Water Therapy

Water Therapy

The tide chart tells us that around 9:30 a.m., the time will be right for putting our canoe in at Sackett Point. High tide arrives at the state boat launch in North Haven two hours later than in New Haven Harbor, and the Quinnipiac River Fund’s website suggests we start out an hour before that to allow deep enough water for side trips off the meandering Quinnipiac.

The sun is already hot and bright by the time we turn down an inconspicuous dirt road next to the Tilcon concrete plant, which leads to the river. It looks like we’ll have the entire salt marsh to ourselves, along with the fish and the birds. Even before we’ve pushed off from the primitive, rocky launch, a couple of fish leap from the water, too fast to be seen but alerting us with a plunk and telltale rings on the water’s surface.

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The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven

Fluff from nearby cottonwood trees drifts by like snow and sticks to the surface of the water as we start out. We’ve canoed this section of the Quinnipiac before, but it’s been a few years. Our goal today is to make it all the way to the Middletown Avenue bridge, which small craft are advised not to pass due to a current that’s “fast and treacherous with turbulence by the pilings,” the River Fund notes. As the crow flies (or the osprey or the heron), the distance from Sackett Point Road to Middletown Avenue is under four miles, but the river meanders like a switchbacking mountain road, stretching the actual paddle to five miles or more each way.

We set out along the State Street shore, where industrial businesses are hidden behind the embankment’s tall trees. We can hear heavy equipment moving in the background, but the birds are louder, particularly the first nest of ospreys we encounter, who turn out to be the helicopter parents of the river. Even as we hug the opposite shore to put as much distance as possible between their babies and us, they scold with their “peep-peep-peep-peep” and fly big, territorial circles. The river is dotted with these nests, built on manmade platforms. Some other ospreys farther downriver—and farther from human activity on the banks—seem less concerned about the big, red water creature floating past them.

The river doubles back on itself and sends us across the wide salt marsh to the far shore, where the back side of a North Haven shopping center can be seen. While it isn’t exactly picturesque, this stretch of water does offer a reward: a glimpse of the entire length of Sleeping Giant mountain. There are few places from which you can see the giant stretched out and really understand why he earned his name. This is one of them.

The fact that it’s high tide—perhaps even a particularly high tide because a full moon is on the way—means we can see some landmarks over the tips of the marsh grass: a smokestack, a church spire. Standing tallest are the abandoned signal towers of the old Cedar Hill Rail Yard, some of them now serving as nesting platforms and perches. As we get closer, we glimpse some rusty old machinery at their feet. On the other side of the river, an active train sings as it crosses Sackett Point Road.

All along our meandering way, we’re tempted by spacious inlets and narrow passages to stray from the main river and explore. Today, however, our goal keeps us in the wide, main channel. At water’s edge, a heron watches and waits, not for us but likely for its next meal. Then it lifts off and flies a broad half-circuit around the marsh, disappearing into the grass. In our attempt to give it a wide berth, we scare another heron out of the weeds; as it soars off, the tips of its wings appear black in the sun’s harsh shadows.

The next bend in the river brings us a view of the residential and commercial strip of Hamden’s stretch of State Street. Far ahead, East Rock’s tower points to the sky. From this perspective, it’s possible to see the true topography of East Rock Park: not just a tower-topped cliff, as viewed from the city, but rather a series of several hills of varying sizes, like siblings lined up for a photograph.

A cloud-white egret follows a plump of ducks as they rise together. We cross a smooth seam in the water. It’s probably the tide line, the area where incoming and outgoing tide meet. We’ve reached a low, arched span—an abandoned railroad bridge—where birds are congregated. Maybe the fishing is good at this narrow spot in the river. Seagulls roost atop the bridge, while cormorants have chosen a huge, crooked piece of driftwood, as dark and long-necked as they are.

Downriver, we can see traffic whizzing across the Middletown Avenue bridge. We’ve been paddling for an hour, and we don’t relish squeezing under this low preliminary bridge in high water to get there. It’s time to turn around.

A slack tide gives us the gift of easy passage back up the river. At times, the water is as smooth as a mirror, giving us the illusion of paddling across a blue sky into the clouds. We know now which ospreys will scold us and which way the river turns, but there are still a few surprises on the way back, including a clear view of the impressive solar array built atop the North Haven landfill.

It’s not until we’re pulling our canoe back out at the launch that we see another boater. He’s just arriving with a kayak on top of his van. He wants to know: Is the tide going in or out? Paddling in the salt marsh at low tide can be dangerous. It’s easy to get stuck or lost in the high grass if you wander off on a side adventure.

According to a New Haven Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees brochure, the river is 38 miles long in total, with a watershed covering 170 square miles. If you don’t have your own boat for exploring, you can rent one from the Quinnipiac River Marina, but be sure to follow safety precautions from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Also, be aware that the Quinnipiac isn’t the cleanest river you’ll ever navigate. A Department of Public Health warning posted on the kiosk at the launch recommends no more than one meal of fish from the river every two months—and no fish at all for pregnant women or children under six. You probably shouldn’t go swimming, either.

Going paddling, however, is highly recommended.

Sackett Point Road Boat Launch

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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