June 11, 2012
PADDLING THE UPPER CONNECTICUT
MAIDSTONE, VT – I e-mailed a friend to tell him I’d meet him Saturday morning in Guildhall, Vermont, and left it at that. On his way there, he apparently got nervous and called Mother at home to ask where in Guildhall. She hadn’t any idea, but neither of them had any cause to wonder where. There isn’t any such place. Guildhall is simply a crossroads: a beautiful, expansive village green surrounded on two sides by white Grecian Revival buildings, including the Essex County courthouse, on a third side by a magnificent cupolaed library and Masonic Hall with stained-glass windows, and bordered on the east by a rapid section of the upper Connecticut River below a ruined dam. Route 102, following the river’s west bank, passes through, and a short bridge crosses the river into Northumberland, New Hampshire. Very quiet, and I’ll bet the town’s 260 residents (2010 census) like it just that way.
Our business there Saturday morning was to visit a volunteer crew working to improve a canoeing access point above the start of the rapids. They represented the Vermont River Conservancy, the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, and the Connecticut River Watershed Council in a continuing effort to establish a “paddlers’ trail” from Canaan, Vermont, on the Canadian border to the Massachusetts line. The ultimate goal is to build and maintain rustic campsites – tenting spots, fire rings, privies, and perhaps tables and perching logs – every five miles, in order that multi-day paddlers can adjust their stops along the way to the conditions of water, wind, and rain.
There were about twelve of us – I never did get an exact count – who, after visiting with the work crew, would spend a couple of days on the river. Remembering the recent rain, I walked out onto the bridge and took a look at the rapids below. I was delighted to see the water at an optimum level for paddling. If I’d been paddling to the Guildhall takeout site that day, I’d have run it with few qualms. (Another job the volunteers have tackled is removing the old spikes that stick up from ruined wooden dams and sometimes play hell with the tender bottoms of passing vessels.)
Under the shade of the maples on the village green, we lunched convivially on sandwiches, chips, and beer, introducing ourselves to each other where necessary. Then we traveled in caravan north up the river to Lemington: like Guildhall and the other upper river towns but a shadow of its former self during the days of logging, river-driving, and mills. We took a vehicle back to the proposed end of our next day’s paddle, loaded up the canoes, and set off in a hot afternoon sun.
It’d been several decades since I last paddled this section of the river, and I’d quite forgotten the miles of beautiful rapids, unthreatening, but enough to keep us on the qui vive and to dump a gallon or two of water into one canoe. I felt a little disoriented because I had neither of my usual septuagenarian canoe partners, Bob and Al. For hundreds of miles I’ve stared at one or the other of their broad backs, parkas, gray hair, and wide-brimmed hats. But for this voyage, Stephan, the organizer, had paired me with Lydia, an ebullient, dark-haired, thirtyish naiad in a short skirt who really knew her stuff in white water, but approached each drop with ecstatic yahoos! while, behind her, I was anxiously scanning the route for hidden rocks. We got through just fine.
We’d been warned by Noah, the trip leader, about the breached dam at Lyman Falls State Park, our proposed campsite for the night. Stay all the way to the left, he cautioned. Which we did, and shot right through. The campsite on the Vermont shore is in the state park, on a grassy flat surrounded by scrubby second-growth and with room for twenty tents. If there’d been a wind, it wouldn’t have bothered us; if there’d been bugs, they would have. We dined on potato salad, tabouli (I think, I can’t tell it from couscous or oatmeal), and lots of sausages. A little guitar music and singing around the fire – Tom Slayton knows a lot of old-time songs, including “In Old Pod-Auger Times”; look it up – and we retreated to our tents for a cool and perfect sleeping night.
Steve, our videographer, was up first, as usual, shooting mist and sunrise on the river. The others rallied shortly; the coffee got going; Lydia cut up a few potatoes and put them into the frying pan, which Noah stirred faithfully; we peeled and ate hard-boiled eggs, shaking salt into our palms for dipping. A few group pictures, a couple of interviews for the camera, and we were off again. This was a protected stretch of river: artificial lures, barbless hooks, and catch-and-release only.
The river had dropped a bit during the night. Its bed had also spread out, so Sunday morning was a bit bumpier than the day before. But everyone got through all right – though the corpse of a fiberglass-and-aluminum canoe crumpled against the New Hampshire shore did remind us of possibilities. We began to spot bald eagles, and passed an osprey nesting platform, where Mama glared at us and the kids were either hunkering down in the nest or too little to peek over the edge. For the benefit of the Conservancy trustees in the group, we stopped to inspect campsites or recent acquisitions, and lunched at one, a silty beach just below a magnificent granite-block pillar that long ago had supported a railroad bridge. Tiny minnows shimmered the smooth surface just offshore, like a horse twitching off flies. Some of the crew stripped to bathing suits they’d been concealing and cooled off in the still-cold water; the rest cooled a few bottles of Corona Extra.
We lingered there as long as the miles still ahead would let us, but finally got up, stowed everything back into the canoes, and started off again, this time in much quieter, meandering water. Sandpipers twittered back and forth across the river; red-winged blackbirds watched to make sure we passed; and a large flock of Canada geese and goslings gammed up against the shore, swimming cautiously upstream to let us by. We wouldn’t have upset them for the world.