Notes from a walk from sea to headwaters and paddle back to sea.
Housatonic River 2004
“A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that that patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.”
Jorge Luis Borges
Na ligimis ar maidi le sruth. (May we not lose our oars in the stream.)
Inscription on Statue of 6th Century St. Brendan the Navigator, Brendan’s Creek, Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry, Ireland
When does a trip or expedition really start? Is it when the paddle first cuts through the salt water across the flats and against the tide? Or can you trace it back to when it was just an idea and you were tracing the flow of an unnamed arroyo as it climbed up some seven waterfalls in the faraway Belize while it asked of you, instead, to follow the river of your birthplace and not this one in this foreign land? Perhaps it is something resembling some of the miles from another trip which has, all along, been part of you – slowly sculpting away the unnecessary and after the ruminitory period of brooding, all of a sudden you look at it and recognize the river in front of you and the reflection it grants you – a glimpse of eternal roots and there, in that fold you quietly ponder. Peacefully and quietly. No need for you to disturb the reflection at the water’s edge. But a slight wind breezes through and the tiny gentle ripples remind you and demand you to find it again somewhere else, at some other bend in the river. Perhaps another look in the reflection. And so then does the expedition only start at the time of this realization?
Does it start while you find yourself on the first leg or when you see the ultimate goal on the face of a map? Can you see the ultimate goal on any map? Does this require personal connection to the cartographer? Does the cartographer break through his own limits and boundaries in order to create the new maps – the style of which acknowledges our shortcomings with grace and begs of us to reconsider the lines? Do the lines create a space in which to live in with any happiness? Or do they betray our emotions – building inconsiderate or impossible bliss, mocking us and all our possibility?
On the Housatonic
“A river rising in Western Massachusetts and flowing c. 209 km (130 mi) to LI Sound.”
“Any river is the summation of the whole valley. To think of it as nothing but water is to ignore the greater part.”
‘This Hill, This Valley’
The Housatonic Valley was peopled by descendants of the Mohicans who lived between the Taconic Range and the Hudson River in what is now New York State. Before the migration to the Berkshires and the Litchfield Hills they referred to the Housatonic Valley as the ‘beyond the mountain place’. This is what the word housatonic means in the Mohican language and the name still is used to describe a Valley, a town in Massachussetts, and a river that flows into Long Island Sound 150 miles south from where its main branch begins at a place called Mud Pond.
Tides for September 7
Stratford, Housatonic River
Low 1:14AM 1.0 ft.
High 6:44 AM 4.8
Low 1:20 PM 1.3
High 7:01 PM 5.2
Sunrise 6:25 AM
Sunset 7:15 PM
Moonset 3:24 PM (46% visible)
Shelton, Housatonic River
Low 2:57 AM 0.9 ft.
High 7:53 AM 4.3
Low 3:03 PM 1.2
High 8:10 PM 4.7
Short Beach to Derby Dam – 13 miles
Derby to Indian Well – 2 miles?
Follow tide in. Leave Stratford after 1PM ??
Lunar Calendar September October
Last Quarter 6 6
New 14 14
First Quarter 21 20
Full 28 28
The Blue Dot
The hike along the Paugussett Trail starts out near the waterfall at Indian Well. There two young lovers, one Paugussett and one Pootatuck threw themselves to eternity because their relationship was forbidden. Why is it that the surviving story, or at least the one the settlers have passed down to us always seems to involve two young lovers plunging to their death? Feeling cheated by the lack of understanding, by lines, by genocide.
The trail starts there and it is marked by blue blazes, or dots, which one could follow all the way into East Village 8 miles or so North. The rain was falling hard. I just left the hospitality of a river home. I camped out in the yard of my brother’s friend’s house. I slept inches from the river. But now the rain was falling hard and it had since before first light and I knew I would get plenty wet but I packed up my tent and provisions and headed up into the hills anyway because the trip was just starting and I had momentum. I headed up to the ridge where I would spend the entire morning.
The cargo train runs through here. I crossed its tracks. This same train runs through the woods within earshot of where I grew up. It would pass by about 10 PM or so most nights on its way north. The nighttime peace and quiet would amplify its clatter and I swear everything stopped and every creature listened as it went by. Last night it passed by around 9 or so within stone’s throw and I peeked out of the tent to see its lights and shadows and watch how slow and methodical it really did go by. I had seen it only once before one day when I was walking along the Halfway River not too far from here.
I went on up the hill following the blue dots, watching all the gullies and streams fill to their brims with rainwater, spilling all the way down to the Housatonic 300 feet down below. White Hills Brook flowing and full of energy racing down the hill to the inevitable.
