Kayaking the Thames
While preparing to launch our kayaks not long ago below the Gold Star Memorial Bridge in New London on the third and final leg of a paddling voyage down the Thames River, I waited for a workboat to move from a floating pier.
And waited and waited.
Finally, I approached one of the men on the pier, who was loading supplies onto the boat to be delivered to another crew painting a nearby railroad bridge.
"Say, would it be possible for us to put our kayaks in the water?"
"Sure, no problem," he replied, and motioned for the boat skipper to pull away.
There were four of us in three kayaks - two in single boats, two in a tandem - and we quickly carried our vessels onto the pier.
Evidently not quickly enough for the boat operator.
"Hey, are you guys gonna take all bleeping day?" he shouted.
At first I thought the guy was joking, but when he revved the engine a few times I realized this person lacked a sense of humor, along with a few other qualities.
"Patience is a virtue," I thought, while paddling hastily away. Actually, I didn't think that, but I'd rather not print what I really thought.
No matter, though, in minutes we four - Gary Burfoot of Groton Long Point and Phil Plouffe of Mystic in the tandem; Ian Frenkel of Old Saybrook and me in the single boats - were bobbing happily down the river, below the bridge, past Winthrop Cove and approaching New London's City Pier.
Getting in and out of the water often is a challenge for kayakers - not just stepping from a pier into a tippy boat, but finding a good public access with a parking lot and other amenities.
I give the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection generally high marks for providing several launch sites on both sides of the Thames, as well as at numerous locations in and around Long Island Sound.
Because of the more than 100,000 citizens who since 1992 have purchased blue and white lighthouse "Preserve the Sound" license plates, the state has added 12.5 miles of coastal access, and a new Connecticut Coastal Access Guide identifies more than 260 coastal sites for various public activities, including launching kayaks.
Individual municipalities also have provided or improved their own launch sites.
I found the public ramps at Howard T. Brown Memorial Park in Norwich most accommodating, with ample free parking, easy-to-load ramps and floating piers.
The launch sites at Poquetanuck Cove in Preston and nearby Stoddard Hill Park in Ledyard, both conveniently accessible from Route 12, were somewhat more problematic.
Large boulders at the base of the Poquetanuck Cove gravel ramp made it challenging to enter the water without scraping your kayak. This would be acceptable for those launching durable plastic boats, but anyone in a Kevlar or Fiberglas vessel would have to exercise extra caution.
As for the Stoddard Hill launch, I had no trouble passing beneath railroad tracks once paddling away from the site at high tide, but coming back hours later scraped over rocks and had to hand push my boat while fighting a strong ebb in shallow water.
A better nearby launch was near the Yale Boat House in Gales Ferry.
I never did get around to launching from a ramp in Montville, and there are few good public sites between Norwich and New London on the west side of the river.
The public ramp at New London's City Pier can be bouncy and chaotic, what with ferries and other large vessels pulling in and out, and no nearby free parking. The ramp from the Waterfront Park just south of City Pier is steep and slippery, but I quibble. A determined paddler can always get to the water.
A direct route from the head of the Thames in Norwich to the mouth at Long Island Sound is about 15 miles, but I wound up paddling more than 40 miles with various friends over the course of three days.
We poked into coves, explored estuaries and otherwise enjoyed all that the Thames had to offer. It is an extraordinarily diverse river, with pristine sections such as Poquetanuck Cove and Mamacoke Island offset by busy commercial and industrial installations, including the U.S. Naval Submarine Base, Electric Boat and Pfizer in Groton, Dow Chemical in Ledyard, the Smurfit Stone, Montville Station power plant and Mohegan Sun Casino in Montville.
After paddling past City Pier on the final leg of the trip, we entered Shaw's Cove, a former whaling port, now a marina for recreation and charter fishing boats, and then worked our way down the west side of the river.
At Ocean Beach Park, Gary got out of the tandem - he had to leave early - and I loaned him my single boat to paddle alone back to the parking lot below the bridge. I joined Phil in the tandem, while Ian stayed in his single kayak.
We then made a ceremonial pass around Ledge Light, just as a submarine passed a quarter mile away.
"Let's stay away from the patrol boat," I advised, having gotten too close for comfort on more than one occasion.
Returning along the east bank we passed Avery Point, Eastern Point Beach, Pfizer and EB.
Soon, we were back at the parking lot.
Happily, the work crew had departed.
The sun was setting, the tide changing. It was time to head home.
Steve Fagin writes a blog about adventure, The Great Outdoors, posted weekly on theday.com.
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