Equipped with six kayaks, a small cargo van, and an intense love for Dorchester’s natural beauty, John Larson is on a mission: He wants to unite Dorchester residents through kayaking.
The 62-year-old Larson goes out on the Neponset River once or twice a weekend, although he says he’d kayak every other day if he didn’t have to work. He has a real enthusiasm for the boats. For him, they afford unique access to the outdoors. Now, he’s trying to expand that enthusiasm through the new— but growing— Dorchester Kayak Club.
“I’m kayak crazy,” he says.
It’s a warm Wednesday evening in late June and Larson has just bought his fifth boat. The crimson red tandem kayak, with a flat-bottomed hull to stabilize its cargo, can carry two adults and a 90-pound black lab, he said. At least, that’s what the seller told him from experience.
“I got out of work early, and I went down to Franklin to look at it, and it was great,” Larson said. He bought the boat and immediately strapped it to the top of his white Dodge RAM cargo van, without consulting his wife, Sheila. Now, he jokes that she might be angry, but there’s an equally strong chance she won’t be.
The two of them co-founded the Dorchester Kayak Club along with a neighbor last fall. After talking about kayaking for years, Larson said, they decided to go for it. “We bought three cheap kayaks,” he said. “The best one was $700 and was actually pretty nice.” The other two were $600 and $350, respectively, as Sheila didn’t want to invest too much before they were sure it would be a worthwhile pursuit.
Although he has only a few months of experience with the boats, Larson is already pretty knowledgeable about them. He describes how prices vary based on weight: the cheapest, and heaviest, kayaks are typically polypropylene; fiberglass ones are more expensive; and carbon fiber kayaks are “incredibly expensive— like $5,000 brings you down to 25, 28 pounds.”
When he began his mission last year, Larson took to the Internet seeking sellers of used kayaks and managed to find, as he put it, “a woman on a dirt road on a mountaintop” in Milton, New Hampshire. She was offering a used kayak package worth around $5,000 for $1,200 from her home.
However, Larson’s most recent purchase, made just last week in New London, Ct., is his pride and joy: a marigold-yellow fiberglass sea boat that he calls his “forever kayak.” Although the new buy marked his sixth to make up what is now a small fleet, he clarified that he does not buy every boat he sees. “I went up to Beverly the other day to look at a kayak, which I did not buy,” he said. “So I’m not insane.”
Despite his newly acquired nautical knowhow, Larson, who works at movie set construction, said that he, Sheila, and the neighbor are newbies, adding, “We feel like beginners, because there’s a lot to learn.” At the club’s forming in November, he began studying materials from the Department of Conservation and Recreation, maps identifying boat launches, and the tides and flow of the Neponset River from Milton Landing to Dorchester Bay.
He created a Facebook group, which now has 75 members. His goal is to find every kayak owner and help each of them get out on the Neponset River, and in the process, promote the river’s natural beauty and wildlife. “I can’t believe how underutilized the river is,” he said.
Others clearly share that enthusiasm. On a rainy July afternoon, when Larson is the only person who brought kayaks to the Neponset, a man in a rowboat shouts encouragement from his vessel. While progress has been slow, Larson is steadily learning about the boats he loves— often by trial and error.
On June 11, he, his wife, and their neighbor took a “peek over the edge of disaster,” as he put it. A planned eight-mile round trip to Spectacle Island was complicated by winds up to 25 miles an hour that nearly left the boaters stranded. “Is it ‘biting off more than you can chew’ if you make it home alive?” Larson later wrote on Facebook. He said he has learned his lesson: Check the marine forecast for later in the day.
So far, the budding club’s favorite launch point is the Neponset Park, next to the drawbridge on Granite Avenue. Others include the Milton Yacht Club, Pope John Paul II Park, and the Port Norfolk Yacht Club. “Our trips so far have been exciting, beautiful, amazing,” Larson wrote in an initial e-mail to the Reporter. “Every trip, we see something new, get great exercise, and meet people walking the paths or at the docks wanting to go kayaking.”
He also noted that the Neponset River is the only kayaking river in America that abuts a cemetery with a trolley running through it … “floating on the river and watching the trolley go by, priceless.”
