April 2, 2012
LIFE ON THE RIVER – THEN AND NOW
EAST MONTPELIER, VT – Until about 100 years ago, April in New England brought with it a stirring of activity in the river valleys. It was generally still too early and muddy to plow or turn the cows into the fields – farmers instead competed tacitly with their neighbors by planting their snow peas and reporting their progress – but in the headwaters, as the woods roads turned to brown mush, the riverbanks came alive with swarming river drivers. Just after ice-out, they pried stacked-up rollways of saw logs into the high water and started them down the long drive to the mills. Towns along the rivers below waited expectantly for the first of the logs to come through.
Schools let out, and everybody who could went down to the river to watch. Robert Pike, in his magnum opus, Tall Trees, Tough Men, describes a spring evening near Waterford, Vermont: “The bridge was lined with people who had come to see. Presently, as we stood there leaning on the plank railing, with the cool breeze rising from the river and the setting sun behind us, from upstream around a bend a solitary riverman came straight into the red beams of the dying sun. His peavey point was stuck into the big log on which he rode, and both his hands were clasped around the top of its heavy handle. Seemingly oblivious to the slippery, unstable quality of his steed, poised in a splendid attitude of indifference to the many admiring eyes he knew were fixed upon him, he came whirling down the river, the twenty-foot spruce surging and lunging through the white water....So he went on, the vanguard of the drive, and disappeared in the fading light.”
The romance of it! – wet boots and pants, standing in snow eating pork and beans whenever the cook caught up, and all your lice migrating uphill to escape drowning. Ross McKenney, a former Maine riverman who for many years taught outdoor skills and philosophy at Dartmouth College, once described how, as young boys in northern Maine, he and his friends wielded six-foot poles to urge floating sticks down roadside ditches, and dreamed of their future on the river.
Those days passed long ago, remembered only in jerky ancient black-and-white movies and museums full of tools whose purposes almost no one knows anymore. But all is not lost. As spring arrives in this century, and the rivers open up, small watercraft begin to blossom on the roofs of cars and trucks. The rivermen in wet wool riding on logs have been replaced by paddlers clad in neoprene wet suits, dry suits, personal flotation devices, and helmets, riding in canoes, kayaks, inflatable rafts, and – the latest craze – standup paddle boards. The old, expensive, and easily destroyed wood-and-canvas canoes of our youth were replaced, just after the War, first by aluminum, when the Grumman Company switched from making military aircraft to watercraft. In recent years, various plastics, fiberglass, and Kevlar have brought us to our current state.
Driving up the Waits River on a sunny April afternoon last spring, I couldn’t help but notice that it’s a dead ringer for the Queen’s personal salmon beat on the River Dee at Balmoral (without the salmon). The rapids sparkled in the sun. Just then two brightly colored kayaks came bobbing under the bridge to East Orange, like giant rubber duckies, with two very happy guys inside.
Opportunities are everywhere – the wild Mascoma, the lively Ompompanoosuc, the distant Androscoggin, the mighty Connecticut. Organizations like the Vermont River Conservancy are purchasing critical waterfront property, to both protect the resources and ensure access to them. Others are establishing and maintaining campsites for overnight paddling trips on many streams. The Northern Forest Canoe Trail, headquartered in Waitsfield, has pioneered a waterway that stretches from Old Forge in the Adirondacks to Fort Kent, Maine, following historic native American travel routes. Volunteers improve portages and campsites along the (mostly) liquid trail. Some friends and I had a lovely summer day’s recreation on part of it not long ago, paddling the bucolic Missisquoi River in northern Vermont. We camped that night beside a rattling little rapid. A log book at the campsite recorded the reactions of earlier visitors. You can Google the Trail blog for more stories and conditions along the route.
There is, in fact, very little information you can’t get about all the possibilities open to us; almost all of it’s as close as your bookstore or your keyboard. Besides the Northern Forest Trail maps and descriptions, there are guide books for virtually every bit of navigable water in New England: detailed descriptions of the 400 miles of the Connecticut River; an Appalachian Mountain Club guide to whitewater streams; and “quiet water” guides to our ponds. You can find access points, campsites, and the blogs of previous paddlers. If, for example, you’re nervous about crossing Lake Champlain, you can find out how it’s already been done. (Nervousness, you may find, is somewhat justified in that enterprise.)
If you’re up for a multi-day canoe or kayak trip with plenty of company for safety and meals included in the price, check out the Winooski Rive Sojourn. A six-day trip that you can join for any number of days, it features assistance with the portages and regular meetings with naturalists who explain the river valley – a unique one; but I don’t want to spoil the surprise – as you pass.
One thing to remember in all of this, is that a lot of the old river drivers died in the rushing, icy waters of early spring. Try this: Roll up your sleeve and stick your arm for one minute into the water where you’re going to be paddling. That’ll give you some idea of what you’ll be in for should you dump and not be able to get out right away. Wear your life jacket whenever you’re paddling in cold water; at least that way they’ll find you sooner. Most of all, heed old Ross McKenney’s advice: Stay on the sunny side of the boat. Happy paddling!