Exploring native waters: By kayak, Jersey transplants get lay of land
BRATTLEBORO — When I relocated to Vermont from New Jersey last year, I was told it would take some time and experience — several winters, a few farmers markets, maybe a Subaru purchase or two — to become a true Vermonter.
Little did I know that one outdoor recreational activity would make me feel almost like an original — as in a Native American Vermonter — at least for a few hours.
But that's what happened recently when my wife Linda and I took a kayaking trip on the West and Connecticut rivers, courtesy of Vermont Canoe Touring Center. On our leisurely paddle from their cove just off Putney Road, we would retrace the travels of the Abenaki Indians more than 300 years ago.
With help from tour manager Spencer Knickerbocker, we found the perfect double kayak, a pair of paddles and snug-fitting life jackets. We "hopped" into our watercraft and headed out into the confluence of the rivers, under the busy Veterans Memorial Bridge and into the Retreat Meadows across from the Marina Restaurant.
We saw people enjoying the beautiful summer day, lounging by the river or doing backflips into the water from the old bridge trestle. We came up close to a permanent art installation resembling a sea serpent sticking up out of the water. We explored marshy islands with sandy "beaches" in the middle of the river and saw gulls and herons skimming the surface for their prey. We relaxed awhile under the shade of the architecturally stunning Interstate 91 overpass and sang a repurposed version of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Proud Mary" ("rowing" rather than "rolling" on the river).
I had some kayaking and canoeing experience, mainly in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, from my first 50-odd years as a "flatlander." But most of my boating excursions had been either fishing charters in the ocean or leisurely crabbing jaunts in the back bays along the Jersey shore. So this was much more serene, with low humidity and, thankfully, not many bugs.
(An aside about the bugs: I have to laugh when native Vermonters talk about "bugginess" in the summer. Yes, there are ticks, black flies and spiders — as I discovered when I unwisely hiked up Putney Mountain wearing sandals without socks — but nothing like the virtual cornucopia of flying, stinging, biting critters back along the New Jersey wetlands.)
Free from swatting and sweating, Linda and I enjoyed the peace and natural solitude of the river, giving us a chance to think about how these waters and their shores were vital — indeed, sacred — to the indigenous people of this area.
The place where the West and Connecticut rivers meet is an ancient ceremonial site — usually referred to as Indian Rock — sacred to the Sokoki Abenaki and their ancestors, according to Rich Holschuh, a member of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs in Brattleboro. "Petroglyphs, or rock carvings, are relatively rare in the New England region as a whole, and this site is one of only two significant examples in Vermont," Holschuh told the Reformer in 2017.
Abenaki village settlements were along the West River in Dummerston, in Vernon along the Connecticut River and in Guilford along Broad Brook.
Several years ago, local diver and historian Annette Spaulding discovered at least three Native American petroglyph sites under a dozen feet of water and 28 inches of sand near the confluence of the two rivers. The largest is said to depict nine figures — five eagles, a person, what looks like a dog and two wavy lines with small heads, which Spaulding suspects are lampreys. It's known as Indian Rock.
The site is referenced by a handful of 19th-century accounts and depictions, including a drawing by Larkin Mead, a 10-year-old boy from Chesterfield, N.H.,, who grew up to be a renowned sculptor.
The rock formed the river's bank until 1909, when construction of a dam at Vernon raised water levels on the Connecticut and the West. Along with lowlands and barns and houses, the rising water submerged Indian Rock and created the Retreat Meadows.
"The Meadows used to be all farmland," said Knickerbocker, a Brattleboro native and recent graduate of Marlboro College. "There's cement piers still out there, an old pumping station. When the dam was first built, they wanted to try to keep using it as farmland. They would try to pump the water out of it back into the river."
Knickerbocker's father, Jon, and grandfather, Jerry, founded Vermont Canoe Touring Center in the mid-1980s.
"This site was always abandoned, and the cove was dug out when they built the newer Route 5 bridge," Spencer Knickerbocker said. "We have a lot of old photos. I think they dug all of this out to use as fill. People used to dump stuff here. We'd find old bottles and other stuff."
Back to the water: With our two-hour time limit almost up, we headed back toward the rental center, paddled under the rusty but still-active railroad bridge, and took a shorter side trip down the much wider Connecticut and the tree-lined New Hampshire coastline. Then it was back to the touring center dock, where we resigned to unload ourselves and our "gear." My wife hopped spryly out of the kayak, then laughed as I needed some help from tour assistant Nina Nabizadeh — her first day on the job, in fact — getting out of the boat, nearly dropping my cell phone in the water.
Nabizadeh, a California native, attended Marlboro College and decided to stay in the Brattleboro area. "Vermont is the best place in the world," she said.
She told us the touring center rents canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards until 6 p.m., and people can go out for a romantic "powwow" to enjoy the late afternoon and early evening on the river before returning to the center.
"Are you going to write about how it's the perfect place to make out during sunset?" Nabizadeh said, unintentionally coining a nifty marketing slogan for the touring center.
Not bad for the first day on the job.
Vermont Canoe Touring Center specializes in self-guided canoe, kayak, stand-up paddleboard and tube rentals for individuals, couples, families, and small and large groups. Trips can be as short as one hour or all day. It is open seven days a week from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, and on weekends in May and through Columbus Day weekend in October. Call 802-257-5008 or email email@example.com.
Bill LeConey is the Reformer's night editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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