Kayaker’s delight: Best day-paddles along the Connecticut River in Massachusetts

As you paddle downstream from Northfield to Barton Cove, the French King Bridge looms dramatically ahead, casting its reflection onto the channel. On your left after the bridge, you’ll see a slim rocky point where the Millers River joins the Connecticut.

As you paddle downstream from Northfield to Barton Cove, the French King Bridge looms dramatically ahead, casting its reflection onto the channel. On your left after the bridge, you’ll see a slim rocky point where the Millers River joins the Connecticut. PHOTO BY ANNA LAIRD BARTO

The Mineral Road truss bridge spans the Millers River.

The Mineral Road truss bridge spans the Millers River. PHOTO BY ANNA LAIRD BARTO

A nesting Swan near Doctor’s Island in Gill.

A nesting Swan near Doctor’s Island in Gill. PHOTO BY ANNA LAIRD BARTO

View from the river: a bald eagle standing on Second Island in Sunderland.

View from the river: a bald eagle standing on Second Island in Sunderland. PHOTO BY ANNA LAIRD BARTO

As you move downstream from Pynchon Point to Thompsonville, Connecticut, the Springfield skyline recedes and the roller coasters of Six Flags peek above the horizon. 

As you move downstream from Pynchon Point to Thompsonville, Connecticut, the Springfield skyline recedes and the roller coasters of Six Flags peek above the horizon.  PHOTO BY ANNA LAIRD BARTO

As you paddle downstream from Northfield to Barton Cove, the French King Bridge looms dramatically ahead, casting its reflection onto the channel. On your left after the bridge, you’ll see a slim rocky point where the Millers River joins the Connecticut.

As you paddle downstream from Northfield to Barton Cove, the French King Bridge looms dramatically ahead, casting its reflection onto the channel. On your left after the bridge, you’ll see a slim rocky point where the Millers River joins the Connecticut. PHOTO BY ANNA LAIRD BARTO

A view of Mount Sugarloaf from the Sunderland boat ramp.

A view of Mount Sugarloaf from the Sunderland boat ramp. PHOTO BY ANNA LAIRD BARTO

By ANNA LAIRD BARTO

For the Gazette

Published: 05-23-2024 5:05 PM

Last summer, I chronicled my 68-mile paddle of the Connecticut River through Massachusetts. Along the way, I became very well acquainted with the river, its bends and currents, dams and bridges, trees and wildlife — even its sewage overflows! Here are a few of my favorite sections, which highlight the richly varied landscape and character of our valley.

These four-to-seven-mile segments can be paddled in a day or an afternoon, depending on your speed. It takes some coordination to shuttle boats back and forth between launch-site and take-out. I could not have completed my thru-paddle without my partner, Ben, driving me and my kayak up and down the river.

Riverview Picnic Area in Northfield to Barton Cove

Distance: 6 miles

Put-in: From the parking lot, drag or carry your boat about 400 feet down a paved path to the dock.

Take-out: Barton Cove State Boat Ramp off of Route 2 in Gill.

Check the water levels before you set off; they can fluctuate dramatically because of suck and release action from the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Station. One year, the water got so low that I grounded my kayak in the middle of Barton Cove and had to get out and drag it.

As you paddle downstream, the French King Bridge looms dramatically ahead, casting its reflection onto the channel. On your left after the bridge, you’ll see a slim rocky point where the Millers River joins the Connecticut. Stop for a picnic or swim and enjoy views of the 140-foot French King Bridge and the miniature Mineral Road truss bridge that spans the Millers. From here, the river bends sharply west, passing wetlands overgrown with cattails and yellow iris. Hug the shore as you enter “The Narrows” into Barton Cove to avoid motorboats whipping around the point.

You could easily spend half a day just exploring Barton Cove, accompanied by ducks, swans, Canada geese and their downy offspring. The larger of the two islands is a popular nesting site for bald eagles. Last year the nest was not in use, but I could see the refrigerator-sized fortress of sticks from the water. In the shady southwest corner is a former quarry called Lily Pond, where dinosaur tracks are visible in the shale. On the Turners Falls side, you can paddle up to the far end of Unity Park, where milkweed and wildflowers bloom along the shore.

Falls Road to Sunderland Bridge

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Distance: 4 miles

Put-in: Look for a small gravel pull-off about a quarter mile south of the Whitmore Pond Waterfall. The path down to the water is short but steep.

Take-out: Sunderland Boat Ramp. There are a few parking spaces by the launch, or you can drop your boat and park at the library down the street.

The current is faster here below the Turners Falls Dam, and there are no motor boats to worry about. Paddling is easy, or unnecessary, so you can sit back, relax and enjoy the views of Mount Sugarloaf and the antics of the bald eagles. The eagles nest on the Sunderland islands — three long, narrow spits of land with pebbly beaches — which are off-limits to visitors June-July when the eaglets are fledging. I was entertained by a family with several rowdy teenagers (you can tell their age by the mottled brown coloring) screeching and swooping behind their long-suffering parents.

Cow Bridge Brook to Elwell Island

Distance: 7 miles

Put-in: Hatfield Boat Launch. There is a gravel ramp off of Kellogg Hill Road in Hatfield.

Take-out: Elwell Island State Park, Northampton, a short carry from the parking lot.

This section takes you through open floodplains and farmland. Paddle along the Hadley dike, then follow the river around a sweeping bend, past Canary Island on your right. You can take out at Connecticut River Greenway Riverfront Park, which has a beautiful sandbar beach, or continue another half mile to Elwell Island. When you reach the island’s northern tip, take the narrow tree-lined channel on your right, the leaves framing an idyllic view of the Rail Trail Bridge and the Holyoke Range.

Pynchon Point to Thompsonville, CT

Distance 6 miles

Put in: Follow the paved walkway about 150 feet down to the water.

Take Out: Thompsonville Boat Ramp. Nice beach with a wide ramp and lots of parking.

This stretch was a pleasant surprise, with its mix of urban and rural scenery. As you move downstream, the Springfield skyline recedes and the roller coasters of Six Flags peak above the horizon. On sunny summer days, the river is filled with colorful sailboats from the Springfield Yacht and Pioneer Valley Yacht Clubs. Check out Willy’s island and the Longmeadow sandbar on your left, then cut across the channel to Six Flags New England. From a boat, you can get close enough to Superman: The Ride to see the looks of terror on the riders faces (and as close as I’ll ever get to setting foot on a roller coaster!). From here it’s a peaceful paddle to the next access point in Thompsonville, Connecticut. You’ll see the beach on your left just past the remnant piers of the Suffield and Thompsonville Bridge.

Originally from Amherst, Anna Laird Barto lived everywhere from Wisconsin to Mexico before returning to the Valley. She currently lives in Montague and works as a freelance writer and a family support worker at a local nonprofit.