We may be a little biased to claim that the 149-mile-long river that passes Cornwall on its western edge shows its most scenic qualities right here. It’s where the ancient valley narrows, the path is dotted with sizable rocks and the water runs down faster between steep green hills. But we are not alone.
You see it, when once a year this segment of the Housatonic River offers another pretty special touch. That’s when the Covered Bridge Slalom happens on a stretch between the mouth of Mill Brook and what locally is called the Bend. It’s a tradition that goes way back, says Mark Clarke, owner of Clarke Outdoors: “I became involved with this race 45, 46 years ago. And it was already really well established at that point. I’m thinking it’s got to be like 70 years old.”
The idea had been born by members of the Salisbury Rotary Club, in particular a gentleman named Peter Wood who owned what was then known as Community Service, a lumber, hardware and building materials business in Lakeville. “Then came a local lawyer by the name of Rob Allard,” who was a really good kayaker and helped the tradition along, according to Clarke.
The Housatonic River had become a draw for watersport aficionados in the early part of the last century with “the invention of this German boat called the ‘Klepper,’ a wooden-frame folding kayak with cloth,” said Clarke. He continued, “affluent people from New York City were coming up here with their Kleppers by train and got off in Falls Village.” And West Cornwall was a stop as well.
What started as simple whitewater racing added another dimension at some point, canoe slalom. Developed in Europe, canoe slalom has paddlers maneuver their boats upstream and down, through pairs of poles suspended by wire. But one trend changed the sport, which became part of the Olympics in 1972 (where Jamie McEwan of Lakeville won a bronze medal in the men’s canoe competition). Since then elite athletes have drifted towards man-made runs, built out of concrete, where training sessions and competitions can be hosted regardless of seasonal water level issues. This innovation made it easier for spectators and any TV production needs as well.
Still. “It’s a great spot,” says Bob Connolly from Carmel, New York, who is in charge of the Covered Bridge slalom and a retired firefighter who took over the position 20 years ago. “I think it’s the best race in New England.” And, he adds, “in a beautiful town.”
Connolly and his companions have traveled all over the country to canoe races for years. But then they got a little older. “We don’t race the real hard ones anymore, but we do we still come to these easier races.”
This year’s event on Sunday, May 15 didn’t create extra trouble. The water was as low as the numbers the gushing water is measured in – cubic feet per seconds. “At these levels, this river is fairly benign,” said Connolly a few days before the event when he and his friends had started to set up those 20 gates that make up the course for all different categories of boats, age groups and genders. “But at higher levels it can get dangerous, especially if it’s cold.”
The participation rate has slowly dropped from more than a hundred boats some 20 years ago. “We’ll maybe have 50 or 60 people. Some of them race in multiple classes.” Just like him, depending on the mood of the moment. “I may race solo canoe, and I may race tandem canoe with somebody else.” Just doubling the fun.
📸: Juergen Kalwa