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A Unique River

Updated: Jun 6, 2022

By: Scott Mabel

For New England’s whitewater paddlers, the Warner River is a bit different.

Most of the rivers that New England whitewater boaters paddle often are relatively big and broad. Among the commonly run rivers in Central New Hampshire, the nearby Contoocook (“Took”) between Hillsboro and Henniker loses 54’ per mile, and is relatively wide. The Winnipesaukee (“Winni”) river in Franklin flows past some interesting bridges and mill ruins. (The Mill City whitewater park is set to open on the Winni later in 2021). It drops a bit steeper 84’ per mile, but it’s also fairly wide. Both the Took and Winni have some shallow spots, but also have obvious main channels that are plenty deep. And both of those rivers are pretty straight-forward; it’s usually easy for whitewater kayakers, canoeists, and rafters to see what’s coming up next.

But the Warner is different. It’s fairly shallow -- maybe three or four feet or less in most places and water levels. The water color is dark, likely due to the wetlands that help form the upper watershed, filtering the water through dirt and vegetation. And the first mile is fairly steep (over 86’ per mile) and narrow, requiring a bit of advanced skill since boaters need to stop to check each rapid before running it. They can scout from shore or from their boats (or a combination), but a look is needed to make sure no trees or anything has blocked the route.

Not only do boaters see remnants of the river’s historic industrial use, but they float right over and through several dams (old and new) and bridge abutments. Paddling through the sluice dam is a highlight of the Warner River for a lot of paddlers, not to mention a great spot for photos. Below the sluice dam are several old bridge abutments, plus the Swain Lowell dam further down river.

Ideal water levels for whitewater boating are most common in the Spring. Trips usually start around the Melvin Mills area, where boaters quickly hit the steep gorge just before East Roby District Road. Sometimes we repeat “laps” of the gorge, while other trips extend a few miles further to the Waterloo covered bridge.

Boaters from New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Maine commonly make the Warner a destination, or combine it with a run on the ‘Took. An informal survey showed that they particularly enjoy the industrial aspects of the river, the narrow width, and relative difficulty.

In short, we enjoy the Warner because it’s unique.

Patrick Morrow entering and Ed Kydd exiting the Sluice Dam. Other boaters scouting the drop. Photos by David Horgan.

Scott Mabel (author) gets a ride in “Meltdown Hole” in the Warner Gorge

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