Kayaking in Vermont

by Fred Coriell ‘02

The Green Mountains of Vermont are home to some of the most spectacular whitewater paddling locations in the United States.  To list these rivers in their entirety would require a book of their own; this article contains three rivers located near Middlebury. This short summary illustrates three separate bodies of water within a twenty minute drive of the town of Middlebury.

Please use this short descriptive guide as a springboard for further adventures and learning.  It is not intended as an in-depth guide to these three rivers.  All water sports have their inherent risks and rewards, each of which should be evaluated by the individual.

Otter Creek

The Otter Creek is the river that symbolizes Middlebury.  It boasts some great whitewater for kayaking enthusiasts, but sadly it is also one of the most polluted rivers in Vermont.  Run-off from farms has deposited pollutants that make the river unsafe to swim in.  A common sight to see is trash floating down the river as well as the occasional dead farm animal.  It is highly recommended that if you paddle on this river you do not swallow any water.

Otter Creek Falls

The label that Otter Creek Brewing affixes to their brown bottles paints the waterfall that falls just beneath the Route 125 Bridge.  This expert stretch of river is a 250 yard rapid including the 18-foot waterfall, a ledge-hole (nasty at high flows), and several play spots. Walking distance from Middlebury College makes this a popular spot among the local student paddlers.  A normal post-class afternoon paddle consists of a few runs over the falls and an hour of playing in the ledge-hole (a great left-hand cartwheel spot).  At higher flows the ledge is usually avoided, but a great surfing wave develops just downstream.  This stretch of the Otter Creek is quickly gaining reputation as the ultimate play spot.  Parking is located downstream of the waterfall on Mill Street.  WARNING: The waterfall is not as forgiving as it looks.  A shallow landing (3-4 feet deep at low flows) means it should only be attempted by competent kayakers who have experience dealing with this type of situation.  Wood is always an issue at the bottom of the falls so it should be scouted thoroughly before being run.

Otter Creek Gorge

The beginner/intermediate stretch is located downstream, below the Dog Team Power Station.  This run is known as the “Otter Creek Gorge Run” by locals.  It consists of Class II rapids with one limestone chute of turbulent water before emptying into a large pool.  After “the gorge” there is 2 miles of flatwater and class II rapids.

The put-in is located off Route 7 about 2 miles north of Middlebury.  New Haven Mills Road is on the right side, but directly across is an unnamed dirt road.  Make the left here and follow it until you reach a parking area for the Dog Team Hydroelectric dam.  Walk down the wooden stairs to get to the river.  The take-out can be reached by driving down Weybridge Street and making a left on Pulp Mills Farm Road.  Immediately after a green iron trestle bridge that crosses the river there is a dirt turn-off on the right.

Middlebury River

The Middlebury River is one of the geologic gems of Vermont.  Large granite boulders line the riverbed forming a magical scene of deep clear pools divided by cascades of falling whitewater.  The upper stretch of this river, which parallels Route 125 as it winds east towards Breadloaf Campus and the Middlebury College Snow Bowl, contains some of the most spectacular scenery in Vermont.  As the river falls away from the road it enters a 100 foot deep gorge.  The walls are smooth, plunging directly into the river.  Slight overhangs on the walls make paddling through here like being in an isolated cave.

This area is isolated from the masses because of the steep canyon walls and rugged whitewater. The only way to get into the gorge is by kayak.  Any paddler wishing to attempt this stretch, must be confident boat scouting Class V whitewater.  Once you enter the depth of the gorge, you are fully committed to the entire run.  There is no way to portage or shore-scout the three hardest rapids.  Stakes are high, but the rewards are immense.  Before running the river, it is strongly recommended you contact a local kayaker who has paddled it.

Heading east on 125, the put-in is the last roadside turn off on the left before you enter the town of Ripton.  A short Class II section serves as the only warm-up for this challenging run, so be ready.  A stone bridge just outside of East Middlebury is the takeout.  There is a dirt turnoff on the right side of the road.

Most will choose to view the upper stretch from the banks, or paddle the lower section (The put-in for the lower section is the same bridge of the upper run’s takeout.)  The take-out is at the Route 7 bridge below East Middlebury (a large parking lot can be found on river right.)  This stretch is filled with many of the same rock features of above, but at a more moderate gradient with open banks on both sides.  This section is rated as a Class II or III- at higher flows.  The lower section boasts some excellent smaller surfing waves.

New Haven River

Bristol, Vermont is home to one of New England’s most exciting and forgiving steep creeks: the New Haven River.  As with the other rivers above, there are multiple sections available to paddle down (for a full guide to the river, check the additional readings at the end of this section for details).  This section will focus on the advanced/expert section immediately above the Route 17 bridge and the intermediate section just below the same bridge.  There is a gauge located on the downstream side of the river left abutment of this bridge.  Below one foot is low water, expect to be bouncing off rocks (class III to IV).  1.5 to 2.5 on the gauge is ideal flows (class III+ to IV).  Once the river gets above 3 feet it becomes a solid class V run.  Also, the USGS website lists flows for the New Haven river.  Anything above 200 cfs is worth the trip.

The take-out for the upper section and the put-in for the lower section are located 1.8 miles east of Bristol on Route 17.  There is a white church with a large parking lot on the right side of the road.  Kayakers routinely park in the back of the lot closest to river.    To paddle the upper section cross the Route 17 bridge and take the immediate right.  The normal put-in is .8 miles up this road at a dirt turn-off.  If you are still unable to find the run, head back into town and ask a local.

Bristol Falls

There are ten notable rapids on this stretch, with each displaying their own unique characteristics.  Bristol Falls (a.k.a. Toaster Falls) is the largest drop.  The river slides down an angled shelf and then drops 14 feet into the pool below.  At higher flows the hole at the bottom of this drop must be looked at seriously.  All of the rapids can be seen from the road making it easy to decide if you are up to this section or not.

The lower section of the New Haven can be run when the gauge reads over 1.5 feet.  It is a fun class II-III play section with one notable class III drop.  At very high flows (class III-IV) the river turns into a continuous wave train with some large holes that may want to be avoided.  The take-out can be reached by heading back into Bristol and making a left at the first traffic light.  Drive down this road for .6 miles.  There is left turn onto a bridge.  Park at the turn-off before the bridge.

Additional Resources

The USGS Water Resources website were you can find daily water conditions all over Vermont, specifically for the New Haven River.

Watch for Brian Totten’s A Kayaker’s Guide to Vermont, due out in the Spring of 2000!

…perhaps our grandsons, having ever seen a wild river, will never miss the chance to set a canoe in singing waters…
glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in.      
–Aldo Leopold