Canoe the Sugar River

By Annie Rosemurgy

One chilly day this spring my family and I got a fresh perspective on our beautiful, agrarian state—from the water! The Sugar River Outfitters, in Belleville, made it easy to spend the day outdoors together, paddling the river.

Owner/operator Kelly Hickman told us that the first rule of river life is that conditions change daily; no two paddle trips are the same. We took to our canoe and kayak in mid-May as water levels were high with spring rains, making for a nicely varied, sometimes spirited, two-hour ride through fields, forests and meadows abloom. Some stretches were quiet and deep, an undulating water-highway cutting through fields of grass. Other sections—to the delight of my kids—roiled with rapids.

To say that Hickman is an experienced riverman is an understatement. A lifelong paddler, Hickman knew he wanted to start his own adventure company the first time he took his young daughter canoe camping. He says, “We spent hours singing songs and playing made-up games under our overturned canoe, which I wedged between two trees riverside while it rained…I knew then more than ever before, this was what I wanted to do.”

With Sugar River Outfitters’ new streamlined website, planning our river adventure was a snap. We decided on a two-hour excursion (trips range from a family-friendly, afternoon float to a two-day overnight camping option complete with a private riverside campsite). Clad in water-friendly togs and picnic cooler in hand (no glass on the river, please) we were off! Hickman made the excursion easy by providing the boats and gear, transportation and a short tutorial on safety and boating basics. The Sugar was bursting into spring green on this day and animated with creatures. We enjoyed watching cattle drinking at the river’s edge, hawks soaring, and herons, ducks and geese on the water. Hickman says that sharp-eyed paddlers have spotted otters, beaver and even an elusive badger from their boats.

Quaint Paoli is a perfect site for refueling at voyage’s end.

Landmark Creamery crafts grilled cheese bliss to suit every palate, a perfect accompaniment to The Hop Garden’s rotating selection of brews. For a more refined experience The Paoli Schoolhouse offers local, seasonal cuisine in an elegant setting.

The Upper Sugar is a pristine place and a day spent paddling its waters can be a tonic for the soul. Most of the land is private or protected, minimizing boat and fishing traffic. Hickman works closely with the state Department of Natural Resources to balance guest safety with minimal environmental impact.

The diligence of these stakeholders in protecting this delicate ecosystem created my favorite moment on the Sugar—the experience of the true, alive-quiet of the outdoors. In the midst of a busy life these moments can be few and far between. I took a long moment to pause, close my eyes and soak in the sounds of the moving river and her creatures, connecting to the peace and balance that nature provides.

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