Water Closet for 9-27-13 Meandering on the Ipswich River
Last week on a fine September afternoon four old timers left the web of asphalt that defines our modern way of life. Their brief respite from machines was on the Ipswich River in southeast Middleton, western Danvers and Peabody. Before those towns were incorporated, the river passed through western Salem, before that the country of the Naumkeags who had no mapped bounds. The world of modern Americans is not even close to the one of just two centuries ago before engine powered vehicles. If you want to get some hint of what it was like before trains, cars, and paved roads, you can follow our streams and river or skirt around many of our wetlands. The Indians and English of Salem had neither roads nor highways. Footpaths leading place to place gave way to rough horse and ox cart paths. Waterways were then a major means of getting self and stuff around.
The four Stream Teamers put their canoe and kayaks of plastic, not dugout pine or birch bark, in at Farnsworth Landing, corner of the river and state highway Route 114. The river despite a dry late summer had a fair amount of water thanks to beaver dams. Flow is now barely perceptible. On getting underway they meandered generally southwest into the sun paddling easily in the channel between lush flooded expanses of shoulder high smart weed and dying button bushes, many draped with climbing hemp weed. Duckweeds covering much of the water were dying after a prolific long season. It and several other aquatic plants on the wane offered no resistance to smooth hulls. A great blue heron rose gracefully just ahead and flapped up river as if leading them on. Solitary outside nesting season, they often do this, sometimes staying just ahead of paddlers for a couple miles or more.
The heron and paddlers were enjoying a wide floodplain covered with a couple feet of water. Even the squiggly narrow channel is only 5 to 7 feet deep. The dense growth on either side kept the vessels from straying. In the great floods of 2001 and 2006 the water was five feet higher, flowing quickly toward the sea well above the swamp dogwood and button bushes. Bushes are far fewer now due to year-round beaver flooding. There used to be a dozen or more very large old willows spaced every few hundred yards, seemingly leaning on the channel. The paddlers found only two still standing with just a few leaved twigs amidst great dead branches. The rest are down and rotting, no longer providing perches for the birds. They did admire a belted kingfisher flying between the two lonely survivors.
Obstacles expected were soon encountered. The two men clambered on to a one-foot high beaver dam crossing the channel and continuing on into flanking vegetation. They dragged their large canoe over the dam to the upriver side and then pulled over the lighter kayaks with paddlers. When the water is high in fall, winter, and spring, this dam and most of the others in the river are well under water, so no impediment to navigation. The beavers like to keep the floodplain under water. We have a story from one old timer of this floodplain, when it was “wet meadow”, being mowed for fodder in late summer less than a century ago. Now it is largely impenetrable low jungle. Most of the trees that took over after farming days are gone. The returning beavers, starting fifteen years ago, drowned them; only plants that can take lots of water year around now thrive. In the last few years, reed canary grass has become dominant. Its leaves dried from bright green to light beige a couple months ago.
Fifteen minutes after the first dam another similar one was encountered and the lifting-dragging up a foot was repeated. In less than one mile three low dams were crossed over. The vessels were three feet higher than when they started.
On rounding one turn, the tiny fleet was always rounding in the first mile, a juvenile cormorant rose from the water just in front of the lead vessel, which stopped and gave way to the Stream Team’s photographer in her kayak. Her subject, diving now and then, kept just ahead of her, at times within a yard or so. One paddler reminded the group that cormorants much prefer swimming to flying. The group’s new companion seemed not to want them with her, but not enough to struggle into the air, at least not on a short curving runway. Soon the feathered friend turned abruptly, fell astern, and slowly disappeared down river from whence she came. We read somewhere these superb fishers can dive to a depth 50 feet.
