Paddling by history

Last modified: 7/6/2010 12:00:00 AM
Setting off on a whitewater kayaking trip through Manchester's millyard, trip leader Julie Smith looked to her left at a series of rapids just south of the Amoskeag Dam.

"That's called 'Facial Abrasion,' " she said, warning about two dozen people in a ragtag flotilla of kayaks and canoes that the rocks are only passable in early spring, when rainwater and stores of melted snow rush downstream.

The trip, hosted by the Merrimack River Watershed Council, gave paddlers another view of Manchester's history; an upward looking tour of the city's industrial heart.

For local whitewater enthusiasts, parts of the tour through Manchester and Bedford are places to spend the day practicing their skills in whitewater. But another trip leader said the river's power, especially through a series of rapids in Bedford, shouldn't be taken for granted.

"Someone will likely be turned upside down," George May said. With that in mind, the group set off.

As the city quickly came into view, so did remnants of its past: restored mills with their foundations set against the river and leftover bridge foundations that now only support families of birds.

May, of Merrimack, began paddling the area about 30 years ago. He pointed to old lock systems used by boats in the 1800s to transport goods from Manchester to Massachusetts. It was those elaborate - and at the time, expensive - locks that first interested May in the river.

Over time, he's seen the river's condition improve as less raw sewage and other pollution is dumped into it.

"This river, back in the 1970s, was a sewer," he said. "If you came out here, you'd probably get sick."

About 10 years ago, May was kayaking with some friends under the Route 101/Interstate 293 bridge when one of the paddlers went underwater in the rapids. When he came back up to the surface, one eye was covered with a glob of toilet paper.

Last weekend, he said, recent testing conducted by the council showed the water was clean enough to boat and swim, though not drink.

Through the city, the flotilla saw the underside of the city's infrastructure, like the 16 steel beams spanning the length of Granite Street, supporting its weight against the traffic above and the push of the current below.

As the flotilla passed through the city, the riverfront turned rural, enclosed by trees on both sides but never leaving behind the hum of a nearby interstate highway.

"We could be in Canada right now," May said.

Secret hideaways with rope swings, white sand beaches and makeshift benches that aren't apparent from street level come into view. People sat by the water, looking to escape the city's heat. Others took advantage of small islands in the middle of the river to camp and lounge. They waved as boaters approached a series of rapids.

"This is one of the more exciting trips as far as whitewater goes," Smith said.

She wasn't joking.

Just past the bridge near where Route 101 and Interstate 293 meet is a mess of churning water and rocks. Some decided to walk their boats around the rapids. Others go through them then walk back to do it again.

Still another, Henry Wallace of Maine, who had been standing in a canoe using a pole to guide himself down the river like a Venetian gondolier, worked his way back up through the current.

"Up the down staircase, 'Whoo!' " he said, using both arms to push.

May said the purpose of the free trips are to educate others about the recreational activities available on the Merrimack.

"If these people come and enjoy it, they might say, 'Geez, I wonder what my local river is like,' " he said. "That's how I got into it."

For more information about the Merrimack River Watershed Council, visit

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