I left town straight from work at 3:00 on the Friday before Labor Day. I packed my bicycle, tent, sleeping bag, clothes, drugs, reading materials (which I barely cracked open) Sadie the Goat, the Boat and food (which I left at work). The last hour or two at work I scrolled anxiously on my phone, eager to flee the building teaming with maskless children and teenagers who had been let out early for the holiday. Had I remembered that was happening, I might have accepted my boss’s offer to give me the day off, but at part-time hours I couldn’t justify the pay cut. After some scheduling challenges we decided to go ahead with a late-Summer expedition to an idyllic spot on the Long River in Massholandia.
I started driving up from Hartford in 2019 as an escape when I was going through it. My co-conspirator Sandra went along with my hairbrained plan to camp there for the first time back then, and only gave me a little shit about it. Since the pandemic I only became more keen on being outdoors. The beach and manmade island were open to the public, and camping was still fully tolerated then, but the area was difficult to access without some light trespassing, and so the crowds were mostly townies. I wanted somewhere cheap to spend the night that was still close to civilization, where we wouldn’t be surrounded exclusively by New England’s multitude of rural reactionaries. So in my jumbled mind I decided a short nighttime paddle boat ride over a shallow portion of the river after walking through a corn field was a reasonable plan if it meant we could enjoy some of Norsemantown’s night life before sitting around the fire. My first visit to the river island was when I swam across to it on an inflatable tube in order to scout it out. Shortly after I bought a big inflatable fishing boat off Craigslist at a bargain and named it after a 19th century river pirate known for headbutting men on New York’s waterfront.
This time around, Sandra and I disagreed on the best course for camping. She felt the recent increased police attention at our favorite spot made it smarter to pick a site a little farther off, on the island where we had camped the first time three years ago, and not on the sandy shore that had become so egregiously popular with us out-of-towners. We hadn’t realized it was there til after we had already setup camp on the island. The last time Siedah and I visited earlier this Summer, throngs of visitors from Springfield, Chicopee and Holyoke gave it a different vibe from what the townies were used to, and scandalous accounts flooded local media. Word had spread since last year when some unsung hero blazed a path from the rowing team’s free parking lot, making it a prime destination for cheap-ass leisure seekers near and far.
I’m not a huge fan of the island campsite. It’s nicely maintained, but rests on the other side of the island facing Madley, not the boat launch on the Norsemantown side. With all the tree cover I’m wary of having a campfire with the long drought we were having. The shore over there is also murky and the ground is hard. I don’t own an air mattress and have resisted paying for one. What I love is to sleep on the sand, and so my compromise to keep from getting ticketed, now that camping had apparently become illicit, was to camp on the large sandbar at the top of the island where silt collects on its way downstream. Sandra was dubious that this would be inconspicuous enough to avoid police attention, which was reasonable given that the beach and the island are (I think) all considered the same parcel and are fully within line of sight of each other, so we agreed that I would scout things out the day before she’d arrive and see what would happen.
When I got there on the Friday before Labor Day, I went straight to work unpacking my car making the walk back-and-forth from the lot to the dock. I chatted with a woman that rolled up on her bike, who reported someone she knew got a $300 ticket recently for camping at my usual spot. As I came back up the paved path to my car for another load of stuff I passed a Norsemantown cop, giving him my standard issue cop-greeting to indicate I had nothing to fear from his presence. I cringed when he asked if it was “bad down there,” and I acted oblivious and said truthfully that it was really nice. Surprisingly the beach was mostly empty, and stayed sparsely populated most of the weekend. I gathered that enforcement had been stiff leading up to the holiday and the riffraff had gotten tired of the petty pearlclutching-incited harassment. On my way back down to the dock the cop was walking back to his car with a woman in a bathing suit who didn’t seem too pleased, making me wonder if the prohibition on swimming was also being enforced. I warned another swimmer, but he indignantly said that there was no law against it. He started to walk off, then turned and pointedly added that people with open containers were liable to be ticketed, but not swimmers.
