In quiet stretches where the river is sluggish, we paddle for a while. At other times we let the canoe drift along with the slow-moving current. From the stern I steer as we proceed down the gentle Battenkill, a river flowing from southern Vermont into New York state. Eventually, it empties into the Hudson River north of Troy, N.Y.
As we canoe through southern Vermont south of Manchester, we pass occasional flycasters seeking trout, for the Battenkill is a famous fishing stream. Sunny meadows border the river; then we come upon a small settlement with a white clapboard church. Off to our right is the 3,835-foot summit of Mount Equinox.
As we coast downstream, the river leaves the broad valley and hangs a right westward toward the Vermont-New York border.
Now the Battenkill is shadier, trees bordering the banks. Occasionally, we see a house; a dirt road parallels the river on our left. Passing under a covered bridge in East Arlington, we come upon a swimming hole. There's a soggy bank with bicycles, inner tubes and children. Normally the Battenkill is shallow, but here it's deep enough for swimming and just wide enough for a few strokes bank to bank.
My wife, Phyllis, and I are enjoying our first taste of flatwater river canoeing, a growing sport in both Vermont and New Hampshire, and not to be confused with heart-throbbing, white-water canoeing down turbulent rivers and over rapids.
In a van with two 16-foot Blue Hole canoes atop, we were driven to a river ramp and put in the water. We're given a little advice: stay calm, don't grab overhanging branches, use life jackets if you can't swim, give anglers a wide berth and enjoy! Our houseguests Shawn and Liliane share another rented canoe; they'll play tag with us for the next five hours. Both canoes have a mimeographed map of the river with our pullout spot clearly marked. At 6 p.m. the van will pick us up there, just over the line in New York.
Like all canoe renters, we've been screened. We have done a little canoeing before and all of us swim. If we were rank beginners, canoe renters would have suggested (probably even insisted) that we take along a guide who would instruct us as well as accompany us downstream.
Eventually we leave civilization behind and pass through stretches of river with little sign of human life. Birds are plentiful. Occasionally a field drifts by and sometimes we see campers with tents, folding chairs and propane stoves.
Often there's no sound except that rippling of the current and the sucking sounds our paddles make in the water. In a few places the river is so shallow we actually get out of the canoe and, ankle deep on pebbly rocks, coax the canoe through to higher water. The canoe is made of Royalex plastic and is not hot in the afternoon sun.
Suddenly we round a shady bend, the river broadens, and -- eureka! there's a sunstruck sandbar ahead, the perfect spot for a swim and lunch. We beach the canoes and have our bread, cheese and fruit. Liliane and Shawn have wine. Liliane, born in France, teaches French around Boston. Few meals are complete to many French (even a mid-stream summer picnic) without a sip of wine.
An hour later, just inside New York, the Battenkill sweeps under another covered bridge and enters a remote area away from roads, settlements, campers. Here, quietly coasting downriver, we stop our chatter and try to pick up any sounds of civilization, maybe even a distant farm tractor.
There are none whatever until the spell is broken by the drone of a twin-jet prop overhead. An aviation buff, I identify the plane as a Short SD-3 on the Burlington-to-Albany run and am razzed by three people for knowing this when I should be scanning sky and treetops for bullfinches.
We arrive a half-hour late at our pullout meeting place, but Jim and Jo Ann Walker of Battenkill Canoe Livery aren't upset; they're used to this. Sometimes canoeists wait an hour to be picked up.
Jim is a weekend ski instructor in the winter as well as an accomplished potter. Jo Ann, too, has a double life: a Boston-based flight attendant for Delta, she manages to have enough days off to keep a hand in their growing canoe rental business.
Their Vermont shop is on Route 7A near the Basket Barn in Sunderland. This year the Walkers have about 45 canoes on hand and will do more guided wilderness camping.
Canoes on top, all of us in the van, we are driven back to Arlington, where we left our car at the canoe rental. Total river mileage: 14. Cost: $42.50 for each canoe including the livery service. We could have done it less expensively if we'd lashed the canoes to the top of one car, left another at the pullout spot.
The next day our arms ached a wee bit, one person has a sunburned nose, another a few mosquito bites, but how can such trivialities compare with the summer experience we had?
All over Vermont, it seems, near streams, lakes, and even wilderness ponds, canoe rental shops are springing up just as bike rental places did in the '70s.
Cyclists use leg power, canoeists arm power. Each sport has its adherents. Canoeists will tell you they see a more bucolic countryside, especially in places where birds and gurgling water are the only sounds; sometimes one sees startled deer who've come to the river for a drink. Cyclists may see the countryside slowly on a 10-speed, goes the argument, but one has the identical view from a car.
Sometimes the two groups meet at New England inns, for canoe renters now are developing two-, three-, and four-day tours, canoeing by day and staying in New England inns at night. Expect to pay about $300 each for a three-day river cruise with all meals and accommodations, plus canoe rental.
The one question prospective canoe renters always ask is: How safe is flatwater canoeing? Not at all like white-water; still, renters are careful. Most screen out novices and suggest they carry a guide with them.
A river, of course, is a moving thing with a life of its own. After a summer storm, it can run fast. At other times canoe bottoms may scrape against stone or even submerged trees.
Under good conditions, gliding a canoe (some call the sport canoe floating) downstream on a stretch of water rated as Class I is hardly challenging, but I can't think of a better way to spend a summer's day in Vermont.
If you go . . .
Besides the daytrip on the Battenkill described, canoe outfitters offer longer canoe adventures. Battenkill Canoe has a five-day (Monday to Friday) Vermont Sampler using several rivers, including the Winooski, the Lamoille and the White. Overnights are at Vermont inns. This five-day trip is available for 11 weeks, ending in mid-October. (You haven't seen fall foliage until you've see it from the quiet of a river!)
Two- and three-day trips also are offered. Battenkill Canoe Ltd.: Box 65, Arlington, Vt. 05250; telephone (802) 362-2800 or (800) 421-5268.
For a list of other canoe outfitters in the Green Mountain State write for the folder "Summer Canoe Trips in Vermont" and the folder "Boating in Vermont," both available, along with a free road map, from Vermont Travel Division, 134 State St., Montpelier, Vt. 05602; telephone (802) 828-3236.
In the northern part of Vermont, inquire of Heidi Krantz and her company UMIAK, outfitters for the outdoors.
This experienced company, located near Stowe, also has a canoe rental and livery business. UMIAK: Route 1, Box 2199, Moretown, Vt. 05660; telephone (802) 253-2317.