Three deer skirted the shoreline, and a hawk soared overhead as we paddled along an eddy in the current off World’s End. Cormorants and egrets plied the water for fish. Two girls in kayaks smiled as we passed by.
“What a great place to just park the boats, picnic, and swim,” mused Scott Plympton, owner of Nantasket Kayaks and our tour guide for a trip around the protected waters of the Weir River Estuary. “The no-wake zone here is key. We can just cruise between the eddies and get pulled along by the current and not worry about jet skis or powerboats.”
The estuary between Hull and Hingham is just 15 miles south of Boston but a world away from the commuter hustle so associated with the city and its south suburbs. It is a perfect place for a river trip with a taste of the sea without the big waves -- one of many across Eastern Massachusetts that anyone can enjoy with a little planning. (See accompanying article.)
We pushed off from Nantasket Pier, a stone’s throw from Hull’s popular Paragon Carousel and within view of Nantasket Beach on the other side of this narrow beach town jutting out into Massachusetts Bay at the southern extreme of Boston Harbor.
We all but have the watersheet to ourselves.
“On a hot summer day it can look like 100,000 people are on Nantasket Beach, but you come over here to the bay side and there will be just a handful of people,” Plympton said.
The more than 900 acres of watershed are sheltered from the Atlantic Ocean by Hull and its barrier beaches on one side and from Hingham Harbor by the glacial drumlins and rocky cliffs of World’s End Reservation on the other. Once away from the dock at Nantasket Kayaks, the wind becomes minimal and perfect for slow paddling.
Plympton pointed out edible tripe lichen covering steep walls of pudding stone and recited some of the area’s colonial history as a herring fishery. The river gets its name from a fish trap, or a weir. Bluefish and stripers chase the baitfish that flow in with the tide. The sight of a seal is not uncommon.
We rounded Rocky Neck and saw a half-dozen motorboats anchored in a dreamy cove locals call the Gunk Hole. Sunlight glinted off Hingham Bay, visible beyond World’s End’s grassy hills. Two boys swam ashore and jumped from the rocks back into the cool bay.
Yet this inviting slice of tranquility is also designated an Area of Critical Environmental Concern by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management. Protections have been put in place since the 1980s to preserve the estuary as home to more than 100 species of migratory and breeding birds and some of the most productive shellfish beds in Boston Harbor.
Changes in water regulations and clamps on coastal development have paid off, Plympton said, preserving not only his backyard but also improving water quality and fish habitat all along the South Shore.
And restoration efforts continue, with local, state, and federal authorities targeting aging dams for removal to open rivers once again to spawning fish. In June, the state announced a round of $1.3 million in grants to help remove dams on five rivers in Plymouth, East Bridgewater, Falmouth, and Taunton.
The Jones River in Kingston, the largest river flowing into Cape Cod Bay, already has seen herring counts grow since a dam was removed in 2011. Plans are in the works to eliminate another dam farther upstream in the next few years, said Alex Mansfield, ecology program director for the Jones River Watershed Association.
“When that comes out, you will be able to paddle right up the river from the bay,” Mansfield said.
Other paddling opportunities abound in the area. If you don’t care for rivers, put in at the beach on Hingham Bay and explore nearby islands, or head farther north for the Boston Harbor Islands. Just make sure your skills and equipment match the bigger waters, and always look out for bigger boats.
Or explore the rocky coastline and inlets of Cohasset. Highly skilled white-water paddlers brave the tiderace at the mouth of Gulf River. Marshes and flatwater lay farther inland. Sandier coastline awaits in Scituate, Duxbury, Kingston, and Plymouth.
Plympton says he enjoys trips with the approaching tide up the North River, with nearly effortless paddling to beaches upstream in Norwell and Pembroke. As the tide turns, the current can carry paddlers back toward Marshfield and Scituate and the sea.
But misjudging the tide can spell disaster for the unprepared kayaker or paddle boarder: The Jones River, for one, can drain out from under a boat quickly, leaving a paddler stranded in mud.
“At high tide, we have 10 feet of water in most of the river, but at low tide you could have just two inches,” Mansfield said.
Even the bays can become unnavigable for paddling as water recedes at low tide.
“Some of Plymouth, Duxbury, and Kingston harbor can drain out in what a stranger would think is the strangest of places. It becomes very shallow on the sand flats,” said Doug Gray, owner of Billington Sea Kayak in Plymouth.
Gray, whose shop is located on the easily paddled lake called the Billington Sea, also cautions kayakers against exploring coastal areas that may look easy to reach at first glance but actually present unexpected dangers. For example, Plymouth Harbor is protected by a barrier beach extending out several sandy miles. Not so apparent are the presence of the harbor’s main channel for boat and ferry traffic on one side and protected habitat for shore birds, such as the piping plover, on the other.
Gray often directs paddlers to Stephens Field in the southern corner of Plymouth Harbor. From there, he said, head right where the water is quieter around Holmes, Poverty, and Manters points toward the Eel River. Heading left takes kayakers right into heavier boat traffic.
Some of the best kayak surfing can be had at the confluence of the North and South rivers. Veteran white water paddler turned seakayaker Kate Hartland of Weymouth, a regular with the Wild Turkey Paddlers kayaking club, prefers to put in on the quiet Herring River in Rivermoor Marshes Park in Scituate, then paddling out into the North River.
“There is a big sign there that warns you about the currents. They are a little more than interesting,” Hartland said. “You have to pick the day you are going to be there. In rough weather, it can be really dangerous to be there.”
Jose Martinez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.