Trekkers Wanted! (Adventures in Peru: Part 1)

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“The mountains are calling, and I must go.” – John Muir

The Andes called to me, their thunderous voices promising beauty and adventure. I listened to their Siren song, strapped inside the belly of a small airplane, my body crunched into the unnatural seated position that civilization all too often forces me into. I dreamed about stretching my long legs out and hiking thru the Andes. It was a dream that I’d visited often in the 6 months since I booked my trip to Peru, but now, from my achingly small seat in the plane, the Andes were so close it felt like I could reach out and touch them.  “Soon,” I reminded myself, “soon I’ll be hiking in these mountains!”

Back in March I’d responded to an ad reading, “Trekkers Wanted: departs September 11/ returns September 23: 12-Day Choquequirao, Salkantay Pass, Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.” It sounded like the perfect adventure for me. It was the longest (and most rigorous) guided trek that I could find that included the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu. The itinerary for the trek listed ascents of 5000 to 6500 feet (~1500 to 2000 m) per day, and involved trekking up to altitudes of ~16,000 ft (~4950 m)… The elevation gains and the daily mileage of 6-11 miles/day (11-18 km/day) seemed very do-able, but being asthmatic and living at sea level, I couldn’t help but worry about how the altitude might impact me…

Though I’d done treks to higher altitudes without any trouble (eg, Kilimanjaro 19,341 ft/ 5,891 m), my asthma had made me slower than most of my fellow PCT thru-hikers whenever we were at altitudes above ~9,000 ft (~2,743 m). Would I end up being the slowest person in the group if I joined this trek? It was possible. The listing told me very little about the group I would be joining, just that they were an American group from the midwest, they welcomed people of all ages, and their previous international trekking experience included high altitude adventures in Nepal (the Annapurna Circuit).

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The Plaza de Armas (Cusco, Peru)

When my flight finally touched down in Cusco (11,152 ft/3,399 meters) I was so excited about finally getting off of the plane that I forgot all my worries about the altitude. As I carried my luggage through the airport, took a cab to my hotel, and settled into my room I still hadn’t noticed any effects of the altitude. It wasn’t until I set off at brisk walk to go explore the Plaza de Armas in downtown Cusco that it hit me. I’d made it across the street and halfway down the block (~20 steps), when suddenly I was out of breath…Was my asthma acting up here in Cusco? Was it the altitude? Was it a combination of both?

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Statue of Pachacuti in the middle of the Plaza de Armas

I stopped and inhaled deeply. The air was cool, dry, and full of diesel fumes. As cars and buses rattled down the cobblestone street beside me, I exhaled slowly… If I was out of breath because my asthma was acting up, exhaling would trigger an asthma attack (never fun). If I was out of breath because of the altitude, I would be able to exhale cleanly.

I exhaled cleanly and smiled… My body was just a little cranky because the high altitude in Cusco meant that I was getting about 33% less oxygen per breath here than I get at home. I reminded myself that my body would adjust to the altitude, but that I should try to take it slow for a couple of days to give my body the time it needed to make those adjustments. Maybe it had been a good idea to spend the extra $$ on a hotel that pumped extra oxygen into the room at night!

  • Boston, USA:
    • elev. 142 ft/42 m
    • atmospheric pressure ~101.325 kPa (760 mmHg)
    • % of 0xygen available compared to sea level: 100%
  • Cusco, Peru:
    • elev. 11,152 ft/3,399 m
    • atmospheric pressure ~68 kPa (512 mmHg)
    • % of oxygen available compared to sea level: 68%
  •  Recommendations for exercising at altitude:
    • Days 1-3: 25% – 50% reduction of activity level compared to sea level is recommended as your body begins to adapt to high altitude
    • Days 4-7: Resume normal amount of exercise, but keep a slower pace/lower intensity than sea level activities

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A quechuan woman rests with her baby llama (Plaza de Armas, Cusco)

Moving slowly, I continued exploring the narrow streets leading to the Plaza de Armas. The layout of the streets and the distinctly Spanish architecture reminded me of wandering through the streets of Toledo, Spain… In many places, however, the old stonework looked like something different, something that I would learn had roots in the masonry of the Incas.

As I wandered through the plaza I was bombarded by people trying to separate me from my vacation dollars. “Massage! Lady, would you like a massage?” cried young women as I walked by. Other people frantically waved artwork and prints in front of my face, “You want?!” Women in traditional dress carrying baby llamas or herding young llamas constantly approached me offering to let me pet the llamas (or take my picture with them) for a small fee. Everywhere I turned someone was trying to get my attention in the hopes that I might buy something.

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Quechuan woman with baby llama in traditional dress on the corner near my hotel (Cusco).

A curt,”No,” and a firm nod was my response to every query. I quickly scanned the plaza de Armas looking for a quieter, less hectic area where I could relax for a minute and soak in the sights unmolested.

Paradoxically, the corner of the plaza that seemed to be the quietest was also the most crowded. A group of ~50-60   young(ish) people were clustered together, motionless, and quietly staring into their cell phones. Although I’d frequently seen the same phenomenon in the plazas and squares around Boston, my mind didn’t put two and two together until someone noticed that I was staring at the crowded corner and said, “Pokemon. They’re playing Pokemon Go.” I laughed and decided to keep exploring in the plaza even if that meant continuing to practice the art of saying “No” every 10 seconds.

Although the Plaza was beautiful, it was with relief that I finally excused myself from it and started walking out of the central tourist district, towards the office where my pre-trek briefing would take place. The adventure I was about to embark on may have started with a “Trekkers Wanted” ad, but I was more than ready to leave the city and head off into the mountains for a couple of weeks. I wanted my trek!!

— Next Installment: Home Again! (Trekking in the Andes: Day 1) —

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Real Kayakers Wear Skirts! (Part 4: Gently Down the Stream?)

