Category Archives: YMCA

Another Dam Story

Alert “06880” reader Scott Smith is an astute observer of the many wonders of Westport. Today he writes about the dams that “block the migration of fish and otherwise stymie the natural ecology of the 57,264-acre Saugatuck River Watershed — a rich network of 242 miles of waterways that discharge into the Saugatuck River and Long Island Sound.”

The topic came to mind after reading a New York Times story, “It’s Fish vs. Dams, and the Dams Are Winning.” The article noted efforts underway in Connecticut to eliminate obsolete dams from rivers that connect with Long Island Sound,

“Connecticut has about 4,000 dams,” said Stephen Gephard, a supervising fisheries biologist for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, “and the vast majority are obsolete.” The state owns about 100 dams and is reviewing the list to determine which should be removed. Gephard’s team has also identified 20 to 30 privately owned dams it would like to remove to allow fish passage.

That made me wonder if one of those dams under consideration of removal is the one on the Saugatuck that forms Lees Pond. It’s owned by the Westport Weston Family YMCA.

Enjoying the Saugatuck River, at Camp Mahackeno back in the day.

Lees Pond was long an integral part of Camp Mahackeno’s summer activities: swimming, rope swings, canoeing, even a floating pontoon.

In recent years, due to a confluence of factors – insurance, safety, the mythical fear of campers coming home covered by leeches – activities on the pond have greatly diminished.

Judging from the map of current renovations to the property, it doesn’t appear that Lees Pond factors much in that plan.

I wonder if Y leaders’ views of the pond have evolved over the years, and if as stewards of this vital stretch of the Saugatuck, they’d be interested in exploring options to unblock this key local natural resource (whose name literally means “river flowing out”).

I emailed Gephard, writing as a longtime resident of Westport who would like to see our local river rehabilitated as habitat for migratory fish. Of all our town’s jewels, especially natural ones, the Saugatuck seems the most underappreciated.

The river was once renowned for legendary runs of sea lamprey, alewife, blueback herring and American shad. In 1828 the Saugatuck Journal described as “the river of little fishes” because of the many smelt. Over time though, it’s been used and abused.

The Saugatuck River — shown here behind the Willows medical complex, near the Lees Pond dam — has been “used and abused,” says Scott Smith. (Photo/Danny Cohen)

Gephard’s response was impressively detailed, describing the status of dams on the Saugatuck from the head of the tide, just north of downtown, to the natural barrier at Devil’s Den.

He called the Saugatuck “a challenge….Dam 1 (at the head of tide) is the Wood Dam, owned by Aquarion. There is a steep-pass fishway, and we believe it is passing river herring.

“Dam 2 is Lees Pond. Removing this would be challenging. It is owned by the YMCA. Traditionally the Y has used the pond for recreational opportunities, though that may no longer be the case. Twice in the last 20 years, the Y has spent large amounts of money to repair the dam. Additional repairs may be needed. It is expensive to maintain such a tall dam in a heavily developed area.

One view of the Lees Pond dam …

“We own a fishway at the dam—or more accurately—in the dam.  In fact, it is the oldest fishway in Connecticut.  Back in the 1960s, the owner of the pond and dam drained the pond, created a large opening in the middle of the dam and began to mine gravel from the pond bed — without any permits.

“The state and town went after him. He divested himself of the dam, and the YMCA ended up as the owner. But the state got the right to build a fishway in the hole in the dam to close the dam, restore the pond and provide fish passage.

“The fishway is accessed by us via a catwalk through private property, and is not accessible to the public. As originally designed and built circa 1963, the fishway never worked and fell into disrepair.

“In the 1990s, I inherited the care of the facility. I used a grant to gut it and install a newer style fishway (steep-pass). It is still a little steeper than we would prefer (we had to use the space provided in 1963), but we feel it works for river herring and probably sea lamprey.

… and another.

