Fifty ways to love your river

By Monya Relles for the Gazette
June 1, 2023

Western Mass locals crossing the Connecticut River by boat and by using the Norwottuck Rail-Trail Bridge connecting Northampton and Hadley. PHOTO BY ALLIE MARTINEAU

How often do you cross the Connecticut River? Do you drive across the majestic and sometimes trafficky bridges that span its banks? Do you ever walk the Norwottuck Rail Trail in Hadley, peering over the edge toward the shocking cold of the water below? Or maybe you only cross on special occasions, to visit distant friends? Do you skate across the Oxbow in the winter time, or even brave the cold for ice fishing?

Over thousands of years, the Connecticut River has been many things to many people, and the roles the river has played in our conscious and unconscious lives reflect back elements of the cultures and peoples who interacted with it.

In order to understand a little about humans and the Connecticut River Valley, let’s start about fifteen thousand years ago when much of the Valley sat under glacial Lake Hitchcock, a lake formed by ice and snow melt of the last ice age. At the bottom of Lake Hitchcock, thousands of years of sediment piled, a sediment that provides the rich soil of our Valley today.

But long before Hadley, Amherst and Northampton became home to countless CSA programs, the Kwinitekw (Connecticut) River Valley was a place of abundance, trade and diplomacy. The Nipmuc, Pocumtuc and Wampanoag tribes all lived along the river; catching fish and growing indigenous varieties of corn and wild rice. Abenaki scholar and indigenous thinker Lisa Brooks comments that tribes as far away as the coast of Massachusetts and even Maine knew how to navigate to the headwaters of the Connecticut.

In her essay “Every Swamp is a Castle,” Brooks tracks the movement of English colonist Mary Rowlandson with Wampanoag leader and diplomat Weetamoo as a way of knowing the Kwinitekw River Valley. She writes that “(Although Mary) Rowlandson may not have perceived their motivations, describing their movements… as seemingly random, Weetamoo, her husband, the Narragansett leader Quinnapin, and other Native leaders pursued purposeful travel into this protected northern country (of the valley).” Brooks writes that Weetamoo had a deep knowledge of the food and resources available in the valley, alongside the animal and human pathways, right down to which beaver dams could function as bridges.

While the Kwinitekw River was easily navigable by Nipmuc, Pocumtuc, Nonotuc and Wampanoag tribes, it functioned as an unknowable barrier for the settlers who tried to occupy it. During King Phillip’s war in 1704, Brooks writes, many tribes found sanctuary in the northern parts of the Kwinitekw Valley, and at the headwaters in and among the Connecticut Lakes in northern New Hampshire. The European settlers were afraid of the wilderness, unable to find their bearings at the swampy and mountainous headwaters, and unable to access the indigenous knowledge of how to find food and build insulated shelter.

A view of the Connecticut River from the boat launch at The Boathouse Restaurant in South Hadley. PHOTO BY ALLIE MARTINEAU

Ironically, many of us still struggle with navigating the Connecticut River. The options for crossing the river near Amherst are limited and almost all of them bottle-neck in rush-hour traffic. Some of my friends and community won’t commute across the river for work, or they are less likely to go to social events on the other side of the river. I even had one friend tell me they wouldn’t date people who live on the other side of the river.

In this way, the river is a figure that looms large just on the edge of our consciousness. Certainly many of us know that the Connecticut River Valley is a place of rich soil and abundant farming, although I only recently learned about glacial Lake Hitchcock. If we drive, we may know to avoid the Route 9 and 116 bridges during rush hour, but we might not even know the name of the body of water we are driving across.

Names of and around the river are important. Kwinitekw (Connecticut) is an Abenaki word for long, tidal river; Chicopee is a Nipmuc word for rapids; and Manhan is a Nipmuc word referencing an island long since vanished. Indigenous names in the Connecticut River Valley still in use today reveal deep indigenous history and knowledge of land.

But post-colonization names are important knowledge too. There are two major tributaries of the Connecticut within 30 miles of Amherst called the Mill River. (Well, I believe that, technically, one of them is the Mill River and the other is Miller’s River.) The Mill River’s names remind us that they acted as major power sources and drivers of industry for many workers in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Holyoke, the “Paper City,” was known for its industry and being the largest paper manufacturer in the world. The Holyoke canals still criss-cross the city and generate electricity. When I was teaching in Holyoke about water, the canals were brought up in all of my classes. My students wanted to know if the water was dirty, where it came from, where it went, and even if there were bodies in it (yes, there have been bodies found in the canals, including the body of an alligator!).

So what is the Connecticut River today? Is it an obstacle along your morning commute? A place you go to walk, bike, fish or swim? Humans and the Connecticut River have been connected for as long as we have existed alongside it. We have formed relationships of reciprocity, agriculture, recreation and labor. Whether we notice it or not, the river still shapes how we navigate and engage with the Connecticut River Valley today.

Monya Relles (they/them) is an educator at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment with a passion for environmental justice. In their free time they can be found hiking, dancing, or playing off-key ukulele at the Connecticut River, much to the mortification of people who pass by.

Earth Matters has been a project of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment for 14 years. After more than three years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the center’s doors and trails are once again open at 845 West St. in Amherst. To learn more, visit

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