Ribbon of Blue
The Connecticut River then and now
In the 1960s, when I tramped the shoreline of my hometown of Longmeadow, Mass., just south of Springfield, the Connecticut River was filthy from direct discharge of sewage and industrial waste. But I was just a kid, and the health of the river wasn’t a concern to me. What captured my attention was the size and scope of this mass of water, more than a third of a mile across in Longmeadow—the widest point on its 410-mile journey. The river seemed like an ocean, vast, mysterious, even a bit ominous. Its size fueled my young imagination with thoughts of taking a canoe down its entire length, from the Canadian border to Long Island Sound.
It took me 30 years to finally act on this dream, and I chronicled my adventures and research in my book River Days, published by AMC Books. I wish I hadn’t waited so long. I found stretches of the river that were entirely different than those in the Longmeadow area: intimate and narrow runs where the water rushed and tumbled, clear and clean. And instead of just walking the banks as I did as a boy, I found that canoeing and kayaking opened up secluded areas of the river that almost made me feel like I was in the Yukon. I rarely saw another paddler in the river’s first 80 miles, just the Green Mountains to the west and the White Mountains to the east.
One of those areas is in northern Vermont and New Hampshire (the Connecticut serves as the border between the two states), and I now try to visit it every year. It’s a 15-mile stretch winding past the Vermont towns of Canaan, Lemington, and Bloomfield on the river’s west bank, and the New Hampshire towns of West Stewartstown, Colebrook, Columbia, and North Stratford on the east bank. This run has everything a paddler might want: flat water, quick water, boulders, and plenty of seclusion as you pass by farms and through forest.
The river level can fluctuate based on dam releases above, and rainfall sometimes makes the Connecticut really flex its muscle. During the heat of summer, however, the river’s rocky bottom is exposed in some places; you might have to drag or carry your canoe or kayak. Another hazard is the breached Lyman Dam, north of the North Stratford Bridge in New Hampshire. The safest route is a portage around it.
On this stretch of the Connecticut I’ve seen moose, beaver, osprey, and eagles. I once saw the rump of a black bear as the animal plowed into the woods away from my approaching kayak. But the main reason I return is the great trout fishing and swimming. Below the Lyman Dam is a catch-and-release area that extends to the North Stratford Bridge. The area is a designated wild trout fishery where no stocking is done. As for swimming, the water is so clear you might find yourself thinking like a fish and heading for the deeper pools. It’s a far cry from the polluted river I knew to the south in my boyhood.
One of the most important catalysts of the Connecticut’s cleanup has been the national Clean Water Act, which Congress passed in 1972. And since River Days came out a decade ago, the river’s health has continued to improve. Andrew Fisk, executive director of the Connecticut River Watershed Council, points out that in the past 10 years “millions of dollars have been invested in direct improvements to the water and wastewater infrastructure, significantly reducing pollution.” Fisk also reminds us that river flow is almost as important as water quality. “We have begun to establish standards not just for quality but water quantity so that we have biologically healthy rivers.”
Going forward, a major water-quality issue that still needs resolving is combined sewer overflow, or CSO. This happens during heavy rains, particularly in larger metropolitan areas such as Springfield and Hartford. Sewers that normally carry both sewage and street runoff to treatment plants overwhelm them with water volume, and untreated effluent is discharged into the river. Volunteers from the Connecticut River Cleanup Committee are dedicated to educating the public about this problem and ultimately curtailing CSO. Another issue, in both urban and rural areas, is nonpoint source pollution, in which chemicals from fertilizers, pesticides, and other substances get washed into the river. Through decreased use of such chemicals on farms and lawns, along with efforts to create larger natural buffers along the river’s shoreline, we can improve water quality and eliminate algae blooms.
One group that both supports the river’s health and actively promotes recreational access is the people who give their time to support the Connecticut River Paddlers Trail. The trail is a series of primitive campsites and access points from the river’s headwaters—the Connecticut’s source is a 1-acre beaver pond just 300 yards from the Canadian border—to the northern boundary of Massachusetts. Coordinator Noah Pollock spearheads a partnership of more than 20 organizations dedicated to improving recreational opportunities on the river. “Together we have conserved or revitalized three access points and 11 campsites,” says Pollock. “We are nearing completion of a waterproof paddlers map and are working to expand the trail south into Massachusetts and Connecticut.”
Another opportunity for negotiating improved access to the river has presented itself: No fewer than five hydropower dams on the Connecticut—from above White River Junction in Vermont to below Turners Falls, Mass.—are currently seeking new federal licenses. “The dam relicensing process is an opportunity for AMC to create better campgrounds, access points, and portages for paddlers,” says Norman Sims, a former AMC Board member who is representing AMC on this issue.
Because the Connecticut is within driving distance for millions, you might think the river is jammed with people enjoying it on hot summer days. In some populated areas this is true, particularly on weekends. But I have found that the river is underutilized. I’m not wishing for shore-to-shore traffic of boats and paddlers, of course, but I do feel that getting more people on the river— especially young people—is a good thing. Naturally, if people feel no personal connection to the river, they aren’t as interested in what’s happening to it.
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