Get Your Flippie-Floppies: Blackstone Valley River Tours Will Put You On a Boat

The Blackstone Valley Tourism Council held its Silver Anniversary Celebration on Sunday, August 20, to commemorate the first launch of their river boat, Explorer. The celebration took place at Festival Pier in Pawtucket, which now has a beautiful park and easily accessible boat ramp. Not so long ago, people wouldn’t have dreamed of putting a boat or kayak into this area of the polluted Blackstone River, and wildlife also was scarce.

The free event included rides upon the 40-passenger Explorer, which took its maiden voyage 25 years ago. Blackstone Valley Tourism Council president Bob Billington welcomed visitors with a quick intro on the history of the boat before we launched into a kid-friendly tour that offers many discovery opportunities for adults. We marveled in peaceful awe as our boat glided up the Blackstone River, under the skillful hand of Captain Bob Dombrowski, toward a waterfall located just before historic Slater Mill. Tour guide Patti McAlpine reminded us the mill was at the head of the Industrial Revolution circa 1760, making the region famous. This waterfall, larger than the highly visible one by the mill itself, is hidden under a highway overpass and might’ve eluded us for life if we hadn’t gotten close up on a river boat tour.

As Dombrowski turned us around toward East Providence, down the Seekonk River, McAlpine told us the Indian names for different borders and landmarks. She playfully asked us historical questions, and, if we answered correctly, we were rewarded with swirly green lollipops.

“It’s exciting to explore your own backyard from a whole different vantage point,” said director of marketing James Toomey, and locals on the tour marveled at the landmarks they’ve known forever (“That’s the back of the Boys & Girls Club! … That’s Shea Field back there! … ”), viewed from a different perspective. It’s surreal to think you can live somewhere your whole life and suddenly see something completely new that’s been there all along.

Each seat had a small pair of binoculars at the ready, which passengers could use to watch wildlife in and along the water’s edge. We saw a turtle sunning himself on a limb, a few jumping fish, a soaring turkey vulture, cormorants and ducks. You never know what you’ll see, and a different trip might include deer, muskrats, egrets, blue herrings, falcons and even bald eagles. “We continue to update our tours so we invite people to come back and check out our other locations,” says Toomey. He adds, “This wildlife needs protection. If we don’t manage it properly, it will go away.”

In fact, it had for a while. McAlpine informed us the river was once teeming with salmon, which died off after a dam was built and industrial pollutants made their way into the river. Efforts to clean the river and restore its natural beauty encouraged wildlife to return.

Back on land, visitors were treated to the fun sounds of ukulele band The Unlikely Strummers. Also on hand were members of the Providence Children’s Museum who were there to discuss their upcoming programs while kids played on a giant foam block building set nearby. Director of education Kristin Read pointed out that, ironically, a group of kids worked together to create a waterwheel! The BV Tourism Council also partners with Mystic Aquarium on most of their environmental programs, and aquarium representatives were in attendance with live sea animals. Blackstone Valley Tourism Council director of environmental education Marina Flannery managed the event and was available to answer questions about educational tours and classroom programs. The council also works closely with the RI Preservation Society.

The well-informed guides will turn tourists and locals on to Blackstone Valley’s rich history and scenic landscapes. Toomey encourages folks to take advantage of these resources. “Getting people out there and seeing the beauty has really been the goal of the councils, and fall foliage season is prime time to be on the water.”

Coming up in September are the Pawtucket Arts Fest Dragon Boat Races on September 8 – a cultural event that draws thousands of people each year — and the Blackstone Culinaria Food Tour on September 22. After September 9, the tours switch from the Pawtucket location to Cold Spring Park in Woonsocket. Also check out the regularly scheduled Nature & Heritage tours, special sightseeing events and food tours, and youth environmental education programs, or charter a tour for coworkers and friends for your next event! Visit for more info and to book online, or call 401-724-2200.