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Strong Like A River

June 25, 2015

River paddling is a full-body workout with a mighty partner. You can go down to a river purely for peace of mind if you like. Fish, drift on a raft like Huckleberry Finn, or sit and watch morning mist rising. The river offers a break from everyday pressures, a sojourn in a simpler world. In fact the whole ambiance is a bit different from, say, your typical fitness facility. But don’t be fooled. Take to it with a canoe or kayak, and a river will put you in great physical shape too. It’s free. It’s low-impact. And it accommodates every athletic style from easy-going to epic.

If you’re going to try the Huck Finn approach to mental and physical well-being, great! Just remember that a river demands respect. For novices, it’s best to find the right stretch of river, good instruction, and some experienced paddling companions. My brazen bias in this article is that the Farmington River offers the best opportunities to get your feet wet, whether you’re a first-time paddler or an expert. But choose the river that’s best for you. They all need champions.

A true beginner can get a great start in Collinsville, where the Farmington River is impounded behind a historic industrial dam and you can try out canoes and kayaks from the nearby Collinsville Canoe and Kayak store. If your skills are on the tippy side, this is the place to be. The expert instructors at CCK offer courses and classes for all ages and skills. They’ll have you maneuvering like a duck in short order.

And instruction is worthwhile. You’ll learn to handle your craft deftly and safely, and your physical workout will be better and safer too. Paddling is aerobic exercise that can be paced according to your fitness. But beyond that, some people are surprised to find that paddling is not just upper-body work, as it might at first appear to be. It’s a whole-body workout that doesn’t have to over-tax any one area. Your legs, actively pushing against contact points inside the boat (especially in a kayak), brace you and thus allow your torso to rotate properly. As your torso rotates, your back, lateral, and abdominal muscles do much of the work of the paddling, so your arms don’t take all the strain. Maneuvering the paddle requires push-pull and rotational actions of arm and shoulder that encourage mobility and are agreat workout for upper arm, shoulder and chest muscles. When mastering fine control of the paddle, your forearm and hand muscles become strong and coordinated without resorting to an exhausting tight grip. Since all this happens in a rocking craft on moving water, it’s excellent for developing balance too. And it feels just great!

For practice on flatwater in the Farmington Valley, Colebrook River Reservoir (Colebrook), West Branch Reservoir (Colebrook/Hartland), and Lake McDonough (Canton/New Hartford) all offer lake paddling in forested surroundings. Also, the river mainstem itself has a reach of several miles between Avon and Tariffville known as “the Bathtub.” It’s almost entirely flatwater and fairly slow-moving. Sometimes the Bathtub’s current is even sluggish enough for paddling upstream as well as down. (But even the Bathtub can be hazardous when the current is fast. Check the flow before you go.) The Farmington River Watershed Association offers easy trips on this reach every summer, and canoes or kayaks are supplied if needed. Tours can also be booked with Huck Finn Adventures.

If you are ready to try your skill on the Farmington’s milder rapids, go upriver to the Farmington West Branch, whose 14 miles have well-deserved status as a national Wild & Scenic River. You can paddle from just below Colebrook River Reservoir, through People’s State Forest, and all the way to New Hartford. Craft rental is available at Main Stream Canoe in New Hartford. Be aware that this is a prime trout fishing area and observe river etiquette when navigating past anglers: be quiet, friendly, slow, single file, and keep a safe distance. Also be aware that non-expert paddlers should exit the river before the gorge known as Satan’s Kingdom.

The most challenging part of the river is Tariffville Gorge, where the Farmington River runs through Talcott Ridge in East Granby and Bloomfield. National whitewater competitions are held here every year, and draw the best whitewater paddlers from Canada and the U.S. Warning to us mortals: Do NOT try this run unless you are an expert whitewater paddler with experienced companions! DO come and see the annual Triple Crown whitewater competition held in the Gorge each spring.

And whenever you want a workout to refresh mind and body—do remember the rivers.

For more information about paddling routes, check the Farmington River Guide online at: http://frwa.org/river-info/recreation-info-maps

For information about river flows, check links at: http://frwa.org/river-info/river-flows-forecasts

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