River advocates often refer to rivers, streams, and lakes as being part of a watershed. We use the word because we are familiar with the notion that all surface water, however modest in size, connects to larger watery ecosystems. There is the classic definition of a watershed: The land region draining water into a river, stream, or body of water. The highest lands between different river systems divide watersheds.
Ask yourself, if a raindrop falls on the land where you are standing, what stream takes it to what river that takes it to the ocean? That is how you figure out your watershed. For most of us in eastern Vermont or western NH, the watershed is the Connecticut River Watershed. From your land, that raindrop may travel down a small rivulet to an unnamed stream to join a small brook that joins up with a trout stream that joins with other trout streams until you have a named river that flows into the Connecticut River. The Connecticut gathers all of the tributary rivers in four states until it flows into Long Island Sound. Sometimes we get a little parochial up here and forget that the Connecticut River flows all the way to the ocean.
The River is larger and more powerful south of the Upper Valley as it has gathered more water from more tributaries. It powers hydroelectric facilities down stream the way it does up here. It welcomes power boaters more than our reach of the river but people there value the river as a boating, fishing and birding asset the same way we do. The tidal marsh area at the mouth of the river welcomes canoe explorers for fantastic birding and wildlife viewing as does our Connecticut Lakes region.
The Connecticut River is tidal from Long Island Sound to Hartford, CT and during low flows beyond that all the way to Windsor Locks, CT. The “salt wedge,” the saltwater portion of the tide that flows up stream during the rising tide, extends a distance of 10 miles from the Sound all the way up river to Chester, CT. Named the salt wedge because saltwater is heavier than freshwater; consequently, it runs along the bottom of the river channel while the fresh water flows on top. When they merge, the freshwater mixes with saltwater from the top down. At the furthest extent of the tide, the saltwater layer is the thinnest and deepest, hence the notion that the saltwater forms a wedge. The seasonal flow of the river determines both the extent of the reach of saltwater up river and the tidal rise. During spring freshet when the river will discharge up to 29 billion gallons a day, there is little noticeable tide. During dry times when the flow has lowered to 4.5 billion gallons a day, the tide swing can reach 4 feet.
For many of us in the upper reaches of the river, the most alluring place is the CT Lakes region where the headwater lakes start the river on its trip to the Sound. The Connecticut River travels some 410 miles to reach its destination. Starting in a bog known as the Forth Connecticut Lake at the Canadian border, the stream that is the river joins with Indian Stream, Pauls Stream and by the time it reaches Colebrook it is a real river. The country is wild, populated with moose and other critters that demand undisturbed habitat. The area is rich with water and the watershed there forms a tangle of backwater ponds and small lakes all draining into the river. TransCanada and NH Fish and Game have river access sites for boating and fishing throughout the area.
For many of the people in the lower reaches of the river, the most alluring places are the tidewaters area. In this reach of the river, because the river has deposited so much silt and sand, no large port ever developed and the area was thought of as “wasted” land. Despite efforts to drain and “reclaim” the land, the marshes have persisted and the wild species, especially birds, have succeeded in this habitat. The United Nations Ramsar Convention of 127 nations recognizes the tidewater area as “Wetlands of International Importance.” The marsh areas are wild and the bird life is worth the trip south. Take your canoe. Boat launches are sprinkled throughout the marsh areas and that is the best way to explore this wonderful area of our river.
Our river differs north to south but it is all the same watershed from the headwaters of its smallest tributary to the Long Island Sound and it is all available for you to experience. For more information about how to get on the river throughout its length there are several excellent publications available: “The Connecticut River Boating Guide” and a Connecticut River Paddlers’ Trail Map. Both are available through the Connecticut River Watershed Council at ctriver.org . The guides will assist you in enjoying our watershed from Fourth Lake to Long Island Sound.
David Deen is River Steward for the Connecticut River Watershed Council. CRC has been a protector of the Connecticut River for more than 60 years.