May 2010

Monthly Archive

Rundown on the run–three fishways by bicycle: Holyoke, Turners Falls, and Vernon

Posted by on 24 May 2010 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Conte, CRASC, federal trust fish, Nature, salmon, salmon hatchery, teachers, USFWS

Rundown on the run–three fishways by bicycle: Holyoke, Turners Falls, and Vernon; a.k.a., Thousands, a Handful, and None…

© 2010 by Karl Meyer

May 24, 2010

For a little ground truth this late May, the height of this year’s Connecticut River migratory fish season, I undertook some field work.  On May 21st, I bicycled from Greenfield, MA, south to the Holyoke dam and fishway; then back north to the Turners Falls dam and fishway.  The next afternoon, Saturday, May 22nd, I biked from Greenfield to the Vernon Fishway in Southern Vermont.  On these visits to the three lower-most dams on the Connecticut River, here’s a report on what I found:

At Holyoke, on a Friday morning at 9:15 a.m., the fish viewing windows are full—jam-packed with fidgeting, agitated American shad, nearly two-feet long.  The silvery fish shimmer in nervous schools, veering to and fro–anxious to be set free and upstream of this rectangular trap.  At times the shad literally form a wall of glistening bodies and fish scales pushed against the glass.

The visiting adults and children here are all mesmerized by the life–the seeming plenty, in these windows.  There are many ooohs! and aahhhs!   The fishway guides note that there were a few even blueback herring were in the windows minutes ago.  None are visible now.  But, mixed in, is a good compliment of ghoulish-looking sea lamprey.  Nearly three feet in length, they blindly snake along the fishway glass.  The kids whoop at the sight of them.  A lone smallmouth bass lingers at the bottom of the tank.  There are no salmon in the windows, though one was counted yesterday.  They sent a truck over from Farmington, CT to pick that salmon up and haul it away to one of the hatchery farms for breeding.

The total fish numbers counted here as of May 21st are written on a tally board: American shad 103,216; sea lamprey 9,737; blueback herring 55; Atlantic salmon 23.   Today, I watch as two trucks are loaded with American shad—to be taken to either New Hampshire or Vermont because of the fish passage failures at the Turners Falls-Northfield hydro complex and further up at Vernon dam.  Some of these Connecticut River shad are also be trucked as seed-fish for runs that have failed or disappeared on rivers in Rhode Island and Maine.  This day, with the river temperature nearing 60 degrees and flows low, but steady at peak season, the guides say they may get 10,000 shad today, maybe more.  I head back north, cycling along the east bank of the river past the Holyoke Range.

I reach Turners Falls Fishway in late afternoon.  At 3:40 p.m. the fishway windows are a pale, blank screen, filled with the streaming gold current sent down the Turners Falls Canal via this Northfield Mountain-Turners Falls hydro complex.  Looking closely I pick out the shadows of a few American shad treading water in that current, hovering dimly in the background.  I count five shad, nothing that could remotely be termed a “run.”  They shad try and keep pace with the current, but are soon pushed downstream out of view.

Fully half of the shad that pass the Holyoke dam reach this Northfield Mountain-Turners Falls hydro site.  Studies show that only about two shad out of a hundred make it through these grinding currents of the two salmon ladders built here three decades back.  Those numbers were slightly better here before the site was deregulated a decade ago.  Back then, 5 or 6 fish of every 100 shad might make it through.  Still, these are all terrible odds if you are a shad trying to spawn successfully upstream.  It’s such a poorly designed system–built for the non-existent salmon here (less than 10 salmon came through Turners in 2009), that it’s a bit like water boarding for American shad.  The shad deplete all their oxygen and float back downstream, spent; exhausted.

This is why The US Fish and Wildlife Service traps a few thousand shad at Holyoke and drives them upstream for release above Turners Falls in New Hampshire and Vermont each season.  Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) officials try to lay claim to that as a “run” or “restoration”—but in truth those are terms that shouldn’t be used anywhere but in the stretch downstream–between here and Holyoke dam to the south.  From Turners Falls north to Vernon and Bellows Falls, restoration is an abject failure–over a half century after success was achieved at Holyoke with simple fish elevators in 1955.  Today, with just 2% of the shad reaching Turners Falls successfully passing–and with just 19 shad passing Vernon dam in 2009, dismal is the only word to describe the “restoration” in this–the still remaining 60% of main stem Connecticut River habitat that should have become shad-accessible decades back.  Vermont and New Hampshire would have had something to invest in.

At FirstLight’s Turners-Northfield complex you find a massively failed system that fisheries and power company people have tried to keep quiet for decades.  For ten years the public has had the right to get a new design installed here, but fisheries folks have essentially stayed quiet, with little word to the media or outreach to the public.  Their record of advocacy and effort these past decades on behalf of shad and herring here has been as lifeless as the runs here.  If these were hybrid salmon, millions would be spent on them—millions are spent hatching tiny hybrid salmon to be dumped in the Connecticut annually.

But, as to these runs of native shad and herring—a shadow of what they were twenty years back, our public fisheries guardians appear content to wait another decade to address the failures of restoring federal trust runs upstream here.  No wonder it’s now years since there has been a Massachusetts “public representative” on the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission–the federal-state entity responsible for the federal trust shad and blueback herring.  People have just stopped believing them, as they’ve watched numbers flatten and wind backward–while hearing tales of promised salmon.  It seems Bay State fishermen have stopped buying the myth Connecticut River salmon.  They’ve been extinct since 1809.

The tens of thousands of shad that reach Turners Falls will try to pass here for days–sometimes weeks, lingering in pools where the pulsing currents of the ladders exhaust them, pushing their oxygen-deprived organs to the limits.  Only the toughest and the luckiest of the lucky make it through Turners Falls.  And it’s impossible to know the damage that exhaustion and all those expended resources will have on their spawning success—for those few thousand that may squeeze upstream here over the course of a season–or those tens of thousands that will be repulsed and pushed back downstream.

In the half hour I’m at Turners Falls, seven shad–after trying, and trying again, actually do appear to make it out the up-side of the “fishway.”  We give them a cheer.  They don’t so much swim through as finally appear to float upwards and out.  I’m on the river deck talking to the fishway guides when a man–the lone visitor at the moment, comes back up from the viewing windows.  He’s puzzled, “Which way are the fish trying to go?”  “Oh,” I say,”actually it’s accurate to say most are heading downstream.  Only about two out of a hundred that try can get by.  They built the wrong ladders 30 years ago, based on salmon.  It doesn’t work.”

The man is surprised and interested–just as the young boys and two moms were when I stopped by here yesterday.  The kids kept trying to cheer the flagging shad up-current, groaning when they got pushed backwards repeatedly.  I offered an honest answer to one’s question, “Why are the fish going backwards?” telling them this system doesn’t work for the fish–a new one is needed, “You should tell your teachers, and write a letter to the newspaper.”  Most often kids have this question deflected here, going without a direct answer, offered instead a ready-tale of excuses and promises of what the future will bring.  I tell this gentleman today about the thousands of shad in the viewing windows at Holyoke this morning, “Check it out tomorrow.  They’ll still be coming through.”  He intends to, saying thank you, “Hey, I live right near there, in South Hadley.”

