Return to the River Part 3: Recreation – and rebirth?
CONCORD MONITOR | E. REED | MAY 8, 2017
On a given day, drivers passing Sanel Auto Parts and crossing over the Winnipesaukee River in Franklin may notice some brightly clad paddlers crashing through the current, mouths opened wide as cold water hits their faces.
Floating past old mill ruins, beneath splintered trestle bridges and between overgrown sections of riverbank, Mill City Park Director Marty Parichand and others are generating momentum for a new reputation in the “Three Rivers City” – it’s the place to go for recreation.
This is a rather evolved image for a former industrial city that once stunk to high heaven.
Prior to the 1970s, raw sewage was dumped into the Winnipesaukee River by Tilton, Northfield and Franklin. More discharges flowed from failing septic systems throughout the watershed.
Former Department of Environmental Services Commissioner Thomas Burack wrote in a report that in summertime, water consistency was described as “pea soup.” Fish kills, algal blooms and strong odors were common.
The year after Stevens Company Mill closed, New Hampshire’s legislature voted to address the problem. They established the Winnipesaukee River Basin program in 1972.
For two decades, the program worked with local communities to construct the Franklin wastewater treatment plant, 14 wastewater pumping stations and more than 60 miles of sewer lines.
As effluent was gradually removed from the Winnipesaukee River, people began to appear, riding down the rapids.
National Alliance on Mental Illness New Hampshire Executive Director Ken Norton – an avid paddler – said the annual “First Day” whitewater event in Franklin dates back to the 1980s.
In the very beginning, it started with people floating down the Winnipesaukee River in tubes. To arm themselves for the chilly January air and freezing-cold water (and the general stupidity of what they were doing), Norton said alcohol, and not lifejackets, was the protective gear of choice.
“Not exactly a safe scene,” he said. “If you had a wetsuit, you were lucky – there weren’t drysuits. There wasn’t the gear that exists now that makes it a whole lot safer endeavor.”
Norton, who lives in neighboring Tilton, helped organize a more formal event with the Merrimack Valley Paddler’s Club and the Friends of the Winnipesaukee River in 1981.
There, Norton said he and a dozen more people paddled down the river.
“Each year it sort of successively grew,” he said.
Marty Parichand paddled in his first “First Day” in 2003. The Epsom native returned to Franklin more than a decade later to open his paddling business, Outdoor New England, and to start the nonprofit Mill City Park, which aims to create a whitewater playpark on a 9-acre parcel of city land along the Winnipesaukee River.
Parichand envisions creating a place for people to come and paddle, ride mountain bikes and grow things in a community garden. Historic preservation of mill remnants is part of the plan, too.
Parichand said the most expensive iteration of the park’s construction costs is estimated to be $4 million to $6 million. In return, a New Hampshire Department of Resources and Economic Development impact analysis shows a facility like that could bring $6.8 million in direct spending to Franklin on an annual basis.
While the park is still very much in the planning process, the promotion of recreation in Franklin by Parichand and those before him have resulted in visible community change.
The takeout spot for paddlers going down the Winnipesaukee, for example, is at Trestle View Park. In the 1990s, the restaurant formerly on that parcel burned, and in 2002, the Grevior family bought the land. They then gifted it to Franklin.
A few years later, just across the street, the Winnipesaukee River Trail Association completed a walking path along the river. This past fall, Norton said that Northfield landowners Roger and Gloria Blaise donated a ¾-acre parcel of their property along Cross Mill Road so paddlers can have permanent access to the upper river.
As recreation infrastructure has grown, so is its use. The walking trail is active, and Parichand has continued to recruit more paddlers.
Franklin native Tim Morrill is one of them. After cruising the Winnipesaukee River on First Day 2016, the landscaping company owner said he’s taken more than a dozen trips since, and he’s now learning to guide a raft.
“(It’s) a whole new adventure,” Morrill said. He gained a new hobby, plus friends from the experience. And he’s noticed the atmosphere in his home city change.
Norton has seen it, too.
“There’s a certain spirit that Franklin has, of people coming together that want the city to be more than a has-been of the city’s past,” Norton said.
Norton was recently involved with a “Winnipesaukee Trail Clean-up Day” at the put-in spot for paddlers on Cross Mill Road. He said he and others have been working to improve the river since the 1980s. While the mill dams had been dynamited decades before, pieces remained – dangerous pieces.
“(We) would just go down and we’d spend half a day cutting out the dam and pulling out the rebar and making the river safe,” Norton said. There was one particular loop of rebar they were determined to get out of the river – the loop was large enough to trap someone’s boat.
“I have a friend who used to say he’d have nightmares about that loop,” Norton said.
Parichand and the others behind Mill City Park are looking to finish the job, removing the rebar, cribbing and pipes that remain to improve safety for paddlers.
“The riverbed would get an improvement,” Parichand said.
New economic engine?
The city of Franklin has made numerous attempts to revitalize its economy, its downtown, and its sense of community. But it was hard to find a central focus for those efforts, City Manager Elizabeth Dragon said.
“Marty’s enthusiasm about kayaking in the river – it was sort of like a light bulb went off,” she said. “We could do all the work we wanted with new buildings. But if we didn’t have the people to support the businesses, we would just have a revolving door.”
“It became really clear that, if we do a good job cleaning up the river and restoring the river, we have the potential to bring in 6 million dollars of new spending,” she added.
The Mill City Park area is now incorporated into Franklin’s redevelopment plan being carried out by public-private partnerships. The next step is making sure the city can get the dam releases it needs on Winnipesaukee River from DES – two dams still sit on the river itself, with others upstream in the river basin.
Franklin must also consider how to ensure the ecological future of the river that it’s looking to, once again, as an economic engine.
“It gives us an opportunity to think of things differently,” Dragon said.