Vapor Trail

Vapor Trail

The poet Carl Sandburg famously wrote that fog “comes on little cat feet.” The image was apt one early summer morning up on Dunbar Hill in Hamden, where a soft fog slunk around the trunks of the fruit trees and hid beneath parked tractors and wagons at Hindinger Farm. It was a cool, damp, hair-curling morning. The fog knitted its fingers into the grass and clung to the branches of trees. Dewdrops sequined the clover.

Expected to burn off quickly in the warmth of the sun, this fog instead hung around. It played tricks on rush hour and lingered through morning coffee, slowing the start of the day as cautious drivers watched for something to appear suddenly from the clouds.

At Lake Wintergreen, moisture hung over the mossy, damp water’s edge, thickening to obscure the view of the opposite shore. At Hopkins School, the usual vista of the city’s sprawling skyline and nearby West Rock were blocked by an oyster white wall of fog. From Long Wharf, the Q Bridge could barely be seen.

Down at City Point, a curtain hung between the masts of the marina and the open water. The pier at the Sound School stretched into the unknown. To walk along it was to walk into a disorienting, suspended state. Somewhere in the distance, invisible cars hushed past on the highway. A slender white egret fished along the shoreline. The air smelled ocean calm.

Living at the edge of the water as we do, we’re no strangers to fog. It’s caused by the condensation of water droplets around some sort of microscopic particles—near the ocean, sometimes salt, but dust and other types of air pollution will also do. National Geographic’s website describes several different types of fog, including “advection fog,” which “forms when warm, moist air passes over a cool surface,” like the cool water of Long Island Sound.

The Five Mile Point Lighthouses—located five miles from downtown, with one replacing the other in 1845—must have guided many a vessel toward safe landfall through foggy seas in their day, from 1805 until 1877. That year the second beacon, now part of Lighthouse Point Park, was made obsolete by Southwest Ledge Lighthouse, which had been built on a new breakwater. The octagonal-shaped Five Mile Point light has been dark now for nearly 150 years. On days like this, the fog settles around it without reproach.

“Opinion varies on how far its beacon could be seen,” the city website says. “Some said only 5 maritime miles, others said it could be seen for 12 miles. All agreed that for the seamen relying on a strong beacon to keep them off the rocky shore, the New Haven lighthouse, with its weak light and low elevation, was no protection from disaster. At least one ship ran onto the rocks, reportedly just one mile from the lighthouse, and was pounded to pieces.”

And thus, the gentle image of Sandburg’s quiet, feline fog turns deadly.

Fog—not lightning, not stormy seas—is the most frightening of adversaries out on the water, says boater Kurt Rubelmann, a member of Waucoma Yacht Club in Fair Haven who’s been boating since he earned a license at the age of nine. He recalls several harrowing experiences: fog banks rolling in without warning off Montauk and hiding even the other boat he was traveling with, or fog obscuring the narrow channel home from Block Island and concealing the high-speed ferries. “The nerve-wracking thing is you’re out there in the fog, and it disorients you for sure,” Rubelmann says. “You hear these big boats… getting closer and closer and closer.” Bottom line, he says, no one should really be out there without radar—though radar isn’t foolproof, either. “I’ve been out in all kinds of weather, and I’d definitely take a storm over fog just because you can orient yourself better with your surroundings ,” Rubelmann says. After “three, four, five hours of operating a boat, concentrating heavy in the fog, it’s really draining. It’s almost like you ran a marathon.”

Boats aren’t the only vessels affected in this dangerous weather. Fog was at least partly to blame in a June 1971 plane crash at Tweed Airport, in which a Convair 580 prop jet came in too low, hit three houses on the East Haven beach and caught fire. A witness on the ground told The New York Times “he was certain that the pilot had mistaken the strip of beach for the runway, and was preparing to land when the plane crashed through the cottages.” Only three of the 31 people on board survived.

Sitting inside cozy City Point Kitchen over a cup of coffee and a breakfast of eggs and toast, watching the fog slowly disperse, I didn’t see it as treacherous. But those in the know are well aware that on a misty, murky morning like this, we’d do well to treat our old shoreline acquaintance with the respect it deserves.

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. This story was originally published on July 9, 2019.

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