Thursday, August 7, 2014


8/3/14, West Island, Fairhaven, MA
It used to be that when I traveled, I'd imagine what it would be like to live in the places I visited or passed through, sometimes perusing real estate ads or the jobs in the classifieds. It added a whole other layer to travel; there was the day-to-day quest that most travelers are on: the need for food and shelter and a few interesting things to see and take up your time. But there was a bigger quest as well that arced over the entire endeavor. You're always asking "is this a place I'd like to live?" "How might it work?" That's how we've ended-up in Stonington for the last eleven years. We had the specific goal of finding a gallery space, but really, we were just rambling, looking for the next thing after moving-on from our last existence. Here in Stonington, we see plenty of people walking down the street carrying fliers from the real estate offices, so we're not alone in this, although I imagine that many real estate tourists are looking more for bargains on additional homes, rather than figuring-out where to live.

I'll admit that in my recent travels around New England, I have had very few thoughts about living in the places I visit. To me, most of the New England coast appears crowded and over-developed, and I'm relieved to get back to Maine, and even more so as I wind-down those last curving miles of roads toward Stonington. On the other hand, it's pretty tough to paddle past a handsome houseboat or a classic live-aboard and not think about more watery accommodations. The floating homes in the photo below are in Mystic, Connecticut. That self-portrait above it is in Watch Hill Harbor, Rhode Island- an amazingly beautiful boat called APHRODITE.

If you drive around Watch Hill, you'll probably pass a turn in the road where one particular driveway is guarded by a security team- mostly teenage boys in matching polo shirts, but a few armed guards as well. If you're not a big follower of pop culture, you might just pass on by, none the wiser, but the security team alerts you that maybe you ought to slow down and gawk at the driveway of a young pop star.

Providing security for the privileged appears to be one of the coveted summer jobs along the southern New England coast. Everywhere you go you'll come across these clean-cut youth in color-coded polo shirt uniforms and expensive sunglasses, at the ready to keep-out the riff-raff. At the wheel of a car, and probably more so if that car is smart and economical with a kayak on its roof and Maine plates, you'll often be reminded about where you don't belong. Move along, don't even think of stopping here. Parking? Oh that will be twenty or thirty dollars. At one beach I just pulled-out my notebook and began asking the young gentlemen questions, which they seemed happy enough to answer. They're probably just counting the hours until they can trade those polo shirts for other, differently color-coded polo shirts.

But on the water we're entitled to our own little kayak-shaped piece of floating real estate. Kurt Vonnegut once asked "what good is Planet Earth if you own no land?" But as long as you have a place to launch your kayak you've got access to some of the best parts of the planet, with just as much right to enjoy it as the mega-millionaire yachts beside you, and with better ability to enjoy the near-shore waters.

The Fishers Island Sound area of southeast Connecticut has ample enough features to keep a paddler exploring for some time. Aside from charming towns like Watch Hill, Stonington and Mystic, with harbors packed with some of the prettiest boats you'll ever see, there's salt marshes reaching inland surrounded by enough conservation land that you can truly get away from it all not for from the launch... until the Amtrak train hums past. But the train is part of the fun too.

The other day I launched in Mystic and after admiring some of the historic boats docked at Mystic Seaport, I paddled beneath the drawbridge just in time to see the hourly raising of the bridge and subsequent parade of boats passing through. Shortly thereafter and just a little ways downstream, the swing bridge turned and re-connected the railroad, just in time for a couple of trains to speed past.

I paddled past marina after marina packed with recreational sail and power boats, out past the village of Noank and on to the lighthouse at Morgan Point, which is now a private residence. I had no particular desire to cross over to Fishers Island, which lies a couple of miles south and makes a constant distant backdrop to coastal paddling here, but it's difficult to paddle in this area and not entertain thoughts of getting out there. Perhaps it's akin to the lure of Isle au Haut when you're in Stonington- this place that is nearby, a backdrop that defines the geography and conditions, but is just far enough to be a different world. It is, after all, in New York, a different state. But unlike Stonington, Maine, the stretch of ocean south of Stonington, Connecticut has only a few smaller intermediate islands to visit, and the currents can be strong and sometimes hazardous.

But seas were calm and I felt good, and just had to paddle somewhere, so off I went, first toward the tightly-packed cottages on Groton Long Point, and across the sound toward the lighthouse on North Dumpling. I encountered amazingly little boat traffic, but as I neared Fishers Island I noticed a wall of fog hanging beyond East Point. Unsure if the fog might be coming in with the tide, I ate my sandwich quickly on the gravelly shore of Flat Hammock and moved-on.

Since the incoming tide flowed westward up the sound, I followed the shore of Fishers east for a bit, admiring the homes, taking advantage of whatever eddies I could find until I reached Brooks Point and headed back across. Despite the usual logic that currents increase the most mid-channel, I encountered the strongest currents near the edges, in shallower water, and especially as I approached Ram Island where the water turned bumpy over Ram Island Reefs.

A pair of chimneys stood on the island where a home had burned-down just this spring, and horses grazed nearby. Once known as Mystic Island, Ram had been the site of a grand Victorian hotel with direct steamship service until the 1920s. And like other such places in southern New England, the 1938 hurricane wiped the slate clean. Around the corner, a couple of boats were anchored in a placid cove, and an islet just off the north end had attracted a few powerboaters who anchored off a sandbar, enjoying the beach. I stopped here for sandwich #2.

By then I began to think of the seven-hour drive to get home, and meandered a bit more pointedly through the islands and back into the Mystic River, where the incoming tide brought me quickly back upriver to the launch.

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