Go with the flow. Navigating a tidal river

Tidal River

One of my favorite things in the world is adventure. I love it in pretty much any form. Long backpacking excursions, thrill rides, and four day long paddles down a tidal river. This 4th of July weekend, Tony and I decided to canoe the entire Connecticut portion of the Connecticut River. It’s a trip we began planning in late 2016. Reserving campgrounds and planning the trip around the tides of the river were critical and required early preparations. We’ll share stories about each day of our journey, plus tips we picked up in our Paddling the Connecticut River series. For now, we’d like to share some tips we picked up while canoeing a tidal river, like the Connecticut.

The Connecticut River runs from northern New Hampshire to Long Island Sound. It’s over 400 miles long. We took on almost 70 miles of that when we canoed from Enfield, CT to Old Saybrook at the mouth of the river. The trip took a total of four days.

What does it mean to be a tidal river?

Something to know about the Connecticut River is that it is a tidal river. This means every six hours the direction of the tide changes. How dramatically you feel that change depends on where you are on the river. The closer you are to the mouth, the higher the impact. The river is tidal up to Windsor Locks, CT, which is just a few miles south of our starting point. We carefully planned our trip using the tides, something Tony did not do on his first long distance paddle of the Connecticut River.

Planning around the tides isn’t too complicated. Just like the ocean, tidal rivers have high tide and low tide. The way the current speed works on the Connecticut River is that as you get closer to high tide and low tide the water is moving slowly and sometimes it’s not even moving at all. This is called slack tide. Take advantage of this time. We began in the morning with the tide against us for an hour or two, and then the majority of the day was with the tide. When you’re paddling with the tide it is much easier. The paddling against the tide was tougher for us in the afternoon, but mostly due to the afternoon winds picking up and impacting the water.

Here’s an example of what a tide app will tell you. (These are not the tides from our trip)

Tidal River

Changing water

On day one we got a bit of a late start. We hit the water by 10am, riding the tide on our way to Wethersfield. The trip began at the Enfield/Thompsonville boat ramp. The northern portion of the Connecticut River in Connecticut is quite shallow. The river has been running high this summer so the water levels were higher than usual. In previous summers, the water has been bony, meaning it’s so shallow that the rocks scrape up the bottom of your boat, even close to high tide. This has not been our experience this summer.

The first real excitement of the trip down the Connecticut portion of the Connecticut River is usually the dam in Enfield and the Enfield rapids. This is a small dam and stretch of small rapids that run for about six miles. Some recommend portaging around the dam. We always ride over the top, along our right hand (starboard) side. Because we were riding over the dam when the tide was up and since the river is at high levels anyway, it was smooth flowing. The water was quick, but we didn’t have to do any of the usual maneuvering around large rocks.

As our first day came to a close and we reached our camping spot in Wethersfield, CT, we faced choppy waters when the tide shifted and the winds picked up. A storm was also rolling in so the winds that accompanied it contributed to the choppy waters. These were nothing compared to the waves we would fight later in the trip.

The early bird gets the worm…and the smoothest water

CT River Canoe

Early morning wake-ups are critical. The river was like a sheet of glass until around 8am. We embraced the lack of boat traffic and took in the calm air and waters that surrounded us. The reflection of the sky on the water makes it look as if you are paddling on the clouds. A hot cup of coffee would have been a perfect accompaniment, but we didn’t bring a percolator or a pot to boil water. We joked that we were going to pull over and ask any human we saw if they had any leftover coffee to share.

Beware of motorized boats!

Motorized boat traffic picks up around lunchtime in the Middletown area of the river. The further south you get down the river, the earlier the boat traffic starts up. Paddling among the boats when winds are calm and the tide is in your favor is best. Although it would be courteous for motorized boats to slow down for paddlers, this isn’t usually how it works. It’s a real challenge to maneuver your canoe to face the wake of boats, head on, while also cutting through choppy waters.

This definitely put my courage to the test in East Hampton and Old Saybrook, where we faced the choppiest water among motorized boats. I personally love the adrenaline rush that comes with choppy water, but until this trip I hadn’t experienced sustained choppy water on top of heavy boat traffic. It was incredibly fun, but requires you to be alert and in control. Unfortunately we didn’t catch any photos of the choppy water since we were 100% focused on paddling.

Our advice to you

CT River Canoe 1

One way to avoid the heavy traffic is to navigate through the back alleys of the Connecticut River. Back alleys allow you to get away from the busy waters and lose yourself in nature. Not only are back alleys helpful for avoiding boats, but some include beautiful nature preserves. Cranes, blue herrons, various small birds, and frogs all rustled in the tall grass and splashed across the ponds and narrow channels. We’ll share more about the back alleys we navigated on this trip in our Back Alleys of the Connecticut River post.

My two pieces of advice after this experience are:

  1. If you’re canoeing a tidal river like the Connecticut River, plan your trip with the tides. Have the tides handy during your trip. Either an app on your phone like, Tides Near Me, or a printed copy of the tides will be helpful.
  2. Bring along your courage. Canoeing is not all flatwater. Be prepared for choppy water. Be prepared for motorized boats. Be prepared for anything.