Exposed sandbars on the lower river serve as great spots to beach the 'yak and eat lunch. Photo by Tom Richardson

Flowing through the Rhode Island towns of North Kingstown, South Kingstown and Narragansett, the Narrow River (originally the Pettaquamscutt River) is a great paddling destination. Even intermediate kayakers and caneoists can easily paddle its entire 6-mile length, from Carr Pond to Rhode Island Sound, in a single day.

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    The river, which is tidal for much of its length, begins at the Gilbert Stuart Birthplace Museum. Across the street you’ll find a dirt parking lot and a narrow path leading to the river (actually more of a creek at this point).

    SAT map

    Looking at this shallow trickle of water, you’d never guess that the Narrow River supports one of the largest runs of river herring in the state (although the number of returning fish has declined significantly in the last decade). Each spring, thousands of adult herring and alewives manage to struggle up the fish ladder alongside the mill dam and into Carr Pond, where they spawn on the sand-and-gravel bottom. In the fall, juvenile herring leave the pond and make their way back to the ocean.

    The Gilbert Stuart Birthplace Museum, a former snuff mill, marks the river's headwaters. Photo by Tom Richardson

    Just a few hundred feet downstream, the river opens into Upper Pond, the shorter (1/2 mile long) and wider of 2 ponds along the upper river that were carved by a glacier some 18,000 years ago. The ponds have surprising depths, up to 45 feet in Upper Pond and 60 feet in Lower Pond‚ given their small size. The water here is stratified, with a top layer of fresh water covering denser salt water below. Deeper still is a layer of anoxic water where no oxygen-breathing creature can survive and where biologists have discovered the presence of a rare phytoplankton.

    Paddlers should note that a stiff headwind can make crossing the open water of the ponds difficult. Watch the wind forecast and plan accordingly.

    The sylvan banks of the river are home to many species of birds, including turkey vultures. Photo by Tom Richardson

    At the extreme southern end of Upper Pond you’ll find a narrow channel leading to Lower Pond, which is roughly 1 1/4 miles long and about a 1/4-mile wide. Paddlers and other trailerboaters can launch on the pond’s west bank at LaFarge Point Park, which offers a small paved ramp and courtesy float at the end of Walmsley Lane. On the east side of the pond, there are put-ins off Indian Trail and Woodsia Road. Both spots offer limited parking.

    At the southern end of Lower Pond, the channel narrows to 200 feet or so as it flows below Lacey Bridge, the first of 3 bridges spanning the river. Below the bridge, the river becomes even more constricted and its shoreline more developed, with numerous small homes and cottages crowding both banks, their lawns extending to the water’s edge. You’ll also start to notice more tidal influence at this part of the river. There is a small right-of-way at the end of Pettaquamscutt Avenue, on the east bank of the river just below the bridge, that may be used to launch small boats and kayaks. Parking is limited along the street.

    The lower river is a prime spot for striper fishing. Photo by Tom Richardson

    After roughly a mile, the river widens again, becoming shallower and less developed. Broad meadows of cordgrass spread out on either side, and you’ll detect the scent of salt marsh detritus. In summer and fall, terns flit and hover over the shallows and baitfish dimple the surface near mudbanks sprinkled with ribbed mussels and oysters. On the river’s west bank, about a 1/2-mile north of Middle Bridge, is a good, free access point with parking for 20 vehicles at the end of Mitchell Avenue, off Middlebridge Road. This is a concrete-slab ramp suitable for small powerboats.

    The next landmark is Middle Bridge, a popular spot among fishermen (watch out for their lines as you pass). At the eastern end of the bridge is small shingled building—home of Narrow River Kayaks, which offers kayak and canoe rentals, as well as guided trips along the river. This is also a convenient put-in spot if you want to start your trip farther along the river, although you’ll have to pay a small parking fee at the kayak shop. You can also launch for free on the other side of the river, just below the bridge, where you may be able to find parking along Middlebridge Road.

    A skiff fishermen works the waters just below Sprague Bridge. Photo by Tom Richardson

    South of Middle Bridge, broad mudflats and sandbars can make navigation tricky at low tide, especially for powerboaters. This area has been subject to severe shoaling, and an ambitious dredging project by the Army Corps of Engineers is scheduled to begin within the next few years.

    Just above Sprague Bridge (scenic Rt. 1A), where the main channel makes a sharp bend to the east, is a big, shallow sandbar that’s exposed at low tide and makes a good spot to stretch your legs and eat lunch. Immediately to the south is Pettaquamscutt Cove, part of the 317-acre John H. Chafee National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge, established in 1988, provides habitat for over 200 coastal species, including the largest population of black ducks in Rhode Island. Pettaquamscutt Cove is a paddling destination in itself, and is best accessed by launching at Sprague Bridge. You’ll find access to the lower river and the cove, along with free parking, on either side of this bridge.

    Mute swans are common along the river, and can often be aggressive toward kayakers. Photo by Tom Richardson

    As you pass below Sprague Bridg you’ll enter a sluiceway of tidal rapids and shallow bars leading to the river mouth, 3/4-mile east. There is great fishing for striped bass and sometimes bluefish along this stretch of the river, which features deep holes and channels, as well as undercut banks and lots of current flow. Just about 1500 feet east of the bridge, at a spot called the Narrows, is a side channel that branches off to the north. Hug the north bank and you’ll enter this smaller waterwayl, which offers paddlers a scenic and peaceful detour to the inlet, and also keeps you clear of powerboat traffic.

    The mouth of the river is about 3/4 of a mile below Sprague Bridge. The sandy northern tip of Narragansett Beach abuts the southern side of the inlet, offering a great spot for boaters and kayakers to beach their craft and enjoy a picnic or a swim during the summer. Boulders and granite ledge form the northern side of the inlet. Note that the river mouth can be dangerous when an ebb tide is dumping into the ocean against a stiff easterly wind. Many boaters and swimmers have found themselves in trouble here, so use extreme caution. If you’re new to the river, plan to navigate the mouth at slack tide.

    The Narrow River makes a great day trip for kayakers of all skill levels. Photo by Tom Richardson