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Sunday, Jun 26, 2022

For local kayakers, Otter Creek Falls is a gem hidden in plain sight

<span class="photocreditinline">COURTESY PHOTO</span><br />Kayakers from all over Vermont have come to town to run Middlebury Falls in the spring and summer.
Kayakers from all over Vermont have come to town to run Middlebury Falls in the spring and summer.

“Any kayaker who looks at the falls in Middlebury sees a perfect 15-foot waterfall, just begging to be run,” said Reed Hutton ’19.5. Like many advanced and passionate kayakers, Hutton sees Middlebury Falls as a rewarding challenge. The waterfall is known as an excellent and consistent spot for paddling, attracting regional daredevils in every season.

Middlebury Falls is a well-known but short feature, so paddlers often stop there on their way somewhere else. Although it’s not always worth gearing up and loading a boat onto the water for such a short run, the falls are an excellent spot for paddling. “You can run it at a super wide range of flows,” Hutton said. “When [the water] is super high, it’s gnarlier, scarier and a little more technical. When it’s low, it’s really friendly and not too bad.” 

Having dedicated his childhood summers to kayaking in his home state of Idaho, Hutton is no stranger to paddling waterfalls. He’s been out on the water regularly since he was 10 and now works as a coach and executive director at Jackson Hole Kayak Club, a youth summer program in that Wyoming town. 

Running the Middlebury Falls can be a particularly rewarding experience. “Technically it’s not that difficult of a waterfall, but mentally it’s huge,” said Hutton, acknowledging that going over a 15-foot drop is a pretty big feat. “It’s a good mental exercise to get your heart rate up and test yourself.” 

Because of the falls’ central location in the town of Middlebury, kayaking there has also been a great way for Hutton to start conversations and joke with passersby. “People will be like, ‘Oh my God, there’s a waterfall!’ and I’m like, ‘What? Where? I don’t know, I didn’t see one!’ and people will freak out on the bridge,” Hutton described. “A lot of people will end up watching, and it’s fun to talk with them afterwards ’cause they’ll ask me questions.” 

Although Middlebury has a relatively small kayaking community, Middlebury Falls often sees visitors who travel down from Montreal in search of white water. Nearby universities such as UVM and Dartmouth, which have relatively large boating groups, also regularly send outings to Middlebury Falls.  

“Northeastern white water is unique because it only really runs when it rains,” said Cortland Fischer, a junior at UVM and president of the UVM Kayak Club. 

When the water’s good, people take advantage of it. Within a period of two weeks last month, the UVM Kayak Club sent between four and give outings to Middlebury Falls, and Fischer personally got in 10–15 laps. When the conditions are bad elsewhere, such as in the summer when it hasn’t rained enough, or in the winter when most rivers have frozen over, the falls tend to be a fairly reliable place for boating.

Cameron Weiner ’20, an active kayaker at Middlebury College, has run the falls several times. “It’s a very forgiving falls,” she said. “Someone’s dad who went here years ago was telling me a story — they used to do trips down there every Friday or something, and send random people who had never kayaked before down the falls.”

As far as legality of the sport, Otter Creek is an open waterway. “There is nothing to prohibit folks from [kayaking] Middlebury Falls,” said Middlebury Chief of Police Thomas Hanley, adding that “it is a little bit risky.”

In very low water, Weiner warned against “penciling in,” or going in at the wrong angle, hitting the bottom, and potentially cracking the boat or getting injured. 

“[Most] Kayakers know what they’re doing, are fully prepared, fully clothed and have modern kayaks [that] really reduce that risk,” Hanley said. “We just ask anybody doing it to please follow safety rules.” He also cited that although Middlebury Police has not had any accidents at Middlebury Falls, there have been fatalities in other waterways in town due to white water kayaking accidents in the springtime.

For novice kayakers, Hutton urged them to lean on their mentors and coaches. “[Kayaking] has an unbelievably long and frustrating learning curve. Learning how to roll in the pool is not the same as learning how to kayak, and there are so many nuances and skills you need until you can learn how to do the falls competently.” 

As in any sport, safety and effective training are a major priority. “Do it at your own pace,” Hutton advised. “For me, it’s a sport that has become intuitive, but it’s taken a lot of time.” For kayakers who put in the time and the effort to run it safely, however, Middlebury Falls has a lot to offer.