Columnist Jonathan Wright: Don’t miss region’s sights and insights 

  • The Connecticut River, Coolidge Bridge, Northampton Airport and Three County Fairgrounds are seen from a hot-air balloon during July.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 8/15/2017 8:38:11 PM

With a deep bow to Rachel Carson, we live in a beautiful place. Before the late fall and winter come with their particular seasonal joys and activities, there is still so much to enjoy and appreciate at this time of year.

From a few of my recent morning sculling outings on the Connecticut River comes this report. The river is at a seasonal low, so you can see the wonderfully textured sand and gravel bottom in many places, and the water is refreshingly cool.

With oar or paddle, find your way through the shade and shallows. Just look at those trees, silently soaking up the carbon dioxide and pumping out oxygen for the sustenance of all breathing life. In the early morning recently, a great whirling and tumbling flock of swallows was skimming the still water, feeding, then turning upward, wheeling about. They paid me no heed. Sculling is slow and quiet!

The river has many of the primeval characteristics it had in the early days of human habitation thousands of years ago. Expanding settlement and industry, along with dams, raised havoc. The last spring log drive was in 1913 — four million board feet, in a raft nearly 100 miles long! The logs were taken out at the mouth of the Oxbow in Northampton, and their rail journeys began.

One recent day, the three juvenile bald eagles from the river above the bridge were all together, circling, discussing if I looked at all like breakfast, and then landing on a sandy shoal. They are not light on their feet, nor do they care to swim. But they are majestic in their “early teens” nonetheless. Their babyish whistle screech is not what I would expect from these very big birds.

Also recently, under the Coolidge Bridge, the call of a peregrine falcon that nests there was rendered metallic in sound by the structure. It was only audible when traffic was not passing overhead.

In the later 19th century, there were over 100 canoe clubs on the river between Bellows Falls, Vermont, and Hartford, Connecticut. But after the end of cleanup of the 1938 hurricane, following the devastating 1936 storm, there were only a handful left, and the river was by then too filthy to enjoy.

Even 30 to 40 years ago, the river was a sewer — immersion required medical treatment against contaminants. How far it has come in its recovery! How much has been done to protect the shore and watershed from pollution and degradation, though much remains to be done. Remember, don’t put anything down the drain that you would not wish upon the good people in Connecticut for their morning coffee — the river is, in the end, a water supply.

Strange, is it not, all the work we go through to have this great New England waterway serve as both our drinking fountain and waste water gutter? Hats off to the Connecticut River Conservancy as it celebrates 65 years of advocacy, and a reminder: The Clean Water Act and the Clear Air Act both provided the law and part of the funding for all of this to happen. The work was not easy or quick, nor is it finished.

In all cases, find your way outdoors early in the day, when the fog is dragging the last of its goat-belly fur along the ridge of the Holyoke range, when the river is quiet. Be safe and cautious, but don’t miss it. Kayak and canoe rentals are fairly abundant up and down the river. Weekdays and also early mornings on weekends are best.

If the water does not beckon, the many trails and adventures offered on the properties of Massachusetts Audubon Society, The Trustees of Reservations and the Kestrel Trust will rejuvenate and inspire.

Midday this last weekend, for an uptick in pace, we headed to the Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival. Great music, very informal, so hospitable and fun! Kari Njiiri from NEPR was doing some introductions. Special highlights for us included Springfield native singer Sarah Elizabeth Charles on the main stage, and the New Orleans jazz band around the corner.

Roots. About 5,000 years after native people arrived, my forebears came through the valley in the 17th century. And my grandmother lived for many years right on the square in New Orleans. Now, she had some stories. From salsa to jazz to Puerto Rican talent, all of our roots were showing.

Along with the good food tables and chairs to share, there were display tents with information about the burgeoning community gardens movement in the city, the Community Music School of Springfield, and best of all, conversations struck with total strangers.

All the trash locations had bins for recycling, for compost, and for trash, along with clear signs and cheerful volunteers to guide visitors. All the take-out food containers were compostable. Event sponsors and organizers elsewhere, take note! Environmental stewardship is easy and fun, all day, every day.

Even in Court Square, a breeze off the river rustled the stately trees, wafted the barbecue smells around, and kept it cool and pleasant.

Or, take a day trip to the Berkshires and enjoy the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art with the huge new Building 6 now open. Take in the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute 10 minutes away in Williamstown, along with a picnic.

Stop by the Susan B. Anthony homestead, where she was born in 1820, near the base of Mount Greylock. Imagine that greatness and leadership as it emerged in those years, in this hamlet south of Adams.

While you are out and about, don’t forget to bring your bathing suit and towel. A river, lake or pond are sure to come into view and tempt you!

Closer to home, the Eric Carle Museum and, my favorite gem, the Emily Dickinson Museum, offer exhibits and regular tours regularly. Both are in Amherst, within biking distance from most of the Valley. Add the Museums10 consortium that includes Historic Deerfield and the various college and university museums. You’ve got the rainy days covered, too!

Seeing is believing, so don’t miss taking in some new or familiar sights and charms of our region, all the while acquiring new insights and appreciation.

Jonathan A. Wright, of Northampton, is the founder and senior adviser of Wright Builders.

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