Once in the water my first stop was a twenty minute paddle to the island campsite, which I never ended up seeing because the high riverbank where the path usually is was overgrown with tall grass that I didn’t care to tromp through in shorts. I texted Sandra that bringing her machete might be in order. I surveyed for firewood and came up mostly emptyhanded, and so after finally taking a rest for the first time since I left work and pausing to process my frustrations, I decided at 6:30 to unload at a discreet location on the edge of the sandbar where it meets the grassy woods, and then paddle back to the dock so I could go buy some firewood and some dinner. I timed it just right so I could get back just before dark, when the staties were enforcing one motorized boating regulation or another as I paddled by them idling in the water; if I was noticed at all they didn’t seem to take note.
While I still had some daylight I gathered up kindling in one of my empty grocery bags. The receding water had left piles of small twigs to bake for weeks in the dry August sun, so I scooped big handfuls of them up while trying to weed out the stray muscle shells that could be found absolutely everywhere around there. Dusk on the river is magnificent and I took my time starting the fire, waiting for the sun to set before pitching the tent as a precaution against unwanted official attention, just in case the staties returned. I piled the kindling and branches and logs on top of each other, obscured out of sight from the shore from behind a big flowering bush. The water had been so low for so long that green plants were sprouting everywhere among the pebbles and sand, reassuring me that the tidal river wouldn’t advance on my tent as I slept.
Besides the distant sounds of I-91, the droan of crickets and the occasional splash of creatures hunting in the river, night was silent on the sandbar. Oftentimes on the beach on the opposite side of the water from where I slept that night, nocturnal activity is more pronounced. Once as I laid awake a quick scamper darted past my tent, punctuated by a splash. Another time as I sat by the water in a stoned trance, I may or may not have seen a coyote jump between me and the fire. I prefer not to camp alone, but it’s a hobby not many of my friends share. When I remember to bring a strong flashlight and my bear mace I feel better about it, and less likely to listen intently at every noise in the dark.
After an hour or two of eating and smoking by the fire, I caught a glimpse of a bright light on the beach across the river. I smirked imagining the police who must have been scouring the shore vainly on foot looking for trespassers. I stood up from my folding chair to have a better look, and saw the light was shining at the shore, from the middle of the river. A boat was puttering upstream from the direction of my site with a spotlight shining along the beach’s tree line. My eyes widened realizing from the boat’s trajectory that my fire had probably already been spotted by the cops on their way upstream, although I hadn’t noticed the same kind of attention directed at me that the beach was receiving at that moment. Having not spotted any beachgoers, the boat turned around and headed back downstream in my direction. I started pawing big handfuls of sand onto the fire in the futile hope that I had somehow not yet been noticed.
I went around to the other side of the bush and watched the boat putter uneventfully away. With the fire out I retired to my sleeping bag, packed another bowl and stared out the window at the dark treeline on the Madley side of the river framing the wide open sky above the water, alone with my thoughts. I started to drift off a few times and then woke myself up mistaking my own snoring for some kind of animal. I imagined being woken up by a disapproving statie at the break of dawn and decided to make a mad dash for the shore first thing rather than rely on my charms to talk my way out of anything. Maybe I would take a more discreet, roundabout route to my car, coming up the dirt path, through the woods to behind the apartment complex where they dump their yard waste, and then walk back down the road to the rowing team’s parking lot, approaching from a direction where I could plausibly feign ignorance about any afterhours interloping.
More often than not, daylight is a welcome sight when waking up in a tent. Even on softer ground I’m happy to get up and stretch. Dawn on the river makes dusk pale in comparison. Today a bald eagle was diving from a high altitude and plucking its breakfast from below the surface. The water had a soft layer of mist covering broad swaths of its glass surface. Across the river I could see a doe with her fawns drinking water, and the rowers were out on their boats heading upstream around the bend. I collapsed my tent and left it where it was, bringing only a few of the more valuable items back to shore.
The air was brisk and I wished I had brought a hoodie, but not so cold that I felt uncomfortable. As I was paddling I decided that the absense of any cops on the scene meant I was probably okay to risk taking a direct route to my car rather than go on a long trek before my first cup of coffee. I parked Sadie the Goat, the Boat on the beach by the dock, hiding the paddles underneath her, and took my backpack farther down the beach away from prying eyes. I walked alongside the large footprints in the sand of one of the blue herons I usually see stalking the beach at night, then took some soap out and sat down to give myself a bath in the cool water. After lathering up I took a dive forward into the water, swam back in a few strokes and climbed onto the beach’s steep slope. I managed to change out of my wet clothes, towel dry and climb into some fresh underwear with the quickness I’ve learned in those situations.
