Water Closet for July 15, 2016
[pullquote]”The clammers poked the wet soft sand they were wading ankle deep in with pitch forks and sticks hoping to hear a telltale clunk.”[/pullquote]Children on their first visits to the beach marvel at clam shells many times the size of their hands. Some take a few home for hard canvases to paint on. The Indian women and girls used them as hoes and dishes. The Colonists probably did too. On visits to the sea, especially after storms, whole animals are found on sands continually laundered by the surf. These “sea clams” or “surf clams” up to 8” long, 4’’ wide, and 3” thick are rich in food. The heavy calcium carbonate shells can be crushed and used as limestone for garden soils, as grit for poultry needing egg shell supplements, or as a porous pavement on driveways.
When one old Closeteer with a clamshell driveway thinks of sea clams, correctly Spisula solidissima, he can feel them with bare feet and see lovely wet sands exposed on wide low tide beaches. Many folks never tire of their ever changing surfaces painted and sculpted by Mother Nature’s air and water brushes. On the barely sloping sands of Wingaersheek Beach you can walk out what seems a half-mile at some low-low tides that come soon after full and new moons. The higher highs and lower lows that occur when the Moon, Sun, and Earth are in line are called “spring” tides. Those with lower highs and higher lows on quarter moons are called “neap” tides. As kids we called these bimonthly lower lows and higher highs “dead low tides” and “high runner tides.” There was nothing dead about either. Sand dollars, hermit crabs, other crustaceans, quahogs, moon snails, angel shells and now and then sea clams, best called surf clams in such places, were revealed on lows. Sea clams are found to depths of 130 meters. The commercial clammers dredge from boats for this valuable food from Nova Scotia to New Jersey. Amateurs’ tools are garden forks, feet, and fingers.
Early last Wednesday morning Middleton clammers and friends, ages 12 to 83, paddled to Crane Beach at dead low, a minus 1.3 foot tide. At such tides the lower beach and portions of off shore bars are exposed. The old Closeteer relatively experienced led the fleet with Middleton Stream Team photographer Judy in his large canoe. Accompanying them were three kayaks paddled by super grandma, Sandy, president of the team, grandson Peter, and Judy’s daughter Rachel who was celebrating a birthday that day. The sand exposed beaches and bars the old timer took them to, while interesting for their beauty and other creatures, yielded not a single clam in places where he had found them before. The clammers poked the wet soft sand they were wading ankle deep in with pitch forks and sticks hoping to hear a telltale clunk. The few off key clunks revealed nothing but half shells of deceased clams. Mildly disappointed after poking over a half mile of watery sand along the edge the supposedly knowledgeable old timer turned with the others back west to see if the tide had taken their beached vessels. And then luck fell, perhaps for birthday girl Rachel. A woman on an early stroll pointed to a spot on the beach below Steep Hill where a couple had found sea clams the day before. With hope, but also deepening water against them, they paddled west to where the stranger’s tip took them. Within a minute probes revealed a large clam in sand covered by knee deep water. In earnest they continued to prod, maybe one in 30 or so pokes resulted in a proper clunk. Rachel soon arrived on the scene in bathing suit and more importantly what turned out to be sensitive feet. She found three to our one. Appropriately dressed for a day promising to be very hot, she upon feeling one immersed in the cold but pleasant water dunking deeper than we did and quickly pulled the clam up from the soft sand. The old timer now with a half dozen clams in his basket and more in those of his companions felt somewhat redeemed. He readily forgot that his chosen place easterly down the beach had failed them. Within 20 minutes each had food for several meals. None needed the 30 allowed daily, two days a week, by their Town of Ipswich “mess digger’s” license.
From the beach below Steep and Castle Hill the fleet paddled out into the now stronger tidal current on its twice daily flood into the Ipswich River and north up the Plum Island River by other rivers called Eagle, Rowley, Parker and Pine Creek. In the Plum Island River near the entry of Pine Creek the cold seawater entering between Sandy Point, Plum Island, and Crane Beach meets that coming down from the Merrimack’s flood; another trip for another time. They had left Pavilion Beach on the ebb and were returning on the flood, sailors terms for out going and incoming tidal flow. The time of change, when they had searched for sedentary prey, is called “slack” tide, a short time of little or no tidal current.
And on the fresh flood, one every 12 hours plus in coming, the four little vessels left the shallows of ocean water with rippling sand hiding large clams just underneath, for the remains of a larger, once more serious vessel just upriver. Due southeast across the Ipswich River from Little Neck is an oval of ribs jutting in almost perfect symmetry a foot above the sand, sternpost to stem. Sandy was anxious to show the ship to Peter. Even the old timer who had seen it before strode briskly up the beach for another look. He, confident of his pace, measured and found her 100 feet long with a beam of about 35. Her deck was gone but the knees that had braced its missing beams topped with planks were still intact on the starboard side. A helm was drawn in the sand near the stern for Peter to man. We had to imagine the masts and rigging perhaps with storm sails reefed when she went aground heading upriver in northeast gale. This is all speculation; perhaps a visit the Ipswich Historical Society will enlighten. When we visit next year maybe we’ll have her name, the time of grounding, and the names of those drowned or rescued.
We left the mystery ship and paddled on a helping flood northerly by lovely Little Neck to our familiar modes of transport at Pavilion Beach. We had a few dozen unlucky clams and memories piled on others of this wondrous place. One of the old Closeteer’s favorites is of tenting with his father 70 years before on Plum Island Point. They steamed “steamers” dug from the Hump Sands on the beach. They had rowed down from Salisbury ten miles north for a weekend. His grandfather when a young man and friends had done the same for visits to Grape Island just a mile up from Sandy Point. They played baseball by day and cards much of the night before rowing home. They used the tides and perhaps a spri’t sail for help. Grape Island, now a federally protected wilderness of bushes and trees, was once a lively place for people with cottages, a hotel and a summer ferry going daily to it.
The old man who was supposed to be steering their large canoe would now and then fall off course while engaged in such pleasant reverie. Judy in the bow and Rachel celebrating another year in a kayak well ahead were no doubt also having fine thoughts in this entrance to a vast estuary once the summer playground of Indians; one passed offshore by new comers from the east like Giovani deVerrazano, Samuel de Champlain and John Smith four centuries ago. Young Peter and watchful grandma Sandy who had chatted happily away earlier in the canoe’s unseen wake had stayed behind to explore more of the westerly end of Crane Beach below Castle Hill. Knowing well this lively pair, they’ll return with their own stories. If we could substitute Algonquian for their English and dugouts for plastic kayaks we bet their stories would be several thousand years old.
WATER RESOURCE AND CONSERVATION INFORMATION
FOR MIDDLETON, BOXFORD AND TOPSFIELD`
|Precipitation Data* for Month of:||Apr||May||June||July|
|30 Year Normal (1981 – 2010) Inches||4.53||4.06||3.95||3.89|
|2016 Central Watershed Actual||2.65||1.71||1.51||0.6** as of July 12|
Ipswich R. Flow Rate (S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet/ Second (CFS):
For July 12, 2016 Normal . . . 9.9 CFS Current Rate . . . 1.5 CFS
*Danvers Water Filtration Plant, Lake Street, Middleton is the source for actual precipitation data thru June.
** Middleton Stream Team is the source of actual precipitation data for July
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