Contest aims to draw people closer to a river

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(Host) At 400 miles long, the Connecticut River is one of the biggest water bodies in our region, stretching from Canada to Long Island Sound.

It starts out narrow enough to leap across and widens into a broad estuary.  People today water ski and kayak on the Connecticut, but raw sewage is still dumped in places.  And in many communities people are cut off from the river by Interstate 91 or railroad tracks. 

A group of river enthusiasts is trying to draw people closer to the river in an unusual way. As part of a collaboration with Northeast public radio stations, WFCR’s Jill Kaufman reports on a Connecticut River song-writing contest.

(Kaufman) It’s several hours into a long night of music at The Rapids, a restaurant in Huntington, Massachusetts.  A contestant takes the stage in the Connecticut River Watershed Council’s songwriting contest.

(Singer: "New England‘s longest waterway…" fade banjo under)

(Kaufman) While there’s not a single Grammy winner in the group, a couple of the  judges have connections to Hollywood, and one is the grandson of the great 20th century radio star — Eddie Cantor. 

Three singers will be selected tonight to compete in the finals later this month.  But why are council staff doing the work of American Idol talent scouts?   The council’s Pat Lamountain  says she’s trying to get a  message out, without causing people’s eyes to glaze over.

(Lamountain) "We do all the things about dams, all  the permits, or just testing the water for bacteria. I mean I mean they don’t necessarily not want to know they don‘t want to hear it  — in the way we usually present it."

(Kaufman) So tonight they’re hearing it in a different way. The theme for the contest is "living along the river." And one writer started at the river’s headwaters  in  New Hampshire where the Connecticut starts as a series of lakes.

(John Michael Field) "We was dragging on the stream at Connecticut lakes with a Belgian team…." 

(Kaufman) Fourth-grade teacher John Michael Field from Wilbraham, Massachusetts wrote about logging along the river  in the late 1800s…

(Field) "Tom would sluice the frozen slopes, snubbing the horses with an icy rope. He moved more spruce than a man could dream. He never lost a sled he was the best I’d seen…"

(Kaufman) Vermont did once have a massive red spruce forest. UMass biologist  Ed Klekowski says when it was chopped down, the  Connecticut turned into a river of wood.

(Klekowski) That cutting began in about 1870. And they would drive these logs all the way down to sawmills in Northampton and in, uh, Holyoke. It’s about a 300 mile drive."

(Kaufman) Using the Connecticut to send logs down stream didn’t last long. But there’s always been farming. And yet Klekowski say back then the farmers didn’t always treated the river well.

(Klekowski) "The farmers along the river Connecticut River used the Connecticut as a garbage dump. They would bring their horses filled with whatever refuse they had and then dump it off the banks.  In addition, to farmers dumping garbage, every industry along the Connecticut River was venting its spores, so to speak, into the waters. And so before the Clean Water Act, the river was really pretty foul."

(Kaufman) Federal clean water legislation in the 1960s and 70s gave the Connecticut– a chance to renew.

(Elizabeth Farnsworth) "What I find so wonderful about this river is that you can be within a quarter mile of some of the dense, most densely populated areas, and when you’re out in the middle of this river, you hardly know it."

(Kaufman) Ecologist Elizabeth Farnsworth of the New England Wildflower Society is standing on the banks of the Connecticut in Northfield, Massachusetts. She’s kayaked the entire length of the river and has seen bald eagles soar over Hartford. But she says the river offers something more than access to nature.

(Farnsworth) "Look at it now. It’s clear, it’s clean. You wouldn’t drink out of it necessarily. But it has really recovered in a remarkable way. So when I get on this river and think about how resilient the system is, it really gives me hope."

(Kaufman) Hope, but not illusion. She and other river stewards know it will take more than a song to protect the Connecticut.

For VPR News, I’m Jill Kaufman

(Host) Northeast environmental coverage is part of NPR’s Local News Initiative. The reporting is funded, in part, by a grant from United Technologies.

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