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Travel

Exploring Great Bay Estuary, New Hampshire’s ‘hidden coastline’

Salt marshes line the Oyster River in Durham, leading into Great Bay. The estuary encompasses 930 square miles and more than 144 miles of shoreline.

Pamela Wright for The Boston Globe

Salt marshes line the Oyster River in Durham, leading into Great Bay. The estuary encompasses 930 square miles and more than 144 miles of shoreline.

A thick, morning fog hung over the Oyster River as we paddled our way to the mouth of Great Bay. A pair of white swans was feeding in the nutrient-rich marshes; a whitetail buck nibbled on bushes at the top of a leafy hill overlooking the river. Black comorants sat on hunks of driftwood, spreading their wings to dry.

Our double-ended paddles churned a path through the brackish waters, passing Wagon Hill Farm, its small sandy beach giving way to lush lawn and woodsy hills. We kayaked past scenic coves and inlets before the river opened up, dumping us into Little Bay and the expanse of Great Bay beyond. It was hard to believe we were only minutes from downtown Portsmouth.

Much of Great Bay is surrounded by pristine salt marshes, mudflats, eel grass meadows, and rocky shores.

Pamela Wright for The Boston Globe

Much of Great Bay is surrounded by pristine salt marshes, mudflats, eel grass meadows, and rocky shores.

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Often described as New Hampshire’s “hidden coastline,” the Great Bay Estuary consists of Great Bay, Little Bay, and the Piscataqua River, encompassing 930 square miles and more than 144 miles of shoreline. Twice a day, ocean water from the Gulf of Maine pours through the roily Piscataqua into Great Bay, creating one of the fastest currents in the East. Seven major rivers and numerous creeks also flow into the estuary. The surrounding eel grass meadows, mudflats, salt marshes, rocky shores, coves, and tidal creeks are home to a variety of wildlife, including many state-protected species like the common loon, pied-billed grebe, osprey, common tern, Northern harrier, upland sandpiper, and wintering bald eagles.

Great Bay has an interesting history, too. It was the site of 6,000-year-old paleo-Indian settlements and early Colonial villages, and one of the first commercial waterways in the Colonies, once filled with flat-bottomed gundalows carrying goods to and from tidewater and riverside towns.

In more recent history, shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis wanted to build the world’s largest oil refinery on Great Bay, with a pipeline stretching out to the Isle of Shoals. The project received so much public opposition that, in 1974, it was defeated. Today, much of Great Bay is still preserved. The Great Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve includes 10,235 protected acres, with approximately 7,300 acres of open water and wetlands. All of Great Bay and Little Bay are within the reserve boundary, as well as the tidal portions of five large river systems. It’s one of New Hampshire’s largest and least-developed ecosystems.

The Great Bay Discovery Center has exhibits showcasing the history and ecology of the estuary.

Pamela Wright for The Boston Globe

The Great Bay Discovery Center has exhibits showcasing the history and ecology of the estuary.

Even on this sunny weekend day, we had it pretty much to ourselves. We paddled the shoreline, dropping in and out of scenic coves, and stopping at small islands along the way. We kept close watch on the tide. One of the challenges of paddling Great Bay, even in shallow draft boats or kayaks, is that it shrinks nearly 50 percent in low tide, leaving as much as 2,000 feet of mud between the channel and the shoreline. We have been caught more than once, dragging our kayaks through knee-deep, sucky mud to get back on land.

There are several boat access points to Great Bay, including town landings in Exeter, Newmarket, and Durham. We have put in at Exeter and paddled the Squamscott River, floating under a train trestle, before reaching the bay. We have followed the Lamprey River into the town of Newmarket, and the Oyster River into Durham. We have spent hours exploring the bay and its hidden creeks and coves, and still, we have not seen it all.

If you’re a first-time visitor or inexperienced kayaker, your best bet is to head to the Great Bay Discovery Center in Greenland. This 50-acre site, set on the southwest shores of Great Bay, has a variety of exhibits, showcasing the history and ecology of the estuary. A short interpretive trail leads through hardwood forests and freshwater wetlands, with views of salt marshes and mudflats, and the open waters of Great Bay. The center also offers a variety of three- to four-hour, guided kayak trips throughout summer and fall.

Before you leave the center, pick up a “Passport to Great Bay” booklet, which provides details of the public lands, historic sites, and trails around the estuary. Directions to the properties with interesting things to see and do are included. For those who enjoy geocaching, the booklet also includes latitude and longitude coordinates of caches hidden at each of the public sites.

While kayaking is our favorite way to explore Great Bay, there are also some great hiking trails that flank the estuary. The trails at Adams Point in Durham are some of our favorites. The 80-acre site sits on a jutting peninsula, where freshwater rivers and ocean tides converge, dividing Little Bay to the north and Great Bay to the south.

Much of the surrounding land is protected. It’s also the site of the University of New Hampshire’s Jackson Estuarine Research Laboratory. A small kiosk contains brochures and a map detailing the sites and historic spots along two self-guided trails.

You can head across the open field, following the Evelyn Brown Trail, or turn left to the water — our first choice. The 1.3-mile trail skirts the rocky Great Bay shoreline with pebble- and driftwood-strewn beaches and open water views. At low tide, oyster and horseshoe crab shells litter the shoreline. A variety of ducks, geese, and other waterfowl congregate in the basin, and it’s not uncommon to see osprey swooping overhead, looking for their next meal. We have spotted several bald eagles here, too. The trail loops through a sparse forest and then travels the edge of a large salt marsh, before dropping you back on the access road, a short distance from where you parked.

If we’re looking for a longer hike, we opt for the recently-opened Cy and Bobbie Sweet Trail on the border of Durham and Newmarket. The trail is 4 miles long, one way, stretching from Longmarsh Preserve in Durham to the Great Bay Estuary in Newmarket, traveling through upland forests, freshwater wetlands, and tidal salt marshes, with several interpretive signs and wildlife viewing platforms along the way. We like to start at the Longmarsh Road access point in Durham (there are three access points to the trail, with parking areas), where a boardwalk leads you to one of the biggest beaver dams we have ever seen. Signs of beavers — gnawed and felled trees, lodges and ponds — are everywhere on this trail. Nesting great blue herons, osprey, turtles, egrets, and a variety of birds and waterfowl are also commonly sighted. You will cross wetlands and several streams before ending at an overlook with expansive views of Great Bay. (Tip: If you don’t want to backtrack the 4 miles, consider shuttling cars or starting or ending at one of the other access points.)

One recent warm and sunny day we launched our kayaks at Adams Point. We paddled hard out of Furber Strait, the narrow section where Little Bay meets Great Bay, and headed to the mostly undeveloped eastern shore of the bay. We stopped at tiny Nanette Island for a picnic and spent a couple hours or so paddling the shoreline. Before we knew it, exposed rocky beaches and expansive mudflats surrounded us. The tide had gone down dramatically. We ended the day — again — dragging our kayaks through the muck. Still, the effort was worth it.

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at
bairwright@earthlink.net.
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