On Tuesday, Peter Sawtell of Seven Rivers Paddling and Matt Palmariello of Rivers for Change parked their vehicle at Northwood Meadows State Park in Northwood, New Hampshire, unloaded gear and headed out with the intent of following the Lamprey River all the way to saltwater. This was a 50-mile scout trip to ensure proper planning on the upcoming Lamprey River Source to Sea program that will take 12 kids onto the river for a 5-day program teaching paddling skills, river knowledge and outdoor education.
Getting a late start, they made their first portage around 2pm – a 1/2 mile stroll through the woods to find the official source of the Lamprey River, a small pond in the state park. Within ten minutes they had made the short paddle across the pond, perhaps the easiest section of paddling for the next three days.
On the far shore, a small stream flowed from the pond, under the trail and into the meadow, full from all the rain in the past couple weeks. Knowing that this was the official source of the Lamprey River, the trip had begun in earnest and they were committed.
The next 5.5 miles took every minute of five and a half hours of walking, pushing, pulling and paddling the boats downriver. Not being large enough to actually paddle yet, the goal was simply to follow the flow and explore the upper stretches of this river as it changed from meadow to swamp to pond to creek to river. It was truly exciting but took much effort and positive energy to continue, knowing that eventually the river would increase in volume enough to paddle their way towards sea.
By 7:30pm, about twenty minutes before sunset, they reached Freese’s Pond. It’s about six miles downstream from the source and is a fairly large expanse of water considering the river had been so tiny until now. Finding camp, they settled in for a cold 39 degree night, opting to go without a tent since the seasonal black flys had not shown up yet.
Hitting the river at 7:00am the next morning fueled with strong coffee and granola, day two would hold twelve hours of paddling at a much faster pace. Luckily, volume continued to increase, even below the first dam and sections became slightly easier to negotiate. To their surprise, the Lamprey holds much more whitewater than anticipated. Small drops, modest gorges and dozens of riffles awaited their day as they followed the river, reading and running the entire time.
Snack breaks, map checks, portages, strainers and social media posts all broke up the day slightly, and before long they were making true mileage while experiencing the transformation of this mighty river from little to big. The most beautiful sections of river were deep in the woods with nothing around but rocks, trees and the feeling of history with the odd piece of metal or human made rock structure. It was cool, to say the least. A number of weeks earlier, they had spent a day scouting river crossings in the snow, peeking at rapids, drops and stretches that became familiar while paddling.
By nightfall, Peter & Matt had covered a respectable thirty three miles of river, feeling every bit of it with bangs, bruises & scratches to their bodies and equipment. Finishing the day at Wadleigh Falls, a dangerous set of falls where a historic dam had broken, they portaged and called it a day, opting to finish out the last 11-12 miles in the early morning. The entire day had been spent analyzing the river to decide what sections were safe enough and interesting enough to paddle during the July Source to Sea Camp with 12 kids from the local area. Feeling good about many sections, they had developed a rough plan by nightfall, and re-hashed the plan on day three.
The next morning they were treated to three legs of paddling – Wadleigh falls to Wiswall Dam, Wiswall Dam to Packers Falls and Packers Falls to Newmarket, the sight of the last dam and the wall between freshwater and saltwater. Past that dam lay three miles of the Lamprey River and fourteen more miles of Great Bay and Piscataqua River before flowing into the Atlantic. Before they reached that location, they still needed to portage a dam and run the biggest stretch of whitewater on the trip, a section of Class III with a decent drop and a substantial volume of water. Leading the way, Matt dropped into the falls with his 16′ Esquif Avalon, a far cry from a whitewater canoe. He swamped in the first drop but paddled through the rest of the rapid without incident, clearing the water in the eddy below the rapids. Peter steered his 15′ P&H Delphin straight into the steepest part of the drop, got worked by water but gained control to make it through the rest of the falls unscathed and hooting. After three days of paddling and only 3 miles from their destination, they had humbly made it through the crux. Pulling onshore to change into board shorts and sandals, they cruised the last three miles of flatwater in warm sunshine, feeling good about the trip and the planning. They were ready to guide kids down the river in July, knowing the route would be safe and appropriate.
Day One: 6 miles in 6 hours
Day Two: 33 miles in 12 hours
Day Three: 11 miles in 4 hours
To learn more about the Lamprey River Source to Sea Program, visit riversforchange.org/lampreyriver.
To make a tax-deductible donation to the program, visit grouprev.com/lampreyriver