Our Favorite Places

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Family Vacations, Summer 1996

Our Favorite Places

New Hampshire/Maine

One of New England's most popular canoeing rivers rises in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, flows southeast through a wide valley of the farmlands and forests in Maine, and empties into the sea at Saco, south of Portland. A 40-mile stretch from Center Conway, New Hampshire, to Hiram, Maine, is just right for families with young children: The water's clean and shallow (two to four feet deep in summer), and you can picnic and camp almost anywhere. If the kids get antsy, they can drop a line for brook trout and bass, dive into a riverbed swimming hole, or explore the miles of beaches that line the banks.

Jaw-Dropper: Even old canoe hands express amazement at finding such clear water and white sand in New England.

Digression: About 21 miles downstream from Center Conway, a mile-long channel leads to Lovewell Pond, where paddlers are rewarded with views of Mount Washington and other peaks in New Hampshire's Presidential Range.

The Saco in a nutshell: Put In/Take Out: Center Conway, New Hampshire/Hiram, Maine. Length: 43 miles; three days. Prime Time: May and June; the water gets low in July. Traffic: Heavy on summer weekends. Rapids: One short section of Class I. Portages: An optional 20-yard end run around the remains of a wooden dam at Walker's Falls, and a mandatory 300-yard portage around the minihydro dam at Swan's Falls. Facilities: Four commercial campgrounds (just the basics) and two campgrounds operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club; camping permitted on unposted sandbars from the Maine state line to Hiram. Outfitters: Saco Bound (603-447-2177), Canal Bridge Canoes (207-935-2605), Saco River Canoe & Kayak (207-935-2369), River Run (207-452-2500), and Woodland Acres Camp 'n Canoe (207-935-2529). Information: Appalachian Mountain Club (603-466-2721).

This aptly named blackwater river, suitable for children of all ages, flows south from Florida's central lake district, becoming estuarial long before it eases into the Gulf of Mexico at Charlotte Harbor, just north of Fort Myers. One of the state's longest waterways, the Peace is also one of its wildest-only the occasional bridge and power line intrude on your subtropical backcountry experience. Lined in places with powdery white sand, the river glides past mossy overhanging cypress trees, willow groves, and palmetto thickets.

Anglers land bass, bream, and catfish from the tea-colored water. Watch for herons, red-shouldered hawks, and snowy cattle egrets. You'll also tally otters, turtles, and deer.
The Peace supplies its own souvenirs. Get your kids to pack a shovel and sifter, look for gravelly or rocky places low along the riverbank, then dig for the fossilized teeth of sharks, mammoths, and primitive horses-maybe even the vertebrae of prehistoric whales.

Jaw-Dropper: A 15-foot, knobbly-backed log on the riverbank suddenly rises and jumps into the river with a tremendous splash: an alligator. Though a fair number of them patrol the Peace, no paddler has ever been attacked.

Digression: About ten miles downstream from the Fort Meade Bridge, take a half-mile woodland walk along Paynes Creek to a state historic site where five Seminoles killed a pair of traders in 1849. Kids get a kick out of guides in period dress, a six-pound cannon, and a 100-foot suspension footbridge over the creek.

The Peace in a nutshell: Put In/Take Out: The state-designated Peace River Canoe Trail runs south, from the Fort Meade Bridge to the State Road 70 Bridge, west of Arcadia. Length: 67 miles, four or five days. Prime Time: Late May, early June; July and August are buggy and hot. Traffic: Crowded on spring weekends; quieter during the summer. Rapids/Portages: None. Facilities: Two commercial campgrounds; wilderness camping along most of the canoe trail. Outfitters: Canoe Outpost (941-494-1215); Canoe Safari (941-494-7865). Information: Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Office of Greenways and Trails (904-487-4784).

This prairie waterway flows wide and shallow between high sandstone cliffs at the northern edge of the grass-covered Sand Hills of Nebraska. Before hitting the water, thrill the kids with windshield close-ups of bison, elk, and Texas longhorns in the exhibition pasture of the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, just east of Valentine. Then launch your canoe at Cornell Bridge, near the refuge's western boundary, and start scanning the grasslands and wooded breaks for otters, beavers, red-tailed hawks, wild turkeys, and herons. The Niobrara is a biological crossroads where six ecosystems overlap. Ponderosa pine and cedar line the upper canyon walls, while gullies are forested with burr oak, ash, and black walnut.

Lots of families tie inner tubes behind their canoes and let the kids freeload. A Niobrara tube isn't a standard-issue butt-wetter; it's a gigantic tractor-tire inner tube with a canvas deck. Rocky Ford, site of a natural rock dam, tends to bang up canoes-but the three-foot drop is perfect for tubing runs.

