The Connecticut River and I


Mark Kutolowski and I were hanging out in San Francisco, killing time before going back to visit our parents for Christmas. We had both done the Dartmouth sophomore canoe trip, though not at the same time and not as sophomores. This trip purports to begin at the source of the Connecticut, so of course we thought we'd be canoeing on a trickling stream and get to watch it widen to the whole Connecticut. Not so--the trip starts a hundred miles away from the source, near one of the river's widest points (because of downstream dams).

Anyhow, we got to talking about this, and it turned out that we both wanted to go back up there and finish what we had started. We wanted to canoe the whole Connecticut.

Day 0

Fast forward one hundred and thirty days. Four men are in a car: myself, Mark, my brother Will and Noah Kieserman. We are driving to the house of Walker Weed, eighty-two year-old power paddler and legend of the Connecticut. It is said that he had canoed the entire river some twenty times. It is said that he is the only perfect paddler ever to have lived, using every muscle in his body in every stroke. It is also said that George Clooney is slated to play him in the upcoming feature film, The Saga of Weed.

We arrive and meet our canoeing comrades: Walker and his retired doctor friends, or as he describes them "three other ancients, all experienced Arctic veterans so we won't hold you youngsters up." The eight of us discuss the business of the trip: how we're getting there, what food we're bringing, and so on.

It strikes me how differently we all look. Noah's long flowing hair, bushy beard, physical presence and occasional stoicism make him look like a Viking war god. Mark is built too, but his wide Polish forehead is offset by an affable smile, making him seem more like an educated backwoodsman. My brother and I are gangly computer programmers, both sporting scraggly beards. They vary more than we do in build. John, whose last name I forget, is slightly portly and always chuckling or grinning. Eric Sailor lumbers with the magnificence of the Sasquatch. Ross McKenney looks more like a doctor to me, with his warm and obviously intelligent eyes. All seven of us are at least six inches taller than Walker, who lithely buzzes about, showing us the food he bought and the canoe he's building. "You all make me look like a pygmy," he jeers, and we laugh. He reminds me a bit of Yoda.

The meeting finishes well. As we drive away, it begins to snow. I'm so happy to be back in New England again.

Day 1

We rise before the crack of dawn to meet Walker at the East Thetford bridge. We walk outside, and it's still snowing. An inch in Hanover, four inches in Etna, goodness knows how many at our put-in by the Canadian border. Walker delays the trip a day. Who would've guessed it would snow so much in the last days of April? Oh, New England.

Day 1, Take 2: Trial by Bitter Cold

We rise before the crack of dawn to meet Walker at the East Thetford bridge. Again. This time all goes according to plan, and after shifting some gear around, we make the three hour drive north. Beautiful scenery whizzes by as we navigate the highways that follow the meandering river. Around noon we arrive at a little bridge over a stream not much more than two hundred feet wide.

We put our boats in the water and take off. I fall into the rhythm of the motions, the epic beauty of the just budding scenery, the solitude of the flowing river. It's good to be canoeing again.

The Connecticut is different up here, faster and bumpier. It's energy is infectious, bouncing our boats up and down. Mark and I take the smaller canoe, which is very tippy but much faster. So much time has passed since I was on the water that the boats movement scares me as it did when I first began paddling.

Though the snow has stopped, the air is still raw and cold. The wind gusts up from time to time. I heard that right now it's spring, but it sure doesn't look like it out here. Our day is short--we put in below most of the rapids because the water was too high--but we were ready to stop when dinner rolls around.

A field on the New Hampshire side hosts our picnic lunch. Sausages, pepperoni, peanut butter and orange marmalade. I have nothing against vegetarianism or vegetarians, but how cool to have meat on a canoe trip! The shore is a little muddy, and as Mark is getting in the boat he slips and knocks me out of the canoe. I swim for land, struggling with the staggeringly cold water and the sheer weight of my clothes. I strip down naked on the shore, wring things out and put them back on. Despite the temperature, it's a lot of fun and I'm a heck of a lot less nervous about falling out of the boat.

Dinner is Dinty Moore beef stew with canned peas. The oldsters tell us tales of their voyages to the arctic and Ledyard trips that were so dangerous and disasterous that people ended up dead. Eric reads to us journal entries from the Northwest Passage expedition of Sir John Franklin, where crewmembers capsized in the rapids and some nearly died of hypothermia. The lesson seems to be not to fall in when the water's cold, one I think I already learned.

