Friday, May 31, 2013
Great Bay, New Hampshire
At the launch, I thought I may have been a bit over-prepared for the environment. I put on my usual gear-- the drysuit and neoprene mukluks, radio antenna and hydration tube bristling from my lifejacket, tow belt hanging from my waist. A couple arrived with rec boats, wearing the usual rec boat gear-- shorts and t-shirts and to their credit-- lifejackets. The woman approached and asked if I’d paddled there before.
“First time here,” I told her.
She looked at my outfit and seemed perplexed. “Well, do you know if there are any- um, dangers up the river? Like waterfalls or anything?”
“I don’t think so. I’m sure you can avoid anything like that.”
They went upriver with the incoming tidal current, and I went downriver, against it. I had the unusual feeling that the people in the pond boats were making the smarter-- or at least easier choice, but I had my plans.
I followed a muddy bank, topped with emerald marsh grass bending in the breeze: spartina. As I rounded each bend in the shore, ducks emerged from the grass, panicked, noisily taking flight. High tension utility lines hung across the river, and high atop one of the poles sat an osprey nest. Soon, I paddled beneath a railroad trestle where the current against me increased, and I entered into what felt like a big lake, several miles across: Great Bay, a tidal estuary just west of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
I’d left Stonington at 5:30 that morning and driven south to pick-up my new boat: a P&H Cetus MV. I figured since I’d made the drive, I’d check-out some New Hampshire paddling. Only about 18 miles of the New Hampshire coast is exposed to open ocean, but the Piscataqua River stretches inland from Portsmouth Harbor and divides into a multitude of other rivers and inland bays. Great Bay has a long, contorted shoreline and is fed by three rivers, but it is shallow and when the tide goes out, the shoreline shrinks drastically, leaving vast expanses of soft mud. Which is why it seemed prudent to launch on a rising tide.
I headed up the Lamprey River, which narrowed as I proceeded, rocky banks towering with oaks and hickory trees, leafy and green. The contrasts between here and Stonington were already obvious. Here, it felt like summer, while Stonington seemed to have been in the same cool, foggy limbo for months. A couple of fishing kayaks bobbed down the middle of the river, each sprouting several jiggling rods that trolled the water far behind. A couple launched shorter boats from their dock. We fell into place beside each other and chatted a bit. They were headed upstream to Newmarket, where I arrived after a few more twists and turns. Here, the river is flanked by six-story mill buildings with a waterfall roaring over a dam between them, echoing through the brick and stone canyon. It was Memorial Day and a small crowd had gathered along the bank for a picnic.
Back out on Great Bay, I headed north along the shore, past an eagle refuge and on out to a pair of small islands where I found a group of 7 sea kayakers taking a break. I pulled-up on shore among them. They were from New Hampshire and Massachusetts, a group that gets together every now and then for a paddle. Several of them had been to Old Quarry and seemed to remember me- even knew about our island cleanup scheduled for Saturday. I asked about favorite places to paddle in New Hampshire. One man thought a moment and said “Maine.”
I paddled with them for awhile, enjoying the company. We followed the shore of Adams Point until I realized I needed to head back. I’d been following the west shore, avoiding the brunt of the wind, but I wanted to check-out the shoreline along the Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge on the east shore. Much of this shoreline was lined with steep rocks, slapped by wind-driven waves. I felt pleasantly weary after not enough sleep and too many miles. The early evening sunlight lit the trees in golden light and my head filled with the sound of waves and wind.The boat felt like it was discovering, for the first time, its purpose.
From here until the take-out I paddled against a strong wind. I was tired and the wind slowed me down, but it felt good, and even better when I crossed back beneath the railroad trestle into the Squamscott River and paddled, once again, against the current to the take-out. There I met a guy who had gone upstream to Exeter. New Hampshire may not have a long seacoast, but I was discovering that there is much to explore.
I found a Chinese take-out place and returned to the campground. The forecast for the next day looked good, so I would take one more trip before heading home. I ate at a picnic table with the chart spread before me, pondering the possibilities until I could no longer keep my eyes open.