Part 4 of the story of my ill-advised whitewater kayaking trip down the Penobscot river picks up with me looking like a drowned rat at the base of Big Ambejackmockamus Falls (class IV). The first three parts of the story can be found at:

“Are you ok?” the kayaker on the rocky outcropping above me shouted, noticing me for the first time. I looked up, catching a glimpse of the tip of my kayak churning around in the whirlpool right behind her.

“Yeah,” I’m ok, “but I could use some help.” I had no idea how I was going to safely retrieve my kayak, or whether or not it was even still in one piece… it might just be mangled mess. The kayaker stared at me, unmoving, so I decided to wade from my rock, up to where she was standing. The water was knee-deep, but the current was strong and the rocks were slippery. I slipped once, falling back and bruising my butt (miraculously the only injury I sustained) on my way to her rocky perch.

By the time I joined her, another kayaker had arrived. They both looked at me, confused and said, “You don’t have the right gear for this.”

“No, no I don’t…” I affirmed. I knew that I was still in shock, but was surprised that they seemed to be as well. “I shouldn’t be here… there’s no way that I should be here… I shouldn’t be on anything harder than a class II,” I said while they looked at me silently, still befuddled. “I could use some help getting my kayak and paddle back.”

“Sure,” they said as we watched the kayak and paddle for a minute as they rotated around the pool for the fourth of fifth time. They talked briefly and one of them left, leaving the other to help me. We were only distracted for a minute, but by the time we looked back at the whirlpool the kayak was gone…“Where’d the kayak go,” asked the woman that had stayed… I studied the water, looking for the kayak’s white-tip, amongst the foam… “I don’t know,” I replied with the sinking feeling that it may have finally succumbed to the rapids and was now at the bottom of the river.

“There it is!” she said pointing to a spot about 100 yards downriver. I looked at the paddle, still in the whirlpool, and at the boat downriver… “What should we do?” she asked. I didn’t want to face that waterfall again, or the whirlpool below it, so I said, “Why don’t you go for the paddle, and I’ll go for the boat!”

Horse Race (Class II)

“It’s a nice day for a swim!” I yelled to the raft that as I swam past it. After the insanity of the swimming through class IV rapids, swimming with the current towards my boat was actually quite pleasant.

“You don’t want to swim this, it gets really shallow!” yelled the whitewater rafting guide as I approached. “The other raft has your kayak” he continued as I floated by him, “If you want we can give you a ride down to it!”

“Sure!” It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, besides I could see the ripples of rocks ahead and my goal was still to have the least exciting kayak trip possible (which I’d completely failed at). “Just swim on over to us,” the guide instructed… I tried not to laugh… The raft was at least 20 feet upstream, and I was in the middle of the strongest part of the current… At my strongest and most rested it would have been pretty ridiculous to think that I’d be able to swim upstream towards them… At best I could try to get out of the current, swim towards their side of the river, and maybe slow down… if I was lucky! “You’re going to have to come to me,” I replied.”

Eventually the raft pulled up beside me, “Hop on in!” they instructed… I grabbed the safety rope, which ringed around the outside of the raft, and floundered as I attempted to pull, push, and kick my way over the ginormous lip of the boat… It just wasn’t happening… “I’m gonna need some help!” I exclaimed, tightening the side straps on my life jacket so they could grab it to help pull me in… Even with their help, it took two more tries before I managed to roll up over the side, and into the raft.

“What happened? How did you end up here?” the guide asked as I perched on the edge of the raft. He was also clearly baffled by my presence… “Well, a friend dropped me off upriver. He said I should expect still water with occasional class II’s, but that,” I shook my head, “that wasn’t a class II!”

“Class II?!” chimed in one of the rafters, “These are Class IV’s and V’s, maybe your friend is dyslexic.. He saw the 5 and thought it was a 2?”

“Are you ok?” the guide interrupted. “Well, I’m a little shaken up,” I replied honestly. “But medically speaking,” he pressed, “Are you ok?”

“Yeah,” I said lifting up my arms and looking myself over, “medically speaking, I’m fine.” I was actually surprised that I didn’t see any bruises on my arms and legs after all of that!

“So what happened?” he asked again. “It looks like it must have been pretty epic! When we spotted you, you were already down passed our photographer at Ambejack’s second drop…”

“Well, considering my kayak doesn’t have a skirt and I was only expecting class II’s I did ok, but there’s no way I should have ever ended up there…” I began, and regaled them with my tale of kayaking and then swimming through what I learned was Ambejackmackamus Falls. “You’re photographer probably got some crazy photos of me as I went by!”

“Our photographer didn’t even see you,” the guide replied rather solemnly. “Really?” I was surprised, I’d gone through the falls right in front of her… How could she have missed me?

“When we first saw you we thought you were a bag of trash,” one of the guys at the front of the boat said, joining the conversation. “Yeah,” interjected another, “we were wondering what kind of jerk would throw their trash into the river!”

“Well, I guess I am hiker trash,” I laughed, thinking that it was kind of fitting and realizing I should get brighter and more obviously colored gear…”What DO you have in your backpack?” the guide asked. I’d forgotten that I was even wearing a backpack, but clearly the green and black backpack was what they say and thought was trash. “My camera, a first aid kit, and a towel,” I replied… “Do y’all have any water? I took mine out of my pack before hitting those rapids and now its long gone.”

“No, we don’t, but you can have this beer we found floating in the river,” suggested one of the rafters. “Really?” I asked… Somehow beer wasn’t what I was expecting to be offered. “Yeah, A whole, unopened beer!” a different rafter chimed in, holding up a pristine looking can of PBR… “It’s been in the river though, you probably don’t want to drink it.”

