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River pilgrimage takes paddlers on 400-mile spiritual quest

Posted June 11

Charles Montgomery welcomed the challenge of hiking the steep terrain of the Connecticut River headwaters in remote northern New Hampshire, admiring the birds, the plants, the woods. He also loved the opportunity to pray.

For four days, the 82-year-old retired doctor was part of the first leg of a 40-day pilgrimage of canoeists and kayakers of all faiths along the 400-mile river, New England's longest. The group traded cellphones for paddles to partake in a spiritual journey, the first event of its size on the river, which flows from the Canadian border to Long Island Sound.

"You begin to let go of stuff," said Montgomery, of Walpole, New Hampshire.

The Episcopal dioceses of New England and a group called Kairos Earth organized the "River of Life" pilgrimage. The idea came from Robert Hirschfeld, New Hampshire's bishop. Hirschfeld, 56, an avid rower, sees the journey as a way for people to renew their relationship with God, connect with one another and with nature, and have fun.

"It's become something far greater than I had imagined," said Hirschfeld, who traveled the first leg and plans to get back on the river with his daughter next week in Hanover, New Hampshire. There are times, he said, when all you hear is the sound of loons and paddles hitting the canoes.

"It causes one to recalibrate one's soul. You don't use your cellphone; your laptops are nowhere to be seen," Hirschfeld said. "You're suddenly reconnecting on a totally different level with one's being."

Nine people started the first leg of the trip on May 31, hiking where it was too shallow to paddle at first, before venturing into bodies of water that eventually fill into the river. Participants can join in at any part of the trip, or follow a special prayer book at home with daily readings, reflections, and Scripture passages.

There also are events on land. In Vermont, some people are planning a mini-pilgrimage by car on June 17, following the Ottauquechee River from Killington to Hartford. A storyteller will share river tales, and a hydrologist will give a talk on the river's environment and its watershed that day at the Montshire Museum in Norwich, Vermont.

The trip coincides with multicultural fiesta at a church in Hartford, Connecticut; and a concluding celebration in Essex, Connecticut on July 8. The pilgrimage ends the next day at Long Island Sound.

Most paddlers are expected to join as the pilgrimage reaches Massachusetts and Connecticut, bringing the estimated participation overall to several hundred people.

It rained a lot during the first week of the trip, but Elizabeth Stevens recalled one day when the sun finally came out.

"It was such a fabulous, moving moment that I started praying out loud," she said. "I was just moved. ... That was what the pilgrimage was about, so that we could connect with nature and commit ourselves once again to doing a better job of taking care of this world that we've been given, and this river that we have been given."

Participants, led by several guides, average about 10 to 12 miles per day, rain or shine. They set up campsites and explore a different spiritual theme each week. The focus of the first part of the tour was people's connection to the wilderness and water.

For Stevens, 67, the river already is part of her everyday life in Springfield, Massachusetts. So it was special to her to participate in the first leg of the pilgrimage and see its origin. Stevens also plans to paddle again later, in Massachusetts and will be there on the last day of the journey near Long Island, where she was born.

"That has a personal meaning of going into the Long Island Sound, which has always been part of the story of my life," she said.

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