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The mighty Pawcatuck: A tale of two rivers

A stiff headwind that bucked an ebbing tide, coupled with wakes from speeding powerboats, buffeted our kayaks as the four of us paddled south on the Pawcatuck River earlier this week.

"Hard to believe this is the same waterway we started on," I called out to my companions, Tom Sanford, his son, Rick, and Maggie Jones.

Back in late spring, when we set out from a barely visible outlet at the north end of Worden Pond in South Kingston, R.I. on a staged, multi-day paddle of the Pawcatuck, we weaved down a narrow, secluded, serpentine channel through dense forests and expansive swamps that teemed with wildlife.

Monday afternoon, as we closed in on the final five miles of our 38-mile journey, the river not only broadened but also grew busier. A shoreline once festooned with swamp azaleas, floating masses of forget-me-knots and other wildflowers, now was lined with restaurants, riverfront homes, a brewery, sewage treatment plant and nearly a dozen marinas.

On those earlier legs — June 17, from Worden Pond to Lower Shannock Falls; July 15, from Lower Shannock to Bradford; and July 28, from Bradford to Westerly — we had to barrel over beaver dams; portage around fish weirs, surge down rapids and duck beneath poison ivy vines; all the while navigating through a maze of fallen trees and partially submerged rocks.

Tom and Rick, who organized our source-to-the-sea voyage, meticulously planned it so our final stage would be an "easy" five-mile, unobstructed jaunt, pushed by an outgoing tide from downtown Westerly-Pawcatuck to Little Narragansett Bay.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature didn't get the memo.

It was beastly hot, approaching 90 and as humid as the Everglades, so at first we welcomed a refreshing breeze.

"This is great!" Maggie exclaimed after we launched from the Westerly Boat Ramp across the street from McQuade's supermarket. As director emeritus of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic, she has served as the expedition's naturalist, identifying countless species of birds, trees and flowers.

"It was remarkable how much some things (vegetation, wildlife, sounds, scents) changed from source to sea: from buttonbush and pickerelweed, bluegills and painted turtles to invasive weeds like purple loosestrife, mugwort and knotweed (around Westerly), to the magnificent saltmarshes of Barn Island," Maggie reflected.

She added, "Sightings and songs of woodland songbirds decreased as we moved from inland towards the shoreline, while terns (common, least), gulls (laughing, herring, black- backed), herons (great egret, snowy egret) and other wading and shorebirds increased. Osprey, belted kingfishers, great blue herons and double crested cormorants shared the waterway with us from South Kingstown to Stonington."

Within minutes of Monday's launch not far from busy downtown, a surprise appeared in the water.

"Look! A loon!" Rick called. The swimming bird, uncommon here this time of year, quickly ducked underwater.

Soon, the refreshing breeze became a heated gust that slowed our pace — not that we were in a particular hurry. Just being out on the water was sufficient reward.

Evidently, scores of other boaters shared that sentiment — roaring past in fishing vessels, outboards, Jet Skis, cabin cruisers, inflatables, water scooters and other gas/diesel-powered watercraft.

Maybe it's a reaction to coronavirus restrictions, but lately everybody seems determined to stomp down on the gas pedal or goose the throttle, be they crazed drivers or madcap mariners.

Mercifully, when we approached Avondale, the main channel shifted to the east side of the river, so we steered along the less-frenetic Connecticut bank.

Of course, it would be selfish to decree that kayakers be the only vessels allowed on the river, just as it would be unrealistic to expect that the entire shoreline be designated a nature preserve. For centuries the Pawcatuck, like most rivers throughout the Northeast, provided power for mills and factories, as well as a corridor for travelers.

As electricity replaced waterwheels, and highways and railroads offered faster, more reliable transportation, the Pawcatuck has evolved. Although some factories remain, most of the old mills have disappeared; government authorities, encouraged by such environmental advocates as the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association, have removed or replaced with fish ladders more than eight dams that once blocked the river.

Today, for the first time since the colonial era, migrating fish can swim freely from mouth to headwaters, leading to the watershed's designation as a federal Wild and Scenic River.

While local land trusts have protected extensive riverfront tracts, others have been working to strike a balance between responsible development, public access, recreational use and conservation.

"Our vision contains several elements, including residential development to bring vibrancy and people living downtown to support local business. But a key piece to the puzzle is river access," Dave Hammond, chairman of the Stonington Economic Development Commission, told me.

His agency has been working on a number of projects, including a cleanup and possible development of a six-acre parcel at the end of Noyes Avenue in Pawcatuck known as the Circus Lot because for years it had been the site of a traveling circus. The Town of Westerly bought the property more than 50 years ago as a possible site for a wellhead to provide drinking water, but that idea was scrapped.

The Stonington commission envisions a riverfront boardwalk running from this property to the former Campbell Grain building behind Bess Eaton Donuts, where a Boston-based developer has proposed building 82 mixed income apartments.

The revitalized area could be used for recreation and include a kayak launch, Dave noted.

For too long people turned their backs on the river, but his commission hopes to attract waterfront restaurants as part of its revitalization effort, adding that any new development must maximize public access and minimize environmental impact.

"We don't want to pave everything over," he said.

Substantial riverfront development that spread out beyond the Route 1 bridge between downtown Westerly-Pawcatuck began diminishing as our group paddled south.

Just past tiny Major Island the River Bend Cemetery extends for more than half a mile along the eastern shore, while the Pawcatuck River State Wildlife Area spreads out on the west bank. Both serve, in different ways, as bulwarks against construction.

We hugged close to Certain Draw Point to catch some lee from the relentless wind, and finally approached Pawcatuck Point at the entrance to Little Narragansett Bay. Dead ahead lay the sandy peninsula of Napatree Point, which connects to the chichi village of Watch Hill, where Taylor Swift and others in her tax bracket own Gatsbyesque mansions. We were not headed in that direction.

Instead, we swept past Perch Island and steered north — at last, heading downwind — and soon were enveloped in serene channels of the 1,300-acre Barn Island State Wildlife Management Area. Earlier, we had dropped off a car at the boat launch parking lot.

We beamed while paddling the last quarter-mile to shore.

Fair wind, following sea, a setting sun — no better way to end a journey.

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