This past July 4th, my wife and I were at a little get together with some friends to celebrate America’s National Birthday Party. It was no big deal; just some fun and music outdoors, socializing with our friends and neighbors from around town, and a few folks from out of town, who also showed up to join in the fun. There were some fireworks after dark, and everybody had a good time. My wife and I enjoyed hanging out with some good people, even though I didn’t quite catch everyone’s names. I’m usually pretty good with remembering peoples’ names, but it’s a challenge when approximately 500,000 people show up.
Yeah, you read that right… Around 500,000 people showed up for our 4th of July party.
What? You’ve never been to a neighborhood summer party with half a million guests? Well I think that you need to get out more and mingle… Go on out there and join in the fun!
Okay, so maybe this wasn’t exactly a private neighborhood party, but a more public affair. My wife and I went to a concert performed by The Boston Pops Orchestra at the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade, to celebrate America’s B-day on July 4th.
What’s a Hatch Shell? What’s an Esplanade? Well, if you’re not from around Boston, or from New England, I’d never blame you for not knowing…
This is the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade.
The Hatch Shell is a wooden acoustic structure built to project the high quality sound of live music outwards, to better entertain the masses. The Esplanade is a green spaced and tree lined park along the banks of The Charles River in Boston, to provide a place for people to relax and have fun, and gather together to enjoy special events; like the Boston 4th of July celebration.
A more close up view of The Hatch Shell on July 4th.
While the music is a big part of the celebration, it is the exceptionally spectacular fireworks display that is the main attraction responsible for drawing in around half a million spectators for Boston’s July 4th National B-day Bash.
Boston sets it off!
The massive crowds are not only from the greater Boston area and New England, but many people from all over the country also come to see the show. The musical performance and the fireworks display has been televised nationally on both network and public TV stations in recent years.
In short, our Boston July 4th celebration has become a very big deal.
But as a result, trying to get in to attend this event live and in person has become very difficult, when trying to compete with half a million other folks for travel routes into and out of town, parking spaces, and jam packed public transportation pushed beyond maximum capacity. The hardest part of all can be trying to drive out of Boston in very heavy traffic after the show is over, and thousands of vehicles hit the roadways all around the same time. This is why my wife and I have made the trip into town for Boston’s July 4th extravaganza only just a few times in the 24 years we’ve been together.
In order to get the closest listening and viewing locations on the Esplanade, thousands of people show up at dawn on the morning of the 4th, and then wait in line until 9:00 AM when the oval area in front of the Hatch Shell opens up. These folks spread out blankets, beach umbrellas and lawn chairs to stake their claims for a musical performance that doesn’t begin until 11-1/2 hours later, followed by the fireworks display, beginning at 10:30 PM and almost 14 hours later. These early birds are content to spend the entire day from very early morning until late in the evening, in order to get and keep their small but prime locations for the show.
I’m sure these folks must have a great time while marathon picnicking at their huge riverside lawn party, but this is not how my wife and I want to spend our entire July 4th holiday, from before sunrise until after midnight.
“Are we having fun yet?” Nope, not for at least another 10 hours… Oh, and there better not be any beer in that cooler, because alcoholic beverages on the Esplanade are strictly prohibited. Just what do you think this is here? Woodstock?
There are other ways to get in close to enjoy Boston’s July 4th celebration, and this year, my wife and I decided to try a different approach. We would avoid all the heavy traffic on the roads, and the nearly impossible mission of finding a place to park in town. We would also avoid the huge crowds that result in serious congestion of public transportation into the city.
And how would we do this? Well, we don’t own a helicopter, so we couldn’t fly into Boston and land in the middle of the Esplanade, and even if we could, I just have a feeling that this would be seriously illegal, and we’d get into very big trouble if we tried it.
But we don’t own a helicopter anyway, so flying into town would not be an option under any circumstances.
But we do own a canoe… So the night before on July 3rd, I started planning for a canoe trip into the Back Bay section of Boston, and a prime viewing location of the fireworks from the waters of The Charles River, near The Hatch Shell on the shores of the Esplanade.
I knew of a small park in Watertown MA, where we could park and leave our car, and get our canoe close to an easy launch point into the river. From here, we would be within a reasonable paddling distance of six miles to the Hatch Shell. I knew from experience that my wife and I could cover the 6 miles one way in our canoe, in about 2 hours.
Since two major routes into Boston, both Soldiers Field Road and then Storrow Drive run directly parallel to The Charles River on the Boston side and go right by The Hatch Shell, I was able to use Google maps to confirm the distance.
So as long as we were in the water and paddling by 7:30 PM, we’d be near The Hatch Shell around an hour before the fireworks display began at 10:30 PM.
Now that we had our river route planned, my next concern was dealing safely with the potentially heavy motorized boat traffic on the river while we were canoeing, and especially on our trip back, which would be well after dark the entire way. The main safety issue was for us to be visible to the larger boats in the river while in our canoe, after dark. This was solved by us both wearing bright hiking head lamps, and since I would be paddling from the stern in the back of the canoe, I’d wear my head lamp facing backwards, so that I’d be visible to boat traffic approaching from behind us. We also had a very powerful and large diameter flashlight with us, just in case we needed even more light.
