Katherine screamed when she hit the water. Seconds later, I screamed too. The Connecticut River emptied the air from my lungs and flung my eyes open wide as it washed away a coating of grime, sunscreen and sweat that clung to me like a layer of dead skin. The current was cold, deep and ancient. We gasped and yelled, then laughed and crawled back onto shore for dry clothes, a fire and well-earned dinner.
It had been a day that started at five in the morning and after fifteen miles of paddling plus a five-mile portage, taking a plunge into that dark, swift-moving water was too alluring to think twice.
Travel for me means the freedom to explore, push myself or simply just drift and do what comes naturally. But travel by boat is an experience unlike any other and when done properly, you’ll never want to travel any other way.
If you’re looking for a body of water to channel your inner Steam Boat Willy or Huck Finn, allow me to point you in the direction of the Connecticut River. Stretching from its headwaters in Quebec, New England’s longest river flows about 410 miles through four states on its way south to the Long Island Sound. Its explorers include American Indians, Dutch traders, the Puritans (who established some of New England’s first cities in the 17th century), anglers, bird watchers, motor boaters and me. Growing up in southwestern Vermont, I explored the coves and islands at its confluence with the West River in Brattleboro, learning navigation by compass and glassing the tall grasses on the riverbanks for herons. It’s a symbol of solitude, comfort and time and if you’re looking for a getaway from everything outside its willow and maple-lined banks, the Connecticut will wrap you in its big gentle embrace just like it’s done to me.
We’d were on the water since 10:30 that morning, but preparations for the trip were made in the early moirning while fog still clogged the valley floor where I live. Just minutes after dawn, my girlfriend and I cooked all of our food and packed it into mason jars, strapped a canoe to the roof of my Subaru and packed three heavy-duty dry bags with all the other supplies we would need.
We drove an hour from home in the Champlain Valley across the state, through Rutland, Ludlow and Chester, pausing only to sample goodies at the Vermont Country Store in Rockingham before Route 103 ended and we turned onto a dirt road. Herrick’s Cove is a boat launch four miles north of Bellows Falls. It’s also a popular stopover point for migratory birds. While Katherine stuffed produce into one of the drybags, I left a note on the dashboard of my car saying we’d be back the following day before sundown. We had 30 miles ahead of us.
Wind gusted in the reeds as we shoved off from shore with the sun on our faces. We breathed a sigh in satisfaction. After the morning’s sprint to get out the door and to the river, we were finally here, paddles flashing, sunlight dancing in our eyes.
I’ve heard the true test of a relationship is an extended period of time in a two-person canoe. While we took the first few minutes to find a pace and get ourselves in sync, the rest of the morning passed in easy paddling. The river was narrow and the water fast. There were no bugs and the wind stayed behind us as we glided past fields and 19th century farmhouses. After 100 yards, we were moving fast downstream; by 200 we were flying.
Portage at Bellows Falls
The sign for the portage yelled to us from the shore like an exit sign on the side of a freeway. Beyond a field, wind tossed laundry on a line a UPS delivery van inched alongside the sidewalk. We were in Walpole, N.H. Downriver, just a quarter mile from where we stood, a 643-foot long hydroelectric dam churned water through turbines. Formations of concrete and frayed ends of thick cable protruded from murky water, grotesquely weathered remnants of an age when rivers were drivers of transportation and commerce.
In 1772, the Vermont state legislature chartered the construction of a canal at Bellows Falls. By the time it was finished, the United States was a country and the canal was the first in North America. The canal was one of six built on the river to bypass dangerous rapids and falls. It allowed for continuous movement of freight and passengers until highways ands railroads improved in the late 19th century and use of the canal declined. The canal was integrated into a hydroelectric dam in the 1920s, the same dam that we were now about to portage around.
Experienced paddlers can hoist a canoe above their head and balance it from the middle while they hike but after peeling off our life jackets and sorting our gear, we realized we were hardly ready to attempt such a performance. Our portage would require us to cross streets and negotiate sidewalks and shoulders of roads next to fast-moving traffic. However longer it would take, a team effort seemed best.
We stumbled across the grass toward the sidewalk with the canoe gripped awkwardly, trying different positions until Katherine discovered one that worked:
“Your HEAD, Evan. Put it on your HEAD!”
The next hour followed in a slog through pouring rain with the seats of the overturned canoe propped on top of our heads. The driver of a tiny Toyota pickup with a red Mad River on the back issued a thumbs-up as we stumbled over cracked sidewalks and through knee-high grass, the rain soaking our pants and shoes. One-and-a- half miles never felt so long. Rain pounded the hull and the light, musky smell of river and mold filled my head, a smell that conjured memories of my first campouts as a child with an ancient five-person Eureka tent and a massive yellow lab. The hull of the canoe acted as an echo chamber and Katherine and I could talk easily despite the roar of nearby traffic.
Being in front, my vision was restricted only to what was three feet in front of my knees. To see more, I had to lift the canoe above my head like a champion weight lifter, which sacrificed ease of carry in favorability. As I felt my way along the pavement, Katherine’s voice echoed down the length of the hull with directions.
