb the fish ladders starting at the Rising Sun Mill on the Woonasquatucket and go up to spawn. Once all but depleted, the herring have returned by the thousands since the removal of dams on the Woonasquatucket.

“It’ll surprise you,” says fisheries biologist Pat McGee, who works in the freshwater section of Rhode Island Fish and Wildlife. “You’re right in the middle of the city, and you’ll see all these fish.”

A gondolier navigated the river in downtown Providence.
A gondolier navigated the river in downtown Providence.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

For most of the last century, there was no access to these rivers in Providence. They were covered under the “world’s widest bridge” of streets, parking lots, and railroad tracks. Over the last few decades, the state embarked on a massive river relocation project that moved the junctures of the freshwater Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck rivers feeding into the tidal Providence River, opening them up and creating new riverbanks and Waterplace Park.


Still, you wouldn’t have wanted to dip a paddle into the rivers flowing through downtown Providence back then. They had been dammed up, used as dumping grounds by the mill industry and as a conduit for sewer overflows, carrying pollution downstream and out into the bay.

Now the Providence River and the Woonasquatucket River are making a comeback, and paddlers can appreciate the progress these rivers have made. They’re not ready for swimming or fishing, but those are long-term goals, says Alicia Lehrer, executive director of the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council.

“It’s much better than it used to be,” Lehrer said. With the improvements to 75 acres of parkland around the river, “it’s just a different world now,” she said.

And now, people can begin to appreciate what the river has to offer.

“It’s just a delight, and you really see Providence from a totally different perspective,” Lehrer said. “You don’t expect to see the kind of wildlife in the middle of the city.”

The Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council is leading a paddling tour of the the rivers from 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 29. Sign up here, and bring your own boat.


Kayakers passed underneath a bridge as they explored Waterplace Park in downtown Providence.
Kayakers passed underneath a bridge as they explored Waterplace Park in downtown Providence. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

My recommendation: Head downstream first, under the pedestrian bridge and paddle by the houseboats and private docks just before the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier. Then, make like a menhaden and head up river, under a series of bridges.

The Providence River ends; to the right is the Moshassuck, left is the Woonasquatucket. Bear left into Waterplace Park, and if the tide is right and you’re not too claustrophobic, head for Providence Place mall. Paddle under the mall and the streets, and you come out in the narrow Woonasquatucket River, criss-crossed by old bridges and lined with brush and trees, the only green space in an otherwise industrial area. This is where you’ll see wildlife and aquatic life, like having your own private space in the middle of the busy city. You can paddle about a mile to Eagle Square before hitting the shallows.

Do not swim or fish. Save that for the following paddle.

A paddler left concentric circles along the Pawcatuck River in Westerly.
A paddler left concentric circles along the Pawcatuck River in Westerly.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Pawcatuck River in Westerly to the Burdickville Dam in Hopkinton

Where to put in: Bradford Landing boat launch. Take Route 95 South to exit 1 to Route 3 south. In two miles take a left on Route 216, then bear right on Route 91. The parking lot for the boat launch is a quarter mile on the left.

What to bring: Bathing suit, fishing rod

Come in the summer and fly off the rope swings into the river. Return in the fall for the view of the golden trees along the shore. Any time you visit, take a long breath and let this place settle you.


In a city-state like Rhode Island, it can be difficult to find a natural place without congestion and noise. That’s why the Wood-Pawcatuck river watershed is so exceptional, not just for Rhode Island, but for New England.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Interior designated the Wood-Pawcatuck watershed, made up of seven rivers and multiple wetlands, as a “Wild and Scenic River System.” With 110 miles in the watershed, this is the longest “Wild and Scenic River System” in New England, and 24 miles alone of “wild” river segments.

The Pawcatuck River system in particular was singled out by the Nature Conservancy as one of the best examples of intact riverine habitat in the lower New England ecoregion.

McGee, the fisheries biologist, says the Pawcatuck is “one of our success stories.” The state and the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association have done a lot of work to reopen the Pawcatuck by removing dams and allowing the rivers to flow freely again. They are now working to restore American shad, which migrate in the early spring and summer, and head up the rivers to spawn.

“The closer you get to restoring the natural system, the better health the system is going to have,” McGee said.

Want proof? Get your boat on the water.

Rope swings dot the banks of the Pawcatuck River in Westerly.
Rope swings dot the banks of the Pawcatuck River in Westerly.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

This section of the Pawcatuck is an easy, peaceful paddle, one that will tempt you to try out the rope swings along the way.

Start out turning right, and head past the few houses along the shore. As the river turns away from the road, you will paddle deeper into the forest and into a rare quiet.

The river is busy with wildlife -- turtles sunning themselves on branches, ospreys and herons stalking fish, deer and fox coming down the banks. There are sandy banks along the way that invite picnicking, and thickets of wild grapes that’ll ripen in the early fall. The river is wide and lazy and teases you to dive in, or at least drop a line overboard. The river is stocked with trout and also has native brook trout for fly-fishing.

A turtle sunned itself on a log along the Pawcatuck River in Westerly.
A turtle sunned itself on a log along the Pawcatuck River in Westerly.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

You’ll paddle by a canoe camp at Burlingame Management Area -- the spots are first-come, first serve -- and under two Amtrak bridges. But aside from a smattering of houses at the beginning and end of this route, the river is simply lined with forest and some fields, making it also a place to appreciate in the fall.

You can paddle as far as the shallow rapids at the Burdickville dam and then coast the gentle current back to Bradford. And thank your lucky stars that Rhode Island has such gems as these.

Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.