Adrift on Local Waterways
Paddling, poling, and sailing inspire the Waterman
Matthew Goldman, who hides behind the beard of Constant Waterman, grew up in Hadlyme, CT, by the Connecticut River.
Once having gotten his feet wet, he demanded a boat and, ever since, has been adrift.
His book, “The Journals of Constant Waterman,” is a collection of memoirs concerning puddles, boats, mermaids and other landmarks. Many of these vignettes appear in “Messing About in Boats” magazine as a regular column. He has also contributed to Good Old Boat, Windcheck, and Points East.
He currently repairs boats to support his sailing habit, and sails his sloop, MoonWind, to support his writing habit. He resides in an old Cape with his wife and three cats in Stonington, Connecticut.
Here are two chapters from Matthew's book, two of many that will be of interest to East Haddam residents.
There used to be an old abandoned house by Chapman Pond. This is a lovely, long, shallow pond, half a mile in length, which merges with a mile of tidal marshes. To the east of these is a wooded hillside; to the west: a low, wooded island and then the river. The pond and the river confer by estuaries. The wet parts of the marsh are filled with cattail and wild rice; with pickerelweed, bull rush and yellow iris. The dry parts with viburnum; with wild rose and mallow. The island is a sand bar, and some silver maples there have grown so stout that you and I together couldn’t reach around them.
I was fortunate to own a few acres on this island and had built myself a cabin there - a wildwood retreat for my wayward soul. The pond was my neighbor, the marshes my larder, the river my goddess and the island my shrine. And my nimble, swift canoe was my closest friend. Across the pond, the hemlock clad hill rose slowly toward the local road, a quietude away. There still remained the vestige of an old woods road coming down to the pond and leading to the house at the water’s edge. This was a small, two-story structure with a mortared stone foundation - a proper house half a century ago. Now it was empty; the windows smashed and graffiti of the biker clubs scrawled across the plaster. I’d explored the house. It was merely a shell; a tiny square dot on the town assessor’s map.
But one day, one summer, as I paddled to the island from the ferry landing, I could see a column of dark, dirty smoke climbing up the clean air beyond the pond. No fire truck could navigate the unkempt woods road. The police came by boat, but there was nothing they could do except keep the blaze from spreading to the hemlocks using hand held sprayers. When it was over, nothing remained save a smoking foundation. And a crumpled gas can and a large melted ruin of stolen goods.
And the overdone remains of what had been a man. A lot of excitement for our little town. There was much speculation with few results. Nary a witness. Not a house about for half a mile in any direction - save mine, of course - and no one ever thought to ask me. And not having been aware of this business, my answers would have been to no avail. Had they asked me where the osprey made her nest, had they asked me where the trillium modestly blossomed, I might have answered. Had they asked me why the black snake watched my woodpile, why the phoebe perched upon my door, I might have responded. But what could I have told them about the world of men?
The police brought out a launch that they towed with their patrol boat, piled it high with the stolen gear, and took it all away. They were no more than half way across the pond when the launch capsized from overloading.
The water, there, isn’t more than up to your ears so they managed to retrieve nearly everything. A good thing, too. For the carp has no need of any more distractions than he has already, the great blue heron no need of the sight of man made rubbish as she glides above the pond to her cottonwood tree.
Finally, all of the men were departed, and the marsh and the pond were quiet again. Except for the four hundred redwing blackbirds nesting ‘mid the rushes - clucking and cackling and singing of the summer. Except for the kingfisher swooping down the estuary, chuckling to himself. Except for the splash of the snapping turtle dropping from her hole in the sandy bank. And the muted rumble of the oil tanker, laboring up river; her plaintive horn calling for the old swing-bridge to open.
In the evening I emerge with my nimble canoe and wander by the marshes. I listen to the squawk of the lovely night heron, watch the bats come wheeling across the pond, and hope that forever there will be some wilderness - even though men and their idiocy persist.
The river inundates the low-lying banks below the old steel swing bridge. We shall readily canoe to the doorstep of our octagon on the island. The tide backs up the impatient river in vain - a mere three feet of brine cannot back up the spring thaw of New England. Abetted by the wind, the Connecticut in turn backs up the tide; the whole a slow but steadily seething mass. The river fills with boards and bottles, Styrofoam and Adirondack chairs.
In the parking lot behind the Riverside Inn, an abandoned blue Buick stands in silty water up to her wipers. The airstrip beyond has tucked its little planes away in their hangars. The pier is submerged; only the weed wrapped crowns of the pilings attest to its location. We park in the village and launch the canoe in the swollen creek that runs beside Creamery Lane. We canoe down over the runway. Not even the pontoon plane dares venture forth.
Below the airport, several cottages squat along the submerged dirt road that follows the riverbank. Though the cottages crouch on concrete blocks, the river rises within a foot of their thresholds. The residents have parked in the village and have come back home in their boats. Things normally kept in the yard - those hens, for instance - now sojourn on the porch. Canoes and dinghies wait patiently by the steps.
Just another spring freshet. The dormant gardens again receive fresh nutrients. Silt will coat everything, everywhere, for a while when the river recedes and noisome trash will abound, but no one complains. One takes what the river offers, both good and bad. The joy of living by running water far outweighs the sorrow. We pass the cottages, wave to the children sailing boats from their deck, and paddle off into the woods.
Amid the trees, the quietude assails one’s ears - the little birds have forsaken the drowning underbrush. We emerge from the wood and enter Chapman Pond. Pond and marsh merge into one expanse of grey and turgid water. Poplar Hill, the second of Seven Sisters, bounds the inland shore of the pond. Our island bounds the other. Here, huge silver maples tower above the murky, presumptuous flood. They seem very little concerned. A hundred springs or more have they seen the river swell and surge and recede. They sigh in response to the wind, flex themselves and drink deeply.
We urge our canoe among them and over the path that leads to the octagon. Built on four-foot concrete piles, its floor stands eight feet above mean high water. The fourth step up lies exposed but wet, the third is still under water; the river has crested. We unload tools, provisions, five gallons of water, and shove off again to explore. We find a few sturdy planks among the trees and tow them back to the house where we make them fast. This occupies the remainder of the forenoon. What of it?
What is time to a water rat? What is time to the river? Only we humans obsess over days and minutes, hours and seasons. Life goes on - within us and without us. To thrive comes first: to be sentient, quick, responsive. Off we go, our paddles busily pushing aside the river. Our sensuous prow parts the water into halves. The river closes phlegmatically in our wake. We wend our seamless way downstream to the landing.
Gillette’s Castle, aloof on its wooded hill, The Seventh Sister, frowns down upon the landing. The ferry, made fast in her slip with heavy hawsers, floats above the level of the road. We turn into Whalebone Cove; pass the ledge with its rusted ring that hasn’t secured a ship for half a century. The creek leading into the cove has spread beneath the budding red maples. The cove beyond is a flat expanse of filthy water broken by the bedraggled plumes of eight-foot high phragmites: the pampas grass.
We return to the river. The wind has died and the water has calmed a bit. We moor to the massive ring in the rock and share our simple repast. In the channel, some hundred yards off, the remains of an unfortunate boat, a thirty-foot skiff, drift downward to the ever-receptive ocean. A herring gull wheels hopefully above the ruined vessel. The sodden hull veers slowly about in the river. The sea heaves heavily round this whirled earth.