Monday, October 30, 2006

Rain, Wind, then High Water

Today, the familiar mile that I have been paddling for more than 40 consecutive days appeared to be a very different river. Saturday's predawn calm ushered in a massive storm. With a radius of more than 250 miles at one point, the storm delivered rain from the northern reaches of New Hampshire and Vermont, south to the beaches in lower Delaware, and west to the Allegheny range in central Pennsylvania - not during the passage of this tremendous weather system but simultaneously. In the potato country of northern Maine, heavy snow fell throughout the day. I took a screenshot of the dopplar radar for the Northeast when the storm was well into its weakening stages late Saturday afternoon and it still appeared on the screen as large as some of the more severe Northeasters that punish this part of the country from time to time during winter months. Fortunately, the movement of this depression was relatively swift and rain tapered off here in Connecticut by late afternoon.

As the rain let up, the wind kicked in and pushed the storm north with a fury. Gusts that sent the downed leaves aloft again stopped pedestrians in their tracks. Gabe and I went to Collinsville Sunday morning to take advantage of the high water and enjoy some whitewater on the river just south of the dam at the old axe factory. With the breeze working its way along the current, turning into an eddy was a challenge and the spray from the tops of waves proved to be blinding. We got in a few good runs but couldn't take the usual time to play in and out of eddies or surf the bigger waves. The sun was out and a passing photographer, an elderly man, was able to have some fun with his new digital camera and zoom lens by getting some shots of our work in the water. It was nice to have an audience and we had a pleasant exchange or two with him.

I paddled in the afternoon on Monday down my mile. The river had a completely different look from the low water days of September and early October, and it felt different beneath the kayak. Looking far downriver, things seemed so much bigger and wider. The Farmington now had a character that reminded me of some of the bigger rivers I have paddled in Canada. In truth, it was still contained by the same banks that I had skirted in previous days, but the higher water level and greater visibility presented a new vista that I enjoyed with a warm feeling of being in the company of greatness. I'm realizing that the river itself can serve as a mentor to my continuing education of the world. It has presented me with many stories and adventures of which I have been more than just a passive observer. Every paddle stroke has presented some element of awareness that is constantly increasing my knowledge of my surroundings and, simultaneously exposing the limitless void of discovery.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Bridges: Preservation, loss, and a suicide.

I had mentioned earlier that the Farmington is crossed by five bridges in the town of Simsbury. Only four of those are available to traffic, however. The one foot bridge is historic for a number of reasons.

Built in the late 1800's, it was a relative marvel of engineering success for its time. The truss work is not only functional, it is quite beautiful as well. Relative to the more modern truss-style bridge further south,

it is more graceful and appealing to the eye. The engineering success is upheld by the fact that this bridge served one lane of traffic up until the construction of the span bridge just down river in the late 1980's. It is also one of the few bridges that survived the 1955 flooding. Bridge footings and abutments can be found in a few locations in town where the feats of engineering succumbed to the force of water in that year. I happened to be down at the foot bridge several weeks ago on a short bike ride/picnic with my wife, Paula. There we saw an elderly couple with out-of-state plates admiring the bridge and taking photographs. The rails are now adorned with wonderful flower box arrangements and hanging planters dangle from above all along its length. It is a scenic highlight for the town. Well, after a brief exchange the gentleman identified himself as the designer and builder of the new span.

However, he went further to point out that he had spearheaded the debate to preserve the old truss structure as an historic landmark. The intent to remove the bridge was purely economic, I suspect. The bridge is submerged by flooding every few years and I suspect that town officials recognized preservation as a costly option due to the need for painting and upkeep. Townspeople now sponsor the bridge by paying for the floral arrangements or donating to a general fund to maintain the structure. I is, indeed, well worth the visit.

Further downstream, another new structure is in place where a less glamorous span with a low clearance existed.

The route 315 bridge was frequently submerged by seasonal flooding blocking the most accessible route to Tarrifville and forcing a rather long detour. Here, the new construction and removal of the old bridge made perfect sense. However, it remains unclear as to whether the project was also designed in such a way to eliminate a very significant unofficial town landmark. A highly popular rope swing and dirt parking area was right at the foot of the downstream, river-right side of the old bridge. This swing was frequented all summer long by families and small group gatherings for picnics and even barbecues. Adults would converse and listen to music from car stereos while children would delight in the thrill gained by the perfect release at the height of a good sway out over the river on the rope. Many of the visitors were from Hartford and the more urban communities surrounding the city. They would trek to Tarrifville via routes 189 and 187 and gather at this well-known water hole of sorts. With the parking area access eliminated by the subtle rerouting of roadway, the clearing was frequented less often and has now grown over with vegetation to be just a memory of former summer fun. The rope has long since rotted or been removed and no trace of the old gathering place exists.

