Light slips away on a serene kayaking tour of Essex Bay

Essex Bay Essex Bay, a nook of the ocean that seeps into the marshlands between Cape Ann and Crane Beach. (David Abel/Globe Staff)
By David Abel
Globe Staff / October 25, 2009

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ESSEX BAY - In the golden light of dusk, we slipped into the warm water and followed the receding tide from the beach.

Overhead, the sky was a darkening canopy of blues, with wispy clouds floating on a pink horizon. A gentle breeze rippled over tall grass in the distance, brushing us with the softness of velvet. There was no late-summer humidity, no hint of the onset of fall, not a bug or concern in the air.

As our kayaks cut through the silent waters of the bay, it was a reminder of why September is New England’s most serene month.

We had come here for a moonlight tour of Essex Bay, a nook of the ocean that seeps into the marshlands between Cape Ann and Crane Beach. But as day dissolved into night we discovered more than the beauty that floods in and out of this wildlife refuge an hour north of Boston.

The tour began on the rocky shores just north of the Walker Creek Marshes, and several guides led our group of a dozen kayakers through the shallow water. We paddled toward the setting sun and watched the gold light burn into an orange haze.

As we curved around Cross Island, a barrier for much of the surrounding estuaries, we came across flocks of egrets, herons, and other birds prancing through the shallows, used by many of the birds as a way station to teach their young how to fly on their long journeys.

We passed other small islands and old shacks moored in the bay, the legacy of a time when local authorities were less strict about development on the water. The more we paddled, the more the greens of the surrounding grass and the changing colors of the sky seemed to merge like an Impressionistic painting. The orange blurred with pinks and reds, until the sky glowed a soft purple.

As we cut through the bay and the sun sank behind us, we watched a full moon rise in front of us, casting a soft light that sparkled over the calm water. We passed a sandbank where several boats were beached in the low tide. From there, we followed our guides and glided onto the southeastern edge of Crane Beach, parked our kayaks on a steep grade of sand, and gathered around a fire pit to sip hot chocolate and devour well-deserved desserts.

Under the darkening sky, we met Richard “Ozzie’’ Osborn, who has been running the trips around the Essex River Basin for 15 years. With sparks illuminating his face, Osborn told us how much of the area was part of the old summer estate of Chicago industrialist Richard T. Crane, a 2,800-acre property, much of which the family has given to a nonprofit land trust over the years.

“What’s crucial about the property as it is is that we’re in the main flyways for migrating shorebirds,’’ he said. “Some of these birds fly tundra to tundra, from the northernmost part of North America to Patagonia.’’

He pointed across the beach and into the last embers of light as he explained how the trust has preserved much of the land and left it undeveloped. “It’s in its natural state, almost unscathed, which is really unique,’’ he said.

While he regaled us with stories and facts about the area, the sky faded to black, except for the bright moon rising higher in the sky.

We followed the moonlight back to the kayaks and shoved into the dark, flat water, where we crossed fast-moving currents flooding in from Ipswich Bay. We paddled into what felt like a star-filled void, where it was difficult to distinguish the sky from the water. We were silhouettes and kept from ramming each other with neon sticks glowing from the ends of our kayaks.

The more we paddled, the more it felt like we were weightless, floating in space. The strong current of the incoming tide made the rhythmic motion of paddling feel effortless, almost intoxicating.

It was an entrancing peace, a kind that unites the brain and the body.

We cruised along the marshes, past the undeveloped islands, through the quiet of night, until we were back where we started, invigorated by the warm breeze, the warm water, and the warm feelings.

Osborn said he couldn’t recall a better night for kayaking in 15 years running the same trip.

“We got a special night to be on the water,’’ he said.

David Abel can be reached at

If You Go

Essex River Basin Adventures
1 Main St., Essex
Sea kayaking tours through fall, weather permitting.