Sample chapter (continued)

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The Connecticut River, Chapter 10
Outclassed by Powerboaters (continued)

...Soon, the river was positively swarming with bigger and bigger boats with higher and higher wakes. This late September Saturday apparently served as the end-of-summer weekend when boat owners move their craft from marinas to winter storage, and everyone was on the water. I saw more powerboats this day than on the entire trip put together. Powerboat wakes don’t normally bother me, but with so many boats surging past in both directions, their wakes occasionally combined to produce a double wave, breaking into whitewater, which forced me to swing around to take it head on. This heavy marine traffic made for nerve-racking moments whenever I needed to cut across the river to maintain an efficient straight course. It felt like trying to cross the Santa Monica Freeway.

As I made my way down the river dodging powerboats, I passed by the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry, one of the oldest on the Connecticut, dating back to 1769. It was slated to close in 2011 because, given the decline in traffic and the growth of costs under inefficient state management, it became highly uneconomic. Understandably, the locals were disappointed, and organized to save it. Instead of forming a voluntary organization and taking donations, however, they turned to politics, mounting a special interest lobby to demand the infusion of ever-greater tax funds from the state treasury. Though local historical buffs take pride in keeping this ferry operating, their victory is hardly inspiring. After all, if you’re willing to use tax money to preserve outmoded arrangements, anything can be kept alive beyond its useful, natural life: the oldest buggy whip factory, the oldest religion, the oldest brothel. (Well, come to think of it, that would probably never need a tax subsidy.)

As the morning wore on, a wind kicked up from the south, directly against me, forcing me to battle for every inch of progress. At times, I grew so exhausted that I could make no forward progress and had to rest alongside the bank to catch my breath. The difficult morning extended into afternoon, as I dodged the hurtling powerboats and hauled hard against the stiff wind. I paused to snack on some nuts and dried cherries, but I was too anxious about my lack of progress and too distracted by the noise and confusion on the river to eat a significant meal. As a result, I was famished as well as exhausted upon reaching the town of Essex in the middle of the afternoon.

Essex is ground zero for the swaggering big-boat mentality on the Connecticut, the culmination of a trend I had noticed throughout the trip. The size, value, and assertiveness of powerboats increases exponentially as one descends the river. In the first 75 miles, I had seen no powerboats at all, because of the shallow Class 0 rapids. Then, as the river deepened somewhat, I began to see a few little tin prams with two-horsepower outboard motors, and a few pontoon boats carrying fishermen. After Turners Falls, Massachusetts, powerboats with their motors inboard occasionally plied the waters, some capable of going quite fast, but they always slowed for me—a politeness I found commendable.

Below Middletown, and especially after Haddam, the boats got very big—ocean-going yachts, really. And the manners of their drivers declined in inverse proportion to the length of their vessels: They did not slow to the slightest degree when they passed a lowly kayaker, nor alter course to give me space. And the commanders didn’t wave.

The center of this lower Connecticut maritime opulence is the village of Essex, a posh town of too-precious matchbox wooden houses and a long colonial history. Eighteen feet from the river’s shore lies Essex Island, a spot of land about the size of two tennis courts, from which radiate docks for luxury boats. I approached this islet of affluence, making my way between monster boats moored around it, and reached an empty space at one of the docks. Moored across from me stood a 90-foot yacht—the Sea Legend—which towered over my boat like an ocean liner.

The marina manager, dressed in blazer, tie, and neatly pressed gray slacks, came out of his office and stared down at me. I called up, “Can I moor here?”

He looked at me, his mouth open in disbelief, and, without a word, turned on his heel and went back inside his office. I should note that the deck of my boat was faded red canvas, slightly torn in places, and that, after four weeks of traveling in the same clothes—blackberry-torn nylon pants and sweat-stained shirt—I gave a very good impression of homelessness.

I remained patiently in my boat alongside the dock, waiting. After a few minutes, the manager, evidently concluding I was not a hallucination, came out of his office again. “What do you want?” His tone said, “What could you possibly want?” It occurred to me he might never have seen a kayak, didn’t know what it was.

“I want to moor here, to see if I can get lunch.”

Exasperated, he said, “Okay, but the snack bar closes in ten minutes.” I took this to mean I had ten minutes free mooring before the price went up to $2,000 a day.

The marina companies had set up a free ferry service—surely the shortest ferry in the world—to take wealthy boat owners the 18 feet from mainland to island. To boost the impression of opulence, the craft has a red-carpeted floor. On this day, the ferry was operated by a teenage boy fawningly eager to please and earn a big tip for 15 seconds of work.

I took the silly little ferry to shore, grabbed a quick bite at the snack bar and returned on the ferry: I didn’t tip the boy, feeling too embarrassed and out-of-place at his treating me like royalty. I climbed back into my kayak—the manager stayed out of sight—and headed out from the harbor, happy to depart a place where I didn’t fit in.

