Published June 27. 2010 4:00AM Updated June 28. 2010 8:51AM
Ledyard - At Poquetanuck Cove, the working estuary known as the Thames River steps away from its industrial life of submarines, coal-fired power plants, ferry traffic and sewage plant discharges for an interlude with nature.
The 2-mile-long cove is the only freshwater tidal marsh between where the Thames begins, in Norwich harbor, and its mouth between Groton and New London, where it meets Long Island Sound.
The neighborhoods, train tracks and boxy metal warehouses of modern human civilization that line the Thames give way to bullrush, cattails and hardwood forests along the cove's shores. It is the largest natural area along the river, hosting osprey, bald eagles, wintering waterfowl, alewife, white perch, striped bass and several rare plant species, and was designated a "significant coastal habitat" by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in a 1991 report.
"We need to make sure this aquatic system stays pristine," Bob Congdon, first selectman of Preston, told a group last week before they headed to the water. The cove is divided between his town and Ledyard.
It was a sunny summerlike day when this flotilla of more than two dozen kayaks, one canoe and two larger boats came to the cove to learn about its special assets and appreciate its beauty.
"It is a very special place," Jean Pillo, coordinator of the Thames River Basin Partnership, told her fellow paddlers.
The partnership, comprised of representatives of 24 organizations and towns with an interest in the Thames, was celebrating the 10th anniversary of its annual "floating workshops" by visiting the cove. The events bring members together once each year somewhere on the Thames, some years in small boats and others in one large vessel, to highlight some facet of the estuary and its watershed that needs attention.
Cove faces challenges
This year, the partnership picked the cove to recognize one of its successes. The effort led to the state protecting a vulnerable strip of land along the cove's shore from development, putting in a small boat ramp and eradicating the invasive reed phragmites that had been supplanting native grasses in some areas. That project is ongoing.
"We're celebrating one of our best partnership initiatives," said Pillo, as she lit candles shaped like a "1" and an "0" before cutting the 10th anniversary cake during a program at a church near the cove before the afternoon paddle.
During the program, speakers also laid out a new challenge for the group: getting the waterway itself protected so it won't be compromised by future development.
"Over the long term," said Bill Haase, a Leyard resident and former town planner who now holds that position in Stonington, "there's got to be some sort of umbrella organization that's able to collaborate with the different property owners. I don't think we can wait for leadership to come from government regulatory agencies. It's going to have to come from the people in this room. The tools are there."
Much of the land along the cove is protected - a 234-acre preserve with hiking trails is owned by the Nature Conservancy and a small parcel is owned by the Avalonia Land Conservancy, as well as the strip under the state Department of Environmental Protection. But there are also subdivisions, roads, the historic Poquetanuck Village, privately held undeveloped land and farmland.
A busy Route 12 bridge carries cars and trucks over the cove, and a railroad bridge at the southern end both constricts tidal flows and prevents large boats from getting in.
Archaeological digs at the conservancy property have found evidence that American Indians gathered oysters in the cove. During a survey before the phragmites project began, a botanist found several rare plants including one previously thought to have disappeared from the state, noted Adam Whelchel, director of conservation programs for the conservancy. The cove, while pristine, is vulnerable, he said. Recent proposals to change nearby roadways, for example, would have brought in sediments that would harm the water quality in the cove and usher in more invasive species.
"It would degrade the quality of this ecological jewel," Whelchel said.
Haase suggested several possible avenues that could be pursued to secure protection of the cove under a single entity.
His talk generated an invitation.
Rick Potvin, manager of the multi-site U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service preserve headquartered in Westbrook, suggested the partnership appeal to the service to add the cove to its network of coastal holdings. His agency recently formed a partnership with Avalonia to manage another southeastern Connecticut property, Sandy Point.
"If people wanted to see Poquetanuck Cove managed by the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge," he said, "we'd have to consider it."
He told the group about a public meeting in August where they'd have an opportunity to make the request. Members seemed receptive to the idea.
'Restoring an ecosystem'
A little while later, the group was launching boats in the cove and heading across the water for a guided tour. The first stop was at the far eastern edge of the cove, where a stream flowing from Amos Lake in Preston enters.
Stephen Gephard, fisheries biologist for the DEP, told how a complete system of fish ladders will one day allow alewife, also known as river herring, to get around dams and move upstream from the Sound to the Thames to the cove and all the way to their historic spawning area at the lake.
"These fish runs are the strongest when they're the longest," he said, standing in his canoe and poling the bottom, "African Queen" style. "Even now, this is a good run, but it'll be even better" as the project progresses.
The next step, he said, will be the removal of a DEP-owned dam at Hallville Pond, between the cove and Amos Lake, sometime next year.
"What we're really doing by restoring these fish runs is restoring an ecosystem," he explained, because alewife are an important food source for many animals.
Next the group paddled to the Avalonia property to learn about the phragmites project and see the results. Once a dense thicket over 6 feet tall, the phragmites had been reduced to stubble, allowing the native grasses to return.
"What our boats are on top of was 20 feet of phragmites," Pillo said, as the paddlers bobbed in the calm waters.
Then she turned the group's attention to a baseball-capped kayaker in the back, Anne Roberts-Pierson, president of Avalonia.
"Anne has such a love for this cove that it's become her personal mission to remove every discarded tire she finds here and take it out on top of her kayak," Pillo said. "What are you up to now? 30?"
Roberts-Pierson smiled and nodded.
At the final stop, Howard "Mickey" Weiss, senior scientist and founder of Project Oceanology, reached to the bottom depths with a pair of clammers' tongs to bring up some of the cove's thick black bottom mud. Using fine screens, he and volunteers on his Project O vessel, one of only two with a motor in the flotilla, searched for the often overlooked creatures that call the mud home. Passing around the anthropods, isopods and worms in jars among the kayakers, Weiss said that these animals, while tiny, are vital to the cove because they are the main food for the fish and larger creatures that live there.
Some, he said, wrongly assume the cove, like much of the Thames, is mainly a marine ecosystem dominated by salt water. But the cove is different from the rest of the river, which is primarily salt water from the Sound all the way to Norwich harbor.
"It's important to distinguish between a salt marsh and a tidal marsh," Weiss said. In Poquetanuck Cove, "we have fresh water from the top to the bottom here."