Eagles, kayaks flock to Hamburg Cove
Ablustery northwest wind blasted spray off whitecaps on the Connecticut River last Saturday, when friends and I prepared to launch kayaks from a small beach at the end of Elys Ferry Road in Lyme.
“Gotta be blowing 15 to 20, with gusts over 25,” Phil Warner groaned, as we hunkered in the parking lot to discuss options.
Our group had planned a 10-mile, round-trip paddle around Selden Island, a favorite winter excursion to watch eagles that migrate from northern New England and Canada to fish in ice-free water.
The last couple years we’ve had to modify our itinerary because thick ice blocked our launch site and flotillas of floes choked the river channel.
With this winter’s ridiculously mild temperatures, the problem last week wasn’t ice, but a relentless headwind. One paddler took a look at the choppy river, got back in his car, and drove home.
The rest of us decided we would cautiously hug the shore, into the teeth of the wind, for less than a mile, and then hope to find calmer conditions in Hamburg Cove. Before launching, we reviewed safety protocols: Stick together, hold your paddle horizontally to signal others to stop, use your whistle if you need help, tap your head to assure companions you are OK.
And so we zipped into drysuits, donned lifejackets, slipped on neoprene mitts, climbed aboard, snapped spray skirts over cockpit coamings and pushed off.
“Yee-hah!” Phil exclaimed, as the hull of his vessel bounced over a wave. I reacted less enthusiastically when spray from another wave slapped me in the face. The wind also creepily blew the whistle tied to my lifejacket — fortunately, not loudly enough to alert the others.
Also joining the fun were Robin Francis, Andy Lynn, Elyse Landesberg, Declan Nowak and my son, Tom; all of us have paddled for years in challenging conditions.
After passing Brockway Island to the west, we steered east into Hamburg Cove, and finally escaped the worst of the wind.
“One o’clock! One o’clock!” Phil shouted, directing our gaze northeast toward a pair of bald eagles circling lazily high above.
“OK, we can go home now,” I joked.
A few minutes later, another eagle about 50 yards away launched from the branch of a tall oak and swooped toward the river. We watched the giant bird swerve repeatedly, evidently following a potential meal below.
Sure enough, a large fish jumped from the water, but resubmerged before the eagle had time to dive. After several minutes of futile passes, the eagle gave up and flew back to the oak branch. Tough way to survive, for both eagle and fish, I reflected.
We had company in the cove — a motorized tour
boat, packed with parka-clad passengers. They huddled on deck, wielding spotting scopes and binoculars. A few waved as we paddled by; they looked even colder than we must have.
Eagles weren’t the only birds in the cove. A pair of great blue herons took off from the west shore; mallards quacked and flapped noisily; and as so often is the case, a huge flock of honking Canada geese took over a broad swath of water.
The wind all but diminished by the time we passed the Hamburg Cove Yacht Club on the east shore, about a mile from the main river.
“Time for lunch,” Elyse announced, and began looking for a place to pull ashore. Declan, who was familiar with the cove, said he didn’t think there were many good landing spots. Much of Hamburg’s shore is either rocky or occupied by elegant homes.
And so, we continued, passing through cement arches of the Joshuatown Road bridge in another mile and a quarter.
By this time, a flooding tide should have given our boats a push, but water rushing from the mouth of Eightmile River flowed against us. I joined a small group that paddled upstream a hundred yards or so through rocks and riffles, before I turned around and drifted back to the bridge.
Like salmon, Phil and Tom pushed farther upriver, through a short stretch of tumbling water into a shallow pool, and then disappeared around a bend. If they continued another six miles, they would have reached Chapman Falls, which drops 60 feet through a chasm at Devil’s Hopyard State Park in East Haddam, but I knew they would have to turn around long before then. The pristine Eightmile, a federally designated Wild and Scenic River, is not easily navigable, especially if you’re paddling north.
Sure enough, Phil and Tom soon rejoined the rest of the group, which had pulled up on a rocky shore north of the bridge. We munched on snacks and sipped hot tea from insulated water bottles for about half an hour, when it was time to paddle more than three miles back to Elys Ferry Road.
On the return trip through the cove, we saw at least a dozen more eagles, including a trio perched in a tree, and one that swooped not more than 20 feet above us — a breathtaking sight.
Back on the main river, the wind continued to blow, but this time it pushed us back to our cars. Early afternoon sun shone brightly in our faces.
“I’m roasting!” Phil mock-complained.
The eagles should stick around another month or so before winging their way home. Happily, their appearance in southeastern Connecticut has become less of a novelty, since quite a few have become year-round residents. Welcome to the neighborhood.
Whatever the season, it’s a treat so see the majestic birds, our nation’s symbol, thriving after decades of being threatened with extinction. Federal wildlife authorities removed bald eagles from the endangered species list in 2007, but have kept them a protected species under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
Now, if we can only get them to displace some of the Canada geese.