Four men toting camping gear, laden with backpacks and pulling canoes and a kayak on Allens Avenue in Providence isn’t an everyday occurrence, but a resident of the neighborhood knew who they were right away: “Hey, you’re the paddle guys.”
At once tired and victorious, the four paddlers — three in canoes and one in a kayak — arrived at Barn Island in Stonington Sunday afternoon with a 20 knot wind at their backs, after their eight-day, 100-mile river journey “north to south across the state of Rhode Island using a primarily inland route.” A route rarely traveled, down the Blackstone and Seekonk rivers, across Narragansett Bay, up the Pawtuxet River, across Johnson Pond and Flat River Reservoir, up Big River, down the Wood River and the Pawcatuck River and out the mouth of the Pawcatuck round the bend to Stonington’s Barn Island.
The paddlers, dubbed Paddle Across Rhode Island, are Chuck Horbert, 47, of North Smithfield, David Smith, 57, of Westerly, Jim Cole, 67, of Charlestown, and Bill Luther, 62, of Seekonk, Massachusetts.
All seasoned canoeists and kayakers, the men set out to paddle the rivers for myriad reasons, but primarily to call attention to the opportunity the rivers of Rhode Island offer and to advocate for better access, signage and maintenance of camping sites and access points along all the six rivers they traversed.
In fact, at most of the sites they camped, they also did a major cleanup, filling several 30-gallon bags with debris along the way. And at several locations along their route, the men portaged their crafts to avoid dams, bridges, other structures and in the case of Providence, that portage found them trekking through city streets.
For 10 miles, between the Big and Wood rivers, they hiked through Arcadia state park, where, in the “middle of the woods” they came across bicyclists who said they were excited to meet up with the paddlers.
They documented their journey on Facebook, attracting more than 600 followers, and their story appeared in regional media, so along the route they were cheered on: “Are you the paddlers? Good luck!”
“They said they’d heard about us,” Cole said. “There we were, out there in the woods and they’d heard about us.”
Sunday afternoon a small group gathered to welcome the paddlers, including members of the Rhode Island Canoe/Kayak Association who’d tagged along for the last leg. In the distance facing Watch Hill, the four could be seen and folks gathered closer to shore, including Smith’s wife, Terry.
“He’s never done anything like this before,” she said. “But he said it’s been absolutely amazing.”
First in was Horbert.
“It was a blast,” he said while getting his land legs. “But I think I’m going to leave the south to north leg to someone else.” Horbert described the final stretch as perhaps the most challenging because “the wind at our backs made it tough” to keep in the right direction toward shore. “It was great, but it’s good to be home.”
Horbert is a Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management scientist whose work in the agency’s freshwater regulatory program helped open doors for the paddlers; most of the camps and sites the paddlers visited are public sites that few others ever see. Since part of the trip mission was to call attention to un-maintained sites that could benefit from signage and some publicity, Horbert’s presence was important.
“Something as small as a sign would be a good first step,” said Cole, the second man in.
“It was wonderful,” Cole said of the journey. “I’m sorry to see it end, but I’m glad it’s over.”
Cole is author of the book “Paddling Connecticut and Rhode Island,” an expert canoeist, member of the Blueway Alliance and vice president of the canoe and kayak group.
Luther, also a member of the association, said he would “definitely do that again.”
And Smith, who opted to kayak instead of canoe, sunburned and subdued when he glided into the boat ramp, said the trip was “definitely a bucket list” kind of trip: “It was great, but I’m tired and really need a shower.”
Smith said that for him, the journey was very personal.
“It was a personal challenge and one I did for my father, who taught me how to paddle,” he said. “It’s something I’ll probably never do again so I wanted to put myself to the test.”
To learn more about the journey visit their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/paddleacrossrhodeisland