Larson was a history major in college, and it shows. As he drives through Dorchester, he talks about the Baker Chocolate Factory in Lower Mills, once home to the longest-running chocolate producer in the United States. He said that Star Market was the first supermarket to refrigerate cooked foods. He knows his geography, too: the Neponset River is dammed in Lower Mills, so it’s an estuary on one side and a river on the other.
When he tests out his “forever kayak”— Larson, who stands at 6-feet-2, wriggles from side to side to check his balance. The boat is about 20 pounds lighter than his original polypropylene kayak, and it comes with a higher likelihood of capsizing. However, sitting mostly upright, he is comfortable on the water, choosing when he wants to let the current take him and when he wants to move. At any moment, he’ll propel himself 50 feet forward in a matter of seconds just by rowing. He says the movement is familiar because he rowed crew in college.
Originally from a small town in Illinois, Larson spent his high school years in northern New Jersey. A friend he’d worked with at Dairy Queen was enrolled at Boston College, so one weekend, he decided to visit him. It was “awesome” to come to the city, he said. “We ran around town, and I was like, ‘This is the place.’”
In September 1972, Larson started college at Northeastern University. The drinking age dropped to 18 on Jan. 1, 1973, so “it was kind of crazy around town,” he said, adding that he spent a lot of time at the original Cask ’n Flagon near Northeastern University, which opened in 1969 and closed in the ‘80s. Like Boston, “it was the place,” he said.
Larson and Sheila were married in 1983. At the time, they could afford to buy a house in either Dorchester or New Hampshire. When Sheila suggested Dorchester, saying she had friends who lived there, her husband scoffed, saying, “If your friends are dumb enough to live in Dorchester, that’s their problem.” Her retort: “Well, let’s have dinner at their house.”
Larson said their hosts lived in a beautiful, two-family home that captivated him. He agreed with Sheila: They would move to Dorchester, and on Dec. 1, 1984, they did.
Larson doesn’t live in that house anymore – in 1998, he and his family, two children who are now 32 and 30 years old, moved around the corner, maybe 80 yards away from their old house, into a three-story home with a barn where Larson keeps his kayaks. He said he and Sheila paid around $290,000 for their home that year. They’ve since been offered $1 million for it, but they refuse to sell. “It’s just too nice here,” he said. “Where would you go?”
Larson’s original skepticism about Dorchester has long since transformed into enthusiasm. A nature lover, he has spent decades discovering ways to forget he lives in the city: snowshoeing in Franklin Park on moonlit nights, camping on the Harbor Islands, and now, kayaking on the Neponset River.
If Larson has his way, all of Dorchester will be on the water within the next few years. He wants to make people aware that they can take advantage of the resources in their neighborhood.
“What I visualize for the club— I mean my wife and my neighbor, they just want to kayak— but I visualize the first phase is just [getting] kayakers,” he said. “There’s a ton of people in Dorchester that kayak, who have kayaks in their backyards or basements, and they’ve kind of given up. They don’t realize that the river is right there.”
On Sat., July 22, Larson plans on joining other Dorchester residents at the Neponset River Watershed Association’s first-ever RiverFest. The event, planned to run from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at DCR Neponset II Park, will include tide-pool exploration, fishing clinics, food and live music, canoeing, and kayaking.
Larson shared information about the event in the Dorchester Kayak Club Facebook group on June 20 and says he will post again closer to the day of the festival. He “excited” about it because it aligns with his mission to bring Dorchester kayakers together. He calls a more robust Dorchester Kayak Club a potential “part-time retirement gig.”
“I picture longer-term, if there is money available and there is, you know, the mayor’s into it or whatever, I would love to see some kind of program developed for kids and younger people,” he said. “Someday down the road, instead of hauling these kayaks around, we’d have a kayak barn at Tenean Beach or Malibu Beach.”
For now, though, Larson is content to keep exploring his neighborhood nautically. It’s a special thing, he says. “The thing I like about sea kayaking is you’re actually going somewhere and seeing some stuff and exercising and getting splashed with water. It’s just a whole different dimension that nobody gets to see or do.”