“I’ve swallowed plenty of river water already today, I’m not worried about what might be on the edge of the can!” I laughed, looking at the beer… “Sure, I’ll take it… rafting down a river with a PBR in hand… I might as well embrace my hiker trash roots!”

As we continued floating down the river the barrage of questions continued, “Who dropped you off?”… “A friend”… “What kind of friend would do that? Were they trying to get rid of you?”… “No,” I replied, “but come to think of it, they were hoping to restore my faith in God!” As I reflected on it some more, the morning bible study (psalm 147) my new friends had had around the campfire that morning and the conversation surrounding it was eerily relevant to my day… “What is the lesson that you learned from this morning’s bible study?” the father had asked his son Noah at the end of the lesson. “To be humble,” he had replied. To be humble… My experience on the river that morning had definitely reinforced that lession! Humbling… that was definitely the word of the day!

Afterward: Nesowadnehunk

At the base of the Horserace rapids the raft that I was on finally caught up with the raft that had my kayak. They were all going to skip the Nesowadnehunk Deadwater. It was too calm to be of interest to them, but sounded perfect to me. It was still early in the day, and a nice relaxing paddle along the river still sounded nice. I checked my kayak, it was still river worthy. It had survived the class IV rapids and was still watertight!!!

“What’s the river like between here and Abol Bridge?” I quizzed the 6 rafting guides as they herded their rafters onto buses to skip the boring part of the river. “Well, there’s two miles of this Nesowadnehunk Deadwater, which is an easy paddle, and then there’s Nesowadnehunk Falls, a class IV waterfall with a big drop, but there’s a portage around that. Then, after that there’s maybe half a mile of class II shallows before you get to the Abol Deadwater, which will bring you the last 3 miles down to Abol bridge.”

“All of that sounds good, but I sure as heck don’t want to go anywhere near the falls!” I replied. “How do I know when I’m getting close to it? How do I make absolutely sure that I avoid it? Where exactly is the portage?” I must have sounded like a broken record as I quizzed them over and over and over again about avoiding the falls… They were going to stop for lunch at the other end of the deadwater, and that would be my first clue… the portage would be on the left after that, and it would allow me to carry my kayak around the falls and put in down below in the gentler waters.

“Ok,” I replied when I felt like I had a good mental picture of the river and its major hazard… Since the portage was on the left side of the river, so I figured I would paddle the rest of the way hugging the left shore, and the minute I saw anything that looked like a portage or whitewater I’d be outta the water and onshore faster than you could say, ‘rapid.’

After a gently, uneventful paddle, I got to the end of the deadwater where my new rafting friends were stopped for lunch. I wasn’t in a hurry, and I was still a little nervous about the falls ahead, so I stopped to chat with the river guides again.

“So, can you tell me more about the portage around this next falls?” I asked, still unable to remember or pronounce the names of any of the landmarks along the river. “It’s coming up on the left side of the river. It’ll have a sign for it, just like the last one up at Ambejack.” I gave him a worried looked… “Uh-oh, there was a sign for the last one? I definitely missed it… How do I make sure I don’t miss this one?”

“The sign has a canoe on it, and it’s about this big,” the guide made a small square with his hands, indicating that the sign was about 6 inches by 8 inches, “and it’s tucked back into the brush on shore.” It didn’t sound encouraging… no wonder I’d missed the last one.

“You could do that,” one of the other guides interrupted, “but I’ve done it… the trail is overgrown, and the put-in sucks.. it’s full of brush… If I were you, I’d take-out over at the other rafting groups lunch spot, which is right before the falls. Then all you have to do is carry your kayak up to the Golden Road, walk a couple hundred yards along it, and then follow the trail back down to the falls… It’s shorter than the official portage and the put-in is right at the base of the falls and is way better!”

“Where’s their lunch spot, and how will I know when I’m getting close to the falls?” I asked, trying to get as much information as possible before deciding to get back on the river. “They’re the second take-out down on the right, on the side of the river that we’re on now, and they’re right before the falls. You’ll know the falls are coming because you’ll hear them!” I asked a few more questions, but was eventually convinced that the ‘golden road portage’ was the best option for me.

“Good luck!” my new friends cheered me on as I nervously got back onto the river, paddling so close enough to the bank that I could reach out and touch it… I carefully studied the river and its shoreline as I carefully proceeded… Everything was still gentle and quiet. As I rounded the next bend I saw first one, and then two small sandy spits on the right side of the river… They were obscured by brush and looked about 3 feet wide, certainly not as big as the last rafting groups lunch spot, but as I got closer I could definitely hear the distant roar of waterfalls. I didn’t see any signs of whitewater, and wasn’t sure that this was the rafter’s lunch spot, but I was definitely pulling myself, and my boat, out of the water there!!

As I pulled my kayak onto the bank, I still wasn’t sure that I was in the right place… All I could see were the encroaching laurel bushes, and a steep jeep road rising into the pines… “I guess I’ll find out!” I thought as I lifted my kayak up onto my shoulder and started hiking up the road… By the time I’d taken five or ten steps the brush fell away, and was looking at a picnic area in where someone was busily preparing paella for about 100 people. This was definitely the right spot! I paused briefly to say hi, and continued up the steep slope of the jeep road.

“What are you doing on this side of the river!” a guy stuck his head out of his van, and yelled at me as I approached the Golden Road. “The portage is on the other side of the river,” he continued condescendingly.

“I know,” I replied setting my kayak down for a second, “but I heard that the portage on that side was brushy and that going this way was better.”

“No, it’s not… It’s really long to go this way,” he said pointing to where I was headed. “You should really go back and portage on the other side of the river.” I stared at him blankly… Was I going to trust the dude in the van, or the river guides? I picked up my kayak, turned away from him, and continued towards the Golden Road.

