Our 24-hour boat-camping
by Garth Battista
(click the images in this story
Back in the depths of winter, I got a "Connecticut
Coastal Access Map" from the Connecticut DEP. It's
free, and everyone who loves small boats and lives within
a few hundred miles of CT should get one.
Well, darn -- I just checked the site to give you the
link, and they say the maps are "no longer available."
But it can't hurt to ask and politely badger till they
print some more or find a few extras in the basement:
Contact DEP's Office of Long Island Sound Programs
at 860 424-3034 or Maps and Publications office at 860-424-3692
or email a request with your mailing address to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anyway -- back to the winter. In the subzero temperatures
of January, with snow piled high around the house, the
north wind howling, the nights too long, and the woodstove
burning, of course a boat nut turns to fantasizing about
summer cruises. I looked over this Connecticut map and
found a spot that said, "Boat Access Only Campsites."
It's on an island in the Connecticut River, a couple of
miles above Essex, called Selden Neck. Go here for more
info and reservations: http://dep.state.ct.us/stateparks/camping/rvrcmp.htm.
length of stay is limited to one night, so we figured
we're not going to have a weeklong visit, let's camp on
a regular old weekend -- no need to wait for summer vacation
to start, or a holiday. So I booked us a campsite for
Saturday, June 5. I got the permit and clutched it tightly
all through the remnants of the winter and early spring.
the day arrived, and my wife, Lilly, and I, and our two
daughters, Isabel (6) and Rose (3), packed up all we could
into our 14' Jim Michalak-designed, homebuilt Mayfly.
It's a wonderfully practical and roomy boat. We managed
to fit in 4 sleeping bags, a big 4-person tent, two sacks
of food, several gallons of water, a single-burner campstove,
a can of propane, Ridgerests for 4, raingear, changes
of clothes, a flashlight, two different sunblocks, three
different bug repellents, and various other items deemed
necessary for a 24-hour expedition. Ultralight campers,
But it all fit!
drove four hours from our home in the Catskills to the
put-in, at the ferry crossing by Gillette Castle in East
Haddam. It's just a little gravel "ramp" and
a parking lot for a dozen cars, but it suited us perfectly.
2 PM Saturday, in went the boat, up went the mast, up
went the sail, in went the kids, in went the parents,
and off we sailed, tacking into a gentle breeze, avoiding
the ferryboat, and feeling a lot like Ratty and Mole in
"Wind in the Willows," messing about in our
(We're going to outgrow this boat in a year or two. Then
I'll have to build a second one, and we'll sail in company.)
It took about an hour and a half to sail to our campsite;
though with a following breeze, or just rowing, we could
have made in in under half an hour. It was good to be
on the water, looking up at the green hills of the river
valley, watching the big boats go by, riding the wakes
of the powerboats. Isabel and Rose immediately overcame
their fear of these wave trains and said, "Here comes
a RIDE!" and we'd whoop and holler joyfully as the
little boat bobbed and rocked. We ogled the houses down
by the river -- some large and magnificent, others rundown
cottages -- thinking how nice it must be to have this
waterway right outside your door, and the sea just six
Then we came to a long stretch of the eastern shore where
there was no development, and not a living soul to be
seen. Selden Neck. We found a spot not far from the campsite
where we could pull our boat up out of the constant wave-wash.
It occured to me that there's a whole new erosion pattern
on this river in the last hundred years, getting bashed
constantly by a sea-like series of waves from the big
boats. Wonder how that affects the animals that live alongshore?
The shore was mostly rocky, and no big boat could safely
pull up here without getting their hull hammered, nor
anchor anywhere near shore, as the current runs out fast
and the channel needs to be kept clear. However, it's
a paradise for canoers, kayakers, and small boaters who
can pull their boat up on shore.
camp area is designated on the state webpage as having
6 sites -- and, luckily, it was deserted. Very luckily,
as there's level room maybe for a couple of tents, and
so close to each other you'd better be good friends. If
we had to share the area with a bunch of partying yahoos,
it would have been a miserable weekend. (I suspect that
"boat-access-only" would select out for a nice
crowd, but you never know.) Instead we were blissfully
alone, just the four of us watching the river go by, surrounded
on one side by hundreds of acres of old-growth hemlocks
and oaks, and the water on the other. We set up our tent,
and immediately the girls jumped in it to play around.
We took a hike up the hill behind the
campsite, sat some more by the riverside, dabbled our
feet in the water...
around on the little beach nearby, started a good fire
in the fire circle, cooked some hotdogs, toasted some
marshmallows, watched a glorious sunset and went to bed
just as darkness (and rain) fell, lulled by the patter
on the tent and the gentle lapping of waves.
woke at dawn and watched the scullers working their way
up and down the river before the powerboaters came out.
Later a string of kayakers went by. We ate our breakfast
and waved to everyone, kindred souls -- water rats all.
were jumping and I made a note to somehow fit a fishing
pole in the boat next time, or at least a handline. We
had a falling tide (here just six miles above Long Island
Sound, the river is tidal), and slack water was two hours
away, so we packed everything up and set off downriver
came across the ruins of some ancient civilization (no,
girls, we can't take it home . . . ):
We stopped often on random little stretches of beach,
just to have a look around. We saw cormorants, seagulls,
ducks, geese, swans, and lots of animal tracks in the
mud and sand. The girls are usually happy to be in the
boat, but really love getting out and romping on shore,
searching for "treasure." This usually means
any bit of flotsam that can be kept or played with. We
have had to veto some treasure, such as syringes. . .
. Sadly, there is a lot of trash along the shore, probably
washed down from creeks far upstream in the spring floods.
I wanted to enlist 3000 Boy Scouts with 1500 canoes and
15,000 garbage bags, to have a little clean-up day.
dropped sail and rowed our way up a little creek for a
while, watching orioles flying about, brilliant orange
against the bright green trees. It was like the Garden
of Eden back in there -- no powerboats, no sign of civilization
at all, just lush greenery, silence, and life all around.
rowed out of the creek and set sail to head upriver. A
gentle rain fell from time to time, but this didn't bother
us at all. And we figured it kept the river traffic down.
We had a following breeze for a while and enjoyed the
steady gurgling of water under the boat as we headed for
home. A 40' fiberglass sailboat came downriver under power
and steered over to say hello and take a few pictures
of us in our odd little wooden boat. Really big scenic
cruise boats (the Becky Thatcher and the Camelot)
came by, and their passengers took many pictures, too.
It was a good feeling to think that somehow we added to
the scenery, rather than detracted.
But then the wind changed, blowing downriver in our faces.
We tacked into it for a good long time, making slow progress.
I cursed my homemade polytarp sail, which has some
shape to it, but not quite the right one. We could only
make about 60 or 70 degrees to the wind sometimes, and
it was puffing and swirling oddly, so, rather than subject
the girls to a three-hour slog, eventually we dropped
sail again (tied boom and yard up to the mast) and rowed
back to our haul-out spot.
took the boat out just around 2 PM, 24 hours after we
had launched; and it felt like we had been away for a
week. We had only sailed downriver 3 miles total, and
then back, but it felt like a long journey through a new
world. A little boat, going slow, can change the nature
of time and space in this car-crazy, motor-crazy, speed-crazy
paid a visit to Gillette Castle, where the girls pretended
to be the princesses who live there.
We drove home full of cheer and that indescribable boat-euphoria,
ready to do it all again as soon as possible. The cruise
was at least as good -- and possibly even better than
-- the fantasies that had sustained me all winter.