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Paddling the Last Stretch of the Charles River to the Ocean

The last leg of our Charles River journey was through the basin to the harbor, perhaps even into the harbor. I loaded up the big red kayak with The Boy, The Girl, and snacks.

Charles River Kayak
Ready to start paddling

We started off in Brighton, from the same spot we stopped after coming down river from Waltham. This section of the river would be very different from the rest of the Charles River. The river is much wider. The current is mostly gone. The wind would likely move us quicker than the current, and not necessarily in the right direction. We would have to contend with traffic.

Traffic on the Charles River
Traffic on the Charles River

We stayed close to the river bank. There were dozen of rowing shells of all sizes moving quickly along the river. They go fast, but do not turn fast. We get to face forward and see where we were going at our much more leisurely pace. We gave rowers plenty of room.

After bending through the Harvard portion of the river, we passed under the Western Avenue Bridge and the River Street Bridge to come into the BU portion of the river. Off to the left is Magazine Beach, so named because it was the old site of a powder magazine for the defense of Cambridge.

Charles river kayak
The BU Bridge and the railroad bridge

We passed under the BU Bridge. Theoretically, we could be a boat passing under a train, passing under a car, passing under an airplane. As it turns out, the flight traffic from Logan was going in a different direction and trains rarely use the lower bridge.

From the Charles River Dam to the BU Bridge the Basin is two and one-half miles long and up to two thousand feet wide. Passing under the bridge we got a panorama of the Boston skyline.

As we entered the lower basin, the water became choppier. The wind was sweeping across the water, stirring up waves and larger boats were leaving wakes. Fortunately, we could tuck into the shelter of the esplanade lagoons.

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Esplanade Lagoons

The first is the Storrow Lagoon, the middle is the Canoeway, and the third is the Concert Lagoon.

We emerged from the lagoons at the Community Boating docks, just upstream from the Longfellow Bridge. There are breakwaters to quell the waves pushed across the basin.

We hugged the side of the river, trying to stay far away from the duck boats, sailboats, and other boats, all of which were much larger than out little red kayak.

Just around the corner is the Museum of Science. It sits atop the old Charles River Dam. When the dam was built in 1910 it limited the flow of salt water in the Charles River. It turned the Charles River Basin from a tidal salt water estuary into a pond. The tides no longer affected the water river and a stable water level could usually be maintained.

Museum of Science and the Old Charles River Dam
Museum of Science and the Old Charles River Dam

Just to the right is old lock for the dam, which is our passageway to head closer to Boston Harbor. The lock is narrow with high walls. It’s especially intimidating when you are paddling behind a Duck boat, with another coming upstream on the other side, and a third behind you heading downstream. The red kayak felt very small.

We had to pass under the railroad bridge that connects North Station with the rail lines that are on the other side of the river. The kayak is small enough to fit under the bridge when it’s down. There was a bigger boat heading upstream from the harbor, so when we first saw the bridge, both spans were up.

Railroad Bridge and the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge
Railroad Bridge and the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge

We continue paddling behind Boston Garden and under the Bunker Hill bridge. The river in this section is highlighted with new parks, a result of the Big Dig environmental offsets. The concept is to reclaim some of this lost riverfront as the New Charles River Basin and reconnect it to the heavily used basin waterfront.

We arrived at the New Charles River Dam. On the left side are big grates. On the right are three locks separating the Charles River from Boston Harbor. One lock is much larger than the other two to handle the bigger boats.

Charles River Dam
Charles River Dam

Behind the grates on the left are six diesel-powered, 2700 horsepower turbo-charged engines that drive six pumps with a combined capacity of about 3.7 million US gallons per minute. The purpose of the dam is to control the surface level of the river basin. Otherwise the water level in the Charles River basin would rise and fall with the tide. It would also flood Boston in times of heavy rain and high tide. That was the failing of the old Charles River Dam.

I had heard that small boats, like our kayak, could use the locks to enter and leave the harbor. We sat around waiting for the green light to come on and the big doors to open. After a few minutes, I thought it was not true. But then the doors opened and a boat emerged. I assume the wait was just for that upstream traffic. The doors stayed opened and the green light stayed on. So in we went.

Inside the Charles River Dam Lock
Inside the Charles River Dam Lock

The kids waved to the operator in the catwalk high above us. The doors behind us swung shut. The water level increased about one foot to match the tide level in the harbor. The big doors on the far end swung open, the green light came on, and we were now in Boston Harbor.

We had transitioned from paddling in the river to paddling in the ocean. Unfortunately, our little red kayak is not really built for ocean paddling. Fortunately, the wind was calm and the waves were small. Off to the left was Charlestown, the Bunker Hill Monument and the U.S.S. Constitution.

Kayaking and the Constitution
U.S.S. Constitution

We swung by the oldest commissioned warship. It was an impressive sight from the water. The dock was fenced off with a warning that it was a restricted area and the “use of force authorized”. I was not about to test the guns of the warship.

We turned right and paddled across the Coast Guard station, the Aquarium, and Rowes Wharf towards Fort Point Channel. The waves were small, but choppy. Boat traffic sent wakes crashing into us and bounced us up and down. As we passed under the Old Northern Avenue Bridge and into Fort Point Channel, the waves subsided.

We passed the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum.

Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum
Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum

The Beaver and the Eleanor are replicas and part of the history lessons at the museum. A popular misconception is the belief the Tea Party Ships were British. Not true. The vessels were built in America and owned by Americans. It was only the cargo of tea they were carrying from London to Boston that was British, goods from the British East India Company. The Beaver was owned by the Rotch family from the Nantucket Quaker family. The Eleanor was one of several vessels owned by the Boston merchant, John Rowe.

We unexpectedly crossed paths with the pirate ship, the White Pearl.

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Pirates in Boston Harbor

I had noticed a small dock, garishly adorned with a pirate flag and treasure chest next to the Northern Avenue bridge. The White Pearl came around the dock with water guns firing in all directions. This was our first encounter with the Kids Pirate Adventure run by the Boston Harbor Shuttle.

Our takeout was the new kayak and canoe dock in the Fort Point Channel. P&G Gillette built the dock as part of the restoration of the channel after the Big Dig and as part of its Chapter 91 license for its nearby buildings. Unlike other docks on the waterfront, this dock is low to the water and designed for canoes and kayaks. Motorized boats are not allowed to use it. There is free parking for using the dock and designated parking spaces for using the dock. Unfortunately, those spaces were occupied. From the look of the vehicles, they were not parked there to use the dock.

Fort Point Channel dock
The Boy and The Girl at the Fort Point Channel dock

It was a pleasant end to our quest to paddle the entire Charles River.

Our route:

Paddling through the Charles River basin

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