Reading the Turners Falls tally-board for fish the guides have spotted here is a very short story: American shad today, 28; for the season, 82; sea lamprey today, 12; for the season 23.  Eighty-two shad does not a “fish run” make. None of the nine salmon released upstream at the Holyoke dam have been spotted here, a mere 36 miles upstream.  They have counted six carp however.  Later, someone gets around to viewing the fish videos–used to make full counts here when no one is around evenings and Mondays and Tuesdays.  As of Friday, May 21st, the total numbers of federal trust fish that have passed Turners Falls as of this mid-season point: 303 American shad.  No blueback herring, and not a single salmon–in a fishway built for salmon 30 years back.

The next afternoon I’m back on my bike, heading from Greenfield to the Vernon dam and fishway, just below the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.  It’s a bit over 40 miles round trip.

I reach Vernon Fishway at 1:50 p.m.  It’s a late-May Saturday; you’d think the site would be bustling.  The place looks derelict.  The gate is padlocked.  A sign on the chain-link fence reads: GATE WILL BE CLOSED AT 3 PM.  I take a picture with my watch in the foreground–1:54 p.m.  I’m left with the feeling nobody gives a damn.  Honestly.  I’d imagine after passing a total 19 shad last year, they are not anxious to have the public see what’s going on here.  Back in the early 1990s they passed 37,000 shad in one season.

Last year I bicycled to this Vernon site a half a dozen times between early-May and late June.  On all but my last visit, the gates were open.  And I did not see a single fish in the viewing windows on those trips.  They were empty–save for swirls of tiny, rising, bubbles.  Below me this day three fishermen are strung out along a sandy stretch of downstream beach.  One, a shirtless guy at the base of the dam, notices me, “You getting anything?” I ask.  “Nah!  The guy down there caught a smallmouth though, about an hour back.”  And that man’s fishing report seems about as good a snapshot of this migratory fish “runs” and “restoration” prospects in May 2010–anywhere from Turners Falls north to here, and beyond, along the Connecticut.

But that’s not completely true…  Sea lamprey—a fish that nobody eats and nobody fishes—and most find them repulsive, do quite well moving upstream past the Connecticut River’s perilous fishways.  Sea lamprey are ancient jaw-less, fish—native migrants here.  They’ve changed little since the time of the dinosaurs.  Though not a named species in the federal trust mandate, they are this river’s accidental restoration success, returning annually in the tens of thousands.

This shouldn’t be embarrassment to public fisheries officials, who are always claiming they’ve turned straw into gold with a couple dozen, million-dollar, hybrid salmon showing up.  Tough as old tow-rope and built for the ages, sea lamprey are one fascinating and integral part of this river’s restored biology.  Though incidental and mostly-unmentioned, lamprey do seem destined to survive and thrive despite the track record of this restoration program and its myopic fixation on an extinct salmon.  So, lamprey–that’s one down!  Now, how about a lift for those shad and herring?

How about it CRASC, FirstLight, Conte–USFWS??  The kids would love cheering on real fish runs at Turners Falls and Vernon.  Kids in Bellows Falls and Charlestown, NH would love that too.  It’s their river, and their future.  It’s time to recognize that, and stop squandering resources on yesterday’s ideas and yesterday’s Connecticut River.

The myth of Atlantic salmon, Daily Hampshire Gazette, OpEd

Posted by on 23 May 2010 | Tagged as: alewives, American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, CRASC, federal trust fish, Salmon eggs

May 11, 2010

The myth of Atlantic salmon

I was a preschooler when I teased apart the whacky logic of an Easter bunny delivering eggs–a little absurdity all kids eventually figure out.  Today a different mythology is being offered in dozens of Massachusetts schools.  It’s ASERP, the Atlantic Salmon Egg Rearing Program.  Fertilized hatchery eggs are brought into classrooms.  Kids feed them as they hatch and grow to tiny, hybrid salmon.  Those that survive are released into streams.  ASERP teaches that salmon are the key to restoring migratory fish populations here; that salmon hatcheries are critical to a healthy ecosystem.

Hatcheries are potential dispersal points for diseases that can spread to other river fish and onto ocean populations.  Since 2007, Connecticut River salmon hatcheries have had these emergencies: IPN, a deadly, highly-contagious virus discovered in Sunderland—all breeding salmon plus 700,000 hatchery eggs destroyed; station flushed with disinfectant.  In 2009, 10 of 21 salmon adults captured at Holyoke turned blood red and were dying when they reached North Attleboro for “reconditioning” prior to breeding: cause unexplained.  Cold Water Disease discovered at Palmer, 300,000 salmon fry destroyed; station “disinfected.”  At White River, cataracts discovered in 60% of a sampling of 1 year-old salmon, thousands destroyed.  Rock Snot, an easily-spread, habitat-smothering, alga was found in the White River upstream of the hatchery; a new water source had to be found.

After 43 years and over a half billion dollars spent on salmon, 60 adult hybrids returned to Holyoke Dam last year.  Yet students are told humans will evolve a new, self-sustaining salmon hybrid—to replace a minor strain that died out here 200 years ago.  Kids think it’s the river’s most important resurrection.  ASERP was first leveraged into classrooms 13 years ago.  Many students are now adults, perhaps wondering: what happened?  While kids may be buying the program, fish clearly are not.

Begun in 1997, ASERP is a partnership formed by angling groups and federal and state salmon hatchery operators, biologists, and research employees to reach into schools.  It offers a tidy niche for teachers, incorporating basic science principals, but its message is self-promotion.  The science and math paints a stilted river picture—salmon, and more salmon.  Teachers are encouraged to submit PR photos and stories; even advised how to stall difficult media inquires asking more than a one-fish tale.

What kids aren’t learning is that 97% of all the Connecticut’s federal trust fish reaching Turners Falls dam today are stuck there–where they’ve been pinched-off since 1798 when John Adams was President.  Virtually none are salmon.  They are American shad and blueback herring, the very foundation of the Connecticut’s migratory ecosystem.  Literally millions of fish have been turned back there in the past 40 years alone, while dam owners reap their own millions.

Its clear teachers aren’t offered the big picture either.  Still, if it’s about science and math guidelines, the same concepts can be conveyed raising aquarium fish.  Or study vernal pools where native amphibians and eggs can be experienced in the field.  Kids get all the concepts without coming away thinking hatcheries and classroom “chillers” are keys to evolution and healthy wildlife populations.  Native blueback herring passing Holyoke dam have plunged from 65,000 in 1997 to 39 last year; 620,000 passed in 1985.  It’s important to know 720,000 shad crowded Holyoke in 1992, while in 1997 just 300,000 returned.  That run dropped to 160,000 fish last year.

I’m all for spending on native, wild fish.  But five dozen hybrids–after decades and millions of fry fertilized at the hands of humans dumped in, is a myth gone terribly wrong.  Each spring government staffers and kids release clouds of tiny fish, and the same rabbit remains stuck in the same hat.  Spend that money, and teaching effort, saving the still-living shad, blueback herring and alewives—fish runs disappearing today.  Don’t shackle kids and the river to a coldwater fish lost centuries back when a briefly-colder climate warmed here.

