On the River

I’m looking out over the narrower end of Lords Cove, low-lying, grass-covered Goose Island and the Connecticut River beyond. On the river’s farther shore I can see a few houses and the entrance to a tucked-away marina. It’s late in the day with a nice breeze rising off the water. I feel proprietary about this scene – and the river’s lower reaches generally.

Where a river meets a sea, both change. Rivers are fresh and often muddy, flowing ever onward; seas are grander, salty and tidal. The waters I see are all of these things, with different elements predominating by turn – and distinctly moody besides.

The river can be – and frequently is – the picture of serenity*, but when the wind is up and the tide is running, the waves and current can make headway in a kayak – my usual mode of water transportation – nearly impossible. Conditions can change drastically in an hour or rounding a bend; winds, tides and storms aren’t matters of curiosity to be observed – or ignored – from places of comfort.

At this time of year I don’t think there are many who spend more time on these waters than I do. Regulars include DEP and water police. A few tour boat operators. Marina men – but they don’t go far. That’s about it. I haven’t seen commercial fishermen hereabouts. I do see plenty of people fishing, but rarely the same ones twice. Speed boaters and sailors tend to come out on weekends, if at all.

Consequently, early most weekday mornings, even in summer, moving boats – as opposed to moored ones – are rare: maybe three or four an hour. Usually somebody’s looking for a good fishing spot. On weekends, the river is crowded with fast-moving boats of various sorts – on its main body I can feel like a deer trying to find its way across a highway – but the estuaries are always quiet. In many of them I have never seen another moving boat.

I have been out three or four times a week this summer. On one or two of these days I go on semi-explorational paddles – up the river, around islands, into the coves and estuaries or, more adventurously, down to the Sound then up one of the smaller nearby rivers until I run out of navigable water, and back. I like to visit each of the places within the range of a five hour round-trip at least once a year and there are enough such places to keep me busy all summer. I like to see if anything has changed – and for the most part, nothing has. On other kayaking days, which is most of them, when I have less free time, I generally do a circuit around nearby Goose, Calves and Nott islands – my true home territory. There I know every rock and shallow.

Along the nearby river islands’ shorelines, six foot grasses, some native, others not, cover the refuse I noticed early this past spring. Just now, pink wildflowers with blooms as big as your hand – beach roses? – can be seen interspersed among the grasses.

The shorelines on either side of the river are dotted with familiar marinas and homes, most of the latter with private docks. The boats that I paddle past regularly are so embedded in my subconscious that their rare absences are automatically noted. Many on moorings have become like friends, pointing toward whichever of wind and tide is temporarily stronger, or both.

At the river’s mouth stand two enormous bridges: the Baldwin Bridge – high, proud and far too loud – carries route 95, the east coast’s true river of commerce, and the (unnamed, as far as I know) railroad bridge for Amtrak, with a section that is usually levered up on one side to allow big boats to pass beneath. I go under these bridges on my southbound paddles in lanes more often used by much bigger craft, watching out for them.

The river’s wildlife has become as familiar to me as its perpetually anchored boats. I have paddled through schools of fish so thick that I both hear and feel them unintentionally bumping into the bottom of my boat – and could strike them with each paddle stroke. A month or so ago a much larger fish – three or four feet long! – swam alongside me for several hundred yards, appearing right by my paddle, on one side of the kayak, then the other, then back again, but never quite breaking the surface. I don’t know what it was.

I see more birds than fish: cormorants, egrets, swallows, geese, swans, seagulls and turkey vultures. An eagle overhead, watching. Most are constant fishers.

And the oddballs: crabs, turtles, maybe a beaver swimming placidly by. Once, a garden snake that had probably slept in my kayak awakened when I was already on the water and announced its presence by wrapping itself around one of my legs as I paddled – shortly thereafter becoming an unintentional (and short-lived) water dweller.

All in all, to an extent that I would never have appreciated before spending so much time on the water, the river is teeming with life. It’s perfectly silly of me to feel proprietary about its lower reaches, of course. Navigable water belongs to everybody and thus, in a sense, to nobody. To the native wildlife, it’s home.

At best I am a more frequent warm-weather visitor to the river’s ever-changing waters than most others of our kind. That doesn’t keep me from wanting to protect them, though.

M.H. Johnston

*The picture atop this page (if you’re reading this on a pc) is of Lords Cove on a placid morning (from water-level, which is why you can’t see the river beyond Goose Island). For some reason, the picture doesn’t show up on my mobile devices, though.

4 comments to On the River

  • John Primm, MPM  says:

    You remind me of Kenneth Grahame and his words from The Wind in the Willows. Very lyrical and sweet, Mark. Thank you!

  • Vivian  says:

    That same proprietary feeling overcomes me every time I see an eagle or red tail hawk soaring over the Hudson river. Feel so gifted by them.

  • Dennis Paine  says:

    Now you have me wondering, Mark. Is the term “garter snake” used in your part of the country?

    Very nice read, BTW, on this quiet summer Sunday.

    • M Johnston  says:

      It is, but I hadn’t heard that term used for years. As a matter of possible interest, also, one of my more water-knowledgeable friends tells me that the big fish that briefly accompanied me was almost certainly a kind of sturgeon.

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