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Water Closet for August 25, 2017

     On Saturday, August 12th, eight people, Steam Teamers and a friend, drove to beautiful Essex by the sea and put 4 kayaks and two canoes into the salt marsh crick at the end of Island Road off Route 1A.  The tide was at low ebb.  Clammers, their pickups waiting, had preceded the group.  Kayaker-photographer Elaine Gauthier had done much the same outing in October of last year.

“Twenty years ago the movie The Crucible was partially filmed in a colonial village of facades around the surviving Choate house”

 This year, she, our leader, planned to ride the tide out to the back of Crane Beach and there hike one of The Trustees of Reservations’ (TTOR) many lovely trails among the high dunes.  After hiking the tiny fleet returned on the low flood tide to Choate Island for a picnic followed by a climb to the summit of this island hill.  An early rain had departed before the paddlers start.  The sun’s rays softened by interesting clouds were with the group all day.  If you haven’t visited this wondrous area of water, flats, salt marsh, labyrinth of cricks, white sand beaches, dunes and ocean, so near, by all means do so.  For background see the Water Closet that follows about last October’s paddle. MST 


     Ipswich Bay, in the Gulf of Maine, an extension of the Atlantic Ocean, is encompassed by a twelve mile arc of sandy beaches and bars cut through by the Ipswich and Essex Rivers.  Almost white sands make up the changing channels and disturbing bars at these rivers’ mouths between Plum Island and Crane Beach and between Crane and Wingaersheek Beach, Gloucester. 

Back of Crane Beach dunes, right, and the Essex-Ipswich estuary, left, at low tide. – Elaine Gauthier photo

Behind these beaches, protected by their dunes, are 10,000 acres of soft marshes of accumulated peat and sediment one to thirty feet deep from their edges and only a few thousand years old.  At low tides thousands of accessible acres of exposed mud flats teem with life.  During spring tide highs, after new and full moons, the grass-covered, flat salt marshes are often covered with sea water. “Spring” here is not related to the season.  Spring and neap tides are the monthly highs and lows based on the positions of Sun, Moon, and Earth.  For an hour on some high springs, especially during easterly winds, the marshes behind the barrier beaches appear as vast bays.  As a boy in Salisbury the Closeteer and other called these highs “high-runner-tides.”  

     Fresh water from the uplands of Newbury, Rowley, Ipswich, Essex, Rockport, Gloucester and beyond joins these estuaries where salt and fresh water mix to form a thin but rich soup that ebbs to enrich the ocean. Easily worked “Merrimack sandy loam” surrounds the tidal waters to the west. The Closeteer was brought up on farms with very little freeboard.  Years ago he attempted a poem about estuaries that were in his blood long before he’d heard the word.

Dark and light green grasses
In cowlicks swirl ‘tween soft mud cricks
Levied by dune and upland rock
Watering place for more than ducks
Has depth and breadth
Beyond its bounds
Where larval travelers get their start
And subtler cycles turn
To nourish out a thousand miles

     In Ipswich Bay between Salisbury and Gloucester the nourishment in large part comes from the watersheds of the Merrimack, Parker, Rowley, Eagle, Ipswich and Essex Rivers.  Each is fed by many tributaries.  The Merrimack’s bring molecules all the way down from the White Mountains, the headwater streams of the Ipswich from off the roofs and parking lots of Burlington Mall and Wilmington.

     On October 16th from the end of Island Street, Essex, twelve tiny vessels joined the mix for a paddle to a high hill arising above the Ipswich-Essex marshes.  From Argilla Road to Crane Beach the paddlers had often admired the spruce covered hill called both Hog and Choate Island.  It had been free range for hogs and other livestock for three hundred years.  Early last century after grazing ceased, spruce trees from Europe were planted.  Now 86 years old they rise up seventy feet shading half the island’s 200 acres.  The paddlers were en route to explore the hill, a glacier-deposited oval drumlin, steep on its southwest and northeast flanks and northwest end. Yearly the gentle southern slope is mown.  The drumlin’s NW-SE axis was the direction of the movement of the estimated half-mile thick ice sheet that melted over 10,000 year ago.  It is completely surrounded by wide salt marsh cricks that visitors must cross.  These barriers had once kept livestock out of mainland gardens.