After she left, the uplands on the Danvers and Middleton sides closed in and the river straightened. The floodplain narrowed as the paddlers neared Peabody. They were enjoying some shade from flanking swamp white oaks and red maples when a disturbance from half submerged roots caught their ears and eyes. A large beaver, followed immediately by another, left the rooted bank within fifteen feet of them. The pair submerged and swam under the vessels across the river from Middleton to Peabody. The startled humans exclaimed at their large size. Naturalist Paul Renzendes writes of one caught weighing 93 pounds.1
The tiny vessels with low freeboard were now beneath mature trees. They turned west in cool air toward North Reading on calm reflecting water. The filtered sun had them in a glowing tunnel of green. Even the red maple leaves hadn’t yet turned much to their namesake. However, a fall feel was very much in the air; perfect weather for paddling. Downed trees had the paddlers zigzagging around partially submerged branches. Houses were close by in Peabody to the south and Middleton to the north. In mid-river, on towns’ bound buffered by woods, they couldn’t be seen. With no effort car sounds were shut out. For three hours not a cell phone jingle was heard. The paddlers were close to their fellows yet well away.
The river flows pretty much on a straight line west to east in south Middleton just below the Lowell-Salem rail bed. The rails are gone; the way is a fine paved hiking trail thanks to the City of Peabody. Walkers and paddlers are screened from each other by bushes under a canopy of healthy trees.
Finally they encountered an ancient manmade obstacle not easily passed over when going up river against the current. It is the stone ruin of a causeway that once allowed farmers to go back and forth between fields in Peabody and Middleton, or least that is what some have long thought. They stopped below it for refreshment, rest and a quiet chat about what it was, when it was, and other things. One paddler, a life long resident of Middleton, told of boyhood trips down the river on truck inner tubes. He and friends would start near the North Reading line at B-B Chemical Company, now Bostik, Inc., and leisurely float all day the seven or so miles down to Peabody Street without cell phones or their mother’s knowledge. He didn’t say it, but the old timers present who had similar freedom and adventures when kids, heard the nostalgia in his voice.
A book by superb all around naturalist and turtle specialist David Carroll is being happily read now by the old Closeteer. In Following the Water Carroll in one of 180 lyrical pages, most filled with science, worries for members of his species.
“Though I know this wetland so well, in its purely physical as well as its ecological and metaphysical aspects, neither the familiarity nor hardships breed contempt. Being here has brought me knowledge, both tangible and ineffable, of a world apart, completely distinct, from that of my own kind. How many of us, and how often, think of the fact we live our time on a planet, within that planet’s time? What good it to be alive on Earth and never come to know at least the place where one lives? We don’t try to know it with our senses, much less with our minds and spirits. How many human feet in the industrialized world know anything more than floors, pavement, lawn, or manicured sandy beach in a lifetime? We live on Earth without walking on it. What do we touch with our hands? So many human eyes and ears see only the human-constructed landscape, hear only human sounds. Wild hills and swamps are looked on casually, if at all . . . We are in fact overwhelmingly out of our senses. Our eyes are open for such a brief time, our appearance on Earth between two unfathomable sleeps. Are we to sleepwalk through it?”
Carroll doesn’t often take flight like this. His feet are usually firmly in the mud and among the plants of his beloved turtle habitats. In three wonderful books2, he, with feeling, enthusiastically describes his central New Hampshire haunts.
The paddlers taking a break below the ruin turned and caught the current scarcely noticeable until riding with it. They were quieter on the two plus mile return back to pavement. Perhaps they were having thoughts such as Carroll’s.
One old Closeteer read somewhere that over 90% of Americans live in cities. Olmsted3, genius creator of Central Park and the Emerald Necklace, tried his best to provide places with water, soil and vegetation for city dwellers. Carroll begs people to visit such places. Here in the Ipswich River Basin there are many near at hand. We have only to step off our roads and walk or paddle a bit.
When you do, leave all electronic gadgets including cell phones in the car.
1 In his good book Tracking and the Art of Seeing Paul Renzendes tells of Jim Cardoza, Massachusetts wildlife biologist, reporting one weighing 93 pounds. Renzendes writes that most are 28 to 75 pounds.
2 We recommend The Year of the Turtle, Swampwalker’s Journal, and Following the Flow by MacArthur genius grant award winner David Carroll to you.
3 Frederick Law Olmsted, 19th century landscape architect