The Course of the Merrimack
My Time Among the Voyagers
Early on the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 7, 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.