The great blue heron staked out its post on a limb outstretched over the quiet waters below, a still, statuesque presence watching over this wide, gentle stretch of the Quinebaug River.
"I've never been out on this river when I haven't seen a great blue heron," Bill Reid, chief ranger for The Last Green Valley, said one morning this week, as he helped paddled the nonprofit group's canoe along a section of the Quinebaug that flows through Canterbury. "I almost always see eagles, and a lot of red-tailed hawks, and in the spring and summer I see kingfishers."
From its headwaters in Brimfield, Mass., until it joins with the Shetucket and Yantic rivers some 60 miles to the southeast in Norwich to form the Thames River, the Quinebaug has played a central role in the region's history and development. Its waters powered mills and brought devastating floods to the region in the 1950s. Today, flood control dams have tamed the river, and though mills that made textiles, eyeglasses and other wares are long shuttered, at least five hydroelectric plants now produce power from river's flow, and a biomass energy plant under construction on the river's shores in Plainfield will use river water for its operations. Mostly today, though, the Quinebaug - a Native-American name that means "long pond" - is valued as a recreational and aesthetic asset more than an economic engine, with long stretches of its shores lined with forests and fields uninterrupted by subdivisions and pavement.
Lois Bruinooge, deputy executive director of The Last Green Valley, said the Quinebaug's historic role in the textile industry and destructive flooding created the conditions fishermen and paddlers prize today.
"People used to see the river running different colors (from the dyes used in the mills), and then there was the severe flooding," she said, angling her paddle at the front of the canoe, past shores lined with swamp maples glowing in shades of yellow and magenta. "I think people turned away from the river. They didn't see it as a resource. They saw it as polluted and dangerous. Residential development wasn't on people's minds."
This year, though, the Quinebaug has risen anew to prominence in the region. Several years ago 10 miles in Massachusetts were named part of the National Recreation Trail network, and this summer, 35 miles more of the river in Connecticut was added to the trail, including sections through Thompson, Putnam, Pomfret, Brooklyn, Killingly, Plainfield and Canterbury. As a National Recreation Trail - one of five in the state, including the newly designated Willimantic River water trail - the Quinebaug trail has been deemed an "exemplary trail of local and regional significance" by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.
Winning the designation, Bruinooge said, involved getting the cooperation of all the towns along the river, as well as securing local commitments for stewardship. Volunteers will monitor for invasive species along the riverbanks, organize trash cleanups and recommend ways to enhance access, she said. The Last Green Valley has also printed glossy Quinebaug paddling guides listing 12 river access points, dangerous dams to be avoided and other information. The guide also can be found on The Last Green Valley's website.
"We're going to look for ways to make improvements," she said, adding that grants are being sought for signs and other facilities at river access areas.
This month, several opportunities are being offered through The Last Green Valley this month to experience the river's beauty first hand. The organization, which works to enhance appreciation and protection of the 35-town region of the Quinebaug and Shetucket rivers, has included four group paddles on sections of the Quinebaug in its annual Walktober series of guided outings. The first took place in Holland, Mass., on Friday. Two more are scheduled this weekend and the fourth will be Oct. 13 at West Thompson Lake.
Reid, who will lead Sunday's paddle that starts in Putnam, said the Quinebaug offers opportunities for paddlers of all levels. There are wide, serene sections with soft current just north of the Buttsbridge Road access in Canterbury, and at West Thompson and East Brimfield lakes. About five miles between Putnam and Pomfret invites paddlers comfortable with moderate current, while a segment through Killingly can challenge even experienced paddlers, especially during peak spring flows.
Reid considers the four miles from the state fish hatchery in Plainfield to Robert Manship Park the best section, providing the challenge of some currents, rocks and eddies, but not the level of wildness of the Killingly section.
"My favorite stretch is from the fish hatchery to Robert Manship Park," he said, as the canoe turned a bend and slipped past a half-submerged log providing a perch for sunning eastern painted turtles.
The 45-mile water trail is not continuous, but broken up by dams along the way. While canoeists and kayakers may be able to portage around some of these, others are insurmountable due to rugged shoreline topography or private property access restrictions. Bruinooge said the entire 60-mile river will probably never be entirely accessible to paddlers because of dams and flood control structures. But it would be feasible to add about six more miles to the trail once public access is established for those areas, she said, and her organization is enlisting the help of paddlers and others to accomplish that.
"We just want to get people out on the river," she said.