Picture this: Blue skies, warm sun, a tree-lined river gurgling and beckoning. It’s the ultimate outdoorsy lazy landscape, and all you need to enjoy it is a large tube.
The folks at Farmington River Tubing (FRT) in New Hartford, CT, understand the lure and appeal of a river float. They’ve been in the business of providing this recreational experience for several decades, and have seen thousands of smiles from delighted tubers, from first-timers to repeat floaters, single, in pairs, and in larger groups.
When I stumbled upon Farmington River Tubing’s website in search of this kind of adventure, I was reminded of the joyful experiences I had of white water rafting in Chile and also tubing down the Pickering Creek in Pennsylvania at day camp. These experiences led me to believe that tubing on the Farmington would be everything I wanted it to be – scenic, sporty yet lazy, contemplative and quiet in some spots yet swift and challenging in others. And let’s face it, what better way to spend a sunny summer day off from work? I noted that FRT operates daily between 11am and 5pm. The forecast for the day I wanted to go looked perfect. I blocked it out on my calendar.
I was impressed with all the instruction and information on FRT’s website. Since I was coming from over an hour away, I knew I had to plan accordingly. The site explains what to expect, what to wear, what can or can’t be brought along on the float, the cost, the registration process, and much more. Ultimately, you need to consider whether tubing is something you’ll really enjoy, and how to approach it to have the best experience. The very first sign on the website (and on site, as all the signs are) states in large letters: If you can’t swim, then you can’t go. This seems like an almost silly warning, but it’s prophetic. You have to bear in mind that you are going to be on a river at the mercy of the water for several hours.
If you’re new to tubing, it’s important to review all the suggestions and precautions FRT offers carefully and thoroughly. Once you’re in the tube and on the river, there’s no turning back. Most important is what to wear. You’re in the water, so a bathing suit is best. Something comfortable and practical, not just a suit for sunning. FRT also recommends tubing in shorts if you don’t have a suitable suit. I brought along a T-shirt just in case, but I didn’t need it. You must wear a life vest (which FRT provides), and it covers your chest and around your neck. Footwear is also critical. I was very happy I wore an old pair of running shoes (I don’t have water shoes). They got soaked immediately (getting into the tube on the river), but I didn’t have to worry about them falling off or not being adequate should I need to push off from rocks either in or out of the water.
The website very clearly states that you should call on the day you want to go tubing to check on current conditions. Even if the forecast looks fabulous, weather is unpredictable, and you don’t want to be out on the river if a summer thunderstorm moves through. When I called as instructed on the day I planned to go, a very friendly and enthusiastic employee assured me conditions were ideal. Yay!
Farmington River Tubing is located in a park called Satan’s Kingdom (I kid you not!), part of “Wild & Scenic” Farmington River and all it has to offer. Long ago, the mountains in this part of western Connecticut blocked water flow and formed a large lake. Over time, erosion formed a deep gorge through which what is now the Farmington River flows. The river itself is nearly 50 miles long through its main stem in northwestern Connecticut. How and why part of the gorge got the name Satan’s Kingdom is part of the area’s myth and magic, but it dates back to the early 1800s. It’s claimed that a Native American tribe leader in the area was nicknamed Satan, and since he was a leader his influence was far-reaching. In the mid-1800s the area was populated by people who adopted an “Indian lifestyle” (whatever that means) and were described as social outcasts and ex-slaves. It’s an evocative name, for sure, and it’s fun to think about those who lived there and how they lived nearly 200 years ago, but there’s nothing Satanic about it now – at least not on a picture-perfect summer day.
There are all kinds of scenic routes that get you to Satan’s Kingdom and FRT, whose official address is 92 Main Street, New Hartford. Sounds like the address of a coffee shop, doesn’t it? In fact, there’s no mention of Satan’s Kingdom on FRT’s website, though there’s a big sign for it when you pull in. I’m not sure the association is a good one for family-friendly recreation!
