Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Paddle Trip: The Merrimack River - from Rocks Village to Merrimacport

As I mentioned in my post The Plumb Island River from Plumb Island, one of the few trips I've paddled over this summer was my first ever paddle on the section of the Merrimack River from the Rocks Village Bridge to Merrimacport. This was a few weeks ago, and I've meant to write a post on it, so here it is:


https://bridgehunter.com/ma/essex/bh47834/
The Rocks Village Bridge - with the Merrimack River below

The Rocks Village Bridge crosses the Merrimack between West Newbury, MA and and the Rocks Village section of Haverhill, MA. On the West Newbury side (south bank) a concrete boat ramp angles into a flat section of water just upstream from the bridge. A few parallel parking spots are available along the roadside, on a gravel section well off the road. Some foot paths offer alternate routes to the river, but watch out for poison ivy if you use them - it's plentiful in the undergrowth. Depending on the tide, the carry to the water can be over some muddy banks, but the footing is pretty firm, and you won't sink in. The Merrimack River is highly influenced by the tide in this section, as the first dam on the river is farther upstream - the Great Stone Dam in Lawrence. It's very important to know what direction the tide is flowing when you set out. Ebb tide (outbound) will work with the river current to create a strong pull downstream. This can cause areas of great difficulty to paddle against if you're heading in the opposite direction. Flow tide (inbound) is strong enough here to flow against the river current, and carry you upstream. The tide changes will always be delayed relative to the mouth of the river at Newburyport. Use tide charts like this one to determine the best time to launch. 

I launched on a hot July day, later than advisable relative to the tide change, and paddled downstream against the flow tide. Even with the river current in my favor, paddling against the flow was a bit of a slog - but, I made steady progress. I stayed close to the south bank to avoid the boating channel that runs largely next to the north bank. Power boats and jet skis are abundant on the river when the weather is hot. The occasional boat wake waves rose to a foot and half in height after a few of the passes, so I kept on eye on them, and didn't get too close to the bank, where they washed out. I paddled past (or underneath) some boats docks, but much of the river bank was undeveloped. 

About a half mile downstream from the bridge, I spied something curious off my starboard (right) side on the remaining river bank (soon to be covered by the tidal flow). At first, it looked like a shiny rock - then I saw it move. I paddled closer to get a better look and discovered it was a mammoth (for these parts anyway) snapping turtle. It had a head the size of a small log, and a shell big enough to accommodate two humps instead of the more common one hump. It didn't seem to mind my presence, and continued with its business of devouring a foot long carp that had washed up dead on the river bank. I watched it snap and tear chunks off the fish for a few minutes, then I moved on to leave it to its scavenging. I have no real idea, but I wouldn't be shocked to learn a snapper that big was 50 years old - it had certainly been lurking in these waters for a long time. 

Not long after, I started to cross paths with other kayakers and a paddleboarder riding the flow tide back upriver. One mentioned in passing that they were coming from a sandbar downstream where folks gather at low tide and anchor their boats or beach their kayaks. I set this as my destination and paddled on.

It was tough progress against the flow tide, but the breeze was cooling in the heat, and the riverbank kept my interest with gnarled tree roots and surprising small sand beaches or marshy areas. As I approached the bend in the river near Merrimacport, the river widened, and people were water skiing and playing on jet skis. I was careful to stay well clear of the action, but folks were being reasonable with their fun and I wasn't in any danger. A couple of friendly "hello"s from some anchored boats near the riverbank let me know everyone was having a relaxed day on the water.  

I could see the sand bar and remaining anchored boats downstream, but I decided to take a detour into a small tributary river (really a creek) winding south into a marshy area along the bank. This is the Indian River, and it appears to be the outflow for the watershed that forms Mill Pond in West Newbury - a recreational area open to the public. The Indian River is largely hidden in the marsh grass, and was quiet to river traffic. Birds flitted back and forth across the water, and a fish splashed nearby as I paddled further into the marsh. I eventually came to an impassible foot bridge with a small rubble stone dam under it. A small pond was formed on the upstream side of the dam, and I saw a rope swing kids use to hurl themselves into the water, apparently. After getting out to stretch my legs on the footpath that runs to the bridge, I re-launched for the return trip.

Upon re-entering the Merrimack, I immediately felt the power of the flow tide at my back, and was pushed along at a far more rapid rate than my downstream paddle. What took me an hour to paddle downstream, took me less than half that to return. Passage under the bridge was no problem, and there was no choke point current to battle. I slid along the placid water over the mud flat bank and back to shore - with a shorter carry back to the roadside now.

I never did make it all the way to the sandbar, but I'll keep that for a future trip. Considering I live 20 minutes from the launch point, I really have no excuse not to spend more time on this stretch of the Merrimack. I'm glad I finally got around to paddling this area, and I look forward to exploring it more in the future.

Rivers can be a fun alternative to ocean kayaking - just take care to understand each river section's particular challenges (read my post 5 Tips for Touring a River in a Kayak). Then, head out on the current and see what you find. You might be surprised.

TB on the Water       

    

                                               

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