Rock the Boat; The time is right for whitewater rafting in Lowell

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LOWELL — The rapids crushed underneath the inflated rafting boat, rocking seven of us in it from left to right.

Just 15 minutes earlier, I had stood on the Concord River bank, staring down at the frothy ripples churning and splashing below.

I mumbled, “Seriously?”

Courtney O’Malley had never imagined that the Concord River would be gushing and swirling, either. When invited to whitewater raft recently, the Mill city native remembers asking herself, “In Lowell? Where?”

But, there it was; the normally calm tributary had swollen to a 7-foot height from the recent rainstorms, raging through Lowell’s Back Central neighborhood.

The 1.7-mile stretch of the river between the Lawrence Street bridge and the confluence with the Merrimack River turns wild like that every April and May as snow melts away, says Jane Calvin, executive director of Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust. From Calvin’s viewpoint, that gives people an ideal chance to explore and appreciate the ancient river by taking part in the Concord Whitewater Rafting organized by the Trust.

Every Saturday and Sunday through Memorial Day, the Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust runs the rafting activity in collaboration with Zoar Outdoor, a Charlemont-based outdoor recreation company.

“This is really an educational opportunity to help people understand the river” and why it’s important to protect the land along it, said Calvin.

So, last Friday, the Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust and Zoar Outdoor took the press — along with Lowell Mayor Rodney Elliott, O’Malley, sales and marketing manager at the Greater Merrimack Valley Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, and her colleague, Alura Mireault, marketing coordinator at GMVCVB — to a ride down the stream to see what they are talking about.

The trip started by the trail off Lawrence Street just as it always does. From there, the boat rafted toward downtown Lowell as the river runs north.

The route showcases the shorelines where the city and the Trust have been working to build the Concord River Greenway, a multi-recreational trail with sculptures and other types of public art and multilingual signages. The Trust has offered the rafting for the pat 19 years, using a portion of proceeds to promote protection of the land along the river that culminated into the greenway project in 2000.

Rafters would find surprisingly rich nature along the river directly abutting industrial parking lots, a working hydropower plant and old mill buildings. Great blue herons and swallows will frequently fly over the river, according to the Trust. There are grape barbers on the shores, as well — the vestige of the Portuguese immigration history in Back Central, Calvin says. In some mellow stretches of the stream between rapids, one could listen to those birds and enjoy the breeze.

But, make no mistake; this is no river for a family paddle.

The river drops 50 feet over several rapids between Lawrence Street and the Merrimack River, providing for adventurous rafting experiences that few would expect in a city. In fact, the rapids near the Rogers Street bridge is rated Class IV on the International Scale of River Difficulty with Class I being the easiest and VI the hardest, according to Zoar’s Rafting Department Manager Brian Pytko. Last Friday, the U.S. Geological Survey’s data showed 2,180 cubic feet of water was passing through per second just upstream of the rapids..

That’s the equivalent of 2,180 basketballs zipping through the spot every second, said Adriana Isaza, Zoar’s sales and marketing manager.

That explains why I went airborne three minutes into the trip. While diving into the waves back first, I quickly went over the Pytko’s safety lesson.

Keep your face up — check.

Keeping your feet downstream — check, sort of.

I then felt the pull. Pytko quickly grabbed me by the lifejacket and pulled me to safety.

Now, I have a note to myself: Keep your lips together when falling into the river to keep water out of your mouth.

But, if you want real tips, you might ask the daredevils from Zoar, whose boat flipped over not long after my fall while training. 

Best of all, you will get to experience all that thrill under the shadows of city rooflines.

“This is an incredibly unique river,” Pytko said. “It flows right down the middle of the city.”

That could be part of the reason the event has drawn several hundred people each year — many of them repeats.

What’s more, the organizers will let you in to the Lower Locks, the entryway into the Lowell canal system from Concord River behind the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center, at the end of the trip. You can watch water cascade down wooden gates of the lock as volunteers adjust them.

O’Malley said the Concord River and the rafting trips are a hidden jewel of Lowell.

“It showcases Lowell in a great way,” O’Malley said.

Elliott said he plans to invite a representative of Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust to a City Council meeting.

“It’s an opportunity to attract visitors into the city from Merrimack Valley and throughout the state,” Elliott said of the Concord River rafting. “Eco-tourism is another way to get people into the city.”

Rafting is offered at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Children must be at least 14 to participate. Cost is $82 per person. For information, visit 

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