Water Closet for March 18, 2016
[pullquote]”As we zigzagged northerly through the floodplain flocks of mallards half hidden in the grass, button bushes, and swamp dogwoods ascended abruptly, steeply, while quacking loudly thus bringing the beaver inundated plain excitingly alive.”[/pullquote] In 74 degree air five Middleton Stream Teamers in canoe and kayaks played hooky from a meeting at Bostik, south Middleton, where officials representing Massachusetts Environmental Protection Act (MEPA), United States Geological Survey, Ipswich River Water Association, and Bostik were reviewing plans to remove the old dam across the river owned by Bostik, long a past source of power. The water temperature the afternoon of their paddle on March 9th was a warm 48º F. Contrast this to 37º F average for Ipswich River water measured the last Sundays in March since 1997. Last year at this time the river was locked in ice. It has been a remarkably mild winter and fall, which makes a great difference to the life activity in the water and bottom below, and in the upland soils along the river. On a paddle four days later two-score painted turtles were seen on floating logs soaking up the sun. The air over wetlands in our towns was filled with frog choruses. The old Closeteer, one of the paddlers, said he will plant potatoes this week a month earlier than usual.
At 2 PM our flotilla got underway from beneath the doomed dam with the sounds of almost 400 years of falling water echoing in our ears. The Closeteer, guilty about missing the meeting, wondered what the sounds and flow would be like in the fall after the dam is gone. After rapidly shooting over the riffles between launch and quieter water downriver beyond the Boston Street bridge, the paddlers relaxed; they hadn’t capsized and thoughts of a meeting indoors were behind them. The surface of their beloved river was mirror-like between the banks supporting red maples. The high pitched sounds of civilization quickly disappeared. Interesting challenges now were fallen trees. Some were old enemies, long skirted around or over before, others fallen in this winter’s storms surprised us. Small branches in the narrow passages around them were patiently cleared with a pruning saw and hands. In six miles we never had to leave our vessels. Several beaver dams encountered were easily shot over.
Water flow was relatively slow for this time of year. We don’t have to guess at this. Calculations in cubic feet per second passing at the south Middleton gauge site are shown via satellite every three hours on the internet. Current and slight tail breezes en route made our zigzag passage around obstacles in the first west-east mile along the Boston-Lowell Railroad bed, now the Peabody rail trial, fairly easy.
We had plenty of time for pointing out phenomena in the flanking trees. A great oak with multiple burls became a Picasso nude with a dozen breasts. One snag sticking from the water resembled a prehistoric cormorant. A large rotting branch projecting from a dead oak was a dead ringer for a moose head. Many of the large beaver-drowned swamp white oaks have cavities suitable for wood duck nests. Now and then we passed under perfect arches of live fallen trees. Natural rivers in woodlands are cluttered rich habitats. In the old days farmers along pastured banks took pride in keeping streams and small rivers clean which reduced shade and cooler habitat for fish; just some of our thoughts as we paddled easterly on the Peabody-Middleton line in the center of the river. We also wondered how much the removal of the dam astern would affect the river above and below it. The hope is that with the dam gone river herring and other anadromous fish will again be able to reach ancient spawning grounds.
After a mile from their Bostik start the Ipswich River turns abruptly north leaving Peabody behind and entering a vast floodplain where the channel meanders among reed-canary grass, swamp dogwood, and button bushes. Beavers have taken back the land after a hiatus of more than three centuries. Their dams have raised the water level so it is unsuitable for trees. Even water loving red maples, river birch, and swamp white oaks have died after 15 years of too-high water. Many dead trunks still stand reminding us of pre-beaver paddles in the shade. No more. Loosestrife that filled in for a decade after the shade was gone has since been superseded by reed-canary grass, and climbing hempweed on wetland bushes with pickerel and smart weeds along the river’s channel. Last year’s collapsed herbaceous plants are brown or gone. New shoots will peep forth in late spring. As we zigzagged northerly through the floodplain flocks of mallards half hidden in the grass, button bushes, and swamp dogwoods ascended abruptly, steeply, while quacking loudly thus bringing the beaver inundated plain excitingly alive. We spooked a half-dozen flocks; maybe several hundred birds in just a mile or so. Flying in the soft afternoon light, their colors, brown backs, flashing white under wings, and iridescent green heads, were beautiful. Another quite similar place 13 miles downriver is on the meanders of the Great Wenham Swamp. We plan to paddle there soon while the ducks are still passing through or nesting. A few wood duck pairs were also scared up; these flashy smaller ducks when close up, appear black while flying quickly away at low ascending angles, silent or strangely squeaking, not quacking.
In this stretch where the river channel repeatedly turns back on itself are the ruins of a dozen or so beaver-killed huge willows that once graced the channel’s banks. Even when alive and well they appeared ancient and bent, seemingly leaning on the water. They have died slowly in the early years of this millennium. The great spreading willows, once resembled light-green knolls with soft surfaces that caught the slightest breezes. We marveled at their gnarled bases and slender twigs. Dying gradually, some still show a green branch or two arising from slumping ruins. Over the last decade their bare branches have provided favorite perches for birds. The old Closeteer who has long admired their tenacity wonders when they’ll at last sink into the flood plain and be seen no more. Does he really want to know?
The paddlers continued on to Farnsworth Landing of the Stream Team’s making. Canoe bow and midship crew members switched while holding steady on a river birch next to Vito’s stone steps there. All seemed right with the world as they continued on downriver from under Route 114, then on beneath Richardson Farm fields to a magnificent set of great stone steps also placed by artistic Vito Mortalo at “Mortalo’s Landing”, Maple Street.
In days to come we’ll continue, two to three hour sections at a time, maybe all the way to salt water in Plum Island Sound. Come join us, no engines allowed.
_______________________________________________________________________________WATER RESOURCE AND CONSERVATION INFORMATION
FOR MIDDLETON, BOXFORD AND TOPSFIELD`
|Precipitation Data* for Month of:||Dec||Jan||Feb||Mar|
|30 Year Normal (1981 – 2010) Inches||4.12||3.40||3.25||4.65|
|2015/2016 Central Watershed Actual||4.72||3.31||3.72||2.9**as of Mar 15|
Ipswich R. Flow Rate (S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet/ Second (CFS):
For March 15, 2016 Normal . . . 115 CFS Current Rate . . . 66 CFS
*Danvers Water Filtration Plant, Lake Street, Middleton is the source for actual precipitation data thru Feb.
**Middleton Stream Team is source of actual precipitation data for March. 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