Although I was drenched, soaked from the rain, I thanked God for seeing so early on in this expedition the rainfall draining off the side of this hill, into the valley down below. If I had passed by here during a dry spell there would be no water flowing off the hill. Even if it was just a normal storm it wouldn’t be so impressive. These residual hurricane rains have accented it all so nicely. I got plenty wet but it didn’t seem to bother me.
A fog settled in the valley and it stayed there dancing slowly over the river and I caught a glimpse of it and saw upstream over the tops of pines, above the next dam and I kept walking. I came upon Round Hill Brook and recognized it and smiled because I had followed this one before and I knew how it cascaded down to the river below and knew, too, where it came from. It was spilling over and crossing it was easier to just step right into the flowing water because I was soaked through and through. But it wasn’t cold yet and so I wasn’t bothered.
I knew where I was and decided to head up along the stream where the hollowed out tree stood and where a good campsite, in among the pines, protected me somewhat from the rain and some soft ground could be my home for the night. I ate my peanut butter and honey sandwich and pitched the tent so I could get out of the rain. I smiled and knew I could spend the rest of the day in my cell and I would think and praise and think some more and wonder about what was ahead upstream and if the water in the lakes above the dams had any current or would it be the wind my saving grace when I paddled back down the river in October.
Within a couple hours walk were the homes I knew growing up. This was where I considered home to be for so long. The place where I had passed through the ritual gates of youth. A place, too where I knew people and, although fewer each year, a place where people knew my name.
INSERT ESSAY ON HOME
The Bend at Cornwall
A blue heron looks at a spot studying and considering it for his afternoon brood but decides to move up river and flaps once, twice, three, four, five times and takes upon the water and paddles once, twice and grabs a branch which fell down back in the Spring from its heights and sat along the bank of the river. The branch submerged because of the rains that still drain down this Housatonic, still raging from Cape Verde storms, but receding every moment and the branch will dry by the sun as the river readies itself.
Richness rushing down and I wonder if these waters will make it past the three lakes and flow into the ebbing frontier. It didn’t occur to me until now – beyond the bend at Cornwall – to ask myself that question.
Above the Great Falls
The Canada geese fly by, maybe thirty or forty or as Borges would have it – a number more than 10 but less than 50. They, too, glanced at the falls and circled around, their pattern jumbled and chaotic; they, too, watched the mist from the cascading waters, until they decided to fall back into the ‘V’ which has worked for them for generations.
I sit above the falls and the sun is at its summit for the day and it is going to climb west. The river is flat but inches toward its fall. I found shade and sit upon a fallen trunk and feel the breeze dancing with the trees and leaves. Autumn smell and taste. A MacIntosh from a complete stranger who needed to give me something and he gave me just what I wanted – some local fruit.
Great Barrington, MA
Laundry closes at 7. It’s 6:10 and I need quarters and all I have is a 20 so I ask the woman there if she has any change and she looks at me wondering what the hell I am saying to her and then I ask ‘si tiene cambio’ and she tells me ‘no’. No in Spanish, not the No in English. So, I continued to speak Español because she wasn’t offended and I said that maybe the Drug Store over there (pointing) has some and she says ‘maybe’, but in Spanish.
So I buy a map that I wanted anyway, so I could see where it is I am going. All the maps I have are of where I’ve been before. I bought the map with the $20 and the guy didn’t have any 5’s for change and he told me apologetically before he rang it up. I told him all I had was the 20 and so he rings it up anyway. The map cost 3.10 and so I look for a dime and all I have are two pennies. I told him I didn’t mind singles. He counted them out to six and a 10 and the 90 cents. Perfect for the laundry. Perfect. And I didn’t have to ask.
I could change the singles one by one in the quarter machine and not have to change a 5 and get all those quarters. Too many for laundry. I didn’t know how much the wash and dry was so I was psyched to have the ones and the quarters.
I went back to the Laundry and it’s already after 6:15 so I make change of my ones. I changed 3 of them first to buy the soap for 50 cents and the wash cycle for $1.50. I have a dollar for drying plus the three quarters from the change at the Drug Store and I sit down and read the table of contents of the New Yorker and put it down. I pick up the local newspaper and do the same. The laundromat was too hot. All the dryers were running. So I escape outside to the sidewalk to cool off and I watch the church across the street. I wondered what time Mass would let out. I wondered if the Mass was held in the Church itself or in the parish center next door. The great big doors looked shut. I thought more about my laundry and if I would be able to dry everything before 7 – so I could have a clean town shirt for Mass in the morning.
I haven’t had clean clothes since Kent. But I had a t-shirt, a clean one, and I wore my favorite pair of pants. I washed everything else except for the thermals I haven’t needed yet. The shorts, 2 boxers, 2 t-shirts, 1 pair wool socks, long athletic pant, long sleeve T-shirt, and my town shirt, a collared long sleeve denim which I’ve had for years. I recently took it back from my brother after having lent it to him for a year or so. I wanted it back for when I was living in the City this past summer and I still wear it now when I go to town. I wear it when I go into the breakfast joints and the libraries. And I’ll wear it tomorrow at St. Peter’s Church across the street from the laundromat.
