Down River: Tales of Hunting and Fishing in old-time Hampton Beach

by William Everett Cram

Hampton Union & Rockingham County Gazette, Thursday, February 10, 1938

John G. Whittier in his beautiful poem brings back to memory the down river trips of early settlers here, and from then along the years that passed by, until the devil inspired the invention of the motor car and motor boat, these trips down Hampton River by sail or oar or paddle continued to be a most enjoyable form of summer recreation.

Picking a morning when the tide served, the party would drive in a democrat wagon down the winding roads; hitch the horse under the shed with hay and grain in the manger before them, and according to the number included in the party, would start on half tide-ebb in the gundalo, dory or skiff. The gundalo (more literally termed hay boat or mud scow) would accommodate twenty or more and was rowed by long oars at the bow, two men at each oar, and one with the steering oar at the stern. The dory would hold half a dozen, while three was about the limit that could safely ride in the skill.

The first trip of the sort which memory now brings back to mind was with my grandfather and cousin in a skiff, and then a few years later I had my first voyage down stream in a gundalo. It was a cloudy morning in June. Arriving at the Willows, where Goody Cole's house formerly stood, the scow was moored against the dory that was towed astern, three men starting off for the clam flats to dig clams for the noon day chowder, others gathered drift wood and brush for the fire, and while the women folk peeled potatoes prepared everything for the sumptuous meal, we young folk were set at work making spoons with clam shells fastened into split red willow twigs, and then finally, just when the dinner was ready to serve, the sky broke in a down pour of rain and the whole party plodded across the marsh to Hampton Beach, where a room was hired in which to have our dismal repast. Late in the afternoon, when the incoming tide insisted on our return, we all once more toddled back in the rain, unmoored the scow and steered upstream to Hampton Falls landing, drove home under shelter of umbrella and carriage top and of course, just as we reached home, the sky cleared and the sun shone out for the first time that day.

A few years after that, another gundalo party (of which I did nor chance to be a member) chose a day when the tide was at low ebb in the afternoon, planning to return by the light of the moon, but delayed too long in their departure from the Willows, reaching Polly's Point where Hampton and Hampton Falls River meet just at flood tide when the marshes are half under water.

The sky was clouded over so that so that there was neither moon nor stars to steer by as luck would have it they headed up Nudd's canal and almost got to Hampton landing before realizing their mistake, swung round and laboriously pulled to Polly's Point against the last of the incoming tide, to meet the downstream ebb just as they rounded the point, and then against the northwest wind that was clearing the sky at last fought their way to Hampton Falls landing where their patient teams awaited their return.

For the following thirty years or more not one season passed in which I did not have at least one trip down river and in most of these, tide, wind and weather proved favorable. Bound Rock, now buried under the sand flats of Seabrook Beach, a long gun shot from either sea beach or river shore, was then on the Hampton Falls side of the river mouth with the butt of the sand dunes on one side and deep water on the other, and when tide and season were right we would pull up alongside, hitch our anchor in a crevice of rock and with the boathook drag out, from under water seams of the ledge, lobsters that had shed their shells and were hastening to make their yearly growth before the new shell had hardened. One day with the boat anchored against the out flowing tide, we were fishing for flounders, when one of our party inadvertently let her line slip from her fingers. We heaved anchor and followed it toward the river's mouth as best we might but failed to retrieve it. Then we swung about, and alongside Bound Rock hooked out a few lobsters, and when the tide turned to come in, rowed out to mid-stream and went back to fishing once more. Feeling a dull pull on my line, I hauled it in hand over hand and when the hook came in sight, there was another line entangled around it. This proved to be the lost line, gone off out to sea and back again with the returning tide, and firmly caught to its hook was a fine pollock to be added to our catch.

It was a hot and sultry August afternoon, with a pale gray cloud bank across the west, and now from above this cloud bank there gradually loomed into sight a round-topped thunder head. Another fishing party had grounded their dory on the beach under the sea slopes of the sand dunes, and only just succeeded in getting her afloat on the rising tide. That thunderhead had such a threatening look that we decided it would be wiser to start upstream to the Willows before it caught us. Pulling for all we were worth, we barely managed to get there before it came down on us; thunder and lightening close at hand with dashing spurts of rain. Hauling the two boats onto the thatch flats, we raced together to the shelter of a fisherman's cabin, which had been newly erected there under the shelter of the willows. Two fishermen's wives called to us from their doorway that [they] were only too glad to have us come in for their men folk were all away. Once in the shelter of the cozy little house, we decided to have an eight-handed game of cards to while away the time as long as the shower lasted, and had only got the cards dealt when there came a dazzling flash and a deafening clap close at hand. When our eyesight came back to us after that blinding flash, we observed to our consternation, that one of the party was missing, and then from underneath the table there came a soft and trembling voice. "Do you think there will be another flash like that?"

The storm cleared up as quickly as it came, and to the accompaniment of retreating thunder from the cloud bank beyond the Isles of Shoals, we made our return trip upstream beneath a gorgeous sunset sky.

When the sea was not too rough we liked to row out to the River Mouth Rocks and fish for cunners there. One autumn morning at daylight, my cousin and I were fishing close alongside those half submerged ledges, taking a shot now and then at a south bound loon or flock of sea fowl. The sea was flat with not a breath of wind stirring until the sun was half an hour above the eastern skyline, then there started a long slow rise and fall coming in from seaward, increasing steadily, but with scarcely a trace of spray or breaker where it met the rocks or pushed its way up Seabrook Beach. We headed back for the river mouth, but before we got there the surf was breaking across the bar so violently that we swung back out to sea, then southward, looking for a safe landing anywhere and sighting a point where the breakers were not quite so rough, swung the little skiff about, head on to the waves and went in stern foremost but, just as her bottom touched the sand a tremendous comber heaved up and broke, filling her to the gunwale. Overboard we plunged, one on each side, and grasping the rail pushed her up on the beach with the next incoming wave. Two Seabrook women with their children of all ages came running down to help us, when we were at least safely out of the surf, told us that their husbands were out to sea tending their trawls, but would never be so foolhardy as to come in before the sea went down, even if they has to stay out to sea all night.

I think it was the last summer that with five other boys of my group, we tried the same trip, but were hardly out to sea before the northwest wind sprung up covering the sea with white caps so we gave up the idea of fishing off the rocks and swung around inland along Hampton Beach and had our luncheon under the lea of the sand hills. When we tried to pull out to sea once more, the breakers were so rough that it took several attempts before we were safely outside. We found it rough enough at the river's mouth but decided to try it, and just as we crossed the bar we struck bottom, and the next thing I knew I was standing upright with my feet on one rail of the dory and grasping the other with my hands, and not six inches before my eyes curved up the smooth dark green white streaked inner curve of the comber that had capsized us. Hanging on as best we could we drifted inside to smooth water, and then swimming with one hand and holding on to the boat's rail with the other, the six of us managed to work her shoreward to Common Island where the Hampton River and Seabrook River meet, and sighting here and there an oar drifting in with the tide, took turns at swimming out to save them, and in this way got back five of the six oars that the sea had robbed us of. After empting the boat of sea water, we put on our wet clothes and started on our homeward journey. Arriving at the village, we learned that a hunter on Hampton Beach had witnessed our overturn on the bar and after that was only able to discern the capsized boat drifting in with he tide, so he spread the news abroad that half a dozen men had been drowned in the river's mouth; luckily for our parents' state of mind this was before the days of the telephone, and the sad news of our fate had not reached our end of the town before we got there.

All the year round I kept my gunning skiff hauled up on the river bank under the shelter of evergreen, maple or oak, and twice on each moon in the season for wild fowl, this would be at the head of the tide waters where Taylor's River changes its title to Hampton River. Into half inch holes bored in both rails from bow half way back to stern, I set up short leaf-covered boughs from birch or maple for a screen. Getting my own breakfast before the others of the family were up, I would start off on foot on the two mile walk across lots over pastures and woodland, or else follow the longer trail along the river's course, either way counting on the change of partridge, rabbit or wild duck going or coming.

Seated on the boat's bottom at the stern, and with gun in my right hand and short paddle in my left for steering, I slipped downstream with the tide, silent and almost without a ripple on the water, with never a glimpse of the crooked watercourse between its high thatched fringed banks, for more than a gunshot, and at every bend on the lookout for black duck, widgeon, sheldrake, or teal. Low water came at midday, and after hunting for an hour or two on the marshes and having my luncheon there, I would start upstream on my homeward voyage. I recall one day when I planned to be home for dinner on account of farm work to be done in the afternoon, but the weather has always been a domineering ruler of my life and that day the northeast wind rose to a gale before noon and paddle as I would, I made but slow progress and not having brought down a single wildfowl of any sort, looked forward to a twelve hour interval between breakfast and the next meal that would come my way. A herring gull swooped down and seized a little fish in its bill, but dropped it when my shot missed the mark; paddling along as best I could against the wind, I picked up the fish which proved to be a hake eight or ten inches long, and hardly twelve rods further up-stream caught sight of something bobbing along on the wind ruffled water ahead. When I overhauled it, it proved to be an onion, evidently washed down from some garden patch by last night's rain. Rounding the next bend I sighted a sheldrake, but as I swung my gun to shoulder, the wind turned my craft completely around and half a dozen rods downstream before I managed to grasp the cord that attached my paddle to the boat's stern then paddled cautiously close under the leeward bank. I glimpsed the game once more, but that particular bend was exactly in line with the wind's course, and the same exasperating experience came to me as before, except that this time the game caught sight of me and rose in the air as the boat swung round with the wind. I turned and fired wildly over my shoulder, but missed my mark once more. At last on reaching a sheltered bend under the lea of the woods, I went ashore, started my campfire and cooked my midday meal of hake and onion.

Our rock bound sections of the coast are fairly prominent as reckoned by the passing epochs of human history, but the sand beaches are forever changing. River Mouth Rocks which now lie far out at sea were undoubtedly, when so named by the settlers, just outcropping ledges where Hampton River met the ocean waves and in all probability will be so again in the not so very distant future. Last summer I accompanied a party of lobstermen out to tend their pots at low tide. In order to keep their keel off the sandy bottom, they steered along a winding channel which was just the width of the river along its lower reaches, from where the bridge now crosses it out to the Rocks, one mile approximately. When what is now White Island was first becoming a popular summer resort, a Hampton fisherman remarked casually, "I've caught cunners and flounders where those cottages are being built and if you fellers live to be as old as I am, you can do it some day." I am strongly inclined to believe that not only will his prophecy come true, but that on some still later date, summer visitors at the beach will simply as a matter of course, stroll out to River Mouth Rocks and watch the surf break under them "When the ebb of the sea has left them free to dry their fringes of gold green moss."

Along the North Beach when the moon is in perigee, followed by ebb tide, and a correspondingly low tide after the moon has set in the northwest uncovering sea bottom reaches that only very rarely feel the air; there are here and there exposed patches of marsh grass stubble, that must have been mowed by the hand-wielded scythes of the first hay makers here.