Our 24-hour boat-camping adventure
by Garth Battista

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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 coastal.access@po.state.ct.us.

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.

(click the images in this story larger versions)The 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.

(click the images in this story larger versions)Finally, 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, we ain't.

But it all fit!

(click the images in this story larger versions)We 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.

(click the images in this story larger versions)At 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 boat.

(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 miles away.

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.

(click the images in this story larger versions)The 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.

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We took a hike up the hill behind the campsite, sat some more by the riverside, dabbled our feet in the water...

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(click the images in this story larger versions)...ran 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.

(click the images in this story larger versions)We 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.

(click the images in this story larger versions)Fish 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 to explore.

(click the images in this story larger versions)We 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.

(click the images in this story larger versions)We 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.

(click the images in this story larger versions)We 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.

(click the images in this story larger versions)We 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 world.

(click the images in this story larger versions)We 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.