Stow and go.

Free storage stations for kayaks and canoes encourage locals to discover the largely hidden Shawsheen River, a tree-shaded, winding and under-utilized waterway.

On this June afternoon, a flotilla of five kayaks, a canoe and a paddle board lazed downriver.

The five-member MacKenzie family, Kathi Levine, and Steve Golden just launched from Shawsheen Pines, one of three boat storage locations in town.

"You don't have to go up to Maine to find outstanding paddling," said Golden, a local conservationist (his kids call him a nature nut) who is forever spreading the word about opportunities to walk, bike and boat in Andover.

The Pines launch sits across the street from the low, squat Pfizer pharmaceutical plant, which is engaged in preparations to mass produce a COVID-19 vaccine.

Arrivals steer over a short, bumpy dirt road and park under a grove of pines. Many of them needn't unload a canoe or kayak because their crafts are already here on a wooden rack.

Some 38 people store boats at the Pines and two other local storage sites, Abbot Bridge Drive and the end of Dale Street in Ballardvale.

As of early June, the racks were almost full, but plans were in the works to add three more of them, Golden said.

During the stay-at-home phase of the state's coronavirus response, many people still took to the woods, roads and waterways for exercise, mental health and pleasure.

Public health experts still advise mask wearing when social distancing can't be maintained.

On the river, the whine of nearby Interstate 93 traffic soon faded to quiet, interrupted only by dipping paddles, chit-chat and birdsong.

The MacKenzie kids — Noah, 11, Ellie, 9, and Gabriel, 6 — explored the banks for muskrat holes and scanned rocks for turtles basking. 

They and the others are Shawsheen regulars, visiting several times a week between spring and fall.

When Kathi Levine's kayak enters the water she feels centered and grounded, the stress lifting from her shoulders, she said. The experience is always different, depending on the season, time of day and what the creatures are up to.

"I really enjoy seeing all the beaver and otter and the different birds," she said. "That is one of the things I like about it the most." 

Wood stork, blue heron, egret, osprey, beaver, muskrat and otter are regular visitors. Big snapping turtles travel these waters, as do trout and small- and large-mouth bass.

Aquatic grasses waved on the shallow river bottom.

Elderberry grow on the bank. Golden says the berries are powerful antioxidants.

According to lore, Shawsheen derives from a Native American word and means serpentine.

The Shawsheen's headwaters are in Bedford. They were originally springs and wetlands, filled 75 years ago when Hanscom Air Field was built.

Now the river is fed, in large part, by water that drains from roads and runways, emerging from drainage pipes under Runway 29 at Hanscom Airport.

It starts out straight but soon falls into meandering ways, winding 25 miles to a long, dark tunnel in Lawrence where it joins the mighty Merrimack River on a journey to the sea.

Meanwhile, back on the Shawsheen, the flotilla's excursion invited tranquility, discovery and even a little clean-up when Noah unwrapped a tangle of yellow nylon rope from mid-river brush.

Clean-up efforts from the river's towns had fished some 800 tires as of 2016, according to the Shawsheen River Watershed Association.

This is a place you can go after work, on the weekends, and you can bring your family, Golden said.

"We see this as an opportunity for people to appreciate their community a whole lot more," said Golden, who is retired from the National Park Service.

He and a co-worker pioneered the service's successful Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance program, which provides people in urban areas opportunities learn about and enjoy nature.

An offshoot of the program are the various Groundworks programs around the nation, of which Groundworks Lawrence is one.

The kayak and canoe storage program is free, organized by the Andover Recreation and Conservation Departments in partnership with Andover Trails. Applicants must fill out a boat storage form.

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