Great bay: a crown jewel

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It is beautiful and dangerous, and it is one of New Hampshire’s greatest natural resources.
Publication: New Hampshire Times
By Larry David Hansen
Most days it lies as quiet as a millpond, 11,000 acres of placid water touching the towns of Newington, Greenland, Newmarket and Durham. Every so often, however, Great Bay serves notice that it can be treacherous and deadly. Most recently this happened on April 10, when a flotilla of racing shells from the University of New Hampshire crew team was swamped by choppy surf on the bay. Sixty-seven cold and frightened club members were rescued from the bay, but one, a 19-year-old freshman at UNH, drowned. Great Bay has been declared off-limits to the UNH crew in the wake of the tragedy.
Violence, sudden and unexpected, is one of the many faces of Great Bay, which in its calmer manifestations is a treasure among natural resources in New Hampshire. For those who have lived close to the magnificent bay and have learned its many personalities, Great Bay is a source of beauty, wealth and life. But always it is a power to be treated with respect.
Richard Atherton was 16 when he had his first experience with the powers of Great Bay. He had been “clamming” down along the Squamscott River, near Exeter, and began rowing his small wooden boat back to his father’s house along the Lamprey River in Newmarket. It was a sunny summer day until a windy squall from the northwest swept across the three-mile-wide stretch of water as he rowed out into Great Bay. The squall lifted his boat clear off the water. The boat stayed afloat, and he quickly headed directly to shore to wait out the storm.
Atherton eventually made it back to his father’s house, but the experience has stayed with him. It has made him cautious, water-cautious, but it has not scared him off the bay. He still ventures down the Lamprey River and out into Great Bay, and Atherton now 50 years old, still lives in his parents’ house. From there he lives as a “water man.” He is a striped-bass fisherman, a clam and oyster digger, a duck and goose hunter who coexists with nature as if his existence depended on it.
Throughout his lifetime, Atherton has looked out of his kitchen window at the narrow Lamprey River that winds along the front of his home. For about 25 years he has taught his three children (Richard Jr., Robin and Laurie) to use caution when on the waters. For the past 25 years he has earned an income during the week at the Macallen Company, across the river, while preparing his dogs for a weekend upon some stretch of water. He may have been born 50 or 100 years too late, because his interest in fishing, clamming, oystering, and in boats and ships is more than avid. It is almost an obsession. His life and his hobbies are encompassed by the waterway before his kitchen window and the big bay about 1½ miles east of his small dock.
“I’d be known as a water man if I lived in Chesapeake Bay, just like in James Michener’s book,” says the hefty Atherton. “I like to look at myself as a bay man. I can classify myself as having a thorough knowledge of the Great Bay area. I won’t say that I know every rock. I know just about every one though.”
The Newmarket man is a natural in his niche as a bay man. He can refer to the biggest and best oyster beds. He knows the prime duck hunting spots, even though he gave that up on Great Bay a number of years ago when an excess of hunters infested the area. He has learned where to find the rapidly declining striped bass. And after he uses his own sticks to mark the lower Lamprey River at the beginning of the boating season in May, he can easily meander his 140-horsepower, 21-foot boat, and his 35-horsepower, 16-foot boat down the river to the mouth of the bay.
“The bay is not really “treacherous,” says Atherton. “If only a person just uses common sense. If people just use their intelligence and treat the bay with respect. People don’t realize that you can go down to the bay, and the wind can turn around, or the tide can change, and the conditions will be a lot worse. In every case of drowning on Great Bay, it is people who don’t take into account the weather, or people are just plain careless, or just plain both. I’ll go down there and tell people to treat the bay with respect, and they probably think I am some kind of worrywart son of a gun. There are some days when I don’t even go out on the bay myself.
“The bay is a very nice place, a wonderful place, a place that should provide for recreational use. I’ve seen canoes in the middle of the bay on a calm day. There are days when it is just like a mill pond, not a ripple on it.”
