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by Josh With – Boston, Massachusetts – USA 

Boston July Shows


Back in 1990 I joined the Rings Island Rowing Club (RIRC) unlike most youth rowing clubs, who have large crewed boats with many rowers and one cox, we had only Dories for us to row, with only two rowers per boat and room for two riders if needed. This meant that every boat had one person responsible for where the boat was. Those of us who were more responsible got more freedom and before too long I was given approval to take a dory out whenever I wanted.

The city of Boston, MA puts on one of the coolest 4th of July shows around, first the Boston Pops put on a free outdoor concert next to the Charles River at the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade, the highlight of the show is the 1812 Overture, the Massachusetts Army National Guard provides the cannons written into the score, and local Churches provide the church bells, also written into the score. Then an awesome fireworks show goes up from barges moored in the middle of the Charles River. Crowds of two or three million viewers line all the roads, parks, and bridges around the lower Charles River Basin to catch the show.

My parents took my sister and I in to see the concert and fireworks back in the mid 80's and discovered how bad dealing with the crowd and traffic can be, a few years later they took my sister there in our canoe (somehow I missed that trip). They found that trying to cross the lower Charles River in the dark was rather frightening as there are hundreds of larger motor boats anchored for the night after the fireworks (the lock to the harbor is shut down and won't open until the next morning). In-between the thousands of anchored and rafted boats are just as many kids and drunks roaring around in small motor boats, canoes and kayaks should only hug the shore until well upstream.

Fast forward to the mid 90's, I had a girlfriend and a truck (I still miss that '88 Ranger), the RIRC had a gull dory given to them by one of the woodshop teachers from my high school (he preferred kayaking) the boat was a 10 in build and finish, however it was made of 3/8" plywood and weighed way too much for its size. On the third of July I took my girlfriend in to Boston and we got to see the Pops perform their rehearsal while sitting on the bank of the river. July 4th we put the gull dory in up near Watertown, MA and rowed down to the lower basin enjoying the view of the Boston and Cambridge skylines, as well as the numberless small sailboats and crew boats from all the different sailing and rowing clubs on the Charles.

As evening fell I rowed over to the Esplanade and found a good spot to anchor just behind the Hatch shell. If you look at the esplanade on Google earth you will see that just behind the hatch shell is the Community Sailing Club, (just above the Longfellow Bridge) there are two barrier Islands. Those Islands were completely full of cabin cruisers parked nose on the Island and rail to rail so that you could circle the Island by stepping from boat to boat. We were then able to watch the concert on the big screen TV's on all the cabin cruisers and hear the Pops behind us. If you check out the Esplanade on Google earth or a map you will notice there is a canal running up the center of the park (today there is someone giving gondola rides on that canal), while I wanted to check out the crowd from the canal, I didn't dare go near it as it was so jammed with canoes and kayaks that I couldn't make it through with the spread of my oars. (I think you could have crossed the canal by stepping from canoe to canoe) With an anchor not being in the standard equipment of canoes I had the advantage of being able to "park" on the water at just the perfect spot, most canoes had to keep moving, tie off to a bush if they were smart enough to have a rope aboard, or pull up on the bank.

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As dusk settled in the air was still and the water became a perfect mirror for the stars and lights of all the buildings. I lit the kerosene lantern hung from a pole (rake handle) hung off the side of the gull as thousands of stern and navigation lights came on all across the dark water, then the mirror was broken by circling jet skis with flashing blue lights, the MDC police were clearing the bank of the river directly in front of the cannons used in the 1812 overture. About the time they finished getting the area opened, a flock of ducks obviously displaced from their normal nighttime spots by the flotilla of canoes and concert goers, splashed down in perfect form on the only open spot on the river. Think of the illustrations in "make way for ducklings" of the peaceful ducks on the river at night.

If you know the 1812 Overture you know how the music builds and then suddenly BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! The cannons roar! Suspended in mid-air, as most of the crowd was when they jumped at the cannon roar, I have freeze framed in my memory the sight of a huge lounge of flame from the cannon mouth illuminating panicked ducks QUUUAAAK QUUAAAK QUUUAAAKing in a cloud of feathers , from underneath the biggest gun ever fired on the Charles river in centuries.

After the final oncore by the Pops I pulled up the anchor and rowed out as close as the circling coast guard boat would let me to the moored barges in the center of the river, dropped the anchor and enjoyed the finest fireworks in the world (my opinion) from the front row.

Finally, with our ears still ringing, I rowed back up the dark water with not only the lights of the city around us, but also with both banks of the river flowing with a river of lights as the thousands of canoes most with a white light or two showing paddled back up river. Even with my girlfriend sitting in the stern and myself at the oars on the center seat, causing the stern to squat, I found I could row at double or better the pace of the canoes. (Thank Phil Bolger for the beautiful and efficient shape of the gull dory.)


We went back to the concert again the following year and repeated the story, the next year she ditched me for the fourth, the truck lasted until I gave it away in '99, the same year I married the girl God meant for me. The canoe went on to carry my own family for years until I had to return it to my dad, the gull dory is still being used by the RIRC. The Pops still hold their concerts, and as I write this, I'm still recovering from getting home late as we (my family) went in to see the Pops rehearsal concert on the 3rd.

Thanks to years of spineless politicians (the last one with a spine was Ike with "operation wetback", he wanted those jobs for the boys who served) both parties let in a flood of illegal aliens, some of whom caused the worst terrorist attack in our history. Today the bank of the river is closed for the concert, the canal, barrier Islands and the first 30 yards of the river is where the ducks paddle uninterrupted and alone. The Oval, where you can see the stage of the hatch shell, is accessed only through a TSA like security check point, and the whole area is fenced in like a prison camp and surrounded by uniforms. Avoiding that, we finally found a spot on the empty bank of the river where we could watch a giant screen to see the concert. It really was great, as long as you didn't turn away to take in the view of the Cambridge skyline lights, watch the caterpillars of lights as the red line trains cross the Longfellow bridge, or take in the general crowd on the Esplanade, as you also see the cordon of empty water surrounding the fireworks barges, the river bank where the only boats present have flashing blue lights and the ring of police lights around the crowd, making it feel more like a crash scene. There were exactly two kayaks watching the concert last night.

Post Script

We got a chance to snap some pics of the Esplanade area to go with "4th of July" while my wife and I were in Boston for our birthdays. We took a DWKU boat ride through the city and on the Charles River, no better way to see the city, and I have seen it every way possible.


the Hatch Shell where the Boston Pops play on the 3rd and 4th of July

imagine this Island with cabin cruiser style boats perpendicular parked rail to rail, bow on the Island down both sides 

Gondola canal boat, for rather steep money they will give your party of up to 10 a ride down the Esplanade canal

the way the Community Sailing and Boat Club area inside the barrier Islands looks normally (this is behind the hatch shell)

"cannon" like the ones used in the 1812 Overture, they bring in four for the concert, this is an older model they leave here year round.

Some links to give you the pictures I didn't get.

Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular