The North River at Couch Beach.

Our canoe trip on the North River began smoothly enough: it was a sunny, unseasonably warm October day, with fall foliage at its peak. We had the rising tide in our favor, and the wind seemed mild. Launching from the Union Street Bridge, we headed upstream. There were twenty seven of us in all, ages six to sixty two, filling ten boats.

In just over an hour, we reached Couch Beach, our lunch break destination. Occasional gusts of wind had made the canoeing difficult at times, but it seemed that every strong wind was followed by a period of stillness. The paddling may not have been ideal, but neither was it objectionable. We recharged our batteries with a picnic overlooking the autumn-gold marshes.

I had left my kayak at home for the day, choosing instead to join my parents in their old, heavy aluminum canoe. Setting off after lunch, my sister and a friend took the lead while my parents and I, the organizers of the trip, waited behind to make sure that all of our fellow canoeists departed safely. By the time we’d launched our own boat, our companions had disappeared around the bend. However with all three of us paddling, we expected that we’d catch up to them shortly.

The scenery was picture-perfect. The early afternoon sun made the brightly colored leaves shine like stained glass. The fluffy tips and supple stalks of the marsh grass swayed in the breeze. We followed the river’s twists and beds, passing only an occasional house or dock. We didn’t notice at first that the wind was growing stronger.

Of my Mom, Dad, and I, none of us were feeling all that well. Fighting varying stages of a cold, we knew we were weakened a bit, but still we were surprised when approaching the Route 3 Bridge, we hadn’t caught up with a single one of our companions. We could hear motor boats behind us, and not wanting to fight for space between the narrow bridge abutments, we pulled over to the side to rest.

After the boats passed, we set off again. But the wind had grown even stronger, and the paddling was difficult. What before were intermittent gusts was now one strong, steady stream. All three of us grunting and digging our paddles in deep, we struggled to clear the bridge. It was one o’clock, and I began to wonder if we’d make it to the end by sundown.

My Mom, in the bow, turned around and asked, “What does this remind you of?”

I just laughed in reply.

Four years ago, the NSRWA sponsored a paddling trip on Memorial Day weekend. Eighty canoes and kayaks arrived at Scituate’s Driftway Conservation Area with the intent of traveling from the Herring River into the North River, through Marshfield and Norwell, and as far upstream as the Conservation Area at the end of Pembroke’s Brick Kiln Lane. That day too was windy — blowing thirty knots strong, in the wrong direction — and fifty of the boats ended up turning back. Of the thirty remaining, many of us were obliged to delve deep into then-untapped reserves of energy and endurance in order to fight the wind and complete the route. I don’t remember who dubbed the it “The Canoe Trip From Hell,” but the name stuck.

It was my mother’s birthday, so she remembers the day especially well. I remember it too — and the sore muscles and torn blisters I endured for a week afterward. If it had taken that much strength to finish the route back then, when my shipmates and I were in perfectly good health, I wondered how we — the ailing family — could possibly do it now. But it would do no good to complain, so I kept my spirits up and paddled harder, secretly hoping for a miracle.

Because it was such a beautiful day — perhaps the last good boating day of the season — the river was relatively crowded. Every few minutes another boat would pass us: sometimes it was a canoe coming from the other direction; sometimes it was a motor boat.

The other boats were starting to get on my nerves. It was hard enough to paddle against the wind, but each time a motorist came up behind us, we’d have to pull aside to avoid the turbulence of his wake. Clearing the Route 3 Bridge, I could hear yet another motor boat approaching. As it passed, I smiled and gave the obligatory wave. Much to my surprise, I recognized the boat — a Crawford dory — captained by some friends of mine, Bruce and Debbie Lenahan, along with their Golden Labradors, Sadie and Coco.

Bruce and Debbie know the North River well. They live in Norwell, right at the edge of the marsh. Bruce grew up along the river, and Debbie spent a couple years as NSRWA’s Executive Director. They also know boats: Bruce builds and refinishes them, and their household collection of canoes, kayaks, sailboats, and other vessels is ever-expanding. A lifetime spent on the water, including a year-long sail to the Caribbean and back, has taught them a lot about the ups and downs of boat travel.

They asked how we were enjoying the wind.

“Well you know what it reminds me of . . . ” I said to Debbie.

“I think we can help,” she answered.

The Lenahans also attended the Canoe Trip From Hell — in fact, they were the heroes of the day. They launched with the rest of us, but determined after a short time that the wind was not likely to let up, and the paddling would not be any easier upstream. In a much-heralded moment of wisdom, they abandoned their canoe at a friend’s mooring and borrowed the small motor boat tied up there. Continuing upstream, they watched one boat after another head back toward the launch site. Others had gone too far to turn back, and as the Lenahans passed them, one canoeist — perhaps in self-deprecation, perhaps out of desperation — asked for a tow. They obliged. By the time they reached the Conservation Area in Pembroke, Bruce and Debbie were towing a train of eight boats — and sixteen grateful paddlers — behind them.

Debbie passed my mother the bow line, and we pulled our canoe in close, shipping our paddles and taking hold of their dory’s gunwales.

It was a while before we caught up with the rest of our party, but once we did, each of their reactions was the same. First they looked back in annoyance to see yet another motor boat coming up behind them. Then they seemed surprised, realizing that we whom they had left behind a long time ago were now matching pace with a motor boat. Surprise turned to envy when they saw that the Lenahans were towing us, and finally envy became relief when they saw that they could grab ahold and join us.

Boat by boat, our party was reunited, with each bend in the river producing another canoe in distress. Eventually all but the leaders had joined on, creating an impressive string of boats and setting a new canoe-towing record for the Lenahans . . . and perhaps for the river itself. My sister and her friend, determined to complete the route without aid, raced on ahead, reaching the landing a few minutes before us.

At the Conservation Area, we handed the bow line back to the Lenahans and bid them adieu with much gratitude. They continued upriver, while we proceeded to the muddy task of taking our boats out of the water.

The Lenahans saved the day, and looking back now, I realize that they also saved a Bacon Family tradition, preserving the integrity of our annual canoe trip. Without their help, our trip would have ended on a sour note, with twenty seven sore, tired, cranky paddlers wishing they’d stayed home and read the paper instead of going out on the river.

Next year I think I’ll check the wind before we launch.

by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent
October 1998

Kezia Bacon’s articles are provided by the North and South Rivers Watershed Association.