“Dam 3 is Dorr’s Mill Pond at Glendenning. There are 2 fishways there, one at the spillway and one on a stream branch that weaves through Bridgewater’s office complex.

“The DEEP and Nature Conservancy built both, and they appear to be effective.  Dam 4 is privately owned just upstream of Route 57. The owner did not allow us to build a fishway at the dam, but a natural channel bypasses the eastern side of the dam through someone else’s property. Many fish find it and circumvent the dam.

“Dam 5 is River Road Dam, immediately upstream of the River Road Bridge. It has a pool-and-weir fishway on private property, but it can be seen from the bridge.

“Dam 6 is the former Bradley Axe mill dam halfway up to Devil’s Glen and Trout Brook Valley. We had an agreement with the dam owner and spent considerable money designing a cool fishway for that dam. But the owner sold the house before it could be built, and the new owner did not want the fishway.

“The plans remain if the ownership ever changes. If fish get past that dam, they can reach Devil’s Glen, a natural chasm that historically stopped all fish.

Devil’s Glen, in Weston.

“Also, we worked with the Aspetuck Land Trust to have a fishway built on Trout Brook, on the Trout Brook Preserve.  It does not pass anadromous fish, but helps brook trout move around and reach spawning habitat.” (NOTE: This is the only fishway accessible to the public.)

“Furthermore, the Aspetuck River joins the Saugatuck River just upstream of Dorr’s Mill Dam and Route 57. The North Avenue Dam, the first on it, has a simple pool and weir fishway. on private property.

“The second one, the Newman Dam, has a pool-and-weir fishway. It too, is on private property.

“The third dam, the Frankel Dam, was removed by a joint work team of DEEP crew and The Nature Conservancy. That allows anadromous fish to ascend as far as the next dam, a bit upstream of Bayberry.

“After that, there is a dam almost every 300 feet. We would entertain dam removals, but there are so many dams that the cost/benefit is low. We have not made it a priority.

“Farther upstream, we have worked with Aquarion to install a new gate at the Aspetuck Reservoir Dam in Easton. It allows mature silver-phase American eels to pass downstream, avoiding the entrance to the Hemlock Reservoir, which is a dead end for migrating eels. They all die in the treatment plant. These are the females heading out to sea to spawn, so diverting them down the Aspetuck where there are only small dams and no intakes is important.

Aspetuck Reservoir Dam.

“We have done a lot in this watershed, all in partnership with the Nature Conservancy. Fishways are not as good as a dam removal. With a good fishway, you get fish passage of the targeted species. With a dam removal, you get passage of all species plus many other ecological benefits that were outlined in the article, including lower water temperatures, natural stream habitat, natural sediment transport, etc.

“But in Connecticut, many dams are valued, often as aesthetic features in people’s backyards. We cannot force them to remove their dams. All of the work described above was voluntary (except for the Wood Dam, where the fishway was a condition of a permit that Aquarion needed from the DEEP to repair the dam).

“Our first choice is always dam removal. If owners don’t go for that, we fall back on fishways. Often, that works (we get grants and the fishways don’t cost dam owners anything) and sometimes it doesn’t (like in the case of dam 4).

“We do the best we can. When we first began on the Saugatuck, sea-run brown trout were a main targeted species, along with alewife and blueback herring. Since then we have added sea lamprey and American eel (separate passes). Sadly, the reports of sea-run brown trout are on the decline, likely a victim of climate change and the warming of Long Island Sound, and the Saugatuck River no longer hosts a significant run of brown trout.”

Pic Of The Day #1015

Working out at the Y (Photo/Kathie Motes Bennewitz)

Pic Of The Day #1011

Removing snow from the YMCA addition (Photo/Ed Simek)

Westport Y Puts Special Focus On Special Needs

Every day — at all hours — the Westport Weston Family YMCA pulses with activity.

The gym, pool, spin center, yoga and fitness rooms — all are filled with boys and girls, men and women, all active to whatever degree of intensity works for them.

