Navigating through history on a Niantic River paddle
While kayaking on the Niantic River one sunny morning last week, Andy Lynn and I could have taken a break to stroll on a boardwalk, watch a game of bocce, sort through paperbacks at a used book store, rent a stand-up paddle board, visit the ruins of a 19th century flaxseed oil factory and grounds of a historic amusement park that featured a pair of diving Arabian horses, play a short round of golf, check out a National Guard training camp, grab lunch at a waterfront restaurant, or sign up for a séance at a spiritualist retreat.
It was too nice a day to spend time off the water though, so we pulled ashore for only a few minutes at a tiny, deserted stretch of sand, and munched snacks before resuming a nearly 15-mile paddle.
“A spectacular day,” I said, gazing at ripples stirred by a gentle breeze.
“Perfect,” Andy agreed, taking a bite from his sandwich. We were lucky to get out just before noxious smoke from Canadian wildfires began choking the region.
The two of us had launched from a public ramp near Pleasure Beach in Waterford shortly after 8 a.m., and used the tail end of a flood tide to help propel us across Jordan Cove toward Millstone Point. Steam rose from the rumbling Dominion Millstone Power Station as we rounded the point and entered Niantic Bay.
Andy found it interesting to watch birds fly and fish surface next to a nuclear power plant that generates 30 to 40 percent of Connecticut’s electricity.
We also could see a handful of pedestrians ambling along the Niantic Bay Boardwalk as we approached a narrow channel known as The Gut, which passes beneath the Amtrak railroad and Route 156 bascule bridges.
Here is the mouth of the Niantic River. During peak tides, the current can be turbulent, especially when power boats are navigating a sharp bend, but we cut through easily in slack water and little traffic.
Both spans were raised to allow a tall-masted schooner to motor slowly toward a slip on the Waterford shore. We waited until it was docked before crossing the channel to the East Lyme side of the river.
All appeared quiet at Camp Nett, the Connecticut National Guard training facility, where recruits attend classes and stage drills. This early in the season, the neighboring Pine Grove Spiritualism Camp was equally quiescent, but crowds of followers are due soon. They have been convening at the camp for summer séances, services, healing workshops and medium readings since 1882.
That year, the Connecticut Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association bought 40 acres on a peninsula just south of Smith Cove to establish a retreat for followers who believe in communication between the living and the dead. Long before then, the land had been settled by members of the Nehantic Native American tribe.
During its heyday, spiritualists owned all 155 homes on the property, but over the years, many houses were sold to the general public who now live there year-round. After bypassing the camp, Andy and I steered briefly into Smith Cove, passing Three Belles Marina, where scores of powerboats were tied up at piers. On summer weekends, most would be heading downriver toward Long Island Sound, as would vessels at eight other marinas in and around Niantic Bay. On this midweek morning, we pretty much had the river to ourselves.
Continuing north, we next passed the Oswegatchie Hills Club, a neighborhood association for families living on Saunders Point. Had Andy and I been members, we could have gone for a swim at a private beach, headed for the links on a six-hole golf course, played tennis, shot hoops at a basketball court, or squared off in a bocce match.
We pushed on, staying to the west of Sandy Point; Keeny Cove bends east into Waterford. A section of shoreline here had been known as The Wigwams, where Nehantics spent the winter.
Andy noted the contrast between the two sides of the river — waterfront homes dotting the Waterford shore, and the Oswegatchie Hills, an unspoiled expanse of upland forest in East Lyme. Conservationists who established the 457-acre Oswegatchie Nature Preserve have for decades been battling a developer’s plan to build hundreds of homes on a contiguous 236-acre tract. The land conservation organization Save the River-Save the Hills stages an annual kayak regatta on the river the last Saturday in August to help promote its preservation cause.
In less than a mile, where the river squeezes to a width of only about 50 feet, we reached its headwaters at a neighborhood called Golden Spur. It was hard to imagine that this tranquil setting — quiet except for cars and trucks crossing the short Boston Post Road bridge — had been been the site of the bustling Beckwith Shipyard in the early 1800s, and later, the Golden Spur Amusement Park, which attracted throngs of visitors from 1905 to 1924.
Built by the East Lyme Street Railway to increase ridership, the park featured a dance hall, skating rink and carousel. The main attraction was J.W. Gorman’s World Famous Diving Horses, a pair of Arabian steeds that climbed a ramp and jumped off a 20-foot platform into a small pond.
After paddling beneath the Boston Post Road bridge, Andy and I crossed Banning Cove and poked into Oil Mill Brook, a shallow, serene stream that shrinks to a trickle as it winds north beneath overhanging trees.
“There is something appealing about progressing from the open sound, to the river, to the intimate enclosure of the stream,” Andy observed. The stream is named for a 19th century mill that processed sumac and flaxseed into cooking oil.
A south wind was picking up, offsetting an ebb tide I had been counting on to pull us back downriver. Time to head back.
Andy and I took a short respite beneath the Oswegatchie Hills, and retrurned to the Pleasure Beach ramp a little after noon.
Over the decades I’ve kayaked throughout the Northeast, as well as parts of Canada and the Northwest, but paddling on such appealing, nearby destinations as the Niantic River remind me that there’s no place like home.
Our route was a longer version of the Niantic River Estuary Canoe/Kayak Trail. Paddlers planning shorter excursions can put in at launch sites at Mago Point and Keeny Cove in Waterford, and Cini Park and Grand Street East Lyme.
For more information visit https://eltownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/localhost_el_attachments_244_KayakTrail.pdf.
Kayak, canoe paddle with the Golden Rule in NL Saturday
Kayakers and canoeists are invited to paddle in New London Saturday with the Golden Rule, billed as the world’s first modern protest ship, as part of a two-day event advocating the ban of nuclear weapons.
The Golden Rule is a 34-foot ketch that in 1958 sailed across the Pacific Ocean with a crew of pacifists who sought to stop nuclear weapons tests in the Marshall Islands. Although they were arrested and jailed in Hawaii, their foiled protest is credited with helping pass a limited nuclear test ban treaty five years later.
The California-based nonprofit Veterans for Peace, which bought and restored the vessel, has been sailing the Golden Rule to 100 East Coast ports, including New London, urging the U.S. government to join the 86 countries that have either signed or ratified the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
The Golden Rule is scheduled to arrive at City Pier in New London Friday, when a variety of events are planned, including sails aboard the vessel, weather permitting. Additional activities, including concerts and a potluck dinner, are scheduled all day Saturday.
Paddlers who wish to accompany the sailboat as it leaves New London can meet at 3 p.m. at a parking lot near the Custom House Pier, accessible by crossing the railroad tracks from the Bank Street Connector.
For more information, visit https://www.voluntownpeacetrust.org/the-golden-rule.html.
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