Atherton does not hold a bachelor’s degree in biology or wildlife. He graduated from Newmarket High School, and he claims that he is an “uneducated” man. But he has a thorough knowledge of the outdoors, the Lamprey River, Great Bay, and the fecund ecosystem that makes an estuary so unique. In his “shuckin’ shack” he has boxes and boxes of old outdoor magazines, even a copy of American Field (1897). Inside his two-story house he stores four large crates that contain books on fishing, ships and whales, five shelves of bird books, four shelves of gun books, and a gun cabinet that holds 10 guns, including the old lever-action Winchester that was used by his father’s uncle, Frank Keniston.
Keniston was a true bay man on the Great Bay, a water man of water men. He hunted, fished and dug shellfish for a meager existence in a small, wood-shingled shack along the Durham shore. He was a loner. His close companions were the tools – the guns, the boat – that earned him a living. He was the last of a breed of men who lived free along the waters, who lived in fear of an encroaching human population, and also in fear of each other.
Atherton remembers the stories. Different camps of these bay men were stationed randomly along the shores, and often the camps were sabotaged, set ablaze in the middle of the night. Each camp was afraid another camp was shooting too many Canada geese, scooping out the best oyster beds, or getting too much money for their catches in the market towns. “It was a dog-eat-dog existence,” Atherton says. Keniston’s cabinet burned down a couple of times.
But Keniston was a good hunter. Before the winter freeze on Great Bay, he would place a chunk of ice on the front of his white-painted boat, lie flat in the bottom with his guns propped next to him, and glide the boat toward a group of waterfowl floating alongside a patch of ice. The boat was so quiet, as Atherton recalls, that it would nearly run over the waterfowl. Keniston would fire off as many shots as the gun would allow, and take home as many ducks and geese as he could kill, for that was the hunting style.
The bay men lived in an age without regulations. There was a nearly endless supply of game. The Great Bay region was, and still is, a magnet to the ducks and geese migrating down or up the coast along a flight pattern known as the Atlantic flyway. The deep coves provide protection from the winds, and the marshy grasses provide food. The fishing, in those days, was phenomenal: cod, shad, smelt, flounder, striped bass, alewives, as the legend goes, that farmers would haul in enormous catches and throw on their fields for fertilizer. Down along the mouth of the Lamprey River, the Watson family used to operate river fences, called weirs, to catch the alewives, and sell them to rich West Indian plantation owners, who then fed their help the herring-like fish. Today, Warren Sawyer and his wife Ruth (formerly a Watson) have kept this fishing tradition going for a fifth generation.
Atherton says striped bass were much more common in the bay long ago. He has a picture of his son, Richard Jr., which was taken 10 years ago, holding up two 45-pound striped bass. Atherton’s home is filled with pictures, posters and artifacts that, in a way, give a historical description of the area. On his kitchen wall is an original store sign (1901) that advertised Remington guns. Across the room, on top of Atherton’s radio, is a wooden plaque with a carved message: “This is a Swell Ship for the Skipper but a Hell Ship for the Crew.” On the wall behind the plaque is a framed photograph that is a blow-up of a 1906 postcard. This postcard shows a two-masted schooner docked at the Newmarket Mills factory on the Lamprey. Looking out his kitchen window, the scene is just about the same, except for its angle and the name of the building (the Macallen Co. bought the old building).
The old building’s wharf is still there, although reduced in size now. The wharf was once a long stretch of wooden planks and posts that docked big cargo-carrying schooners. The large ships would bring in tons of coal for the operation of the Newmarket cotton mill. These large, wind-blown schooners were not only common around the Newmarket stretch of the Lamprey, but were an integral part of the entire bay’s picturesque scenery. The large sails pushed the tall ships past a background of thick forests to the factories (mostly cotton and lumber) along the Great Bay tributaries. On one of these ships came a Boston man who loved the area so much he had hopped off the ship and landed on an island in Little Bay known as Goat Island. This six-foot man with the heavy beard and Irish brogue became known as the “ol’ hermit.” He was a pleasant fellow, it was said, who would bellow out a hello that could be heard across the bay in Newington. He helped out the farmers on the Dover side, fished off his island, and when the ducks started to swoop into the bay, he would flip open a window and start shooting.
