The recent environmental cleanup and restoration of a major section of the Connecticut River in Massachusetts is nothing short of astounding. Now when in a pontoon boat, fishing, swimming or simply floating silently over this stretch of river in a hot air balloon, it is possible to see clean sand and gravel bottom, rather than the occluded dingy gray muck as before. There are a myriad of activities available to the pontoon boater. There are islands and sandy beaches for picnics and cookouts. Only very limited overnight camping on land is available, but overnight stay aboard on individual boats or while rafted up is permitted.
The comparatively short twisting stretch of the river between the Holyoke Dam and the Turners Falls Dam has a quatrain of marinas, all of which have dockage for privately owned pontoon boats.
Each of the four marinas is slightly different from the other. Two of the four cater primarily to the pontoon and deck boat crowd. The other two are large enough to accommodate houseboats.
The aforementioned reference to a hot air balloon was not by accident. Early this past spring, when the early morning air was cooler and therefore a bit denser and requiring more fuel to stay aloft, a slight miscalculation sent a manned (or "womaned") balloon down into the river. Pontoon boaters at Mitch's Marina observed the plight of the balloon and its basket of passengers.
Thinking at first that the balloon pilot was simply practicing a not uncommon "touch and go" maneuver, those on their pontoon boat quickly realized the seriousness of the situation. The basket was sinking ever deeper as the still partially inflated balloon was dragging them along.
A pontoon boat from Mitch's Marina quickly gave chase, caught up with the troubled aircraft and took it in tow. From there it was simply a matter of skilled boating practice to return to the marina docks with their prize safely in tow. With the two college-age female passengers suffering nothing more than a case of airborne fright and water up to their knees, the traditional safe flight ending bottle of cold Champaign was broken out and drinks passed all around, including to the pontoon boat rescuers.
Of the four marinas, only Sportsman's rents pontoon boats. It is now owned by Gary Pelissier and is a family operation. His father, William, originally founded the marina in 1957. After time out to earn a four-year engineering degree and a few years gathering job experience, the son took over. It is now operated by Gary, his wife, Brenda, daughter Gabrielle and son, Gary, Jr. The marina, with dock space for up to 75 boats and a fuel dock, is physically located on 11 acres of land bordering the Connecticut River in Hadley, Mass., directly in the shadow of the U.S. Rte. 9, Russell Street Bridge. The road's traffic count is approximately 45,000 cars a day, which is ideal for attracting new boaters. The local boating season normally runs from Memorial Day to Columbus Day. Rental boats are normally restricted to stay within about a 15-mile distance of the marina for safety reasons, although there is about another 15 miles of safe river operation for experienced boaters to use depending upon frequently fluctuating water levels.
The Sweetwater rental pontoon boats are of two sizes and horsepower: 19-foot with a 40 hp four-stroke Mercury outboard that is rated to carry up to seven people and the 22-footer with a 60 hp Mercury motor that is rated to carry up to nine people. Full day rentals only on weekends and during the week, half-day rentals are available depending upon availability. Rentals also include a full safe operation and navigation orientation, usually given by Gary himself.
Mitch's Marina, also situated on the riverfront, was started in 1962 by Mitch Drozdal. It is located in the historic, ancient Hockanum Village in the town of Hadley. Mitch's is the only one to offer an onsite riverside campground. It is located on a narrow six and a half-acre site situated between SR 47 and the Connecticut River. It is only a short few feet from the camper sites to the marina's floating docks. Resident campers often refer to Mitch's Campground location as their "million dollar summer waterfront vacation home." In addition to a floating fuel dock, there is an uncrowned multi-lane, paved, transient boat-launching ramp and a total of about 80 boat slips available for seasonal rent. There is a snack bar, limited mechanical services and spacious vehicle and boat trailer parking space.
Breakfast is the specialty of its small restaurant/snack bar. One of the reasons for this is that the resident camper families often share recipes and a communal evening meal. A nearby farm supplies much of the ultra-fresh organic produce.
Owner Melba Broussard, who is 81 years old, manages and operates Mitch's with her sons, Merv, Michael and Melvin. Phil Brocklesby is the dock master and resident teller of tall tales.
The 19-site campground is the cultural center of summertime evening social activities. Meals are prepared on outside grills, smokers (some large and sophisticated enough to accommodate roasting a full-sized pig) and, occasionally, over open campfires.
The campfires are more properly the province of the warm summer evening campfire tales. The especially interesting part of this is that there is often enough excitement to dispense with the fiction and to stay with "just the facts."
A case in point was the experience encountered by the dock master and marina manager during a short pontoon boat cruise. When Brocklesby and Merv encountered what appeared at first to be some discarded floating debris, they stopped to pick it up in the interest of maintaining an environmentally clean river. As it turned out, the "trash" was a floating, all-but-empty bottle of Jose Cuervo Tequila. In the bottom two inches of the liquid remaining were two wedding bands, a man and a woman's. No note, no message and no explanation!
The campfire "suppositions" have abounded from then on to this day, without any verification whatsoever. Some of these assumptions have ranged from the floating bottle possibly being a memorial to honor a much-loved husband and wife who had passed on, to a wife's celebration of the divorced ending of a bitter marriage gone wrong. As is said, "The river goes on forever and the assumptions never end!"
The Ox-Bow and Brunelle's Marina's both accommodate houseboats, pontoon and deck boats and runabouts, with the Ox-Bow leading the houseboat headcount. Mitch's Marina and the Sportsman's limit themselves to dockage and winter storage of pontoons, deck boats runabouts, PWC's, canoes and kayaks. It's an accommodation that works well for such a diverse conglomeration of boating enthusiasts.