For the third consecutive year, Orvis has teamed up with Trout Unlimited (TU) on their Embrace A Stream Challenge, an online competition encouraging anglers and conservationists to “Give Where You Fish.” So far, 98 miles of stream have been restored, and in 2019, Orvis donated $25,000 to help fund local TU chapters’ efforts to improve rivers across the country by protecting and preserving their local coldwater fisheries. Here is one man’s story about how the river he grew up on was brought back to life, providing his family a wonderful place to explore the natural world.
Embrace A Stream Impact
teamed up with Trout Unlimited
of stream restored
donated in 2019
There’s something about a local river, a home water where you can return year after year and find that escape we all seek from fishing, even when it’s only minutes from your back door. For my family, the Norwalk River in Connecticut has always been that stream. The river fishes as comfortably as a pair of well-worn hiking boots, and every bend in the stream brings with it memories from decades of trips with family, friends and fellow Trout Unlimited volunteers.
It is the river where my father and grandfather learned to fish as children and where my parents taught my sister and me when we were young. The day I returned from college, the Norwalk River behind my grandmother’s house was the first place I headed to feel like I had truly returned home. It’s also the place where my daughters, Katie and Katherine, caught some of their first trout on flies—from some of the same pools I had fished at their age.
It may not be the Battenkill or the Yellowstone, but it’s our community’s river and it’s always there for us when we need it most. Whether that’s heading to the stretch in the local park, where access is an easy few steps from the parking lot, or on one of the more remote stretches, where a 15-minute hike in offers an unexpected escape into a quieter place where solitude can be found, the river offers as big or as small a local adventure as we need from it on any given day.
But the Norwalk River has another story to tell, one that also ties my family to it in a way that is as complex and fraught as the story of America’s relationship to water.
In just one generation, we have seen a river reborn, something I would have never imagined possible and something that continually fills me with hope…
When my great-grandfather moved his family to Wilton in 1902, the Norwalk River was being used as a waste-disposal system for the communities along its banks. Everything—from household garbage to old pails of chemicals and even raw sewage—was piped, dumped, and deposited in this small stream with the expectation that the running waters would simply carry all that pollution “away” and take it “somewhere else.”
When my grandfather started his family farm along the banks of Barrett’s Brook, a tributary to the Norwalk River, like all other farmers of the time he clear-cut the land close to the water's edge to create as much space as possible for his crops, and spread fertilizer and pesticide to maximize his yield. The soil from his farm washed into the stream with each rain—the sediment covering over once-fertile spawning gravel and the excess chemicals adding to those of all the other farms in the watershed—turning the small brooks and the main river into a veritable soup of pollution making its way to Long Island Sound.
When my father built his excavating business after returning home from the Vietnam War, one of the best ways to make a living in this burgeoning bedroom community to New York City was to buy and subdivide large lots for two-acre residential subdivisions. The driveways he built often bisected brooks and wetlands, cutting off migrating trout and other aquatic creatures from headwaters they had previously accessed for spawning or survival. The lots he helped develop stopped serving as sponges for the watershed, reducing its ability to trap, store and filter rainfall and snowmelt to feed the springs and aquifers that keep the Norwalk River cold and flowing all summer long.
Then, in 1995, when I was a knobby-kneed 14-year-old who lived to fish, something remarkable happened. Working with volunteers from my local Mianus Chapter of Trout Unlimited, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection identified spawning brown trout in the Norwalk River. Despite all we had done to the river, despite the generations of abuse, neglect, and damage, somehow wild trout had managed to survive.
Our local conservation community responded with action. Fueled by an early grant from Trout Unlimited’s Embrace A Stream program, the Mianus Chapter was able to conduct its first habitat restoration project on the Norwalk River: a bank stabilization effort to reduce erosion and improve spawning riffles in the stream. My father’s excavators, the same machines that years before had caused damage to the watershed, found new work moving boulders, root wads, and cobble to shore up streambanks; dig deep pools filled with structure that trout love; and ready soils for new trees and shrubs to be planted. Our family’s story with the Norwalk River entered a new chapter. As a result of that single $20,000 restoration effort, the number of juvenile wild trout jumped more than 300% the following year.
In the 25 years since, more than 2.5 miles of stream have been restored, over 10,000 trees have been planted along the river, and two dams have been removed. A third dam is close to being torn down as well, which will reconnect more than seven miles of river to the salt water of Long Island Sound for the first time since 1930. Awareness of the river’s health also reaches far beyond the angling crowd and into the broader community. A walking trail has been built along the stream, and the town invests in removing invasive plants and planting native trees and shrubs. We are working with the local schools to reduce stormwater runoff and with the local land trust to protect more open space land around the river. The river has built a community of conservation that continues to grow.
The wild brown trout have thrived in the stream, as well, and I can now take my two daughters fishing to a far healthier and better stream than the one my parents took me to fish. In just one generation, we have seen a river reborn, something I would have never imagined possible and something that continually fills me with hope when I think of the work we have ahead to protect and restore so many other “home waters” across the country.
The Norwalk River tells me that if it’s possible here, it’s possible anywhere.