“Suit yourself!” he yelled after me… I didn’t even pause… So what if he was right? Long walks I could handle… Accidentally missing a portage spot and going through more class IV rapids, no way… Let me tell you how many miles I would walk to avoid that… All of them!!!

I probably walked less than 100 yards along the golden road before I spotted a parking area on the right and a large trail on the left. I set the kayak down and asked two people that were crossing the road if this trail led to the falls. “Yup,” they replied.

As I picked my kayak up, the kayakers that helped me out earlier pulled up and started to unload, “You found it!” they exclaimed gleefully as I headed down the steep trail to the sandy put-in at the base of the falls… “Yeah,” I thought as I got to the river and looked back at the falls, “I found it, and I portaged the fu** out it!”

The waterfall looked insane… I was really glad not to be kayaking over it, but I have to admit, when the rafters got there and started to play on it, I was jealous… I wanted to borrow a helmet, jump into one of the rafts, and play on the class IV rapids the right way!

THE END

P.S. From there to Abol Bridge is the 3-mile section of stillwater (nothing worse than Class II) that runs along the Appalachian Trail that I had scouted before, and thought that I was getting myself into! The AT runs so close to the river that at one point I saw some long-distance hikers, and they helped me take a picture of my kayak on the trail that I call home… I was definitely looking forward to getting off of the river and back into the mountains… The mountains may be scary, but they’re my kind of scary…

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Better than sex? Boston Fireworks Kayaking Adventure

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“Boo-ooo-ooo-oom!” The first rocket launched, the sound so intense that I didn’t just hear it as it bounced off of the river and hit me, I felt it! “Hoo-ah!” I exclaimed as my startle reflex took over: my stomach tightened, my eyes widened, my back arched, my heart slowed (bradycardia), and my body flooded with adrenaline and endorphins… Time stood still as my attention was pulled fully into the here and now… all thoughts, emotions, and expectations emptied from my mind to make room for my heightened senses…

DSC07038 “Cr-ack!” the sky exploded and my entire visual field was suddenly filled with the most beautiful cascade of red light that I have ever seen… Sitting there, in my kayak on the water with the fireworks barges in front of me, the red peony burst above me, and its reflections in the water all around me… It was so intensely beautiful that it overwhelmed my senses and brought tears to my eyes…

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I’ve watched Boston’s 4th of July fireworks before (from the Mass. Ave bridge-back when that was allowed, from the MIT sailing pavilion, and from multiple locations along the banks of the Charles), but I’d never experienced fireworks like this! AND the show was just getting started!!!

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“Thu-ump!” another firework launched. As the sound hit me, I was reminded me of the feeling I used to get at rock concerts… dancing in front of the speakers when the music was too loud and the bass was cranked up as high as it could go… the raw power of the sound resonating in my body, moving me, as I breathed the music…

  • 90 dBA: Soud intensity at which the vestibular system begins increasing hedonic response (sense of pleasure) in response to low-frequency sounds (<500 Hz).

My heart sped up with excitement and expectation because I knew what was coming next…

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“Crack! Crack! Crack!” Three stars, one red, one white, and one blue, exploded. “Wow, is there anything better than this?” I wondered blissfully, “Well… maybe sex…” The fireworks continued with a chrysanthemum, followed by some willows… I breathlessly awaited each new boom, and burst as the fireworks danced and crackled across the sky… It was so amazing… so beautiful… so intense… so perfect… so lovely… so magical… DSC07043 “This! This IS better than sex!”” I thought, overwhelmed by the sheer intensity of both the auditory and visual stimuli… I suddenly I understood why people associated orgasms with fireworks; each explosion was full of ecstasy, joy, and happiness… Wow! As the show continued the fireworks just got more and more intense and amazing… showering the sky with cascading patterns of red, purple, green, and blue…

  • 5 to 2.5 seconds: time between firework explosions during main show
  • 500 ms: time between firework explosions during finale (last 3 minutes)
  • 600-800 ms: time between muscle contractions during male and female orgasm.

DSC07040 I was euphoric… I loved my colorfully lit up kayak… I loved the gentle waves that were rocking my kayak, I loved that there were 10s of 1000s of other people there, watching it with me… I loved that it still felt like the whole show was being put on just for me… I loved the new friends that were watching the fireworks with me… I loved Boston… I loved it all… DSC07026 I continued glowing with happiness even after the fireworks ended… Sure, the air was filled with smoke, the barges had caught fire, I had to pee, and I to kayak 4 more miles to get home, but I knew that the spectacular experience of watching the fireworks from my kayak would remain with me, as one of my happy thoughts, for the rest of my life… DSC07065 DSC07072 Additional Links & References:

Cell phone pictures:

“Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular” Kayaking Adventure: Part 2- The Journey Downtown

The view from my kayak as we approached the esplanade on our way to watch the fireworks!

The pouring rain made me question my sanity as I headed over to the Charles River Canoe & Kayak kiosk in Allston/Brighton to meet up with some new friends for our 4th of July kayaking adventure. It was 5 pm, and I was surprised by the complete and utter lack of traffic on Rt. 2, Rt. 16, and Soldiers Field Road… I made it to the parking area in 15 minutes (a commute that takes over an hour during rush hour), and was even more excited to discover that the parking lot was half empty.

Preview of my glowing kayak!

I set up my Oru Kayak and filled it with the 10 remote-controlled wireless lights I’d purchased (and waterproofed) for the occasion while my friends picked up the tandem kayak they’d reserved…We waited a while for the rain to stop, then used the restroom one last time before launching our kayaks at 6 pm.

  • Restrooms: There are no publicly available restrooms between the Mass. Ave. and Longfellow Bridge on July 4th. Please leave a comment below if you know of any restrooms along the Charles that are publicly available for boaters between 7 pm and 1 am on July 4th.

