Savoring solitude on the Thames and Shetucket
As the four of us paddled our kayaks on a delightful, sunny afternoon, the only other signs of life were dozens of swans — some scurrying out of our path, others flying gracefully with outstretched necks and wings flapping in unison.
“Where is everybody?” Robin Francis asked, marveling at the serenity.
Usually this time of year, fellow paddlers and I venture out on Fishers Island and Long Island sounds while navigating among sailboats, fishing boats, ferries and assorted other vessels.
But last Sunday we decided to explore a different route and were rewarded not just by tranquility but also, for my companions making their maiden voyages on this section of waterway, by unexpected splendor.
“This is beautiful,” exclaimed Phil Warner. Phil was paddling with my son, Tom, in a two-person kayak; Robin and I were aboard another tandem.
We were working our way north on the Thames River from Gales Ferry to Norwich, gliding past stretches of undeveloped shoreline and hidden coves. Of course we also passed several intensively built-up sections, including the Americas Styrenics factory at the Dow Chemical complex in Gales Ferry, the NRG energy plant in Montville and Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, but by and large the northern half of the 15-mile-long Thames is a lot more peaceful and paddler-friendly than the southern end.
There kayakers must contend not just with stronger tidal currents but also with heavier river traffic around the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, as well as Thames Shipyard, State Pier, City Pier and the Coast Guard station in New London. In addition, both sides of the river there are lined with residential, commercial and industrial development, including marinas, restaurants, Electric Boat and Pfizer.
By launching from a public ramp at the end of Hurlbutt Road in Gales Ferry, just north of the Yale Boat House, we avoided these busier waters. Incidentally, if we had put off our Thames paddle until this Saturday, June 8, we would have had plenty of company because of the Yale-Harvard Regatta crew race, the nation’s oldest collegiate athletic competition.
If the tide hadn’t been so high Sunday we might have been able to duck under a railroad bridge just south of Walden Island near the Ledyard-Preston line and poke around one of my favorite Thames destinations, Poquetanuck Cove. But this would have required a limbo-like maneuver, so we bypassed the cove and continued north, passing beneath the Mohegan-Pequot Bridge at the four-mile mark.
The tide had begun to ebb but a south wind continued to propel us north close to the east bank, past the former Norwich Hospital property, the Thermos on the Thames Condos and the Laurel Hill neighborhood in Norwich.
Boats rocked in their slips at The Marina at American Wharf on the west side of Norwich Harbor. The breeze was picking up and we steered slightly east to Howard T. Brown Memorial Park — the headwaters of the Thames.
Having paddled steadily for seven miles we earned a short break, so pulled up alongside floating docks, disembarked and refueled with snacks.
This could have been a turn-around point, but Tom had another idea.
“Let’s see how far up the Shetucket we can get,” he suggested. This river, joined farther upstream by the Quinebaug, empties into the Thames from the east; the Yantic comes in from the west.
The current ran fairly briskly against us as we exited the harbor and entered the Shetucket.
The river narrows considerably beneath the Water Street and Viaduct Road bridges, but then widens as it bends northeast.
Though we were only a short distance from busy streets, a canopy of trees blocked them from our view. Rushing water that tumbled soothingly over rocks made the setting seem more like a village in Vermont than a small city in Connecticut.
“Let’s keep going,” Tom urged.
The river, though, was not cooperative.
Not only did it pick up steam a mile or so from Norwich Harbor, it also became littered with rocks, as Phil discovered when his elegant, meticulously maintained Kevlar boat scraped bottom.
“This is far enough,” he decreed.
Had we somehow managed to forge north we would have had to portage four dams and fought our way upriver for another 20 miles before reaching its source in Willimantic, so it was just as well we turned around.
Tom, I knew, was still plotting ways to navigate the rest of the river, but that adventure would have to wait for another day.
As it turned out it was just as well we began steering south.
The headwind by this time had begun gusting more than 15 mph, making the return trip to Gales Ferry a bit of a slog. Maybe one day we’ll figure out a way to paddle downwind and with the current the whole way on a round-trip voyage.
At last, we reached the launch site where our cars were parked. After 16 miles on the water we were happy to pull ashore.
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We stopped to catch our breath — not winded by the climb, but enthralled by the stunning beauty that suddenly surrounded us. “Looks like a setting from ‘Lord of the Rings,’” I said.