City River Gone Wild: Paddling the Merrimack River Through Manchester
Our Explorers paddle the Merrimack from the red-brick canyon rapids of the Manchester mills to a calm, secluded island. As always, lessons are learned along the way.
Less than a half-mile from our put-in below the Amoskeag Dam in Manchester, we reach the first set of rapids, stretching out from the Bridge Street overpass and running in a tumult for 150 yards. I’m manning the bow of the canoe, 13-year-old Kaya is sitting amidships, and her mom, Tanya Pierce, is in the stern. While we hover above the drop, my rugby pal, Chris Pierce, and his 9-year-old son, Will, charge the rapids first, their heads bobbing up and down amidst the whitecaps.
Tanya says, “Paddle,” and I stroke hard for the entry point. As we cross into the shadow of the bridge, I spot a concrete berm just below the surface of the water.
Before I can shout a warning, the canoe grinds over the obstacle, turns broadside to the current, and capsizes. I’m tossed into the drink, followed by Tanya. Kaya’s still in the canoe, which is beginning to roll over. She’s an arm’s-length away, her face turned sideways, regarding me calmly.
Tanya is attempting to right the canoe, but the roiling water pushes Kaya toward the bow, and I’m having trouble getting a purchase with my hands or my feet. The river pulls us farther into the maze of whitecaps, and Tanya swings around the stern, grabbing ahold of Kaya …
It’s a hot humid day, like being mummified in gauze beneath a trillion-watt sunlamp. Today, my friends and I have resumed our ongoing “It’s Easier to Ask Forgiveness Than Permission Tour” through the wilds of New Hampshire. But this is a darker, and certainly more urban adventure than what we’re accustomed to, as we paddle through and beyond the relics of the Industrial Revolution. Off to our left, Manchester’s red-brick mills loom ominously over the water, shading it to black.
Running 117 miles from Franklin, New Hampshire, to Newburyport, Massachusetts, the Merrimack is a broad, twisting river passing through farmland, field and forest. But we’ve set out from downtown Manchester for an overnight excursion, with a vehicle parked at the take-out point approximately 10 miles south. Our party consists of photographer and all-round adventurer, Joe Klementovich, of North Conway, and the Pierce family —Chris, Tanya, and their blond-haired, blue-eyed children. As usual on these trips, I’ve had the wisdom to surround myself with people I trust, whose outdoor capabilities, athleticism and experience reflect Hemingway’s notion of “grace under pressure.” The Merrimack River is known for being wide and slow, but it’s not without peril, as we quickly find out.
Henry David Thoreau and his brother John paddled a long stretch of the Merrimack River in 1839. In Thoreau’s poetic treatise, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” he noted the mingling of wilderness and civilization they experienced on the trip: “We contemplated at our leisure the lapse of the river and of human life; and as that current, with its floating twigs and leaves, so did all things pass in review before us, while far away in cities and marts on this very stream, the old routine was proceeding still.”
One of the earliest mentions of the river occurred in 1603, from Pierre du Gaust, Sieur De Monts. Earlier that year, De Monts, who was acting as the French lieutenant-general of Acadia — all the land from the 40th to the 46th parallel — visited the Abenaki tribes in Quebec. He wrote, “The Indians tell us of a beautiful river, far to the south, which they call the Merrimack.”
In 1863, the historian J.W. Meador noted that the Merrimack had been the “grand trunk road” of the Abenaki for centuries, leading to abundant fishing grounds, as well as a vast wilderness teeming with deer, beaver, bears and other game.
The origin of the name “Merrimack” is not entirely clear, though there are several intriguing possibilities. One interpretation is that Merrimack is the Algonquin word for “sturgeon,” the large, migratory fish that were so plentiful in the river. (Generally, all the Native American tribes of the Eastern Seaboard, including the Abenaki, were Algonquin, named for the language they spoke.) Algonquin is known for its word-pictures, marking the landscape with names that can often be recognized when the places they stand for are encountered. Thus, Abenaki who lived nearby may have wished to memorialize the river’s powerful current, naming it “merroh” (strong) and “auke” (place).
Another viable interpretation is that the local tribes conflated the words for island (“mena”) and place (“auke”) to create “mena-auke”, or “island place,” which the English settlers took for Merrimack.
By the time our journey was finished, we’d all have a keen appreciation of the Merrimack as both “strong place” and “island place.”
Below the crest of the first rapid, Tanya and I are managing the crisis, but it’s a struggle. As the canoe rides the swell, I’m thrust backward against submerged rocks, bashing my right hip. I’m trying to hang onto the gunwale so I can go hand-to-hand along the side to reach Kaya. Tanya is out of the boat on the upriver side, and is fighting her way around to grab hold of Kaya’s personal flotation device, or PFD.
The water is just shallow enough that I can get my feet down, but the current keeps sweeping my legs downriver. For a few seconds, the whole episode unspools in a skein of images, the roar of the water is vacuumed away, and my field of vision turns to black and white, like I’m watching an old silent movie.
In slow motion, the canoe rolls and Kaya’s face hovers close to mine. I can read the prevailing emotion in her eyes — trust.
