For the Love of Kayaking
Story by Mark Foynes
If you don’t own a boat, you can still get out on the water this season. It can be relatively cheap. Slip into a kayak and explore.
I tend to paddle fast and zip along quickly. There are other times when it’s just nice to coast along and soak up the sun and the scenery. We will soon be in full leaf and the sun is getting higher by the day. My kayak, laid up for the winter - forlorn and neglected by winter ice-ins - will soon get a workout.
Having grown up in one of two towns in N.H. without a lake or a large pond, the notion that I could toss a kayak in the back of my truck and be at a boating destination in just a couple of minutes was an alien concept. And, truth be told, the idea of putting my body in a kayak was somewhat off-putting until recently.
My father was an avid kayaker. He was an adventurer and white watered every spring. Each spring thaw, when the frigid rapids ran strong and fierce, he’d slip on a skin-tight rubber wet suit and find the fastest, meanest river he could.
I remember watching him practice the Eskimo roll - a practice where you can recover after capsizing.
It looked scary and, at an early age, I said, “Nope, not for me.”
And I managed to make it to midlife steadfast in this conviction. If asked just a few short years ago if I’d try it, I would have said, “Hey, I’ve made it this far - I’ll probably never kayak.”
Beyond the age of 40, not many people take up new things like the piano, a new language, or transcendental meditation. Or some other some such. Like kayaking. But, shoot, it caught up to me.
I never gave much thought to the matter. However, my wife, who was exploring some low-impact exercise options, bought us a kayak. She and the kids used it, going out on the Merrymeeting River and having fun. And that was fine.
Then came a family trip to Danforth Bay in Freedom. My 11-year-old son took the kayak out. Then my 8-year-old daughter paddled about for a bit while I stood on the shore. A grown man who had less time in a kayak than his children.
They just made it look so easy.
There were no life-defying maneuvers like the Eskimo roll - just steadily paddling in the gentle twilight. Nor were there any whitewater rapids or dangerous currents. Just the placid waters of a lake that glowed invitingly as the sun set.
I’d like to say that hopping into the kayak involved getting over some deep-seated fear. In hindsight, it was more a matter of just overcoming inertia. A wise man once told me that the heaviest weight to overcome was the heft of your rear to get up and go somewhere to do something. Very true. Well, I was already there on the shore - with a kayak waiting for me. I had no excuse.
With a little encouragement from my beloved wife, before I knew it, I’d paddled a quarter mile from the campsite. Later in the week, back in the Lake Winnipesaukee region, I was looking for more opportunities.
One nice thing about boating in a kayak or canoe is that you can access locales that are off limits to larger craft. (Later in this article I list a few such places.) While larger lakes are conducive to motor boats, many of our best-cherished water bodies are the smaller ponds that dot the local landscape. For example, my favorite kayaking locale - Chalk Pond in New Durham - is off-limits to boats with motors over five HP.
Kayaking can be an economical pastime - or if you really want to invest more, there are plenty of opportunities to upgrade equipment.
Fortunately for me, I drive a Silverado with an eight-foot bed. I can just toss my kayak in back and drive a mile or so to one of my favorite ponds. Ditto with my paddle, which fits in nicely alongside. However, if you don’t happen to drive a truck, you’ll likely need a set of roof racks. Not needing a set, I can’t speak from a personal consumer perspective, but a quick Google search displayed a variety priced between about $50 and $250.00.
As for the kayak itself, there are many options for a wide variety of budgets. A quick visit to the website of Parafunalia in Gilford showed a wide variety of models.
Another option is renting for a day’s outing. This might be a good first step for someone looking to start kayaking without making the full commitment of a purchase. This being the Lakes Region, there are plenty of places like Dive Winnipesaukee in Wolfeboro that both rent and sell kayaks.
The last thing you’ll need before paddling off is a life jacket. I have not toppled (yet) in my kayak but have been out with others who have. I consider myself more lucky than skillful in this regard. I therefore vest up in the event my luck runs out.
The benefits of getting out and dipping your paddle into the water are tangible. On a sunny day, you will soak up some good vitamin D - and a cool splash of water is just a fistful away if you get too warm. Kayaking also builds core and upper-body strength - on your own terms. The exertive motion of paddling builds the arms. You can push yourself, or take it slow - either way, it’s all good.
Less tangible are the spiritual benefits. I will not go into detail, but as someone who is passionate about our lake-laden region, it will not take much for you to reckon that being in a self-propelled craft in the middle of one our beloved lakes can bestow upon you a feeling that is difficult to rival.
Here are a few of my favorite places:
Branch River Conservation Area: Wakefield
According to the Moose Mountain Conservation website, which manages the waterway, “The 12-mile long Branch River is a headwater tributary system that receives water from Lovell Lake and streams that flow from the Moose Mountains Reservation. …[The] Branch River continues through Union Meadows, then follows a southeasterly course, and discharges into the Salmon Falls River at Northeast Pond in Milton.” It is a vital part of Moose Mountain’s efforts to “connect conserved lands and create natural corridors for wildlife and recreation.”
Getting there: If you’ve traveled Rte. 16 through Wakefield, you likely know the intersection at the Irving station. Turn onto Rte. 153 toward - a beautiful road that parallels the Spaulding. (And honestly, a more pleasant way to get from the Lakes Region to the Mt. Washington Valley). After a couple of miles, you’ll come to a small bridge where there’s a gravel parking lot. There’s also newly-installed signage identifying the site as one that’s preserved by the Moose Mountains Regional Greenways. The first time I kayaked there, I was amazed at the rich ecosystem that is nestled between Routes 16 and 153.
Merrymeeting River: Alton and New Durham
This meandering waterway connects Lake Winnipesaukee in Alton with Merrymeeting Lake in New Durham. Featuring abundant water life and views of Mount Major, the public can access a launch site on Route 11, just to the north of Johnson’s (restaurant). There is a second launch location, too, situated off the beaten path on Merrymeeting Road. To get there, you’ll need to get off Route 11 and drive through the village of New Durham and turn onto Merrymeeting Rd. at the Bickford’s farm. The boat launch will be on your left a few miles down. There is no signage, but if you get as far as the Fish and Game hatchery, you’ll have gone just a tad too far.
Marchs Pond and Chalk Pond: New Durham
This is my favorite place to paddle. This pair of conjoined ponds is known to very few - located about three-and-a-half miles up Birch Hill Road. Created by a dam erected by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1860’s, these two ponds have since become home to a great blue heron, and is a favorite fishing hole for bass fishers. These two ponds are also key headwaters of the Cocheco River, representing a vital connection between the Lakes Region and the seacoast. To get there, turn off Rte. 11, to go into the village of New Durham. At the four corners where the town hall and general store are located, go straight onto Birch Hill Road. When you approach - after about 3.5 miles - there is a small gravel parking area on the right. But please do note that parking is very limited. It’s also a residential area, so please don’t block driveways.