BAY BRIDGE LANDING WETLAND PARK in east Brunswick. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

BAY BRIDGE LANDING WETLAND PARK in east Brunswick. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

On July 4, 1845, the now-famous but then-obscure American Henry David Thoreau left his family house in Concord, Massachusetts and moved to a 10-foot by 15-foot cabin he’d built that spring on the shore of Walden Pond. Thoreau was later quick to deny that the symbolism of the date had anything to do with his “experiment” at the pond, but … the nature of his declaration of independence, when it arrived finally as Walden on Aug. 9 in 1854, suggests otherwise.

Still, the point of this remembrance is not to argue intent, but rather to celebrate the lands and waters that we hold in common, our various Waldens. And, in doing so, to point also to our dependence on those lands and waters. It has always struck me that Americans are at our best when we parade and celebrate our attachments and at our worst when we tend toward the singular, the exception of “I.”

On this year’s Fourth, the heat has been up for a few days, and its promise is heavy again in the morning air and sun. So a journey to a wetland park seems a perfect match for the day; some water-time may buoy me. It takes mere minutes to sling the boat up onto the car, and then I set out on the short drive to Brunswick’s Bay Bridge Landing Wetland Park, where I hope both to know this little stamp of a park better and float for a time on one of our rivers-going-to-bay.

I turn left off the Old Bath Road onto Driscoll Road; at the stop sign, I turn left again and pass along the tight grid of Bay Bridge Estates and onto a tirebeaten dirt track headed for the near Androscoggin River. A weatherworn sign and parking spaces announce arrival, and I note that I am an anniversary visitor. This park was created 20 years ago as part of “a wetland mitigation area in compensation for construction of the Merrymeeting Bridge and associated wetland impacts.”

While this information points to the immediate past, the dirt track points to a more distant one; it bumps along for 100 yards to a dead end of huge hewn rocks. I am at the Brunswick end of what for 62, 19th-century years was a 2,700-foot bridge linking the far shore of Topsham with the growing city of Bath. Opened in 1835 as a toll bridge complete with high hopes and stockholders, the bridge left the Topsham shore, crossed Mustard Island and arrowed on to where I am standing.

Built at first on wooden pilings driven into the river’s sandy bottom, the bridge later featured stone piers as support for its 24- foot-wide planked sections, but even those sunk stones had trouble resisting the wild and evershifting river and its sands. Winter’s ice and Spring’s “freshets,” a mild word for the rampage of snowmelt common to the season, kept battering and washing away sections and supports until, after an estimated expenditure of $1,000,000 over the years the bridge’s final owners, Sagadahoc County, said enough in 1897.

Not that the various toll assessors and takers hadn’t tried — they’d envisioned all sorts of traffic, setting rates that included sheep and swine (3 cents/head), 4- wheeled carts (25 cents per), walkers (also 3 cents per), and elephants, circus variety, ($1 per pachyderm).

Launching a kayak in the sheltered pool just downstream from the old bridge base is easy work, as is navigating the eddy-line of the tranquil mid-summer river where the rocks end. That line reminds, however, that spring’s “freshets” and their currents might provide very different paddling water.

The day is glorious even under heat’s hand, and I set out upstream on the amber-dark water. Grasslands stretch up the riverside and the air reverberates with bird songs I can’t identify; fish, which at enough distance remain anonymous too, jump and splash down, and some have enough heft to make me wonder about one of the river’s antediluvian residents, the sturgeon. Sturgeons can grow to 6 or more feet in size and they surely look like leftovers from an ancient world, another richness to this water.

I am decidedly an ocean paddler, unused to a river’s winding and varied ways. In two strokes I leave the dark muscle of a channeled current and slide into water that is only a foot deep. There, in dune-like waves, is the fascination of the sandy bottom, a grainy, ever-shifting sculpture that suggests I drift along and watch; I do just that.

Already, I am elsewhere, off away from the day’s clustered heat and the softening asphalt, free (independent) for some time, and carried by (dependent) a river that stretches 163 miles upstream and back through time.

I float back down to where the Bay Bridge once crossed from its stone pier still on Mustard Island. There, in mid-byway, a tripartite white pine that must be at least 80 years old shows how our roads and plans revert. An immature bald eagle surprises me as I draw near, dropping from a hidden perch and lumbering upwind, toll free.

Post-paddle note: like all lands held in common, Bay Bridge Wetland Park can use a friend or two, both for the singing of its beauty and as help with our tendency to discard what we tire of. Give the park a visit, and next time I return, I’ll go with muck boots that will let me get to two trashed bicycles someone/s tossed into the wetland near the launch site.

Sandy Stott is a Brunswick resident and chair of the town’s Conservation Commission. He writes for a variety of publications. Outside Magazine named his recent book, Critical Hours — Search and Rescue in the White Mountains, published by University Press of New England in April, 2018, one of its Best Books for Spring ’18. It is available at Gulf of Maine Books, Longfellow Books and other venues. He may be reached at [email protected]

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