The Quinnipiac River was, historically, one of Connecticut’s most polluted. For decades, nineteenth-century factories and densely populated towns poured sewage and industrial waste into the river.
But recent history has been kinder to the Quinnipiac – thanks to a combination of conservation and environmental laws, which helped to boost its water quality and pave the way for the return of fish and wildlife.
The Quinnipiac River flows for around 40 miles through central Connecticut and into Long Island Sound.
And nobody knows it better than Peter Picone, a wildlife biologist and volunteer with the Quinnipiac River Watershed Association.
He’s my guide for a journey that started on the Cheshire-Southington town line, right at the head of the Quinnipiac River Trail, a fourteen stop tour of the river’s wildlife and history.
Picone did most of the paddling, moving our boat down a canyon of trees and through the columns of dappled light.
He was on the lookout for wildlife, like the Great Crested Flycatcher.
“That one is a cavity nester,” Picone said. “They love cavities in trees – dead or dying trees. So there is value to dead or dying trees, those types of birds thrive on that.”
Above us flew Baltimore Orioles. We saw the wings of a Great Blue Heron fan out before us as it shot skyward. And all along the riverbank was another bird – the spotted sandpiper.
“They’re a very identifiable bird,” Picone said, pointing to one as it flew by. “That was its call, did you hear it?
For a long time, wildlife on the Quinnipiac was virtually non-existent. Pollution from industry in the 19th-and-20th centuries killed off fish and chased away birds.
“If there’s a river that needs help and attention it’s this river,” Picone said.
Hydro-powered manufacturing in the 1800s brought industry to the river’s shore and pollution from metal factories and other industries ran into the river for decades.
But there was an upside. In the 1800s, that pollution inspired some of Connecticut’s first environmental laws. And over the next century, regulation – and litigation – helped to clean up the river.
In 1990, a settlement with a polluter on the river helped set up the Quinnipiac River Fund – a conservation group that works to keep the river clean.
Other government settlements funded restoration work, too. Including more recent work this spring by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which leveraged more than $700,000 in settlement money obtained from polluters to remove old dams and water pipes from the river.
Conservationists say those removals opened the river to migratory fish like American shad and river herring for the first time in 150 years.
“It’s had a lot of challenges and it’s on its comeback. We don’t want it to lose that comeback. We want it to get stronger and better,” Picone said.
Picone pushed our canoe through branches and navigated around woody snags.
“We have to be careful because there are some shallow logs,” he said.
In the canoe was a hacksaw, just in case we got stuck and needed to cut our way out. But we were lucky. Even though there were some downed trees – we passed right on through.
“The river’s been very friendly to us,” Picone said.
Around a bend, our canoe found itself enveloped in a field of floating white downy puff balls. For a few seconds, it felt totally alien. Countless translucent speckles – hovered and scattered light around us.
“That’s the seed of the cottonwood tree,” Picone said. “Cottonwoods are very common along floodplains.”
Silky dogwood, an overhanging shrub, clung to nearby riverbanks, providing great hiding spots for muskrats and one of this reporter’s favorite birds – the wood duck, which, unfortunately, we didn’t see that day.
But for Picone, every paddle down the Quinnipiac River is different. He grew up fishing the river, working a nearby farm as youngster.
“We had an hour off for lunch, and we used to go down to the river,” Picone said. “We got to fish and hike along the river – skip rocks. Just enjoy the river.”
And ever since he was a child, Picone said, the river’s mystery – and its wildlife variety – has been its charm.
“You’re on your own. You’re doing your own thing. You’re enjoying nature. It’s an adventure. Every bend has something different,” Picone said.
A few minutes later, our journey ended.
We carefully took out our canoe, but as we walked, the river had one more surprise for us – a bald eagle, which dove powerful and fast, disappearing behind the trees.
It was welcomed back by a river that is slowly returning to the way it was long before we got here.