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Editorial: River must be approached with caution

The Merrimack River is thought to have taken its name from the Native Americans who lived along it and relied on it for food and transportation. Depending on which source you consult, the name may have meant “fast-flowing water” or “place of strong current.”

Either name suggests why the river must always be approached with caution, even when it beckons in the midst of a heat wave. Though we have dammed the Merrimack and bridged it, we have by no means tamed it.

This was made clear twice over during the holiday weekend, and in tragic fashion. On Friday afternoon, Gary LaCroix drowned in the Merrimack in Concord after wading into the river. The next day, the Merrimack claimed Daron Graham in Boscawen, where he had been playing on a rope swing. Their deaths are a loss to their friends and families, of course, and to the community at large.

Others have died in the river here before, and elsewhere along its course, too. Three years ago, in a sad stretch reminiscent of our own, two people drowned in a week’s time at the Massachusetts end of the river, prompting the Newburyport News to remark that the river “is unforgiving of mistakes in judgment.”

The biggest danger, especially in times of heavy rain, is the very flow of the river. According to a gauge near the Everett Arena that is monitored by the National Weather Service, the Merrimack was passing at a rate of about 6,800 cubic feet per second at midday yesterday in Concord. Think of a cubic foot as occupying about as much space as a basketball; that’s a lot of water, amounting to millions of gallons every minute.

On Friday, when LaCroix lost his life, the rate was more than 15,000. At another gauge downriver, in Lowell, Mass., the flow that day peaked at almost 30,000 basketballs per second; the river flows faster farther south because at that point, more tributaries and other sources are feeding it – think runoff from parking lots, especially when the rain falls heavily.

Water moving that quickly can carry tree trunks with it, as well as limbs and branches, which is why debris is one threat to boaters, swimmers and waders, especially at times of high water. The water flows faster beneath the surface, so if you lose your footing, the river tends to tug you down. And the depth of the river can vary from inches to 5 feet to 40 or more from spot to nearby spot. As the current scours the riverbed, depths can even vary from day to day.

The Merrimack begins not far north of Concord, in Franklin, where the Pemigewasset and Winnipesaukee rivers come together. At that point, it is 280 feet above sea level, and it derives its energy from dropping along its 117-mile length as it winds south to Newburyport and the sea.

Our feel for the river isn’t what it was in generations long past – when early settlers relied on it as Native Americans did, followed by successors who harnessed rapids to power mills along its course. Having since treated it shamefully, as a sewer, we are now guilty of taking it for granted, of failing to fully appreciate its beauty and variability.

And when we do turn to it now, likely for recreation, we do not always treat it with the wary respect it demands.

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