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Strainers 101: New Haven River

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Posted on October 20, 2011 | Blog Category:
By Christian Woodard



Breaking from tradition, I recently paddled somewhere other than Otter Creek. My sister, the illustrious raft guide, was visiting and we settled on the not-so-tame New Haven River.

The section of the New Haven from Hewitt Road down to River Road is a splashy section of water, though not as steep as the upper reaches. At Saturday’s water levels -- about 1000 cfs on the Brooksville gage -- the river was solid class II+, with some slightly technical sections weaving through boulders.

For some of our group of six, including Hannah “Whitewater Queen” Woodard, this was a blast, despite on and off thundershowers. The “Lower Lower New Haven,” as it is called by whitewater paddlers, winds through gravel beds at the foot of Bristol Cliffs. Steep walls rise 700 ft on the left, and the Champlain Valley stretches over to the Adirondacks on the right.

The Lower Lower is a fifteen mile stretch of relatively placid water before Dog Team Falls and the confluence with Otter Creek, but interesting enough to keep you on your toes. The Quebecois call this type of paddling eau vive, or “lively water.”

But, the eau proved too vive for some of the entourage on Saturday. Early in the trip, I smacked my sister smartly across the face with my paddle. This is, I insist, entirely an accident. Really.

(photo removed to protect the innocent)

We decided that she didn’t need stitches, took a short break to empty the boats, and moseyed on down the river. Only to be met by a riverwide strainer. A strainer is a fallen tree that allows water to pass under it, but has enough branches or small spaces (between logs, for example) to trap a boat or person. They are legitimately dangerous obstacles – paddlers die every year on strainers – and deserve all the respect you can give them.   

As a very clear warning: IF YOU SEE A STRAINER, GET OUT OF THE RIVER TO SCOUT.

In many cases, this scout will result in a portage. It’s always safer to walk around wood in the river than to find yourself and your boat pinned underwater.

But, if you’re young and reckless, you might say something like:

“It looks like we can get around it on the left.”

The first boat will slip by the strainer, be pulled over a small waterfall formed by another tree, then be swept under a third riverwide log. Besides being potentially fatal, this is a very cold and unpleasant way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

Not to spoil the suspense, but everyone was okay in the end. At least one member of our group was NOT HAPPY, and insisted that we conclude the trip at that very instant. We pulled the canoe from under the tree, ferried across the river and walked to the road.

I ran back to the car (my quads are still sore), picked everyone up and we returned to Middlebury to drink hot cocoa with butter and whiskey.

If you should attempt this trip, look for water levels above 1000 on the Brooksville Gage. This only happens after a rainstorm, so keep an eye on the weather. Park one car at the Hewitt Road Bridge and another at one of several bridges downstream. The shortest trip takes you to New Haven Mills. A medium trip takes you to the one lane bridge on Route 116, and a long trip will take you to the River Road Bridge. If you’re really feeling spunky, you could paddle all the way to Dog Team. This might be called the “Lower Lower Lower Lower New Haven,” and is entirely flat, meandering water through farm fields. There are currently a lot of strainers in this section.

Water takes about 6 hours to get from Bristol to Dog Team. You’ll do it a little faster, but plan a full day for the whole run.

As always, wear a lifejacket when you’re in a boat. Scout often, portage judiciously, and stay to the inside of river bends where the current is gentler. If it’s chilly out, which it is at this time of year, wear synthetic clothing at the very least. If it’s chilly out, the water’s cold, and it’s raining, like it was on Saturday, consider a wet or drysuit.

This section of water is not suitable for a fiberglass or Kevlar boat at normal water levels. Paddle an ABS Royalex canoe here and you won’t have any repairs to make.

If you want to paddle here, but aren’t sure if you or your gear is up to it, or want more beta, send me an email: christianw@addisonindependent.com

Photos: Hannah Woodard

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