Active Outdoors: Sunset paddle on Great Bay
What better way to get outdoors on a summer afternoon than to paddle a beautiful kayak with the tide on the Squamscott River between Stratham and Exeter? Oh, and there's ice cream ahead! (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
Between Stratham and Exeter NH, the Squamscott River passes under the busy Route 101 Bridge with cattail marshes stretching on either side. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
This paddle on the Squamscott River ends in downtown Exeter, which is lovely and quiet in the evening light. Stillwells Riverwalk Ice Cream just steps from the town landing makes it even better. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
One of the great discoveries of this hot and rainy summer has been the paddling on Great Bay near the seacoast of New Hampshire. The main part of the bay is open water, susceptible to wind, waves, boat wakes and strong tidal currents. In my opinion, you should have a sea kayak to paddle here. But the rivers that feed into Great Bay are largely protected and can be paddled in almost anything. The only real “hazard” is the swiftly flowing current at certain times in the tide cycle.
While looking for more paddling options on Great Bay, I discovered an evening trip run by the paddling group of the NH Chapter of the AMC (go to amc-nh.org
and click on “paddling”). The trip, which is entirely tide-dependent, involved putting in at Chapman’s Landing on the Squamscott River in Stratham, paddling upriver with the incoming tide 5 1∕2 miles to the center of Exeter, eating dinner in a restaurant there while waiting for the tide to turn, and riding the falling tide back down river as the sun set and the nearly full moon rose. You could do this for breakfast, brunch, lunch or an afternoon ice cream as well (there’s a wonderful little ice cream shop, Stillwells Riverwalk Ice Cream, just steps from the town landing).
I’m not too proud to steal a great idea, so our little group of friends decided to do the trip on our own and carry a picnic supper. The AMC group was at the launch at the same time – all the kind of fun, friendly people you expect to meet at any AMC outing.
We launched a little ahead of the other group and paddled just a bit faster, so we had the river pretty much to ourselves. In the 5 1∕2 miles, we were passed by four or five powerboats (most of whom slowed down and minimized their wakes as they passed us), and we saw maybe a half-dozen other kayakers and one tiny sailboat. The paddle upstream with the tide was lovely, through marshes packed with some of the tallest cattails I’ve ever seen (or maybe they just looked that way from the low seat of a kayak). At one point we passed under the busy Route 101 highway bridge. Paddling under a bridge you driven over hundreds of times is always an interesting change in perspective.
The town of Exeter looked beautiful in the golden afternoon light. We pulled our kayaks out at the town launch, found clean bathrooms in the town hall (look for the “lady on the roof!”) and picnicked in the riverside park while watching a diminutive, agile sailboat scoot silently back and forth on the river in the hands of a very capable sailor making the most of an almost-imperceptible breeze. It’s hard to imagine a more peaceful scene in a tiny New England town.
Our paddle downriver started in slack water at high tide, but, by the time we’d covered the first mile, the tide had turned and we rode the last four miles on a strong current. Paddling against it would have been very tough, but we sped along almost effortlessly. We actually got back to the cars earlier than we had planned. It would have been nice to stay on the water and watch the sunset and the moonrise, but we were more than content with the paddling we’d done. I really can’t think of a nicer way to enjoy the late afternoon and early evening of a warm, sunny summer day than on the water in a kayak.
Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!
Abundant bird life
As we paddled the shores, the air over the river was alive with bird life. We saw hundreds of swallows and redwing blackbirds, dozens of ducks and seagulls, several herons, a soaring osprey and one very burly hawk (redtail?) watching us and apparently wondering if we counted as dinner.
Go with the flow
If you want to do this paddle yourself, the tide chart for the Squamscott River (nh.usharbors.com/monthly-tides/New%20Hampshire/Squamscott%20River) makes planning easy. Just be sure you plan to ride the rising tide up to Exeter and the falling tide down. The AMC describes this as a “moderately difficult” paddle, and that seemed about right. Plan on 11 miles of paddling, which will take you, roughly, three to four hours. We didn’t see any good spots to pull out between the landing and Exeter.
The tides are right to do this same dinner-time paddle on the Squamscott on Aug. 10. The AMC NH Chapter had planned to repeat the trip then, but it has since been cancelled. So you’ll have to do your own planning and put together your own group. I’d suggest you plan on launching at Chapman’s Landing no later that 3 p.m. to make sure you have the tide pushing you up river at least most of the way. Coming back down won’t be an issue after the tide turns.
Laws vary from state to state, but, after sunset, New Hampshire requires paddle-powered craft to display a white light visible 360 degrees. I suppose you could strap a light to your head, but a company called Kayalu (kayalu.com) makes a wonderful LED light system called the Kayalite that mounts easily on the rear of almost any kayak. They are lightweight, tough and simple, and I keep them stored in the rear compartment of our sea kayaks. They also make a good area light for camp. Good product to have if your paddling adventures might keep you on the water after sunset. They are cheaper than getting a ticket – and much cheaper than the hospital stay if an inattentive powerboater doesn’t see your unlighted kayak.
Massachusetts, Maine and Connecticut only require a flashlight on paddlecraft, but this light apparently more that meets the legal standards.
More AMC paddles
If you aren’t an experienced kayaker, or don’t have a ready-made group of friends to go with, the AMC offers a variety of paddling excursions all season. Go to activities.outdoors.org/search/ and choose paddling and you’ll find well over 100 options.
(Tim Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)