Rhode Island isn’t known as “The River State.” But it could be.
“The Ocean State,” as it is known, has 400 miles of coastline — and about 1,500 miles of rivers. The Rhode Island Blueways Alliance is ramping up efforts to tell people about the largely gentle waterway system that’s free to use and easily navigable by kayak or canoe.
Late last summer, the alliance released 20 new detailed maps of paddling routes in the state. There are about 30 maps in all, available for free download at www.exploreri.org. They are loaded with information, including ability level, access points, miles covered, average paddling time, and river history and ecology. This summer, Blueways will host a series of informative statewide paddles.
“We want people to learn about where they’re paddling, to connect to it,” said Denise J. Poyer, program director of the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association, one of more than a dozen groups that gathered information for the map project funded by the Rhode Island Foundation. “If you connect to something, you’re emotional about it, and that connection makes you want to support and protect it,” Poyer said.
Spearheading the effort was Meg Kerr, alliance treasurer and watershed program manager for the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program. Kerr recently received a South County Award from the state department of tourism for her work.
“I thought it would be a good idea to standardize all the information,” Kerr said. “We needed that structure.”
What you’ll see depends on where you paddle. A stretch of Wood River in Hopkinton in southwest Rhode Island is pristine and clean, meandering slowly before curling into Frying Pan Pond, a giant blue arc of water, vegetation, and wildlife.
Then there’s a chunk of the Ten Mile River in urban East Providence, a skinny, murky slice of water clogged with downed trees and brush. It ambles slowly by backyards and a golf course, the occasional rusting refrigerator or tire poking the surface, before giving way upstream to a gurgling, rocky stretch near historic Hunt’s Mills.
I paddled upper Wood River with Poyer, Kerr, and Bruce Hooke, alliance member and website designer, mapmaker, and photographer. According to the map, Wood River has the highest biodiversity of any New England river and has been recommended for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, a first for the state.
Along the mostly slow-moving river with occasional gentle shallow rapids, Poyer pointed out cowslips, marsh marigolds, swamp rose, high-bush blueberries (most popular in mid-July when the fruit is ripe for picking), violets (the state flower), and the occasional beaver-gnawed tree trunk. Hooke noted freshwater mussel shells on the muddy banks.
“Muskrats love them,” said Hooke, who regularly paddles the river. “Mussels are a good sign of healthy water.”
Around one bend was a fly fisherman. The state stocks these waters with brook, rainbow, and brown trout, Poyer said.
The river is gentle, as are most in the state, owing to lack of elevation, but windy days and current can provide a challenge, as does paddling around blown-down trees, which, if they make the river impassable, are cut back just enough to get by.
“We don’t want to interfere with nature,” Hooke said. “And the debris that catches on blowdowns is ideal fish habitat.”
In Frying Pan Pond, we spotted nesting green-headed mallards and an elegant blue heron searching for food. It was largely quiet, save for the roar of a distant wind.
On another day Keith Gonsalves, alliance president, retired firefighter, and avid kayaker, took me to East Providence to paddle the Ten Mile River from Freedom Green to Hunt’s Mills. His biggest tip: Paddle quickly by Agawam Hunt golf course. Errant balls present a hazard to passing kayakers.
“See?” he said, pointing to one lodged in a muddy bank.
Though it’s rated an easy paddle, the Ten Mile had its challenges, as it slowly flowed past backyard lawns populated by honking geese eyeing us warily. Several blowdowns left little room to pass.
This urban-river paddle has several coves and backwaters to explore, in addition to huge rock walls, where canoeists from long ago carved their names. At the fish ladder at Hunt’s Mills, we got out to walk the land, something easily done on any of the alliance’s routes.
“It ties it all together, the land and the water,” said Gonsalves, who wants to plot a water route from Pawtucket to Newport. “Every time I see a waterway I wonder where it goes and what it can be linked to.”
Jason Considine owns Narrow River Kayak in Narragansett, near a new water route on the Pettaqaumscutt River, a tidal estuary that is a quarter-mile wide in spots.
“Right after the maps were released last year, a lot of people came to follow the routes,” Considine said. “When the weather warms up this year, we expect even more. It’s really nice to have those self-guided tours.”
Chuck Horbert of North Scituate was on the Blackstone River a few years ago and jokingly asked someone how far he had to go to reach Westerly in the state’s southernmost corner.
“It was a crazy question intended only to get a laugh,” said Horbert, a canoeist. “But then I thought to myself: Was it possible?”
He’ll find out June 8-15 when he and two other canoeists attempt the first documented paddle across the state, starting in Burrillville, cutting through 19 communities, and ending in Westerly, plying 10 rivers along the way and part of upper Narragansett Bay.