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by Josh Withe - Merrimack River Valley, New England - USA

Of all the times I've been boating, some will stick in my memory forever. One of my favorite memories is rowing in a snow storm.

I normally went rowing in the evening summer or winter. Most of my summer rows were upstream against the current, under the Route 1 and rail bridges, then up the Salisbury side of the two lower Islands Ram and Carr's, rounding the top of Carr's Island to shoot down the main channel on the Newburyport side. Many times the Channel marks would be pulled under by the current as speeds out to sea. Thanks to that nine knot current when the tide is flowing out, even during the darkest, coldest part of the winter the river never freezes over. I would go out rowing and use the river current and wind like a tread mill. I would "box" the area, rowing up the Salisbury bank to the Route 1 bridge, crab across the river to the Newburyport Boardwalk, slide down the Boardwalk to the commercial fish pier and then crab back across the current to the Salisbury side. The lights from the Newburyport board walk lit up the "box" well enough that I didn't need a flashlight to read my watch or avoid moorings.

On calmer nights the lone strollers on the board walk were the only ones to share the river with me. I was alone with the smooth black water broken only by a few moorings that stayed in all winter, the only noise was the thrum of cars crossing the waffle deck on the draw bridge, and every now and then the call of a gull. This is only possible in the winter, between Memorial day and labor day the Marinas choke the harbor down to just about the channel.

The evening was overcast and smelled like snow. Since the wind was calm I figured I would head farther up river. Being the only boat out, the water was a flat black mirror and helped to carry the lights from Newburyport across the water. As I got to the top of Carr's Island, a wall of snow dropped across the river, within seconds I was rowing in the center of a snow globe, the only sound was the steady creak of the oar locks and the splash and drip from the blades. I know this section of river like the back of my hand, yet now I couldn't see more than a boat length in any direction. Familiar rocks slid up like harbor seals, with a wet slopping noise, then slid away into the darkness, giving the whole scene an eerie feel.

As I started down the channel on the Salisbury side, whatever light there was faded to almost nothing, the light from Newburyport was blocked by the wild tree covered Islands, and the Salisbury shore is made of woods and miles of marsh. With the current running downstream though, and all I had to do was let it carry me back to the harbor. High rock and the rock face of the "S" bend in the Salisbury channel loomed out of the darkness and then flowed away, as the dory lazily spun on hidden whirlpools and eddied past dark, snow covered marsh. I shipped my oars, lay back and let the snow globe carry me down the dark mirror.

After a while the thrum of cars on the draw bridge let me know the river was carrying me home, soon after the murky glow of the street lights on the bridge began to show, then was eclipsed as I slid between the bridge piers.

I'm sure if anybody had been watching at the Ring's Island landing, they would've been surprised to see a faint glow on the river resolve itself into a kerosene lantern illuminating a ghostly white dory and rower. They may have had thoughts of a long lost dory-man returning home, but the grin on my face would have let them know I was real flesh and blood. Thanks to the heat of rowing I don't remember feeling cold or wet from the snow.

Another weather event I'll never forget happened on a fine summer day. The Ring's Island Rowing Club was founded by two people in particular, Chris was a local musician and rower, Pike was a science teacher at my high school. Pike was responsible for the dories being built back in the early 70's. They were used for many years as a way for the kids to travel from Plumb Island, a barrier Island on the Atlantic, up Plumb Island Sound to the Parker River Marsh system, until after a few days, they ended up just below the school athletic fields. By the time I got to high school, the Marsh experience had been shortened to a one day hike. The school bus dropped us off as far down the river as you could hike back from and we spent the day getting muddy, wet, and sunburned, while learning about the marsh plants, animals and habitat. (Even after a swim in the river just below the football field, my regular school bus driver wouldn't let me on the bus seats, I had to ride sitting on the bus steps, getting off at each stop) The dories sat, stacked like Dixie cups, nearly forgotten, in the football field house.

Two of the club parents practicing before a snow row race.
Two of the rowers from the death row rowing and me steering as we pass the Newburyport MA board walk in a borrowed swampscot dory.
My sister took a photography course in college, the black and white picture is from the coast guard base looking over Joppa flats toward Plumb Island and the mouth of the river.

