Couch Beach on the North River in Marshfield. A great place to swim, or to stop during a paddling excursion.

I planned to write this month about my newest summer adventure — jumping off the Union Street Bridge at high tide — but as of this writing I have not yet mustered the guts to attempt such a feat. I’ve gone down to the bridge a number of times — I’ve even interviewed some of the jumpers — but I am always able to come up with an excuse not to do it myself. The tide is always wrong, or the water too cold, or the sun not warm enough. It looks like it may have to wait another year. So instead I’ll write about another popular North River summer event — competing in the Great River Race.

This year will be the ninth annual Great River Race, but it will be only the second time I’ve competed. Before, I never thought it was worth my time and effort. I can paddle a canoe or a kayak sufficiently well, but I am far from expert. I always assumed that one had to have excellent paddling skills in order to participate in such a race. But that’s not the case. Sure, there are people who enter every year with a strong desire to win, but by far the majority of the contestants are people like me who just want to have some fun on the river.

Last year I entered the women’s kayak competition. My kayak is not ideal for racing — it’s short and fat and designed for the beginner, not long & sleek and ready to win. Paddling out to the starting line at the Union Street Bridge, I realized that just about everyone else had the more race-oriented models. I knew from the beginning that not only wouldn’t I win, but I’d probably finish far behind the rest of the crowd. But that was a good way to begin the race; it put me in a more relaxed frame of mind.

I was surprised that, while we lined up at the starting line and prepared for the sign to go, everyone seemed friendly. Eagerness and expectation were in the air, but absent were the ill will and intimidation often associated with competitions.

At the starting line . . .

The race began, and it didn’t take long for me to fall behind the majority of the other kayakers, as expected. Still, I kept paddling hard and strong, falling into a rhythm and grace that I’d never before experienced. I figured that even though I would not come close to winning or even placing, I could challenge myself with an attempt to go as fast and as smoothly as I could.

I’d kayaked the route plenty of times before, upstream through the marshes of Norwell, Pembroke and Marshfield, but I’d always paddled at a leisurely pace. I was surprised that I could pay attention to the scenery while racing. It was a beautiful summer day, not too hot, a few clouds in the bright blue sky, and the river reflected back the grasses and trees along its banks.

Watching the Great River Race at Couch Beach.

Normally, I’d spend an entire morning or afternoon on this route, so I was surprised when after an hour I found myself approaching the last leg of the race. As Washington Street Bridge, the finish line, came into view, I felt triumphant. When I crossed the line, people cheered, and I knew that — if only in my own little world — this was an accomplishment. I finished twelfth out of sixteen, but I made good time, and I enjoyed myself. It wasn’t so much about racing or the other competitors, but rather the personal challenge.

I still prefer a slow, quiet river trip, with ample time for contemplation and exploration, but I plan to compete in the Great River Race again this year. I’ll be in the same boat and, unlike others, I’ve done absolutely no training. I’m stronger this year, but still I don’t expect to win. I’m pretty sure I can shave a few minutes off my time, though. If anything, it will be a pleasant morning on the North River, one of the most beautiful places I know.

by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent
July 1999

Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance, and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of the latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.