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Ocean State waterways invite rowers, paddlers

By Katie Zezima
Globe Correspondent / November 2, 2008
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PROVIDENCE - When it comes to waterways, Rhode Island is known for its sweeping ocean beaches. But hundreds of miles of rivers also wind through it, providing a tranquil and unexpected way to see the state.

The Rhode Island Blueways Alliance is creating a river trail system that will allow people to paddle the state, from the Blackstone River down to Narragansett Bay. The goal, the group says, is to showcase the state, from forest to salt marsh to the architecture of downtown Providence.

"Rhode Island has a long history of being water-oriented. The rivers are a little more of the hidden side," said Bruce Hooke, vice president of the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council and vice president of the Blueways Alliance. "Rhode Island is an excellent state for freshwater paddling. It has the right size rivers - they're not huge enough for you to feel lost, but are big enough to paddle. They're scattered throughout the state, so something is always close by."

And the rivers are almost always gentle, allowing for a relaxing day of canoeing or kayaking and letting beginners give boating a try.

"It's a relatively flat state. There are spots of white water but most of the rivers are fairly quiet and great for beginning paddlers," Hooke said.

The Blueways Alliance provides a guide to boat launches on rivers throughout the state (exploreri.org/mapper2.php). Ultimately it plans to mark each trail so paddlers can easily connect one river to another.

"We're going to create a trail from the rivers to the bay, just like there are bike paths everywhere," said Keith Gonsalves, founder of the Ten Mile River Watershed Council.

The Roger Williams Trail, which starts in East Providence on the Ten Mile River, rounds down the Seekonk River through downtown Providence and empties into Providence Harbor, is the alliance's first marked trail and, many say, its centerpiece.

"Everyone says, 'Let's go to New Hampshire; let's go paddling in these exotic places.' But this is an urban jewel here, and people who paddle through the city love it," Gonsalves said.

An East Providence native, Gonsalves was instrumental in creating the trail, which traces the path Roger Williams would have taken when he was exiled from Massachusetts and created a settlement in East Providence.

The 7-mile paddle showcases heavily wooded areas Williams may have seen on his journey, and winds into territory he wouldn't have dreamed of: skyscrapers, newly constructed condos, and public art installations.

"You see so much," Gonsalves said. "It appeals to as many people as possible."

The trail starts on Freedom Green, near where Williams settled in East Providence. Paddlers put in at a boat launch that seems to be enveloped in trees and leaves. It seems like rustic canoeing at its best.

But soon it becomes apparent you're paddling in a city. The Jackknife Bridge, an old railroad span adorned with graffiti, has the appearance of a drawbridge that has never been let down.

Coming down the Providence River paddlers pass Bold Point Park on the left, a welcome touch of green.

But the real treat comes when rowers head into Providence.

The city's three rivers were long neglected, and runoff from mills upstream, sewage, and industry along their shores had polluted them with toxic waste that flowed into the harbor.

For much of the last century, however, parts of the rivers literally disappeared. They were seen as an obstacle to urban development, bisecting the city and making it difficult to get around. In the 1930s they were paved over.

By the 1980s Providence had become depressed, and looked it. Desperate to make itself appealing, the city decided to both build and dismantle, giving its rivers a second chance. They would soon become the centerpiece of a renaissance that would turn the downtown into a destination.

The rivers were uncovered, rerouted, and cleaned up. Parks were added along their banks and artists were encouraged to submit pieces for display.

In 1994 Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci opened the Riverwalk, which stretches from Waterplace Park on the Providence River to the Fox Point neighborhood. The Providence River rejoins the Seekonk River about a quarter of the way down the Riverwalk.

Waterfire, the popular art installation, street party, and music festival that takes place on Saturday nights between June and October, starts on the Providence and continues down the merged rivers. Fires are lighted in what are essentially cauldrons permanently placed in the river, making it appear the water is ablaze.

Paddlers are not allowed on the rivers during Waterfire, but at other times canoers and kayakers can weave between the cauldrons. The logs that stoke the flames can be seen stored underneath bridges and in boats moored along the rivers.

Paddlers continue past College Hill (where Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design reside), past waterfront restaurants and recreational fishermen, toward Interstate 195 and the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier. The trail ends at India Point Park, just before the barriers.

While paddling the rivers is, for the most part, easy (paddlers should watch for some currents coming out of East Providence), getting canoes and kayaks into the rivers is less easy. The alliance is working to install a boat launch near the Jackknife Bridge, but getting a boat into the river in Providence can be tricky. There are no designated launches, but rather points where boaters can get in the river.

With the formal opening of the trail, Gonsalves and others are lobbying for more access points in Providence and East Providence.

"We need more places to get people into the river," he said.

Katie Zezima can be reached at katiezez@gmail.com.

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