NEWBURYPORT — On a hot summer night, a red sun set behind us as we paddled along with the outgoing tide in the Merrimack River. A curious seal surfaced long enough to check us out. A flock of hundreds of migrating cormorants emerged from the mudflats and skimmed across the surface, close enough for us to hear their beating wings. Soon a huge full moon rose over the river mouth to the east.
That was the night a few years ago when we fell in love with kayaking.
Paddling a kayak is about as close as you can get to the marine environment without jumping in, whether in a salt marsh creek or on the open ocean. It is a little bit of exercise, but most people, from young children to seniors, are able to do it. The sights and sounds can be gorgeous, and outfitters emphasize that it is really quite safe.
A car with a couple of kayaks on top is hardly a rare sight north of Boston. But kayaking requires time and a little bit of expertise. Thousands of residents and visitors get out paddling each year by renting the equipment — and the expertise — from local outfitters.
A typical guided tour with most outfitters will offer about three hours on the water, with kayak, paddle, and life jacket provided. Novices and school-age children are welcome, although children may be required to ride in a tandem canoe with an adult. Each trip generally begins with an orientation, including the right way to paddle, but within 20 minutes or so you are launching.
“Most learning occurs on the water,” said Plum Island Kayak owner Ken Taylor.
His company offers rentals and guided tours on the Merrimack River and in Plum Island Sound from a base in Newburyport Harbor. The most popular trips include paddles to see seals in the lower Merrimack in spring and fall, and sunset paddles throughout the season.
Plum Island charges $40 to $60 per person for most standard trips, and usually $5 less if there are two and you take a tandem kayak. For those of you who have your own kayak but want to “tag along” with a guided tour, it is even less. Those prices are typical of all the outfitters, although special tours can cost $100 or more.
The most special tour around might be Plum Island’s Isles of Shoals trips, where kayaks and kayakers are loaded onto a mother ship for the cruise out to the islands 6 miles off the coasts of New Hampshire and Maine for a few hours of paddling and a light meal on shore.
“A few people do fall in the river, but it’s not a big deal,” Taylor said. “We put them right back in [the boat].” Kayakers who get in trouble are usually solo paddlers who have not taken the right precautions, he and others said.
If you are interested in kayaking within the Great Marsh, which stretches 20,000 acres from Gloucester into the Granite State, another good choice is Essex River Basin Adventures, better known as ERBA, based in downtown Essex. Run by Richard “Ozzie” Osborn and his wife, Sandy, ERBA specializes in the area around Crane Beach and Choate Island (also known as Hog Island, to the locals) in Ipswich, with trips ranging from $45 to $75.
“We’ve had people join us from all over the world,” said Ozzie Osborn, an Essex native. “It’s a lot of word of mouth. We’ve had people coming to us once or twice a year forever.”
Paddle around with ERBA on a warm summer day and you might see a striped bass break the surface near your kayak in pursuit of food, and a little while later see an osprey on one of the marsh’s nesting platforms chowing down on what also looked like a striped bass. (This reporter did, in 2011.)
Operating in coastal rivers, Plum Island Kayak and ERBA must carefully time their launches to the tides, which dictate their touring schedules and sometimes their routes and haul locations. Plum Island also will not take you through the mouth of the Merrimack, with its tricky currents, standing waves, and heavy boat traffic.
Other outfitters do not have the same challenge.
“You might have to carry your boat a few more feet down the beach, but that’s it,” said Gillian Beckwith of Salem Kayak, which launches from Winter Island in Salem Harbor, not far from Salem Willows park.
Beckwith and her husband, Kevin, met when mutual friends talked up their shared love of kayaking. They married soon afterward in 2007, and took over the Salem location in 2008. Like the other operators, they offer kayak rentals as well as guided tours around the harbor, to the Misery Islands off Beverly or to Marblehead.
Guides from North Shore Kayak Outdoor Center in Rockport leave Bearskin Neck on tours of the harbors and surrounding waters and islands, including overnight camping trips to Thacher Island. Among other activities, Discovery Adventures runs trips from Gloucester’s Lane’s Cove, on the western side of Cape Ann, for sea kayak paddles in Ipswich Bay.
Outfitters will handle most of your needs. But it is worth noting that you will want to wear a bathing suit or other quick-drying shorts; some footwear you do not mind getting wet; a windbreaker; and a hat if the sun is out. Avoid slow-drying clothes such as cotton sweat shirts, especially in cooler weather, as there is always a little bit of splashing. Bring water and a snack.
Mid-May is really the beginning of the season for most outfitters, and some are open limited hours at first.
Call ahead or check websites for schedules.
For those who prefer freshwater kayaking, there are several choices. Foote Brothers Canoe & Kayak Rental in Ipswich has been renting canoes from its livery by the Willowdale Dam since 1955, and it also rents kayaks and provides drop-off service upriver, from $22 to $42 for day trips, depending on length.
Boating In Boston rents kayaks (as well as canoes and small sailboats) at Spot Pond in Stoneham and on Lake Quannapowitt in Wakefield, at $15 to $20 an hour for an adult.
Groups such as the North Shore Paddlers Network and New England Seacoast Paddlers have online meet-ups where independent kayakers can form their own tours, and local organizations such as river watershed councils often organize their own trips. Most outfitters sell used kayaks and equipment, and sometimes new as well.