The Upper Ottauquechee River

By Michael J. Caduto

Killington, Vermont: Kent Pond lies east of Gifford Woods State Park. A hiking trail through the park highlights the natural and cultural history of the state’s most accessible stand of old-growth forest. Photo: Courtesy Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.”

(This is the first in a series of articles looking at the nature of the Ottauquechee River and human impacts on the watershed.)

Ask anyone where they live and most people respond with the name of a town, city or village in a particular state. It’s natural to relate this question to a geographic location on a map; even more so in this age of GPS and mobile devices. Day to day, however, we interact with the natural and cultural elements of the geography that includes our immediate environs and the wider region in which we find the staples of our daily sustenance: a sense of community, economic livelihood, entertainment, recreation and connection to the natural world.

Water is the lifeblood of our local and regional geography. When we go swimming, fishing or boating, and conversely when we have a flood, we often turn our attention to the waters that flow through and interconnect many aspects of our lives. As the crow flies, Woodstock is just 14.5 miles from the headwaters of the Ottauquechee River at Kent Pond in Killington, Vermont, but the meandering river channel covers more than 22 miles before it flows under the Middle Covered Bridge in the center of town, and then continues on for another 16 river miles before emptying into the Connecticut River. Along the way, the streams and rivers that encompass the Ottauquechee Watershed drain 140,000 acres of hills and valleys, totaling some 218 square miles—an area about one sixth the size of Rhode Island. Waters that enter the river drop 3,885 feet from Killington Peak before eventually flowing into the river that the Abenaki peoples of Vermont and New Hampshire call Kwenitekw, Long River (the Connecticut).

Towering giants populate the headwaters of the Ottauquechee River in a 7-acre stand of old-growth northern hardwood forest located in Gifford Woods, which is adjacent to Kent Pond in Killington. This community of primal trees—including yellow birch, sugar maple, American beech, eastern hemlock, white ash, basswood and American elm—somehow escaped the chop of axe and whirr of sawblade that felled countless trees during the years since Killington was founded in the mid-18th century. A trail that interprets the natural and cultural history of the forest wends through the ancient trees.

Continuing downstream, the river dips toward Route 4 at the Sherburne Center Post Office and Roaring Brook enters from the west. If you climb down the bank here and look on the underside of some rocks, there are stoneflies, mayflies, caddisflies and other aquatic insects. Algae and fallen leaves feed these insects and other small forms of stream life, which are in turn food for fish, mink, kingfishers and other carnivores moving up the food chain.

As you continue down the Ottauquechee, you find evidence of the struggle to balance uses of the river with preservation of its beauty and ecological health. From the use of water for snowmaking to the discharge of treated wastewater, this history of the river paints a picture of use and abuse, of appreciation and depredation, and of a polluted past prior to the construction of wastewater treatment plants. It is the story of a natural resource constantly threatened by intense human activity highlighted in recent decades by catastrophic flooding due to the increase in frequency and intensity of climate-change induced storms.

Roaring over the Thundering Book waterfall in Killington, the river then takes a serpentine course for several miles through the wide, flat bottom of Sherburne Valley. Shrub swamps and wet meadows along the floodplain provide homes for animals and plants, and aid the water’s natural cleansing processes. The river’s meandering run, and plants along the banks, slow the flow during heavy rains and help to control flooding, erosion and siltation downstream.

The Ottauquechee hits its stride as it enters a narrow, V-shaped valley and veers east of West Bridgewater. Roily waters tumble and play cat-and-mouse with Route 4, which crosses the river seven times before reaching Bridgewater Corners. It is clear, looking at the frothing water, how the river earned the name Ottauquechee, which is thought to translate from “swift mountain stream” or “quick whirling motion.”

Cars whizz by overhead. While rushing to get from one place to another, how many people consider that the course followed by the twists and turns of Route 4 have been determined by the erosive forces of the river over thousands of years? A sentiment from the August 1917 issue of The Elm Tree Monthly—a Woodstock-based newspaper of that period—expresses how this road, then called the Green Mountain Highway, was “rough and sandy” and “deeply rutted at certain seasons.” Which was, according to the Monthly, “just as well because, while following the river, a devouring motor can’t shoot along at thirty miles an hour,” making “a blur of the roadside scenery and densely-wooded slopes, whose green trees and streams, flowers and ferns and pure air, are meant for rational enjoyment.”

The North Branch enters the river at Bridgewater Corners and, during heavy rains, the clear water in this channel provides a striking contrast with the frequently silted run in the main course of the river. Shortly, a major tributary, Broad Brook, enters from the south and a bridge looms overhead. This site is a well-used swimming and fishing hole. Years ago, during springtime high waters, trees cut from the neighboring hills were floated down the river as pulpwood logs.

In this wild and rugged region, the river passes through the Chateauguay No Town Conservation Project, a decades-long initiative whose goal is to conserve up to 60,000 acres of land that encompass parts of Bridgewater, Killington, Stockbridge and Barnard. The Chateauguay is a crucial area of habitat linking the northern and southern portions of the Green Mountain National Forest and the Windsor and Orange County highlands. This, Vermont’s first regional conservation partnership, was organized by the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission as a collaborative effort of the Vermont Land Trust, Northeast Wilderness Trust, Conservation Fund and Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Landowners have participated voluntarily through a combination of conveying conservation easements  and outright land purchases. These easements are protecting the majority of the land in the North Branch watershed and feeding clean, clear, cool water into the Ottauquechee River. In fact 78% of the entire Ottauquechee watershed is in forest cover helping to maintain the water quality we all enjoy.


Learn more about our Vermont Standard articles.