MEANDERING AMONG SWAMP MAPLES

Water Closet for May 12, 2017

“The swamp-floodplain there is dominated by silver maples that in their dotage pushed by storms fall and block easy travel on the river’s surface for a while.”

On a prefect sunny April morning after two raw days of wet air off the ocean three Stream Teamers and a friend paddled from the Peabody Street Landing, Middleton, easterly to Route 97 Topsfield beyond the fairgrounds. Filled over the brim by six inches of April rain, the Ipswich River ran swiftly to the sea. The surface was perfectly smooth; no breezes were felt below the trees. Light poured in by still tiny tree leaves and flowers. For guest paddler Nancy Sander, an artist and puppeteer, the muted colors in many shades were her favorites of the year. While subdued, to many, they outdo the grand shows of the fall. If it wasn’t for the meanders and fallen logs reaching out from the banks we paddlers could have napped while drifting. All was peaceful except for the drone of Route I-95 which is easily willed from consciousness. Songs from birds, especially warblers in the blooming red and silver maples, had the upper hand. The two photographers in kayaks were painstakingly trying to catch the birds digitally. Notice how the once common phrase “catch on film” has disappeared. Even to experienced eyes and hands on calm waters small birds photographed from a vessel are hard to capture. The photographers pleasantly slowed the group down so much more was seen. Signs of beaver, as along most of the Ipswich River and its tributaries, were seen on every turn. Between the Peabody Street Landing and Middleton’s swimming hole at Thunder Bridge we passed quickly over the two foot drop down from a famous beaver dam. About ten years ago the Middleton Friday morning hikers were walking by the then new dam. It had rained the day before so the river was up a bit. As the dozen or so old timers were admiring the dam it parted suddenly into two halves, opening like French doors leaving a gap several feet wide. Had the walkers arrived or passed fifteen seconds earlier or later the event lasting five seconds wouldn’t have been seen. Red Caulfield visited two days later to marvel at the site. He found to his surprise that the busy beavers had patched the breach. The long dam was as good as new. Thus with their valuable dams the beavers keep the water level relatively high year round. Even during great droughts such as last year’s the river all across town was largely navigable. After shooting over the dam the paddlers fretted about not being able to get under Thunder Bridge due to the high water.   We did so easily by ducking down a bit.

Red oak in Topsfield field on the south side of Ipswich River is almost five foot in diameter at breast height. It may have shaded cattle and hay makers for two centuries in what is now called the River Road Historic District. – Judy Schneider photo

While approaching where Nichols Brook up from Danvers to the southeast joins the river, we heard a splash nearby as a beaver jumped from the base of a large tree it was girdling. Over the years we’ve seen beavers many times since they returned in the late 1990s after a three century hiatus. Despite his frequent paddles and wanders along our streams the old Closeteer has never happened upon one cutting a tree. This time he missed by a second. Years ago James Barlas, an old man living just up the river, was showing the Closeteer some riverfront he planned to give the town as conservation land. On that cold morning they heard a cracking sound and looked up to see a poplar falling not one hundred eet away. They walked quickly toward the understory into which it had fallen in hopes of spotting the cutter. Upon hearing them the beaver ran toward the river unseen. The old men found the tree laying prostrate on the duff. The gnawers don’t always know where their falling trees are going. People have found them under trunks, victims of their victims.

Punctuating the Ipswich River’s banks from Thunder Bridge to deep in the Great Wenham Swamp are the upturned roots of fallen silver maples. Before beavers kept the water levels higher year around, the branches of the fallen maples pointing skyward became mini groves. The last decade saw fewer of these clones. The old base parent trees are dying. – Robin Lee McCarthy photo

After the beaver interruption, the fleet of three small vessels passed under I-95 where thousands of large vehicles pass daily at high speeds. When the great interstate highway now connecting southern Florida with northern Maine was built here mid last century the engineers reduced the floodplain passing width from 400 to about 70-ft. between new bridge abutments. The three hundred foot road bed dam like the beavers’ dams increased flood heights and widths up river resulting in more rich wildlife habitat.
The paddlers left the shade of the bridge and entered the river’s meanders behind Masconomet Regional School. The swamp-floodplain there is dominated by silver maples that in their dotage pushed by storms fall and block easy travel on the river’s surface for a while. The fallen trees’ masses of shallow roots with clinging soil rise up in the air. Seemingly they have died, but that is not so. Side branches now pointing skyward become tiny groves of trees, clones of the fallen. After passing Masconomet and the convergence of Fish Brook that brings water all the way down from Stiles Pond near Bradford, the vessels silently slid under Rowley Bridge Road in Topsfield.
Upon leaving the bridge’s brief shade and echoes, a pastoral world came into view. Fields kept open for four centuries sloped down from Meredith Farm and the Coolidge Estate. A great red oak standing alone mid-field caught our eyes and prompted a stop for photography and other essentials. In the green fields rolling away from the river we kidded about seeing and hearing Julie Andrews running over a hill crest toward us, arms spread singing “And the hills are alive!”
The rains and longer days of spring had brought forth the bright green of well tended hayfields long watched over by a scattering of old spreading oaks unbridled by close neighbors. The field centered oak that had us stop is almost five-feet in diameter at breast height and may have been there since before the revolution.
It was a magic mile flanked by fields and old trees including hickories, oaks, a few tamaracks, dying white ashes, and sugar maples. After we passed under Route One and by the Fair Grounds, we closed in on Route 97 between Topsfield and Wenham, the end of the paddle for that day. Our paddles slowed. We were reluctant for the time on our beautiful river to end at the paved road. There, like many Americans going almost anywhere we’d do so by a car with a carbon footprint, with a kinder vehicle riding on the roof.
Judy Schneider after loading her kayak, told us of four new signs, one at each corner of what we Middleton hikers call the Topsfield loop; the loop we passed through this time on water. She estimates she does the three mile loop sixty times a year on foot.
Each sign says:   Entering – RIVER ROAD – Historic District –
National Register of Historic Places
Set aside for foot and paddle, these historic places of water, fields, trees and low stonewalls restore the soul.
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WATER RESOURCE AND CONSERVATION INFORMATION
FOR MIDDLETON, BOXFORD AND TOPSFIELD`

Precipitation Data* for Month of: Feb Mar April May
30 Year Normal (1981 – 2010) Inches 3.25 6.65 4.53 4.06
   2017 Central Watershed Actual 3.46 2.86 8.7** 0.5**as of May 5

Ipswich R. Flow Rate (S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet/ Second (CFS):
For May 5, 2017  Normal . . . 84 CFS     Current Rate . . . 82 CFS
*Danvers Water Filtration Plant, Lake Street, Middleton is the source for actual precipitation data thru March.
** Middleton Stream Team is the source of actual precipitation data for April and May..
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

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