The last span, and highest, to cross the river marks the beginning of the famous Tarrifville Gorge where whitewater enthusiasts get year-round access to challenge and amusement.

This span will always remind me of a recent and strange paddling experience. My friend and kayak mentor, David, and I spent a morning last fall paddling from one end of the rapids to the other. Not having yet learned the kayak roll technique, I found myself having to wet exit on occassion. Toward the end of our run, I successfully negotiated the set of class 2's where the slalom course gates are hung only to experience a tactical lack of attention toward a large boil at the base of the last wave. When I emerged in mid-pool and started swimming my kayak toward the east bank, I noticed a rather large crowd gathered on the rock outcrop which marks the breached dam at the botton of the gorge. Among those in the group of about 15 people were a few police officers and rescue personel. Dave and another friend who had joined us part way down the gorge were over by the west bank where two EMT's were standing over a large white object floating just above the surface. Dave paddled over as I pulled the kayak and my dripping self up onto the shore to tell me that the object was, in fact, a woman's body. Stunned, we just sat and contemplated the fun we had just had juxtaposed with this tragedy unfolding before us. We stayed there for about twenty minutes and, when it became clear that our help would not be required, we continued past the dam and down the final set of the run.

Later we learned that the woman had lept to her death from the bridge. Her shoes were found on the roadway at mid-span. One of my co-workers knew the woman and commented on his understanding of the difficult life she had led. David and I later realized that, given our early start to the day, we had probably just missed her suicide by no more than an hour or so; a commutor had reported to the police, later in the day, that they had spotted the woman walking on the bridge as they passed by on the way to work that morning. Did she die upon impact? Could we have saved her if we had been passing under at about that time? I thought about these things for many days. Bridges are metaphors for many things.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Racing Darkness

My schedule has become busier, as it will when the school year is underway. I find myself loading my plate more and struggling to squeeze all of the plans that I have made into the finite time available. My daily trips on the river continue, but efforts to write after each venture have been stymied. Yesterday, I found myself settling into the cockpit and adjusting the spray skirt many minutes after the sun had disappeared behind the horizon of distant tree-covered hills. I knew that darkness would close in soon and if I paddled quickly, I would be able to beat it to the elbow where I pull out and walk home.

I stopped briefly at the beginning of the paddle to get some shots of an autumn dusk. In the short time that I floated in mid-river, all color faded from the clouds and hilltops as the evening grayscale intervened prior to the blackness of an overcast rural night. With an appropriate weight shift and some accompanying paddle strokes, I turned away from the old iron bridge which lies just upstream from the boat dock and locked into a fairly aggressive cadence knowing that this day's visit to the river would be a short workout rather than a leisurely adventure along the shallows of the river bank.

This trip proved to be flush with a series of disturbances which left me unsettled for sometime. Shortly after leaving the boat dock behind with my progress around the first big meander, I saw the unmistakable wake of a beaver about a hundred yards in the distance. As I approached the spot where I saw it submerge in the shallows by the right bank, I was startled by the loud warning slap of a beaver tail to might left. It was followed almost immediately by a twin response directly to my right from the animal I had watched. Clearly these two were very upset with my presence at dusk which is the beaver's time of greatest activity in the water.

With my heart beating a bit faster and the remnants of an adrenaline surge still lingering in my arms and legs, I paddled on chasing the little light that remained toward the double bend in the river where I end my daily voyage. Within a few minutes of having been rattled by the loud reports of beavertail upon water, I was further shaken by blasts from a double barreled shot gun on the flood-plain field up toward my right. This is duck hunting week in Connecticut and the state owns land on both sides of the river here in Simsbury. Although a small game area by most standards, the few hundred acres here attract many buck shot hunters along with the occasional bow hunter. Waterfowl, turkeys, and pheasants (often purchased elsewhere and then released into the state lands) are the species of choice in this area and only shotguns are allowed due to the small land area available and the proximity of residential property.

My company - although never spotted - was intent on working through every shell in his vest as fast as possible. He pulled off some 20 shots in about two minutes as I floated past the area from which his gun continued to shatter the otherwise calm evening. To my great dismay, his over-eager ambition to kill fowl led to some indiscriminate, wanton, kills, one of which I saw bobbing lifelessly past my kayak in mid-river. Another wounded bird was slapping a wing furiously against the water as it tried to get aloft. At first I thought that it was a parent using the lame wing ploy to distract me from its young, but I quickly surmised that young-of-the-year would have long since fledged and be off fending for themselves. This bird was clearly wounded and struggling. I grew angry that this hunter was so reckless and free of a genuine hunting ethos which is to give the bird a sporting chance.