Chris and Pike finally freed the captive dories when they bought all four for a buck a piece, convinced Salisbury, MA to allow the unused Ring's Island fire station to be a boat house, and the Rowing Club was born. Every week Pike would drive a bunch of us over to the rowing club after school, while I loved going up stream, Pike preferred the lower Merrimack basin and mouth of the Merrimack. Since the tide was set to turn and begin filling the harbor in about an hour, we set off for the mouth in three different dories.

When the weather was nice, I could convince my sister to go rowing; this was one of those days. The sun was out, and the falling tide carried us quickly out to the mouth of the river. Once we got there, we landed on the Salisbury side and went out exploring on the jetty (off limits now) and then wading in the surf on Salisbury Beach State Park. At some point a life guard or park ranger came up to Pike and politely kicked us off the beach (first and last time I ever knew of), we figured it was time to start for home by then anyway.

Three of the strongest rowers (one was normally my stroke oar when we raced the other two) got in one dory, headed for the center of the channel and then they were off. My sister and I took my normal dory, leaving Pike and a newer kid to take the third dory.

Instead of plowing directly into the center of a dangerous river mouth channel (the Banks dory shape was invented/perfected for fishing in the mouth due to the rough conditions and the US Coast Guard was born in Newburyport, MA because of the treacherous mouth). I decided to hug the shore, picking my way through the boulders left over from more than one attempt to bridle the mouth of the river, and the old steamboat dock jetties. I noticed the wind was up, it didn't hit home until I noticed a wind surfboard and sail lying in the lee of the jetty. Figuring one of the nuts must have hurt himself, I asked the guy sitting on the sand if he was ok, he told me he was fine, only the wind was more than he could handle. Knowing the conditions the wind surfers liked, I began to get a little concerned, rounding the tip of the jetty confirmed my fears. The wind was ripping directly down the long reach of the Lower Merrimack basin and Joppa Flats. We were directly downwind from Rings Island's boat slip, where the dory's lived and my car waited, and the wind was tearing the tops off the white caps.

I told my sister to row as hard as she could, since it would take every ounce we could put out to drive a dory into the teeth of the wind. We managed to make it out of the river mouth and across the river that drains most of the Salisbury marshes, but I was starting to wear out by then and we still had miles to go.

Skirting the edge of the Salisbury Marsh, I found that it was faster to pole than try to row, since the bottom was solid enough; I hopped overboard and began dragging the boat forward as my sister poled. She soon tired of poling with a heavy oar and joined me in the water.

Not long after I started wading I looked over to see how the boat in the channel was doing. I still have the picture in my mind's eye, of the dark lumpy sky, wild white capped river, the church steeples of Newburyport in the background, and the Newburyport Harbor tours boat alongside the dory. The tour guy had his boat upwind of them and must have asked if they needed any assistance. They kept on rowing, so he told them to put on their life jackets and then followed them for a bit before continuing his tour. (I remember thinking the people on his boat were more at risk of falling in trying to take pictures of the dory, than the rowers were.) I heard everything he said, as he was using the PA system on the boat to talk to them. I also noticed they weren't very much ahead of us for all that they had two guys rowing for all they were worth, and one guy steering with an oar.

Considering the mouth of the River is a few miles from Rings Island, and I was walking in thick, sandy mud, I began to worry the tide would get too deep for me to continue towing the dory. When I started the water was shin deep, two or three miles later it was about waist deep. I got my sister back into the dory and tied the anchor line around my waist to make sure I didn't fall into an unseen hole or steam bed.

After the endless slog into the wind we finally got up close enough to Rings Island that the wind was broken by houses and we were able to row the last bit to the dory slip, where we unloaded and tied off the boat. After that I dropped off my exhausted sister at home, and drove to work still soaking wet. (I think I was late for work by then) It's a good thing sea salt is good for the skin; I had to wear it for the whole night making burgers.

Later, when we told Chris about our afternoon row, he laughed and said "that sounds like a death row".

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