I followed Routes 22 and 8 out of the Berkshires down to Rt 44 (Main Street), and the drive was lovely the whole way. Parkland and areas to pull off and picnic or explore were plentiful, and this was its own kind of “float” for me, taking in the beauty of the area as I drove along the winding roads.
Readying for the River
I arrived around 11:30 on a Wednesday morning and was surprised to find many cars already parked in the large lot. I had brought my bathing suit to change into, and there were lots of porta-potties there. I changed, went back to the car, locked it, and went to check in. FRT recommends leaving behind anything that can fall off you and be lost in the river. It’s quite freeing, actually, to deliberately leave your cell phone behind and set out only in your bathing suit. Your keys are kept safely in an area only employees can access as a “deposit” of sorts, and as a safety precaution. When I checked in I was told that two cars had to be towed the previous weekend when the people didn’t leave their keys behind and they fell into the River and were lost. You do not want that to happen!
After you sign a waiver and pay the fee of $25 (cash only) – and leave your car keys behind – you move on to where there’s a giant pile of colorful tubes and what seems like hundreds of life vests hanging from clothes lines, separated for children and adults. There are guidelines about what size tube is best for your height and weight. I chose a bright blue tube with an inflated back rest, thinking it was a kind of “luxury model.” The life vests were clean and dry, and there were guys around to help you gear up.
It was a short walk from where you picked out your tube and put on your life vest to where you entered the river. Most people there were with at least one other person, and the awkward stage of getting into the tube, getting situated somewhat comfortably, and then moving along was punctuated with laughter and exclamations of surprise by everyone at the river’s edge – as any adventurous outing should be!
Away we go!
Even though there were a lot of cars in the lot, and people getting outfitted to get on the river, there were no lines or waits to get into the tube and set off. I suspect this is not the case on a warm weekend. One thing I learned quickly is that you travel along at pretty much the same pace as the others who are setting off around the same time. Pay attention to the group sizes and decibel levels of the others around you. This mattered more to me when I was floating along by myself than I think it would – or did – for people who are in pairs or groups.
A very pleasant surprise to me was that the water felt great. I was told it was about 62 degrees, which to me sounded very cold. But it didn’t feel too cold at any time; in fact, it was delightful. In the information about how best to navigate the river, the advice is to stay in a seated position with your arms and feet sticking out, and to try to stay facing forward to see what’s coming up. There are also warnings about not standing up in the river at any time, as your feet can slip on the algae on the rocks or get stuck between rocks. The reality is that the river turns you around in the tube, and that’s OK. Sometimes you face forward, sometimes backward. And there were parts of the river that were very shallow (on the day I went), and people were standing and stretching where it was only ankle deep.
Things that came up
The staff is clear that the float lasts 2.5 to 3 hours and includes a few rapids but is mostly calm. That doesn’t seem like a long time, and in the beginning you don’t think about it at all – especially if you have no way to check the time because you left your cell phone safely in the car. That’s supposed to be part of the whole thing, right? To forget about other things you have to do and just be on the river. I did experience those moments. There were ducks and geese along the river who are oblivious to us floaters, so you see them in ways you otherwise couldn’t. Being able to lean back and feel the sun on your face, close your eyes, and just listen…to the breeze in the trees, the water bubbling and rushing, the voices of other tubers… this was really nice.
What became a problem for me was how much paddling I had to do. In order to steer yourself both toward and away from parts of the river, and to face forward as often as possible, you have to extend your arms behind you into the water and use them as paddles. This is fine for the first hour or so, but if you don’t use your arms regularly or if you have any kind of shoulder strength issues, it becomes almost debilitating. The inflated back rest that I thought would make the float more comfortable for me proved a detriment as I had to reach around even further behind me to paddle well. The large plastic plug where the tube is inflated was in the area I needed to put one of my arms, and it was sharp. I had to work around that, too.