It’s a friendly, vibrant place. Many members come regularly. They greet fellow basketball players, swimmers, runners and Zumbaists with smiles and waves.

Some of the heartiest greetings go to members with special needs. They may be in wheelchairs, or come in groups with aides. They may talk loudly, or not at all. All are welcome at the Y.

Enjoying the gym at the Westport Weston Family Y.

Their swims, workouts, classes and social interactions are among the highlights of their days. The folks who share the pool, fitness center and classrooms are happy to see them too.

The Westport Y offers group membership programs to 5 group homes in Fairfield County. Over 100 clients take advantage of the facility off Wilton Road.

Membership director Brian Marazzi says that STAR has the longest association with the Y: more than a decade. Clients with intellectual and developmental disabilities take part in a wide array of activities. Some arrive independently, to exercise.

STAR clients, outside the Westport Y.

St. Catherine Academy — a Fairfield-based private school — uses the warm pool for recreational swim and aqua-therapy for severely disabled clients. The group then socializes with a large group lunch in the lobby.

St. Catherine’s appreciates the family and dependent care locker room, which includes a private special needs shower and changing room. Staff also store equipment at the Y.

Ability Beyond and Keystone House clients focus on the Wellness Center. Members of Abilis — the newest group home to join the Y — primarily walk on the treadmill, and use the gym.

Some of the more independent clients come on their own. A few have become volunteers themselves, meeting and greeting guests.

But that’s only part of the way the Westport Y serves the special needs population.

Sixty kids and young adults ages 8 to 21 play basketball and floor hockey, swim and do track and field, under the guidance of paid and volunteer coaches. Many are involved in Special Olympics, but that is not a prerequisite for Y participation.

A special needs swimmer, and an equally enthusiastic volunteer.

The Sunday morning swim program is particularly popular. A 1:1 ratio of volunteers — many of them members of the Westport Water Rats team — to athletes ensures education, safety and fun. The special needs swimmers are also called Water Rats, and proudly wear the team’s logowear.

Strong bonds are clear. Over Christmas break, as volunteers returned from college, there were joyful reunions and hugs. Parents of special needs swimmers develop their own community too, as they watch from the deck or gym.

Oliver Clachko has made a special impact. He was last year’s near-unanimous choice as Westport Weston Family Y Volunteer of the Year. He enjoys working with the special needs program so much, he’s recruiting friends and classmates to help too.

This spring, the Y hosts its first-ever special needs swim meet.

The Westport Y Water Rat Special Olympics swim team.

Up in the gym, basketball players hone their skills. They compete too, in a “Hoopla” against other area Ys.

Special Needs Teen Nights are another popular event.

Marazzi says the Y has gotten very positive feedback — from clients, group home workers, parents of special needs youngsters, and other Y members too.

Occasionally, he says, members complain about noise or behavior. Marazzi quickly counters, “We love having them here. We’re very inclusive.”

It’s the Westport Weston Family YMCA, remember.

And don’t forget: There are many ways to define family.

(The Westport Y’s Special Olympics and other special needs programs rely in part on fundraising. Starting on her 10th birthday, Chloe Kiev asked that instead of gifts, friends and family donate to the effort. Click here for more information.) 

Pics Of The Day #954

Ever since the Westport Weston Family YMCA moved to Mahackeno, members heading downstairs to the fitness center, pool, classrooms and lockers have enjoyed this great view of nature:

But as the Y embarked on its expansion project this fall, the scene shifted:

Recently, it changed again:

(Photos/Sandy Rothenberg)

A new building will be connected to this one. The view will be gone.

Perhaps the Y can paint a nice mural in its place, reminding everyone of the beauty that still lies all around the Mahackeno site.

Fathers And Daughters Dance In The Spotlight: The Sequel

Two years ago, the Westport Weston Family YMCA sponsored a “Father Daughter Dance.”

