Popular canoe, kayak paddles in Milford

Milford offers many options for people who enjoy kayaking and canoeing. Three recommended areas for enjoyable paddles in relatively calm waters are the Charles E. Wheeler Wildlife Management Area, the Housatonic River north of the railroad tracks, and the combination of Gulf Pond, the Indian River and Milford Harbor.

Before discussing specifics of where to paddle, a safety review is in order. Paddle with someone else. Know how to do a wet exit and re-entry. Pay attention to weather conditions. When paddling, always wear a zipped lifejacket, which is more properly known as a personal flotation device (PFD).

Statistics from the U.S. Coast Guard are startlingly clear. According to the report “2016 Recreational Boating Statistics,” of the 509 people nationwide who died of drowning from any form of boating, 404 were not wearing life jackets. Of those total deaths, 130 involved people who were in a canoe or kayak. The report does not indicate what number of paddling deaths involved people who were not wearing life jackets.

Now for the disclaimer part of the article. I am providing information based on my 12 years of safely leading paddling trips for the Appalachian Mountain Club and the New Haven Hiking Club. Anyone planning to use this information should bring with them a chart or map of the area. They should honestly assess their abilities to navigate these waters as I have described them.

All of these trips are dependent on tides, so use a tide table, and plan to launch 60 to 90 minutes before HIGH tide. This will insure you have sufficient water for your trip. A suggested online source is https://tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov/

For people just getting started who want a truly protected place to paddle, the nearest option is Lake Wintergreen at West Rock Ridge State Park in Hamden where there are no powerboats, no currents, and no way of getting lost.
Wheeler Salt Marsh
The best beginner paddling location in Milford is the Wheeler salt marsh. This area receives minimal powerboat traffic and is a no wake zone. The water is usually smooth, but can get slightly choppy in the more open areas closer to the Long Island Sound. Start from the state boat launch off Court Street.

Heading north from the launch, it is 0.65 miles to Beaver Brook and 1.45 miles to the end of the navigable water at Naugatuck Avenue. Looping down toward the Connecticut Aubudon Coastal Center at Milford Point and back to the launch gives a five-mile circuit. As a reminder, paddlers are not permitted to land at the center, and cannot launch from the center unless taking part in an Audubon-sponsored trip.

Completing the circuit is most easily navigated by going out into the Housatonic River to connect the two main channels in the marsh. Between boat wakes and the wind, the river can be a bouncy ride.

The challenge of this trip comes from navigating through the numerous channels that comprise the marsh. Paddlers can get seriously lost in these winding passageways, some of which abruptly come to an end. For easiest navigation, stick to the main channels.

Paddling within two hours on either side of high tide is essential, otherwise paddlers risk getting stuck in the mud. There are strong currents near the mouth of the river, so be cautious near this junction with the marsh.
Housatonic River
Another good place to paddle is the Housatonic River, starting from the launch adjacent to Caswell Cove Marina on Caswell Street. Be sure to park in the city-owned area beyond the launch.

This section of the river receives little powerboat traffic, especially in the morning. Powerboats tend to follow the Stratford side of the river where the water is deeper. In my experience, powerboats in this area are often courteous toward paddlers, slowing down and moving away when they see kayaks.

From Caswell Cove, the best paddling is heading north where the Milford-Orange side of the river is generally wooded. Going to the Sikorsky Bridge and back is a 4.5-mile loop.

For those looking for more distance, the Sunnyside Boat Launch in Shelton is a good destination, and gives a 12-mile loop. Launch 60 minutes before high tide for a shorter trip, and 90 minutes before high tide for a long trip. This way the boats can ride the currents in both directions.

On the Housatonic, stay in the main channel, as going into one of the side coves might mean having to wait for the tide to change because the current could be too strong to be able to return to the river. Avoid the area south of the launch by the railroad tracks as the currents are very strong due to the narrowing of the river.
Gulf Pond, Milford Harbor
Gulf Pond, Milford Harbor and the Indian River offer a trio of options with any one providing the opportunity for a short trip of about two miles each with all the passages off Gulf Pond adding another two miles, or combine all of them for up to nine miles of paddling.

This trip description needs to start out with these cautions. There are three low bridges to pass under on Gulf Pond, and all may be impassable at and near high tide: Gulf Street, Buckingham Avenue, and particularly New Haven Avenue. The current is likely to be strong and swirling when passing under these bridges where tidal water is forced through an opening much narrower than the adjacent body of water.

This situation is particularly felt where Gulf Pond transitions into the Indian River and paddlers pass under the Metro North Railroad tracks. There is plenty of headroom, but the passageway narrows considerably from the river, so the currents are strong and churning at anything other than slack tide.

Both sections of Gulf Pond have short, winding passages through the reeds totaling no more than 0.3 miles in each direction. The challenge is to remember to turn around while the passages are still wide enough to allow for a U-turn.

Just north of the railroad bridge on the Indian River, Stubby Plain Brook is a 0.4-mile long passage, again winding through the reeds. Unlike the salt marsh, getting lost in these passages is not a strong concern because there is typically one passage, and the forested sides are always nearby.

Gulf Pond and the Indian River will probably have no powerboats, other than small fishing and crabbing boats. Milford Harbor is full of powerboats moving at slow speeds, so keep alert in this area.

A good starting location for any of these trips is the city-owned property at the foot of Trumbull Avenue. Unlike the boat launch at the head of the harbor, there is no fee.

There is an unmarked access point marked with wooden posts and ropes leading to the edge of the harbor. Just across from the launch is the entrance to Gulf Pond. Street parking is available, adjacent to the Milford Yacht Club.

When launching from this site, paddlers are putting themselves directly into the boat channel at the harbor mouth, so be aware of powerboat traffic. Also pay attention to the swirling currents that are likely to be present.

For those wishing to do only the Indian River, thus avoiding crossing under any bridges, access is available at the end of Home Acres Road, although parking is likely to be limited on that narrow street.

I recommend not paddling north of the I-95 bridge on the Indian River because this section is obnoxiously loud as the traffic noise from the highway permeates the river. A short distance past the overpass is the bridge for East Town Road. This bridge is only passable at mid-tide. Beyond this bridge, the river continues only another 0.6 miles and may be impassable due to downed trees.