The Course of the Merrimack
My Time Among the Voyagers
Early on the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, a group of kayakers began its journey down the length of the Merrimack River, starting at the headwaters in Franklin, New Hampshire, where the Pemigewasset meets the Winnipesaukee. It would cover approximately 117 miles, with stops for lunch and events over the four-day course.
With the exception of a handful of portages around dams and other obstructions, the Voyagers, as the group called itself, would stay on the river and its banks nearly the entire time.
The idea for the trip originated with Northern Essex Community College President Lane Glenn and expanded from a purely recreational adventure into an opportunity to highlight economic and environmental issues related to the Merrimack and the towns and cities of the surrounding valley.
The roster included kayakers attempting to make the entire run and others who would participate in sections. The Voyagers who went from start to finish were, in alphabetic order, state Sen. Diana DiZoglio (1st Essex District), Glenn, Dan Graovac (president, Merrimack River Watershed Council Board of Directors), state Rep. Jim Kelcourse (1st Essex District), Heather McMann (executive director, Groundwork Lawrence), state Rep. Christina Minicucci (14th Essex District), Derek Mitchell (executive director, Lawrence Partnership) and Dougan Sherwood (president, Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce). Others joined for sections, including state Sen. Edward Kennedy, Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday and state Reps. Andres “Andy” Vargas (3rd Essex District) and Linda Dean Campbell (15th Essex District). I joined them on the river for the first two days.
The ambitious undertaking demanded weeks of planning and multiple scouting expeditions. In July, I rode with Glenn on one of them. His recent exploits include hiking in Canada’s Banff National Park and participating in the 2019 Tough Mountain Challenge obstacle race in Maine. Glenn had a matter-of-fact way of upsetting my sense of complacency. At one point he asked me if Tracy, my wife and the mother of our fussy baby and feisty toddler, was worried about the trip. I told him yes and cheerfully explained how I told her that it would be safer than my morning commute on Route 495. His tone grew serious. “There are fatalities, you know.” He explained that these generally have involved swimmers unprepared for the river’s stronger currents as the water reaches the end of its course.
Well then, I thought, I think I’ll hold off discussing this topic with my wife until after the trip.
Still, I had to know what I was getting myself into, so I started researching boating accidents. In 2017, a man died in a personal watercraft crash on the Merrimack River. In 2015, a person was knocked unconscious when the vessel he was on was struck by another. He fell into the water and drowned. This June, a 20-year-old man died in a kayaking accident. According to police reports, he was not wearing a personal flotation device (PFD). The more investigating I did, the less worried I was. It seemed to me that if you avoided alcohol, and people who drink it, and wore a PFD, recreational boating and kayaking were very safe. This would later be confirmed by my experiences.
At a planning party hosted by Glenn at his Amesbury home, I sat among the state reps, senators, directors and presidents as our host grilled chicken, steaks and vegetables. This was not the low and slow style of barbecue of the Southern states. It was orderly and precise. At one point I looked at Glenn and wondered when he was going to get started — and then realized he was done. Food perfect. Plates ready. Cooking utensils put away. Even his refrigerator displayed a high degree of organization. I noted this when I opened it to grab a cold beer. The only time my refrigerator was ever that clean was the day I bought it.
The Voyagers prepared press releases that would coincide with their stops along the way, but at the planning meeting, talk was focused on logistics: what to bring, what to wear, what to expect. I bought and borrowed my necessary gear: UV-protective hat, waterproof bag, solar smartphone charger, canteen. My boat came courtesy of Plum Island Kayak in Newburyport. I brought along a camp stove and a few types of exotic loose leaf teas. In my naivete, I had it in my head that I would be able to leisurely brew tea during rest periods on the shoreline, like some sort of life-jacketed Taoist saint. This was not to be, and my tins remained at the bottom of my drybag until it was over.
To make the trip in the required time constraints involved a high degree of discipline and physical exertion — the Voyagers would travel as many as 35 miles in a day. As the kayaks were designed for speed, everything other than water and a few bags of gorp went into the support vehicle caravan led by Glenn’s wife, Margaret, who became something of a behind-the-scenes hero of the trip, pulling an unwieldy trailer of spare kayaks and paddles behind an SUV packed with coolers and backpacks along everything from rush-hour highways to off-map dirt roads.
The Merrimack provides drinking water to over half a million people. It travels through Massachusetts’ busiest state park (at Salisbury Beach) and is home to its busiest boat ramp (Cashman Park in Newburyport). As most of its prehistoric artifacts are buried under buildings along its route, our understanding of the deep story of the river and its inhabitants since the ice age is fragmented and incomplete.