Meanwhile, kids should know that Turners Falls-Northfield Mountain hydro owners are mandated to get fish safely upstream, and that fish elevators are ten years overdue there.  Tell them the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission and the New England Cooperative Fisheries are responsible for protecting those runs since 1967. And FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, is mandated to enforce license requirements.  Kids deserve to know too that the river is being unnaturally warmed by effluent from the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, just upstream.  Just 19 shad swam past Vernon dam there last year, compared to 37,000 in 1991.  Most importantly teach them that those fish–and this river, belong to them, not the corporations.

Award-winning children’s author Karl Meyer of Greenfield taught preschoolers at Northampton’s Vernon Street School for five years.  He is following this years fish runs at www.karlmeyerwriting.com.

Long Island Sound to Simsbury, CT and the Farmington

Posted by on 20 May 2010 | Tagged as: alewives, American shad, Atlantic salmon, Connecticut River, Nature, salmon

Long Island Sound to Simsbury, CT and the Farmington

© 2010 by Karl Meyer

May 4, 2010:

I wake up early in Old Saybrook, and spend a good hour writing in my journal.  Then, there’s checking the weather, which is not as straightforward on a multi-channel TV as one might expect.  But the weather looks clearing, and humid, with a few, pop-up “afternoon thundershowers possible for those heading north.”  No big deal.  I shower, and sort through the small pile of maps I’ve accumulated.  Brewing the final motel coffee, I down that, pack my bike, drop my key-card at an empty desk, and finally hit the road at 8:45 a.m.  So, I’m not the early bird.

I get my last looks at the mouth of the river off Rt. 154 in the Otter Creek area, and I’m moving north again on a lovely morning.  I quickly scoot by Essex and head north toward Deep River on the left bank of the Connecticut.  Traffic is light.  I’ve already missed the rush to schools and work.  Orioles and yellow warblers chirp.  I hear my first scarlet tanager and prairie warbler of the season.  There’s also a roadside feeding cottontail, and a cutely-clumsy and confused young chipmunk, surprised by an old guy on a bike.

As I near Deep River I take a chance at an intersection and choose what looks like a promising, old “upper” road, which veers a bit west of Rt. 154.  It allows me to miss Deep River center, and will perhaps show me something new.  This is an old thoroughfare, the 18th century houses telling me it won’t take me far from the river’s reach.  I follow Union Street which eventually merges into to Straits Road.  Along the way I’m treated to one of the startling spectacles of the trip: the disaster eliminating the Easter hemlocks.

I’ve written about this in Sanctuary, even spent a day nearby with Harvard Forest biologist Dr. David Orwig in Killingworth, Ct., documenting the devastation of this plague caused by a tiny insect that we imported from Asia–the woolly adelgid.  Here, in stark contrast to a rocky hillside that spent decades sheltered in the shade and diffuse light of hemlock needles, the bare, rock-bone of this roadside escarpment is baking in mid-morning sun.

Bleached and blown-out trunks of hemlock lay quietly scattered up the hillside, as a once-thick forest duff dries to a dusty consistency in May light.  A whole suite of plants, birds, and amphibians will be lost in this corner—one of many thousands of like corners, the result of our heedless globalization and lust for cheap commodities.  This scene will repeat, again and again as I bike northward, but to a lesser scale.  The adelgid is a cold sensitive insect.  But this hemlock plague is an easy case in point: it is creeping ever further northward as we continue our rapid, seemingly-incremental warming of the planet—on a time scale we pointedly refuse to comprehend.

I snap a few photos of this emblem of a global holocaust, and head on beneath blue May skies.  At one point a woman out for a bike ride passes me, and I ask if the road will take me into Chester.  The question is timely, as I’m at the intersections where I should turn east, Spring Street.  I thank her, and head down a shady, winding lane with a stream that trips along next to me wherever it is not ponded by little, colonial mill dams.  This, I know, will be the same alewife stream that bisects Chester itself.

Three minutes later I’m in town–on a Chester, Monday morning.  It’s just after 9:30 and I’m off my bike and ordering coffee and a thick-looking square of bread pudding at Simon’s Market.  I ask for the cook, and am told to find him out back.  There’s Alan Demick, brother of my buddy Tony.  I’d met him on the ride down.  He sits for a few minutes as I try his bread pudding—quite good.

Alan notes I look a lot better this day, but that’s only because I had a shower two hours back.  He takes me out and shows me the scenario on the deck at the rear of the store where he first met one of the State of Connecticut’s prominent fisheries biologists—and likely its biggest, salmon proponent, walking up that alewife stream looking for signs of a run.  They had a very funny interaction over the failures of the restoration—likely quite the surprise to a biologist who thought he was just talking to the odd chef!

I shake Alan’s hand, get some last minute directions, and remind him to email his brother Tony that I’ll be seeing him fishing below Holyoke dam tomorrow, “Tell him not to leave before noon,” I say.  The continuing run up Rt. 154 is pleasant through mid-morning.  There are some wonderful views of the river, and the bridge and Goodspeed Opera House looking into East Haddam.  Coming into Haddam village I just had to take a picture of the old jail, soberly constructed of slate and granite at the foot of Jail Hill Road, sometime in 1800s.

And then there was the town historic marker, quietly not explaining how the town managed to get a small group of Native Americans, mostly matriarchs, to deed over their lands to these colonists in 1660.  The downstream annihilation of the Pequots by the United Colonies just two decades earlier, and subjugation of the nearby tribal people may have played a small part in those concessions.  That story will not be enshrined on a road marker.  We erase and exclude our own history in the landscape in a way that seems to connect to our environmental miasma as to our real predicament here.  Just across the river, tons of deadly nuclear waste containers sit—stored, and largely forgotten by the public, at the site of a nuclear plant that closed after nearly exposing its core through lax safety checks some 15 years back.  There’s no road sign for that either.

Just up the two-lane I note two cars parked along a siding that leads down to a steep pitch over railroad tracks, and to the riverbank.  There’s a big hoop net in the back of one.  I lean my bike on a post and scramble down.  Two retirement age men are talking quietly, one with a line in the water.  I hover above them, and cough to make my presence less surreptitious.

When they give me a hello I ask how the fishing is going.  They are just getting started, says the one—in what I hear as a Polish accent.  He says no, they are not going for shad, he’s after striped bass, fish that are here for the river herring, and to a much lesser extent, the shad.  No luck this morning just yet, but the do pull them in here.  I thank them and head on, soon into more of an urban landscape, as Rt. 154 finally peters out.  This morphs into a poor biking stretch of old macadam that is Rt. 9, south of Middletown.

Middletown Center is dense, and busy, but the construction that is fouling up Main Street slows everything to little more than at crawl–something cyclists get to glide through.  But, I realize I’m a bit information-challenged, and make my way to the tourist info office, at the Chamber.  There, I pick up a newer state map, and a local street map of Middletown and Cromwell, which hopefully will get me out of town going west—with my destination somewhere near Farmington, so I can eventually see Rainbow Dam fishway on the Farmington River.

