The entire Deerfield River holds a very special place in my heart, as you may already know if you watched the first season of NRS’s “My Home Run Series,” where the main branch of the Deerfield is featured. This time, I want to share my love for the West Branch of the Deerfield River in Readsboro, 1.8 miles down the hill from my house.
It’s a classic Vermont IV/V creek that has had a few flood-related changes over the 18 years I’ve been paddling it, but the character has stayed the same. A beautiful piece of whitewater with awesome boofs, flowy drops, bouldery s-turns, and the iconic “Tunnel Vision” rapid.
The West Branch’s water begins on the slopes of Prospect Mountain, a former downhill ski area in Woodford, Vermont, now a premier XC center. It rambles through marshes and beaver ponds in the woods north of Readsboro (my hometown) until it organizes into the “Upper” West Branch, a fun, three-mile Class III-IV section that runs along a forest road used mainly by four-wheelers, snowmobilers and hikers. When the West Branch is too high, we often paddle this section.
The river collects more water at the base of Readsboro’s Dutch Hill, a defunct, ‘80s-era family ski area that recently found new life as a back-country destination, thanks largely to a grant and the hard work of some local folks. After another mile or so of flats and ponds, the “Middle Section” starts a few hundred feet north of the end of my road on Rt 100. This section is short, around a mile. It’s a great Class II-III run with some fun surf waves, perfect for a quick solo lunch run. It finishes just above Readsboro Falls, a 50/50 drop that marks the official start of the West Branch.
I started running the West Branch in 2004, and can still remember how scared I felt and how exhilarated I was at the take-out. I felt like I accomplished something really big in my life, something I had worked toward and dreamt of for years. Those first run remains some of my favorites. I had faced something that scared me and gave it my all because I knew that I belonged there.
That’s the great thing about paddling: it can actually change you, not just as a paddler but as a person. I’ll be honest, no matter how many times I’ve run the West Branch, I still get butterflies walking to the put-in. I know every line like the back of my hand, but I don’t take for granted how it can smack me down quickly and completely.
I’m lucky to be a part of a great community of local boaters. It’s honestly not just about the paddling, but the people you get to share it with that makes it all the better. In my early days, I was paddling with my husband Jeff, my very close buddies Phil, Kaz, and Freddy, all of whom I looked up to as paddlers and who helped shape who I am as a paddler today. Later, I was paddling with Porter, Carl, and our very dear friend Will Timpson, may he rest in peace. We would all just drop everything and rally when the WB was running.
Then there’s the group I paddle with currently: Sara, Jim, Belanger, Steve, and Tino. We all work full-time now (even me!) but do our best to get out as much as possible. It’s been amazing to watch some of the “kids,” like Elliot and Reilly, grow to be amazing paddlers and great young men.
The run is mostly roadside, easy to walk/scout but still beautiful and scenic. It requires rain or snow to run, and the gauge is located at the bridge by the Readsboro General Store, where you can get gas, yummy food, and baked goods. There is enough cell service in town to check your email or make work calls while you wait for shuttle—a bonus for us full-time workers. The General Store is where most people take out now, thanks to me (haha).
You can continue another half mile downstream, which lets you run Low Chair, the rapid right after the bridge. It’s pretty manky, with one nasty sieve. Just downstream, the West Branch joins the main branch of the Deerfield, but it will likely be pretty scrappy, as the main Deerfield only runs when the dam is releasing.
To check the gauge, stand on the bridge. On river right, a rock is painted with the feet in white. If you’re desperate, you can run it at low levels, from -1 through a foot. The drops have ok flow, the boogie water sucks, but it’s doable. A foot and a half on the gauge is when it starts to get good. My favorite levels are two to four feet, which is considered medium. Everything is flowy and cushioned. It starts to get pushy at five and six feet—I consider that medium-high. Seven feet and above is high.
Zoar Outdoor can give you beta, check American Whitewater, or hit me up on Facebook. I live close enough that I can roll out of bed and check the gauge in just a few minutes, and I routinely check around 8 AM to let people know if it’s running. If it’s running, in two hours or so, we will be paddling and then back at my desk like I never left.
I’m 42 and hoping to paddle the West Branch well into my late fifties and maybe even sixties. When it’s not running, I love going there to fly-fish for brook trout or taking Bow, our dog, to romp around. It’s just so peaceful.
Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Kayak Session Issue #85.