The Connecticut River. Photo by Jerry and Marcy Monkman.
caption The majestic Connecticut River weaves its way through pastoral Deerfield, Mass. Photo by Jerry and Marcy Monkman.

The Connecticut River then and now

By Michael Tougias

AMC Outdoors, March/April 2013


Silvio O. Conte NFWR
A National Fish and Wildlife Refuge protecting the 7.2 million-acre Connecticut River watershed.

Connecticut River Paddlers' Trail Maps and lists of access points and campsites.

Connecticut River Watershed Council Maps, photo tours, volunteer opportunities, events, links to related sites, and much more.

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.


In 1978, AMC opposed a federal water project to divert Connecticut River water into Quabbin Reservoir for use in Boston. The Berkshire, Boston, Connecticut, and Worcester chapters of AMC sponsored a Connecticut River study, which revealed the diversion’s potential to impact recreation resources and floodplain habitats.

AMC co-led the 1997 Fifteen Mile Falls Settlement Agreement, part of the relicensing of three large hydropower dams on the Connecticut. The agreement provided for more environmentally friendly water releases and reservoir level fluctuations; new facilities for recreational access to the river; the protection of more than 12,000 acres of waterfront land; and the creation of the Upper Connecticut River Mitigation Fund.

AMC remains a member of the Upper Connecticut River Mitigation Fund Advisory Committee. Over 15 years, the committee will grant $21 million for Upper Connecticut River protection projects. To date, more than $12 million in mitigation funds have financed significant new shoreland protection, the removal of outdated tributary dams that impede fish movement, tributary restoration projects, and replanting of native floodplain forests.

AMC research in the 1990s identified the Upper Connecticut River Headwaters as a priority conservation area in the Northern Forest. In 2003, successful protection of more than 171,000 acres in Pittsburg, N.H., occurred through fee and easement purchases. The area is an outstanding resource for public recreation, including fishing, hunting, hiking, and snowmobiling.

In 2004, AMC and partner organizations helped found the Friends of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. The refuge was established in 1991 to conserve the abundance and diversity of native plants and animals and their habitats in the entire Connecticut River watershed.

—Ken Kimball, AMC Director of Research

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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