I get into a conversation with a black man who likely has just a couple of years on me.  He tells me he used to bicycle regularly, for about three or four years running, but it’s been some time since then.  “You can still get out there,” I tell him.  He smiles.

The route is now uphill and away from the Connecticut.  This will be an afternoon that sometimes finds me in knots, and negotiating seeming dead-ends, faced with busy, four-lane traffic and tiny shoulders to ride on.  Its unpleasant, to say the least, at times, but you just persist—turning back and trying again where things get too dicey.  In the world that exists all around me, people would be traveling without taxing their landscape sense and travel wits at all—a cell phone or GPS readout telling them what to do.  All decisions coming from outside.

I clear the density of Middletown, and head through busy Cromwell on a spider web of roads I’m piecing together.   I crisscross the floodplain of the Mattabassett River, a small artery I’ve written about in my work perhaps a dozen times.  I’ve never seen the river though.   At one point, as I’m trying to find my way across the barrier of Interstate 91, I pick a small side-road called Pasco Hill.  Finally cresting it zipping to the bottom, I cross a little bridge in the midday heat.  I look to my right and there’s a small dam, just upstream of the crossroads of what was once a little industrial section, now somewhat derelict.  There’s something about that dam…

I curve back on my bike, and there’s the picture–one I’ve put captions to: the StanChem Dam on the Mattabessett.  This is a tiny dam that–with a fishway project that is currently in something of a stall and waiting for more funding, “will reopen the entire historic habitat range for American shad on the Mattabesset.“  Those are my own words.  Shad would regain over 16 miles of this river, right to their full, historic range.  Were these fish salmon, Connecticut fisheries would have had this site on the fast track decades ago…

This is a very busy travel corridor, and the biking is somewhat less than satisfying at times.  But seeing the dam site is a bonus, offering a bit of quiet in a hurried landscape.  I get directions from a town DPU guy having an ice cream in front of the locked, StanChem property gate, and head off uphill once more.  Ultimately, I’m at a busy spot in Berlin, trying to find my way along busy Rt. 372, when the Berlin Bike Shop comes into view.  The proprietors–like me, solidly in their fifties, are affable and interested in a bike traveler.  Mike takes the time to give me a couple of maps, and point me in the right direction.

Those directions hold through Berlin, and into a corner of New Britain, but my brain can only keep so much in play, and the maps are still fairly general.  Skies that I mistakenly thought were deep blue, are darkening to more of a powdered coal with banks of clouds.

One bonus though, as I make a small rise, is the red barn of an old siding that reads, “Avery’s Beverages.”  I’ve read about them somewhere by some coincidence, likely National Geographic.  It’s a family soda making and local market operation that’s been in business since 1904.  I have to stop.

What I again find is a couple-of-three guys, near my age, two of them from Avery’s, standing inside the old barn filled with wooden crates of soda, and two genuine, old style refrigerators stocked with cold pop in a rainbow of flavors mixed on the premises.  Again I’m treated with some deference, likely due to white hair and my odd journey.  I’m offered the best new directions that these three can chart in a round-robin discussion.  I try to keep it straight in my head as I suck down a tasty Avery’s orange soda.

Soon, I’m following a thoroughfare past hospitals and housing projects that I thought was one marked route, only to find that the street name has become an unfamiliar one.  The skies are spitting, the wind is picking up.  I’m bouncing around like a confused ping-pong ball.  Finally, an old Latino man in a car gives me a good spin and I’m heading in the right direction.  I few more turns and tries and the rains have come.  I take shelter under the large portico of the Connecticut School of Broadcasting—letting the woman at the front desk know I’m out there, and not homeless.  She smiles.  In a half hour, that downpour is done.  I head out.

More crazy roads and bouncy directions come into play as I try and make my way to Farmington, and the Farmington bikeway.  Finally, after a long, curving downhill, I’m in Farmington itself, facing the well-appointed Miss Porter’s School.  Soon I’m heading down a main drag toward Rt. 10, which should bring me up to the bikeway.  It’s drifted into late afternoon now, with a lot of stops and queries along the way, but I’m finally on the trail.  It’s great being out of traffic.

I think of my old friend Carol Hurst, now gone, who wrote a children’s book, “Through the Lock,” about the canal that was the original thoroughfare this rail trail is built on.  She may have even made me a minor character in that book.  I’m in one of them.  I think too, of Sylvester Judd of Northampton, whose journals I studied for my master’s degree.  Judd was an investor in this ultimately cash-poor and failed canal back in the 1840’s.

The real challenges of the day come in Avon.  Tired, I’m trying to make my way through an incomplete section of the trail which sends you briefly onto streets.  I must’ve mis-heard directions from someone and find myself following busy Rt. 44, a real mess of traffic on a four-lane at rush hour.  And, the rains return.  Determined to not soak my entire rig and take on pounds of water, I stop, jumping into the local D’Angelo’s, and ordering a sandwich—both for sustenance and shelter.  It’s quiet at the moment.  The two middle-aged guys behind the counter offer me a phone book when I ask about motels, but one warns that none will be cheap on this stretch.  How true that proves!

Here, I’m stuck for 45 minutes until the next storm clears.  Then I’m off, but still confused, and heading wrong, ultimately finding myself stymied by a sea of traffic.  I pull of into a mall lot, the acres of pavement offering very little in the way of relief.  Happily, a young woman inside the doors of Barnes & Noble takes a minute, and offers me a course that seems promising.  I have to backtrack through the mess I’ve just finished.

Again, finally back on the rail trail, I’m heading north.  But the skies are darkening once more, and the wind is picking up.  I’m hoping to beat them into Simsbury, but its still a few miles away as the storm bears down.  I turn back, recalling a small shelter at the side of a trail intersection about a mile distant.  Here, at a site bordered by a broad field and tobacco barn to the west, I take cover in a lean-to built by the Avon Rotarians.  I share it with sheltering bumblebees as the storm swirls.  It hits hard–almost all wind.  Dust fills my eyes as I peak around at the clouds.  Trees are bending in gusts that near 50 mph.

I snap a few pictures and wait.  And wait, as the wind rages.  I finally take to my bike after almost an hour, thinking it’s done.  Then, the rains finally come.  I run back.

In another ten minutes, all is over.  Unbeknownst to me, trees are down all along the valley heading north.  I’ll see them all the way home–road and utility companies will be out clearing them right up through Sunderland, MA, and I’ll come across one sprawled over this rail trail at the Massachusetts border in the morning.

I head on.  It’s now after 6:30, damp, and still windy, plus its gotten cool–to say the least.  I have nowhere to stay, but I do have my tent and bag for a damp night in the buggy brush if all fails.  Perhaps this trip is conspiring to have me spend a night camping.  This won’t be pretty–or scenic, though, just ditch camping.  At one juncture the trail moves parallel to Rt. 10, and I take to the road, my best shot at finding a room on the edge of town.  I come across a Marriot someone had mentioned, but when I ask the desk woman about a single rate she quotes me $189.00.  A bit much for a few hours and a shower.  Back on the bike.

