Water Closet for February 13, 2015
[pullquote]”Ice cake jumping was fun if one remained dry; the most daring and foolish of jumpers would later boast of their feats.”[/pullquote]The other day the old Closeteer received this message via e-mail. “Last night under a waxing moon, a friend and I snow shoed out onto the frozen Newbury/Rowley marsh from Rough Meadows, Greenbelt property on Route 1A. Intrepid explorers, we crossed several frozen low tide creek beds. It was barren and surrealistic. So beautiful. Next hike I hope to do Nelsons Island (near Parker River National WildlifeRefuge, Newbury) under a full moon”. Alice Twombly1
The salt marsh that Alice and friend enjoyed is in the center of The Great Marsh, Essex County, Massachusetts.2 Wide salt marshes stretch southward behind barrier beaches from Rye, New Hampshire, to the Annisquam River in Gloucester. Swimmers and sun bathers may be more familiar with the beaches: Hampton, Seabrook,
Salisbury, Plum Island, Crane, and Wingaersheek. This wet terrain west and south of a 25 mile arc of ocean from the rocks of Boars Head to those of Cape Ann is a marvel of diverse habitats, plants, and animals under bird migration flyways. The tides twice daily ebb and flow in the rich estuaries, the birds in fall and spring go south and north and the anadromous fish enter and leave the rivers in spring. Above the tidal flats the water rises and falls eight to twelve feet depending on the phases of the moon. The rivers north to south are: Hampton, Merrimack, Parker, Plum Island, Rowley, Eagle, Ipswich, Castle Neck, Essex, and Annisquam. The whole area where land intermeshes with the sea is alive with moving water, at times rain and snow form above, runoff from the uplands of Rockingham and Essex counties, and sea water from the Gulf of Maine. The Merrimack River brings fresh water all the way down from the White Mountains and from the headwaters of the Concord River watershed. Henry David Thoreau and brother John built a skiff and famously explored the Concord and Merrimack rivers and some of their tributaries.3 The naturalist, as hundreds have since, marveled in the area’s abundance. An abundance the Indians probably enjoyed tenfold for three plus millennia before the English. The natives set up camps on the estuaries each spring and spent the warmer months swimming, canoeing, fishing, clamming, and picking up lobsters, crabs, and snails. The women and children planted corn, beans and squash in the Merrimack sandy loam soils sloping toward the marshes and in bottom lands along the rivers. With fall’s cold they returned inland to winter villages to hunt and to fish through the ice.
The Indians are long gone but salt marshes, flats, beaches, dunes, and surrounding uplands are still here now covered with snow and ice. The ice on the marshes and flats is not the hard clear stuff we who live more inland know. The old Closeteer who received Alice’s eloquent message remembers the winter marshes with fondness. In a half-mile hike from his family’s farm he was on the wide open salt marshes in their cold winds every chance he could escape from chores and school. Boyhood friend Richard Currier, hunter, naturalist, and bird
carver, often accompanied him. Dick is dead but his memory is very much alive in the waning recollections of the old Closeteer who often speaks of him. They and winter-staying ducks usually had the 2000 or so open acres on the north side of the Merrimack from southwest Salisbury to the ocean to themselves outside of duck hunting season. Every few winters snowy owls down from the north would visit, greatly adding interest and excitement. The boys thought this perfectly flat expanse must be like the owls’ home on the tundra. Whittier described the summer salt marshes as “low green prairies of the sea”. They are usually whites and grays with snow and ice much of the winter.