I was surprised. I wrote:

This is 2017! How could they single out fathers? What about girls whose dads were away on business? Girls with divorced fathers, living far away? How about girls whose dads had died — or those with 2 moms?

They’re all “families” — as the “Family YMCA” should know.

The Y responded that the name of the dance “does not stem from a desire to be traditional, nor was it meant to exclude other family types.”

Instead, it was “intended to honor and strengthen the relationship our community of fathers has with their daughters, and for the Y to provide a space for them to share time together.”

In fact, the Y’s flyer noted (at the very bottom): “If dad is not available, substitutes are welcome. Preferably grandfathers, uncles, older brothers, close family friend etc.”

Malia Daniels (2nd from left) attended the 2017 Y’s Father-Daughter dance with her uncle.

Okay. Good info. Important, for sure.

So why cling to the outmoded name? I ended my piece:

“Now — as a way to make all girls feel comfortable, welcome and accepted — maybe they can come up with a more inclusive dance name.”

Nah.

This year’s “Father Daughter Dance” is this Friday (November 15, 7 p.m.).

The tagline says: “Her fingers are small but she has her dad wrapped around them.”

Yep — dad.

Dabbing at the 2017 Westport YMCA’s Father-Daughter dance.

At the bottom of the flyer, there’s this: “Enjoy a great night of fun with your little girl, complete with music, dancing, snacks, pictures, and a best dressed contest!

“If dad is not available, substitutes are welcome including grandfathers, uncles, older brothers, close family friends, etc.”

If dad is not available? 

Dad may be traveling on business, sure.  But he also may have walked out on the family. Or died. Or been an anonymous sperm donor.

I’ll say it again (updated): This is 2019. Families come in all shapes and sizes.

All of them are members of the Westport Weston “Family” YMCA.

This is not a question of being PC.

It’s about being realistic.

And really caring about all members.

Come on, Y: Walk the talk.

And then dance the night away.

 

Fitness Week Kicks Off Sunday

Restaurant Week — the Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce’s promotion of all things culinary — ended recently.

If you think the Chamber will celebrate the successful event with a cocktail or two, think again.

Starting Sunday (November 3), they’ll sponsor Fitness Week.

 The event kicks off from 1 to 4 p.m., with an expo at the Westport Weston Family Y.

A dozen local fitness studios will provide information, kids’ activities, and friendly competitions like sit-ups, push-ups and planks (3 to 4 p.m.; $10 to enter, benefiting Special Olympics).

Juice bars and restaurants provide healthy food samples, too.

All week, through November 10, studios will offer free classes. A raffle for attendees sweetens the pot: The more you exercise, the greater the chance to win prizes.

A family fun run is set for Saturday, November 9.

Participating businesses include Club Pilates, Fast Fitness, Fleet Feet, JoyRide, Cycling + Fitness, Orangetheory, Fitness Performance Physical Therapy, Restore Hyper Wellness + Cryotherapy, Row House, Sherpa, Stretch Lab and Westport Pilates.

(For more information, click here.)

Liz Fry Swims North Channel; Completes Amazing “Ocean 7”

In April, “06880” reported that Liz Fry successfully swam Cook Strait — the dangerous waters separating New Zealand’s North and South Islands.

That meant she had conquered 6 of the 7 major open water swims worldwide. The only one left: the North Channel, between Ireland and Scotland.

Liz Fry

It’s the most challenging of all: very cold, infested with jellyfish, but no wetsuits allowed.

No problem! Last month, Liz — a 1976 Staples High School graduate, longtime Westporter and frequent visitor to the Westport Weston Family YMCA, where she trains — completed the North Channel swim.

She joins a tiny, elite group of men and women who have accomplished all 7 swims.

Here is Liz’s report.

It’s Monday in Donaghadee. The sun is coming out after heavy fog earlier this morning. I went to the starting point at 5:30 a.m., to send off the 4 other swimmers attempting their crossing today.