“Sidewalk ends in twenty yards… make that thirty… pothole on your left… take a break in five feet.”
We passed rotted train cars, rusting on the tracks, liquor stores, laundromats and the barren riverbed where the river once lay before it was diverted for the construction of a hydroelectric dam in 1926.
We crossed New Hampshire 12 to an access road that led down to a sandy beach, where we concealed the boat behind some scrubby trees. We trudged the 1.5 miles back to the launch where our bags sat untouched. I napped on the grass before we hoisted the bags and started again – one more 1.5-mile leg to go.
We were about half a mile into the final stretch when a silver Toyota sedan swung to the curb ahead of us. A woman with silver hair sprang from the driver’s seat.
“Are you portaging?’ she yelled over the roar of passing cars.
I grinned. If the lifejacket wasn’t enough of a hint, the bright yellow drybags surely gave us away. She popped the trunk.
Our rescuer introduced herself as Mary and happily gave us a lift back to the canoe, which remained where we hid it. She asked us about our trip and her mouth dropped open when we told her. She told us about her own paddling trips.
“I’m 71 and I love the adventure,” she said.
Mary left us at the access road. We launched and rainclouds chased us as the brick buildings and electric cables of Bellows Falls disappeared behind a bend in the river. We breathed a sigh of relief as we worked with the current. After breezing through the first four miles, we never wanted to carry our gear on our backs again.
“Rope swing, twelve o-clock.”
The knotted piece of rope extended towards our heads from a huge overhanging branch that loomed above the bow of the canoe. Waning afternoon sunlight leaked through the canopy while the boat cut through the shallow water where the silver maples and willows met the river. We stared up. For two river-weary travelers, the thought of a high-speed ride followed by a moment of flight and an chilling plunge was more than tempting – it seemed a calling.
With a layman’s knowledge of physics, the length of the rope, paired with the height of the starting point (twenty to thirty feet above the river) and the approximate rate of acceleration seemed enough to launch a 140-pound rider (me) squarely into the middle of the river – provided I didn’t faceplant on the way down or miss my launch and swing back into the silver maple. We also couldn’t gauge the depth of the water or detect any obstacles lurking below the surface. That was a few opportunities for faceplant or other bodily harm too many, so we pushed on to find our campsite.
The 280 miles of river that thread between New Hampshire and Vermont is littered with campsites spaced 10 to 20 miles apart. Some are located on state parks and require a reservation, but most of them are available on a first-come-first-serve basis. They’re strictly paddle-in-paddle-out and are equipped with picnic table, fire pit and latrine. They’re free to use, but put $5 to $10 in the locked box to help the volunteer caretakers keep them in shape.
We had been on the river for 20 miles when we began looking for that campsite, eyeing every break in the treeline.
“Is that it?
“Don’t think so.”
“Could work, though, couldn’t it?”
The map provided by the Connecticut River Paddlers’ Trail includes GPS coordinates of the sites, but lacking a handheld device, we hugged the riverbank and kept our eyes peeled. We felt we were close, and if we weren’t, any open patch of grass would do just fine. After contemplating rope swings, we drifted further toward a gap in the trees.
“There!” Katherine shouted from the bow and we swung the big American Trader around. We pulled it ashore in mud that swallowed our ankles and shins.
The Windyhurst campsite was in a clearing set twenty yards from the river. Towering silver maples shaded a firepit, picnic table and enough space for two tents. A pit latrine was discretely located down a path. Beyond the boundary of the campsite, a network of plastic tubing ran between sugar maples. The river curved in a graceful arc around the meadows of Putney, Vermont. The sunset tinged the water from a ruddy brown to a darkening shade of ink. We stripped out of our grimy clothes and made for the water.
I heated dinner on the stove while Katherine used most of my notebook to make a campfire. With hot food and a fire that stretched fingers into the deepening canopy of sky, we let the day’s accomplishments sink in with tired satisfaction. Our skin drank the heat off the flames and a weary silence fell over us like a heavy blanket.
Sitting on a stump, I thought about Earnest Hemingway short story, “Big Two-Hearted River.” In it, Hemingway’s semi-autobiographical character Nick Adams, newly returned from war, heads to the rivers on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to fish. It’s a powerful story written in Hemingway’s typical spartan prose about homecoming from war, but a principal theme in the work is nature’s ability to heal and liberate.
“He felt he had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs, it was all back of him.”
I thought about that line as night settled around us. Traveling allows an escape – usually temporary – from whatever’s taking up the most mental bandwidth. It gives permission to refocus on what matters as you break from routine in a changing environment. In the course of the entire day, Katherine and I discussed the weather, water, the diving beavers nearby and hawks wheeling overhead. We shared goals and ideas for the summer. We fantasized about nachos and margaritas awaiting us at the end of the trip. We talked about my increasing need for a haircut.
There is no hurry on the river. You can’t rush it. The pace of life slows to the space between paddle strokes and the list of concerns is streamlined to only the basics: We have food, water, a tent and paddles. The direction is always the same: downriver.
I barely made it into the tent before I was sound asleep.