Summer, Finally: A Connecticut Canoe on the Housatonic

DSC_1178(State #23/50) I sat down on a bench near the covered bridge along the river, waiting for the sun to come out. I pulled out my laptop to write and, lo, the sun broke through the gray ceiling! Then, on cue, a bird shit on my keyboard. Connecticut continued to foil even my most modest of plans.

I came through the state 2 weeks before, hoping to canoe with my longtime friends Kevin and Mary (a power couple in the world


Connecticut Gothic

of music and teaching alike). Kevin and I spent time searching for a river to canoe and camp along, but there were two problems: 1. There was little public camp-able land along Connecticut rivers and 2. Where there were state parks, they were either booked up or still closed for the season (awaiting Memorial Day).

We called it early on Saturday morning and I said I’d make another run at the state coming back down from Maine.  “If it comes to it, I’ll find a way to camp, but I won’t drag y’all into it.” I assured Kevin. So we had drinks, a spread of treats and they cooked rice beef curry in a dutch oven over coals on their 2-acre farmhouse lot. All in all, an enjoyable alternative to trying to scrub camp, where it wasn’t allowed, on a cold night, with my two friends along a river somewhere.

When I arrived back in the state by early June, camping was available, but the weather remained garbage. To be clear, this wasn’t I’m the Texan, naive to the Northeast weather. No, the locals were starting to go nuts as well. Everyone I spoke to said this was abnormal for early June. The locals kept mentioning dates, 5 days down the line, when there was supposed to be sun; they kept their hopes set on shifting rumors. “Next Monday, they say, it will be hot and sunny.” It’s been next Monday for 3 weeks. I thought.


Attempting to dry gear at ‘camp’

I camped in a pull off along the roadside by the river. There were signs about trout fishing protocol, but nothing prohibiting camping. Nevertheless, I moved my car to block my tent from the road view and set up at dusk. Hours later, while reading, someone pulled off the highway. Headlights flooded my tent and then shifted to the woods. I peaked out the tent and saw a cop car. Uh-oh, I thought. Lucky for me, the patrol car backed up and drove the other way down the road, either not seeing or not caring about my hobo encampment.

DSC_1193DSC_1217I put in the water around one o’clock the next afternoon, past the set of rapids under the West Cornwall covered bridge. The sun was out, warm and strong as I made my way bending around the green hills and between large boulders and sets of class I & II rapids. The water was still high and brown, disguising rocks of the same color. I dropped to my knees and braced in several stretches, hitting one rock, but not in a catastrophic manner.

After 3 miles I rounded a bend and, by sound alone, knew something big was coming. I fixed my gaze at a distant point, downstream where the river horizon dropped off. Below, bits of white shot airborne from an unseen fury. My stomach tightened as the sound of crashing water grew louder and it’s source remained hidden to all but my imagination. Okaaaaay, this is one I’m going to look at. I landed Rider on the right bank.

DSC_1205Under tall pines, I walked along a high bank, looking for the best location to scout the rapids. I stepped out onto a massive boulder and overlooked a churning, spitting river. Staring down at the still-high waters did little to calm my nerve. Am I being stupid to try this? I asked myself. Or, am I losing what little white water edge I’ve gained from the trip?

I studied the rapids and concluded the best run was middle left, avoiding the largest standing waves, boulders and drops on the far right. Stalling, I took pictures of mushrooms growing out of logs and the mossy carpet of the forest as I moseyed back to the canoe. Then I spotted some people outside a cabin on a picnic table. “You guys mind doing me a favor?” I asked. “I was wondering if one of you could take some pictures with your phone as I canoe this stretch of rapids and send them to me?” They were a couple from Oklahoma hiking the AT, which passes through that part of the state. The man, Travis, agreed.

HousatonicCanoe1I showed Travis the spot on the boulder and then we walked back to my canoe. “Might not be a bad idea to have someone watching me in case I flip.” I said. “I’ll jump in after you if you do.” Travis assured. I thanked him, shook his hand and he headed to his position on the rock. With knotted belly, I fastened gear down, tightened my life jacket and slapped my face few times for good measure.

Back on the river, I paddled upstream to the left side, turned the bow around and dropped to my knees as I approached the whitewater. The Okie photographer was in position on the boulder with his camera in hand. After a few more deep breaths and a hesitant wave to Travis, I shot towards the v and into the rapids. Screen Shot 2017-07-10 at 2.52.12 PM

I kept the boat straight through the gap, while using the paddle as a rudder. I bobbed and stroked, managing to stay in the line I chose. It was over in twenty seconds — no rocks, no trouble. After working myself into a nervous tizzy, it ended up being way more of a fun ride than a harrowing experience. I waved back to Travis on the rock before disappearing around the bend. Screen Shot 2017-07-10 at 2.55.30 PM

Feeling invigorated, I paddled the final mile with the afterglow of adrenaline, under a blue sky and summer sun. Four trout fisherman, wearing waders and blank expressions, watched me canoe through the final set of rapids (there are still folks, apparently, around this nation completely unimpressed with my canoeing skills). The Housatonic rounded one more forested hill before the pullout appeared. I landed, lugged my canoe out of the water and ate lunch on the grass, beneath the shade of huge pines.

DSC_1238The shade moved as the sun rested warm on my neck and shoulders. I grew drowsy and laid back, looking up at the green leaves and blue sky. Birds sang and a chipmunk chirped from a rotten stump. After many false alarms, I was finally confident that summer had arrived. Content, lazy and sleepy, I closed my eyes and napped — Connecticut came through in the end and my canoe was worth the wait.

River Stats and Fun Facts

  • Housatonic River, Connecticut
  • Miles Canoed: 4
  • Date Canoed: 6-7-2017
  • Weather: Overcast and rainy, cool to sunny and low 70s!
  • Elevation: Approximately 475 feet above sea level
  • Launch Point: Public landing downstream of West Cornwall Covered Bridge (41.869258, -073.363306)
  • Campsite: ? (41.851243, -073.376025)
  • Takeout Point: (41.824071, -073.373142)
  • Thanks to Travis of OK for taking pictures, a video (and sending them to me) and offering to rescue my butt from the water. Thanks to the Ranger at Housatonic Meadows State Park for advice on canoeing the river and for providing lots of natural and cultural history. Also thanks to the women at the cabinet maker shop in West Cornwall for offering me a ride at the end and letting me fill up my water bottles.
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: great blue heron, kingfisher, oriole, crow, swallow, merganser and redwing blackbird
  • Mammal: Chipmunks
  • Reptile/amphibians: a few turtles
  • Noted Species: Black bear (increased over the last decade), river otters, porcupines
  • Dominant Vegetation: white pines, cottonwood, silver maples, sugar maples, oaks
  • Current Threats: PCBs in the river from old GE plant upstream (Signs warn not to eat the Fish)
  • Ecoregion: Northern Highlands (58e) Berkshire Transition
  • Trash collected: bottle caps, plastic, cigarette butts and packages
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $2041 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link to donate below. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given!
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