Preserving the Battenkill River

Home & Family, Hometown Heroes, Outdoors, People
on November 19, 2000

Long considered one of the premier trout streams of the Northeast, Vermont’s Battenkill River remains a mecca for fly fishermen. In recent years it also has become a popular spot for canoeing, kayaking, and inner-tubing, however, causing a degree of conflict between the anglers and floaters.

To head off the fray, in stepped Jim Walker, founder and owner of the Battenkill Canoe Co. in Arlington, Vt. (pop. 700), whose rental customers regularly paddle the river. Sensitive to the changes on the river, Walker launched a two-pronged educational program that stresses courtesy and river ecology. He targets his own customers, as well as others who use this scenic river and people living along its banks as it winds its way from central Vermont into New York.

“One of the wonderful things that makes Vermont different,” Walker says, “is that most of (the state’s) companies collectively try to maintain a sensible balance between profit and operating a socially responsible business. Very few of us are driven by the checkbook alone.”

His principles of courtesya virtue that’s often underratedare simple. He cautions paddlers to hug the shore opposite the one an angler is using, explaining the need for quiet, undisturbed water to keep wary trout at ease, and to keep the invisible leader of a fishing line from tangling in paddles.

Because fishing is best in the early morning hours and late in the day, Walker is the only outfitter in the state who will not rent canoes before 9 a.m. or after 5 p.m. Whenever large groups sign up for a river outing, Walker’s team carefully staggers starting times to minimize disturbance to the trout.

Even though fallen trees and branches at times impede canoes, Walker’s team never removes them because they offer the cool shade fish love. Instead, Battenkill’s paddlers are warned to skirt “weavers,” as these sometimes dangerous branches are called, and if that is not possible, to pull out and portage around them.

To everyone he explains the fragility of water and the ecological consequences once it becomes polluted. His paddlers are warned never to litter. “Paddle it in, then paddle it out,” has become a byword of the Battenkill Canoe Co.

But Walker doesn’t stop there. Twice a year, in May and October, the company sponsors Cleanup Saturday. Often, more than 200 people show up to launch rent-free canoes during the cleanup and, after the day is over, enjoy a barbecue back at Battenkill Canoe headquarters along historic Route 7A. Groups of three to five volunteers are given a stretch of several miles of river to clean.

The results are gratifying. Walker has noticed a substantial reduction in litter the last three years, indicating a greater effort by boaters and anglers to pack out their cans, bottles, and such. He is, however, still concerned about the amount of heavier debrisshopping carts, radiators, and tireshis troops are collecting.

Toward his goal of protecting the Battenkill, Walker also chairs the Battenkill Watershed Council, a volunteer planning and advisory commission formed to minimize any conflict between landowners, boaters, and anglers. Its concern, Walker explains, is the river, and only the river.

His own efforts on behalf of conservation stretch far beyond the Battenkill, however. In trips he sponsors throughout Vermont and Maineas well as abroad in Canada, Labrador, Scotland, Nicaragua, and Costa Ricahe stresses environmental concerns to all his clients. In the Talamanca region of Costa Rica, his company’s most popular destination, company guides contribute half of their tips to Costa Rican communities for educational and environmental programs. The company has established an annual scholarship program in Costa Rica and contributes $50 to a local civic cause for every guest on the trip.

Walker was introduced to canoeing when he moved to Vermont in 1978. He founded the Battenkill Canoe Co. 17 years ago and continues to operate it with two partners. “While our profit margin will never be great, we’re having fun and feel we’re contributing to society,” Walker says. “Frankly, as a farm boy from south Wisconsin, I never envisioned I would run a company of this magnitude and actually become international.”