Simsbury is another private school town, and my hopes for a reasonably-priced stay quickly go south.  A picture perfect history is manicured into the town’s presentation, though its plaque mentions that Native Americans put the torch to it a couple of times– see the first writing on the wall way back in the first part of the 17th century.  I come upon a bed and breakfast.  What the heck?—I set myself a limit; I’ll offer $90.00, take it or leave it.  No one comes to the bell.

As I near the town’s northern edge there is something looming on the left, a blue-gray building, perhaps 1970’s vintage, three stories tall.  The Iron Horse Inn.  It looks a bit like a low-to-mid priced place you might see in the denser towns of Cape Cod.  But it’s mostly empty at 7:05 p.m., just three cars sit in a large parking lot.  Still, I have nothing to lose.  I walk in to a modestly lit lobby, the other corridors are dark.  No one is at the desk, but there’s a phone, and a sign: for service, pick up the phone.

A young woman answers.  I ask if they have a single rate.  Yes, she says quickly, its $84, including tax.  Despite the thin carpet and sparse presentation, this may be something.  I mostly ignore the air that seems like it could use a good venting by merely leaving the lobby door open.  “Where are you?  Downstairs??” she asks.  They are not used to people walking in, apparently.  “Are you interested?”  Yes.  “I’ll send someone down.”

And down comes Melind, perhaps Indian or Pakistani, in his young thirties, I’d guess.  He too wonders, “How did you find us?”  They are right on Rt. 10, but it seems not a popular stop.  I start to give a tale of biking and wind, but cut it short.  “So, what does $84.00 get me?”  “Would you like to see a room?”  Melind takes me up a flight of stairs, then starts toward another, “Do you have anything on this floor?”  The place is empty, after all.  I figure one car is the woman’s on the phone—likely Melind’s girlfriend, the other is his, and the third…is the killers.  “Well, if you don’t need a king-sized bed I can grab another key.”   He runs back down the stairs.

The room is large, suite-sized—long, with a fridge, stove with two burners, microwave, writing table, etc.  I can’t completely ignore the musty air, the stain in the ceiling tiles.  I ask if the doors open.  They do, onto a deck overlooking a pool that doesn’t look like it’s primed to open this spring.  There’s a TV, “but the cable went out about an hour ago.”  “Sure,” I’m thinking.  I’m also thinking this place may be in receivership.  But the bed looks clean, and the price is right, and Melind seems willing to bend the rules a bit and allow me to bring my bike into the lobby for the night.  I guess they worry about the plush state of the indoor-outdoor carpet throughout.  I tell him we have a deal.

In truth, the TV cable did come back up later.  I got to watch the weather.  Melind sent me to a pizza joint that actually had reasonable prices, and I walked out, dead-tired, with a chicken-pesto sandwich on fancy bread, and a dose of curly fries.  That, and a bottle of beer, conspire make my return to the Iron Horse a minor triumph of bike travel for a white-haired guy.  Surviving a rough day on the road is part of the adventure.

I set aside the beer, eat half the large sandwich, and take a satisfying shower.  The double doors are thrown open to the damp, cool, clearing night.  Wrapped in a towel, I take the only two snapshots I have of myself on the journey—reflected in the long bathroom mirror.  A tired man, but satisfied to have pulled this rabbit out of this hat.  Hotel stalkers, be damned!  I sprawl on the bed, write in my journal for most of an hour and a half; then have that beer and a bunch of cold, curly fries while looking at the weather—along with reports of the thickening oil-spill disaster in the Gulf.  Somewhere toward midnight I switch off the light, coming to life again just before 6:00 a.m.

A day at the mouth: Old Saybrook

Posted by on 13 May 2010 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River

A day at the mouth: Old Saybrook                  © 2010 by Karl Meyer

May 3, 2010.

Waking up to rain on a Monday morning at the Liberty Inn on Springbrook Road in Old Saybrook can be a comforting feeling.  It comes not so much from seeing the mist rise from trucks passing on I-95, not 100 yards away.  It simply delivers the message you get to relax in a bed for a bit, and stay for a full day along the Sound and the tidelands.  So, you tell the front desk you’re in for more, make the three cup hotel-coffeemaker coffee, and have leftover pizza for breakfast.

The rains nominally clear this section of coast around 1 pm, at least according to the radar.  Unloading the tent, pad, and sleeping bag from my bike, I ride off in a rain slicker, toting two mostly-empty panniers along.  First stop is North Cove, fairly close to town.  To get there it’s back up Rt. 1, and over the concrete Amtrak/Conrail bridge.

It’s still a bit damp and misty, but there are hints of sun–muggy for early May.  This is an old town dump, now turned into an overlook park, with a side path leading a ways out to the marsh and cove.  It’s a good two miles to the opposite shore.  Walking along a little grass spit its obvious the tide is just past high.  A muskrat trails in and out of the marsh grasses, seemingly not too intimidated by my presence.  Neither are the salt marsh mosquitoes—happy to have an early visitor.

After the rain it is fairly quiet here.  I hear song sparrows calling, and a red-bellied woodpecker up on the lookout above.  But shorebirds from where I am are silent.  I head back along the muddy sure, and then up on the rise to the overlook.  Here, a pair of osprey make tight circles, giving their hollow calls.  There are several platforms out in the cove along the water and placed among the marsh grasses.  One is occupied.

I read a bit of the interpretive signage and see that there are two uncommon salt marsh sparrows here, plus three species of rail: king, clapper, and Virginia.  Rails are never easy to see, and this is not the hour to be easily picking up bird song.  I take them at their word—this was, after all, Roger Tory Peterson country.  I bid the mosquitoes, and the yellow warbler, and the Carolina wren farewell, and head back toward town.

I’ve grabbed a little historic walking tour brochure, and thus note the old buildings and colonial sites as I ride along.  I’m hungry, and there’s a restaurant called One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest that may not be too far out on Rt. 1, South, but I can’t be sure.  I’m not really up for a trafficky-ride along a damp shoulder.  There are still a few showers in the area.

When I’ve gone a ways, I note that I’m still a couple of thousand street numbers from reaching the address of Cuckoo’s Nest.  I decide I’m not up for the traffic.  But, I’m right near Atlantic Seafood, which is advertising Connecticut River shad and roe.  I stop, on the outside chance they actually have some cooked.  Of course they don’t, but the woman mentions two places that serve it.  I thank her, but already know they are both high-end places—not the right fit for this road biker.

As I’m standing outside asking myself if it’s going to rain some more, and what I want to do about food and more exploring, I hear a sharp pop—like someone has thrown a firecracker.  I look for the culprit, but there is none.  I look again.  I look at my bike.  In particular, I look at my front tire.  It is flat.  What days are these—what gods??  How does a tire spontaneously combust?  Still, I do comfort myself that it didn’t happen in the middle of nowhere, though I kind of am in the middle of nowhere—3 – 4 miles from my motel.

