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Trip Report: Great Bay, Portsmouth, NH

Posted by on February 26, 2012

About this time last year my friend Rick and I decided to start the MIT Outing Club’s sea kayaking season early by leading a trip to Great Bay near Portsmouth, NH. The reasons for this trip were three-fold. First, we longed for a relaxing afternoon by the sea after a long, cold winter of hanging off of various ice walls by the tips of our crampons and axes up in the back woods of New Hampshire. Second, we were not quite ready to give up the ice because we had been having so much fun climbing it so we thought that paddling by some ice flows would be a nice transition. Finally, impatience wouldn’t allow us to wait another two months for the official start of the season in May. So we gathered a small group of competent club members and headed north for a winter paddling adventure.

Great Bay, as the name suggests, is a massive estuary that borders the towns of Portsmouth, Newmarket, Greenland, and Durham New Hampshire. The bay drains to the Piscataqua River which serves as the border between New Hampshire and Maine. Recently, the Piscataqua River made national headlines as part of a border dispute. The two states butted heads over the ownership (and tax rights) of Seavey’s Island which serves as the site of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court which ruled that the boundary between the states lies along the middle of the river and that Seavey’s Island and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard were actually contained within the boundaries of the town of Kittery, ME and not the city of Portsmouth, NH. Who-da-thunk-it!

We chose Adams Point State Wildlife Refuge in Durham, NH as our launch site. The site, maintained by the University of New Hampshire, offers a spectacular vantage point and outlook into the bay. There are beaches, hiking trails, and even a few carefully placed “make-out” benches. The beachfront really stole my attention as it was different from most others that I have seen. The “beach” consisted of rectangular flakes of granite that had been broken from the rocky shoreline and was nearly devoid of the sand and pebbles that one would expect. My roommate Jeff, Meaghan, and I geared up our kayaks and made ready while Rick assisted the others with unloading the trailer. We then made sure that everyone had packed extra clothing in a dry bag and had their PFDs on good and snug. Before long our group of 12 was on the chilly water and ready to find some ice!

The one problem that we had with this trip was that we lacked a sense of where to find the ice. My instinct told me to go deeper into the bay toward the marshes where I imagined that the ice flows would form but we instead took a course that led us out toward the mouth of the bay. At first I wasn’t a big fan of this because a moderate and bitter wind was at our back and I didn’t like the idea of having to paddle hard into it across the full fetch of the bay in order to make it back to the warmth of the cars. However, these feelings of regret quickly dissipated when a pair of ice flows appeared off of our bows. The flows were small (about the size of a small car) and seemed to have broken off of the marsh ice before floating to where we had found them. Everyone took turns poking at the flows with their paddles. One of the participants was bold enough to gain some speed and ride up onto the ice flow getting most of his kayak out of the water. This made me wish that I had worn my full dry suit for I would have jumped out of my boat and attempted to climb up on the ice to get my picture taken “surfing the flow.” Next time, maybe.

We continued on to Fox Point and within sight of the Route 16 bridge and the mouth of the bay. Some members were interested in making the 6 mile trip out to Portsmouth Harbor. This is when my instructor instincts kicked in. A one way trip with the wind at our back sounded fun and feasible but the problem was that we had left all of our cars at the launch. This meant that we’d be forced to paddle against the river’s current, the tide, and the cold wind for over 8 miles to get back to the cars. The group was not prepared for this and I decided to turn everyone around and spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the bay for more ice.

I’m happy that I made the less-than-popular call to turn back. The wind picked up slightly and paddling into it turned out to be much colder than I had anticipated. Everyone set a bee-line toward Adams Point and paddled hard into the wind. We were fairly well prepared clothing-wise as everyone had on wet-suits and dry tops, winter hats, balaclavas, and gloves. My core stayed very warm but the wind and spray ripped right through my neoprene gloves. I wasn’t the only one with cold hands. I gave my extra set of gloves to Meaghan and we doubled her up with Jeff’s extra pogies. It’s a good thing that Rick’s store of extra gloves seemed bottomless as the rest of the group’s collective fingers quickly succumbed to the cold.

The motivation provided by the cold wind resulted in a very quick trip back to Adams Point. Some of us decided to step on shore to warm up a bit but I was hesitant to leave the warmth of my cockpit. I shed my gloves for a few minutes and rested my hands in the warm space between my lifejacket and chest. The feeling quickly came back to my finger tips and it reminded me of a case of the “screaming barfies” that I had experienced earlier that winter while ice climbing with Rick. (The screaming barifes is a common ice climbing ailment. Basically, a tight grip on your tools and the cold of the ice combine to create vasoconstriction and the blood flow to your fingers is dramatically decreased causing the tissue to cool. When you release your grip the blood rushes back to the cold fingers and the pain makes you want to scream and barf at the same time! I’ve seen a few ladies with Raynards Syndrome get the screaming barfies and the anguish on their faces made me want to cry with them.)

With everyone warmed up we decided to head south and deeper into Great Bay to find some more ice and a nice place to have lunch. Our hunger quickly got the best of us and we decided to land on a small island to grab some grub. We took shelter on the leeward side of the island and enjoyed a nice lunch of PB&J, chocolate, and granola bars while basking in the warmth of the sun. I envisioned returning to the island in the summer to take advantage of some spectacular hammock real-estate offered by the island’s few trees. It was kind of like Gilligan’s Island but winter-style!

We spent the next few hours paddling south to Herod’s Cove where we found a few more ice flows. Then we turned back for the landing at Adam’s Point. Everyone seemed to have had a good time despite the cold but there was no hiding how content we were to be back to the warmth of the cars. Jeff, Meaghan and I decided parted ways with the MITOC group and spent the evening in Portsmouth. Downtown Portsmouth was quite alive on that winter evening and there was something about the quaintness of the old-brick buildings that reminded me of my hometown Plymouth. I thought to myself that it may make a nice place to live someday seeing as it was on the sea, in New Hampshire, and had a great vibe. There were many restaurants to choose from but we quickly settled on the Portsmouth Brewery Pub. There’s nothing like the warmth created by a pint of beer to round out a winter paddling adventure!

Note: If I were to run this trip again then I’d do one of two things differently:

1)      If the group were interested in finding ice flows then I would head directly for a set of marshes that exist on the southwest shores of Great Bay. We later say large ice flows from a vantage on Bay Road while driving home.

2)      If the group were interested in going out to sea from the bay then I would set this up as a point to point trip with the launch at Adams Point in Great Bay and the landing at Odiome Point State Park in Rye, NH. This would be about a 12 mile trip but you could benefit greatly from current and tide on the Piscataqua River if the timing is right.

Trip Details:

Launch: Adams Point State Wildlife Refuge, Durham, NH

Landing: Adams Point State Wildlife Refuge, Durham, NH

Highlights: Winter Paddling! Ice Flows, Island Lunch

Duration: 4hrs

Distance: ~5.5miles

Good Eats:  Portsmouth Brewery (56 Market Street, Portsmouth NH)

Kayak Dave Rating:



Meaghan and I at Adams Point

A mini-ice berg!

Gilligan's Winter Retreat

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