A common question, as I paddle in southern New England is "Are you fishing, or just sightseeing?" People often seem to be a little baffled about paddling without a fishing rod. I've talked to a few fishermen and they can be a dedicated bunch, just with a different focus from us sightseers. Sunday morning, as I readied my boat at a ramp in Old Lyme, Connecticut, a man told me about being taken for a "Montauk sleighride," probably by a bluefish that eventually bit through the leader and released him.
I didn't really know where to focus on this trip; there are a lot of places one might paddle around the mouth of the Connecticut. I'd thought I'd paddle upstream, but the tide was still going out for the next three hours. There's the mouth itself, where the longest river in New England flows past Old Saybrook lighthouse, merging with the waters of Long Island sound. Salt marshes line the southern two miles of the eastern shore with smaller rivers reaching a couple of miles inland.
I went a short distance downstream, then turned up the Black Hall River, which began as a shallow watery path through the marsh. I paddled beneath a road bridge, past an outfitter and a few modest houses before the inevitable railroad bridge that crosses every body of water reaching in from Long Island Sound. There, I met a couple of paddlers in rec boats I'd met at the ramp, just as an Amtrak train appeared with a whoosh and clatter before disappearing just as quickly.
The houses thinned as I paddled upstream, giving way to tall marsh reeds. Fiddler crabs skittered up the mud as I approached, hordes of them, waving their single over-sized claws before disappearing into reedy forests. Here, the wind that blew-in off the sound gave way to stillness. Worried about getting stranded by the outgoing tide, I kept telling myself I'd turn back after this next bend in the river, but I was always curious about what lay around the bend after that. Finally, I turned back and paddled out to the mouth of the Connecticut where the southwest wind whipped up short waves over the sandbar and shallow flats.
Most of Great Island has muddy, marshy edges, but at the south end there's a stretch of sandy and muddy beaches with tangles of great driftwood logs buried and piled along the high tide line. I took a break here, just to savor the spot. Across the river, near the Old Saybrook lighthouse were the homes of a few notable celebrities (the fisherman at the launch had filled me-in on this: Katherine Hepburn, Rahm Emmanuel) and a few large powerboats motored in through the jetties toward the marina nearby.
I continued upriver, pausing at the drawbridge to watch it lower and allow a couple of trains to pass. I skirted the edge of fishing-line-tossing distance at a nearby platform, and passed glum-looking powerboaters at the marina, watching the readout on the gas pumps as they filled-up. By far the biggest, most impressive bit of architecture here is the I-95 bridge, held aloft by massive concrete columns.
But the river felt busy and chaotic, churned by one powerboat after another, so I gladly turned into a side channel behind Calves Island, where numerous boats were anchored and moored. It was much quieter here, so I continued behind the next island as well, which has been kept wild by the gun club that has posted numerous "no trespassing" signs along its marshy shores. I had no particular plan, but I had it in mind to get to Hamburg Cove. Rebecca had lived in this area for part of her childhood, when her parents owned the Bee and Thistle Inn. After they sold the inn, they moved onto a sailboat, and she had fond memories of some of these places.
Hamburg Cove was dense with anchored boats, but I made my way up it, past the yacht club and marina (really no public places for paddlers, that I noticed) until I found myself in a placid basin, thick with lilies beneath steep, forested hillsides. Tall wildflowers grew on boggy islands and their aroma wafted with the smell of mint. The Hamburg Fair was in progress on a hillside, with the rumble of rides and children screaming. I felt pretty beat; I'd paddled out of Woods Hole and in Narragansett Bay the previous days, putting-in quite a few miles, and now I had about eight miles to get back to the launch, as well as a detour I hoped to make for a mile or two up the Lieutenant River.
I ate a sandwich or two, and began the paddle downstream. Still not feeling appeased, I ate a bit more, and even downed a caffeinated energy goop product. I'd risen at a campground at 5:30 to launch at around 8, and now the light turned golden as I made my way back to the ocean. I managed to get a ways up the Lieutenant River, and by the time I pulled into the launch it was after six. Economically, it made sense for me to get the most out of my day, and I don't take it for granted that I'll be back soon, or that the weather will cooperate next time.
But the light over the marshes of Great Island was gorgeous, and I lingered there for awhile with others, marveling at it: paddlers who'd loaded their rec boats, a woman taking photos of birds, a couple on a motorcycle. Finally I broke away from a conversation: "my wife will call the Coast Guard if I don't call her soon," which was true. I loaded the kayak, put an audiobook on the stereo and pointed north.