Connecticut River 2020: Jeannette’s First Death

Coronavirus has everyone doing strange things. For J and me, it was deciding to take a vacation without the kids. I think E (my oldest sone, with whom I do all my adventuring) was genuinely hurt that I sent him to stay with the grands while J and I got to go paddling. I guess I’ll have to make up for it by taking him out on a bunch of trips in the remaining months of the season. Oh, darn!

I intended this to be a four or five day trip. I wanted to find something that offered remoteness, and a close-in river experience with lots of oxbows and wildlife spotting opportunities. That meant the northernmost section of the river. What I didn’t count on was exactly how bony it would be, and how quickly that would cut our trip short. In the end, we got only two days of the trip done, but it was an amazing few days. I asked my wife to write the rest of this post because she’s a better writer than I am, and I enjoy getting out of my own head and hearing things as she experienced them.

He: Do you want to take a multi-day paddling trip?
Me: I don't want to tip over. I'll go if I won't tip over.
Readers, I tipped over.

It was a four-hour drive up to our start point in northern NH, approximately a mile south of the border with Canada. Along the way we dropped off my car at our presumed stopping point and drove on to the starting point together. He said we were going to “glamp” the first night at a campsite he booked through AirBnB. By that he meant the car was within walking distance. I also tried out hammock tent for the first time. I’m not fan, it made me feel incredibly claustrophobic. But I’m glad I at least tried it for the sake of research.

Day One

We put in at the Canaan, VT launch. (We knew it was Vermont, because people were wearing the obligatory pandemic masks.) It started off pleasantly, gliding through the serene summer day, but shortly along the way we hit our first rocky bit. As a novice to water travel, I have never, ever paddled anywhere with a noticeable current or rock obstructions. In retrospect, it was fairly tame as rocky bits go, but I had absolutely no idea what to do. Therefore, I promptly bumped into a rock, tipped over, and swamped my canoe. This is not the journey I was looking for. C advised that in the rocky bits to let the current provide the momentum and use the paddle to maneuver. I’m starting with so little experience, that, yes, that had to be articulated. I also point this out so that it can be known how awesome I was at handling subsequent rocky bits.

Most of the river was serene and shallow. As an aspiring naturalist, I had plenty of opportunity to soak in the wildlife. I picked out various bird songs and enjoyed watching the little flocks of killdeer, the river’s sea gull, darting over the water’s surface to catch bugs. I saw the unmistakable soar of a bald eagle and enjoyed watching the osprey crisscross over the river high above, sometimes carrying a fish, perhaps to a nest. (The second day, I managed to see the osprey actually swoop down into the river and snag her fishy prey.) The lush crowns of large ferns and flowering joe pye weed and golden rods dressed the river banks in verdant, early August glory.

We stopped for lunch on the rocky beach of a little island in one of the oxbows. I took a little nap (needed as a result of my hammock research) and then investigated some of the flora growing among the rocks. I was especially delighted to find wild mint in flower, a favorite of pollinator insects.

The afternoon offered a change of pace as we encountered more rocky bits and our first bit of quick water as we passed under the bridge in Colebrook, which I faced with skill and dexterity compared to my start of the day self. Dare I say, it was even fun? Since C had allowed time for “vacation” to part of our plans in addition to “extreme physical challenge,” we stopped mid-afternoon at our campsite, which he nominally reserved. (We’re not entirely sure reservations mean anything at these sites.) We tied up our canoes, set up camp, and enjoyed a refreshing swim in the water which had been inviting us all day. I took some time to jot down some of the day’s nature observations in my journal, while C made some food. The reason I agree to these kinds of vacations is because he does all the planning and cooking and setting up and taking down. I just help here and there. It was an entirely lovely summer evening of a perfect vacation day.

Day Two

Expecting more of the same, we set off on the second morning passing through some light showers and under one of the many famed covered bridges. After another rocky encounter, the river opened into farmland. A group of cows even mooed their salutation. But then we began to come upon rocky bits with increasing frequency. At first it was a little fun dodging rocks and riding quick water. We even went through a bit of a rapid, which I aced and C tipped over in. We had some laughs and some scooching out of minor rock catches. Eventually, though, we found maneuvering to be increasingly difficult. Our boats were starting to get more scraped and bumped than seemed like a good idea. There wasn’t enough water around the rocks to allow ourselves enough leverage to paddle through the obstacles, so we had to get out and walk the canoes with the rope. Apparently, this is called “lining.” I distinctly felt like I was walking an obstinate cow, though. (Not that I’ve ever done that, but it’s what I imagined.) C had gotten up ahead of me as I’m significantly slower at picking my way around slippery rocks with an obstinate cow/canoe. I was glad he did, because he flagged me down in time to stop off at our second campsite, which was just before the falls of the former Lyman Dam.