Charles River Canoe & Kayak, Allston/Brighton location.

There was a steady stream of kayakers, canoeists, motorboats, and small yachts making their way down the Charles river and headed towards the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge, but the river didn’t feel crowded and the paddling was easy… except when the motorboats and yachts zoomed by… Some of the smaller motorboats, didn’t seem particularly mindful of the 6 mph speed limit, or the etiquette suggesting they pass through the central arches of the bridges (we didn’t see any police enforcement until we were within 300 meters of the Mass Ave. bridge)…

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In the narrower sections of the Charles River (between the Eliot bridge and the River St. bridge) this meant that they created impressively large waves in their wake, which were especially nerve-wracking under the bridges where the wakes generated standing waves and weird interference patterns.

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If the motorboats were behaving badly before the fireworks, and presumably before they began drinking, what was the return trip going to be like?

Luckily, by the time we got to the BU Bridge, the river widened and the wakes of the motorboats stopped being an issue. Even more amazingly, the sun came out and we were rewarded with amazing views of the of the Boston city skyline (including the golden dome of the statehouse) in the early evening light.

Boston skyline including the gold dome of the capital building.

At around 7 pm, we reached the west side of Massachusetts Ave (the blue anchorage zone), where I guessed that close to 50 small boats and yachts were already anchored and another couple dozen kayaks/canoes were milling about.

  • Zones: Blue anchorage zone (vessels less than 12 ft in height, west of Mass Ave), safety zone (area east of Mass ave. bridge, and within 1000 ft of the barges), red anchorage zone (zone east of safety zone where larger vessels are permitted)

State police marine unit enforcing life jacket rules.

“Gentlemen, you must have life preservers to be out here,” boomed the state police patrolman from the first of many state police marine units we’d see. We were passing by a group of three shirtless guys in a green inflatable raft that looked more like a beach-ball than a boat as we approached the Mass Ave bridge. “Sorry officer, we don’t want any trouble,” one of the guys responded quickly and politely… “You need to vacate the area, you can’t be our here without life jackets,” the trooper continued sternly as we passed by…

Kayakers in front of a flotilla of motor boats.

After passing the state troopers, we paused for a minute to decide whether we’d stay on the west-side of the Mass Ave bridge in the blue anchorage zone, or pass through the designated channels by the barges to the red anchorage zone on the east side with the big boats… The folks at the rental agency had strongly recommended staying on the West side of the bridge, assuring everyone that they views there were just as good, but we weren’t convinced…

Hanging out in the Red Anchorage Zone

A few things compelled us onwards: the opportunity to be closer to the Pops concert, the fact that the winds were blowing out of the northeast (if the wind directions stayed the same the fireworks fallout would be to the west), and the idea of getting to watch the fireworks without the Mass Ave bridge obstructing our view of the barges.

As we passed under the Mass. Ave. bridge it seemed like we were the only boats moving except for the patrolling state troopers… “Uh oh, did we read the rules correctly? Are we allowed to pass through here?” We wondered as we paddled towards the oncoming state troopers…

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The round, orange buoys floating at intervals along the shore clearly indicated the restricted shore areas, but the markers indicating the safety zone around the barges wasn’t obvious to me…

  • Restricted areas: Boats are not allowed within 100 ft of the shore between the Mass. Ave. Bridge and the Longfellow Bridge. Boats are not allowed within 1000 feet of the barges.

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“Are they going to stop us? Did we miss something?” It was an unsettling feeling, paddling by the state police boats and hoping that we were in compliance with all of the rules, but we passed the patrol without incident and continued paralleling the crowds on the esplanade until we reached the flotillas of yachts in the red anchorage area.

Kayakers in front of esplanade with red boundary buoys in background

Boats lined up in front of Boston skyline waiting for the fireworks (Red anchorage zone)

It wasn’t until we started making our way through the big boats towards the middle of the river that the tall white cylindrical buoys marking the boundaries of the safety area became apparent.

4th of July paddle-boarder in front of boundary buoy for the safety zone.

“Kayakers, you cannot enter the shore area,” boomed a voice on a megaphone behind us… We looked up and saw the state police approaching a group of kayakers that were attempting to land on the esplanade. “Kayakers! Vacate the shore area!” The police presence was unmistakable and absolutely everywhere.

Paddlers in front of the esplanade.

At 7:30 pm, we picked a spot at the edge of the safety zone near the mid-line of the river to anchor our kayaks and have our picnic dinner. I’d never anchored a kayak before, so it took me a couple of tries to figure out how to compensate for the drift, drag, wind, and currents to make sure we stayed on the ‘safe’ side of the boundary buoy. Once I figured it out, I was confident that we had the best seats in the house!

  • Anchoring tips: Make sure each boats has an anchor… wind and wakes cause a fair amount of drift if you are in a single kayak with a single anchor (we struggled with that all night)… Check out these general anchoring tips, as well as these kayak specific anchoring techniques: kayak anchoring tips, or advanced kayak anchoring setups.
  • Note: The Charles River is between 10 and 50 feet deep around the Mass. Ave. Bridge… make sure that your anchor rope is long enough.

Watching the sunset on the 4th from the middle of the Charles River

As we relaxed and ate our picnic dinner were marveled at our good fortune and our amazing spot… the pouring rain was long gone, the skies were clear, and we were in the perfect location to watch the sunset behind the MIT dome as we waited for the show to begin… the evening was already off to a good start, and there was still 3 hrs to go before the fireworks started!

Kayakers watching the sunset over the MIT dome

Check out my previous post: “Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular” Kayaking Adventure: Part 1-Overview and Regulations

Coming soon: “Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular” Kayaking Adventure: Part 3-The Pops, the fireworks, and returning home!

