Water Closet for January 20, 2017

[pullquote]”How many country boys have hundreds of acres of flats for clamming, a few hours later for sailing, swimming and fishing?”[/pullquote]Last week the Closeteer was the happy recipient of a book about his boyhood hiking, swimming and rowing territory. Up-River, Down-River, Out-to-Sea was written by another old timer, Henry H. Woodard, Jr., a Wisconsin geologist, who grew up in the same area of varied habitats that the Closeteer did. As a commercial fisherman’s son Woodard’s circle was larger and wetter. The purpose of this week’s essay is to lay the ground and water work for a review of Woodard’s book that may be read here next week. Woodard moved far away yet he like the Closeteer fondly remembers the place both boys took for granted.

This Ring’s Island Rowing Club Sign was moved in 2015 from Salisbury to Middleton by Middleton Stream Teamers. It had been on a historic building that was once the island’s one room school house and later its fire house. From about 1988 to 2010 it was the rowing club’s boat house. Ring’s Island, a 70 acre knoll of granite rising above salt marsh and the Merrimack River, was Salisbury’s fishing village for over three centuries. – Judy Schneider photo

Decades later it dawned on the Closeteer that he’d grown up in a boyhood heaven. Let’s put Ring’s Island, Salisbury, a place of about 35 houses, in the center of a three mile radius circle, the distance even a boy could easily walk, bicycle, or row. For longer distances in those days we hitchhiked, but let’s stay within the three miles. Ring’s Island is a 70 acre knoll of exposed granitic ledge those rock geologists say is over 400 million years old. It was surrounded by salt marches before the English built causeways out to where it rises on the north edge of the Merrimack River two miles in from the ocean. Its rocky summit is about 40 feet above mean annual high water. On high-runner tides, during northeast winds, it again becomes a true island as water covers the highways. The Closeteer remembers there were times when he was a lad that for several hours Ring’s Island was inaccessible. After some storms Ferry Road, the causeway from the north, was strewn with cord grass rafted in from the salt marshes stretching east to the barrier beaches. After those storms the roads nearest the beaches had seaweed deposited upon them that had been torn from the rocky coast’s intertidal strips. Both thatch and seaweed were gathered and used for mulch and fertilizer on the Closeteer’s grandfather’s and uncle’s farms on Ferry Road, a mile north of Woodard’s house on Ring’s Island. In colonial times Ferry Road led to one of two ferries before bridges between Newburyport and Salisbury were built across the Merrimack.

Land locked boat house in Middleton – Judy Schneider photo

The topsoil of eastern Salisbury between the marsh and higher land was graced with stone-less Merrimac sandy loam, the sand of long ago barrier beaches. The easily worked soil made cultivation easy, the effects of drought hard. On its surface arrowheads were relatively easy to find due to the absence of other stones. Around the marshes and fields were woodlots and pastures. Among these features near the coast are found Indian middens of clamshells, places where a few boys searched for stone artifacts.
Up the river’s north side from Ring’s Island, an area that was for 300 years Salisbury’s fishing village, the pattern continues, exposed ledge, then salt marsh cricks and marshes. The brackish water becomes increasingly fresher as current brings water 100 miles down from the White Mountains. We boys knew that up river there were large cities rarely if ever visited by most of us who never got past Haverhill. We didn’t get far from home in those days. The signs of the cities were too plentiful along the stinking at times river banks. Occasionally we found treasure among the discarded leather, tar, grease, timbers and unmentionables. We especially liked to find dead birds with leg bands that were sent to the Feds for acknowledgement and a map showing where they had been banded, or as skeletons for our smelly collections we called museums. Then there were odd shaped pieces of driftwood our mothers liked. Now and then we’d find a boat.
South across the river from Ring’s Island was Newburyport, a small city, but in its seafaring days one with a worldwide reputation as a trading port and place where many ships were built from oak and pine logs floated down the Merrimack or later brought in by ship. Newburyport is still there; however, what boys in their early explorations would like boutiques, fancy restaurants and antique shops? As older teenagers we discovered girls who went to Newburyport High. Before TV there were two movie theatres we might take them to. Now only a few commercial fishing boats and many fiberglass pleasure boats are in the once busy port. Woodard’s boats were built of local wood. The large sailing ships and shipyards of yore, 17th through 19th centuries, have long been gone. Bluefin tuna were brought in now and then; those huge beautiful fish and their champion catchers like Billy Packer provided some excitement.
Let’s get back to the center of all this at Ring’s Island. By the way, many of the islanders snootily thought of themselves as Newburyporters not Salisburyites. Guess they wanted to be city slickers not shit kickers.   It was certainly a Mecca for us boys after school and chores. If not swimming in the river or nearby Mill Crick or climbing the Island’s quarry walls we could leave the Ferry Slip at Ring’s Island or Pettengill’s Crick from salt marsh moorings and row or sail on the tides to Plum Island, to the clam flats and to exposed bars like the Humpsands and to favorite flounder fishing spots. If seas were calm and tides right we’d risk exiting the mouth of the Merrimack between the jetties into the Atlantic in our skiffs and dories.

The mouth of the Merrimack River and surrounds were the play grounds of Salisbury and Newburyport kids who explored the salt marshes, tidal flats, barrier beaches and river on foot and in small boats. Arrow points to Ring’s Island. – Newburyport quadrangle, – USGS map

How many country boys have hundreds of acres of flats for clamming, a few hours later for sailing, swimming and fishing? Six to eight feet vertically above the low tide flats are 1000s of acres of salt marshes spreading north to Hampton River, Seabrook, and south to Ipswich. Networks of meandering cricks in the marshes allow never boring explorations. Surprises might wait around each bend. In the winter thick ice cakes floating in them provided for a dangerous sport called ice cake jumping, a sport not recommended. The duck hunters among us much liked the salt marshes. A few farmers still mowed portions for cattle fodder and mulch. Many of us explored them year-round stalking birds passing along our famous migration flyway. They were our prairies. Here is a poem included a couple times in the Water Closet before. It is about the diverse habitats encountered during dawdling hikes, rows, sails, and cross country ski trips by kids lucky enough to live in an estuary. Places author Woodard knew well and hasn’t forgotten.
Looking for Arrowheads
We often did this fallow field
Eyes in competition down
Sharp out for glint of flint
A chip, a flake, a sign
Or perhaps the product still intact
We’d found them here before.
Hope rose anew and held us
To our random downcast wander.
Perhaps just to be there was enough
Salt hay smells joined those of the woods
Across the marsh the river shone
Always beckoning to us boys.
After rains we sought again
Surface rocks stood in relief
Each must be checked for telltale marks.
I still look down in kindred fields
Without much hope of much to find
But out of habit from another time
When cool spring soil met naked feet
My full attention on soil’s skin
Seeking signs of those before.


Precipitation Data* for Month of: Oct Nov Dec Jan
30 Year Normal (1981 – 2010) Inches 4.40 4.55 4.12 3.40
   2016 Central Watershed Actual 6.81 2.68 4.41 2.3**as of Jan 13

Ipswich R. Flow Rate (S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet/ Second (CFS):
For Jan 13, 2017  Normal . . . 50 CFS     Current Rate . . . 94 CFS
*Danvers Water Filtration Plant, Lake Street, Middleton is the source for actual precipitation data thru Dec.
** Middleton Stream Team is the source of actual precipitation data for Jan.
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