Essex-Ipswich salt marsh and its labyrinth of cricks from the summit of Choate Island. The dunes of Crane Beach are seen between the salt marsh and the ocean. – Elaine Gauthier photo

     Some among the visitors not familiar with high-runner-tides were surprised with what greeted them upon arrival at the clammers’ Island Street landing.  That mid-day the marshes were under water.  The mile paddle out to Choate is usually an indirect one via meandering wide cricks.  These and the grassy marshes were hidden by salt water which they paddled over.  With a brisk, westerly fair weather breeze, the adventurers, backs and raised paddles acting as sails, were soon under the steep windward side of high Choate.  Helped by an ebb tide the fleet turned toward the drumlin’s open southeast slope looking for a place to land. 

     A half hour after getting underway the paddlers’ tiny vessels were tied at the toe of the drumlin to bushes covering an ancient stone wall.  They struggled through and over the thicket and entered a wonderful southeast facing field of 50 acres kept opened by the Trustees.  Twenty years ago the movie The Crucible was partially filmed in a colonial village of facades around the surviving Choate house. 

Choate or Hog Island, a glacial drumlin, as seen from the west.. – Elaine Gauthier photo

The handsome house built in the early 1700s and renovated by the movie maker still stands empty in the field marked with stone walls.  Actors Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder and the ghosts of John Proctor and Abigail Williams, the sinners they played, were not seen or heard.  Maybe on a night visit their spirits might appear to ask you why they aren’t in Salem.  Playwright Arthur Miller certainly didn’t have them there.  Choate was probably chosen because of views from its high field.  God was there watching over his errant children among the coastal marvels of his evolution.  The paddlers, just ordinary moderns not plagued by Puritan notions gone terribly awry, sat in soft grasses picnicking in sunshine half way up the high meadow.  They looked out across Ipswich Bay, fair marshes, beaches and sand bars.  The gods certainly seemed to be with them, but whose gods, the Indians’ or Cotton Mather’s?  It was best that no one spoke of either while enjoying the lovely day as they looked out on the sea where explorers Giovanni da Verrazano, Samuel de Champlain, and John Smith had passed four centuries gone.   




  Precipitation Data* for Month of:  May June July Aug
  30 Year Normal (1981 – 2010) Inches  4.06 3.95 3.89 3.37
   2017 Central Watershed Actual  4.87 6.08 3.43 0.9 as of Aug 18

 Ipswich R. Flow Rate (S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet/ Second (CFS):

 For Aug 18, 2017   Normal . . . 6.6 CFS             Current Rate  . . . 1.74 CFS

 *Danvers Water Filtration Plant, Lake Street, Middleton is the source for actual precipitation data thru July

** Middleton Stream Team is the source of actual precipitation data for Aug..

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>


Water Closet for August 11, 2017

Seven paddlers including the Old Closeteer arose in the dark and wondered for a moment why they were doing so.  It was four-o’clock; sunrise, their target, was at five-thirty. They planned to greet the sun’s early light on the Great Wenham Swamp, a vast impoundment above the Willowdale Dam on the Ipswich River.

“The swamp may be quite like it was four centuries ago before the Indians killed beavers for the new comers from across the sea who paid iron pots and knives for their pelts”

Once on the road to their put-in spot off the Topsfield-Ipswich Road they cheered up and upon arrival joked as they lugged a canoe and five kayaks down to the river a quarter mile above the Willowdale-Foote Dam where a woolen mill once made clothing for the Union Army.  No wool was needed on this late-July sunrise-paddle day. The cool air was dry and clear; the water flowing high and fairly fast.  Almost two inches of rain had fallen two days before.  At five-thirty, at least human-wise, the seven had the lovely river to themselves.