The best guide to the Merrimack is John Pendergast’s “The Bend in the River.” Originally published in 1991, this slim volume records the history of the river through 1700, a period during which the valley was peopled by various small tribes, including the Pawtucket and Wamesit.
Pendergast’s book contains a discussion about the disputed meaning of the word Merrimack: sturgeon, strong water or swift rapids, we’re not entirely sure. All three give a sense of the river’s virtues before industrialization.
Henry David Thoreau, one of the 19th century’s most influential writers, saw in the Merrimack a powerful cultural symbol as evocative as the Nile and Ganges. In August 1839, Thoreau and his brother, John, traveled up and down the Merrimack’s length, starting in the Concord tributary. The journey took two weeks. In 1842, John died of tetanus. Henry David wrote his first book, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” during his famous stay at Walden Pond as a sort of eulogy to his brother, a “morning work” (note the pun) in the words of scholar H. Daniel Peck.
Thoreau never achieved literary fame in his lifetime. He died at 44 of complications from bronchitis. His last words were “moose,” “Indian,” and, notably for a man who had voyaged so far by foot, paddle and pen: “Now comes good sailing.”
In tribute to his literary legacy, I carried a copy of “A Week” in my drybag. It turns out I was a pitiful Thoreauvian. There would be no time for lounging on the river banks while savoring Henry David’s poetic and meandering prose. I would think more about ibuprofen than transcendentalism.
We know from Thoreau’s writings that even in the middle of the 19th century, recreational boats had all but disappeared from the river. I was searching for the time traveler’s illusion — the sense that I was a witness to a lost world, and could see the river through his searching eyes. This wasn’t hard to do. In rare moments, I felt as though I was on the same waters as sojourners from long before Thoreau.
In my life, I’d only seen one, maybe two, bald eagles in the wild, but on the first stretch of the river I saw what seemed to be at least 15. It’s hard to know how many. Some appeared to be following us. We may have been seeing the same creatures in multiple locations.
We were more watched than watchers and soon got used to these magnificent birds erupting out of the hidden branches of oak and pine. Why were they curious? Did they take us for fisherfolk and think we might stir up some aquatic snacks in our wake? Or were we being ushered away to a safe distance? Perhaps the job of chronicler was more appropriate for a freelancing eagle.
At some point, my right shoulder, which was injured years ago, began to flare with pain. My right hand turned numb, and strange electric shocks ran up and down my arm every time I moved it in the demanding pull/push infinity pattern used by kayakers. I was in the company of tireless individuals, and told myself I wouldn’t give up. I needed my companion’s relentless positivity; it’s not a quality found often among writers. Solitude and bouts of gloominess are inherent in the process.
As for solitude, we were scheduled to camp the first night in the White Sands Conservation Area. Thunderstorms and a flood warning soured those plans, so we stayed at a llama farm in Canterbury, New Hampshire. As the sun set, the Voyagers drank cans of RiverWalk beer and played the card game forty-fives. Eating chicken barb sandwiches would have been the only way to have made it more “Merrimack Valley.” I’m tempted to suggest that if you’ve never played forty-fives at a llama farm in New Hampshire with a group of elected officials, you haven’t lived.
I was searching for spare moments to pull out my book for literary sustenance. As the animated card game continued, I left the farmhouse and set up my tent hammock — a kind of cocoon-shaped enclosure — between two fruit trees. The trees were too short, and my shoulders scraped the ground. Mosquitoes bit me through the underside of the tent fabric. There was the lingering threat of a flood. The llama farmer had warned me about bears and coyotes and suggested that I stay inside. Still, I wanted time with Henry David. It was not to be. Poetry can’t be savored when winged creatures are biting you on the ass. I never read that in Thoreau, but it is nonetheless true. With a flashlight clenched between my teeth, I exited the hammock, folded it back into its sack and returned to the farmhouse for a healthy slug of bourbon and more conversation.
Around 10 p.m., the conversation halted, as if everyone was part of some secret communication network. The cards were stacked, the plates and cans disappeared. Air mattresses and sleeping bags unfurled throughout the farmhouse. Fifteen minutes later the lights were out and the house was quiet except for my own rustling and turning as I searched for a comfortable spot.
We set out at sunrise the next day. At one point we rounded a corner in or near the town of Boscawen and saw hundreds of cows, some of which greeted us with apparent enthusiasm, running out of the woods and down to the water to visit. We glided past within petting distance. I pulled my phone out of its waterproof case and livestreamed the encounter on mvm’s Facebook page, paddling with one arm.
