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Cross-state paddlers are promoting better river access

Rhode Island may be the smallest state, but canoeing down it will be no small venture, says Jim Cole of Charlestown, one of four men who will begin the eight-day paddle this Sunday.

The group will be putting their boats in the water in North Smithfield near the Massachusetts state line and canoeing a total of 101 miles, averaging 12.5 miles each day and ending at Barn Island in Stonington on July 13.

The team consists of four men: Chuck Horbert, 46, of North Smithfield, an environmental scientist who manages the freshwater regulatory program at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management; Cole, 67, of Charlestown, who is retired from the IT department of an insurance company; and Citizens Bank employee Bill Luther, 62, of Seekonk, Mass.; and Dave Smith, 57, of Westerly, the former editor of The Westerly Sun’s weekly newspapers. The first three will paddle in canoes, while Smith’s vessel of choice is a kayak.

All four have been canoeing and kayaking most of their lives, and all but Smith are members and former presidents of the Rhode Island Canoe & Kayak Association.

Cole, who was born and raised in Rhode Island and graduated in 1979 from Johnson & Wales with a degree in computer science, says he’s been canoeing local waters for more than 50 years since he first started with his Boy Scout troop as a teenager.

“I really enjoyed being on the water and canoeing one of the first merit badges I received as a Boy Scout because it was so much fun to go out on the lake and paddle around with the other kids,” Cole said. “I’ve been canoeing ever since then and have tried to pass my love of paddling down to my kids and grandkids as well.”

Cole is a certified instructor through the American Canoe Association and has spent hundreds of hours teaching canoe and kayak classes as well as leading numerous guided trips in local waters. He’s paddled all over Rhode Island and in all of the New England states as well as New York and Pennsylvania, and has written a guide called “Paddling Through Rhode Island and Connecticut.”

Horbert, whose degree from the University of Rhode Island is in wildlife biology and management, first suggested the idea to paddle through Rhode Island a couple years ago as they had all spent a great deal of time paddling portions of the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail together. The trail goes from New York to Maine with portions in Quebec, and Cole says they have gone on multiple trips together paddling sections of 100-150 miles over the span of seven to 10 days. One of their main objectives in completing the expedition is to gain the attention of the state DEM and other groups to help improve recreational river access. Many public-access points are hard to find and use, so better maps and signage are needed, says Cole.

“We want to make the public-access points easier to use so that people don’t start creating their own put-ins where they shouldn’t be,” Cole said. “Rhode Island has a lot of areas for paddling, so we think that more emphasis and focus should be put into upkeep of the local rivers to encourage recreational use of them.”

Horbert says they also want to promote outdoor recreational opportunities in the state and make locals aware of all the areas to be canoed right here in our backyard.

“We would love to inspire some young kids to go out and see what they can find themselves, because one does not have to go to the deeps woods of Maine to get a high-quality experience in the natural environment,” Horbert said. “Put down those iPads and tablets and get outside.”

While they are journeying down the state they will be stopping in different towns to spread the word and connect with local watersheds organizations.

“In West Warwick we’re going to speak with a group of Boy Scouts about the trip, what kind of gear we needed and how we’re going to be camping along the way,” Cole said. “We have events in a couple other towns just to talk with people, have some refreshments. In some towns we will be meeting up with others who will be canoeing a little ways with us.”

Their route will take them down the Blackstone River and the Seekonk River, across Narragansett Bay, up the Pawtuxet River, across Johnson Pond and Flat River Resevoir, up Big River, down the Wood River and the Pawcatuck River and out to Barn Island in Stonington.

At several points during the trip, they will be portaging their boats with canoe carts to avoid dams or other obstructions; the longest portage will be 9.5 miles, mostly on state highways, from Big River to the Wood River.

They are expecting the most arduous portion of the trip to be a two-day upriver paddle through the Pawtuxet River Watershed to the Big River Management Area.

All but two of the sites where they will be camping are publicly owned and they have gotten special permits from the DEM to stay overnight at each place. They are practicing what Cole calls “leave-no-trace camping.”

“If we have a fire it will be in a fire can and once we are done with everything we use, we take it with us,” Cole said. “Aside from some trampled down grass, you shouldn’t be able to tell that we were camping there at all.”

If all goes as planned, these four will be the first to paddle across Rhode Island from north to south, following a predominantly inland course.

To stay updated on their trip and whereabouts, and to see pictures, follow them at

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