HAVERHILL — A sunny day and bright, blue water greeted the 14 community leaders pausing in Haverhill on their two state, 117-mile journey down the Merrimack.
Calling themselves the Valley Voyagers, the group formed to highlight the environmental concerns, recreational opportunities and economic development on the river that provides drinking water to more than 600,000 people, as well as access to fishing, boating and paddling for thousands more.
The four-day trip started Wednesday in Franklin, New Hampshire, and ended Saturday on Plum Island. The group camped along the river during the journey.
The trip started as a recreational outing for Northern Essex Community College President Lane Glenn; Dougan Sherwood, president of the Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce; and Derek Mitchell, executive director of the Lawrence Partnership. Merrimack River Watershed Council Board President Dan Graovac, quickly got involved in the planning the excursion.
“In the Merrimack Valley, we all work together to promote economic development and the river is central to just about everything we do," Glenn said in a statement before the trip. "By paddling together, we thought it would symbolically demonstrate the importance of our partnerships and also the beautiful resource that flows through our communities.”
Other local leaders signed on to participate, including state Sen. Diana DiZoglio, state Rep. Linda Dean Campbell and Groundwork Lawrence Executive Director Heather McMann.
Each of the lawmakers paddling on the voyage has sponsored legislation or amendments addressing the environmental concerns of cities and towns along the Merrimack, such as requiring more rapid notifications of sewage discharges in the river to protect swimmers and drinking water.
Glenn called the trip "awesome." He said it has been a great opportunity for everyone involved to see the natural resources of the Merrimack River and some of the environmental issues it faces.
Though the group encountered thunderstorms — and had first-hand experience with sewer discharges from the water treatment plants along the river — they were able to persevere. Deadlines kept the group pushing if they were tired, Glenn said.
When asked if he ever thought of quitting, state Rep. Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill, said, "We don't give up, this is the Haverhill delegation!"
Vargas said he hopes the recreational side of the river will be opened up more. He said he had never been on the river until last year. He also mentioned he had never kayaked the river until this year, as he joined the group for the Haverhill portion of the journey.
Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce President Dougan Sherwood said it is very lucky that the Merrimack River travels right through Haverhill's downtown area.
"Cities all over the world would kill to have a river like this flowing through it," he said.
Watching nearby in admiration were Haverhill residents Whitney Willman, 53, Haverhill Conservation Commission Vice Chairman Ralph Basiliere, 53, who is a Marine Corps veteran, and a black, curly haired peppy pup named Elvis.
Willman said she grew up along the river and remembers when there were 55 gallon drums in the water. She said the trip is "wonderful," and planned to attend the celebration in Plum Island to see the kayakers finish their journey.
"The river needs heroes and today we're seeing them step up," Basiliere said, noting that it's time to save the river. "The time to begin is now. The time to strike is today."