With two hands on her PFD, Tanya pulls Kaya free of the canoe, and starts toward shore. Meanwhile, the canoe bobs free of the hollow and I’m able to right it, though it’s half-filled with water. Tanya and Kaya and I kick and swim, toting the canoe toward the river’s western bank.
Downstream, Chris and Will calmly paddle around to various spots, retrieving the cooler, dry bags, paddles, even my flip-flops, from what Chris later calls an aquatic “garage sale.”
With Joe leading the way on his paddleboard, we clear two sets of rapids without incident. Approaching the Route 101 bridge, the huge concrete abutments rise up from the choppy surface of the Merrimack. River guides will tell you — and Chris, Tanya and I discovered on a rafting trip in Montana — that manmade objects are often the most dangerous things in the water. As Chris noted, if you end up pinned against one of the abutments, you’re in real trouble.
Joe goes ahead to scout the rapids originating under the bridge. There’s a significant drop and an islet crabbed with scrub providing a vantage point on the run. Joe waits for us there, and we disembark for a better look. Below us, the river runs fast and black, tipped with white rollers. A trio of kayakers in helmets and PFDs huddle nearby in an eddy, picking out their routes.
Chris and Tanya shoot the rapids in the first canoe, mooring it below the island. I join them on the rocky slab, Joe and the kids a short distance away, scanning the river.
I nod to Chris, gesturing him aside. We’ve been in plenty of tricky situations, in rugby matches and in the wilderness, and he reads me pretty well.
“What’s up?” he asks.
Will has sidled over, but Chris turns him around by the shoulders, gently directing him away.
“Back there,” I point over my shoulder, “there were a few seconds where I didn’t like the way things were going.”
Chris gazes frankly at me. “It’s all right, buddy,” he says.
For the second run, Chris and Will and I shoot the rapids, with Kaya and Tanya waiting on the other side. I’m in the bow, Will in the middle, and Chris mans the stern. We paddle over to the flat water above the drop, and Chris holds us in the current, studying the way ahead.
“Ready?” he asks.
“Go,” I say.
We start paddling, trying to outpace the current, which gives Chris added maneuverability. A patch of smooth water cleaves the top of the rapid, and as we approach, Chris says, “This isn’t the same route …”
Arriving at the pointy end of the flat spot, I see a shelf of black rock lying inches below the water. The canoe grinds against the serrated rock, the stern slips around so we’re perpendicular to the current, and for a split-second, Chris and I keep us afloat. But the pressing water tips us to port, and we’re thrown into the roiling whitecaps.
Chris and Will are whisked away in the flutter of an eyelash, hanging onto the canoe, their heads bobbing in the froth. I can hear Chris laughing and Will’s excited cries over the sound of the burbling water.
For a few seconds, I cling to the rock, shifting my weight — and my feet — downriver in a sitting position. It’s 100 yards of rough, rock-strewn water to either shore.
So I let go, my PFD riding up on my neck a little, but getting my head and shoulders above the water. The ride is wild and fast and bumpy, like barreling down a cobblestone road in an old jalopy. Waves break over my head as I zoom down into black trenches of water, and then crest the foam. About 75 yards of whitecaps stretch ahead of me, and other than a hard knock against one of the submerged boulders, I sit back, racing along at 30 mph, amazed at the power of the river.
I’m a quarter-mile downstream before I realize I’m clutching my paddle, and that my sunglasses are still attached to my face. Out ahead, the kayakers are picking up the unsold items from our latest garage sale.
By the time we’re eight miles downriver, the sun has disappeared behind a wall of trees and we need a place to camp. Up ahead, there’s an islet on the left side of the river. After we clear the last set of rapids, Joe paddles over to investigate. It’s one of the tiny sliver islands that dot the “merroh-auke,” a narrow hump of land bristling with small trees and fringed by a slim gray beach.
Landing the canoes, we level the beach with our paddles, rig up Chris’ tent, off-load our gear, and collect driftwood for a fire.
Will hollows out a sand pit by the water’s edge. In the twilight, the river takes on a silvery glaze, broad and flat like a mirror. Chris piles up tinder, twigs and a few dead branches, and lights it with a match. The fire smolders, emits a wavering ribbon of smoke, and then blazes up.
Chris grins. “One match,” he says.
At the violet hour, we cobble together a meal. There’s rolled grape leaves from Korbani’s Bakery in Methuen, Massachusetts, Chris’ homemade hummus, enchiladas from Dos Amigos in Concord, strips of fresh pineapple and apples smothered in peanut butter. Talk is lively, our voices booming over the water. We trade stories about the worst night we ever spent outdoors, and the best meal we’ve ever had in the wilderness (Joe: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches cooked in the heat of his backpack, and mushed together during a family expedition to Hampton Beach).
When Chris breaks out the chocolate stout, and Joe produces a flask of bourbon distilled in Tamworth, the conversation pivots to the best single drink of alcohol we’ve ever had.