But, across the way—voila, is a bike shop.  Now, surely I can fix a tire.  And, I have a spare tube and tire irons in my panniers.  But I’ve showered this morning.  Plus, I’m wearing my cleanest dirty shirt and it’s muggy and might rain some more.  By decree, I’m letting myself let them fix this flat.  And they do.  The tire had a big cut.  It was just itching to bust.  I guess I was lucky to witness the event, rather than wonder what had happened.  New tire, new tube, and $25 bucks later I’m on my way.  Nice folks.

I stop for a bottle of Berkshire Ale to bring back to my little room and the ballgame at the Liberty Inn and then head back over the railroad bridge on Rt. 1.  Waiting for the walk light at the busy crossing I see a sign in front of Pat’s Kountry Kitchen: we have shad and roe.  This really must be a sign(of course it literally is a sign!)  They are also advertising half-price cocktails for early birds, and its just 4:45, I’m the early bird.  I ask if a beer can be a cocktail, and that seals the deal.  Shad is ordered, though I can’t bring myself—philosophically, to order the roe.  Not with a struggling species.  I dive into a good salad.

When my shad comes, I’m surprised it’s delivered by the cook—this is a pretty big place, though there are only a few of us blue hairs on the premises at the moment.  He tells me to enjoy.  I’ve left the beer untouched so that I could sample the shad—my first ever, with a clear palate.  And it is good.  Alosa sapidissima—Latin, for most-delicious herring.  I’m impressed.  Just a little seasoning, and its delightful.  I savor it; take a picture even.

When I’ve paid the young, slightly-stiff waiter, I notice the chef at a nearby table, talking to old acquaintances.  He’s obviously part of this family operation, somewhere in his late 40’s and just a regular guy, with his chef’s shirt a drooping a bit hangdog in the heat.  I motion politely to see if I can get a word.  When he comes I introduce myself, compliment his shad and ask where they get it.  From across the river in Old Lyme, he says.

His name is Dave–very likeable, ready to talk.  I tell him what I’m doing and tells me what he knows about people going out to net shad commercially here.  “Hey,” he says, “go talk to Ted at Ted’s Bait and Tackle.  Right down Rt. 1 in your direction.  They go out.  He’ll tell you about it.”  I thank him again and head on my way.  I’m a bit pooped, and the late still has a showery feel to the sky.

When I get back to my room I turn on the weather.  It looks like whatever showers are around have already cleared Old Saybrook.  I get back on my bike and head toward the mouth of the Connecticut River—the actual place where the Sound and this ribbon of water merge: Ferry Point.  That’s where Ted is.

It’s a bit tricky, but I find Ted’s tucked up beneath that classic rail trestle that’s the last thing you see before Long Island Sound when you cross the 1 – 95 bridge here.  That’s where Ted’s is, the sign reads, “Hunting and fishing licenses.”  There’s a house, and a separate bait and tackle shop that’s as big as a house, one floor, all brown.  As I approach a young woman on the house steps brings a very interested and large German shepherd inside before it finds me too enticing.  I thank her.

Inside the shop a woman is buying night crawlers, she has two kids in tow.  I figure she’s either the mom, or their aunt.  She’s obviously excited to be taking them fishing.  I’m the only other visitor at 6:30 pm.  Ted’s is a full service place, bait, rods, lures, boots—all standard fare, not the glossy magazine type of outfitter.  Live bait, frozen bait, fish– there’s a good bit of all things serviceable here.  It’s a general store for fishing.

I introduce myself and ask the burly, late-20’s guy if he’s Ted—thinking he’s likely not.  “I’m one of the Teds,” he says.  Telling him I’m interested in the shad netting operation he tells me that his father has gone out for 50 years, “Not because it makes a lot of money—there’s little money in it.  But, partly it’s the tradition.”  They won’t be going out tonight, but likely tomorrow night, he says, “You want to come along—we’ve taken you guys out with us before?”  Alas, I tell him, I’ll be back on my bike tomorrow.

“We go out two hours after mean low-tide.  Tonight, that would be about 11.”  Then he add that there are still 5 – 6 people that gill-net shad here and across in Old Lyme, plus one up by Haddam.  I thank him, ask for a card, and say I may be calling his father.  The young woman holds the German shepherd as I’m getting on my bicycle.  She’s now talking to a couple of guys on motorcycles who are lounging about.  “Just give me a head start,” I say.

I stop at the town landing and fishing pier beneath the I – 95 bridge.  There are two guys fishing.  One is likely my age, sipping on a quart of Bud, though I definitely have more teeth.  The other is young, in his early 20’s.  They are not fishing together, just fishing amicably.  That may be the core of what fishing is about.  The older guy doesn’t know much about shad; has never tasted one.  “They’re a weird fish,” he says.  He doesn’t catch them.  These are salt water guys.  The young guy says he has had a few bites this evening, pulled in one perch a while back, “The stripers were hitting pretty good right here last week.”  I thank them, we trade a few more observations, and am on my way.

There’s one more little salt wetland I want to see, Otter Cove, a bit upstream on the river.  I pass a marina with scores of fat pleasure boats wrapped in thousand of yards of plastic.  I reach Otter Cove itself through a neighborhood that all but says “we’re money people,” some homes with actual gated drives.  But a lovely bit of low sunlight slips beneath the clouds when I do reach the small cove.  It illuminates that far shore, bathing it in warm gold.  I snap a picture.  The next time I move there is a slap in the slowly receding tide beneath the little bridge.  Thick and ropey, I again guess that it’s an eel, darting for the reeds.

The sun is about to set.  I turn my bike back toward Rt. 1 and I – 95, and the surprising, relative quiet of my room for the last night at the mouth of the river.

Enfield to the Sound

Posted by on 11 May 2010 | Tagged as: alewives, American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, salmon

Enfield to the Sound                                        © 2010 by Karl Meyer

May 2, 2010

This will prove the downstream ride’s best day—actually the best day of the trip.  At 6:00 a.m., I check the skies above the sprawling pavement surrounding my Enfield address.  There’s high, grey cover.  It’s humid and cool, but already in the upper 50’s.  The TV update says upper 80’s today, with afternoon showers.  I grab my own shower, and then head to check out.  The kind woman at the front desk tells me I get a free complimentary lunch at the chain next door, “Do you have time?”

I go and order up a cooked, breakfast sandwich, to go.  It takes about 15 minutes, but I pack it on my bike, grab a quick cup of the motel’s complimentary coffee, and I’m off, coffee in hand.  I scoot back down south through Enfield, a combination of newer homes, with the occasional colonial place delineating the original town layout.  I dive right, down Old Depot Road, to Thompsonville and Warehouse Pt., examining the landscape that dictated where humans first walked here, and fished, and where Pynchon found it necessary to build his trading warehouse in the 1630s, due to the rapids just upstream.

I intersect Rt. 5, and head south.  It’s 7:45 a.m., and traffic is generally light on this Sunday.  In places this road has a real urban edge, with stores and commerce spread broadly across the river terrace.  Other places are given over to pasturing horses, and idle land, with a few farms and garden center operations in between.  Most telling, to someone traveling in the silence of a bike, are the hundreds and hundreds of fertile acres given over to pavement—oil atop earth, for the sole purpose of auctioning off thousands of new cars, here sitting in storage.  As I ride past this, a great oil slick is spreading over the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.

