An Adventure on the River

(Note to readers: I have slightly edited the following text, originally published on Friday, August 19th, and added the posts I later wrote about the rest of the journey so the whole story can be read sequentially).  

Last winter some friends and I decided that we would spend five days this summer kayaking on the Connecticut River. Two days would be near the river’s source, where the border between New Hampshire and Vermont meets Canada, one would be through Springfield, Massachusetts, and the final two days would take us from just south of Hartford, Connecticut to my home near the river’s mouth. These sections would give us looks at three very different kinds of New England riverscape.

I would be accompanied by my friends Larry, John P. (henceforth simply John), Sam (who happens to be my brother-in-law) and Aidan; we also hired two young men – Brian and James (Sam’s son) – to drive a truck towing our kayaks and a passenger van. David (John’s brother) would join us for day three, John M. and Ken (who joined me for the last three days of the cross-country bicycle ride) would join us for days four and five, and Bryan (my son-in-law) would join us for the last day. Our schedules are complicated.

The first leg of the journey took place on Wednesday, the 17th; because I had to attend a board meeting in New York that morning, I missed both a long, rainy drive to just south of the Canadian border on Tuesday afternoon and the first day’s paddle.

***

I flew up to meet my friends late Wednesday afternoon, landing on an unpaved strip outside Colebrook, NH, amidst the heavily wooded foothills of New Hampshire’s mountains. Beside the landing strip were piles of freshly cut timber. As James and Sam – who met me at the unmarked airstrip, which it took them a good while to find – drove me to the hotel where I would join, and Sam and James would rejoin, the others, I got the clear impression that while the section of northern New Hampshire where we were was stunning, it was also far from prosperous.

Sam, Larry, John, Aidan, James and Brian all reported that they had had a great first day of paddling (after dropping off the older guys, the drivers had driven to the end point then paddled north to meet the others). The water, which has been low all summer, was actually above its normal levels because of Tuesday’s strong rainfall. John had overturned his kayak in an eddy near a small island, but the paddling was otherwise without mishap.

At dinner in the nicest restaurant in the tiny nearby town, we were informed that the oven wasn’t working and there was only one remaining bottle of wine. We drank it, of course.

****

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Today’s paddle took us from just south of Colebrook to the Maidstone Bridge – about 20 miles. It was an exciting journey.

We split into two groups – Aidan, Sam, Larry and I resolved to try the Class 2 rapids that would come in the last mile or two before a breached dam located six or seven miles from where we would first put in. We planned to meet John, Brian and James on the other side of the dam.

Going over the dam, we had read, should only be tried by experienced kayakers; they should be sure to stay on the river’s left side as they approached the dam, and expect to find boulders in the middle of the river immediately thereafter. We planned to stop and take a good hard look at the dam before deciding whether we dared to go over it. The only member of our group who can legitimately be described as an experienced kayaker is Sam.

We would hope to meet John, James and Brian after getting past the breached dam and the whitewater immediately beneath it. The seven of us would then kayak together to the Maidstone Bridge, perhaps 13 miles farther along. That was the plan.

***

The first stretch of river was spectacularly beautiful. It is quite narrow there – maybe the width of a four lane road; in places where the water was broader and shallower, we had to pick our ways through rocks, which might or might not be visible, and the small whitewater waves they caused by resisting the river’s current.

I found that my short, wide kayak handled well, but also that each time we went through rough water I took on quite a lot of it; water came sloshing over my bow and directly into the cockpit. Had I not been able to borrow a large sponge from Aidan for bailing each time we came to calmer waters, I would have had to pull ashore to empty the boat, or been swamped.

We had overestimated the distance to the breached dam so when we came upon it I found myself on the wrong (right hand) side of the river; by then, it was too late to get out and reconnoiter. Sam, Aidan and Larry, who were all to my left, went over the dam easily enough, but as I tried to sprint to the correct side of the river, its current caught me crossways and pushed me over the edge at a place where the water running over the submerged dam was shallower than my draft. The bottom of the boat scraped the dam’s top very nearly flipping me sideways and over. I count it as a small triumph that I was able to recover without having the kayaking equivalent of what in skiing is called a yard sale.

