Saturday, October 13, 2007


The Ledyard Canoe Club has an annual tradition of sponsoring a four day, 218 mile canoe trip from Hanover down the Connecticut River to Long Island Sound (even unto this day). In the spring of my junior year at Dartmouth (1959), I had just taken my midterm exams and was feeling pretty feisty. Propitiously, Axel Grabowsky, the next-president of my fraternity, Sigma Nu, (and president of the canoe club) announced in the fraternity bar that very night (after I had downed a few too many frosties), “A bunch of us a going on a canoe trip down the Connecticut river. Who wants to go along?” I said, “Sure, why not.” Another brother, sophomore Bill Figilis, also rashly stepped forward. We were both quite foolish as we were canoeing tyros.

But there is no stopping callowed youth. So the next morning Bill and I packed a few changes of clothes, grabbed our sleeping bags (I also wore a straw boater hat and Bill brought a bottle of Beefeaters Gin) and took our place at the end of a queue of eight canoes pushing off from the Ledyard Canoe Club dock. After floundering around for the first few miles, Bill and I began to get the hang of the “J” stroke and how to steer this accursed Indian craft. That first evening in the canoe, as it started to get dark, a stiff headwind came up while we were in the middle of the river. This produced quite a bit of chop in the river and I knew, if we were dumped in the water, hypothermia would set in after only a few minutes and we would be goners. So, with a few bladder crises and even fewer paddling skills, we did manage to manhandle the canoe over to the river bank without mishap.

We slept under our canoe that night and most others … although Axel, our trip organizer, did arrange for us to sleep one night in a jail in Windsor, Connecticut (fortunately, for it rained like for Noah that night). The rest of the four day trip was a blur of portages (Wilder Dam, Turners Falls, and Windsor Locks among many others), bridges (Bill would always call out, “Bridges mean progress”), blisters, sore knees, and swigs of Beefeater Gin. We ate what we could scavenge at rest stops along the way and, I think, some stale cheese sandwiches at that jail. We were shadowed through the whole trip by a photographer from Life Magazine (see the May 18, 1959 issue) who wrote a small feature on this sojourn. (Neither Axel nor Bill made it into the article/pictures but I did appear as a boater-hatted background speck.)

This odyssey all ended a little ignominiously … a few canoes (including Bill’s and mine) had to be towed the last few miles because the tide had changed and we were going backwards whilst paddling a full speed. But this was quickly forgotten at a very lush barbeque thrown by an alumnus at his beautiful seaside house in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. Then the boats were loaded onto a truck and all involved piled into cars to sleep their way back to Hanover … all, that is, except myself. Instead, I opted (much to Axel’s chagrin) to hitchhike over to Connecticut College for Women (then-so-named) to visit a coed that I had been seeing. I did stumble back the next day to resume my studies and the brew swilling that I had interrupted only six days prior.

Thank you Axel for these fond memories and have a very happy 70th birthday.

George and Bill


George W. Potts said...

Earle Patterson sent this comment via e-mail:

That's what it was..........Rollin' on the River, for sure. We were late pushing off the dock and my bowman was Bruce Thornton who had never been in a canoe in his life. My instruction to him was direct and clear: "Sit on your ass and don't dare stand up or lean over the side." I think Grow was in our group as well. In any event, I still remember getting pulled toward a bridge abutment and but for one hard shove of the paddle to the right we would have been swimming in some pretty cold water----I still don't know how we missed the abutment. Next, Bruce and I got separated from the group and spent the night on some woman's porch. When we woke up the next morning we couldn't find the map. As we approached a town (Brattleboro I think) the water got calm and Bruce wanted to round a certain bend in the river. My recollection of the map said to portage around---being in the rear I prevailed. Damned good thing too, as around the bend was a pretty good sized dam which we co
uld well have gotten sucked over. Shortly thereafter we joined up with the main group as we approached the first rapids.

Nearing Old Saybrook we pulled in at some family's house, met some Smithies and had a great meal and more than a few beers. Yes, LIFE was there and I think Grow and I got into the article but don't remember Ax or George. I'll try to dig it up and send some pics at Christmas.

In any event, the scariest part of the whole trip was the last 20 miles (after more than one Bloody Mary to start the day at our host's house) with bowman Thornton trying to splash the other canoes with his paddle ----I don't know how many times we almost went over. I don't remember getting towed the last few miles but who knows at this stage in the memory trail.

George W. Potts said...

Axel Grabowsky sent this comment via e-mail:

The guys on the trip, in addition to Earle Patterson, George Potts, Bruce Thornton, Tom Grow, Bill Figilis and myself, were Max Fischer, Bob Williams, Ed Stiles, Pete Knight (who beat me the following year in the race that Earle mentioned: it took me something like 20 hours to get to Long Island Sound; Pete did it in an hour or two less), Rick Ellis, Dan Daniels, Mal Churchill (my paddling partner that year), Jack Edwards, Tom Otter and Harvey Ames.