Exploring the Blackstone River: Spring Changes Create Challenging Whitewater

Photos t-b: Whitewater Section in S. Grafton,Old Flow Control Gate in S. Grafton and Class II rapids in Millville, MA.

Story & photos by Jeff Hickson

   Two of the things that are misunderstood about the Blackstone River are the challenges and changes that the river offers. When driving alongside the river, the Blackstone can appear serene and almost idyllic. Little do you know is that just upstream or downstream from you can lay a challenge to inspire or intimidate.
Having grown up navigating the Charles River, I expected the same from the Blackstone. A river that had changing landscapes but not changing challenges. Many years ago, my first trip down the Blackstone was enlightening. I ended up extremely wet but also extremely happy. It was a surprise!    One of my most memorable trips was canoeing over the tops of trees that had been submerged by high water on a tributary of the Blackstone.
     Spring high water flows can change the river dramatically by clearing or creating obstructions. This year in 2005, the amount of water stored in snow pack and frost underground, when thawed, will cause high flow rates that have not been seen in years. The river could rise dramatically - perhaps surging as much as 2" higher in level. As a paddler, what does this mean for you? The challenges and danger can increase. Some obstructions may now be submerged, but create new hydraulic white water challenges or hazards where there were not any before. Familiar turns and restrictions change becoming a new environment for you to explore. Class II water can change to Class III quickly and safe areas to stop can now disappear entirely underwater.
    Is all of this good or bad? It really depends on what you are looking for. For those with the right equipment and training looking for a challenge, it is the best time of the year. For this group, take your play boats, wetsuits, helmets and rescue buddy to Millbury rapids situated right in the middle of town. These Class III rapids provide more than an enjoyable challenge for most and at this time of the year the whitewater will be almost a half mile long! Make sure you check conditions from the South Main Street Bridge. Make a good assessment from here as to whether or not you want to run it. I have seen the water bouncing off the bottom of the bridge in extremely high flows and obviously could not be safely paddled.        Another location would be off of Route 122A in South Grafton (MA), three quarters of a mile up from the intersection with Route 122. Park on the left and paddle upstream and portage to the head of this exciting but short whitewater section. This is a great place to practice your skills as you can do easy portages right back to the top. Careful here, though, as extreme flows can cause some danger. 
     In Millville, MA under the Central Street Bridge, lies a section of Class II whitewater. To access this section, you will put in up river in the town of Uxbridge and paddle south until you hear the whitewater ahead of you. Go right at the fork to avoid the whitewater or left to accept the challenge. This is a fun section and easier for the beginner whitewater enthusiast to negotiate. You can take out on the left at the Blackstone Gorge Park in Blackstone MA just before the dam. 
    If you are taking small children or have little experience in whitewater maneuvering, this is the time of year to practice extreme caution. The river is at its most powerful and is able to easily reshape the landscape or your boat. The water temperatures are low and the danger of hypothermia is high if you take an unexpected swim. Your age, physical condition, experience and equipment are all factors you should consider before choosing what section you experience on the river. River Bend Farmís Canal would be a more serene and less challenging experience if you are a beginner or less experienced with paddling.
    How do you make sure you have a good time on the river? Ask the people who know the river best. Get trained and get access to good, reliable equipment. There are several good training programs throughout the area. Ours is at Wild Bird Gardens in Linwood, MA right on the water. Get trained, get comfortable, have fun. Paddle safe!