Last year, some buddies of mine and I had the idea that we could make it from my house to the ocean with nothing but a few kayaks and our wits. We also had a few bottles of bourbon. And some beef jerky. We only had a single roll of toilet paper between us, and I think only three of us were carrying some form of shelter for the night, but we were carrying enough steak to give a 17 year old All tate wrestling champion a heart attack.
And - thankfully, as it turns out - we also had at least one cell phone so that we could call our wives when it got dark, and cold, and we were still in downtown Lowell, with no place to camp in sight.
Below is a map of the route we took - we completed the bit in red.
With the move to Maine on the horizon, one of the co-adventurers stopped by my house a couple of weeks ago
"Ken," he said. "We've got to have another go. At least we've got to make it all the way down the Concord, and onto the Merrimack."
You mean the hard, exhausting, white-watery bit that put a hole in one boat last year, and ultimately defeated a half dozen middle-aged men who had set off on a poorly planned two-day trip down the river?
This was our route.
We put in just a bit above the start of the rapids on the Concord. We had gotten through some of those last year, and knew more or less what we'd be facing for the first part.
John, my buddy, had put a bit of thought into this. I could tell he had been stewing on where we went wrong the last time. A lot of it had to do with our boats.
See? It wasn't our fault. It was the boats.
I swiftly got behind this line of thought.
This time, we went for a couple of short, sit-on-top kayaks. Something easy to jump out of it you got stuck, or if the rapids became a little much. Also: something you wouldn't have to bail.
These kayaks had no bulkheads to carry anything, or even straps or tie-downs to slip a water bottle on. It was just us, and a paddle. It was just the two of us, and John had a couple of boats for us to use that should fit the bill perfectly.
These boats are also about 8 feet shorter than the kayaks we used last year - almost 10 feet shorter than the lovely Necky I bought for Christmas. They're not nearly as fast or easy to paddle on the open stretches as a bigger, trekking kayak, but that wasn't the point.
We figured we'd be able to paddle this stretch in a few hours. We weren't trying to recreate the whole thing. Just take on the part that defeated us.
The Concord river is lovely. You run between wide open stretches of forested bank, and rocky shores, in through old mill towns. In a short stretch, we saw herons and cranes and egrets, and other wildlife. At one point I called over to John, "Is that a loon?"
"You're a loon. That's a cormorant."
OK. What the hell do I know. They're all birds to me.
Pretty soon, we were down into the mill areas. Lowell used to be a mill town - textile plants line the banks still - some of the largest down on the Merrimack have been converted into lofts, offices and other lovely sites. But many of the mills are still empty.
The rivers were the reasons for the mills, of course. All that water gave a great supply of potential power for the looms. Where they went rushing by, the mills could tap into the free power of nature to drive the mechanics to support an industry.
We soon got to the parts where the power was on display.
This actually wasn't the stretch that made me the most nervous. That was a bit further up river, and I was a bit too preoccupied with, oh, I don't know, NOT DROWNING, to stop and take pictures.
The little sit on tops were perfect, though. I got tipped out a couple of times, and still had to stop to drain the shallow area where my feet and butt sat of water occasionally. But it was easy enough.
For the really big stretches (like the one above), we'd stop quickly and have a look before we went back to our boats to give it a try.
I stood by this one while John went down first. I figured if he survived, I'd have a go.
Pretty much the whole time, I was shouting encouragement to John. Helpful bits of advice like "Ooh! That was close!" and "If you don't get out, you still win!" or "Don't hit your head - I don't have your wife's number in my contacts!"
John, of course, came through it beautifully. Then it was my turn. Just below where John is in the picture above, I tipped out, slammed into a rock, and was pretty sure I had broken my leg for a while. It was kind of hard to tell for sure through the swelling and the bleeding. And I'm not at my best judgement when I'm crying like a 9 year old girl.
John asked if I was ok. I said "Of course I am," and we got back in the kayaks laughing. I think he was laughing. By then, my sobbing had quieted down a bit, and I was able to paddle on.
Lowell has a whole series of canals that span the inside angle between the Merrimack and the Concord rivers. They weren't transportation canals - just designed to channel water between the mills to be tapped for turbines and power.
John and I decided we deserved a little less white water, and portaged up above the locks to paddle down the canyons between the mills. (the dotted lines on the map above are the directions we explored).
The whole area of these canals is a National Park. It's one of the only parks of its kind, located in and throughout the downtown, covering all the canals.
I didn't know these interesting facts until this off-duty Park Ranger (see the Smokey the Bear hat in his hand?) stopped us and asked if we were lost and needed help. And that you know, we really weren't supposed to be on the canals that were closed to the public.
Honestly, if he had been an ass, he could've made us get our kayaks out of the water and carry them back to the river a half mile away. Instead, he just nicely asked us if we could go back the way we came.
Stay awesome, Ranger Rick.
We put ourselves back on the river, and paddled out onto the Merrimack. I crooked my neck back over my shoulder and took this picture as we got out onto the Mighty Mo', looking back at the junction of the rivers, and the mills on the bank.
We paddled a mile or so further down to where we had dropped off my car. While there were a few shallow cataracts along the way, the white water had all been left behind. The Merrimack flows strong all the way to the ocean. We had achieved our purpose. We proved we could do it.
Also, there was less bourbon on this trip.
Huh. I wonder if there's a connection?
Either way. Victory!