As I continued ahead, I heard him pull of a few more rounds, and was glad to be leaving him in the distance. One more beaver surprised me with a loud slap of the tail, but I took the gesture to be a signal from the collective consciousness of the river that the hunter and I were unwanted. Today I felt welcome again, but my dreams last night were filled with disturbing images of conflict and uncertainty. I heard hunters again this morning and took solace in the fact that the week will end soon and the shotguns will be hung on the wall for the season.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Coffee, A Flood, and New England Weather

What a mixture of interactions, sensations, and moods today!! I grabbed a cup of Estima - or whatever the house was serving for coffee at Starbucks - and spent the first quarter mile just floating. With each sip I enjoyed the leisure of the current, the sharpness of the bright afternoon light and air, and the sound of the kids learning to row crew at the boat dock slowly fading in the distance behind me. When I finally finished my refreshment and stowed the cup under my neoprene cockpit skirt, I was around the first bend and heading toward a bright blue sky with near perfect cumulus clouds. The water level is so much higher than it has been for the past few weeks that I am seeing things along the shore which previously went unnoticed.

One such sight, that I have been aware of for years, is the old automobile that rests where it settled with the receding flood waters back in 1955 - the year of the great flood in this area. In mid-August of that year two large tropical storms - hurricanes Connie and Diane - hit the area with a one-two punch that devastated many communities. With soil saturated by the first series of rains swept northward, the fourteen inches of additional rainfall that followed within a week had nowhere to go but along the ground, into rivulets, turning streams into raging rivers and rivers like the Mad in Winsted and the Farmington here in tobacco valley into torrents that could hardly be characterized as anything but flood upon flood. I have heard stories and seen photos and can only imagine what the morning of August 19th, 1955 might have been like for the people who woke to the devastation.

Today the level is near normal for this time of year. Its push kept me moving along at a pace that helped me to enjoy the foliage and still get a good workout. Without an awareness of the change overhead, I rounded one meander and was struck by how quickly the sky had darkened and how completely different the day had become. So too, were my thoughts and feelings quickly shifting from the wonderment of history to the chameleon nature of New England weather. Harbinger of winter's challenges, the leaden sky settled lower and I quickly finished my paddle for the day with an uneasy feeling to carry along, with the kayak, back home.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Earth Turns

The sun does not set. I know that might seem like heresy to state with conviction that all of those calendar photos and moments with a loved one have all been centered around an event that really does not occur, but it is, in the end, a very concrete reality. The sun does not set. It is, in fact, relative to our position here on Earth, not really moving much at all through day or season - the sun that is. Instead, the sun, as the Aztecs would, I am sure, have enjoyed hearing, is indeed the focal point of our solar system about which all of the gas, dust and rocks, large and small, move. Some of those rocks and balls of gas are significant enough that we call them planets. One of those rocks experienced an incredible turn of events about 4.5 billion years ago which led, completely by chance, but with a devine presence smiling in observance, to the formation of consciousness within beings - amalgamations of minerals and water - that has made it possible for me to be writing these words and sending them out as waves in the ether at this very moment in the warped continuum. I am loving every microsecond of this opportunity and simultaneously bending the moment, captured in the photo here, around to be present with my hands as they flicker across the keyboard. I can be present AND be with the few minutes last evening when I stood on the bridge while Gabe sat in the truck pulled to the side of the road watching me take the series of photos to capture this beautiful image as Earth continued spinning ceaselessly, and at unimaginable rotational velocity to bring one more in a series of "sunsets" that really aren't. The river brought me to that point as it brings me to this point now. Enjoy this moment and then make a commitment to go out and enjoy a moment alongside your river.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


A much needed rain is currently falling, lightly, in the Farmington Valley. I am sitting in my kitchen listening to the drops hit the concrete patio, gutters, leaves, lawn, trying to capture each different sound and each individual drop. I know of few people who can't find a way to appreciate the sound of rain, its languid quality, the way that it induces gentle melancholy stillness and contemplation. One of my greatest joys is to be hunkered down in a warm sleeping bag listening to the drops tapping the tent fly on a cold fall evening with light fading and the winter darkness making itself known as the first of all the seasonal change at that time of year. It is an enveloping kind of darkness that feels, as it settles, like it will not yield to daylight. Rather, it creeps into every space in the woods with a dreadful permanence , and then it relents a bit as sleep takes over and a dreamworld prevails.

