"The Connecticut River," Ben Bachman writes, "rises from a tiny pond a few hundred yards from the Canadian border, in the northernmost tip of New Hampshire, and flows southward for some 400 miles to empty into Long Island Sound." Though it passes right through the center of industrial New England, it "still threads a largely pastoral countryside, where frequent echoes of wilderness, if not the vanished wilderness, linger on."
Among American rivers, the Connecticut is tiny by comparison with the Mississippi and the great rivers of the West, but rather mighty in its own region. Its role in the history of the Northeast is considerable; even today, in an age of transportation by highway, rail and air, it is a significant force in the local economy and in the daily lives of those who live and/or work not far from its banks. It has also played a role in the life of Bachman, a native New Englander and free-lance journalist who has now written, in "Upstream," an intermittently interesting book about the river's past and present.
His method is to travel the length of the river, against the current, beginning at Old Saybrook, in Connecticut, and ending at the headwaters, in New Hampshire. The trip takes him through those two states as well as Massachusetts and Vermont; it entails a number of forms of transportation, including tugboat, canoe, train and foot -- but chiefly canoe, which permits an intimacy with the river that the others cannot.
As he paddles along, Bachman provides a useful if formless account of the river's origins and history. He has done his homework in the science of hydrology, so there is much here about river formation and re-formation, the river's "unforgiving, pitiless and indefatigable" current, and water's unending cycle from river to ocean to air and back again to river. "Water is neither created nor destroyed," he writes; "it simply moves from one place to another in continual circulation, so, in a sense, every stream is ageless, at once both old and young."
These passages are useful and, to the lay reader, informative, but those in which Bachman describes the human life of the river are considerably more interesting. He has much to say about the river's history: the flatboats that were the first craft to ply it in numbers, and the steamboats that succeeded them; the fur trade that briefly flourished around it, and the more durable logging business; the paper and textile mills that used it for power and shipping, though most of the latter have long since gone south; the bridges built across it (79, by Bachman's count) and the dams constructed to control or alter its course.
As for the river of today, Bachman writes with feeling about the small cities that line its banks. For example: "Springfield, Chicopee and Holyoke long ago merged into an unbroken industrial-residential corridor, a continuous belt of two-family houses, apartment buildings, abbreviated front yards, madonnas in bathtubs, three-story brick high schools, liquor stores with grilles over the windows; a sprawl of neighborhoods, not downtown and not quite suburb either, the universal zone common to every city in the Northeast since shortly after the Industrial Revolution . . . For the last hundred and twenty-five years, neighborhoods like these have been the vital, pumping heart of industrial New England; they still are."
So long as he keeps his feet on the ground Bachman writes interestingly and well; but when he puts them into the water he tends to get all wet. Thus in the paragraph immediately following the one quoted above, he produces this: ". . . in truth the river does not belong to any one time any more than it belongs to one place. Its essence, the majestic purposefulness of the flow, its honesty and awesome power, is incorruptible. It can be polluted or dammed, but it cannot be stopped. The river's will cannot be denied. It touches the human soul, and the heart, too, which is good reason to be suspicious of your feelings while out on the water, but I do know this: the reality of the river always surpasses the expectation."
People who like that sort of gush will like "Upstream," which is amply supplied with it. But there's far too much of it for my taste, and for me the book too quickly became merely boring. Writing about travel -- and this, really, is what Bachman is up to -- is difficult, because the writer must make the reader believe that they are on a journey together. This Bachman fails to do; there's no shape to his journey, no anticipation of surprise or revelation at its end. The result is a book that, though rich in amiability and good intentions, never manages to be as interesting as its subject.