In all honesty, just when I thought I couldn’t take any more time on the river because my arms were spent and my patience was wearing thin, I could see people getting out at the spot where the bus comes to pick you up and take you back to the launch site. It seemed to me that people who were together could share the paddling and navigation, making it less strenuous. As I was paddling and floating toward the shore to get out, I was in the area of three other tubers, all women. There were two younger girls and one older woman. They had all been floating down fairly close to each other, but then one got farther ahead. The oldest woman was farthest back. The one in the middle was paddling furiously to try to catch up with the first one. The older woman (and I) were doing our best to move along, but we could not match their energy. I heard the girls say, “Come on, mom! Paddle!” After the third or fourth time of calling this out to her she replied, “I’m doing the best I can.” I could completely relate. She and I made it to the shore at about the same time, dragging our tubes up the embankment. I commented that my arms were very tired; she confessed to having a hurt knee. We were both in good shape. Which is all to say that this activity is more physically challenging than I anticipated, and I was heartened to see the mom, younger than me and clearly athletic (as were her daughters), also feeling the effects of the float.
All OK at the end
Old school buses with one row of seats and one row cleared out for tubes come frequently to collect folks and bring them back to the launch site. The driver of our bus was all smiles as he welcomed us aboard and helped haul the tubes in. I overheard the girls telling their mom how much they liked it even though they were tired at the end. I had a bit of an epiphany around the time I thought I must be at least a couple of hours into the float, when I was on a calm, wide stretch of the river with other tubers some distance from me, so it was peaceful and quiet. It occurred to me that beginner meditation is like this float: You set yourself up to have a transformational experience, you struggle and struggle to quiet the chatter in your head about doing it “right,” and when you finally realize you’re actually only in the moment, serene and accepting, there is a flash of joy. This happened for me in that stretch. I stopped trying to control where I was going, I put my tired arms by my sides, and I gave it up to the river. As blissful as this was while it lasted, for me it was a bit too little, too late. Close to three hours of navigating the river in the tube with the life vest on was, in the end, too much for me.
After-float brewery stop
By the time I changed out of my bathing suit and got in the car to go, I was tired, and I was hungry. I had checked the area for what could be a good post-float late lunch, and knew that the Little Red Barn Brewers was just nine miles northwest in Winsted, CT. I called to make sure they had food, and they confirmed there was a food truck there. Bingo. The day was still beautiful and warm, and I ordered a flight of four beers from an extensive beer menu, and sliders and fries from the food truck. I sat in the sun and enjoyed every bite and every sip.
The folks there were very friendly, too, and proudly told me they were celebrating the brewery’s third anniversary. I chatted with Matt, a brewer and one of the owners, as well as Alexis and Michelle behind the bar. Matt started making beer with his twin brother and a friend about ten years ago after his wife got him a beer-making kit and they got hooked. They entered competitions and got great feedback. The rest, as they say, is history, but in the three short years since Little Red Barn opened, COVID and all, business is booming. Matt shared that the town has been “great” helping them get their old building outfitted to be a brewery and in every other way. Alexis shared that she came when the brewery opened, “loved the beer, started working here, and never looked back.”
“Everyone knows each other here,” Matt said. “On the weekends it’s packed with kids and dogs and people from all over. We close at 9, so it’s a family place. There’s live music on Wednesday and Sunday nights.” This is a MUST post-tubing spot when you’re in the area – or just a great place to visit even if you don’t go tubing.
Yup, a great day
As I drove another scenic route home, through Sheffield in the Berkshires and Austerlitz in Columbia County before jumping on 90 to the Capital Region, I marveled once again at just how much beauty and adventures and discoveries abound in our area. I’d been to Satan’s Kingdom, shared a stretch of the Farmington River, met people who were excited and passionate about what they do, and truly gotten away from the worries of the world. It was a Great Day.
Learn more at www.farmingtonrivertubing.com and www.lrbbrewers.com. I love expanding the maps of the places I’m going to visit so I can see what else is around that I might want to visit. Happy Summer!