The big ships would pass by this old hermit’s island, but an even more common sight was a smaller, much simpler style of boat called the gundalow. The gundalows – flat, wooden barges – were the pickup trucks of the Piscataqua region long before the stick shift was invented. These low, sturdy boats carried revolutionary patriots down the Oyster River from Durham to fight the loyalists at William and Mary’s Fort in New Castle (now the site of the Coast Guard station). The gundalows moved families from shore to shore and town to town. They carried the farmers’ crops to town, hauled the materials from the brickyards that were so common along the Great Bay area before the depletion of the blue clay.
The bay’s navigational era all but ended with the concrete highways that formed linear patterns along the seacoast. The crank engines of the 1920s automobiles took away the navigational importance of the Great Bay region, and the number of big boats became fewer on the “mill pond.” Pleasure boats were rare, and the thought of sailing on the water for fun was rather absurd.
In the later part of the 1940s, pollution became a growing concern of the bay residents. Factories in some towns dumped chemicals that were becoming noticeable in the marshes and beds that covered the shorelines. The seacoast towns were growing, and so was the volume of pollutants entering the waters, especially raw sewage. In the 1940s, a study headed by professor C. Floyd Jackson of UNH made recommendations for the bay. The old state planning and development commission stated: “There is no section of the entire state and few in the country with a richer, more colorful, and more interesting past than this region. And there have been few which have been more completely lost to public attention.”
This remark alluded to the fact that the bay was surrounded by towns, but remained almost inaccessible. There were, and still are, very few landings to dock a boat on Great Bay. And after the importance of the bay for transportation was eliminated by the introduction of the truck, it was used mostly by hunters and fishermen.
Little Bay, flowing from the Piscataqua and to Great Bay in the shape of an upside-down “L,” averages about three-quarters of a mile in width and has a channel that is much deeper than its big brother. When the tide is low, about 40 percent of Great Bay is mud flats, and its deepest spot is about 45 feet. But the winds that pick up momentum on Great Bay can provide great power for a sailboat. This power has been harnessed by Evelyn Browne’s sailboats. But she never sails without having the backup confidence of a motor. Browne, a resident of the Durham area for 40 years, has seen changes not only in the recreational use of the bay, but also in the chemical composition of it.
“The power of the ocean,” she says. “I can never stop but to marvel at it. But it only partly flushed the pollution out. I was worried for a while, long ago, about the pollution. But it seemed to have cleared up. Now I’m worried about the oil spills. This region, the Great and Little bays, is a marvelous resource. Things that can destroy mussels, clams, can happen over night.”
In 1963, a “Great Bay Day” was held at the UNH symposium to discuss the future of the bay. In 1965, an article in the New Hampshire Sunday News said, “Pollution has all but wiped out what once was an extensive clam and oyster industry, and has made swimming hazardous to health along many stretches of shoreline.” In 1969, a state law was enacted to earmark funds for the planning of the bay. A state official said: “We feel it is so important that the communities, as neighbors, be designated to jointly work together to ensure that no one individual or community unwittingly despoils it for the others.” A 1969 report by the Army Corps of Engineers strongly suggested that dams should not be constructed on any waterway for fear of upsetting wildlife resources.
During the middle ‘60s, the northwest side of the bay was undergoing a change. A particular area of land called Adams Point was purchased by the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. And, on two of those acres, a $600,000 university marine laboratory was built in 1969. Today, student and faculty researchers work out of the laboratory, which was established to study the Great Bay estuary and the marine production in the Atlantic.
Sewage had been a problem for the area. But the 1972 federal Clean Water Act helped stifle this problem by providing funds for towns to build treatment plants. John Nelson, an environmental researcher for the Fish and Game Department, said Great Bay was classified 10 years ago as having Class C water (to be used only for recreational use, on the water, don’t touch). In the past decade, primary sewage treatment plants have been established in the majority of towns that border the estuary, with a secondary treatment facility at Durham. Both Nelson and Galen Jones, university professor and former director of the marine lab, agree that the biggest remaining culprit of the area is the no-facility city of Rochester.
