Monday, August 25, 2008

Life--and Death--on the Mighty Merrimack

I've lived along the Merrimack River my entire life, and I've always had a healthy respect for its powerful currents and tempermental tides. We've been flooded twice, and evacuted once due to dangerously high flood waters, but thankfully we've never sustained any serious or permanent damage. Call us crazy, but we love it here. When I look out the back windows of my house, I see the long sweep of the river as it curves toward Haverhill, and we're fortunate enough to live along a section of river that has no buildings, so the opposite shore is just an endless stretch of nature. Every day brings something new; herons, cormorants, the occasional bald eagle, and once we even saw a harbor seal. We can step out our back door, walk out onto our dock and be on our boat in less than a minute. We've navigated those waters more times than I could possible count.

Here is a picture of the Merrimack River from a vantage point at Maudsley State Park in Newburyport. This will give you a sense of how wide the river can be in places. At times it feels more like an enormous lake than a river, but when the tides change you can feel the powerful pull of the currents.

Every year, it seems, we hear a story of how somebody drowned in the river. It's usually the result of risky behavior or a senseless accident; the man who fell off his dock after a few too many drinks, or the man who foolishly thought he could swim out to his mooring, not realizing the current was much too strong.

Eleven years ago, an intensive search of the river and its miles of shoreline was undertaken, as the police looked for the body of a young woman. Her boyfriend had apparently bound her with duct tape and tossed her into the frigid waters of the Merrimack, about ten miles upriver from where we live, in January. About six months later, our neighbors were dragging the bottom of the river with a grappling hook, trying to locate their mooring line when they encountered something heavy and pliable, tangled in their line. They managed to free whatever it was, but were unsuccessful in wresting it to the surface. The next morning, the body of the young woman was discovered washed up beneath the docks just across the river. There's no doubt in our minds that the "something" our neighbors encountered while searching for their mooring line was, in fact, this young woman's body. So while the sun sparkles on the water's surface, making the river look beautiful and serene, you never know what lies beneath. And you never expect that the next person to make such a tragic discovery could be yourself.

Today, John and I decided to take the boat out to a sandbar near the mouth. I love boating on Mondays because all of the pinheads and weekend boaters are gone. There is virtually nobody on the water and we have the entire river to ourselves. We had the boat on open-throttle as we neared the Rocks Village Bridge, when John shouted that he thought he saw somebody lying on the shore. Understand that this is not a river that is sunbather-friendly, and this particular stretch of riverbank is heavily forested and only accessible by boat, so it would be very odd to see somebody just lounging on the shore. So we turned around and trolled back the way we had come. As we drew closer to shore I could definitely make out something amongst the river grasses.

The tide was beginning to go out, and there, on the shallow beach was...a cow? I couldn't tell...I could only make out a broad strip of white, bracketed on either side by a strip of black. But as John brought the boat in closer, I saw it was the body of a man, lying on his side facing the water. The white strip was his torso, exposed by his black T-shirt where it had ridden up under his armpits, and beneath his belly, his black shorts. His head and face were covered in river mud and weeds, but it was his arm that struck me. Rigor mortis had set in, and his arm and hand were cocked at an angle that made it appear he was beckoning. To be saved. To be found. To be brought home.

We called 911 and the harbor patrol sent a boat and three officers, and we waited while they brought the coroner in by boat, too, until they finally told us we could go. By then, I had no desire to go to the boaters' beach, so we headed to Newburyport and had a couple of drinks at Michael's Harborside instead. I can't get the image of that slender, white hand out of my head. Who was he? How did he end up where we found him? Had he been missed prior to our discovery of him? We frequently see groups of exuberent young men, screaming past in their powerful cigarette boats, whooping and laughing and not giving a care for their own safety or that of other boaters. Had he fallen off of such a boat? Maybe we'll find out, if they run a story in the paper. Maybe we won't. But I'll go to bed tonight thankful that my own kids are safe in their beds, with my thoughts and prayers going out to the family of the poor guy we found today.


Jessica said...

This is such a chilling story . . . and a haunting experience for what started out as a joyous day enjoying life's blessings. I am happy to hear you and your loved ones are safe and well.

Karen Foley said...

Yes, Jessica, it was very sad. I saw a brief article in the paper this morning about it. He was a 69-year old man, but they gave no other details, and made no speculation about how he may have gotten where we found him.

Julia said...

My dad was just telling me a couple weeks ago about how someone used to drown in that river every year. You're right - you never think that you are going to be personally involved.
Ella and I will be up at the end of October and would love to see you! Can't find an e-mail address for you so am just leaving it here.
Take Care!!
(I love the Gerard Butler pics!!)