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    Tuesday, November 28, 2023

    Paddling with a purpose: Celebrating the Mystic River

    Kayakers paddle beneath the Mystic River drawbridge (Steve Fagin)
    State Rep. Aundré Bumgardner, D-Groton, and his wife, Kayla, paddle a tandem kayak through a gap in Sixpenny Island near Noank. (Steve Fagin)

    Blue skies, a warm breeze and gentle tidal current welcomed paddlers and rowers last Sunday on a favorite local voyage, the Mystic River.

    “I’ve always wanted to do this!” exclaimed Rahiem Eleazer, who was kayaking next to me. He was among a group of nearly 20 people who joined the first of what organizers hope will be an annual event — a celebratory voyage from the river’s headwater in Old Mystic to its mouth in Noank, and back.

    “The highlight of my summer!” proclaimed State Rep. Aundré Bumgardner, D-Groton, who paddled a tandem kayak with his wife, Kayla.

    The event was sponsored by the Alliance for the Mystic River Watershed, a new nonprofit dedicated to bringing people together to help protect and preserve the river.

    “In order to respect and honor the river, it’s important to be on it,” said Maggie Favretti, the alliance’s co-founder and director, who hopped aboard her kayak for one leg of the outing.

    Some paddlers started from a public access near the Old Mystic Mill on Route 27 — a launch that required using a line to lower boats over a stone wall to the water. Others put in at other locations and joined the flotilla as it proceeded downriver at a casual pace.

    This late in the season, there was little powerboat traffic on the river, making for a drama-free excursion. Curt Andersen and Bob Ten Eyck kept the group entertained by performing periodic kayak rolls — the two compete each year to see who can complete more of the flipping maneuvers. At last count, Curt has rolled his kayak nearly 900 times, while Bob has managed close to twice that number.

    “I have some catching up to do,” Curt said.

    Sunday’s route included a stop at event co-sponsor Mystic Seaport Museum, where Michael Thomas, knowledge-keeper for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, performed a traditional song paying tribute to the river’s ancestral Native American connections. Indigenous peoples inhabited the river’s banks long before the arrival of European colonists in the 17th century.

    Paddlers pulled up on a beach at the museum, where workers were completing construction of a 16-foot dugout canoe called a mishoon, modeled after a vessel once widely used by native tribes. The boat will be part of a museum exhibit scheduled to open next spring.

    Rahiem, who is project director of the Mashantuckets’ Tribal Resilience Program as well as a director of the Alliance for the Mystic River Watershed, said he has paddled a mishoon and found it extremely seaworthy, but much harder to propel than a kayak.

    “But once it gets going, it really moves,” he said.

    Because conditions were so calm, Raheim, Karen Hanscom, Curt Andersen and I decided to extend our voyage to about 11 miles by cutting across the mouth of the river and paddling around Enders Island. We then hugged the east side of Masons Island on the return trip upriver, while the rest of the group opted to head directly back, closer to the Groton shoreline.

    Raheim said he was excited to paddle in Fishers Island Sound for the first time.

    I turned to Curt and deadpanned, “Did you warn him about the Kraken?”

    “It has huge tentacles,” Curt said with a straight face. “Pulls you right under.”

    Raheim said he was willing to take his chances against the legendary sea monster.

    Not only did our group avoid encountering the Kraken, we were pushed upriver by an unexpected south breeze. The forecast had called for a northwest wind, which would have made for slow progress back to Old Mystic.

    “We lucked out big time with the weather,” I said, as we shot past the walled monastery at Enders Island and waterfront mansions on Masons Island.

    Sunday’s event, which coincided with the start of National Estuary Week, was inspired by an annual kayak regatta on the Niantic River sponsored by the conservation group Save the River-Save the Hills. I was out of town for last month’s Niantic regatta, but hope to paddle there next August, as well as in Mystic next September.

    All rivers deserve such an event to celebrate their importance, as well as to recognize the need for keeping waterways clean, safe and accessible to the public.

    As Maggie Favretti noted, “We’re all connected by water.”

    More information about the alliance is available on its website, www.alliancemrw.org.

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