The rain will help restore the river level which has become disturbingly low. We have had a mild drought since mid-August, although that term is lost on most New Englanders at this time of year as there is little sign to indicate its presence. With cooler days, lawns don't brown the way they will in summer drought and leaves are beginning the process of senescence as it is. Water is not the precious resource here in the East that it is in Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and Southern California. We take it for granted and we use it in excess. But the soil, the groundwater, does "know" that dry conditions have prevailed. The water table is below the level of the river and little, if any, recharge is occurring. In addition, the Metropolitan District which controls the major reservoirs is reporting that levels have dropped by about 1% in the past week alone. The temptation to hold back flow at the dams must be great and, of course, this would lead to even lower flow in the river.

The level has not been down to the point where my kayaking has been impeded, but I think of all the trout and large mouth bass I watched over a month ago. They are squeezed into an ever decreasing volume of water and, for the trout in particular, must seek the few deeper pools and eddies where cooler oxygen rich water can be found at the bottom. Imagine being taken out of a large hotel suite and crammed into a cluttered college dorm room with a few other people. It can't be much better than that for the fish.

So before Winter begins to lock up ground flow, I want it to rain and rain and rain. In the meantime, paddle on, paddle on, paddle on.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Pets and paddles

Today was a gloriously warm and clear celebration of Columbus who might be remembered most appropriately not for discovery (he really didn't), but for being bold enough to bumble his way across miles of monotonous sea in an effort to please a king and queen and to satisfy his boyhood urge to explore.

I drove down to the Pinchot Sycamore put-in again as I found that I was handed some time I did not expect. At a spot that I had previously lamented questionable use of water, I was heartened to see a rather eleborate memorial that had been erected for a favorite pet. The dog in whose memory the shrine was created must have been one of those golden retrievers that lived for splashing and romping in the shallows of the river's edge. I soon found myself thinking of our own aging dog, Belle. She has been with us for fourteen years. Belle came to us via an SPCA adopt-a-pet effort in Philadelphia. When we become her new family, she was just about two years old, puppy-like in demeanor, with an unusual habit of jumping into your lap when seated much like a cat. Not so idiosyncratic for a small breed, Belle was a forty plus pound cross between a Gordon and English Setter with some other mixes tossed in for curiosity. Belle joined our family of pets that included, at the time, two cats, a rat, and our first dog, Honey.

Honey was a retriever mix who loved to chase tennis balls. He would often continue running after a thrown or kicked ball even when his tongue was hanging out as far as it could. When thoroughly exhausted, he took the ball and dragged himself toward some shade to keep me from throwing it again - he knew his instinct to run would overwhelm his desire to rest. Interestingly, Belle had no interest in chasing balls. In fact, if you put a ball in her mouth she would respond by dropping it immediately and not give it a second glance.

After having been a member of the family for several years, Belle was present in our bedroom when Honey was put to rest by our kind veterinarian who made house calls. Honey had developed a brain tumor and quickly become too ill to support himself. At the vet's suggestion, we let Belle sniff Honey's body for a few minutes so that she would not be confused by his absence. We had all taken the day off from school and work and I later took Honey's remains to the SPCA for cremation.

The next morning we left Belle and the cats in decent spirits as we left for school and work. When we returned home later that afternoon we were stunned by what we saw and I became convinced that animals are very emotional and intelligent beings. Up in our room, in the middle of the bed, in the very spot where Belle had said "goodbye" to Honey, there sat a tennis ball. Honey had not been interested in tennis balls during the last few days of his life and they were all stored in a box downstairs in the mudroom off the kitchen. At some point during the day, Belle had retrieved a ball and brought it up to the bed as a memorial. It was the only instance of her holding a ball in her mouth for more than a brief second.

Now, in these rapidly advancing autumn days, Belle is reaching her end. She is a beautiful animal despite the arthritis which has all but crippled her rear legs. I wondered as I stopped to photograph this memorial, what memories the retriever had created for its family. Was her loss sudden, or did she live a full and contented life? Paddle on, paddle on, paddle on.

The leaves are changing by the day, now. Despite the near 75 degree warmth, I felt cool fall air whenever I moved the kayak out of the sun toward the shaded bank. The ground is now giving up considerable stored heat to the chilly night air and frosts are only days away. Not wanting to rush this beautiful time of year, I thought, today, about paddling in a snow squall and all the rigors of a New England winter which are upon us once again. But fall has just begun and I have many, many hours to spend on this mile of river before my attention will turn toward cross-country skis and blizzards.

