Charting a course for the Connecticut River

Let’s say you want to take some time off in the spring to paddle down a section of the Connecticut River, taking in the scenery, stopping at points of interest, and making camp along the riverbank at night. How would you prepare for a trip like that?

A tent with a view: The Connecticut River Paddlers' Trail outlines a network of access points and waterfront campsites maintained by a network of partners.

A tent with a view: The Connecticut River Paddlers’ Trail outlines a network of access points and waterfront campsites managed and maintained by partners.

More than a week’s worth of peanut butter and jelly, you’d need an overarching plan for your journey, and a lot of detailed information about the river in order to pull it off. You’d need to know the locations of boat ramps, portages, and safe places to pitch your tent. You’d need to know how far you’d have to paddle each day, and where and when you’d have to haul out and shuttle your canoe, and everything in it, around an obstacle like a dam.

What you’d need is a roadmap, and fortunately, one exists. The Connecticut River Paddlers’ Trail offers a network of primitive campsites and access points from the headwaters on the Canadian border to the mouth of the river on Long Island Sound, managed by partnership of organizations, including the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.

Did you know Vermont is home to the longest covered bridge in the United States? Is any other state even in this contest?

The longest wooden covered bridge in the United States: Breathtaking from afar, disconcerting from below.

If not for the Paddlers’ Trail, my boyfriend and I would never have been able to execute our five-night camping trip along the Connecticut River this May. We probably would have survived, but our relationship would have been dead in the water somewhere south of White River Junction, Vt.

But now let’s say you’re a brook trout, and you want to take some time in the fall to swim up the Connecticut River to spawn, taking in the scenery, stopping at points of interest, and making camp along the river bottom at night. How would your prepare for a trip like that?

Best lunch ever.

Harpoon Brewery in Windsor, Vt., is just a short stroll from the Connecticut River. FYI: IPA pairs well with PBJ.

Well you wouldn’t, of course, because you’d be a fish, and you’d just have to trust your gut. But though your instincts could lead you to a cold headwater stream with gravelly substrate in which to make a shallow depression for your eggs, they probably wouldn’t give you the coordinates of dams or culverts blocking your way. And they probably wouldn’t tell you that the trees shading the stream where you spawned last year had been replaced by a golf course.

While we can’t make a roadmap for a brook trout, we can make one for people who care about brook trout and other species that depend upon the river and surrounding watershed. Fortunately, that exists too. Connect the Connecticut is a network of lands and waters that partners agree should be the highest priorities for conservation in the watershed in order to sustain the resources it provides for both natural and human communities.

Much like the Paddlers’ Trail, Connect the Connecticut offers an interactive map displaying detailed information that people can use to make informed decisions about the river and watershed, including locations of high-quality habitat for a set of focal species, eastern brook trout among them, selected to represent those with similar needs. Rather than decisions about where to camp, the map and accompanying datasets can guide decisions about how to focus limited resources to have the greatest long-term impact for the watershed in the face of development and climate change.

Connect the Connecticut is powerful not only because it offers big-picture context based on regional data, but also because it can be used to complement other sources of information. Just as you can still use your own GPS device to navigate the river, conservation organizations can use their own datasets to direct their work. But having a point of reference that reflects expertise from a diverse group of collaborators with shared goals is certainly something you want to have in your dry-bag along the way.

Because the Paddlers’ Trail and Connect the Connecticut are intended to capture the best-available information, both tools will get better and better the more people use them. Let’s say, for example, you’ve been paddling all afternoon, working up an appetite for dinner, feeling more than ready to call it a day, and yet your campsite is nowhere to be found because it’s actually two miles farther down river than indicated on the map. The Paddlers’ Trail will improve over time thanks to paddlers who share updated information based on field verification. Connect the Connecticut too will improve as a result of partners applying the information and verifying whether or not sites that have been identified as conservation priorities really represent the best places to take action.

These tools empower different users to make better decisions because they show them where they fit into a broader landscape. Anomalous campsite mileage error aside, the Paddlers’ Trail undoubtedly enriched our overall experience on the river. How else would we have known that the longest wooden covered bridge in the United States spans the Connecticut from Cornish, N.H., to Windsor, Vt. or that Harpoon Brewery is walking distance from the river?

Wood turtle is a species of conservation concern in the Northeast because much of its habitat has been lost or fragmented as a result of development. But there is still high-quality habitat to be found for wood turtle, and campers, within the Connecticut River watershed.

Wood turtle is a species of conservation need because much of its habitat has been lost or degraded as a result of development. But there is still high-quality habitat to be found in the Connecticut River watershed for wood turtle, and campers.

Beyond providing orientation, the Paddlers’ Trail created opportunities we might have missed otherwise. As when after setting up camp at the end of a particularly hot day, we walked down to the water to cool off and found a wood turtle with the same idea. Wood turtle are increasingly rare because of habitat loss from development, so it was lucky timing.  But it also reinforced the importance of efforts that bring partners together to share responsibility for taking care of the things we value collectively. If not for the Paddlers’ Trail, we wouldn’t have been at that campsite that evening. Not just because we wouldn’t have been able to find it, but because it wouldn’t exist.

And thanks to Connect the Connecticut, critical habitat for species like wood turtle is included in a network of core areas that partners across the region consider among the highest conservation priorities in the watershed. It’s comforting to know that thanks to these efforts, that campsite will be there the next time we paddle down the Connecticut River, and there’s a chance that wood turtle will be too.

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