Randy Koopman, Allen Wilson. Debby Ballou, and Bill Ballou celebrate with a glass of champagne.

A 410-Mile, Two-Year Paddle the Length of the Connecticut

From a muddy puddle along the Canadian border, down to the Fenwick lighthouse, it took 31 days of off-and-on paddling spread out over two years for Bill Ballou to traverse the entire 410 mile Connecticut River with his canoe.

Beginning the last leg Monday morning at the Baldwin Bridge, Ballou, a semi-retired newspaper reporter from the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, his wife, Debby, and fellow paddlers Randy Koopman, Charlie Thompson and Allen Wilson fought the wind to paddle their canoe along the last three mile stretch to the Fenwick lighthouse. 

The paddlers said town officials told them they would prefer the crew not try to disembark at Fenwick, where residents discourage the public from accessing roadways and water. So, the instead paddlers turned around and headed back up the river to North Cove in Old Saybrook. Their journey finally complete, the crew popped a bottle of champagne to celebrate and headed up to Essex for a meal at the Griswold Inn.

“Everything was new,” Ballou said, reflecting on his journey. “Even though the scenery didn’t surprise me, it was new. I had never seen what was around this corner before, it was brand new. And that was a lot of fun.”

“I assumed once you get into Connecticut that it’s gonna be all built up. I mean, you’ll just see it’s nothing but buildings. But it wasn’t like that at all. This is more what it’s like,” Ballou said, pointing out at the mostly undeveloped land in Lyme, across the river from the Connecticut River Museum in Essex. “There are some houses, but mostly it’s just riverbank and trees.”

Ballou paddled the entire stretch, and spent about half of the trip by himself. Koopman and Thompson, who have been canoeing with Ballou since they were in the Boy Scouts 50 years ago, joined him for stretches of the trip. They take an annual trip to canoe the Batten Kill on the same weekend every year, only missing two years over the last 35.

There were parts of the trip that would have been impossible to do solo, Ballou said. He couldn’t have gotten past the rapids on the upper Connecticut River without Koopman steering him through, and couldn’t have pushed through the wind and tide on the final stretch alone, he said.

“Not only do you have to keep going forward, you have to steer at the same time. It’s like it’s twice as hard because the wind will just push you off course,” Ballou said. “And because all the weight’s in the back it pushes the back down and it turns the front around, and it’s hard work. So today wasn’t that windy, but I still would not have attempted it myself.”

The journey started with a steep climb along the Canadian border to what’s called the Fourth Connecticut Lake – essentially a puddle of snow melt that’s five feet at its deepest point. It was too shallow to actually canoe, but they wanted to start at the true source.

They followed the flow down to the Third Lake where the Connecticut River – still just a small stream – trickled in and they followed where it flowed out. They repeated that pattern for a series of five lakes until Lake Francis where the river finally flows deep enough to canoe all the way down to the Long Island Sound.

The group paddled off and on over the next two years, setting out early in the morning, paddling for a few hours, and then heading home or to a hotel for the night. Then they would pick up where they left off and keep paddling down the river. Camping wasn’t on the table.

“Getting up with a sore back and then going to paddle all day is not a good combination,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to go to a place with a soft bed and a cold beer.”

Planning their trip to avoid bad weather and boat traffic, they made it down the river without serious incident. Nobody capsized, and Ballou only slipped into the water once. One thing that did surprise Ballou was how scenic the river was in Connecticut, where he assumed there would be more development along the banks. But outside of Springfield and Hartford, the river bank was mostly just lined with trees.

“I assumed once you get into Connecticut that it’s gonna be all built up. I mean, you’ll just see it’s nothing but buildings. But it wasn’t like that at all. This is more what it’s like,” Ballou said, pointing out at the mostly undeveloped land in Lyme, across the river from the Connecticut River Museum in Essex. “There are some houses, but mostly it’s just riverbank and trees.”

“I remember one of our guys saying, why didn’t we put in further down? And Charlie [Thompson] said, ‘Because if you don’t start at the beginning, you lose the sense of the journey.’ And I like the sense of the journey, and that’s why I decided to go all the way to Canada to [start at the source of the Connecticut]. I wanted the sense of watching the river evolve all the way down.”

The genesis for the Connecticut River voyage was a trip Ballou took down the Allagash River in Maine.

“People canoe from Dartmouth on down and say, ‘I did the [Connecticut] River,’” Ballou said. “No, you did half the river.”

The Allagash is similar, where paddlers can put their boat in further down the river for an easier trip. 

“I remember one of our guys saying, why didn’t we put in further down? And Charlie [Thompson] said, ‘Because if you don’t start at the beginning, you lose the sense of the journey.’ And I like the sense of the journey, and that’s why I decided to go all the way to Canada to [start at the source of the Connecticut]. I wanted the sense of watching the river evolve all the way down.”

“Next time I’ll keep my mouth shut,” Thompson joked.

Editor’s note: Paddlers in Connecticut are free to land anywhere below the high tide line, and at public beach areas in Fenwick.

Latest from Brendan Crowley