Fiddlehead ferns. We talk about harvesting them every year. Dave works with a guy, Claude, who every spring makes a trip to what we call Fiddlehead Island. He is a legend in our house. “Claude says there are so many fiddleheads he can fill a grocery bag in 20 minutes,” or, “Claude’s going to get fiddleheads on Saturday. This is the weekend.”
As spring approaches each year, the Connecticut River floods, the weather warms, and Dave and I start talking about Fiddlehead Island, gathering fiddleheads, boat launch sites, and trips up the river. It is our personal rite of spring.
“Claude says you have to approach the island from the river side, the other side has a snag.”
“I think we will have to launch from Abe’s marina, Yankee Boatyard.”
“As soon as the river isn’t under water, it’s time to gather the fiddleheads.”
Usually, the time to make the trip to Fiddlehead Island is Easter, but everything was late this year. On Easter Sunday, as we drove through Middletown on the way to my parents house, we went by the island. It was under water, deep under water.
As May arrived, we were still hopeful about a trip to the island that sits in the middle of the Connecticut River. We decided to make a trip on Mother’s Day morning. Dave spent the previous week getting our boat, Creek Seeker, ready. He washed and buffed the hull, looked over the engine, bought gas, secured the dock lines to the proper cleats, and put the life jackets in the boat.
On Mother’s Day, Aurora and Stephen made me an early-morning Mother’s Day breakfast—avocado omelet with peach-mango salsa and green tea. Delicious. After breakfast, we all climbed into the car and drove to Yankee Boatyard to launch the boat for our trip up the river—destination Fiddlehead Island.
It was a beautiful morning, warm and sunny with a slight breeze blowing down the river. While we launched the boat, I started to think about landing on the island. Prepared, we were not. Only Stephen remembered to wear boots and I forgot to bring a grocery bag to put all the fiddleheads in. “Oh well, we are so close let’s just make do,” I said. At the very least, this trip would be a fun quest and the “shakedown” trip for future visits to Fiddlehead Island.
We got into the boat, cast off from the dock, and pointed the bow up the Connecticut River toward our destination.
Wesleyan University has a boat house on the river in Middletown. As we approached it we noticed activity—motor boats and eight men sculls in the water, tents, more sculls, and lots of people, spectators and rowers, lined the shore. When we got closer we heard an announcer call two schools to the starting line and watched two sculls move up river and separate from the other boats.
For a minute I wondered if they would let us pass. They did and we were able to watch the rowers line up on the starting line and compete in their heat. As we continued up the river, the sound of the Wesleyan regatta faded and a railroad bridge came into view. Just beyond the railroad bridge we could see the south-most-point of Fiddlehead island. Our destination was in sight.
We came up along side the island and began to look for a good place to land. Not too far up the coast of the island we found a wide muddy beach like area, and decided to land there. The island was overgrown with bittersweet, wild roses, and “oh no”, poison ivy. I could see tiny red leaves on gray vines that ran on top of the muddy ground, everywhere. In bare feet we were reluctant to explore too far. Boot-wearing Stephen forged ahead and found a patch of ferns, not fiddleheads. Fiddleheads are the furled fronds of young ferns. Their beautiful tight dark green spirals are a clear sign of spring. Three main species of ferns are edible in North America: ostrich fern Matteucia struthiopteris, lady fern Athyrium filix-femina, and bracken fern Pteridium aquiline. Stephen was able to find a few fiddleheads, but most of the fern were too mature. It became clear, we were too late.
As we climbed back into the boat for our trip home I had two thoughts: “We’ll get them next year” and “This was a fun way to spend Mother’s Day.” True we missed the fiddlehead harvest but we had a wonderful adventure. There is nothing like a quest—a mutually determined destination, plan, and goal. Stephen, Aurora, Dave, and I all set out with the same end point in mind, but isn’t it always, the getting there that’s the true adventure? Sharing the journey is so much fun.
This summer, set a quest for your family—a new place to explore, a new activity to share, set your sights and go!