The Zoar Score: Top 5 River Trips Around the Zoar Outdoor Center


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Whether you’re rafting, stand-up paddleboarding or kayaking–and into a Class I float or Class IV thrills–you’ll hit nirvana in the Northeast around Charlemont, Mass., just a two hour’s drive from Boston. With releases on the Deerfield River and rain feeding other nearby waterways, the watery wonderland outside the Zoar Outdoor Center offers something for paddlers of all strokes.

Visit in the fall when autumn’s blazing colors reflect off the river and you might not want to leave. For information, gear and guided trips, contact the Zoar Outdoor Center, owned by former U.S. Slalom Team member Bruce Lessels who authored the quintessential guidebook to the region. Following are five favorite waterways to put on your hit list. For release details, visit

Zoar Gap

From Fife Brook Dam in Florida, Mass., to the Number 4 dam in Buckland, the Deerfield River flows unimpeded for 17 miles as one of the most popular whitewater runs in the Northeast. Perfect for kayakers, canoeists and rafters, the run starts out with easy surfing waves, large eddies and playful splashes before such Class II rapids as Hangover Helper and Freight Train. En route you’ll pass the stone walls of historic old mill sites as well as an old railroad bridge leading to the entrance of the Hoosac Tunnel, at one time the nation’s longest tunnel at 25,000 feet. But keep your eye on the water as up next comes Class III Zoar Gap (scout from river right; and watch out for O.S. Rock), a raucous rapid five miles downstream from the dam, and mile-and-a-half-long Class II Pinball, riddled with boulders and eddies. Take out at numerous spots from here on out, or run as much as 12 more miles, where you’re likely to see such birds as red tail hawks, ospreys, bald eagles and blue herons. For a milder whitewater run, put-in in Charlemont at the Shunpike rest area for six miles of easy Class I-II water. Note: the next day’s release level is available after 5 p.m. each day, and it takes water about two hours to reach Zoar Gap from the dam.

The Dryway

The Dryway is one of the great relicensing success stories of New England. De-watered until 1991, it now has 32 water releases per season, creating a perfect Class III-IV run for intermediate and advanced paddlers. After putting in at Monroe Bridge or just below the town center, the action kicks in right away with the Class III wave trains of Factory Rapid. After some more Class II-III water filled with surfing waves comes Class IV Split Hair, or Governor’s, Rapid (note: avoid Split Hair rock in the center, and the pourover on river left at the bottom). A playhole in Judy’s Hole then leads into Class IV Left Turn (hint: easiest line is on the left). Take a rest at Dunbar Brook on the right before readying for its namesake rapid, as well as such drops as Pine Tree (AKA False Tooth) and Dragon’s Tooth, which you run right to left to avoid a large hole halfway down. Labyrinth comes next, which, when not flooded by the Bear Swamp reservoir, marks the section’s longest rapid, culminating in a hole is named Terminator. Get through it all to the takeout accessed by the Dunbar Brook Picnic Area road, and you, too, will be saying, “I’ll be back.”

Post-paddle hot spots: Located at 31 Main Street in Charlemont, the Cold River Café offers great breakfast, lunch and dinner. Also try Mohawk Park Pub and Restaurant at 559 Tea Street, with a sports bar on one side and restaurant on the other. For pizza, hit Berkshire Pizzeria at 72 Main Street for awesome thin crust pizza by the slice to go.

Millers River

Rising in the hills of southern New Hampshire, the Millers River winds through oak and pine forests alternating with old mill towns. The most popular whitewater stretch starts in Erving, Mass., and finishes at French King Gorge on Connecticut River. The first Class II-III rapid is marked by a low railroad bridge, after which the river leaves the road. From here things get more interesting, with several Class IIIs leading up to Class IV Funnel, whose large, breaking waves blast through a narrow portion of a deep wooded gorge. You can take out at the Route 2 rest area or a few miles downstream at the first bridge in Millers Falls. For a longer trip, paddle all the bird-filled way to the Connecticut River and take out at an old bridge near the confluence. The Millers season is generally in April when the snow melts and rains come, and it can sometimes run into May and June.
Post-paddle hot spots: Hit the Wagon Wheel Restaurant at 39 French King Highway for great breakfast, sandwiches, platters and post-paddle ice cream. For libations, try People’s Pint at 24 Federal Street, a family-friendly brewpub serving housemade drafts, sodas and traditional pub fare.

North River

This 2.5-mile-long river stretch out of Colrain, Mass., flows naturally, so check the gauge after a rainstorm (four feet is ideal). Put in at the second bridge north of Shelburne Falls on Route 112 North, and beware of strainers on the opening Class I-II section. When you start to see houses, be cautious of Class IV Old Mill Rapid and its undercut wall on the right (note: portage on the left). Next up comes a string of Class IIs, filled with wave trains and playful holes, before a house overlooking the river on the left signals a larger rapid with a large, undercut boulder just right of center. When you paddle under a large arching bridge at the confluence of the Deerfield River, you’re at the take-out, where a short trail on the right leads up to your car.

Post-paddle hot spots: Try the Blue Rock Restaurant and bar, at a new location at 1 Ashfield Street in Shelburne Falls; or the West End Pub at 16 State Street, which overlooks the Deerfield River.

West Branch of the Deerfield River

This classic Class IV-V creek run changed drastically after Hurricane Irene, but the rapids are more or less the same. Running in the spring and after major rainstorms (note: 0 on the Readsboro General Store gauge is low; 2-3 ideal; and 4-5 gets pushy). To get to the put-in, drive north on Route 100 through Readsboro to a grassy pull-off at Reasboro Falls. While you can run the double drop of Readsboro Falls, most people put seal launch below on river right or hike through the brush on river left. Get ready for instant action, with read-and-run Class IV right out of the gate. Portage a new sieve above the first bridge on river right, and then scout the next section, which changes with water levels and contains three Class IV-Vs. When you see the road, get ready for Tunnel Falls, usually run on the right, as well as rock-strewn, Class V Tunnel Vision, the biggest rapid on the run. More Class IV boogie water follows before a bridge separates High Chair and Low Chair, both of which have caused many a swim. You can take out at the Readsboro General Store to bypass Low Chair and shallower sections below. You’ll reach the regular takeout as the road comes back into view on the right (note: many paddlers park at the Welcome to Readsboro sign).

Post-paddle hot spots: After your run on the West Branch, swing by the Readsboro Inn at 7077 Main Street for great pizza and brews. On the way there, hit Always Emmas Café at 6998 Main for amazing muffins and breakfast

Staff Post
Staff Post
Paddlers writing about all things paddling.


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