We did not find John, James and Brian at the base of the breached dam or after the patch of rapids that followed it, so we kept going, assuming that they had resolved to meet us at the next put in place.

The rapids south of the dam – which lasted for a mile or two – were much like the section that had preceded it. Those sections, so we read, are the longest whitewater sections remaining on the river. I should add that while they drenched me, they were not scary. For an experienced kayaker, they would have been nothing; for us, they were great fun.

Thereafter, the river became much calmer. Our surroundings consisted almost exclusively of woods, with only an occasional sighting of an old farm or a distant roadway. We were on a heritage section of the river, where motor boating is forbidden. The river there is not large, but now that the dams are gone or breached, it is almost pristine. One can imagine that it looked not very different hundreds of years ago.

image

As the day wore on, we became more concerned about not finding John, James and Brian. We looked for put in spots accessible to roads, where they might be waiting. None of us had a cell signal.

We found them at the very end of the day, where we had previously  agreed that we would get off the river. They had been more worried about us than we about them because they had missed us at the breached dam and imagined that one or more of us might have gotten hurt in the rapids.  They waited and watched long after we had passed  by.

Brian and James jumped off the Maidstone bridge – perhaps 20 feet above the water – as we exited the river. I was amazed at how quickly the current took them – they had to really move to not miss the get out point.

We then drove south for three hours, ending up in Hadley MA, coincidentally quite close to Hampshire College, which is very generously letting us use its kayak trailer for the week.

Friday, August 19, 2016

This morning Larry, John, Aidan, Sam, John’s brother David (who was joining us for the day) and I put our kayaks into the river in Chicopee, MA, just south of a dam in Holyoke. Brian and James then drove roughly 16 miles south to Longmeadow, where we expected to pull out. They were planning to paddle north to meet us.

Just south of Longmeadow there’s another  in-use dam that, like the one in Holyoke, kayakers can’t go over. The feel of the water between the dams is completely different from the river we paddled yesterday: it is much more like a broad, very shallow lake than a wild and free – if small – river. Consequently our paddling today was much slower and less dramatic than yesterday’s. We ambled along, looking for birds, chatting and scoping out the scenery. It was hot. There was so little current that if we didn’t paddle, we didn’t move.

I had chosen this section because I had wanted to see what old, formerly industrial towns look like from the water. I got what I wanted: today’s vistas were quite different from yesterday’s, just as the water’s feel was.

I don’t want to overstate the matter. We saw plenty of trees from the water, and a large island nature preserve opposite a Six Flags amusement park not far south of Springfield; in Springfield itself we saw abandoned mills and factories intermixed with elegant old buildings and bridges.  There were also a few modern office towers — one looked to be the headquarters of Mass Mutual.

image

My overriding impressions of Springfield from the water were twofold: first, it’s loud. In yesterday’s journey, the only sounds we heard on the river were of birds and water; wait, that’s not quite true: we also heard one shotgun used by a man high on a riverbank.

Today, in contrast, we paddled for miles with Interstate 91 to our left and large local roads to our right. The dull roar of trucks, cars and the occasional train was nearly omnipresent until we were well south of Springfield.

My second impression is closely related to the first: for a good ten miles through Springfield, the riverfront has been abandoned. Since  roads and rails run alongside the river, there is little use of or access to the water – none at all, that I saw, on the eastern side.

***

If Wednesday’s and Thursday’s paddles were on a small, free river through nearly pristine forestland, and today’s was on a de facto shallow lake alongside a big old town, the next two days will take us to yet a third, very different kind of river. We are now south of the last dam and the river is tidal from here.

I know that the long approach from Glastonbury, where we are now, to the river’s mouth is a feast for the eyes and ears. Unless we run into heavy traffic (and big wakes!) from recreational power boaters, the next two days should be wonderful.

Also, we will be joined by two more good friends – John M. and Ken.

