Water Closet for August 5, 2016
“[pullquote]At depths of about 7 to 14 inches depending on the season and clam size, several clams might be found their feet being withdrawn into their shells and then tightly shut. “[/pullquote]In everything from gardening to cutting wood, Francis X. Masse, stalwart of the Middleton Stream Team has long been our mentor. Better known as Fran or Frank, he is a lifelong outdoorsman extraordinaire – trapper as a boy, fisherman, tree man, hunter, wild fruit gatherer, hiker, and paddler on the Ipswich River watershed and beyond. At 87 he deals with us face to face not via the computer. He who has not entered cyberspace stays firmly on the ground with plants and animals. Fran has led our informal Middleton clamming and canoe paddling groups for decades. His present hardy class is co-ed; three women and three men average age 70 years. Clamming on the Ipswich flats has been good this year. Several of our group go every week or so, and often on our low tide visits get our allowed 10 quarts. One old Closeteer suspects clamming is just an excuse to visit the Plum Island Sound, an area of beauty at any tide. Judy, Stream Team photographer, onetime Vermont farm girl new to clamming, learned fast under Fran’s tutelage. Our rookie Laurie, member of the Conservation Commission, will soon be keeping up with the rest of us old hands. Sandy, a retired teacher and president of the Stream Team, is the group’s most enthusiastic member. This trait applies to everything she does. Tom, retired plumber and lifelong fisherman, famous for his green thumb, digs efficiently and often gets more clams than each of the others in the same period. Following each dig we rinse our clams at the commercial clammers’ boat landing below Eagle Hill, Ipswich, in ocean water coming in on the twice daily flood.
After cleaning our gear and putting the clams gathered into buckets of new salt water we retire in our vehicle to the causeway across the marsh between Eagle Hill and Great Neck which gives a view out over the flats and salt marsh, Plum Island’s dunes, and the hills of Newbury to the north. Tradition has us toast the late Joe Elson who preceded Fran as our mentor. Joe, 88, dug with us right up until two weeks before he died in 2006. After saluting his memory, a hardy snack of crackers and cheeses follows as we remember past trips and marvel at the wildlife in view and recently seen. As Fran and Joe would have it, our talk is usually about nature. Evenings we watch the sunsets behind Ipswich’s two wind turbines to the west or the moon come up in the east over Great and Little Necks. A couple days later our prey are usually eaten as “steamers” by families and friends. Diggers check tide tables and plan future trips.
The low tides reveal a world of different substrates that never ceases to interest us. In a 200 yard hike down slope from the wrack line to the water, eight to twelve feet lower, we walk on cord grass to the half tide contour and then across a stretch of plant- less gravel perched on dense clay. In the very gradual descent we then cross a stony mix of rocks and mud which grades into a band of firm sandy mud, below that softer black mud, and finally before the water slick deep mud. This is but one transect across the exposed flats; others are very different. Most have mud snails, green crabs, clams and worms on and within the upper couple feet of rich in organic matter. These very different soils are pocked with clam holes, sometimes dozens per square yard. Each hole is an entrance for plankton laden water and an exit for wastes to and from one sedentary mollusk, mostly soft shelled clams and now and then a razor clam. The razors have larger holes. Our probes into these dark wet strata are four to six tined forks bent 90 degrees from a short wooden handle. Farm dung forks bent and handle shortened make good diggers. Just a few inches out in front of clam holes we push the tines down perpendicular to the surface of the flat. Once deep the fork is pulled, handle pushed down, and rolled toward the digger. In good ground a great slab of mud is tipped upward so its underside is revealed. At depths of about 7 to 14 inches depending on the season and clam size, several clams might be found their feet being withdrawn into their shells and then tightly shut. These are simply plucked and popped into basket or bucket. This sounds easy but it’s not. Getting the tines deep especially in gravelly soils takes some effort. The pull-back-handle-down move is hard. Often all this effort for a single dig yields little or nothing. The right angle, metal-wood tool and digger’s body are both at right angles. The latter stands, with spread legs slightly bent, torso parallel to the flat, “ass up into the wind” as Fran instructs. The commercial guys dig fast and steady for longer periods. A strong digger working for money finds several times as many clams per hour as us amateur old “mess diggers” who may only last an hour or two with more frequent back straightening rests. If digging near a friend we may chat about a variety of mundane things. “There are few here.” “Glory hole!” when eight or more clams on one dig are found. “Clams are too small.” is said when most found are less than the legal two-inches long. “My hole is filling with water”, is a common complaint when puddles from the last tide are still on the flat. Rookies will often say to our amusement, “My boots are stuck.” In the winter, “My fingers are going numb.” “This area has been dug out by the pros.” “Green heads are not bad today.” “Tide is close; time to go.”
We leave for a long lug across the soft mud. The waiting seagulls move in to check our excavations for broken clams and small ones that have not pulled themselves with foot back down into the mud. The cold ocean water creeps back over the flat to heal our scars.
WATER RESOURCE AND CONSERVATION INFORMATION
FOR MIDDLETON, BOXFORD AND TOPSFIELD`
|Precipitation Data* for Month of:||May||June||July||Aug|
|30 Year Normal (1981 – 2010) Inches||4.06||3.95||3.89||3.37|
|2016 Central Watershed Actual||1.71||1.51||1.6**||0.0** as of Aug 2|
Ipswich R. Flow Rate (S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet/ Second (CFS):
For Aug 2, 2016 Normal . . . 6.6 CFS Current Rate . . . 0.32 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 and 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> or (978) 777-4584