Pretty sure I win this category. On a trip across Europe with rugby teammate “Surfer John” Hearin, we stopped in Antibes on the French Riviera where we made the acquaintance of a beautiful, sophisticated blonde woman who owned our cabana. She invited us to dine al fresco with her and two other guests. After feasting on roasted chicken and vegetables, the hostess poured a generous splash of Armagnac into a snifter. She stood beneath a string of white lights hanging from the grape arbor, the smooth planes of her face hovering beside mine as I tried the cognac. Très magnifique.
After Tanya and the kids turn in, and Joe retires to his bivvy sack, Chris and I pass the flask. In the shorthand of old friends, we discuss our favorite baseball movies (“The Natural,” “Bang the Drum Slowly”), Australian actor Guy Pearce’s most underrated performance (“The Hurt Locker”), and our best adventures (among them, biking in San Luis Obispo, California, where Chris invented the concept of “Absentee Good Samaritanism,” twice borrowing an air pump from a bicycle chained up near an old Spanish mission, replacing it each time).
A few stars are out — heavenly fire shining through the cracks in the firmament, as the ancient Greeks believed. The only sound is the rush and sweep of the river, turned purple in the darkness. I sip from the flask, staring into the flames. Thoreau was right: You can always see a face in the fire.
Chris and I have each lost a friend lately, and we provide a few details about that person’s life, and what it means to see them go. Beneath the night sky, Chris and I work out the calculus of risk vs. reward, the dangers of our trip measured against the notion of lived-in time, and what else we went to accomplish before we go.
With no rain expected, we’ve left off the tent fly, the entire Pierce clan sleeping beside me. To my left, Will is fidgeting in some white water dream. Chris and Tanya are the ultimate helicopter parents — they’d let their kids fly a helicopter, so long as there was a licensed instructor on board. After Will settles down, I cross my forearms behind my head, gazing upward through the mesh ceiling. A full moon, shining like a coin, rides high above the river, momentarily halved by a boat-shaped cloud. I feel a long ways from anywhere, but my friends are close at hand.
I doze off for a while, and rise in the dimness of early morning, quietly gathering sticks and twigs, ripping out an old page from my notebook to use as tinder. One match.
On the other side of our camp, Joe sits up in his bivvy sack. Shaking off the cobwebs, he rigs his fly rod and paddles out to fish the deep portion of the river. The sun edges to the horizon, and the Pierces begin to emerge from the tent, like characters in one of Jack London’s stories. Chris makes tea with a quick-boil stove, and soon we’ve buried the fire, packed the canoes and bagged our trash.
“Leave it the way we found it,” Chris says to Kaya.
Beneath glassy blue skies, our little fleet makes its way downstream. The landscape is greener here, hemmed in by trees on both sides, the city noise disappearing behind us.
On the first day, the river had a fetid smell in places, the embankments littered with trash. A bit peeved, Tanya said that if more people fished and paddled along this portion of the Merrimack, it would become known as a wilderness destination and be treated with more respect.
For an hour, the river is wide and flat, reflecting bluebird skies. A bald eagle flies across the river, passing directly in front of us. Like Tanya was saying, there’s a lot to recommend this section of the river.
Rounding a bend, we hear a loud, rumbling noise that sounds like a freight train. Joe paddles up from behind us, going forward to explore the next set of rapids.
Tanya, Kaya and I hang back, chatting with Chris and Will. After the hard knocks of the first day, no one would complain about flat, still waters. But 75 yards ahead, Joe paddles over to the lee shore, reaches into his pack, and zips on his PFD.
“Not a good sign,” says Tanya, making a face.
Joe returns to our location. Ahead, to the left, we can see two large, gray boulders. One of them is the size of a small house. On the right, there’s a maze of steep, triangular whitecaps that continue for a good distance. Joe points out a fallen tree near the boulders, so the only possible route is through the white water.
We’re going first. As we paddle out, I glance back at Kaya.
“Pull your knees up to your chest,” I say. “I doubt we’re going to spill, but if we do, I want you to roll out of the boat. Got it? Get out of the boat right away, and I’ll come get you.”
For an instant, I stare into Kaya’s large, blue-gray eyes. “Right?” I ask her.
Kaya nods. “Right.”
We’re positioned 50 yards above the first drop, the water roaring. I have to yell over the din. “OK, Tanya,” I say. “Paddling.”
“OK,” she hollers.
There’s a smooth, triangular patch of water to our left and right, with a narrow, furrowed, rocky channel straight ahead. This time, we know enough to avoid the flat spots, and enter the deep, watery V with a thump. Instantly, the canoe is rocking and pitching and rolling, waves crashing over the bow, but we’ve built up enough momentum to cut through the whitecaps.
When a black, table-shaped rock appears out of the foam, I yell, “See it?” to Tanya, and she says, “Yeah. See it!”
We slip by the table rock, and narrowly avoid a small pointy one by shifting our weight to the left. Waves crash over the boat to starboard, and Kaya lets out a high-pitched cry.
“It’s all right, kid,” I say. “We’re good.”
Paddling furiously, we cut through the roughest section, skim over a line of diamond-shaped whitecaps, and are deposited into the main channel, following the diminishing thread of the current.
I reach behind my back, and Kaya gives me a fist bump. “Like butter,” I say, and she laughs.