Yesterday's reflections have yielded to the anticipation of full fall color and foliage senescence that opens views into the wooded areas along the banks. Perhaps the heavy acorn crop will attract plenty of deer which will have less cover and be more visible. The tracks that I saw today in the exposed sand of river bottom are telling a story of change and preparation. Autumn moves on inexorably and autumn is, indeed, a season of change.

Sunday, October 08, 2006


When I saw the glassy surface of the river, the warm red light from the evening sun, and the deepening color in the trees, it came to me that I should write about reflections this evening. And of course, it was only a matter of minutes before I found myself singing the Supremes' song and getting stuck on the philosophical irony in the line "...reflections of, the way life used to be...". The reflection is of the present, not the past. The way life used to be is the way it is now, the way it was in ages past, and the way that it will continue to be. Sure, we have changed the means by which we interact with our world, but the substance of the interactions is still the same. We spend many hours engaged in a struggle and look desperately in the corners to find brief moments of real joy. Time will distort our recollection of the personal past, but the reflection continues to be of the present. When we were children, things were not different, we simply perceived a difference because our experience was much more innocent. Melancholy nostalgia, something toward which I gravitate often and heavily, is an illusion. The reality of those previous experiences of many days or years ago is very similar to the reality of this moment. The reflection is doing its best to give us a stark look at reality.

My mind wandered as I floated downriver and photographed the colors and the patterns in the ripples of water. My mentor, Sigurd Olson, came to mind as did his wonderful reflections of the many years he spent in the wilderness of the Quetico-Superior region which he helped to preserve. Olson wrote as though his pen were a paddle and each movement was pulling him forward to some clear, decisive, and simple destination. His ideology was based upon reflection; a deep contemplative turning of ideas and opinions which made their way into each vignette he crafted about his world. I never met Sigurd Olson, yet I have paddled right alongside him in New Hampshire, Maine, Ontario, Quebec, Connecticut, Vermont and, most importantly, in my imagination where kindred spirits find their strongest bonds. I think of all the canoe partners and fellow voyaguers with whom I have had the joy of seeing water's reflections of mood and spirit and smile. Paula, Heidi, Gabe, Kern, Lem, Dan, Jeff, Anna, Anne, Lizzie, Alexa, and many others, have kept me company in the corners where I find joy.

Try this sometime. On a calm clear day when you are standing at water's edge and the still surface reflects the landscape with surreal precision, turn and put your back to the water, bend over and gaze at the surface of the water with your head up-side-down looking between your legs. I was pleasantly stunned by the deception of mind that this little "trick" plays. Enjoy it if you get the chance!!

A haiku:

Reflecting water
Is a home for my journey.
I am never lost.

I am fascinated by the distortions of the reflections more than the perfection of the still water.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

A Little Whitewater!

Gabe returned home from Asheville, North Carolina yesterday; he traveled south to visit his sister, Heidi. They were able to spend time with one another on the campus of Warren Wilson College, where Heidi has just entered her junior year. Gabe had an interview with the admissions office, too. But the two probably had the most fun checking out the streets, shops, and people of Asheville itself. Asheville and Warren Wilson are linked to Simsbury by a common thread. Both communities, although separated by several hundred miles, are part of a geological landscape that, in addition to supporting a typical riparian ecosystem, have some of the best whitewater boating opportunities in the East. Tarrifville Gorge here in Simsbury is recognized as one of the few continuously available whitewater runs in New England. It has been host to many competitive venues in addition to supporting lots of recreational whitewater kayakers and canoeists. So, too, is Asheville a hotbed for the sport. The French Broad and Swannanoa flows are used widely by locals and by students at the college which supports a team. Whether for competition or general recreational fun, both of these areas are, in a word, excellent!

Gabe and I spent about an hour knocking off the rust from our paddle skills and reacclimating ourselves to the different spots to ride some waves, to eddy-hop up the current, or to practice peel outs and Duffeks. A week ago this would not have been possible. With little rain for the past month, the river level had dropped well below the necessary 1000 cfs flow for good whitewater challenges. As it was, the recent rain didn't recharge the groundwater sufficiently and the increased flow of two days ago was already in decline. The link at the FRWA website, which directs the user to the USGS gauge at Tarrifville, indicated only 700 cfs, so things were a bit scratchy, but, nevertheless, fun.

We returned home tired but laughing about the potential to make a "B" level instructional film using the video capability of my little digital camera. The brief segments that we did make were of decent quality and humorous. Gabe might be right, there may be a market for humorous instructional footage to offset the plethora of dryly crafted videos hawking the sport. Maybe you will see us on the shelves someday soon?