It’s probably a trait left over from my long-distance backpacking days, but I don’t tend to check the weather before I go on an adventure. I just look at the sky and roll with it. I call it “Accu-Window”, and whatever the weather, I dress accordingly and move through it, rather than planning my adventure around it.
It was no different on a recent hot day in early summer when I headed to a new-to-me swimming hole called North Branch Cascades, an improved public area on the North Branch of the Winooski River, right on the line between Elmore and Worcester. The day was humid and hot, but the skies were gray wall to wall and rain was threatening, so I packed a towel and my yellow rain jacket, both of which came in handy.
I drove my old Subaru on Route 12 north of the village of Worcester and turned into a gravel parking lot on the right, just past a “Watch for Moose” sign. I parked the car and changed from sandals to hiking boots because I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I knew there was a mile-long walking path ahead of me that gave access while hiking. road to various riffles and pools which would be ideal for swimming. I couldn’t wait to see what I was going to find and I was preparing for just about anything.
Shortly after my walk I encountered the first of many natural swimming areas, a small bend in the river with a deep side where the water flowed against a mossy rock ledge and a shallow side with a small beach of gravel. While it was quiet on that particular weekday, I could imagine the place filled with families and young children playing with beach toys and splashing around in their brightly colored bathing suits.
I chose not to swim there and instead explored the trail, finding gorges, plunge pools, and several waterfalls along the way. The trail was complete with signage, wooden benches, and stone stairs built straight into the steep banks, providing access to the water. When I came across a deep pool with a waterfall, I stopped to hang out and wade in the water. As I dipped my feet and navigated the slippery rocks, heading for an island of shimmering gravel, the breeze picked up and ruffled the leaves of the birch and beech trees around me. Raindrops fell while I was collecting pretty stones with gold and silver and stacking them in a small pile for someone else to discover.
I sat on a large rock and listened to the water flow as the day changed from clear to rainy. As my stomach started begging for a visit to the general store in Elmore, just a bit north, for lunch, I went back to my business, toweled off and put on my hiking boots and hiking jacket. rain, ready to call it a day in this adventure. I felt cool, calm and relaxed, a great way to feel on a summer day, and I also felt grateful for the time and effort it took to make this place accessible to everyone.
Providing public access to places like this is one of the primary goals of the Vermont River Conservancy, a Montpellier-based nonprofit “water-focused” land trust that works around the state to protect the shorelines, including swimming holes, boating and fishing access, waterfalls, gorges, paddler trails, wildlife corridors and watersheds. These essential places are critical, the organization says, to preserving Vermonters’ quality of life.
Take, for example, the North Branch Cascades area I had visited: “It’s just a spectacular series of gorges, waterfalls and cascades,” says Steve Libby, the executive director of VRC. “Anyone who sees it knows right away that it’s a special place.”
VRC became a partner in the conservation of the North Branch Cascades through an agreement with Vermont Land Trust, another Montpellier-based organization, and a family that had long held a large tract of land in the area, which they managed for the wood. From planning to completion, it took five years to secure public access and improve the site to include walking paths, wheelchair access, restrooms, stone stairs and other amenities on trails.
The work was carried out by the organization’s staff, including project manager Noah Pollock, who handled all day-to-day tasks. Many volunteers also came to help, including staff from a law firm in Burlington and Caledonia Spirits in Montpellier. Today, volunteer contributions continue as members of the local community help with ongoing maintenance.
“We want it to be seen as a community project,” Libby says of the multiple stakeholders it took to make this project a reality.
Projects like these are also designed to benefit the community.
“Access to Vermont’s rivers is one of the fundamental benefits of living in this state,” says Libby. There are so many beautiful rivers, he explains, and access to them is important. Creating public access to swimming holes may seem different than a long-held position that these treasures should be kept top secret, and many of our best swimming holes still are. But access to at least some of these places, Libby says, is important.
“The rivers belong to all of us, collectively,” he stresses, “and public access is important for swimming and fishing.”
Visit the Completed Projects section of the VRC website at vermontriverconservancy.org to learn about public swimming holes, gorges, waterfalls, huts, trails, fishing areas, and boat access points that have been protected statewide.