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Active Outdoors

Active Outdoors: Memorable Memorial Day paddling on Great Bay

The blustery breeze on Great Bay in Durham, NH on Memorial Day made our 3-mile paddle back to our cars more  . . . interesting . . . (David Shedd/EasternSlopes.com photo)

The blustery breeze on Great Bay in Durham, NH on Memorial Day made our 3-mile paddle back to our cars more . . . interesting . . . (David Shedd/EasternSlopes.com photo)

After two solid days of rain and cold and doing stuff around the house (sound familiar?), we were eager to get out into the sunshine. Watching the weather forecasts, we had planned to meet our friends David and Susan for a paddle on Great Bay in Durham. We figured these tidal waters would be warmer and less crowded than other spots on the coast on a holiday weekend. When Memorial Day dawned with clear, bright blue skies, we knew we had a winner.

We met at 10 o’clock at Jackson’s Landing, which is maintained by the town of Durham. It’s just off Route 4, so it was easy access for all of us. They had ample parking on this day, clean porta-potties and a dock that allowed us to launch at dead low tide without wading though mud. Perfect.

Our plan was to paddle down the Oyster River for several miles out onto Little Bay, find a nice place to picnic, and then ride the rising tide back up the river to our cars. Early in the season, four or five hours of paddling is enough. We’ll be ready for longer days when summer arrives.

Even with kayaks that draw very little water, we barely made it down the river. We had to pick our way down the twists and turns of the channel, which is only inches deeper than the surrounding water – but those inches were critical. When we missed the channel, we sometimes had to scooch our boats across the soft mud. It seemed funny to be surrounded by water that all looked the same, some of it barely deep enough to float on, some of it too shallow even for kayaks.

Regular readers might recall that during our paddling adventures last summer, I gave my sweetheart Marilyn the spirit name “She Who Calls The Wind.” Seemed appropriate after three consecutive sea kayak outings (one on Harpswell Sound in Maine, two on Saguenay Fjord in Quebec) in which rising winds forced us to change our plans.

The name still seemed appropriate on this adventure. We didn’t have to change our plans, but the winds sure made paddling more ... interesting. Actually, as we paddled downstream, the northwest wind was blowing at our backs and was hardly noticeable. With the shallow water and the narrow river, there wasn’t any way for the wind to build more than slight ripples on the water.

We paddled a couple of miles downriver, watching myriad herons, seagulls, terns, ducks and geese, and a lone eagle soar overhead. Eventually, we reached the more open water of Little Bay. There, the incoming tide, the river currents and the wind, plus the wakes from boats working lobster traps, all combined to create a chop that came at you from all directions at once. We paddled out on the open water for awhile, then decided to turn around and head for a tiny island (actually the tip of a peninsula at low tide) we’d seen on the way downstream. This is part of the Wagon Hill Farm, another recreation area maintained by the town of Durham. Lovely spot.

Lunch was delicious, stretching our legs after a couple of hours in the boats felt good, and the sunshine, breeze and blue skies were an absolute delight.

Even with the rising tide helping us, the trip back upstream was a bit of a workout. By the time we made it back to the landing, our arms, shoulders and torso muscles knew we’d been out paddling. It felt great. I hope your Memorial Day was as memorable.

Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

Great Bay resources

Great Bay is a large tidal estuary inland from the New Hampshire seacoast, connected to the ocean by the Piscataqua River. While some of the shoreline is developed, much of it isn’t, and it’s generally a quiet and lovely spot to paddle. The Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge (fws.gov/northeast/greatbay) protects more than 1,000 acres on the eastern shore.

None of us had paddled kayaks on Great Bay before, so deciding where to go took some planning. We first discovered this web page: eregulations.com/newhampshire/fishing/saltwater/great-bay-access-sites, which gave a good map and general overview of the bay and its access points.

Our first thought was to launch at the Great Bay Discovery Center (greatbay.org). But the launch there is high-tide only (the descriptor says that low tide is a “challenge” for even shallow draft boats like kayaks), and the local tide chart (nh.usharbors.com/monthly-tides) showed low tide at 10 a.m., just when we wanted to launch. In fact, many of the launches on Great Bay are tide-dependent, so be sure to include this in your planning. A strong northwest wind, which was hinted at in the forecast, could also make this launch more problematic.

Once we focused in on the Oyster River, we found this description (ci.durham.nh.us/recreation/outdoor-recreation-sites) and map (ci.durham.nh.us/recreation/outdoor-recreation-site-map), which showed several access points.

The simple fact that there are so many public access points around Great Bay makes this a perfect place to explore by kayak. Just keep the tides in mind or you could find yourself stuck on a mudflat until the water returns. Despite the fact that it was harder to find a launching site, starting out at low tide was a good idea. That meant we had deepening water for longer than we wanted to paddle.

Watch the currents

In addition to wind and mudflats, the other thing to watch around Great Bay are tidal currents, particularly on a falling tide when all of that water drains out through a narrow opening near Hilton Park and down the river to Portsmouth. We didn’t experience any problems, but it’s easy to imagine the currents being too strong to fight in a kayak. Staying safe is a simple matter of being aware of your surroundings. Again, look at the tide charts before you launch.

(Tim Jones can be reached at timjones@easternslopes.com.)

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