Early morning “sea smoke” surrounds paddlers on the Ipswich River. – Judy Schneider photo

But others were there in great numbers; the fish below unseen, song birds above, and geese and ducks on the surface.  The first sights that thrilled the paddlers were patches of fog no more than head high on the water.  It is called sea smoke on the ocean.  The water vapor rising in cool air condensed and gave us quite a show. These low clouds glowed in the reflected light from the sun still beyond the high greenery of the river’s walls.  Light above in the trees plus that reflected up from the still water provoked a wondrous mood they’ll not forget.  If they do their photographers, who caught some, can pull them down from cyberspace.  All happily dawdled to allow the three photographers to take shots in the magic light.  The shutter bugs were kidded about lagging. Those without cameras just marveled at the scenes that included flowering white and yellow water lilies, button bushes, pickerel weeds, smart weeds, reed-canary grass, and now and then wild-rice to mention but a few plants flourishing in the wetlands.  Within a half-hour the patches of fog on the water were gone and new phenomena caught their eyes. Large spider’s webs between the twigs of swamp dogwood and button bushes and high up in dead maples glowed silver in the stronger light. They, full of dew, sparkled. Yet in an instant due to a change in angle they completely disappeared like sand paintings swept away upon completion by their makers.  They knew the webs were still there, but could they be sure? Or were the webs the spiders’ morning offerings to the sun god and not just lovely catchers of prey?

The belted kingfisher’s loud long chatter as he flies from perch to perch is always a welcome wakeup call for river travelers. – Judy Schneider photo

Such whimsical wonderings were theirs as they happily chatted and pointed out things while passing. The photographers, usually astern in their wakes, captured some of what they’d seen and stored it digitally.  As the sun rose higher the shade lessened as the fleet left the tree canyons and paddled out into the open scrub-shrub swamp dominated by canary grass, cattails, button bushes, bur-reed, smart weed, and dying silver maples.  The numerous beaver dams they passed over have exacerbated the effect of manmade Willowdale Dam. Together for the past two decades these dams have been drowning the venerable old maples and swamp white oaks which like water but can’t take so much year ‘round.

 The areas of the dams’ impoundments are impressive.   The Great Wenham Swamp, originated long ago as a mill pond behind the Willowdale Dam, for two centuries it has flooded almost four square miles (about 2800 acres) of what was once wet meadow.  The addition of a dozen beaver dams since the late 1990s put several hundred more acres around its edges under water.  Dying trees are seen all along the four miles of meandering river from High Street (Route 97) to Asbury Street in Topsfield.  The fallen and leaning giants, without twigs and leaves, are unintended victims of the beavers. Passers by who think they know the history of the scene are not much saddened. The swamp may be quite like it was four centuries ago before the Indians killed beavers for the new comers from across the sea who paid iron pots and knives for their pelts. After the beavers were gone the colonists drained the rich beaver meadows so they could hay and pasture them in late summer.  Then mill builders came and damned the rivers for water power. After the Civil War the farmers gradually moved west or into area factories.  But it was not until 1996 that steel leg hold traps were banned and the beavers came back.  The Closeteer guesses from his knowledge of Middleton’s eight miles of Ipswich River that there may 30 to 40 beaver dams between the headwaters in Wilmington and tidewater in downtown Ipswich.  There are three manmade dams standing.

Canada geese quiet on calm Ipswich River water before the early morning mist is gone. – Judy Schneider photo

As the Closeteer paddled with his companions in the perfect light of another new day he thought of beaver meadows, hay fields and pastures, and mill ponds for power.  He and the others were also much impressed by other evidences of energy being captured.   As the sun rose after a cold night like so many this summer, the turtles came out in numbers and parked on emergent logs with their dark solar panels towards the sun. On the paddle back, when the sun’s altitude was at about 45 degrees turtles, hundreds of them, single or little groups were seen along the west bank on floating and leaning logs and snags their faces pointed up and out; their dark backs at near right angles to the blood warming sun’s rays.   The paddlers passed within a few feet of many, closer than they could upriver. Their hypothesis was that in the Great Wenham Swamp turtles are much more used to canoe and kayak traffic up from Foote’s Canoe and Kayak Rental at the Willowdale Dam and thus not as shy. 


Four painted turtles position themselves on a log to catch the early morning light. – Judy Schneider photo

  The turtles were not the only ones being recharged that morning.  Despite over five miles of paddling, sometimes against current over submerged beaver dams, the paddlers’ energy and spirits were high.  At the end, their vessels were pulled out and toted up the bank and on to vehicles with vigor and good cheer. Any muscle fatigue wasn’t acknowledged, only some regret upon leaving such a lovely scene.  Near the end the paddle the first rental canoe from Footes passed them going up river.  The veterans wished its two paddlers well knowing they too were being recharged. 

