The Water Closet, Feb 25, 2011
February 28th, 2011 | by Middleton Stream Team
MUSINGS ALONG POND MEADOW BROOK
The snow in woods and fields off our roads has been deep for two months. We’ve needed snowshoes or skis to explore places easily visited scores of times before. They, so thickly carpeted, are as different as can be. On sunny days even in the shade of white pines there is lots of light, almost too much beneath leafless hardwoods. Fields in midday hurt the eyes. Woods where boulders, twigs, fallen logs and low bushes are hidden invite even the less spry.
On Super Bowl Sunday afternoon, while the country was napping or doing other pre-bowl things, a Stream Team family and few friends from Middleton hiked from snow blocked North Liberty Street to fields and forest carrying picnic stuff on snowshoes. Three generations, ages 5 to 60, entered a now rare pasture surrounded by undeveloped woods. A century ago most of our towns’ terrain was open grazing land. It was afternoon, the harsh glare off the largely unmarked snow was gone. Pond Meadow Brook was open and running free in its snow walled mini-canyon along the east side of Second Pasture. Water sang in welcome to the trekkers as it flowed o’er gravelly bottom.
The clear water stunk of hydrogen sulfide gas, a common phenomenon this time of year. Microorganisms under vast impoundments, a fifth mile up behind a beaver dam in this case, are sealed by ice from oxygen for energy producing respiration. Many bacteria and fungi can respire anaerobically, meaning without air. A product of anaerobic respiration is hydrogen sulfide that smells like “sewer gas”, many say rotten eggs. This collects and concentrates under the ice until exposed to air at openings downstream. The picnic group laid their blue-tarp-picnic-blanket on the snow alongside the brook and soon became less aware of the odor.
A week after that unusual mid-winter picnic an old Stream Teamer, inspired upon receiving a photo of the picnickers decided to brave the treacherous off road snow with snowshoes older than he. The shoes looked pretty good, but leather binders and rawhide mesh hadn’t been oiled in a decade since last use. He, although a frequent hiker, wondered if his snowshoe muscles were up to the strange step that hickory-rawhide shoes with tails require. He’d learned the hard way on past trips that if the binders go awry getting back to solid walking is a great challenge in deep snow such as we’ve experienced this winter. Only a fraction of a mile of ups and downs, breaking through each step, or worst still every other, quickly exhausts.
With four-foot long platforms finally attached to boots, the Stream Teamer ventured into First Pasture on almost completely unmarked snow. The going, due to a long period without practice, was slow. There is a special step to snowshoeing quite unlike walking or skiing. The trick is not to allow the front tips to go under the snow. Soon dormant muscles coming into play began to mildly ache. Walking on even somewhat firm snow is slow business. After awhile he caught on and enjoyed the leisurely pace that allowed plenty of time to enjoy the lovely winter scene. He came upon Pond Meadow Brook running darkly yet cheerfully singing below two-foot snow cliffs. For the next five minutes while following the brook north he tried to find words to describe its sounds. They certainly weren’t babbling, tinkling, gurgling, or sloshing. On return to fellow Stream Teamers he proposed a contest with a prize for the best description of a running brook’s sound. They agreed to accept words standing alone or in prose, poetry or song. Instruments could also be used. The winner would be given a guided tour of our several brooks with singing riffles. People’s tastes in music differ wildly, but have you known anyone who doesn’t like that from water flowing over uneven stream and river bottoms? Many folks travel miles to hear.
As the snowshoeing got easier, newly used muscles became even more apparent. After a half-hour passing through field and woods the Stream Teamer came upon the tracks of the Superbowl Sunday picnickers. If he didn’t know of them and snowshoes he would have guessed giants had tramped on the snow of Second Pasture. It was obvious where they had laid their plastic blanket. The Stream Teamer continued on north until he was back on scarcely marked snow. There were only a few tracks on the surface crust made by lighter animals. He looked back at his own tracks only an inch deep, perfect imprints of the leather and graceful hickory bows of his light shoes. They looked like Escher fish following in side by side rows, alternating tail to head, tail to head, the gaps between the rawhide, scales. The tracks were perfect records of his passing in such a pristine setting. The sun going down in the west behind mature woods sent gray-blue shadows half across the field. He was on the bright white side beyond them near the transparent water of the black-appearing brook. Across the brook, all along its east side, a fine stand of white pines rose 70 or so feet, their needles the only green in sight. Over arching all was a light blue February sky. A soft westerly breeze barely got a whisper out of the pine boughs. The song of the stream gently dominated.
At the north end of Second Pasture the brook channel disappears at a head-high dam spanning 150-feet between uplands of ledge. About 12-years ago beavers started this dam on an old farm causeway that crossed Pond Meadow Brook’s channel and narrow floodplain. They’ve added yearly since. Above it is a huge impoundment stretching a half-mile up into Boxford and North Andover now characterized by still standing dead Atlantic white cedars and a few rotting white pine and red maple trunks. A few large pines supported high great blue herons’ nests. Five years ago we counted 26 nests, last summer eight, and last week the Stream Teamer found only six. The pines they prefer will soon all be gone to winter winds and sticky snow. The place we call “The Rookery” and have visited several times each year may soon be that no longer. The Stream Teamer stood in the 10-acre man cleared field below the dam and looked across the 150-acre beaver made meadow in all its desolate beauty. The red maple swamp and interesting heron nests, that drew us before the noisy young had fledged, are largely gone. Forest has been replaced by rich new habitats with low aquatic plants and much more light. We visit to see amphibians, birds, mammals and other aquatic creatures who have moved in or are passing by. A large year old beaver lodge, a fifth-mile up from the dam, stands, a striking cone above the snow. Snow covered flat “beaver meadows” lie quiet. However, we know from peering through “black ice”, more correctly transparent ice, over the years in midday that much is happening even in the 32 degree F water underneath. The lodge occupants who visit the deeply impounded water daily well know what happens there. If younger we might exchange our bulky clothes for flippers, wetsuit and SCUBA and join them. Much light must penetrate even the thick ice covering.
The air that balmy afternoon was far too nice to consider dives with beavers under ice. The Stream Teamer well knew, as he turned south toward home, that life for humans is better in the air above especially when a three-quarter moon is one-third up in the east reflecting the sun at the same angle in the west. Snowshoe aches were gone, as was any bother from the stream’s bouquet. All was well with the world. The Stream Teamer correctly felt that he was walking on water.
WATER RESOURCE AND CONSERVATION INFORMATION
FOR MIDDLETON, BOXFORD AND TOPSFIELD
|Precipitation Data* for Month of:||Nov||Dec||Jan||Feb|
|30 Year Normal (1971 – 2000) Inches||4.48||3.96||3.80||3.22|
|2010-11 Central Watershed Actual||4.54||3.95||4.38||2.34 to 3 PM 2/22|
Ipswich River Flow Rate (S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet per Second (CFS):
|For February 22, 2011:||Normal . . . 81 CFS||Current Rate . . . 130 CFS
*Danvers Water Filtration Plant, Lake Street, Middleton
THE WATER CLOSET is provided by the Middleton Stream Team:
www.middletonstreamteam.org; <StreamTeam@comcast.net> or (978) 777-4584
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