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Awash and Adrift on the Hockanum River

(this story appears in Old Roads and Shadows, an eBook)

Awash and Adrift on the Hockanum River

It was in 1979, give or take a year, when Ed Mainville and I decided to participate in the annual Hockanum River Canoe Race. Held every April for the past several years, the race (more like a canoe rally) was a way for various groups to highlight the progress made in rescuing the river and its banks from the death throes of pollution and neglect. The river rises in the Connecticut towns of Ellington and Rockville, and flows west through several communities before reaching its mouth on the Connecticut River in East Hartford. That year the event began in Vernon behind some businesses on Tolland Turnpike and ended near Burnside Avenue in East Hartford.

I met Ed at his parent's house in Manchester on the day of the race. Ed had his canoe with him, an 18-foot aluminum Grumman model that was solid and dependable. Over the years, we had used this particular canoe on many lakes and rivers in Connecticut. His brother Tom was there and Ed asked him to join us on our trip. That was fine with me; after all, this was just a little romp down a stream in our hometown. None of us had a clue about what we were getting ourselves into.

We drove through the north end of Manchester into the town of Vernon and found the parking lot where registration for the canoe race was taking place. We parked, unloaded our canoe, and walked around the crowd taking it all in. The parking lot was already nearly full and we saw cars from Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the lot as well. Canoes of every length and material sat on the pavement ready to go. Scores of people sported professional apparel: kneepads, vests, and helmets. We wore shorts and sneakers. Long lines of people snaked backwards from registration tables as canoe paddlers and kayakers signed up and received their numbers and tags.

With a glance and a nod between the three of us, we picked up our canoe and headed for the river located behind the businesses that sat on the north side of the parking lot. We decided to skip registration and to set off alone before the crowd of participants began to launch their many boats. I was in the bow, Tom the middle, and Ed would pilot the craft from the stern. Ed reviewed a few commands with Tom and me, orders that he might make during our run downstream on the Hockanum. We set the craft in the water, took our places in the canoe, and with a push from our paddles launched ourselves out into the swift current and aimed for the center of the flow.

After traveling a hundred feet, we were shooting down the river backwards. Ed was barking rapid-fire commands as the three of us struggled to bring the thin aluminum craft around. "J-stroke, J-stroke," Ed yelled to me at the top of his voice. I dug in hard and the canoe started to come around. For a second we were at our most vulnerable, heading downriver sideways in a heavily laden canoe. Then, the bow finally came around to the front as we all pulled hard and worked together. At last, our canoe pointed straight downstream.

We all were so totally engaged in the effort required to turn our craft around that none of us noticed the tree branches that jutted out from the bank on our right. With no time to prepare, the overhanging branches ripped the three of us out of the canoe and into the cold water of the river. The icy shock took our breath away, and we struggled to keep the canoe from continuing on its journey downstream without us and to hold onto our paddles. We grasped the canoe and tree branches and stood in the chest deep water next to the bank. For a brief moment, Ed was irate, and then we all erupted into wild laughter at the reality and futility of our situation. We stood there in the water, looking at each other and laughing uncontrollably, less than three hundred yards from where we had first launched the canoe.

In all the excitement and shock of our dumping, we were lucky enough just to hold onto the canoe. I had a brief vision of the empty canoe shooting down the Hockanum on its lonely and solitary journey, spilling out into the Connecticut River and continuing unabated southwards to Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.

We regained our composure, emptied the water out of the canoe, and continued on our journey downriver. We went under the overpass near the intersection of Deming and Oakland Street and continued through the woods, old factory buildings coming into view through the trees.

We did not know it at the time but we were approaching the only real 'whitewater' on the trip, a series of rapids situated between the Economy Electric building on Oakland Street and the abandoned mill buildings above the right bank. These were Class II or III rapids, depending on who you read and the amount of water flowing over the rocky ledges. Spectators lined the banks here, waiting for the paddlers to come through in numbers, ready to witness the drama of the many canoes that would not make it through this stretch of river without dumping their crews into the surging water. During the race, people in rubber suits would stand out in the rapids, prepared to assist those people thrown into the cold torrent.

We, of course, were ignorant of all this, and we came down the stretch above the ledges unprepared for what awaited us below. The water was high and swift that year and we moved at a rapid pace. People came into view and the amount of noise in the water began to rise. We saw the rapids ahead and Eddie yelled that we should try to hold onto the canoe if we crashed.

Standing on a bank, those rapids are not particularly impressive. From where I was, kneeling in the bow of a canoe amid the noise and splash of whitewater, they seemed as rough as any stretch of rapids that appeared in the movie 'Deliverance'. The canoe went over a ledge then started down another before striking a rock dead on. I went out the boat and over the bow like a body shot through the windshield in an auto accident. I floundered in the cold water once again, bouncing down the rocky ledges searching for air with a water-filled canoe rolling downstream close behind. At the bottom, I struggled over to the riverbank at my right, feeling for a handhold as the water pulled me along. A stranger's hand appeared in my vision and I grasped it; in a flash, I had my balance and stood gasping for breath, searching the water for Eddie and Tom. I went back into the flow and the three of us secured the swamped canoe and pulled it to the bank.

I had lost my paddle but I picked up another that lay discarded in the eddy of a rock. That paddle, as much as anything else, told the story of that stretch of river.

We continued on our way without lingering; we knew the crush of canoes and kayaks would soon be plying the river right behind us. Next came the flat wide stretch of Union Pond and this was a welcome respite; when we reached the dam, we carried the canoe downhill around the structure and launched it once again.

Now the sun was high and the day warmer; we enjoyed this unique view of our town that none of us had experienced before. We relaxed, talked, and began to dry out; we felt that any sense of danger or foreboding must now lurk behind us. Just then, a tremendous bang rang in my ears as the canoe rocked and water from behind flew through my vision to land out in the river around the bow. I thought of the movie 'Deliverance' once again, and remembered how that backwoodsman had shot Drew in the head from above as Drew sat paddling in the bow of the canoe. Another loud bang exploded in my ears. I turned to look at Tom, unsure of what to expect. Eddie pointed up in the air; some miscreants high on the railroad trestle were dropping large water balloons on the unsuspecting craft below. The sound I had heard was a large balloon dropped from high above landing flush on the aluminum floor of the canoe.

The stretch after the trestle seemed especially appealing, and quiet. Eventually, we arrived at the rte 6 and 44 overpass where we left the river and hauled the canoe up to the road. From there, we walked east a short distance to Eddie's parent's house and our cars.

It has been thirty years since that canoe trip and every April I remember it fondly. I recall the aches I felt the day after that star-crossed adventure; that tumble down the rapids over the rocky ledges with the canoe had covered me with bruises and every part of my body was in some kind of pain, but I would not change a thing. That trip spoke of the spontaneous way we lived our lives back then, and of the faith, we had in each other.

And sometimes when I dream, come the visions of an empty Grumman aluminum canoe slipping silently through the fog-shrouded waters of the Hockanum River, or drifting slowly down the Connecticut River, appearing and disappearing in the haunting mist. It is the Flying Dutchman of canoes, carrying with it the portent of maritime disasters to come; for those in peril on all the streams and rivers of the world, whose currents feed into all the earth's seas.