We were both grateful for the respite, and the campsite was an absolute gem, nestled in a hollow just up from the rocky beach. We were cold and soaked and grateful for the hot chocolate packs in our supply. I was much appreciative of C’s masterful campstove system. After an early dinner, we walked around on the rocky beach enjoying the geological and plant diversity. The gray sky teased us with promises of rain, but I told C that if we set up a tarp and planned for rain that it would blow through. I was right. The next morning delivered sunshine.

Day Three

Ever since our arrival at the Lyman Falls campsite, we looked at the river ahead, knowing that our next phase would include more lining. We didn’t even bother getting into our canoes in the morning, we just started the slow walk. The water level was only on the very edge between being able to paddle and really needing to walk it, which made for an extremely frustrating experience. Deepish bits with current were constantly interrupted with rock obstacles, so sometimes we carried the canoes, and sometimes they carried us. C sort of hung on to the canoe and let himself ride with the current whenever he could. After about an hour an a half, I was so frustrated that I just decided to paddle what I could. So I would maneuver what I could, then walk a bit, then maneuver. However, this process proved to be momentous in the end. I was coming through a fairly swift section, but misjudged a small catch of large rocks for quick water and came smashing up on them. I was so annoyed and realized that I would have to get out of the boat in order to get off of the rocks. Somehow in the process, I ended up standing in the water, holding my partially swamped canoe over me as the water rushed by, and thinking, “I really need to work out more.” I did manage to right the canoe in a stable position to begin to pump it out, but the triumph of the moment was drowned at the sight of my paddle floating away beyond my grasp–the one thing not securely fastened to my boat. At that moment, I decided that this wasn’t fun anymore. Thankfully I did have a spare paddle, but I barely needed it. We walked our canoes to the nearest resting place and pondered our next course of action. We had only come 0.7 mi in 3 hours, with no sign of river conditions changing. We were in the middle of a river in a very rural area; there are no ubers or taxis or shuttles. Had C been alone he might have persevered further down the river, but I had hit my physical limit. I knew this, because whenever I do, I cry. And I was crying. I just knew I was dead. So there’s that. C was brilliant though and messaged the AirBnB host of the first night’s campsite, and she cheerily agreed to come rescue us! We were near enough a road that we were able to lift the canoes out of the river and carry them to a place where she could pick us up, alongside one of NH’s many ATV trails. She was our hero of the day, throwing all our gear in her truck and hauling us back to our starting point and C’s car, regaling us with hilarious stories along the way. I venmo’ed her some cash for the effort and buckets of gratitude. So here we were back at the beginning and the planned itinerary fading from possibility. C suggested we just get an AirBnB somewhere, but we were both feeling a little bereft to abandon ship so abruptly. Since the Lyman Falls campsite also had road access, we decided to go back to that lovely spot and camp one night more. Or shall I say “glamp” since the car was within walking distance. Since we were glamping we decided to live it up and have orange soda and roast marshmallows and *gasp* even have a small campfire! We were actually awake late enough to see stars come out. It was the perfect ending to a rocky day. And that night the rain did indeed come. (Because we didn’t hang the tarp, I’m sure.) In retrospect, it’s a good thing we did end up at a lovely AirBnB in the Vermont mountains for the next night, because that’s when the remnants of Hurricane Isaias blew through.

I’ll pick up where J broke off. This also was the moment (at the next AirBnB) where we discovered together the joys of a burger and ice cream after a tough wilderness journey. And this discovery would be tested in our next wilderness journey, wherein Jeannette experienced her second death, bought on by her comment,

I don’t feel like I’ve had enough outdoorsing. What if we were to go hiking…

1 thought on “Connecticut River 2020: Jeannette’s First Death

  1. Pingback: The Wild River Wilderness: Jeannette’s Second Death | Water and Wood

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