The Concord River, placid at its headwaters, evolves into a raging torrent for two miles as the river empties into the Merrimack in Lowell.
We’re talking epic — at least for a couple of months each spring.
Three sets of Class 3 and 4 rapids thunder past the river’s banks, confined by remnants of Lowell’s Industrial Revolution. Foundations and stone walls line the bulk of the geologically steep shoreline, leaving the river nowhere to spread out in spring’s high waters.
On a pre-season whitewater rafting trip in March led by Zoar Outfitters, guides pointed out sights along the way: Micky Ward’s training gym, the outfall for a canal, a restaurant worth checking out and the brand-new pedestrian bridge that is part of the Concord River Greenway.
Make no mistake. The trip was not a scenic wander down the river. The experienced guides ensured that everyone stayed as safe as possible in the turbulence. Hint – if the guide in the back of the raft says to lean in, do it. You’re not going to fall out of the middle of a raft.
Leaving from the Concord River Greenway accessed via Lawrence Street in South Lowell, each raft went through rapids with suitable gnarly names: Twisted Sister, Three Beauties and The Middlesex Dam. Yes, an actual (breached) dam earns its rank as Class 4.
Each rapid added to the water on the bottom of the raft. With Zoar-provided wetsuits and booties, even with air temperatures in the 40s, no one went hypothermic, not even the remarkably calm man who fell in. The water was cold, he said, while floating on his back with his feet downstream as instructed.
The guides worked their tails off. After running the second set of rapids, Three Beauties, the rafts congregated just downstream then headed back upriver, one by one, to “surf” in the rapids, diving the craft into the sweet spot where the water cascaded down and, well, flooded the rafts.
The guides proved their mettle. It took plenty of skill and brutally hard paddling for them to keep the inflatables where they needed to be.
Because the run is short, just 1.75 miles with a 50 foot drop, everyone scrambles up the rocks just after entering the Merrimack River, jumps in the van to go back to the start and does it again.
At the end of the second run, with everyone all stoked up by the trip, the rafts unload at the bottom of a rock wall at Lower Lock. Perhaps the most challenging bit of the day occurs: scaling up and over the lock walls. Guides helped drag rafters up the wall by the shoulder straps of the required lifejacket.
A portion of the money collected from the adventure supports Lowell Parks & Conservation Trust, which conserves the land and water for the Concord River Greenway in Lowell.
While the river has always been Class B, swimmable and fishable, said Jane L. Calvin, the executive director of the Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust, no one knew it was there.
Thanks to the work of the trust, a pedestrian bridge spans the current, paths run parallel to the banks and fish ladders have brought back herring, a species blocked since the first dams crossed the river in the late 1790s.
Water conditions allowing, Zoar runs weekend trips April through May. Visit zoaroutdoor.com.