My Bride laughingly refers to this as my 'mid-life crisis trip.'
OK, so it happened to coincide with the same month I turned 40. But I know it's not a mid-life thing because I've been planning this for about 4 years, and this actually has more to do with the chickens and the pigs in my backyard than it does my birthday.
Like those other ideas, it started with an episode of River Cottage, where Hugh Fearnsley-Whittingstall paddled down the river from his house to the English Channel. In his case, that was a trip of less than 10 miles that he did in an afternoon punting about in a canoe.
Every day, I drive over the Concord River to and from the office. One of those days several years ago, it struck me that I could probably try the same thing. I wasn't the first one to have this thought (Thoreau did the same trip in 1839), but I mentioned it to a few buddies over the years, and finally decided that this was going to be the year.
It ended up being late October, because of coordinating the various schedules. 6 of us ended up going on this trip - all guys from around my little town. Most of us knew each other. Or at least a couple of others that were going. All of us were game for the attempt. We definitely wanted it to happen after the cold had killed off the majority of mosquitos. And it's nice to enjoy the change of leaves and scenery. But it has its tradeoffs. More on that later.
Step 1: Find some boats.
I don't have a kayak of my own, but my Bride & I used to rent them a lot when we lived out in California. I've seen plenty of them out on the Concord river. I had rented a canoe previously for an afternoon with the kids, but I was pretty sure I didn't want to try this trip in a canoe. Mostly because I don't really enjoy canoeing. Sure, it's a lot easier to load & unload, and you can bring a lot more. But it's also heavier to move & push around through the water. And you're probably going to end up with someone else in your boat. And what's the fun of that?
The day-touring sea kayaks are easy enough, and plenty durable for whatever we might face on the river.
Oh yeah. Step 2: Figure out how to get there.
I had a definite advantage of Thoreau. I have Google Maps. That little arrow is the junction where the Concord river runs into the Merrimack. Hang a right there and keep going down stream, and eventually you hit the Atlantic ocean at Newburyport, MA - 30 miles or so north of Boston.
The total distance is about 50 miles from the bridge near my house to Newburyport, by river. But one of my genius friends suggested that we start another 5 miles upriver at the head of the Concord river, for that true Thoreau experience. Sure. Whatever. I was still trying to figure out how to squeeze my stuff into the boat.
Fortunately, I had some help.
One of the guys had sent an email before hand asking if we were trying to be self-sufficient on the trip, or if we'd be ok in sharing or stopping at a convenient bridge in town to scramble up and buy some extra water or coffee if we felt like it.
I explained: this was not a spiritual journey. I planned on bringing enough stuff to share around, and if he wanted to call his wife to come bring him some hot cocoa half way through, it was within the rules. I would make fun of him. And then I'd ask for a cup of cocoa for myself.
I rented the boats from Plum Island Kayaks - a very helpful guy named Ken, in fact. He brought them all down to my driveway for the drop off, which was terrific.
From looking at the map, I knew we weren't going to be able to make the trip in a single day. But I figured that downstream, without too many obstacles, it would be two solid days of paddling. A tiny bit of online research confirmed that from Lawrence to Newburyport was definitely achievable in a day's paddle.
Kind of the whole point of this trip was to avoid planning too much detail. I did a walk of the junction of the Concord and Merrimack to scout out a few of the rapids we'd encounter on the last stretch of the river before they met, but I deliberately didn't find a campsite ahead of time or do much further research beyond some reasonably extensive time with Google Maps zoomed in pretty much full blast.
This is the kind of thing that drives my prepper-Bride absolutely bat shit crazy.
"What are you packing?
"I think I'm going to bring the big cast iron skillet. And a sleeping bag."
"What about toilet paper?"
"Ooh! Good idea!"
"You're an idiot. Please update your insurance before you go."
The morning of, five of my buddies met in my driveway at 7:30am.
The first trailer we had was about a foot shorter than we needed to load the kayaks. So we had to go fetch another trailer. We threw all our gear in and headed over to the beginning of the Concord river at the Old Calf Pasture boat ramp, and started packing.
I had already sorted out where to put things the night before - my total pack list consisted of a sleeping bag & poncho & a change of clothes with an extra change of socks and the aforementioned toilet paper. That was the first two dry bags. I had a small dry box for my wallet, a charge pack and some matches, and a dedicated iPhone dry bag (that is awesome). The other gear was loosely packed in some plastic bags - a large cast iron skillet, a camp ax, some bungee cords, and food. Half a dozen eggs, hashbrowns, sirloin strips, an onion, and bratwurst, all stowed in a soft cooler on top of my kayak. Plus another like little cooler full of drinks.
When we all got started loading our kayaks, we counted three bottles of bourbon.
We didn't actually get in the water until almost 10am, but we were off to a good start on other logistical fronts.
Most of the first part of the river is wide open - it's lovely. Eventually, it does come into old mill towns of Tewkesbury, Lowell and Lawrence, and we started hitting areas that took a little bit more than simply paddling in a straight line.
That's me above (you can see the coolers strapped on behind me). I'm halfway over a 5 foot tall mill dam just coming into Lowell. The other guys laughed, and portaged around it after watching me go nose first. I had fun. But I got a little wet.
The portages gave us a chance to reset, grab a bite (and a sip or two for medicinal purposes), and head on to the next stretch.
The last few miles of the Concord river are narrower, and set with small dams and lots of rocks. Which means rapids. One of our crew had never set foot in a kayak before that day. Several of us hadn't been in years. But we were game to try it.
I tumbled in the water the first time trying to reach another one of the gang that had just tipped over. I ended up getting stuck on exactly the same rock, twisting in the current and swamping my boat. That was the start of a hard 2 or 3 hours of paddling. The water was low this time of year, which meant that in stretches where you'd normally have two or three paths through, there'd be only one viable path, which took a little scouting and planning each time.
So at times, you'd end up bottomed out - like my buddy above - and up out of paddle-able water. You could choose to push off, get out and let your boat lead you down on a line, or just struggle through.
We'd race through sections and then get caught up in sections. I lost my paddle once and found it a few hundred feet later. Struggled through portions with my hands and feet in the water, and laughed through others.
We finally regrouped about 3/4 of the way through this section. We were all cold and wet, and we discovered that one of us (the least experienced) had a patch on his boat break open, and had a dime-sized hole in the stern tip of his kayak, which flooded his rear bulkhead, and made his boat even more tippy. I think he flipped a half dozen times. I managed to do it myself only twice more.
We were sitting on the shore trying to size up if we could makeshift patch his boat. We were well into Lowell at this point, and the sides were much steeper. It was less than an hour until sundown, and we were beginning to have to think about whether we could make it far enough to camp.
Camping inside of Lowell wasn't an option - it's built up, old mill buildings, and older residential. It's a working town, with a lot going on. And the river doesn't run through the best neighborhoods.
There were a couple of guys who had lit a fire across the river on the other bank of the river, sort of between an old mill building and some houses. I was 'volunteered' to go over and ask if we could park for a minute to warm up and decide on next steps. I paddled over and got close enough to see that they were drinking cheap whiskey out of some shopping carts, and had apparently set up shop there, and clearly not for the view or to use the water for any kind of cleaning purposes.
I decided we were going to move on.
By this time, it was getting dark - I ran one last set of rapids around the last island in the Concord river before it joins the Merrimack. The last drop was about 2 or 3 feet, and I was pretty proud of not tipping again. I think it being in the dark made it easier in some ways - I had no idea the trouble I was getting into before I got there. Less to tense up.
The rest of the guys took one look, called me an idiot and pulled up on the bank (they really are smarter than I am). Just under the Whipple Cafe - a local bar/watering hole with no cafe about it. I pulled my kayak out of the water and pushed my way up the bank to them. We decided to declare the mission over for now, call one of our wives, and tow the trailers back.
I think the decision was made right after one of the group staggered on shore and stated firmly "I f#!%ing hate kayaking. I f#!%ing hate the water. I f#!%ing hate the cold. And I need a f#!%ing drink."
While we were waiting, a few of us went into the Whipple - dripping wet (I still had my life jacket on).
Remember that bar in "Star Wars" where the droids weren't welcome, and Luke got picked on by some weird monkey alien? This was not quite that well decorated. With a heavy Massachusetts accent.
The locals took one look at us and laughed.
"Whe-ah did you guys come from?"
"The river. Beer please."
"Whaddya mean, 'the rivah'?"
"The river. Kayaking. More beer please."
"It's been mostly dahk for two hours!?"
"Yep. If I buy you a beer too, can we be friends now? I forgot to bring Obi-Wan along."
The fuzzy picture above I snapped as we went back for my boat. Down river where I had pulled out, the banks were a steep, 50ft vertical drop below houses. We went back for my gear first, and then hopped fences and gates to sneak my kayak back up through a couple of back yards. I was pretty sure we stood a good chance of getting shot.
All part of the adventure, right?
Seriously - we had a blast.
We ended up pulling out just before the Concord hits the Merrimack. Right about where that arrow is up there in the map earlier. Probably a bit more than a third of the whole distance. There wasn't a part of it that wasn't fun - work, wet, cold, tiring, and beautiful. Good laughter, great scenery. Even the homeless pair was all part of the story. We lost a few odds and ends to the water, and learned a hell of a lot about that stretch of river.
I got home late Friday evening, shed my wet gear and downed a bottle or so of Ibuprofen before jumping in a hot shower and raising my core body temp a few degrees.
I woke up Saturday morning stiff and scraped and aching. A few of the guys showed up later in the morning - all claiming to feel less sore than I felt (damn them). And we loaded up the boats to take back to the rental place.
I was a little nervous that when I got in the van, they'd all beat the shit out of me for coming up with a stupid idea to paddle in the cooling autumn weather when we could have been home and hanging out safely indoors.
Instead, we all immediately began planning our next attempt - pack and load the kayaks the night before, start earlier (even before the sun comes up) to time our arrival at the first portage and rapids more effectively. We really only needed a couple more hours of daylight to have made the whole trip work. And our late start hampered us.
Mostly, though - I think we all took a lot of this view away from the trip.
Yeah. Totally worth it.