But the sewage pollution is not the biggest environmental problem for the Great Bay estuary, says Jones, a microbiology professor. “I’m not worried about the domestic pollution,” he says. “Nature can take care of that. That type of pollution is no worse than it was in 1964. It’s the oil spills. That kind of pollution, with the strong chemicals, is hard for nature to handle.”
Along the Piscataqua River, there are five major oil terminals. And, accidents have occurred. One of the worst was in 1969, when 200,000 gallons of No. 2 oil fell into the river. This type of oil pollution is the most hazardous to the resource beds since it is not a heavy oil, and therefore sinks into the shoreline flats. In 1979, 25,000 gallons of No. 6 oil was accidentally dumped into the Piscataqua from a tanker docked at Sprague Energy in Newington. Newick’s restaurant, off Little Bay, had to close down for a few days as the heavy, sludge-like oil blackened the shores. Mike Gallen, an environmentalist for the Water Supply and Pollution Control, said: “They still have an excellent safety record.”
Great Bay and the Great Bay estuarine system are a rich ecosystem that breeds a wealth of life-sustaining resources for its inhabitants. Though the quantity of wildlife may have declined, most of the native species are still there: the Canada geese, black ducks, buffleheads, loons and herring gulls, the common tern, the great black-backed gulls, the green and blue herons, sandpipers, killdeers and bald eagles (in the autumn), the cottontail rabbits, white-tailed deer, red foxes and gray squirrels, the oysters and clams, and the harbor seals (the only marine mammals), to name a few.
The estuary today is Class B water (fit to swim in), says Nelson, except for areas up the Cocheco and Salmon Falls rivers. The overall fish population has declined since Richard Atherton was born. The clams are down, but the oystering is pretty good. Some say it has never been better. A certain type of shoreline vegetation, eelgrass, was destroyed once and removed from the area by pollution. That is making a comeback, says Nelson, and with its revival, the shoreline beds will be partially protected from erosion. A new breed of fish, the coho salmon, is swimming up the rivers to spawn. The coho, introduced about 12 years ago, was in abundance during the late 1970s, says retired game warden Carl Akerley, due to the shortage of fishermen.
The poignant beauty of Great Bay may soon be recognized nationally, if Great Bay is designated one of a handful of national estuarine sanctuaries. This proposal, which is still in the development stages, has been organized by Chris Simmers of the Office of State Planning. “This came about in a meeting back in 1980,” he says. “Because Great Bay is a very unique resource. It is a filter between river and sea.” The designation would be, in Simmers’ words, “a way of saying Great Bay is a very special place, and thereby attracting attention to it.”
Great Bay is the destination for fall tours by Portsmouth Harbor Cruises. The owner, Walter Dunfey Jr., swings his boat up the Piscataqua River, past the industrial growth of Newington’s riverside, and into the Little and Great bays. Once the fighter bombers from Pease Air Force Base on the Newington shore have taken off on their flight pattern over Little Bay, Dunfey’s passengers experience a serene glide through a relatively undeveloped area. They see an almost unspoiled region in the middle of a burgeoning seacoast population.
In the autumn, Dunfey’s passengers see forested shorelines that can sparkle with bright colors on the glassy surface of a calm “mill pond.” At the end of September, the waters of Great Bay can reflect a kaleidoscope in the sun. The red oaks, brown oaks, bright yellow hickories, scarlet maples and deep green white pines can surprise the passengers on Dunfey’s tour. Yet, six hours later, the tide will turn, and the sparkling reflections will change into dull mud flats.
The tide is predictable, for the wary; it is treacherous for the inexperienced. In the spring, after the ice clears and before the northeasterlies subside, the bay can be dangerous. Every so often, people need to be reminded.
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