Photo: Laurie Swope
Photo: Laurie Swope

New England Paddle Tour | A Sampling of the Northeast’s Finest

This article originally appeared in our Fall 2017 print issue.

Words: Katie McKy

The images of many destinations are prettier in comparison to their real life counterparts.  New England, on the other hand, comes as advertised.

It's a mélange of covered bridges (104 in Vermont alone); maples tapped for sap in the spring then wrapped in scarlet in the fall; deep, sandy beaches; more history than a Ken Burns' documentary; and hale hamlets prime for an aquatic traipse.

Western Massachusetts is a good place to begin a New England SUP tour. The Berkshires of western Mass are the antithesis to busy Boston and they're archetypal New England, with bucolic valleys flanked by wooded ridges. Its villages are postcard pretty as is its water, like Stockbridge Bowl, a 372-acre lake north of the town of the same name, rimmed with "cottages" from the Gilded Age. Its north shore is the site of Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, so an evening paddle could come with a soundtrack.

Urban standup paddling can be had on the Charles River. For the full enchilada, begin at Newton and paddle as far as you wish. With an inflatable SUP and Boston's easy-to-navigate public transportation, you have a built-in shuttle. If you paddle from Newton to the sea, you'll pass Harvard College and be passed by aquatic Ferraris, a.k.a. rowing shells. Charles River Canoe & Kayak rents SUPs and has two downtown locations, allowing you to paddle from one to the other. South of Boston is sandy Cape Cod, with warm-water kettle ponds.

Interstate highways connect Boston and Burlington, so the Vermont city and Lake Champlain are three hours and change away. For 18 days in 1998, the Senate declared Lake Champlain the sixth Great Lake, but the paddlers of Burlington know that Champlain is still a great lake. Cradled by the Green Mountains and Adirondacks, the many islands mean lots of lees for easy paddling. Plus, if history is your thing, Revolutionary War warships lie on its bottom.

"We enjoy the variety of water conditions we get, from morning glass to moderate winds and chop, to windy enough for pretty awesome downwinders, to setting up at a beach facing the wind and catching waves," said Jason Starr, owner of Paddlesurf Champlain.

Starr also likes the contrast of paddling Champlain tributaries like the Winooski and Lamoille Rivers.

"A lot of us like to put in a few miles upstream of the delta where the rivers flow into the lake and paddle down to the lake and paddle back," Starr said. "It goes from cozy to breathtaking to cozy again."

Then make your way to green Maine. The state has a tree population that's impossible to quantify and is as blue as it is green, with the full paddling spectrum for exploratory standup paddlers.

In western Maine, find Richardson Lake. It's a pristine paradise, with loons and moose. South Arm Campground has sites ringing the water and they'll shuttle you to any of them.

Also, consider that Maine has at least 2,677 lakes it couldn't bother to name. Many are accessible by logging roads and teem with brook trout. Have a lake to yourself, cast to rising brookies and lick your lips while the orange fillets sizzle if that's your game. The ruts in some of the roads do challenge car and driver, so be cautious.

Want some salt? Paddle the aptly named Merrymeeting Bay, the largest estuary north of Chesapeake. Estuaries are nurseries for all sorts of animal life and birds abound, with bald eagles almost as common as sparrows. Tidal currents are present, so venture into open water only with the requisite skills or with a guide.

And then there's something really unique: Just outside of Blue Hill, Maine is a standing wave, created by a strait that accelerates the tidal flow. Consult tide calendars and only paddle the inland side when the tide is coming in, lest you be swept out to sea.

"The wave is temperamental," said Bryan McCarthy, a standup paddler from Hope, Maine. "The tide and wind affect how it forms. On some days, it's steep and breaks back on itself. On other days, it's more glassy and friendly and you can get longer rides."

Down the coast is Camden, with a harbor chock-full of 1800s windjammers. You can paddle from Rockport to Camden, which is almost always a downwind run, passing two lighthouses on your route. Finish your day with crab cakes at Peter Ott's on the Water.

Now get out there. Fall only lasts so long.

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