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The Paddle Across Rhode Island

Tommy, Chuck and Jim getting ready to start their trip. Note the water just beyond the canoes. Usually the edge of the river is beyond the two people in the backgrohnd!

photo courtesy of Cindy Gianfrancesco

I knew the attempt was in trouble when the remnants of Tropical Storm Andrea were forecast to hit Rhode Island the day before launch. I really knew the trip was in jeopardy when I woke up to find five inches of rain in my rain gauge. And all area rivers were forecast to flood.

But it was a decent day, and a launch event had been planned, so I figured I would put on my game face, meet my companions Jim and Tommy, and play it by ear. We decided to go forward with the attempt, confident that we had the skills and familiarity with the rivers to keep ourselves out of major trouble, and knowing we could call someone at any time for an evacuation if needed.

The current was fast, but obstacles were easily avoided. A couple rapids were washed out. Our first portage around Oakland Dam was uneventful. Then we got to Glendale Rapid. Glendale was pounding. But rocks. An easy Class III. The trouble was none of us had whitewater boats. But we didn’t have gear to worry about (we planned to have our camping equipment shuttled ahead of us this first day), so we went for it. Tommy went through first, and made a clean run. I went next, and that is when things started going sour.

As I hit the third wave, it seemed to explode up on my right, tipping the boat to the left. In no time I was out of the boat. Fortunately I was pretty quickly able to get myself to the bank, just above a 6-tree strainer that could have potentially trapped both me and my boat. I started bailing out the boat and alerting anyone who might be looking for me with my whistle.

Flooded riverbank

photo courtesy of Chuck Horbert

Tommy had proceeded down to another eddy when he saw he could not help me without endangering himself. Jim decided to portage after seeing what happened to me. Eventually, Jim and I rejoined Tommy on the river.

Above the next drop, Atlas Pallet, we all took out on river-right to scout. The drop itself was a big ramp that ended in choppy irregular waves and crazy eddy lines. Much of the flow continued ahead and slammed into a large jam of stumps and fallen trees...very ugly. The rest of the flow went around it to the left. Our view to the right was blocked and inaccessible. Ultimately, we decided to portage around the main part of the drop, and make the ferry from an eddy across the “weaker” current to get around the log jam.

On the water, the current seemed much stronger, and was pulsing. Tommy again led the way, and again made it fine. Jim went next, and did not make it…the current blew him off his line. In trouble, he elected to head right to mess with the slot that was blocked by the tree. He was able to grab onto the tree at chest level, trying What a flooded river looks like photo courtesy of Chuck Horbert A snag in our river adventure photo courtesy of Chuck Horbert to stay upright. I couldn’t help him where I was…I needed to get down where Tommy was. So I started my ferry.

The bow of Chuck's canoe, just visible on the end of the log jam.

photo courtesy of Chuck Horbert

No dice. Once again, I capsized. This time, there was no worrying about the boat or the paddle or anything. I was in a bad spot. I swam for my life to the left, just getting around the edge of the log jam, and quickly getting over to the bank on river-left. The boat got stuffed into the log jam. I signaled Tommy that I was OK and waited for them.

Jim managed to get himself out of his own jam, and with Tommy’s help got back in the river. They both paddled to my side of the river, where I called my wife for an extrication, thus bringing the attempt to an end after only 4 miles. In retrospect, knowing that our chances for a successful trip were very low, we should not have even tried. Floodwaters are fast, with unpredictable cross currents, and the consequences of even minor mishaps become much more severe. There were multiple rescues that day and the next on other rivers in the state.

So we hope next year’s attempt will involve a wee bit less rain.

For a longer, more detailed account of the 2013 (attempted) Paddle Across Rhode Island, see Chuck Horbert's blog.


This article was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2013 edition of Trail Mix, the Newsletter of The Greenways Alliance of Rhode Island. RI Blueways thanks the Greenways Alliance for giving us permission to republish this articles

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