Paddling Around, Over, and Under the Dams of Medway


Starting the siege of the Charles River

We knew this would be a difficult stretch of the Charles River. The Medway section of Charles River has two man-made dams: the West Medway dam and the Sanford Mill dam. And we were far enough upstream that we could encounter other obstacles in the thinner water.

West Medway Dam

West Medway Dam

It turns out there were lots of obstacles.

The first obstacle was getting onto the river. We wanted to put in just downstream from the Caryville Dam in Bellingham by the Medway border. After the dam, the river rushes under Pearl Street and into the bowels of an abandoned factory. It’s not clear what the river encounters in that dark tunnel under the factory. Even if you want to find out, you can’t get close. The factory is surrounded by a chainlink fence blocking all access to the river. It looks like there are some good spots to put in at the rear of the building, but the fencing blocks access.

Around the corner on Plain Street, there is an empty lot owned by the town. But there is no path down to the river. You have to hack through trees and undergrowth down a steep embankment. It’s covered in poison ivy. Under the poison ivy is a deep coating of debris, broken glass, and trash. It’s a nasty place to start a kayak trip.

After finally getting in the river, we immediately hit obstacles on the river. There were dozens of trees down in the river. Some we could limbo under. Some we could squeeze around.

Then we encountered big trees completely blocking the river. The first one was so big we got out onto the mostly submerged tree trunk and hauled the kayak over the obstacle. The next big one was three trunks in a row. The Boy hopped out on the first trunk, made his way to the riverbank, walked downstream and walked out onto the third log while I wrestled the kayak over the obstacles.

At the next fallen tree we finally realized something else was at work. There was a long line of logs and smaller branches forming a dam across the river. Off to the side I saw a mound of smaller branches. Beavers!

The riverbanks were very swampy in this area so there was no easy way around. The drop over the dam looked to be no more than two feet, so we decided to go over. We buckled down the dry bags and flew over the drop.


The result of Beavers hard at work

Now we knew what to look for. As we encountered more fallen trees we could spot the telltale gnaw marks of beavers hard at work. From the look of things there will be several more trees falling in the river soon.


Beavers at work

Eventually, the river widened and slacked. This was a sure sign that there was big dam ahead and more likely man-made instead of beaver-made. The river forked. I had to check the map for directions in the slack water. Mine Brook entered from the right.

We quickly came upon the West Medway dam. You can see large stone blocks on the left bank, the site of the old mill. It’s a short portage on the right side of the dam, with a short stretch through the fast water tumbling over the dam.

A dam was first built on this site in 1812. It mostly powered paper mills.

Then it was back to more beaver dams. Or maybe they were just fallen trees. Regardless, we started blaming all of the obstacles on beavers.

Soon we encountered the big rock, a large white rock in the middle of the river. The river widened and slowed. The Sanford Mill dam was just ahead.

Built on the site of the White Mill which burned in 1881, the Sanford Mill was built through the finances and efforts of Milton H. Sanford. Mr. Sanford would become one of the Medway’s greatest benefactors. Sanford owned wool and cotton mills which manufactured blankets for the Union Army during the American Civil War. The mill was later owned by the Fabyan family of New York, and became known as the Fabyan Mill. John Reardon of Medway and later the Reardon family operated it as a textile mill for many years, and around 1990, the building was converted to condominiums. Before it closed, it was one of only a few textile mills still operating in New England.


Sanford Mill Dam

It is a long portage around the dam. Long enough that my Paddle Boy wheels fell apart. That was disappointing result after only having the Paddle Boy for two weeks.

Downstream is long stretch of rapids. It’s a fun stretch of river.

Of course, after the river left the rapids we encountered more fallen trees. Eventually, we saw a large treeless expanse ahead. We were closing in on Populatic Pond. After a few twists and turns we splashed into that wide open expanse of water.


Populatic Pond


Our route:

Medway Dams