Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Travel: Essex Bay - A Northeast Massachusetts Gem (but where's the parking?)

If you're lucky like me, you live near natural resources that offer sublime experiences without the hassle of a long drive to get there. Essex Bay, situated just north of Cape Ann and Massachusetts' north shore is just such a place. It lays at the mouth of the Essex River, and is protected from open ocean by Crane Beach (a gem of its own). Bordered by the towns of Essex, Ipswich to the north, and Gloucester to the south, Essex Bay is a paradise for boaters, fishermen, and of course, kayakers. (Google map of Essex Bay )

View of Choate Island, Essex Bay Massachusetts
Choate Island with Essex Bay beyond

Some of the features of kayaking on Essex Bay are myriad marsh river waterways, sandbars that appear at lower tides and offer your own temporary private beach under a vast blue sky (just watch your boat, so it doesn't float away from you on a quickly rising tide), and Choate Island (also known as Hog Island) - a filming location for the movie version of The Crucible . Boat traffic can be busy in and out of the main Essex River channel, but there's plenty of space for shallow draft boats like kayaks to explore at their leisure. Striped bass run when the season's right, so you can cast your line from your kayak, or from the shallows to test your luck (with a salt water license in hand, of course 😏). Afterwards, you can feast on the local fried clams or a bucket of "steamers" at any one of several clam shacks in the area.

For those who don't own a kayak, or are just beginning to explore the sport, Essex River Basin Adventures offers tours and training. In fact, one of the first times I paddled a kayak was on one of their tours. That was about 15 years ago, so it looks like the early impression was a good one. The first kayak I purchased was one of their post-season used models - and they even delivered it. I would highly recommend them to anyone who's interested in the occasional kayak adventure, or investigating the sport to see if they like it - and you can do that surrounded by truly beautiful scenery. However (and they'll probably tell you this), there are times of year when you will need to be prepared for the murderous "green head" flies. If you've never had a chunk of flesh bitten off you by one of these evil, and seemingly impervious to blows, vampires, you will be shocked by how much worse it is than a mosquito bite or other fly bite. If you have been bitten by one, then you know exactly what I'm talking about. Wear proper clothing and use DEET.     

The one thing that Essex Bay lacks, in my opinion, is easy access to the water. I know, the locals would say that's what the public boat launch is for. The problem with the boat launch (located right off Rt. 133 in Essex), is that the river is narrow at the start, and stays that way for a little while until it opens onto the broader bay. Boat traffic can be heavy during the summer on that river - to and from the boat launch. Even assuming that all motor boats follow the no-wake rules, you will spend significant time dealing with wake waves in a narrow channel. This raises the danger level for paddlers - who could find themselves exposed to boating accidents like this one. Plus, it will add 20 minutes (40 minutes including the return) to your paddling time out to the bay. I have tried to work around this by finding other launch locations - not all "officially sanctioned" locations I should add. I am hesitant to push my luck, though, as the last thing I want is to return to an empty spot where my towed-away truck used to be (see my post Which Kayak Should I Buy? for additional considerations).

Conomo Point is a popular launch area for kayaks - if they are being dropped off. Parking near the water is non-existent. There used to be 3-5 parallel spots available on the return side of Conomo Point Road, across from Beach Circle that those "in the know" could use. For the past couple years, however, "resident sticker only" no-parking signs have restricted parking to the arrival side, about 1/3 of a mile from any access to the water. This requires wheels (like these) to get your kayak to the nearest beach launch, and don't get there too late, or the parked cars will be backed up for quite a ways. It makes getting your kayak into the bay that much harder - and to my mind, seems most unwelcoming. I, for one, don't understand why the town of Essex wouldn't encourage easy access for kayakers to Essex Bay, who might, you know, end up spending some money while they're in town. I'm even reminded (by contrast) of a restaurant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (on Sagamore Creek) that lets kayakers pull right up on their beach and grab a bite during the trip (I'll have more on that in a future post). 

Despite the challenge of getting access to the water, Essex Bay is worth the effort (see my post Paddle Trip: Choate Island and Crane Beach). Once I'm on the water there, I'm in another world that is less than an hour from my house. The sun, the salt air, the tall white dunes on the bay side of Crane Beach, the view of the colonial farmstead on Choate Island - this is a quintessential New England experience, and shouldn't be missed. If you only do it once - do it anyway. You'll thank me.

For a bonus tip - avoid the long lines at the touristy clam shacks and sidle up to the bar at the Choate Bridge Pub  in Ipswich. You can hang out with the locals, and order up fried clams that are as good as anything you'll get at the more well known joints. Wash them down with a pitcher of Ipswich Ale - brewed a couple blocks away (fresh is best 😋), and you will have fully experienced the delights of this stretch of the Massachusetts coast, and one of the oldest populated places in the country. You'll be salty, sun bleached, and well fed & watered - all in all, happy as a clam 😊.

- TB on the Water   





Unknown said...

Do you think kayakers would be willing to pay a parking/launching fee at Conomo Point? I know Gloucester and Manchester charge $25 for a day at the beach. Would kayakers be willing to pay that amount if they knew they had a guaranteed spot? The reason I ask is that the town is planning to sell two empty lots to current landowners on the point. This would reduce the amount of land available for parking. If the town convinced that kayakers would pay such a fee they might be willing to keep the land as open space for parking.

TB on the Water said...

Hi Paul, Thanks for the question. I think a fee is a reasonable offer, depending on the proximity to the launch point. $25 would be too steep for me. I would just go somewhere else. I would consider something lower, personally.