Leaving Essex harbor just ahead of me glided a green, 26-foot sloop going under sail power, manned by an older couple. I marked them as serious long-distance cruisers, too proud and environmentally correct to use their engine. They had to tack against the wind, crossing back and forth across my course. I eventually overhauled them—we exchanged greetings—and then I gradually outpaced them so that by the end of the afternoon, my boat stood a full half-mile ahead—a victory for kayakers everywhere, I thought.

I had hoped to finish the trip to the sea at Griswold Beach on Long Island Sound itself, past Old Saybrook, assuming that I might find camping possibilities there. But the increasing wind, and also an incoming tidal current, had slowed my progress to a crawl. I realized I would never make it to the ocean that day, and began inspecting the shore for camping possibilities. As boats increase in value going down the Connecticut, so do the homes. For the first several hundred miles, the few houses lying near the river were vacation cottages or modest homes. Then, beginning after Middletown, the houses became more substantial, and now, downriver from Essex, the banks sported multimillion-dollar mansions, with manicured lawns marching down to the water, and no doubt closely supervised by security firms and German shepherd guard dogs. I knew these estates could not be good pickings for a commando camper. But the wind was making it impossible for me to continue much farther.

About suppertime, I pulled into the Island Cove Marina, about three miles short of Old Saybrook. Even from a distance, I could see it was a posh facility, with many oceangoing powerboats tied up in rows. I didn’t expect much of a reception—I was still smarting from being viewed as beneath contempt at Essex Island—but I was running out of alternatives. I pulled between the pilings guarding the entrance and made my way across the calm water of the lagoon to the dock area below the main building. I moored in the most inconspicuous spot possible and walked up to the office. It was closed for the day. From that vantage point I spotted a group of people chatting at the end of one of the docks, and went over to join them.

“I need some advice,” I said, my standard opening line on this trip, and soon we were chatting away. Lisa said camping wasn’t allowed on the marina grounds, but she wouldn’t mind if I did it. She gave me the access code for the rest rooms, which I wrote down. “But don’t tell anyone else,” she said. Everyone else in the group agreed they were fine with me camping there; the problem, they pointed out, was that the marina owner lived right across the lagoon, in plain sight of where I would have to pitch my tent.

A ten-year-old boy with the group expressed an interest in kayaks. “Want to see my boat?” I asked. I led him and his father, Ernie, to the backwater where I had stashed the kayak.

“I’ve been kayaking down the Connecticut,” I explained. “I started in Canaan, Vermont, over three weeks ago.”

“In that thing?” said Ernie in disbelief, pointing at the boat.

“Hey, I can get my speed up to four miles an hour,” I said with a grin. I went on to explain that it was a foldable kayak, and went into a carrying pack, so I could take it back to Idaho on the airplane.

“Hey,” said Ernie suddenly. “Why don’t you sleep in my boat? It’s right over there,” he pointed to one of the cabin cruisers. “Do you think I could?”

“Sure, screw the tent. Sleep in there! We’re supposed to have heavy rain tonight. You don’t want to be out in no tent!”

He and little Chris led me to the boat, a 26-foot blue and white cabin cruiser. Ernie unsnapped the cockpit covering and rolled it back. We climbed over the gunwale into the boat, walked through the cockpit area and ducked into the enclosed forward cabin, which had a horseshoe-shaped leatherette-padded bunk area where three people could sleep. The area was very neat and spanking clean; I was amazed Ernie would entrust it to a complete stranger, a scruffy one at that.

“Hey, you know, we got showers. Go ahead and use them,” said Ernie. “The restroom has everything you need, hair dryer, whatever. You got the access code, right?” I nodded.

And so it was settled. I thanked him profusely and made sure I got his address so I could send him and Chris a copy of One Inch above the Water. It did indeed rain hard that night, with cascades of water beating against the watertight cocoon in which I snuggled, enjoying the feeling of utter safety and comfort.

That night of protection has impacted my view of powerboaters for all time. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that kayakers tend to develop a certain skepticism about powerboaters. It’s not just that their wakes buffet us and erode delicate wetlands, or that they leave a big carbon footprint, scare wildlife and disturb our serenity. There’s envy too, growing out of the fact that they are moving effortlessly when we have to work so hard, and go so slowly, to get to the same place. This envy mingles with a sense of moral superiority and judgment.

As I lay warm and cuddly, with the rain clattering on the plastic roof, my freshly showered body luxuriating against the silky nylon of my sleeping bag, I felt this sentiment of antagonism begin to dissipate, for I knew I owed my marvelous deliverance to an act of trust and generosity of a powerboater.

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