By Water: Paddling to Exeter
Take a paddleboarding trip down the Squamscott River to Exeter
There’s something about approaching a town that you’ve never visited before from the water — it’s a much different kind of entrance than driving down the main drag as you do your best to outsmart other cars and victoriously claim a prime parking spot. From this direction, you are most likely coming in from the backside of town, and instead of being greeted by storefronts, shop signs or eye-catching displays, your first impressions are of its quiet, day-to-day activities instead. On the river, you get glimpses of locals walking their dogs or enjoying lunch with friends. It’s not the bombastic persona that they want you to see and experience; it’s the silent yet potent pulsation of everyday people living their lives. To me, that’s a far more interesting introduction to a place than a drive down Main Street.
In this case, the town was Exeter and the waterway was the Squamscott River. Our plan — myself and two friends, Bridget and Joe — that day was to meet at the put-in, where Route 108 crosses the river, and paddle downstream to let the tide softly pull us along as we made our way into town.
I didn’t have my own, so I borrowed a friend’s bright-pink-and-blue paddleboard for the day, and tossed on a matching sweatshirt to counteract the mood of the gloomy, overcast morning. I had a backpack full of essentials (plus rain gear) secured neatly under the bungee cords on the nose of my board and personal flotation devices (PFDs) accessible on the back. I wasn’t terribly worried about falling off my loaner board, which was broad and sturdy, but glanced nervously at my adventure buddy, Bridget, who seemed less than confident in her much smaller SUP board’s ability to hold her upright. Whether one of us capsized or not, it would be an adventure for sure, because, honestly, how many people plan to have a day in town that involves paddling six miles down the river and back? Not many, I’m sure. Yet, that sense of adventure tops the list of reasons why I love New Hampshire and New England in general; there is no shortage of new and interesting ways to explore the area, and at least one or two friends who are happy to come along for the ride.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes a human-powered trip down a river feel so intimate.
Whether it’s a canoe, kayak or SUP board, there’s a sense of stillness being in such close proximity to the water, not to mention the action of gliding through it in a way that feels so effortless it was as though you were flying. At times, the tide went slack and our output increased. Other times, it did pull us along as we had hoped, and it wasn’t hard to feel the water’s momentum as it moved toward the sea. Everything became a little easier and lighter when you could go with the flow of its natural movements, and during quieter moments, I waxed poetic to myself about being in harmony with the dance of the gravity between Earth and the moon, among other things.
Funnily enough, there were few quiet moments when it came to the three of us. While paddling, you naturally stick close to one another and fall into sync with one another’s steady strokes.
Despite the crummy weather and threat of rain, there was a buzz of happy energy just to be there together, with the same end goal and nothing else to do but paddle, that kept us totally present. I marveled at how simple and accessible this could be for anyone who wanted to simply try. You don’t need a lot of skill or previous experience to paddle a short distance down the river, just the willingness to find a board, pick your route, and go. For miles we never heard the nagging bing or beep of a phone, just the continuous sound of happy chatter and the occasional “Woah!” when one of our boards caught us off guard and wobbled beneath our feet. True serenity, I’d say.
Perhaps that feeling of intimacy also stemmed from our unusual vantage point of people who live on the river. Some yards backed right up to the shores of the Squamscott with docks or boats at the ready, while others were tucked away into its lush, marshy vegetation. Sheerly out of curiosity, we peered into the houses from a far enough distance that we could conceal our nosiness, wondering about the lives of these riverside folk and what they thought of our meandering trip down and then back upstream again that day.
Only once did we encounter a boat, a relatively small motorboat that came roaring around a bend, and the three of us held on for dear life as its waves rocked our SUP boards (some more than others) without knocking us off. However, even after traveling for quite some time, we didn’t see a soul aside from a few great blue herons that would silently soar through the air and completely capture our attention.
For a while, the scenery all looked the same: Heaps of pale green and golden stems of tall marshy grass lined the silty banks of the saltwater river holding the sediment and other semiaquatic vegetation in place as it has done for hundreds of years when this was a busy, working tidal river. Our leisurely paddle was a far cry from the kind of bustling activity
that the Squamscott and another nearby waterway, the Piscataqua River and the Great Bay, a tidal estuary that was a hub of the seacoast, used to see.
However, when we turned a corner, the landscape suddenly transformed into a far more urban setting.
The river opened wide and the town’s historic mills came into view. It’s been nearly 200 years since these mills were built and packed full of workers, but the place was still buzzing with energy. Even from a distance, it was easy to see that the deep-red brick exteriors had developed a weathered patina that gave away its age, and our watery approach made me feel like an intrepid explorer triumphantly arriving at the seaport.
With soggy toes and growling stomachs, our group was eager to get into town and pay a visit to Laney & Lu Café, owned by New Hampshirite and fellow outdoor enthusiast Jennifer Desrosiers, who had put Exeter on our radar not too long ago and raved about this bustling riverside destination. “Exeter is an amazing spot for adventuring,” says Desrosiers. “It’s nestled in close to the Seacoast with a historic downtown, unique boutiques and a developing restaurant scene.”
As the owner of one of those amazing eateries, Desrosiers is deeply embedded in the community and committed to serving sustainable food to hungry locals, which is a key part of her business’ mission. “We source from more than two dozen local farmers and merchants, support local nonprofits,” says Desrosiers. “The community is supportive of small businesses, health-conscious, and embraces a strong local food movement, making it the perfect spot for Laney & Lu Café.”
I scarfed down a delicious egg and avocado sandwich called The Epic (it truly was epic) and slurped up a Wild Lemonade that was packed full of nourishing ingredients, and tinted blue from a dash of spirulina (it is a health food café after all), all while taking in the scene of this thriving town on the river, happy to be a stranger seeing this place with fresh eyes, an open mind and slightly damp pants.
As we returned to the town docks where our paddleboards had been secured, I chuckled to myself as I reflected on our journey here. We had begun our trip at a quiet put-in off the side of a busy road beneath a bridge in the early morning hours not knowing what to expect. Yet this was a unique outdoor adventure that, yes, had a means to an end (lunch and a spin around downtown Exeter) but offered us so much more than merely a way to arrive at our destination. A paddle down a river can be all kinds of things: rough and turbulent or gentle and smooth; it can be used for work, as a mode of transportation or as a form of recreation. It engages your imagination in a reverie of the past and capture your present attention with its playful ripples and changeable face. Moreover, it reminds us that, especially on the river, we are always in a perpetual state of flow, moving onward to something new and exciting.
For thousands of years, people have traveled along rivers because of the way they link places together — like a connective tissue between cities, ports and harbors. Gliding along the water’s surface felt like we had somehow managed to slow down time, as well as travel through it, linking the past and present at once. As we left the excitement and chatter of downtown Exeter behind us in our wake, I was glad to be back in its flow, and from the surface, consider its depth.