My shoulder was getting worse. I ignored the pain as much as possible. One trick was to spot a tree on the horizon and tell myself I would just make it that far, to that tree. But in the way that being in the river transforms your sense of distance and open space, and with the wind pushing against me with varying degrees of hostility, that tree at times seemed fixed in a permanent, unyielding distance. At a certain point, I could no longer lift my arm above my shoulder and needed to twist my upper torso to sink the paddle into the water.
When the Voyagers stopped to test their growing skills on a series of rapids, I continued on and found myself alone on the water. I laid the paddle across my lap and indulged in a tranquil moment as the skies darkened and a light rain blew in from the south. The sky was immense, with sunlight varying in places from trickles to glows to piercing beams, a swirl of white, purple and blue forever down to Nashua and up to the skypaths of airplanes and satellites.
The river isn’t all sublime vistas with herons silhouetted against crepuscular rays. While there were postcard moments, they were tangential to the real story. It will take a lot of hard work to maintain and improve the state of the river. Raising awareness of this and how the river’s health impacts life beyond its banks was central to the Voyagers’ mission. Confronting this involves working with complex ecological and political systems, and while the sheer beauty of the river in many places — including its underappreciated urban stretches — is to be extolled, even in the rural sections I saw algal blooms caused by fertilizer runoff. I saw dead fish, and decades-old tires sunk in the muck.
Greater threats lay ahead, in cities connected by the waterway. These communities are attempting to deal with a pollution problem that has been with us since the Industrial Revolution.
As we paddled, local newspapers covered the combined sewer overflows triggered by Wednesday’s rain. A combined sewer is one in which the sewage and storm runoff systems are integrated, and they are a big problem for older cities along rivers throughout the United States. When the system becomes overburdened by, for example, storms or melting snow, untreated water can only go in two directions: back into the city or down into the river. Even a basic explanation of this problem and what it takes to mitigate or fix it would require an article unto itself.
As much as recent efforts have led to the water being cleaner than it’s been in decades, our own era presents new threats to the constitution of the Merrimack. The river is home to a range of pollutants both invisible and disturbingly clear, from dangerous perflourinated chemicals to floating hypodermic needles. The problems can’t be ignored.
If the Voyagers had a mantra, it was this: getting better, much to be done. That’s the way I heard it. A similar mantra — gone far, long ways to go — might have echoed in the minds of the kayakers as they battled increasing fatigue. While some participated in endurance races for sport, others may have been physically unprepared for the challenge, and in that sense I found their resilience and unwavering optimism inspiring. When I heard them speak at public events on the third and fourth days, I knew that the friendly, relaxed chatter gave no indication of what had transpired in the miles before. Even the hardcore adventurers suffered with blistered fingers and aching backs.
About 2:40 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 10, a mere 10 minutes after the ambitiously projected landing time, the crew arrived on Plum Island’s northern shore. The skies, which had been threatening rain, parted in a glorious expanse of deep blue. Reporters moved in to talk with the participants as the support crew fired up a grill and primed a beer keg. The exhausted group converged to laugh and reminisce.
Before the first burger was eaten, I overheard a question echoing across the company: OK now, what next?
Facts About the Merrimack
Provided by the Merrimack River Watershed Council
• The Merrimack River watershed covers 5,010 square miles. One million people live within the watershed.
• It is the fourth largest river basin in New England.
• The Merrimack River is tidal from Haverhill to the mouth of the river in Newburyport.
• As one of New England’s major north-south running rivers, the Merrimack serves as an important migratory route for waterfowl and songbirds.
• A preliminary archaeological survey of the river revealed at least four Native American sites dating from 8,000 to 350 years ago, one of which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
• The Merrimack is the second largest drinking water source in Massachusetts.
• The Merrimack is one of the three most important large rivers on the East Coast in its conservation value to migratory river herring and one of the six most important for 12 migratory fish species. It also supports at least 75 state and federally listed endangered species, numerous pairs of bald eagles, the largest tidal marsh habitat in New England, and a portion of the Atlantic Flyway bird migration route.
The journey of the Voyagers would not have been possible without the critical assistance of numerous people and organizations, including:
• Ken Taylor and Plum Island Kayak for the contribution of the trailer, kayaks, PFDs and paddles.
• Al Edelstein and Lisa Carlson of The Push-Me-Pull-You Farm in Canterbury, N.H.
• Independence Rowing Club, Nashua, N.H., and Julia Hefferan, club president.
• The Greater Lawrence Community Boating Program and Jed Koehler, executive director.
• Riverwalk Brewing Company and Steve Sanderson, owner.
• UMass Lowell Bellegarde Boathouse and Kevin Soleil, assistant director of outdoor and bicycle programs.
Make sure to look for the Voyagers on the cover of the Sept/Oct 2019 issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine. Subscribe here >>>