Why Do You Think They Call it the Great Bay?

It’s a living, breathing natural marvel that adds 144 miles to our shoreline, supports complex biological relationships and makes a perfect backdrop for a picnic. To get a proper look at this environmental treasure, it helps to start high and then get down into the details.Imagine a landscape changed in moments, a world literally transformed. Imagine the legacy of an ancient glacier, the lure of the nature’s forces, the potentially limitless bounty of a place so alive as to change all who dare to venture within its boundaries. Now imagine this magical place is something you’ve seen countless times and never paused to consider — a wonderland under a roadway bridge, a living, breathing monolith that for you is just part of the view as you drive on the narrow roads that connect New Hampshire’s heart to its Seacoast towns.

This place is the Great Bay Estuary, and imagine that, if you let it, it will change you, maybe even forever.

A professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, Manchester, Gail Fensom remembers the day she played Rip Van Winkle in the Great Bay Estuary, which is, in actuality, a complex hydrosystem extending 15 miles into New Hampshire. The estuary comprises several bodies of water including Little Bay, Furber Straight, Great Bay proper and the seven rivers that drain into the system, a tidally dominated confluence of a variety of natural habitats. Great Bay’s outlet is at Hilton Point in Dover, where waters flow into the Piscataqua River, then head to the Atlantic.

“We didn’t really understand what we were getting into,” Fensom says thoughtfully, recalling the summer day in 1994 when she ventured into Great Bay with her fiancé John. Novices at kayaking, they’d been practicing on ponds and Great Bay was to be their first saltwater adventure.

“It looked like the lakes we’d paddled on before, calm, serene, and it wasn’t until a bit later that we began to figure out that it wasn’t.”

Putting their kayak in the water at a small bridge on Rte. 4, the couple paddled first through Little Bay, then Great Bay, eventually stopping at a railroad bridge in Stratham at the start of the Squamscott River. During their trip, they marveled at the unspoiled newness, the serene safeness of the shallow waters they were discovering. For Fensom, the landscape evoked a picture of early settlers seeing New Hampshire’s waterways for the first time, low in their boats, hearing only the sounds of marine birds and the broad tips of hewn paddles sluicing through calm water.

“It wasn’t an easy put out,” Fensom continues, “but we eventually were able to find a place to pull out our kayak and had lunch on some sunny rocks. After we ate we laid back and both fell asleep … not for long, though, maybe 30, or 40 minutes.”

Fensom describes what happened next, and despite the many years that separate the professor from that long-ago day, her animation proves that her wonder at what the couple discovered upon waking is fully intact.

“We opened our eyes, and it was a completely different place. We were looking at a broad expanse of mudflat, and in the distance there was this narrow channel, which was clearly the only way back to our car. It was as if Great Bay had drained like a giant bathtub. For us, that meant slogging through a half-mile of mud while carrying our kayak. It also meant that our adventure, as big as it seemed that day, was just another reminder of our naiveté.”

Fensom pauses, as if to recollect the details of that day, to allow them to resolve. The pause is all the more meaningful once you know that the following week, on another kayaking adventure, her fiancé died in an accident.

“We were so humbled, John and I,” she says, “so quiet. We were barely significant. As human beings, we so rarely get that chance, the one that makes us realize that we are a part of something so much larger.”

Fensom’s story, and the stories of so many others who discover the Great Bay Estuary, are testaments to the importance of this natural wonder to New Hampshire, not only as a critical watershed area and habitat to hundreds of species of plants and animals, but as a cultural reminder of our state’s unique ecology and our collective relationship with our environment.

Most people think of New Hampshire as being defined by the White Mountains, rural pastures and riverfront mill towns, with the state’s diminutive, 18-mile coastline a mere afterthought, especially compared to the considerable marine exposure of our neighbors to the north and south. But the Great Bay Estuary changes that perception at even first glance, especially when one realizes that the expansive ecosystem, one of the most recessed inland tidal systems in the country, adds 144 miles of additional shoreline to the state.

By the numbers, Great Bay proper covers nearly 11,000 acres, or 17 square miles, and neighbors 11 New Hampshire cities and towns. The estuary’s ecosystem consists of five very different water-dominated habitats; eelgrass meadows, mudflats, salt marshes, channel bottom and rocky intertidal, which are home to 162 bird, fish and plant species. Twice daily Great Bay transforms at low tide, with more than 50 percent of its water surface area disappearing, revealing the mudflat beneath it.