***

As we pulled out of the water today, an aged stoner who was sitting by the riverside engaged us in conversation. “Kayaking” he said to me, “a good sport for old men”.

***

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Friday’s decidedly pacific paddle on the dammed river reach near Springfield convinced me that the old stoner had been right when he described kayaking as a great sport for old men; Saturday’s journey on a tidal section of the river in Connecticut between Portland and Haddam taught a very different lesson.

Sam, Aidan, Larry, John, John M., Ken and I put in from a dock off a privately owned marina at about 8:00 AM – on the early side because we hoped to take advantage of the tide, which was expected to ebb until around 11:00 AM. Thereafter, we knew, we would be fighting the tide.

Unlike the rest of us, John M. and Ken – who are accomplished athletes but not experienced kayakers – were in a double kayak; on its side they had affixed labels “Thelma” and “Louise” by their seats. I assumed that this boat would naturally go faster than our singles.

The trip length was expected to be about 16 miles. Brian and James were again planning to drive the van and truck/trailer combination down river to where we planned to pull out, and either paddle up to meet us or find some other adventure.

For the first three hours we made great speed – about 4.7 mph according to Sam – with modest effort. The water was calm; there was almost no traffic from power boats; the scenery was lovely. As you can see from the photo below, the river is maybe 250 yards wide in this section, so even when a powerboat did pass us we had plenty of room between it and us.

Just look at how calm the water was, and how beautiful the vistas:

image

At around 10:30, I became convinced that we could and should change our plans. With a little effort and a long day, we could make the whole remaining distance to Old Lyme – about 20 miles. I paddled from one friend’s boat to another, lobbying for my idea: what a delight it would be to finish with a marathon paddle through the river’s southern reaches. Everybody was interested; we agreed that we would make a final decision at the location where we had agreed to meet Brian and James at lunchtime. At the pace we were going, that might be as early as 11:30. I was pretty sure that my idea would carry the day.

By about 11:00, we had covered 14 miles. It would take us between two and two and a half hours – and immense efforts – to cover the next two miles which, needless to say, were the day’s last.

The tide had turned against us, of course, but what I think made a much bigger difference to our speeds and the levels of effort required to make any progress at all is that an amazingly strong wind arose suddenly. The wind was right on our bows, pushing wave after wave after wave at us from the SSE.

I had to work hard to make agonizingly slow forward progress. I was also soaked. My kayak – at about 8 feet in length – is by far the shortest of the group, so when its center of gravity (under my butt) would come over the top of one wave, the bow would plunge down under the oncoming wave. Shortly thereafter the process would reverse: the bow would spring up, flinging water in my face. Fortunately, the water was quite warm. The other boats were long enough so they split waves very differently.

At pone point, we saw Brian and James on the far side of the river. They were happily jumping off a cliff about 25 feet above the water. They wanted us to come over and join them, but there was no way we were going to lengthen the journey with two river crossings and a swimming delay; we were intent on getting through the rough part as quickly as possible.

John M. and Ken, in the long double kayak, were barely making any headway. At one point early in the rough water section, I paddled back to them to see if they needed to pull onto a nearby sand spit for a rest; they didn’t, but they also made it clear that if the conditions got any worse they might not be able to go forward.

We all put our heads down and worked. The group strung out widely, with hundreds of slow yards separating us. Conversation was out of the question – each of us needed to figure out how to get to the agreed dock a mile or more ahead. Time passed and we tired.

One at a time, exhausted, we made the agreed destination. There would be no discussion about going any further. Instead, we decided that the direction of today’s journey should be reversed: we will go from Old Lyme to Haddam so that the tide is in our favor. Nobody wants to face the possibility of fighting both tide and wind over 15 miles.

When I was a boy, on messy summertime days my mother often said: “If you don’t like the weather in New England, wait ten minutes.”  

Always listen to mother.

***

Sunday, August 21, 2016

When I came back into the house today at about 10:30 this morning, my daughter-in-law took a good look at me and said cheerfully:

“Well, they say it’s not really an adventure if there isn’t a little bloodshed.”

