Home stretch of an epic adventure

Water crashes over the bow of Tom Fagin’s kayak as he plunges through rapids on the Androscoggin River in Errol, N.H., not far from the Maine border on July 2. (Tom Fagin)

The Connecticut River forms a placid oxbow between New Hampshire and Vermont on July 4. (Tom Fagin)

The Hartford skyline is viewed from the Connecticut River on July 12. (Steve Fagin)

A fisherman took this photo July 13 near the Arragoni Bridge that spans the Connecticut River between Middletown and Hartford of Phil Plouffe, front left, and Steve Fagin in a tandem kayak; and Tom Fagin, right, in a single kayak.

Steve Fagin, Tom Fagin and Phil Plouffe at the end of the trip July 15 along the Mystic River in Old Mystic. (Betsy Graham)

A gusty headwind that whipped up whitecaps on the Connecticut River conspired with a powerful, full-moon flood tide and scorching temperature in the 90s one day last week, turning what could have been a delightful kayak voyage into a sweltering slog. At times it felt as if Phil Plouffe, my son Tom and I were paddling through molasses in a blast furnace.

Heck of a way to start a trip, I thought, but kept silent.

After all, even though Phil and I were about to cover more than 80 miles aboard a tandem vessel over the next few days, Tom had already spent the past three weeks bicycling, hiking and paddling solo for some 700 miles.

He had pedaled up relentlessly steep grades, survived separate encounters with a moose and a black bear, endured squalls and thunderstorms, rocketed down gnarly rapids, bounced off rocks, swatted clouds of biting insects, climbed two tall mountains and lugged a 16-foot-long boat laden with more than 50 pounds of gear around more than a dozen dams. Who was I to complain?

Tom began his expedition in Old Mystic on June 23, and spent the next five days biking with a tent, sleeping bag, food, stove and other supplies some 325 miles to a cabin in Rangeley, Maine. Along the way, he took a few detours – one to a kayak store in Rhode Island to pick up a new spray skirt, and another to climb New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, at 6,288 feet the tallest peak in the Northeast.

Once in Rangeley, Tom took another detour to scramble up 4,121-foot Saddleback Mountain, then stashed his bicycle, hopped into a kayak that had been staged in the cabin, and began paddling back to Old Mystic via a winding route of lakes and rivers, loosely connected by portage trails.

Phil and I met him Tuesday, July 12, at the Bissell Bridge boat ramp in Windsor, about seven miles south of the Massachusetts border, and accompanied him to the odyssey’s celebratory conclusion last Friday.

After a challenging initiation, the wind and heat subsided and we enjoyed three glorious days of paddling. Fish jumped, egrets waded, osprey dove and eagles soared – past Hartford’s and Middletown’s cityscapes, lush forests and tidal marshes around Haddam and Lyme, and the villages of Deep River and Essex, all the way to sparkling Long Island Sound past Old Lyme and Old Saybrook.

This was a vast improvement over the polluted, sterile river I canoed 50 years earlier, before the federal government banned DDT, started building sewage treatment plants and enforced strict environmental regulations following passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972.

My generation may have done little to slow global warming, but at least we cleaned up much of the Lower Connecticut River, which The Nature Conservancy now considers one of “the world’s last great places,” and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization regards as “an estuary of global importance.”

Tom, who jotted down some of his thoughts, was particularly impressed with the profusion of fish.

“New England rivers remain heavily dammed. Once-abundant Atlantic salmon are only beginning to recover their previous range. However, I continued to be wowed by the healthy numbers I did see on this adventure,” he noted.

Tom came up close and personal with other wildlife.

“My only moose sighting on this trip almost didn’t happen. I heard a crack from the woods behind me while pedaling up Route 16 in New Hampshire near the Androscoggin River. I wanted to make miles before rain arrived, so I biked on. A moment later, curiosity made me turn the bike around. I then heard a couple of other crashes moving quickly along the roadside. A cow moose burst out from trees where it clattered across the pavement to the woods on the other side,” he reported.

“I also had a black bear startle me while I cooked dinner along the Upper Ammonoosuc River in New Hampshire. I heard a snort, whirled and locked eyes with a large bruin on the other side of a shallow channel. I took a moment to appreciate my visitor before shooing it away and locking my food in a bear can,” Tom added.

Though biking and paddling alone for most of the trip, he was never totally isolated.

“I definitely sought, and enjoyed, some solitude on the road and on the rivers. Most days, however, I got to chat with all kinds of people,” he noted.

Tom ended up hitchhiking back to Rangeley to replace a broken set of kayak wheels and had a conversation with a moose researcher; a stranger handed him an ice-cold soda on blazing hot day; a houseboat owner in Massachusetts helped him cut a mile or more off a portage by explaining a shortcut that didn’t show up on any guide.

Several people who saw him portaging his kayak offered a lift – but he graciously declined, preferring to avoid motor vehicles for the duration of the trip.

“I have always been interested in lower-impact travel. In this case, I arranged to start and end the trip at my home in Old Mystic so that I wouldn’t have to burn much fuel. Next-door adventures are not only kinder to the environment, but they also provide the profound challenges, fulfillments and surprises lost to travelers who fly in and fly out,” he commented.

Tom did not shun all technology, though. He used a solar charger to keep his cellphone powered, and was able to use it to call and text friends and family regularly. He also relied on an app to help navigate.

Tom was especially grateful for all the organizations and volunteers who have built long-distance trails on land and water.

He biked north on sections of the East Coast Greenway, which stretches between Florida and Maine, and hiked on parts of the Appalachian Trail while climbing Mount Washington and Saddleback. Once in his kayak, Tom paddled on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Maine to the Connecticut River, where he followed the Connecticut River Paddlers’ Trail the rest of the way to Long Island Sound.

“These trails offered everything from stairs to portages, to campsites. It is inspiring that people in trail communities are motivated to pitch in so that all can enjoy the beauty that their areas have to offer,” he noted.

Tom added, “I was lucky to be able to build some time in my life where I could move between regions as different as mountain alpine zones, evergreen lake country, different riverine environments, and the Connecticut coast. Traveling through all these places in a single adventure helped me feel more connected to all of them.”

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