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White-knuckle maneuvering or peaceful paddle, kayaking offers an opportunity to explore the North Shore in an intimate way no other craft can give.

Trace the North Shore from the Merrimack River outlet to Marblehead Neck and you’ll find miles of dramatic coastline, offering experienced kayakers challenging adventures. But you’ll find just as many small coves, inlets, rivers, and marshes offering flat water for an easy hour or two of quiet beginner paddling.

One of the most diverse areas is Cape Ann, that scraggly outcropping of granite that juts into Ipswich Bay and the Atlantic. Here you can paddle less than a mile to Thatcher’s Island, or tackle a 21-mile circumnavigation of the Cape itself. The latter is perhaps best attempted in the Blackburn Challenge annual race, where a hundred rowers and paddlers and a team of support boats dot the sea. (This year’s race is scheduled for Saturday, July 21).

A tour of the Annisquam River in Gloucester can include side trips through peaceful marshes, with a break for swimming at area beaches. A quick detour into Goose Cove brings you to a great spot for beginners, and its protected waters surrounded by Greenbelt conservation land are a bird-watcher’s heaven. But the cove is also known for its whitewater, when the incoming tide rushes through the hole in the wall and experienced kayakers rock and roll through the waves. My favorite activity is paddling with my dogs to Riggs Flat off Wingaersheek and letting them jump out and run along the shore while I paddle alongside.

How to get in the water? You can get a list of public landings from the City of Gloucester. This is helpful because many of them are hidden behind bushes and creeping vegetation.

If you’re unfamiliar with the islands off the North Shore coast, hop in the car and head a little farther south toward Beverly Farms. Situated a half-mile off West Beach, somewhat between Manchester and Marblehead harbors, is the 83-acre Great Misery Island, owned by the Trustees of Reservations. There’s easy landing for kayaks on a small sandy beach. Plan on spending at least two hours there to enjoy the 2-1/2 miles of trails and great views. You can also visit the nearby four-acre Little Misery Island by walking to it at low tide. There are even composting toilets available during the summer months, and Trustees staff are available for tours of the island. Kayaking to the island from Manchester is easier than attempting the trip from Marblehead Harbor across Salem Sound, but both are for experienced paddlers.

Renting a kayak is the best way to determine what kind of equipment you’ll be happy with long term: closed-cockpit sea kayaks, open-cockpit recreational, sit-on-tops, fishing kayaks, singles or doubles. Like any boating activity, kayaking requires equipment for safety and comfort, at a minimum a PFD (personal floatation device), a spray skirt, and a paddling jacket.

If you’re in need of instruction, there’s no shortage of places to get excellent training. The kayak outfitters listed below offer tours and classes for beginners and children; instructions include the basics from getting in and out of the kayak to water rescue.

“Safety is paramount” says Stephen Rhodes, owner of North Shore Kayak Outdoor Center. “The focus is always on staying physically and mentally comfortable, enjoying your surroundings, and learning about the local area while having an unforgettable experience.” There are plenty of tour choices, from just a couple of hours to whole-season rental packages.

Individual outfitters offer their own special features: Discover Adventures most popular tour is a kayak snorkel trip. Plum Island offers kayak fishing, and Essex River Basin Adventures most popular trip is the Gilligan Tour: yes, a three-hour tour of the basin, suitable for beginner or intermediate paddlers. NSKOC offers a terrific short trip to Thatcher’s Island, the 50-acre island known best for its twin lighthouses, built while the Colonies were still under British rule.

Because I paddle mostly in coves and inlets, my comfort level was tested on this trip, but with owner Stephen up front and his support staffer bringing up the rear, I felt secure knowing they were keeping watch. If you’re a novice, paddle with a partner and bring a cell phone in a water-tight floatable bag.

Kayaking the North Shore

Discovery Adventures

1077 Washington Street



North Shore Kayak Outdoor Center

9 Tuna Wharf, Bearskin Neck




Essex River Basin

Adventures (ERBA)

1 Main Street



Plum Island Kayak

38R Merrimac Street