The South River at Willow Street in Marshfield, looking upstream.

Most people on the South Shore know the North River. In newspapers and magazines, in photography and art exhibits, images of this spectacularly scenic waterway appear time and again. It’s a local treasure, recognized on both the state and national levels for its visual and historical significance. We cross it on Route 53 in Hanover, at the Washington Street, Union Street, and Route 3A bridges, admiring its multiple forms as it changes from freshwater marsh to tidal stream to estuary before emptying into the sea.

If nothing else, it’s the view from Route 3 that has made the North River famous. From the highway bridge that spans the stream at the Norwell/Marshfield/Pembroke line, one looks out upon a broad vista incorporating woods, water and marshland, drawn in rich hues that shift sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically with the seasons. These days the marsh is reddish gold, some trees remain green while others display their full fall color, and the river reflects the crisp blues and grays of the autumn sky.

But who among us knows the South River? We rarely see its picture in the paper. No highway bridges offer a view of it to the commuter world. With the exception of a stretch of a few miles along Humarock, the river lies hidden among trees, shrubs and vast expanses of saltmarsh. Where is the South River? And what might one find there?

The largest tributary to the North River, the South flows for twelve miles from its source in west Duxbury, through Marshfield Center, along Rexhame Beach to Humarock. It passes through both commercial and residential areas, with long stretches of forest and marsh in between. The lower half of the river is navigable by canoe and kayak, and when the tides are right, by larger crafts as well. It’s a river worth exploring.

Like its big sister to the north, the South River offers a wide array of scenery. My favorite South River paddling trip begins in the expansive marshes of the estuary where I’ve seen egrets and other shorebirds cross the horizon. From there I travel upstream as far as the tide will allow, watching the riverbanks grow steep and wooded as I reach Marshfield Center. Along the way I pass meadows, sand dunes and an osprey nest.

I often stop at a secluded place which local lore has dubbed “the Lagoon.” There, surrounded by woods and marsh, I float on the calm waters of a hidden cove. At the Lagoon, where there are virtually no signs of civilization, it is easy to forget that Route 139 and the busy downtown area are not much more than a stone’s throw away. Despite the low rumble of traffic in the distance and the occasional airplane overhead, this section of the South River seems timeless: it could just as easily be 1696, when the shores of this waterway were only beginning to be developed.

In general, traffic is lighter on the South River than on the North, especially in the spring and fall when seasonal boaters are not around. It’s a rare day when I see any other boaters in the upper portions of the river. In the lower reaches, there are a number of creeks that can be explored at high tide; the creeks will take you to some otherwise inaccessible islands. (Bring a map though, because it’s easy to get lost in the maze of the marshes).

For those wishing to explore the South River, I recommend this 3 – 4 hour paddling trip. Start 1 1/2 – 2 hours before the Boston high tide, and launch your canoe or kayak at the Marshfield Town Landing on Ferry Street. Paddle upstream, and if the incoming tide permits, explore some of the creeks that flow into the river from the north. Travel upstream until you reach the abutments for an old railroad bridge. When you get there, take a minute to note that you’re in Marshfield Center (It’s hard to believe).

Turn back downstream and look for an outlet on the southern bank, which leads to the Lagoon. Paddle in and spend some time floating there, enjoying the quiet and watching for birds and other river-dwellers. Continue downstream (the tide will have changed, and should be in your favor) and if time permits, stop and explore the Rexhame Dunes before returning to the Town Landing. This trip gives you the opportunity to see a number of different landscapes within a short distance.

One major challenge to exploring the South River is access. At present there are no public launch sites in the upper reaches of the river. One can try launching from the Willow Street Bridge, but the banks are very steep, and poison ivy can be a problem. A public access point in downtown Marshfield would be a welcome addition to the South River.

by Kezia Bacon
October 1996

Kezia Bacon of Marshfield is the Assistant Director of the NSRWA.