Paddling off into the sunset on July 4th before the Fireworks.

Have you watched the Boston Fireworks from a canoe, kayak, or boat? If so, do you have any tips, tricks, or advice? Leave a comment below! As always, if you have any questions about my adventures, leave a comment below :)

“Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular” Kayaking Adventure: Part 1-Overview & Regulations

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Do you have a bucket list? If so, you should add watching the Boston Fireworks Spectacular from a kayak in the middle of the Charles River to it! It was one of the most amazing experiences that I’ve ever had… It was breathtakingly, orgasmically, beautiful and the sheer immensity and joy of it brought me to tears in a way that very few experiences have…

  • Starting location: 1071 Soldier’s Field Road in Boston (Allston/Brighton), MA
  • Round-trip paddling distance:  ~9 miles (4.5 miles each way)
  • Trip duration: 6 hrs 30 minutes, total paddle time: ~3hrs
    • 6 pm – launched kayak
    • 7:30 pm – arrived at viewing location
    • 8:30 pm – sunset over MIT and Pops concert began
    • 10 pm – Pops concert ended
    • 10:30 pm – Fireworks began
    • 11:00 pm – Fireworks ended
    • 12:30 am – returned to parking lot

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  • Viewing location:  East of the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge (next to the esplanade), Boston, MA
  • Parking: 2 small lots near Charles River Canoe & Kayak, 1 large lot 1/4 further down (no fee). I arrived at 5pm and there were still plenty of spots available. Portable restrooms available near the kayak rental kiosk.
  • Required Equipment: kayak or canoe, paddle, life jacket, waterproof headlamp/flashlight with white light, emergency whistle (I also brought: paddle leash, rain coat, dry sack, camera, cell phone, water, snacks, additional lighting, compass, anchor with 150 ft cord, and a pee jug).
  • Trip cost: $0.00, Value: PRICELESS! (Kayak & canoe rentals are available from Charles River Canoe & Kayak: $89/canoe, $59 single kayak, $99 tandem kayak etc.)

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If you are interested in watching the July 4th fireworks from a kayak or canoe, please be familiar with the special boating restrictions for the area, as well as the general rules for paddling on mulit-use waterways at night. I’ve tried to summarize all of the pertinent rules below, but please leave a comment if there is something that I’ve missed or that you think should be included! (Part 2 of this series will be my trip report, sharing stories and pictures from my 2015 Boston Fireworks Spectacular kayaking adventure.

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July 4th Boating Restrictions between Longfellow Bridge and Mass. Ave. Bridge (Massachusetts State Police and Department of Conservation and Recreation, 2015):

  • No restrooms and/or trash receptacles will be available to individuals on the water.
  • Boats must stay 100 feet from shore
    • All public docks will be closed. No access of any kind will be allowed at these docks.
    • No dinghies, PWC, kayaks, canoes, or any other small vessel will be allowed to deploy from anchored vessels or permitted access to shore. Violation of this security zone will result in arrest.
  • Boats must stay 1,000 feet from barges.
  • All vessels must anchor outside the Safety Zone, which is marked by buoys and Public Safety.
  • Vessels UNDER 13 feet (vertical height) can anchor in the BLUE ZONE (Mass Ave. side of barge), no vessels over 13 feet be anchored in this area.
  • Vessels OVER 13 feet tall are allowed to anchor in the RED ZONE (Longfellow side of barges), vessels under 13 feet are not precluded from this area.
  • At 8:15 pm on July 4, the designated channels that pass beside the barges on both the Boston and Cambridge sides of the river. The channel will not reopen until after the fireworks.
  • From 7:45 pm on July 4th until 2 am, the New Charles River Dam will close to upriver vessel traffic
  • The Massachusetts State Police will monitor Channel 16, and enforce all restrictions.

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US Navigational Rules of the Road (US Coast Guard regulations unless otherwise cited):

  • Required Equipment:
    • Life Jackets: All persons on board a canoe or kayak must have a readily accessible USCG–approved Type I, II, or III PFD at all times. Note: Some states have legislation that requires life-jackets to be worn at all times during cold weather months (MA state law-9/15 – 5/15, NY state law-11/1 – 5/1, CT state law- 10/1 – 5/31 (please leave a comment if you know of other states with similar regulations).
    • Whistle: A kayak must carry a whistle capable of producing sound signals audible at 1/2 mile under calm conditions.
      • A “short blast” means a sound signal lasting about one second.
      • A “prolonged blast” means a sound signal lasting about four to six seconds.
      • The “danger signal” means at least five short and rapid blasts.
      • When navigating in or near an area of restricted visibility, kayaks should sound a fog signal of one prolonged blast on their whistle at least every two minutes.
    • Lights: lights must be shown from sunset to sunrise and when visibility is restricted.
      • Flashlight: Kayaks must, at a minimum, carry a white flashlight which can be shown toward an approaching vessel in sufficient time to prevent collision.
        • Alternatively, kayakers can display both a constant white sternlight and a constant red/green sidelights.
        • Never use any strobe light to indicate your position while underway.
      • Distress Signals (optional on inland waters): Vessels, specifically kayaks, canoes, and SUPs, operating between sunset and sunrise on coastal waters must carry either 3- Flares (3 Night, 3 day/night, or a combination of both) or 1-Electronic Distress Light for Boats (For example: ACR “C” Strobe, a compact flashing white light to be used only in emergencies)

