NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

June 6, 2014

Paddling the lower Merrimack

Trip from Amesbury to Newburyport bursts with sights and sounds

Outdoorsing the North Shore
Justin Chase

---- — Rising from the Pemigewasset and Winnipesaukee rivers in Franklin, N.H., the Merrimack River flows over 100 miles before draining to the Atlantic. The final reach, from Amesbury to Newburyport, is one of New England’s most storied and picturesque waterways, and one I recently paddled alone with my kayak. I enjoyed 3 miles of swift currents, bright sun and all the bustle one should expect on a sunny, late afternoon in June.

Launching from the Amesbury public ramp off Merrimac Street, I dropped onto high water and an outgoing tide. I paddled past towering sailboats and yachts docked at Larry’s Marina, and my 20-inch-wide kayak felt tiny and a bit out of place. Runabouts zipped past my bow, to and from boats moored offshore, while a large motorboat clumsily docked at a nearby slip.

Paddling past the busy docks and the mouth of the Powow, I made my way alongside Amesbury’s Point Shore neighborhood. Skirting the shoreline to avoid the busy channel on my starboard side, I traveled past beautiful antique homes, private docks littered with resting cormorants and gulls, and wakes crashing onto shore from the boats that hurried by. Cool, salty air blew in from the ocean ahead, while warm, damp air pulled in low behind me with outgoing water. It’s the telltale sign of a shifting tide — when winds of different feel move in from opposing directions.

Hammering, banging and clanking sounded out from open windows at Lowell’s Boat Shop. Gulls squawked overhead and off from shore. They hopped and bounced, peered and twisted their heads with quick jerks as I passed by. Some of the year’s brightest sun shone down, shimmering and reflecting on waves, wakes and boat glass.

Warm water lapped the sides of my boat and splashed gently onto my hands with each dip of my blades. Carving into a current and an equally strong headwind, I adjusted my course and paddled out into the channel and away from rocky outcroppings.

Approaching the hulking Whittier Bridge, it appeared a mess of rust, faded paint, construction, and all sorts of boat and crane activity. Following a bright orange channel marker, I paddled under and past towering supports that have stood for years, holding up the massive bridge. That’s the thing about big bridges — like gigantic icebergs, the real show is underneath.

The current carried me swiftly and gently to Deer Island just downstream. Paddling near, I chose to pass under the historic Chain Bridge to the right. The south side of the island marks a narrow and busy pass, but offers rocky and craggy shores and a trip under the unique suspension bridge and its historic stone and block footings.

Riding a pretty strong rip, I zipped through the channel and flushed out to the leading end of Eagle Island a half-mile downriver. Entering a no-wake zone, boats had slowed and traveled respectfully past Salisbury’s conservation lands and delicate grassy shores. To my left lay shores of green grass, tall hardwoods and aged junipers. To my right jutted out a sea of boats, docks and marinas. The current picked up and pushed me quickly past it all. I used my blades only to steer as I slalomed through a maze of floating and numbered markers.

Nearing my landing, I leaned in to my right and cut with my blade to turn sharply toward Newburyport’s Cashman Park. With my boat perpendicular to shore, I paddled straight while the river pushed me sideways. As I approached, the water calmed in the shallows and offered a relaxed landing at the public ramp four miles downriver from where I started and where Jamie and the boys greeted me.

I’ve lived in this area all my life, and still I am amazed by its history and beauty.

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Justin Chase is an avid naturalist who lives in Amesbury and grew up in Newburyport. He is the author of the blog Outdoors, By Cracky! Visit his website at www.outdoorsbycracky.com, or contact him via email at justin@outdoorsbycracky.com.