The Connecticut River
In Sunday school classes we were taught that Jesus walked on water. Growing up near the Connecticut River in the 1970s this did not impress us.
In the mid-1960s, the actress Katherine Hepburn, who had a house in Old Saybrook at the mouth of the river, narrated a documentary about the Connecticut. The script described the Connecticut River as “the world’s most beautifully landscaped cesspool.” You can still find variations of the same quote in articles about the river’s history. The Hepburn narrated documentary is one of many factors that led the federal and state governments to create new laws and regulations to clean up the Connecticut River and others like it.
Hepburn was known for swimming in Long Island Sound every day, year round, whenever she was staying at her home in Old Saybrook. Her house was right at the end of the Connecticut River and I’ve recently wondered how often the pollution spoiled her small swimming spot, protected by a breakwater, where the river meets the ocean. I do remember hearing reports on the local news when I was growing up about beach closings on the Connecticut shoreline caused by pollution.
Over the last year or so I have been traveling its length to see it as I have never seen it before and to better understand its history, power, and importance. I am happy to report that it is no longer a slow moving sewer. In the early spring, the river’s silt saturated waters do tend to run brown, but that’s the way it always has been and it’s one of the reasons the river valley is so fertile.
Impressions made during childhood are difficult to get over and as a Connecticut native, who grew up in the Hartford region, I still don’t see the Connecticut River as a place where I want to go swimming, although others do and suffer no ill effects. Millions of dollars have been spent, and millions more are scheduled to be spent, ensuring that sewage is diverted from the river, that any discharge from industry, or chemical runoff from agriculture is tightly regulated.
That’s not always the way it has been. Through much of the 1800s and most of the 1900s the Connecticut River was fully exploited and used as a source of power and as a convenient dumping ground. Power and waste removal were the two main reasons early industry set up along the banks of rivers all over New England. The decline of manufacturing has hurt the region economically, but it has helped efforts to improve the environment. New technology and regulation makes it unlikely that any new industry along the river would do as much damage.
I have not spent as much time exploring the northern half of the Connecticut River. The part above the Massachusetts border. My drives through Vermont and New Hampshire, in recent months, have helped me better appreciate the more wild, un-tamed portion of the river that stretches in total, over 400 miles, from the Canadian border to the Sound.
Except in the spring, when it rushes violently, the Connecticut River of my memory is slow moving and wide. Nearly a quarter mile wide in some parts. Further north, as it winds its way through the woods and farmlands of northern New England, it’s more narrow and its flow is swift. It rushes with force toward the south. There are patches of white water. In the north, there are no signs it was ever a cesspool, only a torrent of fresh water running downhill from the mountains.
In the town of Pittsburgh, New Hampshire, on the border with the Canadian province of Quebec, are the four lakes considered the source of the Connecticut River. Their simple names suggest they were discovered in order of appearance by someone trying to find the starting point of the river by hiking north. Fourth Connecticut Lake is the smallest and closest to the international border. You can only reach it by foot. The other three lakes are larger; Third Connecticut. Second Connecticut, and First Connecticut Lake, which is closest to the center of the town of Pittsburgh.
Each lake is crystal clear, located at high elevation, and surrounded by tree covered hills. Even in May, the tree tops can be dusted with snow and a strange fog sweeps across the roads, as you make your way, confirming you are above the cloud ceiling. Few people live here. There is very little traffic on the roads. Few businesses. Phone service drops in and out, but mostly out. When a car does pass by, it’s likely the Border Patrol.
The Connecticut lakes are located just north of the 45th parallel, which marks the halfway point between the equator and the North Pole. They are roughly 2,600 feet above sea level. The three lower lakes are home to both trout and landlocked salmon. The river has been flowing from here for thousands of years and in that time it has been the biggest source of fresh water delivered to the ocean in the northeast.
It is at the start of the river in the north and the end of the river in the south that you can feel a connection to the pre-historic past and the slow will of nature to prevail. In the span of time this water has been pouring through New England, though we nearly destroyed it and some of the species that inhabit it, the Connecticut River has sustained. Its wild path is constantly re-shaping, cutting new courses, and forcing humans to adjust on its terms.