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  • Boating Traffic Rules
    • KEEP RIGHT. Any vessel proceeding along a narrow channel or fairway shall keep as far right as is safe and practicable.
      • For kayaks, who can travel in very shallow water, this usually means outside the narrow channel as long as this option is not dangerous.
    • Get out of the way! A kayak shall not impede the passage of a vessel which can safely navigate only within a narrow channel or fairway, or which is constrained by her draft in any other way. Take early action to get out of the way.
    • Passing. When vessels are meeting on opposing or nearly opposing courses, each shall alter course to the right so as to pass on the other’s left (port) side
      • When being overtaken from behind, a kayaker should, if possible, maintain course and speed. It is the responsibility of the overtaking vessel to keep out of the way of the vessel being overtaken.
        • one short blast = “I am altering my course to the right and intend to leave you on my left side.”
        • two short blasts = “I am altering my course to the left and intend to leave you on my right side.”
      • Kayakers should never travel along or between designated traffic separation lanes, usually encountered in major harbors and clearly indicated on the chart
      • If you are paddling in a narrow channel and cannot see a possible approaching vessel due to a bend or obstruction, sound one prolonged blast. An approaching vessel should respond with a similar prolonged blast.
    • NOTE: The coast guard regulations (and Massachusetts regulations) don’t give anyone the right of way. The local confusion regarding this point is probably due to New Hampshire’s regulations (270-D:2 General Rules for Vessels Operating on Water), which states that “Canoes, kayaks, rowboats, sailboats, and swimmers shall be given the right-of-way.”

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  • General Charles River MotorBoat Rules
    • 6 mph speed limit above the BU Bridge
    • 10 mph speed limit between BU Bridge and Longfellow Bridge
    • The basic navigation rule for powerboats is to keep to the center of the river except for going under the
      BU Bridge.
      • Motorboats: use the center arches of all the other bridges and either arch, preferably the right hand arch
        in whichever direction you are traveling, at the Arsenal St. Bridge.
      • River Depth at Mass Ave Bridge is 10-40 ft, 13.4 feet headroom on the BU bridge.

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Logjams Not Traffic Jams: My Wild Kayak Commute (Part 2: Alewife Brook)

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My kayak commute had started well. I’d carried my folded-up kayak across the street and a block to the river, then timed myself with my phone as I set it up, 10 minutes 26 seconds… Not bad since it was just second time I’d put it together! I paddled up the Mystic River and into Alewife brook in a world of green trees, herons, and birdsong… It was easy to forget the ‘urban’ part of this urban wilderness even though the highway was never more than 500 feet away from me… The trees blocked the sight of it, and the birds blocked the sound of it.

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So when I ran into a logjam underneath the Boston Ave bridge it didn’t just jar my boat, it also jarred my mind out of the world of backcountry daydreams and back into my urban reality… The obstacle in front of me wreaked of civilization; a three-foot wide swath of trash: beach balls, soda cans, beer bottles, empty bags of Cheetos, Dunkin’ Donuts styrofoam cups, and other things that I couldn’t discern in the darkness under the bridge. Something was blocking the way and causing all of the urban detritus to collect here… yuck!

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I picked a spot that looked passable and went for it, but instead of making forward progress, my kayak lurched and wobbled in an unsettling way… My movements were too quick, too erratic. “OMG, I really don’t want to end up swimming in this water!” I thought frantically.

“Don’t Panic!” I scolded myself… I knew exactly where panic would lead me. It would lead me to the place I didn’t want to be… into the drink, where I would be immersed in the cold, dark, trash-filled water. Though up until now, the surface the water had seemed clean enough, the truth was that the water beneath me was city drainage water and definitely not clean… I didn’t have any idea what might have settled into its depths, and I really, really, really did not want to find out by accidentally swimming in it.

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I took a deep breath, and stilled my body and my kayak. I had my towel with me (in my dry bag with my work clothes), and as long as I followed Douglas Adams’s advice and didn’t panic, everything was under control… I maneuvered my kayak so that I was parallel to my mystery snag instead of perpendicular to it, and investigated the obstacle before me. It was passable… there was a log submerged near the surface, but over by the bridge’s pilings to the right, there was about 2 ft of clearance between it and the surface of the water… plenty of room for me and my kayak to pass over it! There was just one problem… the passable section was so close to the piling that I wouldn’t be able to paddle…

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Suddenly I longed for a simple pole to use to propel myself through narrow waterway… The romantic notion of Venetian gondoliers immediately came to mind with their narrow profiles and single oars, but I immediately revised it to the image that I actually wanted, that of a punt and a punt pole… If I had a punt pole I could propel myself forward by pushing the pole off of the bottom of the river… Instead, I was going to have to put my hands into that dirty water to try to propel myself forward!

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For some reason paddling through the water hadn’t bothered me at all, but reaching my hand down into it? That was a completely different story! I had to laugh at myself… My hands were already covered in Alewife Brook water, intentionally submerging my hands in it shouldn’t be a problem… and yet…

“There’s nothing to do, but do it!” I grumbled and reached in… within moments I was free of the first logjam and headed upstream again. This section of the brook wasn’t bucolic at all… Cement walls rose up on both sides of me, creating a cave-like feeling… the only thing breaking the monotony of cement were that occasional rusted iron ladders that allowed escape from the canal… To the right, the walls of the canal were lower… Affording a clear view of the cemetery…

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It was eerily silent as I paddled through, carefully avoiding occasional downed trees and rusting motorcycle engines… I was paying so much attention to the upcoming obstacles that somehow I didn’t see the…

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“SNAPPPP!!!!!!!” The sound was terrifyingly loud as it echoed between the water and cement overhang. It scared the living sh** out of me! Startled (ok, maybe slightly terrified), I turned my head towards the sound… It was a giant snapping turtle… In the water… under my kayak… I was already gliding over it… and it was biiiiiig…

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“Don’t Panic!” I reminded myself… The turtle was at least 3 feet in diameter… So big… so old… and so well camouflaged with the rocks just below the surface… Would it snap my kayak paddle in half? I lifted my paddle out of the water just in case, and tried to keep my calm… The snapping turtle was so close… This would be an even worse time to accidentally dump the kayak and go for a swim… Here, in this canal, the snapping turtle was obviously the boss… I was the intruder… and I quite happily left it where it was and got the heck out of there!