What makes the ice so different are the salts in seawater and the twice daily rise and fall of the tides. Snow, rain, brisk winds and waves at high tides are also important variables as seawater freezes and rids itself of salt. Ice from salt water in not as transparent or translucent as that from fresh water often is. It is more brittle, crumbly, and air filled. Words quickly run out when trying to describe its many forms. “High- runner-tides”4 cover the marsh with up to three feet of water at highs accompanied by strong northeast winds. If the air is very cold as the water subsides some freezes and is left resting in plates on the short salt grasses. When walked on it shatters and clatters with not quite the sound of glass. At rare times it freezes pretty hard and smooth and if thick enough allows more or less safe passage until cricks are encountered. Children used to lug sleds and pieces of cardboard or thin plywood to the frozen marshes. They would sit on sleds holding their sails and glide, often very fast, until rolling off before descending into low tide cricks like those Alice climbed in and out of. WARNING: Don’t hike or sail on the winter salt marshes at high tide. The Closeteer and friends learned this the hard way. Man-cut mosquito and drainage ditches5 and small natural cricks are often hidden under thin ice. A plunge into below 32 degree water will long
be remembered. Another thing not to do is engage in a sport called “ice cake jumping”, called “poldering” in Colonial Salem. The Closeteer says this was usually engaged in on dares. Participants at half to three quarter high tides would run and jump from floating cake to cake. Small cakes would start to sink while leaping to another. Cakes, some very large, are formed when the tide goes up and down and the ice breaks into rafts as it descends into almost empty crick beds. Ice cake jumping was fun if one remained dry; the most daring and foolish of jumpers would later boast of their feats. The part the old Closeteer remembers most vividly were stiff legged runs home or once to a nearby house in pants quickly freezing up like stove pipes. Another piece of advice: don’t go out on the salt marshes in winter alone. Do as we say not as we did.
Actually the times alone on the marsh stalking ducks that were hunkered down out of the wind in low tide cricks or walking away teenage worries under a big sky in all weathers were those the Closeteer most happily remembers. After crawling on hands and knees on ice to the edges of cricks at low tide, he’d get very close to the ducks he hoped to see. While trudging over the vast mix of ice, snow, and grasses the Closeteer imagined hunting with the Inuit around Hudson Bay or suffering with Shackleton and his men in Antarctica.
Visit the marshes this month off Jeffrey Neck Road to the Ipswich Necks, along Argilla Road to Crane Beach, from the refuge road on Plum Island, or west of the road to Salisbury Beach State Park. Stop, walk out on the edges of the marsh to feel and taste sea water ice. Step out a few feet and walk on it, or better still after a new snow before a high-runner-tide has consumed it venture out at low tide with a friend on skis or snowshoes under a full moon as Alice plans to do.
1 Alice Twombly was Skipper of the Rings Island Rowing Club. She is now head of the Waterfront Education Program at Lowell’s Boat Shop on the Merrimack in Amesbury.
2 Google The Great Marsh for maps and photographs. Better still visit every season. .
3 Read Henry David Thoreau’s classic A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.
4 Folks around the estuaries of the Merrimack called spring tides, those when the Moon, Earth and Sun are in line at new and full moons, “high-runner-tides”. On higher spring tides the marshes are covered and appear as bays between beach and upland.
5 In the 18tth and 19th centuries farmers cut straight ditches in the salt marsh peat to drain low areas so salt hay would grow. In the 20th century these ditches were maintained and added to to drain large shallow puddles called pannes where mosquitoes breed. This was done along with spraying DDT for the comfort of beach goers. ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________
WATER RESOURCE AND CONSERVATION INFORMATION
FOR MIDDLETON, BOXFORD AND TOPSFIELD`
|Precipitation Data* for Month of:||Nov||Dec||Jan||Feb|
|30 Year Normal (1981 – 2010) Inches||4.55||4.12||3.40||3.25|
|2014 – 2015 Central Watershed Actual||4.60||8.45||3.67||4.2 as of 2/10**|
Ipswich R. Flow Rate (S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet/ Second (CFS):
For Feb 10, 2015 Normal . . . 64 CFS Current Rate . . . Unavailable
*Danvers Water Filtration Plant, Lake Street, Middleton is the source for actual precipitation data thru Jan.
**Middleton Stream Team is source of actual precipitation data for Feb.
Normals data is from the National Climatic Data Center.