Winter on the Westport

By Tom Richardson
One of the launching spots at the Head of the Westport.

I had to do it. I had to get outdoors—more specifically, outdoors in a kayak. The bleak, boring January weather already had me a bit stir crazy.

So after checking the forecast and seeing temperatures in the low 40s and, more importantly, a light northerly breeze, I loaded my workhorse ‘yak onto my SUV and headed for the East Branch of the Westport River, about a half-hour from my home in southeastern Massachusetts.

Poking into a small feeder creek that winds through the marshes.

I’ve boated and kayaked on the lower, saltier section of the East Branch, but never explored its upper half, from the Hixbridge Road bridge north to the head of tide, a distance of roughly 3 ½ miles. It seemed like a fine day to make this happen.

I drove to the Head of the Westport Town Landing off Old County Road, which features a couple of convenient spots along the granite-walled channel from which to park and easily launch a kayak or canoe. The little village is also home to Osprey Sea & Surf Adventures, where you can rent a kayak or join one of their guided trips, but only during the warmer months. It was doubtful I’d encounter other boaters at this time of year, but that’s just one of the pleasures of winter paddling.

Taking a mid-trip break below the Hixbridge Road Bridge.

Another is birds. Just a few hundred yards downstream, I was startled by a juvenile bald eagle—or perhaps it was the other way around—lifting off from a snag along the bank. Later in the day, I spotted an adult eagle soaring above the river. Bald eagles seem to be everywhere these days, and I hardly ever kayak a river without seeing at least one. Winter brings eagles to many of our coastal rivers, which tend to remain ice-free longer than inland waterbodies.

Large raptors often prey upon the numerous waterfowl that winter on the Westport, and I encountered plenty of these birds, including mallards, goldeneyes, black ducks, loons, swans, brant, and Canada geese. Later in the day, I was surprised to spy a great blue heron in the adjacent marsh, as well as a belted kingfisher perched near a residential dock. Obviously, these birds were finding enough small fish to see them through the winter. So too a lone harbor seal that poked its head above the surface to check out the terrestrial interloper as I paddled south.


Approaching the town landing at the Head of the Westport.

Other raptors also patrol the riparian landscape, which ranges from farm fields to pine-and-oak hummocks to sprawling salt marsh. Red-tailed hawks perch in the bare trees, and I was able to drift quite close to one before it flew off. Later in the day, a northern harrier coursing low over the marsh grass caught my attention, and on my return trip, a murder of crows set up a racket in the crown of a large pitch pine, no doubt mobbing an unseen owl.


The Westport is a big, wide river for most of its length, so paddlers need to be keenly aware of the wind strength and direction. Know your paddling ability and plan accordingly, or you might find yourself taking an Uber back to your vehicle. Current can also hinder your progress, although I find it to be less of an issue than wind. To play it safe, consider paddling into the wind and/or current at the outset of your trip so you can have them at your back on the return.


The author's start and end point on his winter kayak trip on the Westport River.

Winter paddlers should also dress in layers of moisture-wicking clothes and pack insulated gloves and a warm hat. Also, be sure to give yourself plenty of time to complete your round-trip, as the short winter days can catch you by surprise. When the sun dips behind the treeline, so does the air temperature.

After about an hour and half of paddling almost due south, during which I took some time to poke my bow into a couple of meandering side creeks, I reached the Hixbridge Road Bridge, where I beached my kayak at the local launch ramp and climbed out to stretch my legs before beginning my upstream paddle back to the head of tide. I knew my arms would be tired, but my psyche temporarily recharged.