A Family Adventure


Tyson, Emilie & Isaac

Portsmouth Harbor Historic Buildings

July 5, 2021
Emilie Phillips

Last time we kayaked Portsmouth Harbor, we landed at park beaches and MITA islands. This time I found rest stops at a bunch of public parks with historic buildings.

Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion

Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion

This is a NH state park. The primary attraction is the mansion. There is also a walking path and some park benches for viewing Sagamore Creek. We found a nice gravel boat ramp. It is at a gap in the stone wall near the giant iron boat anchor.

We could instead have landed on Goose Island or the boat launch at the neighboring Forest Society Creek Farm preserve. The park benches and views won out for our lunch stop.

Fort McClary

Draw bridge entrance

This Maine park is on the Maine Island Trail, but it is rather fortified against kayaks. We landed on seaweed covered rocks below the massive granite fortress wall. The fort, like many in Maine, evolved over time from the war of 1812 through the Civil War. When the Civil War ended they seem to have stopped mid-construction. The landing wasn’t convenient, but we appreciated the rest of the park. It had general outdoor park facilities like picnic tables, views, and a toilet. It also had placards explaining the history. All the buildings are open to the public. The blockhouse was our favorite. It has a drawbridge and embrasures.

Wood Island Life Saving Station

Wood Island Life Saving Station

We skipped Fishing Island and Fort Foster. Instead we continued straight to Wood Island. The life saving station was a precursor to the US Coast Guard. Their job was to rescue mariners in distress. The station was decommissioned in the 1970s and has been falling apart since. Last year, I saw that a nonprofit had raised enough money to restore the building. The outside is now weather tight. We landed at the obvious gravel beach on the north side.

Fort Stark

We skipped Fort Stark and headed straight back to the put in from Wood Island. This fort is a NH state park at the southern tip of New Castle Island. It was originally built around 1800, similarly to Fort McClary. Fort Stark continued operating for longer than Fort McClary. The buildings I saw from a distance looked like WW I or WW II era. I am guessing the wide gravel beach on Little Harbor is the advertised kayak launch.

Other trip details

We turned onto the Piscataqua River at full ebb tide. Tyson suggested we cross to the northern shore to get a free ride down the current. The north or left shore had smaller eddies than the southern side of the river. According to any sensible traffic rule, we should have paddled near shore on the far left. The power boats cruising upstream should have motored up the middle of the channel. Instead, the up-going motor boats all hugged the shore, trying to find the least opposing current. That pushed us out into the middle of the channel, which was great for getting a free ride. (Check out our speed in the track below.) But it was terrifying trying to keep track of all the motor boats and decide if we needed to dodge, all while staying upright in big chop. As soon as the river widened out, we pulled off to the far left.

Isaac learning the bow rudder

Tyson and Isaac were in the Bullitt tandem. I, Emilie, was in my Tahe Greenland. The two of them paddling together could easily outpace me. Even Tyson paddling alone could push the racing tandem faster than my boat. Isaac enjoyed not having to paddle. To keep him engaged, we taught him a bow rudder. That’s where you put the paddle towards the front of the boat and use it to turn. This was a great context to learn. With Tyson propelling the boat, Isaac could focus exclusively on turning. Tyson pulled the kayak rudder up and let Isaac steer them through Little Harbor and the back creeks.

When we got back to the put-in, we ran into Greg and Paula of Kayak Waveology. We haven’t seen them since before becoming parents. It would be fun to get back into the sea kayaking community.

All Photos

GPS Track