Jaw-Dropper: Okay, maybe only an eyebrow-archer, but more than 93 waterfalls spill into the Niobrara on this stretch, and some 30 are visible from the river in midsummer. To amuse the kids, turn cataract-counting into a competitive sport.

Digression: About 12 miles downstream from Cornell Bridge, in Smith Falls State Park, a quarter-mile creekside trail heads up-canyon through sun-dappled stands of birch and pine to Smith Falls-at 67 feet, the highest in Nebraska.

The Niobrara in a nutshell: Put In/Take Out: Cornell Bridge, four miles east of Valentine in the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge/ Egelhoff's Narrows. Length: 30 miles; two days. Prime Time: Anytime except July; it's a scorcher. Traffic: Fairly heavy on summer weekends. Rapids/ Portages: Rocky Ford (Class II), Kuhre's Rapids (Class III). Facilities: Nine commercial campgrounds and one public campground (Smith Falls State Park). Outfitters: Dryland Aquatics (800-337-3119 or 402-376-3119), Brewers Canoers (402-376-2046), and Graham Canoe Outfitters (402-376-3708). Information: Niobrara/Missouri National Scenic Riverways (402-336-3970); Valentine Chamber of Commerce (402-376-2969).

Canyons, slickrock waterfalls, weird rock formations, and American Indian ruins along the Green's last 120 miles excite even the most jaded teen. One of America's premier flatwater floats, the trip south, from the town of Green River to the Green's confluence with the mighty Colorado, is for parental units with backcountry experience and adventurous older children. There are just three places to bail out: Ruby Ranch, 25 miles downstream from the put-in; Mineral Bottom, 70 miles downstream and accessible via a dirt track; and Spanish Bottom, at the confluence. Two outfitters licensed to operate in Canyonlands National Park retrieve paddlers from Spanish Bottom (arrange in advance) and jet-boat them to Moab.

The key to enjoying the Lower Green: Don't rush it. Budget plenty of time for serendipity and exploration. The paddle from the put-in to Ruby Ranch takes in parched high-desert plains. Below the ranch, just after the San Rafael enters from the west, high sandstone walls that rise hundreds of feet form the phantasmagorical gorge of Labyrinth Canyon.

Jaw-Dropper: Just below Mineral Bottom, the Green snakes through Stillwater Canyon. Sheer riverside walls tower 400 feet; the rim, stepped back in terraces, is another 1,500 feet higher.

Digression: A mile-long trail at Spanish Bottom gains 1,500 feet to reach the Doll House, a cluster of stone towers and other odd formations.

The Green in a nutshell: Put In/Take Out: Crystal Geyser/ Spanish Bottom. Length: 120 miles; five to seven days. Prime Time: MidMay to mid-June; temperatures are 100-plus in July and August. Traffic: Light. Rapids: None. Portages: None. Facilities: Wilderness camping along the Lower Green; permits for wilderness camping required in Canyonlands. Outfitters: Tex's Riverways (801-259-5101); Tag-A-Long Expeditions (801-259-8946). Information: Canyonlands National Park (801-259-7164); Utah's Canyonlands Region (800-635-6622 or 801-259-8825).

Ontario, Canada

In the rock-ribbed Canadian Shield, an intricate jigsaw of lakes and rivers frets the vast sweep of boreal forest. As a result, trippers can create improvisations on established canoe trails-especially in the Temagami region, about 300 miles north of Toronto, near the boundary of Ontario and Quebec. With nearly 1,500 miles of routes in 2,000 square miles, you could spend decades paddling this watery maze without repeating yourself.

One novice six-day in-and-out route starts at Mowat Landing, off Highway 58. Paddle southwest, portage around Mattawapika Dam, then continue on Lady Evelyn River into Lady Evelyn Lake. Next, head through Obasiga Narrows, then west into Sucker Gut Lake. From there, paddle north into Hobart Lake and follow Willow Island Creek, then Tupper Creek, finally ending up in Tupper Lake.

Digression: A three-mile trail from Tupper Lake climbs Maple Mountain, which rises more than 1,000 feet above the surrounding lakeland. From a summit fire tower, 25-mile views extend in all directions.

The Temagami in a nutshell: Put In/Take Out: Mowat Landing. Length: About 48 miles; six days. Prime Time: Anytime except early June, when the bugs are fiercest. Traffic: Moderate on lakes with road access; light elsewhere. Portages: Two. Facilities: Campsites are plentiful along the whole route. Outfitters: Smoothwater (705-569-3539). Information: Ontario Recreational Canoeing Association (416-426-7170).

Copyright 1996, Outside magazine

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