Saturday, August 26, 2006

Noodling Around New Castle

H and I had a family thing in Portsmouth this evening, so we decided it was a perfect opportunity to do some paddling in a new area. Having heard the rumors that paddling near Portsmouth was tricky because of the crazy currents, we consulted H's coastal kayaking guides to find a trip that was not totally dependent on the tides, offered some nice scenery, and was of moderate length.
The trip we decided on doing was a circumnavigation of New Castle Island. According to the guide book, the trip is roughly 6-7 miles long, has plenty of historical sites, at least one place to stop, and can be paddled at any time. The book did suggest that it is best to plan the paddle so you are not paddling up the Piscataqua River against the tide. It also recommends not paddling along the backside of New Castle Island at low tides because the area empties out and the channel gets pretty narrow.
After getting a late start, H and I arrived at the launch around 1:30pm which was about 30 minutes before high tide. This meant that we were going to have to paddle the Piscataqua against the tide, but at New Castle Island the current is no more than 1 or knots at max flow. H mentioned that we could do the trip in reverse and paddle the Piscataqua first, but I decided that it would be just as well to do the paddle as planned. I probably would not have mattered much because we would have been paddling against the river either way because the currents in the river are off from the tides.
After paying the $10 launch fee ($5 per kayak) at the Pierce Island Boat Ramp, we unloaded the egg, threw some duct tape on the crack in the Q-Boat's hull, and loaded up the kayaks. While getting ready to go we saw a variety of paddle craft coming and going. There was a couple in a crazy looking Seda double also prepping for departure. An older couple and their daughter were launching their kayaks. The couple had a Folboat and the daughter had a Carolina. Neither was using spray skirts. While on the water we also saw a wide variety of recreational and sea kayaks. When we landed we met a couple who took their toddler out in one of their kayaks. The area behind New Castle offers a cornucopia of paddling experiences.
The trip from Pierce Island to Little Harbor takes you through a wide, shallow, sheltered sound. The big attraction was the Wentworth Coolidge Historic Site. It has a lovely mansion and gardens. The guide book said that the gardens were home to some of the first lilacs planted in the area.
The one bit of paddling excitement was served up by a small boat wake. It hit the stern of the Q-Boat just right and sent the Q-Boat skidding along the water. I had to do a quick rudder to get the kayak straightened out. H was about to chide me for goofing around until she realized that I was victim of a rogue surfing Q-Boat.
Little Harbor is home to the Portsmouth Yatch Club and the fabled Wentworth-by-the-Sea resort. The stately resort that dominates the shore apparently sat empty and rotting for years. According to the guide book, the heating costs were just too much. In the late 90's the Marriot Corporation purchased the resort and restored it to its full grandeur. It is hard to imagine that such a prime location stayed abandoned for so long with out some developer trying to turn it into a strip mall or sub-division of McMansions, but I'm glad it did.
Once past the breakwater at the mouth of Little Harbor, we were in the North Atlantic. The water got a little colder and a little more forceful. It, however, didn't lose any of its clarity.
The day was so clear we could see the Isle of Shoals and make out buildings. I joked with H about taking a little detour... Then I spotted a lighthouse much closer to shore and wanted to check that out. Sadly, we were on a relatively tight schedule and couldn't make either trip.
We made a quick stop at Great Island Common to grab a bite and take a break. The beach was full of families enjoying the cool, but sunny, summer afternoon. We took a walk up to one of the parks more interesting attractions. Along the shore there is a metal frame with a cutout of a painter. When you look out through the frame it looks like the painter is painting the scene for you.
Once back on the water, H and I steeled ourselves for the paddle up the Piscataqua River. It is only a couple of miles up the river to Pierce Island and our car, but it was going to be against the tides. The guide book says to use back eddies whenever you are not blocked by docks.
We found a number of spots where the currents were strong and confused. The first spot was at the point housing the Coast Guard station. After that H, who is new to river currents, suggested that we stick close to each other. As you progress along New Castle's northern shore, there are a number of points of land that create eddies of varying strength. H commented that it was hard to see where the trouble spots where in these eddies because she is so used to looking for waves as a sign of trouble. The eddies were mostly flat water with a tell-tale swirly pattern.
The strongest and most confused sections of the paddle were at the end of New Castle Island where, in addition to a large point of land, you have two bodies of water draining into each other. As we approached I told H to paddle straight ahead. Once we crossed the eddy line the current grabbed our bows and started to spin us into the middle of the river and the shipping channel. Like a pro, H braced and corrected her course. I followed suit and we headed across to Pierce Island. The short crossing required a lot of concentration. The colliding flows created a lot of chop and conflicting currents. One minute you would need to correct to port. The next you'd have to brace and correct to starboard...
The last bit of current was at the very tip of Pierce Island. The point created a small, but strong, eddy that we had to navigate to get back into the landing site. After the crossing, the eddy was a piece of cake.
Although a relatively short paddle, we experienced a new place and H had a chance to try out paddling in some funky river currents.

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