The night is extremely cold--we have to wear all of our clothes in our sleeping bags to be warm. We sleep long and hard, arms tired and eyes smiling.

Day 2: Trial by Scorching Sun

Fog surrounds our island campsite as we wake to the first rays of morning. Breakfast--bacon and eggs--is cooking on the camp stoves. As Will said to me, "I'm eating better on this trip than I have for the last four months."

After breakfast, we feel something different in the air. Ah, I know what it is--warmth! The sun is out with a vengeance, making it feel positively summery.

We put in and hit rapids right off. We'd seen class one the day before, but this is definitely bigger waves. Our tiny boat is too weighted down to even stand a chance. A quarter of the way through the rapids, the canoe is filled with water and Mark and I bail.

I swim for shore again, this time paddle in tow. Our boat capsizes, each piece of gear follows its own path down the river. We hear shouts of "Boat over!" as soon as we get to shore and hike to the road to get past the rapids and figure out what to do.

The others dive for our stuff. Noah and Will take their boat to shore, and Noah sprints after our canoe. Mark and Will canoe together down the rest of the rapids as I hike and dry in the sun. An hour later and a mile downstream, we reconvene. Amazingly, all our gear was salvaged!

Walker lets us know that the two dunking episodes (one each day) have put us two hours behind schedule. We put our muscle to the water, but are still two hours behind when we camp in a farmer's field. The deep purple of the sky and the bright green of the grass are indescribably beautiful. Eric threatens to read us the story of Sir John's capsize again, but instead we talk about Western medicine, caloric intake, the expedition of Art Moffat, and canoeing. And go to sleep.

Day 3: Trial by Vicious Wind

Foggy again this morning, but as we break down camp, the fog burns off and the wind kicks up. It's a headwind. Our schedule today calls for thirty-some miles, and against this wind, it'll be painful.

The day is thankfully uneventful and even I stay dry. We canoe hard all day and stop at four to have some daylight time to just chill.

Our camp is nearby enough to one of the dams to see its sweeping beauty all night long, which leads to long and silly conversations about how and why they mow their 45-degree-sloped lawn. All I know is that it's fun to roll down, again and again until you're so dizzy you can barely stand.

We watch the sunset and shoot the breeze until it's time for bed. The wind finally starts dying down as we settle into our tents and sleep.

Day 4: Trial by Still Water

"Only prostitutes make money lying in bed!" Walker cries. Time to get up, I suppose. He tells us that we have three difficult portages and forty miles to go before the end of the day. Oof.

There is no wind, there is no sun, there is no current. The three dams in this area make the river run more than a mile wide. It feels like a long and strangely clear pond. Walker and the ancients barely wait for us at every turn, jetting off when we come within two hundred yards. "I was worried that if you saw me stopped, you'd stop too," Walker tells us later.

As the river flows and bends and ox-bows, we see epic vistas on both sides of the river. Mark and I talk about how different New Hampshire and Vermont are, from the political climate to the very soil and terrain. Being on the river and gazing so far gives me a strange feeling--almost like I can understand it all.

We're nearing the end of the trip, only forty miles to Hanover. Noah wants to make his Tuesday class, and after a lot of dicussion, Will and he decide to paddle the rest of the distance in the gently raining night. We bid them adieu and climb into our sleeping bags, tent between us and the elements.

Day 5: No Trial at All

We motor through breakfast in the morning; it seems the ancients are ready to be finished paddling. They are dots on the horizon before our boat is even packed. We don't see Walker, Eric or Ross again--only John, who waits for us with lunch. As we eat, he tells us about paddling that day with Walker and how when the speed got high enough, he rode the euphoria and broke into song. "What did he sing?" I ask. "Oh, nothing in particular. Dum de dum de dum dumma dum day. That kind of thing."

When John's wife arrives, we take our leave. That day of paddling is slow and pensive. Mark and I tell each other memories of things that happened to us on this river and share our thoughts on what the Connecticut has meant to us. I find myself singing, too:

Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.

Keep rowing it says. Row gently. Merrily four times--so merrily that your heart wants to burst. But with the bliss that life is wholly a dream. I even make up a verse of my own:

Row, row, row your boat,
Gently floating by,
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
The stream knows more than I.

And out there, going slower than our aged leader would ever dream, I watch the sun trickle down from the sky and sparkle fairy-like on the bumpy water.

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