Lake Life at Four Gorgeous Spots in Rhode Island

These cool bodies of water offer their own distinct pleasures in summertime.

Larkin Pond

It’s the last hour of the last day at Camp Hoffman in West Kingston, the sun is setting over a campsite by Larkin Pond, and six-year-old Piper is still hungry. Her face is equal parts pout and filth. She’s lying on her belly, her head resting on a flowery blue monogrammed backpack, and she’s twirling blades of grass with her finger.

“There’s no trail mix left and I already had a s’more,” she says to no one in particular. Her fellow Daisies and Brownies are gathering by a growing fire. A grandmotherly counselor digs into a bag and hands Piper another marshmallow. She places a finger to her lips. It’s their secret.

Piper, one of 800 or so Girl Scouts who spend the day or overnight at Camp Hoffman over the course of the summer, is pooped. And no wonder: Her day is blissfully, exhaustingly unplugged. There’s arts and crafts, archery, team building, a cookout lunch, fire building, swimming and boating all day on Larkin Pond. Now, with the mole crickets rising in an evening chorus, Piper and her fellow Scouts are singing their last camp songs of the summer.

Across the wooded campus, the older overnighters, grades two to twelve, are setting up for the end-of-camp Hootenanny. They sit in small groups on the floor of Trefoil, a sticky-hot cabin that’s named after the perennial Girl Scout shortbread cookie.

After a rigorous round of camp songs, each group takes to the stage to perform skits they’ve rehearsed over the course of the week. A set of Brownies commits to a giggle-inducing bathroom pun — “I’ve gotta wee, I’ve gotta wee!” Then, arms outstretched like airplanes, they exit the stage shrieking, “Weeeee!” — while a group of middle school-aged Scouts sing their hearts out to Miley Cyrus’s “The Climb.” Tears are shed and thirteen-year-old DeLaina Mom grabs a box of tissues to pass around.

DeLaina, who lives in Providence and was enrolled in all five weeks of overnight camp, says Camp Hoffman is her second home. Her arms are stacked with colorful Chinese Staircase-style friendship bracelets made from embroidery floss. It’s her seventh year of camp. Next year, her mom wants her to pick up a job or volunteer, so she won’t be able to attend all summer.

“But this place will always be home,” she says. She loves to take on the high roped challenger course and helps the younger girls make it through. “I’m not scared of it one bit.”

Fifteen-year-old Ax, who got the camp name from clear-cutting trails on the grounds, has logged eight summers at Camp Hoffman and is now a counselor in training for younger Scouts. Ax spent five weeks here over the summer and was happiest sailing in Larkin Pond or making crafts.
“Camp is such a wonderful experience; everyone looks up to you and it’s a welcoming place for all people,” Ax says.

The skits wind down and the Scouts head out into the cool air, arms linked as they navigate paths beneath a canopy of rustling trees and white stars. Rumor has it, a super-secret late-night ceremony awaits them.

If you go:
Pond personality: 1950s summer camp, revisited
Waters: Freshwater
Boat launch: Yes
Activities: Swimming, fishing, kayaking
Amenities: Portable toilet
Fee: N/A; Camp Hoffman is owned by the Girl Scouts
Parking situation: Small lot off Ministerial Road
Address: Ministerial Road, West Kingston

Ninigret and Little Nini Ponds

Ninigret Park in Charlestown is a wellspring of opposites. Most days, Ninigret Pond — the main attraction — exudes a weighty sort of quiet. Like swimmers made buoyant by seawater, conversations float across the two-and-a-half-mile salt pond where kayakers paddle, quahoggers dig for clams and anglers sight-fish for stripers on the flats.

Meanwhile, Little Nini Pond, a mere spit of a watershed compared to Ninigret, is a favorite spot for families looking for a safe place to splash and play. Unlike Ninigret, Little Nini is spring-fed, salt-free and temperate — perfect for tiny people learning to swim and fish. Just a few paces away, a two-structure playground hosts even more summertime fun.

But Ninigret Park sees its greatest juxtaposition when fans of zydeco, boogie woogie, delta blues and honky tonk convene there over Labor Day Weekend. The annual Rhythm and Roots Festival draws thousands of musicians and fans for three days of dancing and after-hours revelry at the campsites. Little Nini, adjacent to the festival grounds, is a prime dipping spot after sweaty spins on the dance floor.

It just goes to show that peace can manifest in many forms, from a romping, stomping time with fellow music lovers to an afternoon splashing with baby at the water’s edge to a quiet paddle on a glassy pond.