During the last Ice Age, about 14,000 years ago, Great Bay was formed when a mile-high glacier creeping from the Arctic made a depression in the land that became a river valley. After the glacier melted, the ocean rose to flood the region, drowning the valley and creating the estuary. It still serves as a drainage point for three major rivers — the Lamprey, Squamscott and Winnicut, as well as for four others — the Cocheco, Salmon Falls, Bellamy and Oyster Rivers.

Atlantic tides carry salty ocean water into Great Bay twice daily, a force that so dominates the ecosystem that even in high-river season, it takes 18 days for river water to flush from one end of the estuary to the other. Flowing into Great Bay, tributary water fluctuates between being fresh, brackish and downright salty fairly far upstream, where only a few very-tolerant species of fish can handle the constant changes in salinity as a result of the tides.

But to naturalists and recreational users alike, this waterworld is so much more than the sum of its statistics. Great Bay is a living thing, one that moves and breathes, transforming its entire body with each tidal change. It’s both monster and a benevolent creature, proving elusive and hard to navigate, while giving so much bounty and beauty to its neighbors. Not to mention that the estuary provides, twice a day, one of the most entertaining and dynamic natural shows in New Hampshire.

Though much of the Great Bay Estuary is inaccessible because of private property boundaries on the shoreline, a portion is protected by the Great Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, which was established to conserve, study and manage the ecosystem. The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department manages more than 23,000 acres, and the Great Bay Discovery Center, on the southern shore of the Great Bay in Stratham, is where the public can access the reserve’s education programs and explore the estuary’s many habitats through programs, organized kayak trips and on easily accessible boardwalk pathways.

But for many other lovers of the Great Bay Estuary, experiencing the environment means venturing out recreationally. Bird lovers explore in small boats and adventurous types explore Great Bay’s wonders by sea kayak, putting in at tucked-away access points like Chapman’s Landing on the Squamscott or Little Sheepshead Creek off of Route 9. Experienced paddlers chronicle nature’s many trials in the estuary and must factor in the shifting currents and the tidal forces in advance of their trips. The Great Bay Estuary is irresistible, it seems, even though exploring its unrelenting beauty requires an acceptance of its many challenges.

In 1995, a year after her first paddle in Great Bay with her fiancé John, Gail Fensom felt that pull and put in her kayak once again, hoping to reconnect with her memories of the day the estuary changed her. This time, however, she’d planned for the tidal transformation, embarking from Adams Point in Durham, three hours before high tide. After more than five hours of steady paddling, Fensom had covered familiar waters, passing the railroad bridge and heading down the Squamscott alone, beyond the site of her and John’s Rip Van Winkle nap.

“I can still smell it,” she smiles, her eyes closed, “the brackish water, the fresh water mixing, the muddy shore. Before I knew it, I saw Exeter, a place I’d seen so many times, but it looked brand new to me, everything did. It was a new perspective, a brand-new angle of discovery. I saw the wildlife of the estuary, but I also saw an inhabited place right next to it. It made me realize how many people miss it altogether, and how lucky I was that I’d learned not to.”

Fensom reflects back on her journey and on the place the Great Bay Estuary holds in her heart, a place that for her is a reminder of who she is, a person who treasures discovery and the feeling of being human in a much larger, more important world.

That reflection feels universal, and closely mirrors the relationship the Great Bay Estuary has with so many who take the time to discover it.

“It inhales and it exhales,” Fensom says. “You can close your eyes and open them to see something you never imagined was possible.”

Or, if you can imagine it, you can open them to see the Great Bay Estuary, which has been there all along. NH

Getting ThereAccessEnjoying Great Bay is easy if you know how to get there. A great place to start is the Great Bay Discovery Center in Greenland, where visitors can pickup a guide called “Passport to Great Bay,” which includes maps to 10 properties where Great Bay’s many wonders can be discovered while walking on trails, picnicking, birding, hiking or even geocaching.

The center hosts a variety of programs throughout the year, including school programs, kayak trips and adult educational programs. In addition to teaching visitors about the unique cultural and environmental resources of the Great Bay, the Center has a mission to educate the public about the 23 species of threatened or endangered plants and animals in the estuary system.

Wagon Hill Farm, on Rte. 4 in Durham, overlooks Little Bay. There, visitors can picnic, walk short trails and, if the tides are right, swim off of a cozy sand beach. Adams Point in Durham is a popular access point for visitors to Great Bay, offering more than six miles of walking trails, a public boat launch, picnic areas and even musseling, depending on the season and tides. The Bellamy River Sanctuary, on Back River Road in Dover, is the home of the Bellamy River Wildlife Sanctuary, where visitors can hike and see a plethora of wildlife in several small tidal creeks. On the Oyster River in Durham, off Rte. 108, there is a riverside picnic area, and just up the road on 108, a popular public boat launch.

