When my family and I moved to the Connecticut River Valley in 1968, I took kayak-rolling lessons at the Ledyard Canoe Club in Hanover. After a few dunkings, my eyes burned; and before getting dressed, I had to take a shower. I found out later the burning was caused by fecal pollution.
Today, fifty years later, you still can’t drink from the Connecticut, but at least it’s safe for swimming; and you can eat the fish you catch from it. Old-timers told me I was lucky; in their day, it ran the color of the of the paper the mills upstream were producing.
Vermont is blessed with lovely rivers: the Black, White and Green; the Winooski, Missisquoi, and Lamoille. The Gihon, draining the Town of Eden, is named for the river in Genesis that flows from the Garden of Eden. The West, when its flood-control dam releases water, is a mecca for whitewater lovers. The Willoughby comes to life each spring with runs of trout and salmon so thick they sometimes bump against your legs as you wade. Otter Creek ought to be called a river; it’s the longest stream in Vermont. It once powered dozens of mills, including the shipyard at its first falls above Lake Champlain, where Thomas MacDonough’s crews in mere weeks built the American ships that beat the British fleet at the Battle of Plattsburgh.
'Course, you can find any of that information on Google - but to really get to know the rivers and lakes of Vermont, you have to meet them at water level; you need to paddle or row them, at their own pace, quietly watching great blue herons and painted turtles in the marshes, and ospreys and eagles overhead. You need to point your little boat into a rapid rushing between rocky banks and feel the flush of adrenaline that follows the commitment.
They’re all different, but my favorite river is the Connecticut. Rapids in the headwaters, sweeping oxbows in wide valleys between mountains on both sides, and great fishing all the way down. Now that various volunteer organizations have combined to create and maintain approved campsites the whole length of Vermont, you can take a multi-day trip down the river and never have to worry about where to camp for the night. The Vermont River Conservancy has a really good map that shows everything you need to know. But the paddling? That’s up to you, so you might want to take along a few painkillers.
This is Willem Lange in Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work.