Water Closet for January 16, 2015
Around the county and beyond, low places flooded by the beavers now welcome us. Cold snaps like last week’s and this pave the way with ice. The Middleton Friday morning Council on Aging-Conservation Commission hikers visited a sixty acre shallow lake last week. A decade ago it was a damp forest called a red maple swamp after its dominant tree also called “swamp maple”.1
The fifteen old timers, who rarely call themselves that, were not worried about going through the ice. A heavy scout sent out two days before had returned dry. They wondered, though, about slipping on ice coated with a half inch of recent snow. It had partially frozen to the ice so footing wasn’t bad. They proceeded slowly, but easily on its flat surface.
The oak covered uplands around the puzzle piece shaped valley of rounded bays and peninsulas softened the near 10 degree-wind-chill with snow coming over its ridges. Tracks of fisher, fox, otter, skunk, and smaller creatures collected since the snow had fallen four days before criss-crossed the ice. The fresh snow falling on us was quickly erasing their record. We imagined them writing again with feet in the night. The snow we were enjoying turned out to be only the predicted inch.
The striking features of such impoundments, shallow ice lakes covered with pure new snow, are the standing, leaning and lying gray trunks of branchless dead maples and a few needleless tall pines. We knew from previous dry summer visits on exposed shores that most of the fallen trees were pickled and slowly rotting unseen in the cold water and mud below the ice. Last Friday’s surface was perfectly level and smooth.
We skirted around the fallen trunks and few still standing dead bushes. Hiking here was much easier than on the three-quarter-mile upland path to the site.
What happened is seemingly simple, the details not at all. The beavers, around year 2002, built a 2-foot high, 70-foot long dam, now 4 and 90, across a stream on the south end of the swamp between flanking uplands. The Stream Teamers had dubbed the brook Cudhea’s Crick after one of its members and her family who own much of the woodland along the stream. Runoff from the north, west, and east collected behind the dam. Within a season shallow water covered much of the floor of the valley. Red maples thrive in swamps, but water year around keeping oxygen from their roots weakens and then kills the cells, and new water conducting tissue called xylem isn’t made. The dead cells of old xylem plug up to become “heartwood”. With no new “sapwood” being formed the branches, twigs, buds and leaves are without enough water although there is plenty down below. The trees gradually die over the next two to five years. The roots in time rot and the trunks fall. We estimated that in the area of our frozen field of ice more than three fourths had fallen. Some, former red maple swamps, whose tree bases were inundated near the turn of the millennium, are now almost without any trunks that remain standing. A stark example can be seen by looking east from Route One across wide Howlett Brook’s flood plain in Topsfield. Once red maple swamp, now “beaver meadow” or perhaps better “beaver lake” where in just 13 years since a dam and subsequent flooding few trunks higher than a broken stump can be seen.
Despite the fading insect and bird pocked corpses, these impoundments are interesting and pleasant places throughout the year. With the shade gone, light and heat floods in to produce rich meadows and shallow lakes or ponds. The correct word is probably ponds yet the larger deeper impoundments appear as lakes. Shallow, they’ve become water gardens of abundant microorganisms, algae, aquatic plants, water tolerant bushes, and wild organisms from microscopic bacteria and fungus to large deer and even a moose now and then, and hundreds of species in between. Most of us haven’t seen moose here but scat, scrapes, and tracks tell us they wander by every few years.
Go forth and find such impoundments near your home. There are many. Watch year ‘round and enjoy the seasonal and yearly changes. The one explored last week covers twice the area it did ten years ago. The beavers have yearly raised the dam; the flooded area extends outward producing more wet habitat. We walk above its edges spring, summer and fall to see birds, especially ducks passing through. In summer frogs fill the air at times with song. We don’t worry about mosquitoes; tree swallows, frogs, and dragon and damsel flies keep their numbers low. An old hiker was twice startled by deer splashing by belly deep. At times of long droughts, a muddy, but walk able beach, is revealed, a dark substrate for tracks. While people rarely visit, for lots of other creatures it is a popular place. Thanks to beavers again, this time not for felt hats for frivolous fashion2, but for providing many animals and plants with good places to live or visit.
1 Acer rubra thrives in wet areas but can’t take too much water above their roots year round. Another native maple, “sugar or rock maple”, Acer saccharum, does well on upland soils but not in swamps. Rock maple wood is much denser thus valuable for fire wood and furniture.
2 To provide “gentlemen” with beaver hats of fine felt from ground up hair, past people almost removed most beavers from the continent. To provide the wealthy with fancy lamp oil humans practically wiped out the oceans’ whales. Today poor workers are removing teak and mahogany from the rain forests for yachts. As President Bill Clinton once famously said about campaigns, “It’s the economy stupid”. Environmentalists might say, “It’s the stupid economy”.
WATER RESOURCE AND CONSERVATION INFORMATION
FOR MIDDLETON, BOXFORD AND TOPSFIELD
|Precipitation Data* for Month of:||Oct||Nov||Dec||Jan|
|30 Year Normal (1981 – 2010) Inches||4.40||4.55||4.12||3.40|
|2014 Central Watershed Actual||8.09||4.60||8.45||1.9 as of 1/13**|
Ipswich R. Flow Rate (S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet/ Second (CFS):
For Jan 13, 2015 Normal . . . 49 CFS Current Rate . . . Unavailable
*Danvers Water Filtration Plant, Lake Street, Middleton is the source for actual precipitation data thru Dec.
**Middleton Stream Team is source of actual precipitation data for Jan.
Normals data is from the National Climatic Data Center.