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New Waterford beach dedicated at kayak regatta

Waterford — A break in a weekend of stormy weather Sunday afternoon allowed crowds on land and in the water to celebrate the Niantic River.

After a postponement due to Saturday's rain, more than a hundred people and dozens of kayaks gathered on the river near Oswegatchie Road for the dedication of the town's newest beach and the 15th annual kayak regatta, in honor of Niantic River Appreciation Day.

The event, hosted by local nonprofit Save the River-Save the Hills, featured live music, clam chowder and hot dogs and a parade of kayaks. It brought together environmentalists and kayakers from throughout the region and was also a celebration of the work of environmentalist Fred Grimsey.

"Having people come out on a rainy day in a kayak to support us, it really gives us the boost we need to keep going and keep the fight up," said Deborah Moshier-Dunn, vice president of Save the River-Save the Hills, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the Niantic River Estuary, its watershed and the Oswegatchie Hills in East Lyme. The rain, which held off for the kayak parade, returned later in the afternoon, but didn't dampen the main part of the celebration. 

Started 15 years ago, when Save the River-Save the Hills had barely a dozen members, the annual regatta began as a celebration of the Niantic River and a way to protest a large proposed commercial development in the Oswegatchie Hills. Today, years later, the event has grown along with the organization.

Now, Save the River-Save the Hills has about 300 members, and the celebration consistently draws more than a hundred people, including kayakers, curious residents and elected officials. Save the River-Save the Hills has teamed up with the Friends of the Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve to form a coalition that for decades has been fighting development plans for land overlooking the river.

The annual regatta also serves as an opportunity for the organization to update residents on court cases concerning the river and Oswegatchie Hills, as well as a opportunity to bring in new members.

Diane Gracewski, a kayaker who just this year moved back to Waterford after 35 years living in the northwest corner of the state, officially became a member Sunday. Although the day marked her fifth time attending the regatta, she had held off on becoming a member in years past because she lived so far away.

Now, Gracewski, an avid kayaking enthusiast, is excited to be able to be more involved and better able to support the river and the hills.

"The environment and keeping these open spaces are important to the next generation," Gracewski said. "The environment is No. 1, we don't have anything unless we have that."

This year's celebration also took on added importance however, as the Town of Waterford honored longtime local environmental advocate Grimsey, by dedicating a piece of town-owned shoreline property at 47 Oswegatchie Road as Grimsey Beach.

Grimsey, 85, grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., but moved into a house on the Niantic River in Waterford decades ago and eventually became a fixture in the local environmentalist community. Grimsey said he truly developed his passion for the environment in the early '90's when he retired early and bought a big sailboat, which he sailed all along the East Coast. During this time he started reading all about the environmental movement, and began to ask himself what he could do.

Then in 2000, after seeing a threat to his river and the Oswegatchie Hills, he saw his chance to step up, founding Save the River-Save the Hills with the goal of protecting the Niantic River Watershed.

"In almost 20 years of sailing my boat on the East Coast, I've seen a lot of beautiful spots ... but every single time I came home and anchored behind my house, I'd think 'This is as pretty as any place I've visited," Grimsey said of his love for the Niantic River.

Aside from starting the regatta, inspired by a massive kayak regatta he'd heard about in Oregon, Grimsey has been on the frontlines working to improve the health of the Niantic River. He helped bring marine sewage pump-out services to southeastern Connecticut by purchasing a boat and beginning a pump-out service to remove waste from the tanks of pleasure crafts using the river. And he also began tracking bacteria levels in the Niantic River following rainstorms, and leading an organization that pushed back against development in the Oswegatchie Hills, among other things.

However, what Grimsey is most proud of is not the accolades, but rather other people. He said he doesn't ascribe his or his organization's successes to himself, but to the passion of everyone else.

"All these people responded to a need, that's what I am most proud of," Grimsey said.


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