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Katie McQuaid's Scene in Manchester: Merrimack River's rebound is remarkable

By KATIE McQUAID
July 20. 2018 11:19PM
Penelope, a giant inflatable peacock that has been inhabiting the Merrimack River at Stark Lane, is docked at the Perreault home but relatives, friends and neighbors play on it as well. Friends of their daughter Sophia Bicknell were hamming it up on Sunday. Pulling Penelope, loaded with everyone, are some of Sophia's relatives, from left: Rowan Steinberg, 8, Ava Dittbenner, 8, and Parker Steinberg, 10. Drew Steinberg, 5, is at far left. With Sophia are Andalie Paul, 21, Alyssa Olivia, 21, Sabrina Burke, 21, Bicknell, 20, Nate Temple, 21, Evan Perrotti, 21, Antonia Perrotti, 18, and Ryan Sullivan, 18. Right behind them are, from left: Briana Perez, 20, and Zach Pelletier, 20. (Allegra Boverman/Union Leader)



I have river-living envy. It’s been a growing pang in my life, whenever I head west on the Amoskeag Bridge and see more and more people recreating on the beautiful stretch of the Merrimack River just north of the dam.

It surprises me to see so many motorboats, kayaks, jet skis, and especially swimmers. I grew up thinking the river was too polluted to even touch. I was wrong.

“The water is so clean and beautiful,” said Danielle Perreault, whose family has relished living on the river in Manchester since the early 1900s, even when it wasn’t so clean.

“There were times when my father was young when it was commonplace to throw your scraps from cooking in the river and then go for a swim. It got better as I grew up as we didn’t swim amongst floating garbage, but the sewer was still spilling in,” said the Stark Lane resident, who lives with husband Don Perreault and their kids surrounded by homes still occupied by her aunts, uncles and cousins.

“Our parents didn’t seem to be affected by the polluted river as my cousins and aunts and uncles are still living and they are in their 80s,” said Danielle Perreault. “My father lived to 84. Well-brined, I like to say.”

She said she has seen use of the river increase since it was cleaned up in the 1980s, both by people and animals. “Now we see eagles and lots of herons, hawks, muskrats, etc., and there are more types of river plants,” she said.

The Perreaults are also seeing more jet skis and faster boats. One of their favorite river activities is boating up to Robie’s Country Store in Hooksett, where they can tie up and sit down for a delicious breakfast at Roots Cafe. They also swim, kayak, paddleboard, and enjoy Penelope, a 9-foot tall, 16-foot long inflatable peacock that floats in front of their home.

Adam Wochna, of Merrimack, watches over a couple of his fishing lines on the Merrimack River Friday afternoon at the 293 bridge boat launch in Bedford. The once-polluted river is now used by boaters, fishermen and those looking to enjoy the water. (JOSH GIBNEY/UNION LEADER)

Premium river real estate

The Perreaults’ home is on a stretch of river that runs from Robie’s to the Amoskeag Bridge. The water is so slow it feels more like a 9-mile lake than a river. I asked my Realtor friend Lisa Boucher, with Hearthside Realty, how hard it is to get a home on this stretch of the Merrimack in Manchester.

“Prices on the river are at a premium, but that is no surprise with the market being up all over the state,” she said. Add in the limited space for residential property north of the dam and only 33 documented transfers since 2001, and my dreams of life on the river aren’t looking too good.

“I’m sure there are plenty of homes that stay in families or sell privately,” she said.

Flat to fast

“It’s a real gem, the Merrimack River, on both sides of the dam,” said avid kayaker George May, although there’s no question about which side he prefers.

“I’m looking for a river,” said May. “It’s turns into a big lake above the dam.”

As president of the Souhegan Watershed Association, May leads kayaking trips all over the area. One of his favorites is a 10-mile stretch of the Merrimack River from the parking lot of Amoskeag Fishways in Manchester to Reeds Ferry in Merrimack, where he lives. 

He said the trip offers small rapids and an opportunity to experience the river in both urban and rural settings as the noise of I-293 and the rich history of the Millyard gradually fade into a more peaceful and natural setting. 

“Once you get below the 293 bridge it really almost turns into a rural river,” May said.

May is happy to see anyone using the “multi-use” and “safe” Merrimack River.

“Everything that I do is trying to promote education about the rivers,” he said. He does regular water testing of both the Souhegan and Merrimack Rivers and said the quality is “very good, actually” and safe for both human swimmers and the creatures who call the river home.

Access

Kayakers can access the river, on both sides of the dam, from a portage area at Amoskeag Fishways, according to staff there. 

To head south, you must depart during the fishways’ operating hours, Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. And make sure you have a plan to get picked up wherever you plan to get out downstream. 

In addition to Reeds Ferry in Merrimack, May suggests Greeley Park in Nashua for those looking for a longer trip.

Those looking for the leisure of the northern side of the dam can access from the fishways at any time of day, and easily paddle back and forth along this (currently) slow-moving stretch of water.

Do you have a favorite access point or activity on the Merrimack River? Tell Katie about it at Scene@UnionLeader.com.


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