Until recently, I didn’t know it was possible to white-water raft in Lowell and there’s a reason why. The season is short — usually lasting just through April and May. Massive amounts of snowmelt and rainwater are needed to keep water levels high as voracious trees drink up the water and warmer days cause evaporation. I went out on Sunday, April 16, and Cora, our guide, noted that there might be as few as three weeks left of the season. My first scheduled trip was cancelled due to a snowstorm, the second due to unsafe water levels, but on this day the weather was ideal. Our good fortune was the first topic of numerous conversations.
Cora noted that this trip is a favorite among guides who work for Zoar Outdoor, a company based in Charlemont, Mass, partly because the season is so brief. Lowell Concord River rafting never gets boring and shifting water levels mean that each trip feels distinct. For senior guides, the city presents another unique challenge: getting their vans and boat trailers through Lowell traffic. Additionally, urban white-water rafting is rare. There are only two other similar rapids in the country and they’re in Virginia and Georgia.
We entered the river near the West End Gym, made famous in the film “The Fighter,” and from there passed through three rapids: Twisted Sister, Three Beauties, and the Middlesex Dam. After that, we scrambled out, carried our boats to the awaiting vans and got ready to do it again.
These were not all gentle waters. The rapids were between levels III and IV. To give you a sense of perspective, the most difficult rapids are rated V. Before the trip began, we were trained in safety procedures and thankfully so — a high-school student was launched into the water at one point. He calmly followed protocol and was soon safely back in his raft, now with a great story to tell his peers on Monday.
In other parts of the river, we had time to paddle leisurely and admire the city’s architecture as well as reflect on recent changes. There was a time when such a trip wouldn’t be possible because of pollution, but on the day when I hit the water, the river was teeming with wildlife. I spotted a goldfinch and many other varieties of birds preparing for the nesting season. The animals weren’t the only ones enjoying the revitalized canal district. We passed people on decks eating at restaurants and homeowners tending gardens.
A passing cyclist stopped and took out his smartphone to record us. “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” he yelled to us as we floated by.
Zoar Outdoor provided us with wetsuits, booties and life jackets. I had never white-water rafted before, but some in our crew had been doing the tour for years. It was clearly appropriate for, and enjoyed by, rafters of varied skill levels, including beginners such as myself. Under the guidance of computer science teacher and Outdoor Program Director Kendall Chun, a veteran participant, the field-tripping students from Milton Academy were the most animated rafters, but among us were enthusiastic parents with teenage children.
When it was over, my back was sore from paddling and my face from smiling. It seems there’s a certain thrill that only comes from being launched spinning into crashing, swirling waters. I never liked roller coasters, but I loved this.
The trip is run in partnership with the Lowell Parks Conservation & Trust and the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center. It runs on weekends through May.