If you go:
Pond personalities: Peace, in myriad forms
Address: 5 Park Ln., Charlestown

Little Nini
Waters: Spring-fed freshwater
Boat launch: No
Activities: Swimming, fishing, bird watching
Amenities: Restrooms at the adjacent pavilion; picnic tables by the beach
Fee: None; admission for special events
Parking situation: Follow Park Lane and park by the pavilion and playground

Ninigret Pond
Waters: Saltwater lagoon
Boat launch: Yes
Activities: Kayaking, swimming, water-skiing, clamming, fishing, bird-watching
Amenities: Restrooms by the parking area
Fee: None
Parking situation: Follow Park Lane to the ample parking lot, a few feet from the kayak launch on the western edge of the pond

Spring Lake

If you have some good kids in your life — really good kids; kids who deserve a day in paradise — Spring Lake, in Burrillville’s Glendale village, is where you reward them. Families have been flocking to its shore since the turn of the century, and not much has changed since then.

There’s the sandy beach, sure. And the fresh water, nice and warm by the surface but cooler beneath; it doesn’t burn your eyes and there’s no slimy stuff at your feet. Schools of minnows swim by, if you stand really still. There’s a diving dock. And also: a waterslide. And $2 kayak rentals. Hula hoops. A beanbag toss. And a concession stand with all the best fried foods and ice cream. And an eighty-eight-year-old arcade with pinball machines, skee ball, racing games, candy grabs and kiddie rides for a quarter.

It’s the type of place Sandy Slader, a dance instructor from Johnston, can take a whole swath of children — her own three girls, plus a niece and nephew — and not have to worry they’ll get lost in the shuffle.

“I have the best kids and this is the best place to take them; there’s so much to do,” she says from her beach blanket on an overcast weekday in August. A few feet away, Slader’s mom, Diane, dips ten-month-old Maisie’s toes in the water.

Just beyond them, Debra Jarousky of Attleboro stands by the water as her two children, Alex and Nate, and their two friends, Sophie and Lucas, experiment with kayaks in a buoyed-off area. The rentals, $2 for fifteen minutes, are perfect for kid-sized attention spans and parents’ wallets.

John Flynn, the lifeguard on duty, keeps watch over it all. Flynn, who grew up in Woonsocket, has been coming to Spring Lake since he was a kid. The twenty-three-year-old has worked here for the last three years and says he rarely has to rush into the water.

“Kids sometimes get nervous going out to the dock, but it’s pretty quiet,” he says. “It’s a good summer gig. I get a nice tan.”

So, no: Spring Lake is not the place for endurance swimmers. Experienced kayakers might prefer to paddle off from the boat launch on the southwestern tip of the lake. If you don’t like children, this isn’t your day at beach.

Here, the sounds of summer include happy shrieks and tonal arcade game music. French fries perfume the air. Ice cream drips from cones. Kids can be free. Parents can relax. It’s idyllic and safe and simple in a world that’s anything but. It’s a place to make memories. The good kids deserve it, if only for a summer’s day.

If you go:
Pond personality: A kid’s fantasyland
Waters: Freshwater
Boat launch: Yes
Activities: Swimming, kayaking, non-motorized boating
Amenbitises:Restrooms, concession stand, boat rentals, arcade
Fee: Burrillville residents $3, non-residents $6, kids three and younger free
Parking situation: Large lot adjacent to beach; smaller lot by boat ramp at Black Hut Road
Address: 50 Old Hillside Dr., Glendale

Watchaug Pond

For chuck horbert, an experienced paddler and super-vising environmental scientist at the state Department of Environmental Management, Watchaug Pond in Charlestown is like a vacation on water.

“It’s great. It’s got some development on the shores but not a lot, and a lot of variety of topography,” he says, citing the pond’s marshy west side, the Kimball Wildlife Refuge to the south and Burlingame State Park and Campground, which draws families and boaters in summertime.

On this overcast spring day, Horbert, his wife, Cindy Gianfrancesco, and their dog, Trixie, are exploring the 573-acre pond via canoe. It’s their second time paddling Watchaug, and Trixie appreciates the calm of the water. A known pacer, she settles right into the boat, resting her chin on the gunwale and watching the world go by.

Next month, Horbert has a different sort of aquatic adventure planned. Along with three friends, he’ll spend five days paddling the length of the Pawcatuck River, from Westerly to South Kingstown. The group will maneuver upriver via canoe pulling, a technique where standing paddlers use twelve-foot poles to push off the river bed and propel their canoes.

“It kind of highlights what anadromous fish have to do: come from the ocean and go upstream to spawn,” he says.

The thirty-five-mile trip also celebrates dam removal projects by local organizations, including the Nature Conservancy and the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association.

“Generally, people don’t like to paddle upstream,” Horbert says. “And there are some rapids we’re going to have to go up.”

But today, Horbert, Gianfrancesco and Trixie relish the opposite: placid pond, leisurely pace, little nooks and crannies to poke their boat into on a warm Saturday afternoon.

If you go:
Pond personality: Rustic retreat
Waters: Freshwater
Boat launch: Yes
Activities: Kayaking, swimming, water-skiing, trout fishing
Amenities: Bathrooms and picnic tables at Burlingame State Park
Fee: None
Parking situation: A twelve-space lot by the boat ramp off Sanctuary Road, plus free parking by the Burlingame State Park picnic area
Address: 1 Burlingame State Park Rd., Charlestown