Floating Boats

Floating Boats

It was the second Wednesday in July, and a colorful crowd had lined up near the Mill River canoe launch in the College Woods section of East Rock Park. Supplied with paddles and bright red life jackets, they listened intently to the instructions of New Haven park ranger Joe Milone.

They were there for the 5 p.m. canoe tour, one piece of a larger program scheduled for select Wednesdays in July and August, which is itself part of the Parks & Rec department’s overarching summer aquatic schedule, including sea kayaking at Lighthouse Point and, for kids, “eco adventure” camps engaging with canoe, kayak and more. Intermittently, the city also conducts “adaptive paddling” sessions for people with disabilities. “The water, the river, the sea—it’s a social equalizer,” says Martin Torresquintero, the city’s outdoor adventure coordinator. “When you’re having a good time, it doesn’t matter if you have no use of your legs.”

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Torresquintero helped launch the city’s recreational boating regime in 1999. Historically, its programming has relied on word of mouth to attract paddlers, though administrators have been dabbling more in social media of late.

However they hear about it, “People come, and we have all the gear, all the know-how. We give a quick class then go out for a little paddle. It’s a really good time,” says Tanner Conway, an aquatics director for the city. During the class, ranger Milone (pictured second and fourth) identified the parts of the paddle—the t-grip handle, the shaft and the blade—and demonstrated good paddling technique. Against an already cloudy sky, Torresquintero surveyed darker clouds rolling in from the horizon, but determined their rain wouldn’t arrive in time.

Soon our crash course was done, and we clambered down the hill to the water. I climbed into a canoe with Milone, and we pushed off into the slow-moving water. A warm breeze, scented with drying grass, swept up over the water.

Along the west side of the river, thickets of cattails, with half-submerged arrowroot plants below, provided a green buffer from the park and the road. Floating serenely in the boat’s path were rafts of lily pads, most not bigger than a spread hand. A few sunken flowers were visible inches below the surface.

Our boats passed under a number of bridges spanning the river, as well as a brush-covered island. Eventually the canopy opened up, making way for East Rock to loom overhead. Milone, with eyes honed for wildlife, spots a painted turtle, red and dark brown, sunning itself on a sunken log.

When we drift closer for a look, the turtle does a roll off the log and plops into the water. With the heat of the day, Milone says he’s surprised not to see even more turtles basking. On the return trip, with our direction flowing out to the sea just like the tide, the boat felt nearly as fast and light as the dragonflies skimming the water, following us back.

Usually the paddling trips last about 25 minutes in either direction, sometimes getting as far north as the Eli Whitney waterfall. “If you hit the tides just right you can get over it,” Conway says.

For the beginners on the tour, however, it was exciting enough to paddle around for an hour, and to experience the Mill River from a new perspective.

Guided Canoe Rentals on the Mill River
Orange St between Cold Spring St and Farnham Dr, New Haven
4 & 5pm 7/26, 8/9, 8/16
Pricing (New Haven residents/others): $10/$15 for adults, $5/$10 for children
Pre-registration required. Call (203) 946-6559.

Written and photographed by Anne Ewbank.

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