I keep watch for the Scantic River.  Dr. Boyd Kynard tells me there used to be a pretty good blueback herring run up this river.  When I finally dip into its crossing in East Windsor, I stop on the narrow bridge, looking down to the semi-dark waters as a scattering of trucks shoot past.  It’s a tripping little river here, semi-dark in the bottomland woods.  I can make out no fish in the morning light—not that they would be moving necessarily at the moment.  A mallard scoots away, and two Canada geese take flight.  There may be another dam between me and the mouth of the Scantic, but I think not, as I’m only a mile away.  Later I discover that the first dam is miles upstream in Enfield, and that this river had a pretty good run of shad in the 1970’s, and even today a few river herring knock on the door of the dam each spring.  Both, have been left hanging for decades without assistance.

Stripping down to a t-shirt, I head out of the bowl of the Scantic and quickly find my way onto North Main Street.  This turns out to be a wonderful secondary road, laid out in the mid-1600s above the Connecticut’s broad, flood plain.  It’s quiet, straight, and flows down through the old settlements, with many of the old houses still standing.  The East Windsor Hill Post Office, from 1727, is still in business, as is the refreshingly untidy Porter House, dating from 1694.  I follow south, largely untrammeled by traffic.

Other cyclists heading north for a recreational ride slide by in twos and threes.  At South Windsor I pass the birthplace marker for the Reverend Jonathan Edwards, born in the first years of the 18th century.  This connects me back to an upstream town.  When I lived in Northampton, MA, Edwards and I were neighbors of a sort.  I lived across the tracks, less than 200 yards from Edwards Square–his old digs when he was an early fire and brimstone preacher.  The citizens of Northampton had the good sense to run Edward’s and his brand of fear mongering out of town.  His bloodline apparently continued though, as I read that Aaron Burr was his grandson.

Continuing on down South Main through East Windsor, the road grows slowly less rural, with less of the preserved, cookie-cutter, historic ambiance it cultivates at it most opulent horse-farmy acreages.  It was time to leave this quiet anyway.  Soon I’m in East Hartford, which would have been a real challenge on a weekday, but at 10:00 a.m. on a Sunday, is highly doable.  I’m still on the old, historic path, but the road widens, merges with Rt. 5 as Main Street.  I cross the entrance to one sprawling Pratt and Whitney plant, and not long after, another.  It astonishes me at the time how much of our wealth is derived from the implementation of industry in service to warfare.  What a sad use of the earth’s good soil.

In the center of East Hartford, beneath its looming spire, I chat briefly with another cyclist while stopped at a busy intersection.  He’s pleasant, though he can’t offer much in the way of good directions heading south.  I just try to keep on Main Street, ever leaning toward the river, which should lead me into Glastonbury.  Though I do lose the trail at times, I eventually make it to a back street intersection that is tempting: Naubuc Avenue.  It’s again a quiet, colonial path—very likely of Native American origin, and it goes through an old, and unpretentious colonial neighborhood, interspersed with modest, early and mid-20th century houses.  Plain, working people.

This is another fine, straight, route, which takes me a few miles, including down a short side chute to Keeney Cove, and old meander of the Connecticut.  Here, in the 80 degree morning sun, people have parked a few pickup trucks and cars.  They are angling for fish at the lip of the Cove, which has yet to be unburdened on the recent spring floods.  Part of the pavement is under water.  I ask one shirtless, tattooed young guy who has just waded in from a small, dry rise in his bare feet if the guys fishing there have caught anything.  He can’t say for sure.  I head back out, not knowing if this is a shad or herring site, with a connection to the main stem Connecticut.

It is warm.  I fidget my way onto Main Street in Glastonbury, where it’s sunny, flowery, and well-off.  Hills and narrow roads close in, a function of the ancient geology here, and plate tectonics.  The road gets busier as I head south toward Portland and Cobalt.  I pass Moodus, the place of a memorable earth quake in the 1700s.  Suddenly I’m adjacent to the motel/inn that I’ve scoped out for the end of today’s journey.  It looks ok, but a bit forlorn on its little siding, with the nearest commerce a gas station 1/3 of a mile away, and no where to walk on narrow Rt. 66.  It’s 11:15 a.m.; there are no rain clouds apparent.  If I stop now, I’m stuck in a boring pocket for the day.  I head on, not knowing where I’ll end the day.

I grab an iced coffee in Cobalt, against the heat, and find I’ve missed a turn south.  A woman tells me I can take the adjacent road I’ve been eying, back over the Rt. 154.  It’s Hog Hill Road, an interesting old colonial route dating back at least 2-1/2 centuries.  I hear wood thrush and oven birds, and yellow warblers.  Soon I’ve scooted down to my river route and the entrance to Hurd State Park.  It’s hot, but, I want to keep rolling.  One hill, then another, takes me over the ridges of Haddam Neck, a rocky ridge reaching to the Connecticut’s shore that once hosted a nuclear plant.  It was shut when valve problems threatened to uncover the reactor’s core, which the public never learned.  Repairs were too pricey to ever restart it.  Today, it has been dismantled, but its toxic nuclear legacy remains stored and guarded on site, costing citizens a million bucks a year to safeguard it.

I shoot down a long curve and up along the last few miles of the Salmon River, stopping on the bridge above to scan for fish.  I walk down an old side road, where the Leesville dam has long had a set-up to pass—wouldn’t you know, salmon.  The place is posted up and down about salmon, and how to ID them.  But I see not a single leaping salmon.  However, as I crouch down nest to the gurgling waters before the dam as silver-grey fish writhes and disappears in an instant.  Its perhaps a little more than a foot long, and the only fish I can equate with this behavior in the shallows is American eel.  Gone in a flash.  As I’m left pondering this I note the head of a smallish northern water snake lifted out of the water just a few feet beyond.

I drink in the heat and get back on the bike.  Soon I come abreast of Salmon Cove, the long marsh leading to the river’s intersection with the Connecticut.  Two boats sit fishing just beyond where the Salmon flows in.  Quickly, I’m in Haddam, tourist town and home to the Goodspeed Opera House, and a bridge across the river.  It’s busy.  I’m heckled by two punks in a pickup, and can’t resist giving them the finger.  Not a place for a cyclist to linger today.  I cross the river and bridge in good traffic, stop on the other side at Tony’s Market, where they have “Connecticut River shad and roe” for sale.  But I’m just there for a Gatorade at this point, which I slug down.

Quickly I’m heading downstream toward Chester, and traffic thins.  Pretty views of the Connecticut roll toward me.  One of the lovely things that you rarely get on roadways while moving through beautiful spaces is the quiet.  Suddenly, every now and then the cars disappear, and you can experience the beauty and the quite in tandem.  And it is lovely.

Chester is so compact, old, and set up so neatly in the landscape that it’s hard to deny its charm, despite the obvious tourist and money bent.  I stop to say hello to a friend’s brother, who I’ve yet to meet.  He the chef at little place called Simon’s.  I get the cook’s tour, including the little alewife stream out back that bisects the town center.  Alan buys me an iced tea, and tells me its not too many miles to the coast—I’m guessing less than twenty.

