...I knew from reading Thoreau’s book that both rapids and waterfalls lay further ahead up the Merrimack. In his day, a system of canals and locks enabled boats to bypass these obstacles. But now these structures were long gone; indeed, I hadn’t noticed even a trace of them on the voyage thus far. I would have to get around any turbulent water on my own, paddling or portaging, both on the way up the river and also coming back down.
As I’ve already indicated, I’m a flat water kayaker—for a long list of reasons. I hate the thought of overturning, I hate being ducked in cold water, I don’t have the quick reflexes one needs to react to the buffeting of turbulent water, I can’t perform the maneuver known as the Eskimo roll to right myself if I do turn over, I don’t have protective gear—especially a helmet—to protect myself from the stony bottom if I should be turned over in rapids, and finally, my kayak, the Feathercraft K-light, is a narrow sea kayak, a delicate vessel made of fabric and aluminum tubes, not suitable for banging and bouncing on rocks.
During my visit to Nashua, I had asked a number of people, including Peter, whose house backed on the river, about turbulent water barriers up the Merrimack, but everyone seemed quite uninformed about the river. They were not even aware that dams stood on this waterway—as at Lowell—and were unable even to guess if the river contained rapids or waterfalls. This lack of interest would seem to contrast with the general knowledge of the river in Thoreau’s day, when it was a main artery of commerce.
This modern-day lack of information about the river was demonstrated on the previous evening after I left Peter’s shore and was paddling up the river. I encountered a group of men and women kayakers on the water, and pulled up beside one man, who appeared to be the most experienced paddler among these amateurs—they were aboard inflatables, barely able to work their paddles. I asked him about what to expect upriver, and especially if there were any rapids.
“It’s clear all the way to Manchester,” he said with authority. “You’ll have clear sailing.”
I was fairly sure he didn’t know what he was talking about and had never navigated more than a few hundred yards from the riverside ramp where he and his friends had put in on that Sunday afternoon.
In fact, now making my way upriver on the following morning, less than a mile from the point where this man had assured me of clear sailing, I saw the first clue of rapids: white flecks of foam drifting on the river’s surface. Something was aerating the water, and it wasn’t likely to be an industrial discharge pipe in this rural area. Sure enough, after another mile’s travel upriver, I found the current against me speeding up and soon the white tops of rapids came into view far ahead. I continued to approach, having to pull harder and harder to make any progress. At one point, I began losing ground, and had to make a heroic effort to avoid being twisted around and swept back down the river. The water grew shallower as I approached the rapids, and the bottom featured many large rocks that were only slightly submerged. It crossed my mind that a glancing blow against one of these underwater obstructions could easily capsize me....