WALPOLE, N.H. — The Connecticut River Conservancy is hosting a “portage parade” on Saturday to draw attention to what the organization characterizes as needed upgrades to portage routes.
Great River Hydro owns the Bellows Falls and Vernon dams in Vermont and the Wilder Dam in West Lebanon, New Hampshire.
In December, Great River Hydro and Massachusetts hydro operator FirstLight Power both applied for renewed operating licenses for five hydro facilities in New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts. Together, these five hydro facilities impound water along more than 175 miles of the Connecticut River.
Once issued, the licenses will be in place for the next 30 to 50 years.
“Hydro companies are required to accommodate for recreation as part of their operating licenses, but hydroelectric facilities like the Bellows Falls Dam create obstacles to river recreation,” said River Steward Kathy Urffer.
At the Bellows Falls Dam, paddlers must pull their watercraft out of the water and walk one-and-a-half-miles to get around the dam.
During the walk, paddlers are expected to walk on the sidewalk and cross the road several times, said Urffer.
“A better alternative would be to have a walkable portage through the town of Bellows Falls to allow through-paddlers to stop for lunch or coffee, or to pick up supplies, and provide a van service to pick up paddlers and the gear and drive them to the put-in below the dam.”
In addition to the River Conservancy, representatives from the Appalachian Mountain Club and American White Water will be at the parade, which starts at 11 a.m. at Pine Street Boat Launch at 11 Pine St. in Walpole.
“River advocates will highlight recreation investments Great River Hydro should be making as part of their new operating license being finalized now,” said Urffer.
Urffer said functional and effective access to rivers is a boost to quality of life and the local economy and portages around these dams allow for full recreational use of the Connecticut River.
“As we learned during the pandemic, access to the outdoors is important and has positive health implications,” she said. “Recreation resources designed for the 21st century will benefit local residents and attract more people to the region who utilize outdoor outfitters, restaurants, hotels, and BnBs, thereby supporting the recreational economy of our river towns.”
Urffer said the portage at the Wilder Dam on the river between West Lebanon, N.H., and Wilder is just one-quarter of a mile, but access can be made better by installing a boat slide and improving the existing stairs.
At Vernon Dam, between Vernon and Hinsdale, N.H., where the walk is a few tenths longer than one-quarter of a mile, the portage is very steep, she said.
“Paddlers are pulling out where trash accumulates at the boom before the dam and then need to bring their boat up a gravel driveway,” said Urffer. “The addition of a boat slide would help.”
Other recommendations include enhancing the signage, clarifying parking, repairing the portage trails for safety, posting signage about water releases from the dams, and maintaining year-round picnic-area parking.