Thursday, July 14, 2011

On The Connecticut

By Krista Langlois
Valley News Staff Writer

I read once that everyone has a river of their birth, a place where, when you return, you feel immediately at home. For a long time, I wished to be able to tell people that mine was a clear trout stream tumbling from the Rockies, or a deep turquoise gash slicing through Alaska on its journey from glacier to sea. But that wouldn’t be true. I was raised on the banks of the brown, sluggish Connecticut.

Living in the West, I’d stand with my mouth agape at the edge of the rivers I’d dreamed of, taken aback by their force. But now I’m back in New England, and standing ankle-deep in the warm Connecticut River as the setting sun stains its surface a glassy purple is like breathing a sigh of relief. The air is humid; it smells like river, like silt and soil, like growing things. Like home.

The Connecticut River is the longest waterway in the Northeast, and its meandering path has shaped this region’s history. Though it can be powerful during spring flood, it’s more often an old, lazy river, warm and welcoming. This is the river where I first learned to cast a baited hook and dip a canoe paddle beneath the surface, and today I have the chance to pass on those experiences. I’m here with my friend Elizabeth Cadle and her 3-year-old daughter, Una Moore, to canoe a portion of the Connecticut River Paddlers’ Trail. This is Una’s first time canoe camping and her first time fishing, and this is the perfect place for an introduction.

Because we’re never far from the Connecticut River here in the Upper Valley, it’s a convenient venue for an impromptu overnight adventure. An overnight paddling trip can seem daunting, but this one is great for beginners or families with kids. Elizabeth, Una and I prepared for our trip in just a few hours: we started planning around noon, and were on the water by early evening. 

The Paddlers’ Trail is a series of primitive campsites and river access points spanning 240 miles from the river’s headwaters to the Massachusetts border. Some of the sites are on public land; others are privately owned and maintained for free public use. Most are only accessible from the water; and most offer a picnic table, firepit and pit toilet. All are first come, first served. 

Once Elizabeth and I had chosen what section to paddle (Orford to North Thetford), I printed a couple of complimentary maps from the Upper Valley Land Trust website, laminated them with clear packing tape and marked the locations of our put-in, campsite and take-out with a marker. Then all we had to do was pack.

A rubbermaid tote and a couple heavy-duty trashbags are fine for storing firewood, a tent, a day’s worth of food and some sleeping bags. I’m religious about double-bagging the important stuff — lighters, dry clothes, headlamp, camera. Everything goes into a two-gallon Ziplock, then into my drybag (or a trash bag). My favorite thing about canoe camping is that you can carry just about as much stuff as you want. It’s an activity that combines the luxury of car-camping with the off-the-beaten-path privacy and escapism of backpacking. Bringing a cast-iron skillet and sack of split wood will hardly slow your progress at all.

There are a number of places to rent canoes, depending on what section of the river you decide to visit. We picked up ours at Fairlee Marine for $29. Some outfitters in the area offer self-guided trips or shuttles to make things even more convenient, but if you want to do it yourself, Fairlee Marine’s basic services are adequate. They just pointed us toward a boat and took our money. 

We put in at the Orford Boat Launch as the evening light lay low and slanting across the calm water. The Connecticut River Paddlers’ Trail website assigns mile markers to all the access points and campsites, so measuring the distances and planning a trip that fits your schedule and ability level is easy. The Orford Boat Launch, right off Route 10, lies at mile 239 of the river; the take-out in North Thetford is at mile 232.5. In the six-and-a-half miles between, the map shows two potential campsites: one called Birch Meadow, and another called Roaring Brook. There are clear explanations of how to find each campsite using landmarks or river features, as well as GPS coordinates. Really, the UVLT people couldn’t make it any easier.

We headed to Roaring Brook. The paddle took about an hour and a half, even at a leisurely pace with several snack and swimming stops. Una showed great restraint staying mostly still in the center of the canoe, taking on such important jobs as watching for boat traffic (of which there was little), skimming her paddle across the water and acting as the all-powerful Boat Balancer and Keeper of the Water Bottles. 

It can be tempting to dismiss the Connecticut River, passing over it as we often do on our way to work or running errands. It’s easy to think of it as little more than a geographic marker, a band of blue running between two states. 

But out on the river, taking it in from the unhurried vantage point of a canoe, it takes on its own beauty. Though it’s been damaged and polluted at times in its long history, the Clean Water Act has turned things around, and it’s now a corridor of the natural world running right through our backyard. Every time Una started to get a little antsy from staying still in the center of the boat, we’d see a gaggle of geese clustered on a bank or a red-winged blackbird clinging to a strand of marsh grass, and she’d be enthralled once again. We sent water bugs skittering over the surface of the water with our paddles, and Una laughed with joy.

Roaring Brook was simply lovely — a well-cared-for, grassy clearing about 75 feet long and 45 feet wide on a low bank with a wide-open view of the river. Silver maples drooped over the bank on one side of the campsite, making a perfect shady spot to string my nylon hammock, and the area was surrounded by black raspberry bushes.

 Two small freshwater streams burbled on either side of the clearing. The pit toilet, located back in a stand of spruces, was as clean as you could ask for. And though we could hear cars passing on Route 5 not too far away, we didn’t see another soul. We cooked over the campfire, roasted marshmallows, and then Una and Elizabeth climbed into their tent and I lowered myself in my sleeping bag into my hammock.

 As the night darkened and fireflies flickered in the branches, the traffic on Route 5 subsided and the sounds of a summer night took over. I lay awake and listened to the hooting of an owl, the intermittent thwang of a bullfrog, a yapping chorus of coyotes somewhere on the far bank. The moon rose behind the black silhouettes of trees.

The next morning, we cooked eggs and fished (without success) and reluctantly packed up our gear for the two-mile paddle downstream to North Thetford. Before we pushed off from camp, Elizabeth remembered the notebook left as a guest book and log in a mailbox nailed to a tree. 

We jotted down our own words, then flipped back to see who else had been to the site this year. There were four other groups before us, though Jason Berard of the UVLT estimated that about 30 people use each site per month. 

Shannon, age 12, had been here on a canoe trip with her parents. “Went fishen and I got two nibbels and one perch and one bass,” she wrote in a careful hand. “Then the most beuteful unicorn came out of the woods. … I was good so she granted me a wish and my wish was … I’m sorry, I can’t tell you or it might not come true, but I can tell you this: I love the rivers in Vermont and hope they will always stay beautiful!”

When Elizabeth read the entry to Una, Una nodded her head seriously, wide-eyed, and said: “me too.”

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