It’s hard to believe yesterday at 5 a.m. I was scrambling across jagged rocks to find a clear rock to leave from. It was pitch black except for the lights from phones held by the Chunky Dunkers (the group I trained with in Ireland) at the water’s edge to see us off. Quinton, my pilot, has a quick start. You board his boat, and in 15 minutes you are in the water.

Liz Fry (2nd from left) with her crew in Donaghadee harbor.

My crew was incredibly efficient putting on sunscreen and “butt paste” for chaffing. Next thing I knew my cap, earplugs and goggles were on. I jumped in the cold abyss.

I followed the lights on shore and spotlight and managed to avoid many of the sharp rocks, although one got me good. I found a rock that was clear and raised my hand, signaling the start.

It was still very dark. Unfortunately my first hit in a Lion’s Mane jellyfish bloom was in the first 10 minutes. My whole left side took multiple hits as I swam through tentacles, but luckily only one hit across my face.

I felt like Harry Potter. I felt these stings the whole swim, but the pain subsided to tolerable fairly quickly. Salt water is the best medicine. I knew it was only the beginning so I had to keep my head together.

A swarm of jellyfish.

I had my first feed after 1 hour, which is my typical feed schedule.  I don’t usually feed well as I am a sinker and struggle to stay above water. However, with the water so cold (12-14 C) we planned to go with 45 minutes after the first feed.

Calories intake were critical. I asked for and received a lot of advice from North Channel swimmers all over the world. I used all I could remember.

With daylight, my crew helped me navigate around the lion’s manes. Several times when I tried to follow, each person on the boat pointed in a different direction.

The jellies were moving towards me faster than I could swim out of the way, or the blooms were so big there was nothing they could do to help. I slowly slid between the jellies and long tentacles as best I could. My crew was brilliant and saved me from so many hits.

About 5 hours in, the impact of the jelly hits affected my breathing. My inhaler for my asthma provided some relief initially. but later did not help. I could not help to think about Attila who spent nearly 3 weeks in the hospital after his attempt last year.

I stayed close to the boat, just in view of Quinton and the observer who never stopped watching me.

Despite the breathing issue I felt very good. My spirits were great, I wasn’t cold, and my crew was brilliant. At 12:30 we saw the lighthouse. Nora kept the whiteboard filled with well wishes from around the world, from friends and family. This is the first time I have had active whiteboard. It was fantastic.

I am happy she didn’t mention the shark fin they saw around 2:30 p.m. It was likely a basking shark — the second largest, but not a carnivore.  At my 2 p.m. feed Quinton said, “at this pace we’ll be done in two hours.”

With 2 miles to go, a thick fog rolled in. I could no longer see Scotland or the two boats behind us for a few minutes. The only thing the crew could see was the lighthouse, and hear the foghorn.

The fog lifted above the shore, and I saw where Quinton was trying to land me.  I hit the rocks on the shore of Scotland and raised my hands to the sound of the horn. I finished: 11 hours, 13 minutes.

Liz Fry nears the Scottish coast.

As I swam back to the boat, I could only think about how many people helped get me to those rocks. Not just the 6 oceans before, but all the swims and training sessions. I am so grateful to each and every one of you for your support.

To say the ride back to Ireland was full of exuberance is an understatement. Even now it is still surreal.

We arrived back to a large welcome crowd of Chunky Dunkers, who had a beautiful blue cake with the number 7 candle. It was fantastic!

After the swim, Liz reported:

All the Channel swimmers I spoke to said my sleep the night after would be restless, due to the jelly fish stings. They were right!

Despite more antihistamines, the stings fired through the night. I burned up one moment; the next I was freezing cold.

It helped that as soon as I got on the boat, I was covered with shaving cream and scraped with credit cards (expired) to remove the barbs and tentacles from my skin.

No words can express my deep love and gratitude for all who traveled to Ireland to support me in this craziness.

It is impossible for me to adequately thank my family, friends and swimming community that supported me, at home and around the world.

