Globe Local


Paddling through nature and into the past

Steve Gaska, Pat Nawrocki, Jamison Abbott, Joy Stafford, Elisabeth MacAfee, Brian Henderson, Susan Beaudry, and Marlies Henderson at Nuttings Lake in Billerica.
Carolisa Honyotski
Steve Gaska, Pat Nawrocki, Jamison Abbott, Joy Stafford, Elisabeth MacAfee, Brian Henderson, Susan Beaudry, and Marlies Henderson at Nuttings Lake in Billerica.

Though there were times this spring when it seemed the sun would never pierce the clouds, those rains delivered exceptional conditions for summer paddlers. That makes Marlies Henderson smile.

“Two of my favorite Mother’s Day celebrations were spent as a family, white-water rafting in Lowell on the Concord River — Class III and IV rapids,” said Henderson, who lives in Billerica. “I also love the canal tour offered by Lowell National Historical Park.”

Henderson always has been comfortable on the water. Born and raised in the Netherlands, she has “rowed, kayaked, and sailed for half a century.” She started paddling along the Concord River in Billerica about two decades ago, when her family graduated from borrowed boats to owning an Old Town canoe.


After Henderson’s children grew up, “my husband and I had more time to explore the Concord and Shawsheen rivers,” she said, alternating between canoes and kayaks.

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“Being from the Netherlands, where water recreation is considered an economic boon, it was stunning that — besides the incidental angler — nobody seemed to ever paddle Billerica’s local rivers, despite both rivers’ scenic attraction,” she said.

So Henderson took it upon herself to introduce these cherished water-based resources to her adopted hometown.

After several years of leading popular local winter walks for the Billerica Recreation Department to raise awareness of outdoor access points, she launched a paddle program for the 2018 summer and fall seasons, she said.

“The wildness of the surroundings is like time travel,” said Henderson. “You can imagine being with [John] Winthrop and [Thomas] Dudley on their 1638 exploratory trip, declaring two boulders their ‘Two Brothers’ rocks, or with Thoreau who journaled about his Billerica campsite and the Middlesex Canal in 1839, or with the Native [Americans] a thousand years ago.”


Paddling also can produce a rejuvenating sense of serenity, said Michael Duclos of Stow.

“For me, it’s an escape from the day-to-day rush of the modern world,” Duclos said. “It’s an adventure, in that I never know what I will see or find, even in river sections I’ve paddled many times before. It’s quiet, solitude, and in the summer, lush, green, and alive with all sorts of things growing and moving about.

“After a bit of exercise on the river, I feel relaxed and refreshed, with some small sense of accomplishment but mainly that of having connected with a world that is so close, but so different from what I experience on a daily basis.”

That difference is highlighted when Duclos immerses himself in these pockets of nature, especially his favorite, the Assabet River, and its tributaries, the Elizabeth, Fort Pond, and Nashoba brooks.

“I really enjoy getting out on a river or stream and enjoying the plant and wildlife, including beaver, deer, ducks, frogs, geese, hawks, herons, otter, osprey, Red-winged blackbirds, turtles, etc.,” he said. “It feels like another world. The areas near my home are away from buildings and roads, and look as they might have 200 years ago.”


The natural scenery is “a reminder there is a vast and complex ‘web of life’ that exists beyond what we see and experience each day in our so called civilization,” said Duclos. “What I see in rivers is entirely sustainable. And in civilization, it’s quite the opposite. We’re living far beyond the carrying capacity of the earth, and refusing to acknowledge that.”

Henderson and Duclos said residents of Boston’s suburbs are fortunate to have so many local opportunities to explore rivers and streams near home.

“I think a sense of curiosity, to look at maps, a willingness to explore and experience an ‘adventure’ — by my definition an undertaking with an uncertain and perhaps unexpected outcome — are the ingredients for a memorable day or afternoon off the beaten path,” said Duclos.

Both encourage paddlers — veteran and beginners alike — to participate, and advocate for preservation of local open waters. Organizations include the Shawsheen River Watershed Association ( and the Sudbury, Assabet & Concord Wild & Scenic River Stewardship Council (

“Access to open space is key,” said Henderson. “People will protect what they love. What’s to love if you don’t know it exists? More boat launches, boardwalks, foot bridges, better marking and interpretive signage will raise awareness of publicopen space.

“Once the access improves, livability will improve, and residents will be healthier for it,” she said. “Local businesses will benefit as well. Employees grow more productive and overall absenteeism falls. Restaurants and breweries will establish where recreation happens. So for now, I lead walks and paddles, aiming to raise awareness, to grow a movement reclaiming access to open space.”

Brion O’Connor can be reached at