In Thoreau's Wake on the Concord and Merrimack
Publication Year: 2009
How we see depends on where we are in our lives and with whom we travel. Leff chose his companions wisely. In consecutive journeys his neighbor and friend Alan, a veteran city planner; his son Josh, an energetic eleven-year-old; and his sweetheart Pamela, a compassionate professional caregiver, added their perspectives to Leff’s own experiences as a government official in natural resources policy. Not so much sight seeing as sight seeking, together they explored a geography of the imagination as well as the rich natural and human histories of the rivers and their communities.
The heightened awareness of deep travel demands that we immerse ourselves fully in places and realize that they exist in time as well as space. Its mindfulness enriches the experience and makes the voyager worthy of the journey. Leff’s intriguing, contemplative deep travel along these historic rivers presents a methodology for exploration that will enrich any trip.
Published by: University of Iowa Press
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In the record of famous river odysseys in American history, from that of Joliet and Marquette down the Mississippi in 1673 to the legendary gauntlet of one-armed John Wesley Powell on the Colorado in 1869, the brief excursion of a pair of Yankee schoolteacher brothers down the Concord and up the Merrimack in 1839 ought to have little more than a footnote...
Canoe and Time Machine
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I dug my paddle deeply into the river, pulling hard along the canoe’s stern. Each stroke seemed more difficult than the last, as if the water had become viscous, slowly solidifying like concrete. My shoulders and arms throbbed. My back ached from fighting a stiff wind that pushed the boat sideways...
Concord and Conflict
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On a dank, humid July morning, Josh and I launched our canoe into the Assabet River from a grassy ribbon of land behind the large public works complex at Concord, Massachusetts. Although a few paddle strokes downstream of where Thoreau began his voyage, it was a put-in where we could safely leave our pickup, according to local police, who seemed unsurprised by a request that might have invited suspicion in...
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Shoving our paddles into the soft, mucky river bottom, Josh and I pushed away from the dock through clumps of yellow flag iris and spikes of violet pickerelweed. In an instant we passed beneath North Bridge and left the Revolution and Civil War behind. For the moment, at least, they would have to continue without us...
Father of the Man
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Wind whipped the river to whitecaps. Water slapped against the boat. The distant Nashua Road Bridge was a mere filament, a thin tightrope stretched from shore to shore gaining texture and substance with each paddle stroke. Soon we were alongside a cluster of small houses as colorful as mushrooms and, after traveling miles along swampy ...
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Wind whipped the river to whitecaps. Water slapped against the boat. The distant Nashua Road Bridge was a mere filament, a thin tightrope stretched from shore to shore gaining texture and substance with each paddle stroke. Soon we were alongside a cluster of small houses as colorful as mushrooms and, after traveling miles along swampy banks without human habitation, just as surprising, popping up on...
Third American Revolution
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On a day originally set aside for exploring the Middlesex Canal, Alan and I found ourselves on Hampstead Avenue in North Billerica. A quiet, tree-shaded street, it passed through an ordinary neighborhood of modest houses sitting amidst small lawns. The Billerica Garden Suburb was situated on a low rise behind the Faulkner Mill and bounded by the Concord River to the west with railroad tracks on the east. Neither...
Art of the Voyage
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On a sun-drenched morning, Pamela and I shoved our canoe into the Merrimack River at Lambert Park, a small slice of riverside situated barely upstream of Hooksett, New Hampshire. Its manicured lawn and careful paving lay just below a low dam, beside which was perched a brick powerhouse. Apparently, it was a popular launch site for fishers in small outboard-powered boats...
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Within sight of the squabby Ramada Inn where McPhee and his sonin- law spent the night a year earlier, Pam and I lifted the canoe off our pickup as traffic whizzed by on the busy ramp connecting Interstate 293 to the Amoskeag Bridge. Carrying it across a margin of rough lawn, we slid it down a steep, narrow path of dirt and grass like a bobsled. We passed through a dense stand of bamboolike Japanese knotweed...
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Pam and I approached Carthagina Island with the lofty twin spans of i-293 looming beyond it. At two thousand feet long, the island was narrow and thick with trees, especially tall pines and oaks. Thoreau called it “the fairest which we had met with, with a handsome grove of elms at its head.” Admitting that “an island always pleases my imagination,” he would have camped had it been evening. Though the elms...
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Not long after Pam and I had pulled our canoe out of the river and passed through the short masonry tunnel penetrating the railroad embankment at Reeds Ferry, I returned with Alan. Shouldering the boat from a rough dirt parking area at the edge of an old residential neighborhood, we entered the arched portal and found ourselves in the well-tended park. Isolated from the workaday world by the berm...
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Its seventy-two pounds conspiring with gravity, the canoe sluiced quickly down the steep, overgrown path to the water and landed with a splash. Seemingly as eager as a puppy for a swim, it almost took us with it. Where the day before Alan and I had worked tediously to haul the boat up the bank, it now yanked us down on a white-knuckled rollercoaster ride ending in laughter...
What Floats Your Boat
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As the sun gained its zenith, it transformed dark water into a highway of polished silver, sparkling sporadically whenever the wind riffing through overhanging trees touched down on the river’s surface. The banks were often eroded, illustrating where the current rubbed up against the shore in high water...
The Miracle of Lowell
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Though the Concord River flows to the Merrimack at Lowell, Thoreau never came to their confluence. Instead, he avoided the shining City of Spindles and took a shortcut along the Middlesex Canal. He probably did so for practical reasons. The famously tranquil Concord becomes a raging torrent of whitewater in its final two miles, frothing through rocky rapids and roaring over falls. Today the passage is even more...
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Alan and I got lost in Lowell’s labyrinthine streets on our way out of town. We were caught in an area bounded north and west by the Merrimack with the Pawtucket Canal on the south and the Concord River to the east. Most every turn seemed a wrong one. We passed St. Patrick’s Church four times before realizing we were circulating like fish in an...
Sources and Acknowledgments
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The sources that gave rise to this work are as manifold as the springs, puddles, wetlands, and seeps that give rise to the Concord and Merrimack rivers. Publications described below are the mainstream influences on this volume, though there are many unnamed and unremembered tributaries of information and inspiration, including snippets of conversation, Internet searches, casually read magazine and newspaper articles, old photographs, and dreams...
Page Count: 279
Publication Year: 2009
Series Title: American Land & Life