A sunny day and bright, blue water greeted the 14 community leaders pausing in Haverhill on their two state, 117-mile journey down the Merrimack River.
Calling themselves the Valley Voyagers, the group formed to highlight environmental concerns, recreational opportunities and economic development on the river, which provides drinking water to more than 600,000 people, as well as access to fishing, boating and paddling for thousands more.
The four-day trip started on Wednesday of last week in Franklin, New Hampshire, and ended Saturday on Plum Island. The group camped along the river during the journey and made its final stop in Haverhill before heading for Plum Island.
The trip started as a recreational outing for Northern Essex Community College President Lane Glenn; Dougan Sherwood, president of the Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce; and Derek Mitchell, executive director of the Lawrence Partnership. Merrimack River Watershed Council Board President Dan Graovac, quickly got involved in planning the excursion.
“In the Merrimack Valley, we all work together to promote economic development and the river is central to just about everything we do," Glenn said before the trip. "By paddling together, we thought it would symbolically demonstrate the importance of our partnerships and also the beautiful resource that flows through our communities.”
Other local leaders signed on to participate, including state Sen. Diana DiZoglio, state Rep. Linda Dean Campbell and Groundwork Lawrence Executive Director Heather McMann.
Each of the lawmakers paddling on the voyage has sponsored legislation or amendments addressing the environmental concerns of cities and towns along the Merrimack, such as requiring more rapid notifications of sewage discharges into the river to protect swimmers and drinking water.
Glenn called the trip "awesome." He said it was a great opportunity for everyone involved to see the natural resources of the river and some of the environmental issues it faces.
Though the group encountered thunderstorms — and had first-hand experience with sewer discharges from water treatment plants along the river — the kayakers were able to persevere. Deadlines kept the group pushing when any members became tired, Glenn said.
When asked if he ever thought of quitting, state Rep. Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill, said, "We don't give up. This is the Haverhill delegation!"
Vargas said he hopes recreation on the river will continue to grow. He said he had never been on the river until last year. He also mentioned he had never kayaked on the river until this year, as he joined the group for the Haverhill portion of the journey.
Sherwood said Haverhill is very lucky that the river runs through the city's downtown.
"Cities all over the world would kill to have a river like this flowing through it," he said.
Watching nearby in admiration of the kayakers were Haverhill residents Whitney Willman, 53, and Haverhill Conservation Commission Vice Chairman Ralph Basiliere, 53, who is a Marine Corps veteran. With them was a black, curly haired puppy named Elvis.
Willman said she grew up along the river and remembers when there was much pollution in the waterway, including 55-gallon drums. She said the trip was "wonderful" and planned to attend the celebration on Plum Island to see the kayakers finish their journey.
"The river needs heroes and today we're seeing them step up," Basiliere said, noting that it's time to save the river. "The time to begin is now.''