PADDLING ON THE UPPER IPSWICH RIVER

Water Closet for June 9, 2017

“A decade ago great pumps on both sides of river had drawn the water down to reveal the bottom by mid summer. Now it is full again thanks to Sullivan and colleagues who got Reading and North Reading to buy MWRA water from the distant Quabbin.”

Last Sunday on a perfect mid May morning some of us old Stream Teamers and a friend drove in cars fifty foot vertically against gravity up from Middleton to Wilmington where Lubbers Brook down from Tewksbury, and Great Meadow Brook, down from Woburn and Burlington, converge. We put in our four vessels near where the brooks join to form the Ipswich River. The old Closeteer had only once before gone up that far to paddle down with the flow. For his companions it was their first time. What Stream Teamers really want to do some day is start at the true “headwaters” of our beloved river. Where are the headwaters? Strictly speaking there are hundreds; every swale and small intermittent stream in the periphery of the watershed might be called headwaters. They certainly are of their branches, the river’s tributaries.

In the foreground emerging from year-around water thanks to beaver dams is this large tussock sedge surrounded by reed-canary grass and other water loving plants. The gray corpses of drowned red maples can be seen in the background. Looming above the impounded floodplain are oaks and pines on the uplands. – Judy Schneider photo

Streams form according to the topography wherever the rain may fall. Down from the sky the water comes and runs off or is absorbed into the duff and soil. Droplets that land on roofs and pavement run off in rivulets and then enter the ground water or streams. A good fieldtrip for all children, which should be a requirement for graduation, would be to follow a small stream on foot to a larger stream on down to the river; briars, ticks, poison ivy and mosquitoes be damned. It would be a good lesson for the teachers too. In doing so all would learn the true nature of their town and in the long run much much more.
The old paddlers, no longer limber school kids, compromised and didn’t rightfully start at the watershed’s upper twigs when likening a watershed to a tree.
At the Lubber-Great Meadow convergence where the Ipswich River picks up its name we luckily happened upon longtime river champion Suzanne Sullivan who had been invited to paddle with us but declined in order to dutifully monitor the river at her station for temperature, dissolved oxygen, depth, turbidity and rate of flow. This is done by volunteers from bridges the last Sunday morning of each month at 25 stations from Wilmington to Ipswich. Suzanne’s station for the past 20 years is the first as it should be for a River Queen. Her Ipswich River headwaters, unlike those of most rivers, are densely populated by people and commerce. Suzanne’s actions over the last quarter century have helped keep the river alive and healthy. Google the Ipswich River Watershed Association and visit the last issue of its newsletter The Voice of the River. On page 2 there is a tribute to Sullivan and her and upriver partner Martha Stevenson entitled “Dynamic Duo.”

Suzanne Sullivan, longtime Ipswich River champion, is seen here at her water monitoring station on Woburn Road Bridge in Winchester. – Judy Schneider photo

It was a fine way to start the morning paddle with the sun on Suzanne’s face as she waved goodbye. We turned east from her bridge station. Her last call, “Do you hear the flycatcher?”, was heard as we entered our first meander among lush reed-canary grass that almost totally dominates many stretches of the river now. Our paddles touched it on both sides of the narrow, sharply curving, channel. Away from cars and traffic as with most paddles on the Ipswich our cares quickly fell away. We could hear the drone from Route I-93 a half mile ahead but easily removed it from our minds. Birdsong from button bushes and forests beyond the marshy floodplain and the grass whisperings on the sides of our little vessels were our music as we quietly pointed out things to one another. Our ever tuning narrow path intrigued us. Every few feet it appeared to end and then, sharply turning, an opening in the high grass revealed itself.

A decade ago this lush stretch of the Ipswich River between Reading and North Reading was pumped dry. The pumps are silent. The river is full to the brim most of the year. – Judy Schneider photo

Soon our fleet was under the eight lanes of the superhighway. We hooted for echoes. From the cool shade of the great bridge we emerged into a broad stretch of the river full-to-the brim from Reading Town Forest to the south to Concord Street industrial park north. A decade ago great pumps on both sides of river had drawn the water down to reveal the bottom by mid summer. Now it is full again thanks to Sullivan and colleagues who got Reading and North Reading to buy MWRA water from the distant Quabbin. The pumps are quiet. The wide river is rich again with wildlife year-around. Ten years or so ago in August the old Closeteer and his sister walked on the river’s bottom without water except for a few stinking black puddles below the ground water table. As the river had fallen creatures retreated to the shrinking pools and died as increasing competition used up the oxygen. These pools of death were those of life for the herons, other predators, and eventually scavengers who visited for easy snacks.
On our paddle we saw none of this; all was clean high water, blues and greens reflected from sky and forest with new leaves beyond the beaver dam impounded flood plain. As the sound of I-93 fell astern, bird songs picked up. On the north bank, much disturbed land where gravel was mined behind the industrial park on Concord Street, had gone to bushes. The trees are taking over forming a screen between the huge buildings and wide river. To the south the mature trees of Reading Town Forest are a pleasant wall. We could hear unseen walkers’ voices coming from its trails. On east we zigged and zagged among half dead button bushes the higher year-round water behind beavers dams were drowning. Their still live branches were leafing out. Most striking were the many tussock sedges. Each symmetrical tuff of hundreds of stems rises like a waist-high green fountain with mini canals in between. It is in these watery channels that beavers, muskrats and ducks thrive. The tussocks remind some of stepping stones a light footed dancer might use to skip across the marsh. The Closeteer has tried only to find them wobbly for one who no longer skips. Once he cut one through at water level with a handsaw and likened what he found to a suspension bridge cable made of many wires.   In places we found tussocks with tuffs of reed-canary grass perched upon them. We’d never seen the grass growing in such mops like unruly hair before. Then we figured what had happened. The grass seeds drifting down river had caught in the tussocks and sprouted. The tussock sedges thus shaded will soon give away to the grass.
And so was the narrowing floodplain giving way to upland woods as we approached the Mill Street Bridge in North Reading. The floodplain all along its length is dotted with the corpses of standing and fallen beaver killed red maples. These places don’t disturb us at all. When these swamp maples die the light pours in and new rich habitats of soft plants take over. Swallows, woodpeckers, and other birds thrive on, in, and among the rotting trunks. Red winged blackbirds, grackles and dozens of other birds flit among the button bushes, and tussocks. Geese and deer graze on the grass. We spooked a large deer feeding in the lush pasture of belly deep water.
From this Eden we passed under the Mill Street bridge and entered an over arching shady forest. At the landing there we reluctantly left the water and rejoined the human rivers of un-flowing asphalt.
_______________________________________________________________________________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 6.53 6.29**as of May 31

Ipswich R. Flow Rate (S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet/ Second (CFS):
For June 1, 2017  Normal . . . 48 CFS     Current Rate . . . 88 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..
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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