CLASS ON THE TIDAL FLATS

Water Closet for June 16, 2017

“The first half hour was spent spinning ‘round and ‘round. The cox’uns frequently ordered their crews: “Starboard stop.” “Port stop.” “All together now, pick up the stroke on Emily.” “

On an overcast, sometimes misty morning at the end of May students of the Merrimack River Valley Charter School met Alice Twombly* of Lowell’s Boat Shop and her fleet of dories at Plum Island. After towing the four replicas of 19th century fishing boats down river with a motored skiff, she and the old Closeteer waited in the Plum Island Basin on the tidal flat. Sixteen sixth graders and teacher Andrew arrived in a bus. “Captain” Alice gathered her young landlubbers about her and explained their duties for the day. Then, to her experienced adult helpers, she ordered. “Rowing is to be done by students only.” Lowell’s large dories have never had a motor or even sprit sails as did their ancestors of yore. In their forerunners’ serious 19th early 20th century fishing days they were lowered off schooners with two men and a tub trawl, a long coiled line with baited hooks. Our replicas, built a century later, each had only two pairs of oars, anchor and a life-jacketed young crew of four plus an adult cox’un. The 19th century fishermen without life jackets or cell phones had only fishing gear, a small sail, oars, a tin horn, bailing bucket, and a cast of fresh water. Many couldn’t swim.

Two dories of four being pulled by their student crews on the mouth of the Merrimack River tidal flats. Salisbury is seen to the north across the river. – Alice Twombly photo

Most of the kids could swim, but we didn’t test them. We would not be out on the ocean in the swells and chop. Our classrooms were the low tide flats of the Mighty Merrimack’s mouth. A breeze from the south affected the small amateurs’ rowing. The first half hour was spent spinning ‘round and ‘round. The cox’uns frequently ordered their crews: “Starboard stop.”   “Port stop.” “All together now, pick up the stroke on Emily.” The young rowers caught on and straightened out more or less as they rowed from place to place, sometimes going aground. The commands then turned to:   “All out. Wade and pull.” “Back aboard.” “Out oars.” “Altogether now.”   And so it went from shoulder to ankle deep shallows with stops at exposed flats and bars where we stopped to see what could be found. Sand eels skittered about in the low tide pools on a large bar mid-river called The Humpsands. Kids scooped up in hands a few of the transparent beauties. Excited terns making a pleasant racket above swooped down for snacks. Green crabs, predators of little clams, crawled over and under the sand. On one black muddy-sandy beach students dug out large clams by hand. The soft-shelled mollusks squirted at their captors. While this was happily going on, the old Closeteer, who had been recruited for the day by “Captain” Alice, wandered up the beach as his thoughts drifted back four centuries. In his mind dark haired, red-brown skinned children played on the flats. Their mothers and sisters dug clams with forked sticks. Their exchanges were in Algonquian. No English was heard, but the dreaming Closeteer could guess what they were saying. Alice had turned into an impressive, elderly squaw watching over four dugout canoes. With lance held at the ready the Closeteer looked for flounders and eels to spear. Indian men didn’t dig clams.

Student and classmates finding clams in the twice daily exposed mud flats. – Alice Twombly photo

The dream flashed forward two to three centuries. English speaking boys helped their fathers dig clams on the same flats and bars. Now and then they’d find lumps of coal that had spilled off the coal ships that brought it to the Merrimack’s cities before the railroads. Pieces are still found. We adults told the kids about the shiny black rocks. In the Closeteer’s dream he was fishing on an ebbing high-runner-tide when a spanking new clipper ship passed that had just been rigged at Cushing’s Wharf in downtown, Newburyport. She was carefully piloted on peak high with just jib and mizzen sail set. Her anchor detail would remain manned until safely at sea. She loomed above the cheering fishermen in dories. The Closeteer, his bucket full of flounders as it had been as boy 70 years before in the same place, awoke and found himself surrounded by lively 21st century kids.

Sixth grade girls form the Merrimack River Valley Charter School dig soft shelled clams with hands from low tide flat. – Alice Twombly photo

The old man thought to call the kids around him and tell them of the past. He relented, not wanting to see the flat turned into a classroom. Let them be free in the salty air with their own thoughts as were the terns. They could study history and later remember the day when they learned to row in ancient wooden boats and got wet in the soft mud and shifting sand somewhere just west of Plum Island in the broad mouth of the Merrimack, the source of their school’s name. We hoped the day at low tide will be remembered as a high for them. Perhaps some will return in homemade dory, canoe, or better still a motor-less vessel of their own design.

Old fashioned clam basket and digger rest on tidal flat in the mouth of Merrimack River. Four Lowells Boat Shop dories, transport for school field trip, are seen in the in background. – Alice Twombly photo

On the flood tide, all these thoughts turned in the tired Closeteer’s mind as he and the “Captain” towed the empty dories without fish or kids back to Amesbury.
* Alice Twombly – Waterfront Coordinator/Education, Lowell’s Boat Shop, Amesbury, MA. Member and leader, Rings Island Rowing Club, Salisbury, MA, circa 1985 to 2005.
_______________________________________________________________________________WATER RESOURCE AND CONSERVATION INFORMATIONFOR MIDDLETON, BOXFORD AND TOPSFIELD`

Precipitation Data* for Month of: Mar April May June
30 Year Normal (1981 – 2010) Inches 6.65 4.53 4.06 3.95
   2017 Central Watershed Actual 2.86 6.53 6.29** 3.0**as of June 9

Ipswich R. Flow Rate (S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet/ Second (CFS):
For June 9, 2017  Normal . . . 33 CFS     Current Rate . . . 191 CFS
*Danvers Water Filtration Plant, Lake Street, Middleton is the source for actual precipitation data thru April.
** Middleton Stream Team is the source of actual precipitation data for May and June.
Normals data is from the National Climatic Data Center.
THE WATER CLOSET is provided by the Middleton Stream Team: www.middletonstreamteam.org or         <MSTMiddletonMA@gmail.com> or (978) 777-4584

One thought on “CLASS ON THE TIDAL FLATS”

  1. I’d like to suggest a Senior event take this adventure. Surely it would spark many memories and laughter. We know there are many young of heart who would appreciate a day of fun and challenges!

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