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From ‘Sewer’ to Beautiful: Paddling 400 Miles on New England's Longest River

Jul 27, 2017
Originally published on July 27, 2017 9:36 pm

The Connecticut River springs to life in Pittsburg, New Hampshire, just a few hundred yards from the Canadian border. From there, it snakes 400 or miles southward, where it discharges into the Long Island Sound. This month, a group of river-lovers are paddling the length of the Connecticut to highlight its history, importance and beauty.

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A flotilla of kayaks and canoes, along with a handmade boat made of 65,000 wine corks, pushes off from the Orford Town Boat Launch for a gentle ride down the river. The otherwise peaceful scene is only broken up by a pontoon boat overflowing with polished brass instruments: the Lyme Town Band is onboard, regaling both the river and the paddlers with marches as they make the journey.

So it goes on Day Five of a two-week river odyssey coordinated by the Connecticut River Conservancy, a group dedicated to the protection and restoration of New England’s longest river. The event, called the Source to Sea Jump In Journey, is meant to highlight just how far this river has come in both water quality and health.

“In the mid-1950s, they called it the ‘most beautiful sewer in America,’” says Dave Hewitt, a trustee for the Conservancy. “And now it is Class B. You can swim in it, you can boat in it, you can eat the fish that you catch in it. It’s amazing.”

Back when it was still a sewer, Dr. Joseph Davidson, president of the then-titled Connecticut River Watershed Council, embarked on the first ‘Source to the Sea’ journey. It was 1959, and the river was the recipient of raw sewage, industrial pollution, as well as rusting cars and other waste.

“This trip on the Connecticut from the 'Source of the Sea' opened our eyes to the treasure of the valley, and some of the ways it is being destroyed through man’s carelessness and lack of concern for the future of his own kind,’” says Davidson, who wore a gas mask in some sections to highlight the stench from the water.

With that 1959 trip serving as inspiration for this voyage, the group’s current executive director, Andrew Fisk, is retracing the river, highlighting the progress made since Davidson’s jaunt.

“We should be incredibly proud of the fact that this river is so much cleaner and so much healthier because we have invested thousands upon thousands of hours, and hundreds of millions of dollars to make it a better river,” says Fisk. “But we are not done.”

The Connecticut River, for all its improvement, still does have its challenges. Fish populations are low, nitrogen levels are too high, and hydroelectric dams are causing erosion in some sections.

But advocates also say that the Clean Water Act, as well as a bipartisan tradition of conservation in New England, have made a huge impact on the river’s health.

“That river is yours. You own it. You own everything that lives in it, and with ownership comes stewardship, and with stewardship comes a responsibility to take care of your river,” says Fisk.

After enjoying a spread of cookies and juice at a pull-off in Lyme, Fisk and his fellow kayakers, as well as a few band members, take a quick dip in the Connecticut. But it won’t be long before they are back on the move. There are still some 200 more miles to go on the river before they reach the Long Island Sound, where the Connecticut meets the sea.

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