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A Current Look at Canoeing Through Vermont

August 27, 1989|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

WAITSFIELD, Vt. — White water laced the current of the Mad River, spraying over the rim of our inflatable canoe. A twist of the surging water and suddenly we were looking into the golds of Vermont's fall foliage.

Most visitors come to tour these river valleys and wooded hills by car or bicycle, but increasingly the blending of white water with wondrous views of autumn has become a popular choice.

Whenever my wife and I head east for the fall foliage, we have to make the difficult decision of whether to bring our inflatable canoe, tandem bicycle or both on visits that often become tours of New England.

But if packing a deflated inflatable into a duffel bag isn't part of your own travel style, Canoe USA, a wholly owned affiliate of Mad River Canoe, is continuing into autumn its full schedule of summer tours in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

You won't have to inflate or deflate the canoes. They are of special Mad River design, with fiberglass added to the handcrafted hulls. You can paddle solo or as a twosome in tours limited to a maximum of 12 guests. Visitors can bring their own canoes, as long as they meet safety standards.

The canoeing tours cover half a dozen rivers, from the Mad to the tree-lined Ompompanoosuc, and provide swift water panoramas of maple, aspen, elm and birch leaves in shimmering patterns of crimsons and golds.

The two- and three-day Winooski River Tours are themed to swift water canoeing. They are based in Waitsfield at the Lareau Farm Country Inn, which dates to a farming homestead beside the Mad River in 1790.

From the front porch you walk about a hundred yards across the lawn and beside fields contained by a neat white fence. The downstream run begins at what is known as the Lareau Swimming Hole.

The Mad is swift and exciting this year, surging about a dozen miles north with two short portages, before flowing into the mainstream Winooski River.

The Winooski cuts west between Vermont's highest peak, Mt. Mansfield at 4,393 feet, and Camel's Hump, which is just below it in altitude.

The swift current carves its way through a rock-walled gorge where geological studies have helped determine that the Winooski is one of the oldest rivers on Earth, dating back at least 5 million years.

Shooting the tumbling white water, just before reaching the gorge, is exhilarating. As soon as you finish the rampaging run and emerge into calmer waters, guides help you portage your canoe back upstream so you can test yourself against its challenges again and again, each time improving your white-water skills.

The gorge opens into farmlands framed by woodland hills ablaze with fall colors.

The Winooski also surges past Montpelier, state capital of Vermont. It's the smallest capital city in the nation, with a population of 9,000. The classic Statehouse, patterned after the Grecian temple of Theseus, has a golden dome silhouetted against the glowing foliage of the hill country.

The setting of the Lareau Farm Country Inn puts you in a mood for both the beauty of autumn and adventures on the Mad River. The original farmhouse was built in 1832.

Innkeepers at the Lareau Farm Country Inn are Dan Easley and his wife Susan. Dan has been taking advantage of the high waters by tubing the Mad, which visitors are welcome to try with him. Swift water/foliage Canoe USA tours on the Mad and Winooski are set for Sept. 8-10 and 13-15, and Oct. 6-9, over the Columbus Day weekend.

Rates are $319 for the two-day canoe trips, $459 for three days. The package prices are per person, double occupancy. Packages include country inn meals, noon picnics, taxes and gratuities.

All tour leaders are accomplished paddlers. During the first evening at the inn, an introductory session is a briefing and a chance to get acquainted with fellow paddlers.

The first morning begins with on-the-water demonstrations of basic paddling strokes and safety techniques. Paddles are adapted to calm as well as white water. Life vests are selected for maximum comfort in paddling. Shuttle vans accompany each tour.

For staying on your own at Lareau Farm Country Inn, autumn prices for its 14 rooms are $40 to $45 per person, double occupancy, including breakfast. Call (802) 496-4949.

Vermont's Battenkill River, flowing west into the Hudson River, is another swift-water Canoe USA tour that will be swifter than ever because of this summer's rains. Quiet water sections give opportunities for instruction before entering the faster current.

Pasturelands in mountain valleys are framed by the glories of autumn. Birds, frogs and crickets join the serenade of rippling waters.

Hill Farm Inn beside the Battenkill, near Arlington, is a centerpiece of this tour. A red barn and silver silo accent the inn, which began as two farmhouses in the early 1800s. Meals are served around a large oak table, while a crackling fire takes away any chill that may linger from swift-water splashing.

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