|Castle Neck Circumnavigation|
Gloucester, Essex, and Ipswich (MA)
|DATE||June 4, 2004||TIME||1045 to 1630||TRIP LENGTH||15 nmiles|
|WEATHER||Sunny. Temp 55-60F. Winds NW 5 knots becoming E 10-15 knots, then S 10-15 knots. Seas calm with slight swells early, waves 1 foot later. Water temp 45F (wetsuit).||TIDES||6:23 L
|LAUNCH SITE||Hodgkins Cove, Gloucester.
MA128 north to first rotary, then MA127 north. Drive 3.6 miles from rotary. After crossing small bridge over Hodgkins Cove, go 100 yards and the launch will be down a driveway angled back toward the water down a steep hill. Park on street or in the Mass. Marine Station dirt lot across the bridge (marked "Authorized Personnel Only" but I've had no trouble parking there on more than 5 occasions).
|LANDING SITES||-Castle Neck
beautiful beach on the north side of Castle Neck opposite Little Neck.
high drumlin owned by Trustees of Reservations; spectacular views of Castle Neck and Essex Marsh from hilltop ($3 fee).
|ROUTE||Launch from Hodgkins Cove, follow shore to Annisquam Light, cut across to Coffins Beach, pass Essex Marsh entrance and Cranes Beach, enter Plum Island Sound and turn south through Fox Creek and Hay Canal, pass east of Hog Island and exit Essex Marsh, following Coffins Beach and the Cape Ann shoreline back to launch.|
These days are rare gems, when wind and weather cooperate to turn a great paddle into something beyond expression. Standing atop the granite walls of Hodgkins Cove, I could see the blue expanse of calm ocean intersecting a cloudless and inviting sky. I set out on a voyage that would bridge two worlds: the one I was leaving (Harvard graduate student, a life that made me miserable) and the one I was joining (manager and, eventually, guide at Charles River Canoe & Kayak). I did this trip on Friday; I started my new job on Saturday. A paddling voyage around Castle Neck turned out to be a perfect affirmation of my new course in life.
Cape Ann is one of my favorite places in Massachusetts. The granite shores and nautical heritage connect with something inside me. I followed the rocky shoreline to Annisquam Light, where I maneuvered into the tiny cove formed by the pocket beach and basked in the sunlight reflecting off the light-colored sand lining the bottom. After getting my fill, I turned my boat toward Farm Point across the Annisquam River and followed Coffins Beach in its mile-long arc toward Essex. I stayed in close, enjoying the lack of swell and examining the bottom for life. A few beachgoers lay in the sand, and the one adventurous enough to brave the chilly water quickly let out a scream and ran back to the relative warmth of the shore.
The north end of Coffins sees the effects of the Essex River: shoals extending far out to sea and, at this time of day, a fairly strong flood current putting some chop into the water. At the mouth, I could see what awaited me later in the trip: the green islands of Essex Marsh, including the 180-foot hill of Hog Island, intermingled with glorious blue water and blindingly white sand dunes on Castle Neck. First, I would pass along the ocean side of the neck, getting a glimpse of those dunes from an angle viewed only by people lucky enough to be in a boat. The first two miles of Cranes Beach were largely deserted, with a few folks walking hand-in-hand with their feet in the water. Behind them, the dunes rose in amazing patterns -- smooth curves here, vertical drops there, all in amazingly light colors. The vegetation is almost desert-like: stocky evergreen trees, beach grass, and small brush holding the sand in place. In one place, there were two trees "growing" on the beach; it looked as though the ocean had eroded the shore back into what had previously been a field of trees and left them standing in the waves. A bit later, the throngs of visitors come into view, with volleyball nets, boomboxes, and innumerable towels and umbrellas. The Crane Mansion is visible atop the nearby Castle Hill, a large brick structure nestled among trees. At this point, I turned and sat offshore, facing southeast down the neck and enjoying the view of the dunes.
After passing Castle Hill at the entrance to Plum Island Sound, there is another crowded beach area, and then solitude -- a beautiful white-sand beach backed by dunes, which provided a perfect lunch spot. Plum Island Sound stretches to the north, flanked to the east by beachgoers at Plum Island Reservation and on the west by the house-covered hills of Little and Great Necks. A few boats plied the waters, but most were anchored in preparation for the upcoming weekend. I finished my lunch and moved on, taking the sharp left turn into Fox Creek. Here, it's like another world -- the wide expanse of sea is traded for a cozy, narrow river, and the sand beaches are transformed to salt marsh. Snow-white egrets fished in the shallows or wandered among the marsh grass. After leaving the blue and white of Ipswich Bay, the green of the marsh is striking. Unfortunately, the solitude is too often broken by boaters rushing through the creek, including a jet-skier who couldn't care less about the "No Wake Strictly Enforced" sign marking Hay Canal. More strict enforcement is required to preserve this ecologically sensitive salt marsh, both for kayakers and for the myriad of creatures that live there.
As I entered Essex Marsh, the wind had become easterly and had picked up, so a moderate breeze was blowing by the time I landed at the dock on Hog Island (the dock is actually on the nearly attached Long Island). The island seemed deserted, and there was no place for me to pay the fee, so I wandered down the trail toward the hill. I passed the 250-year-old Choate House, which looks south over Essex Marsh, then climbed the hill to the Choate Cemetary at the peak. The birds-eye view of Essex Marsh, and especially of Castle Neck, is breathtaking. The contrast of the white and blue, with the dunes of the neck clearly visible, makes Hog Island the ideal lookout. Retracing my steps, I returned to my boat and headed out the Essex Marsh entrance, taking care to avoid the choppy shoal on the eastern side. The 15-knot wind had shifted to the south, so there were a few waves in the marsh but once outside the waters were protected and it was smooth paddling again. I worked calmly against the headwind until the Annisquam River, then sat off Wingershaek Beach observing the sailboats tacking into the wind and current and the pair of poor-planning kayakers who were fighting against the same. Fortunately, I could turn northeast, receiving a boost from the current and wind for the short trip to Hodgkins Cove.
Nothing is better for post-paddling fare than seafood, so I hit the Lobster Pool Restaurant for some fried shrimp, then went home to prepare for my first day of work. I think I'm going to like this job a lot better.
June 7, 2004