"Ah, the mighty Winoosk!" my husband, Carlton, says with false bravado as he noses our Toyota 4Runner — laden with kids, canoe, life jackets, paddles and rain gear — off the Burlington Beltline, Route 127, and onto an unmarked road near Plattsburgh Avenue.
For experienced paddlers, it's easy to poke fun at this stretch of the Winooski River: The oxbow-shaped end of the 90-mile waterway is relatively short, very tame and, with busy Lake Champlain on one end and city traffic on the other, not exactly wilderness canoeing.
But for a family with young children, it's perfect.
After years of gathering dust, our 16-foot Old Town Camper is back on the water, now that our 5-year-old daughter, Dillon, and son, Harper, 3, are no longer the tippy toddlers they once were. So on a Sunday morning in June, with a blue-sky break in the rain, we decide to tackle the Onion River. According to the Winooski River Paddling Guide, it's 3.5 miles from the Route 127 Bridge to the takeout at Lake Champlain — definitely doable in the good weather.
The trickiest part is getting the kids in and out of the canoe: There's a steep, muddy bank between the small parking lot off the Beltline and the river. Any grumpiness resulting from the awkward maneuverings is quickly forgotten when we push off and glide out onto the glassy river and start seeing dragonflies.
I've read that this area of the Winooski Valley Park District is rich in wildlife — blue-winged teals, geese and American bitterns. At first, though, I'm skeptical, as all we see are a seagull and a few dead logs that we pretend are sharks and pig heads. But as we settle into the rhythm of paddling and finally quiet down, we notice a heron overhead. The lines of passing fishermen indicate there's plenty of life beneath the surface of the water.
At one point, the kids take our paddles, presumably to give us a rest. "This is like we're Egyptians or something," says Carlton. "Cleopatra-style." But after three strokes, Dillon bonks me on the head and complains that her arms are tired. The kids go back to trailing their hands in the water, and Carlton and I tell stories about our own canoe trips as kids in Canada and as a couple on the Lamoille before they were born.
Dillon and Harper, meanwhile, make up stories about bears at campgrounds, fish, frogs and logs. It's so idyllic, I don't even realize I'm getting a workout. Later, my deltoids will ache from the unfamiliar movement.
We don't make it all the way to Lake Champlain's beaches. After half an hour of canoeing, we decide to turn around before the pint-size paddlers melt down. Next time, we'll stay out longer and pack something more fortifying than a couple of granola bars and a bottle of water.
The Mighty Winoosk' calls.