Pick Your Paddle

Canoeing

Paddle-perfect paradise: the calms of North Florida's Sante Fe     Photo: Eyewire

BEGINNER / CONNECTICUT RIVER, NEW HAMPSHIRE
A 12-mile leisurely paddle on the Connecticut River, beneath New England's birches and sugar maples, recalls The Wind in the Willows, when novice boater Mole learns "there is nothing—absolutely nothing—so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats." Beginner families can relax on the wide and peaceful water, where kids can find their balance and learn about the business end of a paddle.

Start a weekend trip in Lyme, canoeing downriver past woods, farmland, and quiet towns to a cabin just above Wilder Dam and just below Dartmouth College. Overnight at the rustic Titcomb Cabin, a spruce-hemlock log building with a deck and bunks for four people, where you can mess around in the river and then warm yourself by the fireplace. From May and into the fall colors of October, Dartmouth's Ledyard Canoe Club (603-643-6709; www.dartmouth.edu/~lcc/) rents canoes for $15 to $25 a day, gives lessons, and manages Titcomb Cabin, $10 a night per person.

INTERMEDIATE / SANTA FE RIVER, NORTH FLORIDA
It might come as a surprise, but Florida has more underground springs and rivers than any other spot on the planet. Tea-colored rivers like the Santa Fe, north of Gainesville, are fed by springs that bubble up from caves along the banks, adding a dimension to a canoe trip: When you've had it with paddling, you can snorkel in the springs, where clear and cloudy water mix, and camp under dripping cypress trees—all the time mingling with gators, screech owls, snapping turtles, and other swamp critters. It's a primordial catharsiS—if accompanied by bug spray.

For a three-night, 32-mile trip, start outside the town of High Springs. Rentals and shuttles are available from Santa Fe River Canoe Outpost ($28 per day per boat, $27 to shuttle four boats; 386-454-2050; www.santaferiver.com). The first day, paddle three miles upstream to River Rise State Park, where the Santa Fe River bubbles up out of the ground. Then retrace your paddle strokes and return downstream to a private campsite that Canoe Outpost will help you choose. Eight and a half miles down from your put-in is iridescent-blue Ginnie Springs, where divers can explore underwater caves (hiring a guide is required), and you can camp in the 200-acre private campground ($14 per adult per night, $6 for kids 7-14; 386-454-7188). In the 14 and a half miles between you and the takeout at the U.S. 129 bridge, keep an eye out for a manatee—they're rare but there.

ADVABCED / SAN JUAN RIVER, UTAH
For hundreds of years the San Juan River was the heart of the Anasazi civilization; people drank its waters and farmed its banks. Today you can float through history and paddle 26 miles of the Utah river in just a few hours, but count on at least three days if you want to explore the abundant remains of this culture that began blossoming 3,500 years ago. Poke around areas with petroglyphs resembling helmeted spacemen, a football field's worth of intricately painted pottery shards (some with the potter's fingerprints), and ancient homes and rock shelters such as the River House. But don't forget the rapids. These Class II rides—like Eight-Foot Rapid, whose name billboards the distance you'll drop—offer plenty of fun as you work your way from Bluff to Mexican Hat, camping on sandy beaches at night. Along the way, you'll paddle through a geology lesson that gets especially interesting when you reach the 1,300-foot limestone canyon walls known as the "Gooseneck of the San Juan." Here the river makes 12 miles worth of snaky oxbow turns, in a distance covering only three miles as the crow flies. Centennial Canoe Outfitters charges $400 per person for a three-day trip, no discount for children (877-353-1850; www.centennialcanoe.com).

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