After dressing and gathering myself up I drove down the street to Dunkin where I tried to wake up for the next couple hours and do a little reading. Later in the morning I went on a moderate hike, believing there was a path better suited for my bicycle and finding instead that I had to carry it most of the way. Before heading back to be a beach bum for the rest of the day I made a stop at the burrito shop to fill my jug with water at their soda fountain. Nobody ever bothers me about it, they’re either very trusting or badly underpaid. I spent most of the afternoon on the beach, smoking and napping in between exchanging pleasantries with randos. I gave Sandra a report and she was less than impressed. I tried to be reassuring but she said she’d probably just come up for the demolition derby and not for camping. For the first time I might cross the river at night alone. I considered going back to Hartford, but decided that the long weekend and good weather was too much to pass up. I figured that if I hadn’t been ticketed yet up to that point, I was probably okay.
Sandra never made it up and by the time Siedah arrived the demolition derby was soldout, so we stood outside the arena and watched the destruction unfold, standing against the fence with the crowds of other late arrivals. Beaters and school buses smashed each other to smoking heaps and the shortbus came out after they had already taken a beating and completely stole the show, building up greater momentum than its larger competitors in the limited space. The people’s champion however did not survive the first round, and we soon left to go find dinner. I mused to Siedah about how to turn the gearheads who populated this subculture to anarchism. She suggested the school bus with the transgender flag might offer a clue.
When we parted ways I got on my bike and pedaled back to the dock in the dark. I forgot my flashlight and had to use my phone’s light once I approached the row team parking lot, pitch black and deserted besides the spooky flickering construction floodlight. At that point I became consumed by the feeling that had, up til that moment, only been nagging at me: that this was a Bad Idea. A couple people knew where I was, but it seemed not another soul was within earshot. If I got jumped by a stranger or attacked by an animal, I’d be on my own. I pedaled up to my car and rushed to gather what I needed to bring back to the campsite with me. I immediately found the flashlight I had left behind and scanned the parking lot for any danger. The paddles, firewood, backpack, food… my hands and shoulders were completely full by the time I set out for the dock. I rearranged the things I was holding along the way, until I landed on a configuration where I held the paddles with both hands in front of me and hung the firewood from them by the harsh cloth handle that the grocery store attaches to the plastic shrinkwrap. It basically worked.
I walked all the way down the beach to the very end where it becomes untraversible tall grass and mud, by where I stashed Sadie the Goat, the Boat earlier and dragged it across the sand ten or twenty feet down to the water. At 5’4” the narrow channel between the shore and the island comes as high as between my knees and my waist, for about half of the hundred feet or so. The other half on either side is ankle deep, and the current is almost undetectable. Years ago when Sandra and I forded the river in the dark, she sat on the front of the boat’s rim with a flashlight checking for obstacles, the light attracting bugs, and the bugs attracting bats that flew around her head. I was terrified, and she inexplicably kind of dug it. This time I noticed no bats but the last couple months I have noticed a major absense of mosquitos most places I go. As nice as that might sound I doubt that bodes well for our ecosystem.
Without a shipmate this time to hold it I fiddled with the flashlight, designed to be fixed to a bike, and attached it to a rubber loop on Sadie the Goat, the Boat while I paddled. As much as anything I was worried about crossing paths with any number of creatures that might feel the need to physically put my presence there in check. I’ve never seen or heard any signs of them there, but I assume bears and bobcats are around because they’re anywhere there’s fresh water and woods. I’ve seen critters there that could have been weasels, fishercats, raccoons, beavers and of course maybe a coyote. But I reminded myself that most of them understand that human beings are the apex predator and their survival instincts know to steer clear. I decided that my track record with mother nature was pretty solid and got over it. The biggest thing I caught a glimpse of was a pollywog.
