Kayaking on Cape Cod

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Rich and I first tried kayaking in North Conway, NH, long before we bought our inn. Great friends of ours were up for a visit and, looking for an adventure, we decided to rent kayaks and meander down the Saco River for a lazy summer afternoon.

We put in at the bridge in the center of town, loaded down with sandwiches and a cooler full of soft drinks. With only a crude map of the river to navigate by, and the cryptic directions of the rental outfitter to the pick-up spot several miles south, we set off shortly before noon. Last shuttle back to town was 5:00PM. The river was slow, being late in the season, and devoid of its spring rapids. The four of us barely paddled, allowing the current to propel us forward at its own pace.

We stopped for a quick dip near the golf course where the river widened into a natural swimming hole, and then again a bit farther south on a wide swath of sandy beach to enjoy our sandwiches. The afternoon was hot and still and the river was dotted with kayaks, canoes, old inner tubes and all manner of flotation devices. We passed a camping area full of families enjoying bar-b-ques and pick-up games of volleyball. There were folks fly fishing along the banks of the river, and the occasional dog chasing a stick in the water. All in all, it was the perfect summer outing with good friends, sharing laughter and reminiscing about our other adventures together.

As the afternoon progressed and the sun sunk lower on the horizon, we consulted the crude map the outfitter had given us to locate the pick-up spot. It looked to be just past the railroad bridge that crossed the river near Conway. Having no idea where we were on the river, and seeing no sign of the railroad bridge, we decided to pick up the pace a bit. Out came the paddles, and with purpose afoot, each of us assaulted the river in our own unique styles. Michael, being much younger and clearly more fit than the rest of us, pulled out in front, with Karen and I a close second, carving the river left and right in a frantic effort to gain ground. Rich was a distant third.

With little concern for his ability to keep up, I checked my watch, and noting that the time was rapidly approaching the witching hour, concentrated on reaching the pick-up spot in time for the last shuttle. “Every man for himself” seemed to be our battle cry. As we rounded a bend in the river, the railroad bridge finally appeared on the horizon. I think we all breathed a sigh of relief at that point, allowing ourselves to take a break from our frenetic paddling. It was Michael that first noticed just how far back Rich was, and more alarmingly, how low his kayak was in the water. Rich was carrying the cooler and was the heaviest of the four of us, but that was still not enough to explain why the back of his kayak was nearly under water. We circled back to check on his safety, only to find out that his kayak had sprung a leak and he was trying desperately to bail the boat out while continuing to paddle.

I think it was the look on his face, a compromise between sheer determination and utterly pissed-off, combined with the total exhaustion we all felt as a result of paddling at breakneck speed that led us to uncontrollable laughter. Here was my husband valiantly paddling his wounded kayak down the Saco River with the remains of our summer picnic in tow, sinking slowly beneath the surface of the water while franticly trying to bail out his boat. It was priceless.

Needless to say, we all survived that excursion and many more since. In fact, Rich and I fell in love with the sport and bought kayaks of our own, which we brought with us when we moved to Cape Cod. So far we have kayaked in Barnstable Harbor, on Little Pleasant Bay, on the Parker River (to a 4th of July fireworks display), and on Lake Wequaquet, all memorable experiences to be sure, but not nearly as noteworthy as our Saco River adventure.

Many of our guests are avid kayakers with their own equipment. But others are new to the sport and need advice about where to rent equipment. There are a number of good kayak rental outfitters on Cape Cod, and a few that offer guided tours and instruction. Our favorite is Osprey Sea Kayak Adventures operated by Dick Hilmer and his wife. Dick is a heck of a guy, a throwback perhaps to the 60s, but a supremely knowledgeable and extremely eco-conscious individual with a terrific sense of humor. We have sent a number of our guests on kayak adventures with Dick, and all return with high praise for his unique ability to share his love of, and concern for, the fragile Cape Cod eco-system.