I started to pace around wondering when the rinse cycle would end and the final spin would shake the machine until the clothes were ready to be dried.
The clock read 6:32 or something close and I continued the marathon pacing back outside and noticed the congregation exiting the very same large doors I thought were shut. They passed by the saint’s statue – while he holds the two keys in his hand. They left as the light of day flickered into dusk. I enjoy this time of day so I let my eyes adjust. I stopped pacing and took a breath and looked skyward. People still left the Church and I noticed in the doorway the priest giving his best to the parishioners. I thought about my shirt, the one I’ll wear to Mass tomorrow, and if it would dry in time. I thought about the first time a friend pointed out dusk to me. I thought about how dusk only coincides with the Faithful and their leaving Mass, at the end of the Saturday vigil, around the time of the Equinoxes. In Summer it would still be light out and in Winter, still too dark.
The wash machine quieted and I noticed. I switched all the clothes over to the dryers and read the advice written on yellow paper taped on above the coin slot, ‘Put coin in slot and hold black button down while turning the dial’. So I did this in one machine and knew I should start another because I had only 18 minutes to dry everything before 7 o’clock struck and the laundromat shut. It would have been dark by then (by 7) so I watched the dusk battle the day and the flickering. I hoped the old drying machines would dry my clothes before 7. I split the clothes into 2 dryers. I mixed the heavies with the lights and loaded them up. The synthetics dried quickly and the cottons took their time. The cottons always take their time.
One quarter got them 10 minutes of dry time so I walked back out to the coolness of Dusk along Main St. and watched Saint Peter in the growing darkness and there weren’t any mass-goers any more but a couple who found their way to the door and, surprised, found the door unlocked. The woman opened the door timidly and the man, signing himself in front of the Church, follows her in.
I worried about my clothes and if they would dry by 7. I went back in and checked the heavy cottons and they needed more time. Dusk was winning and the cottons needed more time.
Por Mercedes Sosa
Todo su tiempo se ha ido
Sobre la vieja canoa
Lentamente te lo fue llevando el rio.
Ya no has vuelto por la costa
Te quedaste en la canoa
Como un duende sin edad y sin memoria.
Te mecia el agua
Lejos de la costa
Cuando te dormias
Corazon de arcilla
Sobre la canoa
Se te fue la vida
La esperanza se te iba
Sobre el agua amanecida
Tu esperanza Pedro al fin
No tuvo orillas
Pedro, Pedro se te fue la vida.
At the Bend Before the Lakes
350 feet until the mouth of the river and the accompanying ebb. I will float to the Long Island Sound. I hope I can paddle out with the falling tide. I hope it will take me to Short Beach. I want to go to Short Beach where I walked with my brother.
Today was the first day I thought about the possibility of seeing the Sound from atop one of these hills and I will ask around to find out where is the farthest point – that point where you can see the Sound on a clear day when the wind is blowing from the North and the air is crisp. Up the hill from where I first learned how to ride a bike and sled ride down hill I could see the Sound on one of those clear days. I wonder if I could do the same farther North.
I wonder about the seagulls and where I will see them again. I haven’t seen the gulls since I paddled up the estuary to Derby over a month ago. I wonder where I will see them again. I will make the turn around the bend downriver from Bull’s Bridge. Passing through the narrow gorge, then the three lakes and portaging the dams like locks. The river heads southeasterly from there to Derby and Shelton and then I will head almost due south to Stratford or Cupheag, the Harbor and then the beyond. The Sound; but first, of course, Short Beach. Maybe there I will smoke a cigar and watch the seagulls and wonder where the Heron is and if he made it, too.
Tides for October 21 Thursday
Shelton, Housatonic River
Low 2:32AM 0.4 ft.
High 7:28AM 4.7
Low 2:51PM 0.6
High 7:53PM 5.2
Stratford, Housatonic River
Low 12:49AM 0.4 ft.
High 6:19AM 5.2
Low 1:08PM 0.7
High 6:44PM 5.7
Revisiting Housatonic* (October 2005)
The river higher at the
bend downstream from
Bull’s Bridge where
last time the ducks
sat in the trees.
Downstream from the
black goat peering nakedly
off over the cliff
asking me if I
knew why. I had so many
questions for that goat.
I could see the rocks
drying their skulls with their
chins up out of the
rush of the river.
The old man who walks
In endless circles wasn’t
And I didn’t get
to climb the hill
to see the place
from where this
was beyond the
*Housatonic means ‘beyond-the-mountain-place’ in Mahikan.