Saturday, July 12, 2008

Up three rivers

It was a good turnout of about 25 canoers/kayakers to accompany Wesleyan environmental sciences and biology professor, and president of the Johan center Barry Chernoff and Jonah Center founder John Hall for a tour of the confluence of the Connecticut, Mattabessett and Cochingchaug Rivers. Chernoff has studied the river and the wetlands for years.

The group gathered at the Middletown boat launch at 9, and travelled upriver to the mouth of the Mattabessett which is marked by a highway overpass for Route 9. At the first bend in the river, Chernoff began the first of his informative talks about the river, and its flora and fauna.

Where we floated, just north of the old Remington Rand plant, and site of the Jonah Center, Chernoff explained that the three rivers, and the associated wetlands was a rare example of an ecological system which has all but disappeared in Connecticut. These rivers are the breeding grounds for a variety of fish, amphibians and bird life, as well as numerous mammals.

The first bend in the river is a deep one, and Chernoff explained that the pool beneath the bend, which in a relatively shallow river, is 60 feet deep, and contains some very large specimens of river bottom fish like catfish, sucker and carp. Chernoff also said that the river is home to some very large pickeral.

Chernoff noted that once we rounded the bend we would be in "another world" where the noise from the highway would all but disappear, and we would be surrounded by a cathedral of giant trees which bend over the banks of the river.

Just down river the ecosystem changes to "floating" grasslands, which help the wetlands absorb the unneeded, and unwanted nutrients and other impurities which float down the Mattabessett from Berlin and New Britain. During the spring freshet, where the wetlands appear like a giant lake, the sediments are caught by these grasslands, and the water flowing back into the river is purer for it.

At the grasslands stop, Chernoff pointed out the acres of wild rice, which, in the fall is a feedlot for thousands of birds, "who help to replant the rice," Chernoff noted.

We saw a giant egret, a blue heron, several osprey who were inhabiting a man-made nest.

Chernoff called the three rivers and their wetlands the Noah's Ark of Connecticut waterlife. Apparently Connecticut has 48 species of native freshwater fish, and 23 of those species can be found here.

The rivers are home to some invasive species like the carp, which unlike the sucker - also introduced to bottom clean the river - is indiscriminate in it's suction of the river bottom, contributing to a muddy flow, and disturbing the nests and eggs of other species.

Another problem in the wetlands is poaching. Poachers trap muskrat and mink, but the snapping turtle poachers may be the biggest problem. Chernoff explained that the snapping turtle, which is never dangerous in the water, is trapped in large cages for their meat. A few ounces of meet from a five year old turtle will gather a high-price from turtle soup connoisseurs in Manhattan. The five year olds, which can weigh twenty pounds, will not be sexually mature for another 15 years (large snappers can live 100 years), and so, the poaching is interfering with propagation of future generations of snappers. The snapper traps look like large chicken wire coops, and should be reported to the DEP. They are illegal, and any trapped turtle is likely to be angry and dangerous.

Turning up the Cochinchaug, we the river got narrower, and shallower as we passed the abandoned landfill, a towering mound of festering methane and waste. We stopped at a landing and Chernoff turned over rocks to exhibit some of the important freshwater river life including leeches, clams, snails, and muscles. Upon request, he also found a water penny, the larval stage of the water penny beetle.

The trip ended with a relaxed return downriver, and a disaster for me. The photos I took here, are likely the last from this camera, which was dunked when I fell into the river upon disembarking from my kayak.

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