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The cement channel continued for ¼ mile with the cement overhang on one side and the cemetery on the other before it finally released me back into the trees… No more overhangs, graves, no more rusty ladders… just trees and brush and birdsong again… I was back in my happy place…

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Kayaking up alewife brook was definitely an adventure. It reminded me of one of my favorite childhood adventures/games, which I called “Combat Canoeing”… As a kid I wasn’t allowed to canoe on the river, but I was allowed to explore as far up the smaller waterways as I wanted… the waterways had been narrow, with overhanging braches tried to scratch us, underwater logjams that tried to dump us, and we were never sure if the waterways would passable, but we kept going because it was an adventure and that was part of the excitement (there was also a 2-canoe variant where my brothers, our friends, and I would throw river weeds and concord grapes at each other in epic canoe battles).

One of my favorite obstacles in “combat canoeing” as a kid was the “limbo tree”, a downed tree that spanned the width of the waterway, with just enough clearance for the canoe to pass under it… As I approached Alewife I was excited to encounter a limbo tree here as well… I took my feet off of the footrest in the kayak, scooted into the kayak as low as I could go, and launched myself under the tree… My face, with a huge smile on it, passed under the tree with about an inch of clearance… it would be really tight if the water levels went up any higher!

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In total, I crossed under 5 bridges, encountered 4 logjams (I had to portage over one of them), saw 1 heron, 1 snapping turtle, 3 families of ducks, 1 raccoon, and 1 deer as I paddled up Alewife Brook. After crossing under one final bridge, that felt more like a long, dark tunnel, I made it to the access road for the Alewife train station: my final destination. I pulled my kayak up to the granite steps, got out of it, and hauled it up onto the bank beside the bike path and the road.

I quickly folded the kayak back up while watching the streams of commuters heading for Alewife station either by car, by bike, or on foot… There were just so many of them! I’d been so busy having my kayak adventures that I’d once again forgotten that I was in the middle of the hustle-and-bustle of the city during rush hour!

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Within moments I entered the stream of commuters headed for the station, my kayak folded up and over my shoulder… I was about a block away from my office building… Once I got to my office I headed straight for the showers, kayak in tow. I showered, rinsed the boat off, pulled my work clothes out of their dry bag, and got ready to go… All-in-all it took about an hour door-to-door for my first morning’s kayak commute.

I’m was glowing with happiness, smiles and energy bubbling out of me as I tucked my kayak into my cubicle and sat down to work… This kayak commute was definitely something that I could get used to… And I was guaranteed to get to repeat it all over again to get home at the end of the day :)

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What price sanity? What price happiness? Discovering a way to start my day full of happiness and excitement instead of frustration and defeat was absolutely priceless! I would take logjams over traffic jams any day, everyday (except in thunderstorms)… As long as I had my trusty towel by my side!

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PS: Right now I cannot recommend the kayak trip up Alewife Brook to other people… Though I enjoy it, it requires experience with navigating narrow waterways, constant monitoring of both the water depth and quality, familiarity with the submerged obstacles, a willingness to get wet and portage as necessary, and immediate access to showers after any/all boating activities.

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Although Alewife is usually considered safe for boating, it rarely meets Massachusetts water quality standard for swimming, and for at least 48 hours following heavy rains neither Alewife Brook nor the Mystic River are safe for boating. This is largely because of combined sewer outflows (CSOs), which empty runoff and raw sewage directly into Alewife brook after heavy rains. “There are eight permitted CSOs on the Alewife Brook: one owned by the MWRA, one owned by the City of Somerville, and six owned by the City of Cambridge.”

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In an area full of people that pride themselves on their environmental awareness and activism, it is truly heartbreaking to see how easily our waterways can be left behind… I prefer to focus on the positives; the beauty, the wildlife, and the amazing steps we’ve taken to clean our waterways, but we still have a long way to go.

Click here for more information about the Mystic River’s water quality and boating safety

Choosing the Right Outdoor Adventure…

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Spring is here! It’s time to go outside, explore new places, and find new adventures… but how do you decide which adventure is right for you? Here are some things to consider before you go:

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  • Timing: How much time can you spend out on your adventure? Don’t forget to factor in the transit time to- and from- your destination! Usually I plan to spend at least as much time adventuring as I spend in transit. Another thing I’ve learned the hard way? Double-check what time the sun rises and sets before you go… the number of daylight hours varies seasonally and has taken me by surprise more than once (now I always take a headlamp along just in case!).

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  • People: How many people are likely to join you on your adventure? Some destinations are better for groups, others for solitude… Remember that popular destinations frequently get crowded, especially during peak-season and on weekends! Often when I got to popular places at popular times, I avoid the throngs by choosing one of the less common, less crowded trails.

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  • Background: What is your level of experience, and that of your group? If you jump in too far over your head the fun factor suddenly plummets. Also, take into consideration the health constraints and current level of fitness of each member of your group (including yourself) before choosing your adventure… I find that when things are too physically strenuous the complaining goes up, and the fun goes down.

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Join me this summer as I introduce new people to the outdoor trails and adventures that I love… Whether I’m going out for a day hike with my 4-year old niece, going camping with friends, or heading off on another solo backpacking adventure, I’ll be sharing my favorite tips, trips, trails, and tales here on this blog!

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Oh, and I almost forgot… pictures… I love taking pictures! I post to Instagram and Facebook between blog posts!

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P.S. Do you have questions about hiking? Camping? Backpacking? Gear? Getting outside? New England trails? Thru-hikes? Leave a comment below!

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