The roads continue good, and I pass through Deep River, and am just on a southward roll, smelling the salt and that final destination—the Connecticut’s mouth.  The skies are holding.  I reach the turn-off for Essex, which I’ve never explored.  The sign-posts say I’m only six miles from crossing into Old Saybrook, and the skies are holding.  There’s still a little gas in my tank so I pedal toward town.  It’s old, the architecture is interesting, but the place is so meticulously preserved, and already chockfull of tourists, that it’s hard to see beyond the opulence and check for a soul.  The landing and harbor in this tidal section look out on a broad reach of river.  There’s a regatta in progress, and I can already see that the water will be overwhelmed by the expensive boats sitting, Saran-wrapped in the marinas, within just weeks.  I quickly put Essex behind me.

The last miles into Old Saybrook are uneventful.  I find my way to a siding on the wrong side of the railroad tracks and Rt. 1, but get directions from a friendly woman who runs a bric-a-brac shop.  Tired now, she sends me back over the railroad bridge, and gets me on track to Springbrook Road and the Liberty Inn.  The place, it turns out, is curiously wedged between the road and I – 95.  It’s literally at eye level with the highway, and not 100 yards off.  Remarkably, it’s quiet in my room, and comfortable.  After a shower and the end of a losing Red Sox game, I drag myself, tired, back into Old Saybrook Center to pick up the family-size pizza special, advertised in the Inn’s pages.  The package stores are closed, so I am forced to leave my bike, pizza attached, outside, while I have a celebratory Sam Adam’s at a counter of Pat’s Kountry Kitchen.  The beer is cold, and goes down nicely in honor of the river, and a fine day’s ride.  No storms yet in sight.

A word from the mouth

Posted by on 03 May 2010 | Tagged as: American shad, Connecticut River

I reached the mouth of the Connecticut at Old Saybrook yesterday.

I left Greenfield on a packed bicycle at 6:45 a.m., Saturday, May 1st.  The farmers were just setting up the first market on Greenfield common.  Shot straight downstream, as I was expected at the Red Roof Inn in Enfield, CT that evening.  Not a huge hall, but there was Holyoke, Chicopee, and Springfield to bike through.  Still, black throated green warblers called, and bluebirds flitted near pastures.  Didn’t get my first view of the CT River until Route 5, near Mt. Tom in Holyoke.  But, I was standing on the Rt. 116 Bridge, adjacent to the fishway, by 9:10.  A couple of guys fishing from shore just downstream said they’d had on good hit.  Still early.  There was a small crew fishing Slim Shad Point, and two boats out at midstream.

I followed the river and Rt. 116 downstream, through the Saturday morning empty factories, and across the river into Cabottville.  I love going throug towns when its early and people are relaxed.  Stayed along the river by-ways as much as possible.  Eventually came to the partially finished bikeway in Chicopee, but then had to backtrack due to construction.  Nice views along the river though.  A few boats with lines in the water.

Made my way into Springfield’s North End along 116, and then fidgetted through that ripped up road in the industrial section.  Near the end a farmers market had been set up, rather spare.  But, just behind them was the dike work, and the bike/walk way.  Got on it.  Some nice views of the river, and the Memorial Bridge, and the railroad bridge that I once climbed out on to get the USGS benchmarks for a report.  Took some snaps.

Near downtown there are a number of homeless folks sleeping along the park-like section.  These are tough times.  I ask one if I can take the path all the way to the South End Bridge.  He’s not talking.  Another guy, not yet drinking, says it might be possible, but he’s not sure.  I take the chance, but I’m turned around just before the bridge due to construction.  Have to backtrack once more.

I walk my bike into the vast lobby of the Basketball Hall of Fame, where they say they have information.  I know some of the Springfield Visitor’s Center people.  None are present, but a knowledgeable guy, who used to bike and live in Agawam, gives me good directions.  Soon, I’m down to the end of Columbus Ave., and walking my bike across the South End Bridge.  I take a few snaps of the boats fishing upstream.

Agawam has a lovely bikeway along the river, though its short.  I take it, then continue south past an already-open Six Flags.  Soon I’m in Thompsonville, and its not yet 12:30.  I continue south, knowing I have a bit of slush time.  What am I going to do when I get to my room in Enfield.  So, I stay on the right bank, and head to the beginning of the Windsor Locks Canal, a state park.

I immediately hear the waters of the Connecticut gurgle as the river runs across the river cobbles and ruins of the former dam here.  When I reach the river bank I’m surprised not to find anyone fishing this section.  The shad run is still not in high gear.  I head downstream the 4-1/2 miles along the canal.  Its warm, hot really.  Two young guys are fishing in a boat just offshore.  I call to them to see if anything’s biting.  A couple of smallmouth bass is all.

Carolina wrens sing, and orioles tootle from the treetops along the canal.  For a road biker, this is not a very exciting jog.  The best part though, is that it is along the river.  I finish the trail, and don’t want to backtrack, but these are two busy crossings to get east across the river–the Rt. 190, and Rt. 140 bridges.  The Windsor Locks Library is open and I decide to give it a try.  The librarian is quite helpful, and gets me across the 140 bridge, and steers me around harm’s way when I get up to Enfield and the I-91 interchanges crossing Rt. 5.

I come up through Windsor, and Warehouse Pt., where Pynchon built his warehouse/trading house in the mid-1630’s, just below the rapids.  By 1:30 p.m., I’m ensconced in the unreality of a motel room, with 60 channels, surrounded by pavement, malls and interstates.  I go foraging and pick up a six-pack–of soda, really, Polar orange, and literally drink a six-pack, plus one more, before nightfall.  I also suck up seven–count’em, seven pieces of the colonel’s good chicken, saving one for the ride tomorrow.  You can do these kind of stunts when you are biking with paniers, tent, and sleeping bag.  I probably did 60 miles, but could have gone longer.  But I had the reservation, and E. Hartford might have been a tough place to conquer when tired.

So, it was an afternoon/evening of Red Sox, bad movies, going over maps, and watching the President address the press club in an annual roast.  Didn’t sleep all that well, but made it to Old Saybrook, where I am now, by 3:15 p.m. on Sunday afternoon.  That’s something over 70 miles.  Still haven’t seen anyone with a shad they’d caught on the water, but scattered fishing boats were out on the river all along the way.  Here, and upstream in Haddam, the fish markets do have fresh shad for sale.  The Atlantic Seafood place here says its Connecticut River shad, though I didn’t see any commercial seining going on.

I had a cold, Sam Adams lager in celebration of reaching the Sound.  Rainstorms came on overnight into this morning, so I’m spending one more night.  I’d scheduled last night to stay in Portland, CT, but I reached that place by 11:15 a.m., and just had to keep going, despite talk of afternoon thunderstorms.  Still gray here in late-afternoon, but front is set to pass soon.  Ospreys were calling over the North Cove here an hour ago.  It’s getting late in the afternoon, and I can’t find the spell-check on this library computer.  So, I’m just hitting the send button.  I head upstream in the morning.