For kayakers, access to Great Bay is easiest by way of its tributaries. Some points of entry can be found in Stratham and Newfields, on the Squamscott River, on the Exeter River off the Swayze Parkway in Exeter and on the Lamprey River, where boats can access Great Bay from the public launch right downtown.

The National Wildlife Refuge is accessed through Pease International Tradeport via Rte. 33. The refuge has a two-mile walking trail loop that skirts a former weapon storage area and leads to a lookout platform on the Great Bay.

Flora and FaunaAccording to Sheila Roberge at the Great Bay Discovery Center, what there is to know about the vast array of animal and plant life in the estuary could fill up a shelf full of books. But for those who are interested in the estuary’s most notable inhabitants, she says that there are some plant and animal “standouts” in Great Bay.

Among the many bird species that can be spied in Great Bay are bald eagles, osprey, which have built many nests around the waterways, great blue herons, terns, mallard ducks and Canadian geese, which make their appearance in the summertime. Beginning in May another unique animal, the horseshoe crab, begins its own Great Bay invasion. Visitors flock to see these Paleozoic critters come onto Great Bay’s beaches to lay their eggs through July, before heading back to deeper waters.

For plant lovers Great Bay is home to many interesting species that have adapted to estuarine life. Cord-grass, salt marsh hay, rockweed, Irish moss and sea lettuce are in abundance in the estuaries’ expanse of salt marsh.

Fishermen extol Great Bay’s abundance of striped bass and flounder, which can be caught from several areas, including the old General Sullivan Bridge across the mouth of Little Bay where it meets the Piscataqua River between Dover and Newington.

Since the newer Little Bay Bridge was completed in 1984 to carry Rtes. 4, 16 and the Spaulding Turnpike, this popular spot for fishing has been closed to road traffic and is now also used by pedestrians and cyclists alike.

Diminishing DelicacyThose who aren’t squeamish about slurping raw oysters often don’t consider the complexity of these mollusks, which primarily live in rapidly diminishing intercoastal waterways and fragile estuary environments. Historically the Great Bay Estuary’s channel habitat has supported an abundant oyster population, but according to the Piscataqua Region Estuaries Partnership, the number of adult oysters thriving in Great Bay has dropped precipitously.

Biologists blame pathogens such as MSX and Dermo, the same diseases responsible for oyster decline in the Chesapeake and other mid-Atlantic estuaries, for the recent rapid decline of the oyster population in the Great Bay Estuary. In 1993, 125,000 bushels of oysters were living in the system. By 2000, the number had dropped to 6,174. In 2008, the numbers were slightly better, but 27 percent of Great Bay oysters were infected with MSX and 60 percent were infected with Dermo, limiting the surviving adult population to around 10,000 bushels.

More recently, however, marine scientists have noted a trend of seasonal oyster “spat sets,” which is when oyster larvae attach themselves to oyster beds. This gives researchers hope that greater numbers of oysters will thrive and reach adulthood in Great Bay than in the past.

It’s not exactly time to break out the horseradish for Great Bay’s sexy delicacies, but it’s good news for oyster lovers, nonetheless.

The Politician and the EstuaryThe unique qualities of the Great Bay Estuary system may have played a role in foiling one of the biggest political farces of the past decade.

On April 5, 2006, Congressional candidate Gary Dodds went missing after his car ran off the road on the Spaulding Turnpike in Dover. 24 hours later, he told rescuers that he had stumbled away from the wreck in a daze, wandered through the woods, swam across the Bellamy River and passed out on the shore, where they had discovered Dodds huddled under a pile of leaves. But investigators were puzzled over why Dodds’ shoes and socks were wet while the rest of his clothes were dry. His toes were frostbitten, but not his face or hands, and his body temperature wasn’t consistent with a person who had hypothermia associated with cold-water exposure.

State police eventually confronted Dodds with the many inconsistencies of his account. They suspected he’d never been in the river, and had merely soaked his feet in the water as part of an elaborate cover story to explain his disappearance. One of the things that tipped them off was his answer to a question posed by Sgt. Richard Mitchell, who asked Dodds if he could taste salt in the Bellamy River water when he swam across it.

Dodds, who was unaware of the effects of the Great Bay Estuary’s tides on the salinity of river water, responded, “It’s not saltwater there, is it?”

Dodds was convicted in February 2008 on three counts, including falsifying evidence and causing a false public alarm.

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