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A River Teeming With History And Wildlife
Sure, you know the Connecticut River. You drive by it and over it all the time. But do you really know it? Every river has its history, of course, and every river of any size is, to a degree, its own ecological world. But few of them rival the Connecticut for stories or species.
The lower Connecticut River especially, from East Haddam to Long Island Sound, is extraordinarily rich in cultural history and biological bounty. It was designated a wetland area of international importance a decade ago by the Ramsar Convention, a worldwide body. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified it as one of the richest wetland ecosystems in the Northeast, and the Nature Conservancy calls it one of the nation's "Last Great Places."
This is the river that nurtured the colony that became Connecticut, the river that to this day is one of the defining features of Connecticut life. There is east of the river, and there is west of the river. And there is the river.
If you have a nagging feeling you haven't given the Connecticut an appropriate amount of attention, here is a way to immerse yourself. And you don't even have to get wet. Combine a visit to the Connecticut River Museum with an outing on RiverQuest, the 54-foot twin-hull tour boat moored next to the museum at Steamboat Dock, Essex.
We arrived on a rainy summer day, perfect for browsing in a museum and, as it turned out, quite acceptable for a cruise on the lower river. The RiverQuest has a large enclosed cabin with chairs and tables and an open rear deck.
The lower Connecticut is a sprawling reach of river, and on this day, it was a vast expanse of gray, the water gently dimpled by the rain, a nice backdrop for the big pink petals of swamp rose-mallow, a wildflower now blooming robustly along the shore.
In winter, the lower river is thick with bald eagles from northern New England and Canada seeking open water. Passengers on the RiverQuest, which operates through all but the coldest winter days, can see 30 or 40 eagles on a February day. Seals also can be seen from the boat in winter.
The eagle population in summer is much smaller, but chances are good you'll see one. We saw three during our cruise, which lasted just under 90 minutes, typical for a RiverQuest daytime cruise.
Ospreys, which plummet from the sky to snatch fish from rivers and lakes, were abundant. You'll see their nests all along the lower river. Osprey populations in Connecticut crashed at mid-century because of the pesticide DDT, but they have rebounded strongly in the past decade.
"We have so many nests now, we don't even count them," said Mark A. Yuknat, captain of the RiverQuest and owner of Connecticut River Expeditions, the tour company. Yuknat narrates the tours from the deck, pointing out historical and ecological points of interest - explaining, for example, the quarrying industry that once thrived at Selden Island or the story of the once bustling and now quiet village of Brockway Landing in Lyme. If he spots an eagle, he or a mate alerts the passengers.
Passengers can borrow binoculars for the tour, and with them, it's easy to pick out eagles and ospreys, a distant boat or perhaps an interesting cupola.
Motoring up the river, there are old ferry stops, cliffs, yacht clubs, marshes and some imposing riverside homes. "There are houses along here paying $30,000 to $70,000 a year in taxes," Yuknat tells passengers. The cruise usually stops and turns around just below Gillette Castle in East Haddam, providing a nice view of the castle from the river perspective.
On a weekday, with few big boats on the lower river, the cruise was smooth, even peaceful. On a sunny weekend day, the river will be far busier with large boats.
A tour of the Connecticut River Museum nicely complements the tour. The museum is at Steamboat Dock, where the boat is docked, in an old building that once served the steamboat trade for Hartford, New York and other points. Exhibits are displayed on three floors, with those on the first and third floors changing periodically.
At the moment, the first-floor centerpiece exhibit highlights life in Fenwick, the borough in Old Saybrook where the river meets Long Island Sound. Fenwick in the 19th century went from a Victorian picnic spot to a weekend and vacation retreat for the haves of Hartford. Paintings, photographs and artifacts evoke life in a summer colony where golf and tennis were and are an assumed part of a summer day. That Katharine Hepburn spent leisure time at Fenwick from her childhood on did nothing but increase the borough's image of wealth and exclusivity, of course.
An exhibit on the third floor gives a nice sense of change over the past century. It begins with a set of 22 landscape photos of the lower river valley dating from about 1880 until 1910.
"We sent folks out, and they shot as close as they could the exact scene today, right from the same point of view to show the change," said Stuart Parnes, executive director. "And it is quite dramatic."
The second floor is a semi-permanent collection that includes old maps, paintings, models of steamboats and other craft that sailed the river and a series of themed displays, including one on the American shad, the migratory fish that ascends the river each spring at just about the time things start to turn green.
And don't miss the Turtle, the replica of America's first submarine, dating to the Revolutionary War. Think of a barrel with ballast, and you have a hint of what it is like.
Steve Grant can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com