Liz Fry (right) and her sister Peggy, a 1975 Staples High School graduate, at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.

Every swim has its own level of stress and emotions, but none more than this.

I was terrified, seriously questioning whether even if I could tolerate the cold, would I endure the venom of the Lion’s Manes and other jellyfish?

I did everything I could to prepare for the worst, but still feared that this last Ocean 7 swim could be truly my last. This fear went away soon after I arrived in Donaghadee, not because the threat was no longer there but because my swims in the harbor calmed my anxiety and brought happiness.

I feel so blessed to have swum the North Channel. So the question always is: “Would I do it again?”

I think my next big swims are to complete the Great Lakes. I’d like to start next summer.

(Hat tip: Debbie McGinley)

Westport: The Write Place

The statistics are in: 18 iconic Westport locations. Six library spots. Six pick-your-own-spots. All told, 250 “writes” during last month’s Write Here project.

Jan Bassin

Led by Jan Bassin — Senior Center coordinator of writing programs, and the Westport Library’s Maker-in-Residence — each hour-long session began with a brief introduction. After a prompt, Westporters of all ages, abilities and backgrounds began writing. At the end, volunteers shared their creations.

The proudest — or bravest — uploaded their writing to a dedicated website.

But those dry facts don’t come close to telling the whole “story.”

Like many participants, Bassin knew some of the writing locations well. In her case it was the Senior Center, Westport Country Playhouse, Compo Beach, Wakeman Town Farm, Levitt Pavilion and Farmers’ Market.

Others she hadn’t visited or thought about in years: Earthplace, Rolnick Observatory, Westport Historical Society.

She’d been to Toquet Hall only once; the Westport Weston Family YMCA and Ned Dimes Marina never. She had no idea where to find the police station entrance.

Writing at Earthplace …

Jan was excited to “discover” those new places. But just as intriguing was the chance to look at familiar places with new eyes: the Town Hall lobby, for example, and train station.

She realized too that classrooms at fire and police headquarters, picnic tables at Longshore and chairs under a tree at the Farmers’ Market were as exciting as the more “sparkly” venues.

Each site brought new revelations. Jan and her group sat spellbound as Nick Marsan described his circuitous, unexpected route to becoming a firefighter; Sue Pfister spoke of shifting her focus from business to social work, then finding a population where she could help; Lori Cochran-Dougall shared her passion for sustainability; Carleigh Welsh offered her heartfelt philosophy about the importance of the arts, and Shannon Calvert showed photos of the universe taken at the observatory.

… the Westport Country Playhouse …

Each visit, Jan says, “felt like a private and special writing party.” Everyone at every site treated the writers as special guests.

At the end of each talk, she guided the group into “feeling” the place they were in. The writing that followed was “amazing.”

It was “beautiful, connected and gorgeous” — even from people who insisted, “I don’t write.”

When she designed the month, Jan did not expect to be as moved as she was, every single day. “People’s voices and stories still play in my head,” she says with awe.

… and the Westport Farmers’ Market.

The project was as much about “place” as about words. “We can’t actually think of ourselves at any point in our lives without remembering where we were,” she notes.

“By writing together in a series of places in our town, we ask: What makes a community?”

The answer, it turns out, is write right here.

(Click here to read the writing posted to the Write Here website.)

Pics Of The Day #854

Yesterday, Patty Kondub held her last outdoor Aqua Fitness class ever at the old Camp Mahackeno pool.

It will be open for only a few more days.  Then camp is over, the Y closes for cleaning, a groundbreaking ceremony will be held, bulldozers move in, and a big new complex will be built.

Kathie Motes Bennewitz says she’ll miss it. The pool reminds her of when she first moved here in the late 1970s.

In honor of the last session, she and her Aqua Fitness classmates tried to spell “YMCA” with their noodles (front).

Meanwhile, she wonders if “no chicken fights” will make it onto the new rule board next summer.

(Photos/Kathie Motes Bennewitz)