I don’t often go paddling in serious rain on purpose. The last time, actually, was on Day 47 of my Mississippi River trip, when I crawled out of the tent into a stormy looking morning intent on paddling the seven miles to Sabula, IA, no matter how hard it rained.
The goal this time was the 6.5-mile canoe trail on the Charles River in Dedham, MA. It’s a circle, made possible by a man-made connection between two sections of the river at the top of a long loop it makes to the south, through the town of Dedham. The half-mile connection, called the Long Ditch, was dug in 1653 by early settlers to allow greater cultivation of hay.
I’d heard about it from my friend, Al, a self-described ‘trash paddler’ who kayaks all over the place, picks up trash as he goes, and blogs about his voyages. He went in May, when the Dover gage was at 1.7 feet and he didn’t have to portage. The level was .8 for me, requiring one pretty simple portage of about 20 yards at the Needham Street Bridge.
When I read Al’s account I knew I wanted to do this. I chose a date weeks ago, August 13th, and invited folks from four different paddling Meetup groups in the area to join me. As of a week before the trip, nearly 20 others had signed up to go.
As the day approached, the weather report got worse and worse. It hadn’t rained for weeks, but suddenly Wednesday, the day of my trip, became a meteorologist-designated rain day, all day, with possible thundershowers. The cancelations began, but I didn’t care, I was going to go anyway. I didn’t have an open day to postpone it to.
And that’s why it was just me and the ducks today. During the ride over from Hartford, with the rain hitting the windshield at 65 mph and looking like a deluge, I questioned my sanity. But my mood brightened considerably when a blue heron greeted me at the Dolan Center launch area, where I realized the rain was actually pretty light and not the torrents it had seemed to be on the road. It proved to be persistent during the nearly four hours I was out there, but not all that bothersome. A sponge kept the water in the canoe from getting very deep and a poncho kept me dry.
With the bells of a nearby church sounding the 10 a.m. hour, I set off. The slight current was helpful and the narrowness of this first section dampened the effect of the wind. At Motley Pond I spotted a building and some canoes, so wandered over. It was the boathouse at the Noble & Greenough School, a private school dating back to 1888. A helpful fellow named Mike took the time to chat and filled me in on conditions on the trail. I was happy to find out that the Long Ditch was navigable, even with low water, and the only portage was the one I’d already planned on, at Needham Street. He also described a backwater area worth exploring next time I am there.
By 11 I was at the town launch near Dedham Square. It’s not a good launch area in low water unless you’re really into wading through lots a mud to get to the water. My plan with a large group of people had been to use the launch there as a regrouping spot as we paddled, but I’ll have to rethink that.
The stretch northward from the Ames Street bridge to Marie Louise Kehoe Park, another potential regrouping spot, is wider and more open to the wind than the previous section. It took me about an hour for that section. The park itself, and the town beach across the river from it, was the recreational hub of the river in the early 1900’s, and along the way to it, a couple of gathering spots, Moseley’s on the Charles and the Old Irish Alehouse, also attest to the social magnet the Charles River has been through the years. Moseley’s was built in 1905 and is one of the oldest surviving dance halls in the country. It also attracted boaters, who would anchor nearby and enjoy the music. The building housing the Alehouse, which has been serving food for more than 100 years, was home to three different canoe clubs in the early to mid-1900’s.
From the park the river goes north a bit, then west through Cow Island Pond, and the change of direction meant the wind was less of a bother. In a half hour I was at the entrance to the Long Ditch, on the left just before a railroad bridge. From there it was a nice, very narrow half-mile ride down to Needham Street and the 20-yard portage at the end of the Ditch.
In low water, most of the flow follows the river bed itself, not through the ditch, so once past Needham Street I felt the current pushing me again. The 45-minute paddle from there back to the Dolan launch is a pleasantly winding and narrow section. I arrived at the launch just as the church bells were hitting 1:30. And the rain stopped for the twenty minutes it took me to pack up.
Now that I know my way around this place I am sure I will go again, and invite some folks along. And I’ll pick a day when it won’t rain.