When time allows we will tackle the rest of what Dick tells us are the best kayaking spots on the Cape. Here is his top ten list, in no particular order:


Launch from the State Wildlife Reservation off Route 6A by the Scorton Creek Bridge. Scorton means “place where the stream branches.” Follow this twisting tidal creek through the Great Marsh, which once stretched as far as Barnstable Harbor. Explore adjacent Mill and Shove Creeks. Highlights: herons, egrets, ospreys, and striped bass.

WAQUOIT BAY, Falmouth & Mashpee

Launch from Great River Boat Landing, Great Oak Road, Mashpee. Paddle down Great River and west across Waquoit Bay to Washburn Island. Continue south along the island, across the channel to South Cape Beach State Park, then return across the bay. Highlights: walking the pristine 330-acre Washburn Island (primitive camping available), beachcombing on South Cape Beach, shorebirds.


Launch from Blish Point State Landing, Millway Road. Head across Barnstable Harbor to Sandy Neck and explore this spectacular seven-mile long barrier beach that protects the 4,000-acre Great Marsh. Highlights: second highest sand dunes on Cape Cod, views of the Great Marsh, quaint village and old lighthouse at Beach Point.


Launch from Cove Road and paddle north. Bass River is the longest river on Cape Cod, stretching seven miles from its headwaters at Mill Pond to Nantucket Sound. Highlight: walking the two mile trail at the Indian Lands Conservation Area, spring wildflowers (including lady’s slippers).


Launch from Bell’s Neck Road and cross the West Reservoir, a freshwater cedar swamp. Take out at the dike and put back in on the Herring River. Follow the winding river to Route 28 in West Harwich. Highlights: 245 acres of salt and freshwater marshes, woods, herring run, cranberry bogs, kettle ponds, hiking trails.


Launch from Punkhorn Parklands parking lot, Run Hill Road. An easy canoe trip through a chain of freshwater ponds, Walker’s, Upper Mill, and Lower Mill. These kettle ponds were created 12,000 years ago by melting blocks of glacial ice. Highlights: Stony Brook Grist Mill, the herring run, five miles of trails in the 800-acre Punkhorn Parklands.


Launch from Portanimicut Road, Orleans. Paddle across Little Pleasant Bay to circumnavigate Sampson and Hog Islands and explore Nauset Beach. The privately owned islands allow visitors, and Nauset Beach is part of the Cape Cod National Seashore. Highlights: snorkeling, eelgrass beds, horseshoe crabs, ospreys.


Launch from Salt Pond below the Salt Pond Visitor’s Center or Hemenway Road off Route 6. Nauset Marsh is a vast system of salt-marsh, creeks, channels, islands, and barrier beach. Circumnavigate the marsh heading north through Salt Pond Bay and Nauset Bay, then south along Nauset Beach, and back through the Main Channel. Or head south through Skiff Hill Creek along Fort Hill, past Town Cove to Inlet Marsh and back. Highlights: former Coast Guard Station, thousands of nesting terns, migrating shorebirds, seals, striped bass, ospreys, beachcombing, National Seashore visitor center, hiking trails and bike paths nearby.


Launch from Gull Pond Landing off Schoolhouse Hill Road. This is a short and easy tour, especially good for beginners, of three kettle ponds – Gull, Higgins, and Williams – in the Cape Cod National Seashore. Williams Pond was the home of the “Wellfleet Oysterman” immortalized in Thoreau’s Cape Cod. Highlights: water lilies, red maples, turtles, frogs, sunfish, swimming.


Launch from the South Pamet Road culvert to explore the freshwater Upper Pamet or from the Pamet Harbor boat ramp on Depot Road to explore the saltwater Lower Pamet and Pamet Harbor. The Pamet is an outwash channel carved by the glaciers with its head at the Atlantic Ocean and its mouth at Cape Cod Bay. Highlights: foliage, panoramic views of the Pamet Hills.