We would stay close to the right bank of the river, where the water was more shallow, and the larger boats would be less likely to travel.
Soon after we were in the river and paddling towards Boston, numerous large cabin cruisers passed by us, as they traveled in the center of the river. But they all passed by us slowly, as they are supposed to do when passing small craft, so there were no large boat wakes to swamp us.
Our canoe trip into Boston was very pleasant, since the hot and humid temperatures of the day had passed, and around sunset, the air was comfortably warm instead of hot and muggy. Even after the sun went down, the early evening sky was still quite light, and enough for us to see well in all directions. But the best view was of the evening lights of the Boston skyline from on the water, as we got closer to the heart of the city.
A view of Boston we had never seen before – while canoeing the waters of The Charles River early in the evening.
But a problem arose when we were about half an hour away from our destination. There were some intermittent flashes of lightning in the clouds off in the distance to our left, on the Cambridge side of the river. The lightning flashes were persistent and although there was almost no thunder, for the next 15 minutes as we continued to paddle forward on the river, the storm seemed to be getting closer. The flashes soon developed into still distant but visible bolts of lightning that traveled in a horizontal pattern across the clouds in the sky, rather than the more typical vertical sky down to the ground pattern. There was still very little thunder and no rain or a noticeable increase in the wind.
I had checked the weather forecast before we left home, and the report for that night mentioned a 20% chance of thunderstorms over Boston. But now it was 100% certain that an approaching thunderstorm was getting too close for us to be out on the river basin near it’s widest point of about 2/3rds of a mile across, so we headed in for the Boston side of the riverbank, to find a place to tie up the canoe and get out of the water.
Just as we were heading in, an amplified voice announced over the public address system on the Esplanade, that all canoes and kayaks must leave the river due to the threat of approaching thunderstorms. Finding an easy place to haul out onto the riverbank could be difficult, and even more so, since there were lots of people with canoes and kayaks all trying to haul out at the same time. But we were fortunate to find a large dock on the riverbank almost directly across from us and close by, so we could quickly tie our canoe to the shore side of the dock and then get out of the water.
There was also an announcement that the fireworks would be delayed until the threat of thunderstorms, high winds and heavy rain had passed. So we waited for about half an hour, during which time there was no more lightning at all, a light breeze instead of high winds, and not a drop of rain. But still, better safe than sorry…
Then came an announcement that the thunderstorm threat had passed, and that soon the fireworks display would begin. This news was greeted with an enthusiastic and collectively loud cheer from the large crowds assembled all along the banks of the river, for over a mile on both sides.
Soon my wife and I were back in our canoe and paddling forward again, as we tried to get as close to the Hatch Shell as possible. But we were soon stopped by a State Park Ranger boat with flashing blue and red lights, that ordered us to turn around and head several hundred yards back, and out of “the restricted zone”.
Fifteen minutes later, when the first volley of fireworks were launched upward into the night sky, it became obvious why we had been ordered out of “the restricted zone”. We quickly realized that we had been heading straight for the three floating barges in the middle of the river, from which the fireworks were now being launched. Sometimes, getting hassled by “the Man” is a good thing!
I didn’t realize just how close we were to the action, until that first group of rockets streaked skyward above us, and then burst into burning bright explosions of color!
One of the coolest things about being out on the water for the fireworks, was the very loud and booming echoes of the explosions, as the sound bounced off the city buildings on both sides of the river, and raced back and forth across the water.
Some of the larger combinations of the biggest multi-colored bursts were truly astounding to watch, as well as thrillingly loud!
It was just a really amazing experience to watch the sky rockets launch up from the barges, arching high above us and exploding into thousands of rapidly expanding streaks of color that seemed to race towards us, before they fell downward toward the waters below.
These gold and white bursts were just as impressive as the brightly colored ones.
And of course, there was the grand finale that lit up almost the entire sky with multiple bursts of countless arching then falling streaks of color in a loudly thundering barrage of echoing explosions across the river, while half a million onlookers cheered wildly, and continued cheering for several minutes after the last streaks of color burned out, and a large cloud of smoke rolled over the waters of the river.
All fireworks photos by Brian Fluharty
After the show was over, we paddled to the Cambridge side of the river to avoid most of the large boat traffic, which was leaving via the Boston side of The Charles. The entire trip back to our original launch point, I was very impressed with how controlled and well behaved the departing fleet of motorized watercraft was, as many boats both large and small, cruised the river to leave the scene of the show. Earlier, I did have some concerns about the dangers of drunken boaters careening around at dangerous speeds, late at night on the river.
But there was almost none of that at all, and I concluded that Bostonians are much better boaters than they are drivers, during rush hour. I also realized that the river was shallow in places, and there were submerged rocks that could rip the bottom out of a very expensive boat going too fast in the dark. These hazards might partially explain the well mannered and careful boating that night.
Maybe if the major driving routes around town had numerous places where vehicles could run aground, or hit rocks and sink, the driving around Boston would improve too. Maybe… But on second thought, I doubt it. Lol