Today is the last day of 2012, and people across the country will be counting down the final moments with ball drops and songs of farewell to the old, hello to the new. The next day will start 2013, and boaters and locals of the small town of Franklin, NH will be kicking it off with the 32nd New Year’s Paddle down the Winnepesaukee. The festival celebrates both the New Year and the historical efforts put forth by the boaters, fishermen and Franklin citizens to revive a river and restore the community into something they could enjoy year round every year.
The New Year’s Day tradition actually started in the early 1980’s by inner tubers from Lakeport looking to have a good time. “They were a wild bunch wearing no life jackets, and back then wetsuits rather than dry suits were the order of the day,” Ken Norton, local paddler, said. By the late 1980’s, boaters joined in on the yearly event. While the tradition was fun, the river was a mess. The old mills on the river had fallen into disrepair (and sometimes into the river), and the river itself was considered the local dumping venue. “When I first paddled this river, the area we would take out was full of broken glass, bricks, and other debris from the fire when a restaurant had burned down,” Jeff Swett, Merrimack Valley Paddlers president, said. “The parking was sketchy at best and getting off the river could be more dangerous than the run.”
It was with two attempts to dam the Winni that people spurred into action. The initial project was squashed, only to be picked up by the Federal Energy and Regulatory Committee. They had issued a second permit for a dam that would have had a 14-foot diameter penstock essentially draining all the water from the whitewater stretch. In response, Friends of the Winnipesaukee River joined MVP and others to file a motion to intervene with FERC. The two groups, along with a few trout fishermen, had seen the recreational value of the river and thought of using the New Year’s Day run as a way to get people’s attention to the over-looked and abused resource in their own back yard.
“It was a big hit right from the get go with paddlers, press and spectators,” Ken Norton said. Norton had helped and coordinated a lot to make the event happen. “We gave awards every year to someone locally who had helped promote or preserve the river, and on different years we focused the press on a particular message – which they actually did a great job covering.” The publicity encouraged Franklin’s citizens, and soon after the community joined in to make it a town event.
The New Year’s Paddle helped turn the river from the rundown area it was before into a recreational and scenic resource. It inspired the rail-to-trail along the river as well as the creation of an elaborate riverside park in upstream Tilton, the site of an easier Class 2 takeout. Last, where once were broken glass, debris and trash, a riverside park now acts as the takeout, welcoming frozen paddlers to the Winnipesaukee every first of the year.