Pick a Paddle This Summer: Tips for Exploring Local Rivers

Anna Berry | June 12, 2022
Kayakers paddle on the Contoocook River.

Nancy Goodell and friends paddles the Contoocook River Paddle last year as part of the Merrimack Paddle Challenge.

For kayaker Sheila Burke, there’s something special — even a bit wild — about paddling a river like the Merrimack.

“You get that wild feeling a little bit more on the river,” she said. “You have that constantly moving water and it gives you a different buoyancy, for one thing, but you’re paddling differently… you’re working with the energy of the water as opposed to being the sole engine…

“I feel more free.”

Burke was one of more than 300 people who took part in the Merrimack Paddle Challenge last summer, created by four nonprofit organizations. The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, Five Rivers Conservation Trust, Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust, and Merrimack River Watershed Council mapped out five paddling adventures in the Merrimack River watershed.

A couple in a kayak on the river.
Chris and Jane Haigh paddled the Silver Maple Floodplain paddle as part of the Merrimack Paddle Challenge. (Photo: Anna Berry)
Participants were encouraged to learn more about the ecosystem of the watershed that stretches from Franklin, New Hampshire to Newburyport, Massachusetts, as well as the indigenous history of the region. This year’s do-it-yourself challenge runs from June 15 through September 30 along the Merrimack River and its tributaries. 

“The Merrimack River Paddle Challenge was created to show residents along the river the beauty and tranquility of the river and its watershed,” said Jane Calvin, executive director of Lowell Parks & Conservation Trust. “On-the-water access is an underappreciated asset in our area’s rivers, and we hope these five excursions will showcase not just the beautiful shorelines and wildlife, but how important our water resources are to our quality of life.”

When Burke moved to Meredith three and a half years ago, she couldn’t find much in the way of community on the water.

So, she started a Meet Up group for kayakers, which quickly amassed more than 100 people from across the state and nearby Maine and Massachusetts towns.

Since then, Burke said she’s seen more interest in kayaking, and not just because of the pandemic.

“People are more and more discovering how fantastic it is to be out on the water, be it a river, be it a lake,” she said. “It can be truly therapeutic.”

Burke led paddles for the group last year with the help of the Merrimack Paddle Challenge maps, including the Mucheydo Banks route through Canterbury, and said the challenge’s focus on water protection aligned with her goals.

“What I’m trying to do is really build a community of people who love to kayak — but also [who] love to add energy to efforts around here to keep the environment clean,” she said.

Concord resident Nancy Goodell also used the Merrimack Paddle Challenge as an opportunity to connect.

She has a regular weeknight paddle with a group of women who stop and enjoy dinner together on Merrimack River beaches.

The front of a kayak in the river with another kayaker ahead.
Cathy and Dave Dunham completed all five of the paddles as part of the Merrimack Paddle Challenge last summer, including the Silver Maple Floodplain paddle, pictured. (Photo courtesy of the Dunhams)
One concern for exploring rivers by boat is the water level — if the river is running too high to find beaches, Burke said her kayaking group switches to lakes.

2021 was a relatively wet year for the watershed, according to the Merrimack River Watershed Council’s water quality report, which noted that the monthly total rainfall in July was the highest on record, by almost two inches.

However, the conditions didn’t stop Cathy and Dave Dunham from completing all five Challenge paddles last summer by kayak and Cathy said she’s already done one of the paddles again this year.

Whether you’re taking part in the 2022 Merrimack Paddle Challenge (register here for $25 per party) or are boating for the first time, these experienced paddlers have more advice:

  1. Bring the right gear: State law requires one wearable life preserver for each person in a boat. Children age 12 or under must wear an approved vest or jacket. Water, food, water shoes, sunscreen and a hat are also suggested while Sheila Burke recommends a bilge pump for removing water from your boat’s hull.
  2. Plan ahead & bring a buddy: "Go with a friend or buddy — it’s safer to have someone with you,” said Dunham. You can also find a paddling group to broaden your horizons. “Join one of the clubs,” said Burke. (Her free club is called Kayaking NH Lakes Region & Beyond: meetup.com/Meredith-NH-Kayaking-Meetup-Group/)
  3. Start slow: For beginners, start with a rental. Nancy Goodell said rental kayaks are wide and short so “you can’t tip them over. “For a beginner, those are great.”
  4. Be safe: “Make sure you have the Coast Guard label in your kayak/canoe in case you fall out and get taken downstream,” Cathy Dunham said. “This is like a medical alert for your boat. It gives search and rescue a name and phone number to call.”
  5. Recreate responsibly: Before and after paddling, implement the Clean, Drain & Dry method to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species. Find more guidelines at recreateresponsibly.org/watersafety. "I try to pick up any trash I see in the water… and leave the rivers better than I may find them,” Cathy Dunham said.