Suburban Diary

Romancing the river

Moonlight canoe ride evokes an idyllic past

By Giulietta Nardone
May 22, 2011

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My husband, Jimmy, and I had been meaning for years to sign up for a moonlight canoe ride on the Charles River. It sounded adventurous and magical. Yet for some crazy reason we never did. We always seemed wedded to some “must attend’’ event, and before I knew it summer would morph into fall.

I probably would have missed canoeing last year too if it hadn’t been for the nighttime ambles we started taking around our Ashland neighborhood. Walking hand-in-hand under a full moon surrounded by whizzing traffic triggered my desire to do something more romantic in a more romantic setting.

The next day I signed us up for a tour.

Steve, our guide for the journey, welcomed 17 adventurers to the Charles River Canoe & Kayak’s boathouse in Auburndale, near the Boston Marriott Newton hotel. He began by telling us the area’s history.

Before the hotel was built, the riverbank was home between 1897 and 1963 to Norumbega Park, which featured a carousel, zoo, penny arcade, and the famous Totem Pole Ballroom. In the park’s heyday, 5,000 canoes were berthed along the stretch of river between Newton Lower Falls and Waltham. Couples took to them in droves, hoping for a chance to smooch in one of the river’s private coves.

Although the closed Totem Pole burned down in 1965, the historic boathouse reopened for canoeing in the 1970s, and we met there for our evening tour.

Jimmy and I already knew a little bit about the legendary Totem Pole. Both our mothers had danced the nights away there as young women, and my mother raved about it throughout my teens. She reminisced about the ballroom’s large glass windows, deep seats, and swing bands, always ending her stories with: “If you had a date that was the place to go.’’

Once, she even unearthed a photo of her standing in front of the ballroom with the love of her young life, Buddy. “He treated me like I was a princess,’’ my mother said. “We wandered the beautiful gardens holding hands.’’

After our guide gave the group a quick refresher on paddling techniques, Jimmy and I got into our canoe and shoved off into the twilight. I grew nostalgic as we paddled past the sprawling Marriott. If only Norumbega Park could have held out for another five decades, America’s “most beautiful ballroom,’’ with its huge dance floor and lush grounds, certainly would have attracted couples from all over the world.

Steve led us 2 miles down the river to the old Waltham Watch Co. factory. We passed swans, herons, and geese. I took special note of the stillness. With the increasing noise in my life, I felt grateful to be shrouded in near silence. Other than the cutting of canoes through the placid water and the whispers of occasional conversation, I heard nothing but crickets and bullfrogs.

To help navigate the descending darkness, each canoe had a light on the bow and the stern. The lights from our flotilla danced above the water like fireflies.

We stopped alongside the factory, where Steve informed us that it’s only two offices wide. “Watchmakers took advantage of the natural light by working on one side of the building in the morning and the other side in the afternoon,’’ he said. I’d forgotten that nature once dictated the rhythms of industry.

After bidding the handsome building farewell, Jimmy and I turned around with the group and paddled to Fox Island for snacks. Not far from shore, Steve dropped an anchor and instructed us to tie our boats together, and turn to face the wooden table in the middle of each canoe.

He pulled out miniature quesadillas, cheese, crackers, fruit, and brownies from a red cooler and began circulating them around the boats. Our fellow paddlers, almost all couples, didn’t say much as they feasted.

Talking wasn’t necessary.

I suspect we were all there to experience the peace, quiet, and connection that elude us during the frantic, noisy day.

Thirty minutes later, Jimmy and I canoed up to the boathouse in complete paddling sync. We thanked Steve and vowed to do it again. On our relaxing stroll around the historic boathouse grounds, we held hands and shared a smooch under the moon’s watchful gaze.

Something in the romantic Charles River air told me that our mothers’ memories of the Totem Pole Ballroom and a simpler time had chosen to live on through us.

Giulietta “Julie’’ Nardone is a freelance writer, river enthusiast and karaoke singer from Ashland.