A section on each side of the sandbar where the water curves around it before meeting the woods, shapes the riverbank into a tiny bay. Once I got out of the shallows I paddled toward it so that I could land Sadie somewhere she wouldn’t be easily noticed from the beach on the opposite side. As I paddled I heard a cough come from the sandbar. A woman’s cough. I sighed, realizing I was probably going to startle someone who had decided to be my neighbor for the night. Hopefully they expected company from the stuff I left behind. While I was gone a big group had arrived on jet skis and the kinds of motorboats middle class families use for day trips. Truthfully I was happy to have people around who might hear me if I needed help, though their site was far less discreet than mine. Farther downstream, two or three boats were anchored offshore by the Madley side bumping raeggeton softly in the distance. If the staties or Coast Guard were out tonight, they didn’t seem to be bothering anybody. I repeated the ritual from the night before of setting up camp and settling in, with the added luxury of the hoodie Siedah brought me. I intended vaguely to get stupid high but truthfully I started falling asleep in my chair and could only muster the energy to crawl into my bag.
I slept til around 9:00 after reaching camp at 11:00 the night before. One of my new neighbor’s boats had a Trump flag on it and I suddenly shed all remorse for whatever apprehension I caused them the night prior. The river was a little busier at this later hour, so I decided to bathe first then change behind the bushes at my campsite. In the process I think I briefly mooned some kayakers before switching strategies and changing under my towel instead. Having got up a little later I went downtown to the cafe I like that wasn’t open yet when I was ready for coffee the morning before. It’s in a beautiful old diner building. The sign on the door says masks are still required. The sitting area is roped-off and customers are only allowed past to use the restroom. I texted Siedah that I was shocked to find a coffeeshop with such a nice interior was still doing outdoor seating only, with orders brought outside to a pick-up zone. I had to restrain myself from telling the workers through my morning bleariness how good it was to find a rare business that put public health and the health of its workers ahead of perpetuating a false sense of normality.
I went for a walk to see if anything else was open on a Sunday morning but found little. By the time I needed to use the restroom I came to another coffeeshop. No covid precautions, and when I went to the men’s room, I found a sign on the door that said the code to the lock could be found on a sales receipt. At that moment I went into panic mode and waddled back down the hall out to the cafe to find one. I looked around uncomfortably and saw a receptacle with a freshly replaced can liner in it, and a slip of paper sitting on top. I took another scan of the room and grabbed it, finding a four digit code that could have been anything, went back to give it a desperate try and with great relief the door unlocked.
With enough adventure for one day I returned to the island to pack up camp. Rain was in the evening forecast and I dislike schlepping heavy items in wet weather. I loaded the boat and paddled past a group of young friends with their motorboat pulled up on the beach. A woman and I greeted each other and I challenged them to a race. “Yeah let’s go!” she replied. Once I got Sadie on the beach and out of the way I walked over to see the rope they had attached to another rope hanging from a high sturdy branch. “That looks like fun,” I said as one of them swung into the water. Another guy in his 20s told me to give it a try. I took turns with them a few times making a feeble effort to get enough momentum running along the beach before jumping into the water, jamming sand underneath my toenails in the prcess, and finally when I thought I had gotten the rhythm down, the rope came loose from where it was knotted to the other rope and I made a very impressive backflop. “Guess it’s time to lose some weight!”
Next I decided to float for awhile in my inflatable tube but realized I forgot my makeshift anchor fashioned from a soda bottle. Instead I tied it to Sadie still laying on the sand like a beached whale. Sadly it was no substitute for the soda bottle and I quickly drifted back to shore a couple times before I gave up. A woman in her thirties was scouring the beach with a metal detector and told me it seemed like a fantastic idea. “Well, it was an idea anyway. Next time I’ll remember the anchor.” She laughed. I wanted to chat her up but couldn’t come up with anything to say besides something dumb about whether or not she was finding anything good, so I said nothing else and she left. A guy in his forties in a shirt that said “proud infidel” was with his small child. I assumed it was some anti-Muslim sentiment from my reading on far-right groups, and thought about something snarky I could say to him.
At one point the police pulled up in their boat to the rope swing to cut it down after the culprits had already left, saying someone had been injured swinging there recently. They were nonetheless “pulled over” on the river for one offense or another shortly after, along with a number of other boats and jet skis. The dock is a no-wake zone and the articles I read included complaints about violations thereof. Otherwise it was another quiet day. I kept an eye on the forecast and decided to pack it in and go home when I saw the rain was due earlier than previously expected. As I schlepped all my stuff back to the car, families were still arriving. One big group were bringing boxes of booze with them, and after I greeted them I told them to keep an eye out for cops.