The turtles sense the energizing sun each day. The Stream Teamers and friends realize the Ipswich River is nearby and now navigable year-around thanks to beavers holding back the water.  The Indians of long ago were well aware of this.  Each year in May before the big migration-blocking industrial dams they greeted millions of anadromous fish up from the ocean to spawn.  Present paddlers’ descendants might see the fish again when the manmade dams are gone or modified.  What a renewal that would be to human spirits and more essentially to fish!




  Precipitation Data* for Month May June July Aug.
  30 Year Normal (1981 – 2010) Inches 4.06 3.95 3.89 3.37
   2017 Central Watershed Actual 4.87 6.08 3.8 .3 as of Aug. 4

 Ipswich R. Flow Rate
(S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet/ Second (CFS):

 For Aug. 4, 2017   Normal . . . 18 CFS              Current Rate  . . . 17.6 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>

2017 Earth Day Festival

  • Browsing the vendor tents
  • Taking a rest at the end of the day. Great Grandpa Frank Masse in the sunglasses
  • Show me that puppet!
  • Sandy announcing the lucky raffle winners!
  • Learning from vendors
  • Thank-you-Liz-for-being-Beaver
  • Owl pellet contained a skull and hip bone
  • Drum Roll Please!
  • Sandy conferring with participants
  • Essex Tech Student asks what kind of fish he is holding
  • Sandy Rubchinuk introduces the owl pellet dissection activity
  • Environmental Science Students from Essex Tech
  • Puppets up close
  • Browsing the raffle items
  • Roger Talbot with Briana and Dharma holding the raffle tickets
  • Fishing along the edge of the pond
  • Paddlers kept going even during rain showers
  • Big Pike and Little Pike
  • Looking over the Ipswich RIver Watershed puppets
  • Briana explaining about her worms or was it yoga?
  • Lots of Scout participation
  • Scooping the duck and water
  • Waiting-to-hear-if-they-won-anything-in-the-raffle
  • Thank you Creighton Pond Camp!
  • Busy dissecting owl pellets
  • One on one fishing instruction
  • Duck Slide always a favorite
  • Yoga explained by Yogi Bri
  • lots of educational material
  • Roger and John – raffle ticket sales are over!
  • Learned how to fish successfully!
  • Dissecting Owl Pellets- lots of finds inside!
  • Learning to fish was the most popular activity!
  • So how does goat yoga work?
  • Learning how to categorize your soil

The 10 Annual Earth Day Festival, organized by the Middleton Stream Team, was an afternoon of fun and learning for all! Attendees enjoyed the Creighton Pond Camp setting and the opportunities the natural setting provided.  Essex Tech environmental students and their science equipment filled the pond side learning building to continually educate visitors with on-site experiments. Masconomet environmental students also had an educational display.  Boy scouts and girl scouts of all ages demonstrated camp-outs, did crafts, and talked about scouting opportunities in the town. New vendors included Sound Play Children’s Music, Moonshadow Yoga with dwarf goats, Green Meadow farm with chickens, Lasting Legacy Soaps and nature jewelry, and Sanctuary Yoga. Loyal participants returning included Sol Bean, Essex County Beekeepers, Cellar Door of Ipswich, and the Flint Library. Massachusetts Wildlife and Fisheries, with the help of the local Peary family, taught many children to fish.  The gigantic beaver, aka Liz Cameron, enjoyed entertaining children! This year, for the first time, IRWA performed a puppet show with a water conservation theme and due to the brief shower, a third show was added and enjoyed in the nice lodge. Owl pellet dissection was taught by Sandy, also known as Mrs. R, and some amazing discoveries were made about the food cycle! One middle age adult asked to join the older children. He was the most excited about what he found, declaring it an activity he had always wanted to do! The raffles, which are the primary funding source for all the free activities the Stream team sponsors, brought in a record amount of sales. Mr. John LeBlanc was awarded the distinction of being hardest working event volunteer, as he had a line for popcorn for a solid three hours! Mother Earth reminded us of her gifts with a shower, we think it was her way of thanking all the people that came out to learn, appreciate, and protect this watershed we all live within. We think we heard her giggle as the people out in the rowboats hunkered down in the rain out on the pond! We would like to thank the  Lynn Boys and Girls clubs for letting us use their beautiful facility. Two hours of sun and a bit of rain, laughter and learning in the great outdoors!  It was an inspiring celebration of the human and nature connection!