She was referring to a scrape on my left leg. I had (most unintentionally) stepped right off the dock a couple of hours earlier while shifting kayaks around and speaking to Bryan, who was preparing to join us for the final day of the journey. The results of that little embarrassment were a bloody scrape, a few bruises and dirty, wet clothing, but the fall wasn’t the reason that I was arriving home well before 1:00 PM – when I had told assorted family members that we would be back. Other things had gone wrong, too.

Immediately after my little dock mishap – which had taken place at about 8:00 AM – I changed into new clothes, took some Advil and cleaned my scrape. Then Sam, Larry, John, John M., Ken, Bryan and I put our kayaks in; it was dead low tide; we were hoping to head north with the wind and tide. The route we had planned had us outside the river’s main channel most of the way – behind Nott Island, up Selden Creek and into Whalebone Creek before arriving back at Haddam near where we stopped yesterday. This route would all be familiar to me: it is where I spent my time training for this week’s adventure. The river’s southern reaches are amazingly lovely, and I was looking forward to showing them to those of my friends who had never seen the area from the water.

Brian and James took the truck/trailer and van north to meet us in Haddam – along with the paddle boards that they were planning to try while waiting for us.

As we made our way across Lord’s Cove (pictured above, btw, on a foggy morning several years ago) and into the river’s main channel, Bryan fell behind. He is a regular soccer player and bike rider, but hadn’t kayaked in many years, and he was having difficulty holding his line. His boat didn’t seem to want to follow his wishes.

The wind was up and from the SW, so the swells in the broad main channel were fairly large. They and the tide were both pushing us in the direction we wanted to go, but our new companion was making very slow progress. After fifteen minutes or so, Bryan and I decided to return to the more sheltered cove in order to avoid making the others wait so long that they – and we – might not reach Haddam by the appointed hour. I sprinted up to the others, to tell them of our decision and that they should go on without us.

Bryan and I returned to the cove, where I again got wet and dirty. In order to reach a narrow channel of deep water into Lord’s Creek where I knew that we would find beautiful scenery and flat water, we had to cross some very shallow (low-tide) water. As we scraped bottom, I decided to get out of my kayak and drag us both to the channel.

Bad idea. I promptly slipped and fell in the water, and the mud was so soft that I couldn’t drag the boats as planned. With each step, I sank in mud up to my calves.

I got back into my kayak and we struggled along through the shallow water, eventually reaching the channel.

The rest of the trip – about an hour and a half of paddling – was great. We saw lots of wonderful wildlife and Bryan mastered his boat to the point where he had no difficulty paddling with – or passing – me.

***

So I didn’t get to complete the journey with all my friends, but I already knew the scenery that I missed – and it was a treat to spend time with Bryan, whom I see too rarely. I showed him Lord’s Creek and watched him master his boat. Along the way I had also received all the workout I really wanted after yesterday’s blowout effort.

Sam, Larry, John, John M., and Ken triumphantly completed the planned route, reaching the get out point on time to meet James and Brian, who had been having lots of fun with the paddle boards. The whole gang returned to our house by 1:00 PM – the appointed hour for a celebratory lunch with family and friends.

***

Our five day journey down the Connecticut River showed us big slices of New England from a perspective of which each of us had previously only seen glimpses.

The river is beautiful and moody. Its character can seem to turn on a dime from placid to angry – or playful – then back again. It is wild at both ends and tamed by dams in the middle. Only occasionally is man’s former carelessness with natural beauty apparent – for the most part, nature is reasserting itself all along the river’s length: forests grow along its banks, fish jump and birds dive.

People sail, paddle, row, ride and fish along the river. Those are the lucky ones – the people who have the good sense to – and can – get out and enjoy its beauty.

It was an honor and a pleasure to be able to spend time on the river with friends. I didn’t even mind the cuts and bruises, or the price I paid in sweat yesterday afternoon.

M.H. Johnston

2 comments to An Adventure on the River

  • Ken  says:

    Thelma and Louise standing by to join the sport v

  • Dennis Paine  says:

    Another adventure! Thank you for posting, Mark, a most enjoyable read.

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