Saturday, June 2, 2012
Sea Kayaking around Great Island at the mouth of the Connecticut River between Old Lyme and Old Saybrook, Connecticut
I went kayaking around Great Island yesterday afternoon in the estuary of the Connecticut River with my outdoor adventure friend, Alan S. We kayak together, mostly surf-kayaking in big water in Rhode Island during hurricane season, cross-country ski as a team, and road bike on occasion.
But yesterday Alan had the day off from his therapy practice and called me on a whim. “Hey Bob, we haven’t sea-kayaked together for a long time. It’s time to get the paddling muscles in shape for hurricane surfing season. Wanna take a paddle around Great Island?” I had planned to meet a friend for coffee but was able to postpone that, so Alan picked me up and we loaded my 14 1/2 –foot Merlin sea kayak onto the roof rack on Alan’s car. In a little over a half-hour we were at the put-in in Old Lyme, just off Route 156.
The weather was sunny with a lot of southerly breeze. We unloaded the boats. We both wore bathing suits and long-sleeved spray tops. We did not need our dry tops, which keep all water off the upper body, because we did not plan to need to roll our boats in such calm water. When Alan and I go surfing in our Riot Boogie surf kayaks, which are only 7 ½ feet long and shaped like short surf boards, we almost always wear dry tops because we always roll while surfing. That’s because when surfing, either on boards or in kayaks, every surfer gets wiped out on more than one wave. If you cannot roll up in a surf kayak, it takes a lot of time, effort, and energy to swim back into shore, empty out the boat, get back in, paddle carefully over the rocks in the shallows to avoid damaging the fins on the bottom of the kayak, and paddle back out to the break. In very large waves, like the 12-footers we surfed during Hurricane Bill a few years ago, not being able to have a “combat” roll could put your life in jeopardy. When you surf waves that big and powerful, you can understand why combat is the adjective which applies to the ability to right your surf kayak after being wiped out by one of those monsters. It’s hard to imagine how exponentially more powerful a 75-foot wave would be to surf. The movie “Riding Giants” shows what that experience is all about.
But yesterday giant waves were only a passing thought. Great Island is a magnificent benign-looking wilderness, just one-half hour south of Middletown. Benign-looking because so green, so wind-swept by gentle summer breeze, so filled with birds flying overhead and diving for food, so quiet. But wilderness because covered with thick jungle of tall green reeds and grasses, composed of thick dark brown mud, teeming plants and animals and birds and insects all clawing for food and space and life.
Alan and I got into our boats, covered the open cowlings with our neoprene spary skirts to keep water out of the cockpit, and pushed off to the south towards Long Island Sound. It was mostly gentle water, with some southerly wind swell in the shoals south of the big island, but lots of fun. The shoals are shallow areas, especially at low tide, which it was when we put in yesterday. In the shallow water the southerly wind whips up the water into small waves which you're actually able to surf with a long boat like our sea kayaks. I mentioned to Alan what he apparently did not know, that because there are these shallow waters at the mouth, or estuary of the Connecticut River, which shift in location as the tide and current moves the bottom sands around over time, there is no port there. The Connecticut is one of the few major rivers without a sea port at its mouth, because of these shoals. Thank God for this or we'd have cruise ships and naval vessels cluttering up our beautiful river as they do in the port of New London, Connecticut, at the mouth of the Thames River and in Bridgeport at the estuary of the Housatonic River.
As we paddled our way north around the west side of Great Island, our progress was rapid because of the waves we surfed northward and the strong wind at our backs. As we approached the north end of the island, Alan noticed a flock of very large birds in the trees which live there where the island must have more soil. He thought they looked like red-tailed hawks. There were also many osprey flying overhead and diving for fish. Alan didn't know that Roger Tory Peterson, the great bird artist of the Peterson Bird Guides, once lived in Old Lyme, on the banks of the Connecticut River. Peterson went on a campaign in the 1960's to get Congress to ban the use of DDT to control mosquitoe populations. DDT was getting into the water system and osprey ingested it. The chemical thinned the shells of the osprey eggs. As a result, the osprey were dying out. Within a few years of the DDT ban taking effect, the osprey population returned. Now there are osprey nesting stands all over the coastline along Long Island Sound. Many of these tall structures with osprey nests atop them can be seen throughout Great Island.
I wished I'd had a camera with me when we saw Momma and Papa geese with their 5 baby goslings on the northwestern corner of the island. They were all standing right on the shoreline, in a 20-foot section where the reeds were absent. We did not want to get near enough to them to disturb them. At this point we wished we'd brought some binoculars to see Mr. and Mrs. Goose and the babies close-up.
The southerly wind made it a much harder paddle on the return trip around the east side of the island. We took a detour into a marsh channel with 10-foot high green reeds with brown lower stalks. On the banks of the labyrinthine channel were thousands of tiny sand crabs which fluttered into their little holes in the mud as they sensed our presence as we paddled by. The channel snaked through the high reeds and thoughts of Moses in the basket as a baby from the book of Genesis came to mind. I mentioned this to Alan and he smiled in recognition of the ancient biblical myth. At one point Alan spotted a small racoon staring at us from inside the thick jungle of reeds. I was surprised that a racoon would make its home on a watery island but there it was with the distinctive white circles round its eyes.
It was hard to turn the kayaks around when we finally decided it was time to go home because the channel was so narrow at that point. Once back on the river we continued to make steady progress against the wind and now-incoming tidal current. Having flexed our paddling muscles for the past two hours we had increased our speed. As we got closer to the launch there were more and more homes on the banks of the river. Most of these, with some exceptions, are well-suited to the terrain. There are fewer McMansions which stick out unpleasantly in this area of the lower Connecticut. On the west side, up in Essex, there are a few areas of extremely large homes, built within the past 10 or 20 years, which scream out "Nouveau riche." The Old Lyme river homes are older money, more tastefully designed, for the most part, to fit in to the natural landscape in a more graceful way.
We've now entered hurricane season on the east coast. While I loved yesterday's paddle on relatively flat and calm water, I am more viscerally drawn to the siren song of big-time surfing in Rhode Island. But this was an opportunity to get back in a kayak after the long winter paddling hiatus. More Big Water adventures await the coming months. I'm psyched. Time to begin practicing and refining the combat roll for surfing.