Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Day 4: From the Summer Street Bridge to Shay's Boat Yard and Dighton Rock State Park.

Day four began with cloudy skies over the Taunton River at around 8:30 a.m. DJ and I were excited that the current was at our back, and that there would be no portaging, but less excited about the prospect of rain. The first landmark we reached after going under the Summer Street Bridge was a railroad bridge, while next came the spot where the Nemasket River flows into the Taunton --- if one has time, the Nemasket will lead the paddler to the eastern seaboard's largest alewife run, the Royal Wampanoag Burial Ground, and the site of Tispaquin's village (Tispaquin was one of King Philip's allies during King Philip's War). Soon after came the Titicut Street Bridge, featuring some rapids which we ran successfully (but only after running the camera over to the other side). Throughout this stretch birds sang and flitted back and forth between the forest on either side of the river as we passed underneath; an osprey flew overhead; and Great Blue Herons stood motionless along the banks, hoping to catch a minnow or two unawares in the water below.

From Titicut Street we continued to follow the current downstream, passing the Rt. 28/18, Plymouth Street and Vernon Street Bridges (we thought it would be appropriate to name this fourth day of the paddle the "Day of Bridges," with a grand total of 18). The rain held and we thoroughly enjoyed the beautiful, forested upper reaches of the Taunton. After several more bends in the river we reached the Rt. 495 bridge (we could hear it before we could see it), and shortly after we spotted an otter, the third and last of the passage. From here it suffices to say that the river continues to be both beautiful and forested, for the most part, until Rt. 24; meandering past the Rt. 44 Bridge, the Church Street Bridge, and the South Street East Bridge. We saw many more Great Blue Herons and other birds, including an osprey or two more, and came to the conclusion that one Great Blue Heron that stayed just ahead of us for something like two hours was a Wampanoag spirit that was strying to lead us astray (though it in fact continued to lead us the RIGHT way). We started to feel like we were settling into a groove or rhythm in our paddling; the action of paddling and switching every so often began to feel automatic. This was probably good because we still had many miles left to paddle (the day's total was around 25).

We saw a cool factory-turned-condominiums development right by the South Street East Bridge, and also discovered that the tide was with us (as the river becomes tidal at this point). We stopped for lunch somewhere between here and the Rt. 24 bridge, hopping up on a bank of the river for a pleasant break. After Rt. 24, the passage became more urban --- for example, we were able to stop and use the restroom of a McDonalds along Rt. 44 --- the Wampanoag highway running parallel and just hidden by riparian growth from a modern suburban highway.

From there we passed from the outskirts to near the center of Taunton, passing under several more bridges. We had to paddle under two separate railroad bridges, both including what looked like liquid natural gas pipelines, and continued past the Oakland Mills Ponds. Past the Plain Street Bridge and the Weir Village Riverfront Park, the river began to open up and take on a more salty, oceanic feel, and on our right side, we were surprised to notice that several factories of the Bacon Felt Company ("America's First Felt Maker - Since 1825") were being demolished.

From here the Taunton broadened out even further and began to be bordered by beautiful tidal marsh. It had definitely started to rain, softly but relentlessly. We paddled past the Taunton Municipal Lighting Company's Flood-Cleary Drive Station on our right; continued past the Three Mile River, and finally reached where Center Street crosses the river on a green one-lane bridge, the last real landmark before our final destination. At this point, however, the tide began to turn against us.

The tide continued to turn as we passed under the bridge and settled into the last stretch of the Wampanoag Canoe Passage. The Taunton River had achieved its widest point so far, contrasting greatly with the claustrophobia of Stetson Brook during the second day --- the increased amount of water, however, was now working against us. We craned our necks desperately for any sign of sails that might mark where the yacht club would be, but in vain. We hugged the side of the river to avoid the strongest part of the incoming tide, only cutting across when we had to. After passing the mouth of the Segreganset River on our right and turning a final corner, we finally spotted the yacht club and congratulated ourselves. The last paddle to reach Shaw's Boat Yard seemed to drag on forever, but finally we made it and dragged the canoe up to the parking lot, victorious.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

From the Carver Cotton Gin Mill to the Summer Street Bridge on the Taunton River

When we hit Rt. 106, we went under the bridge (mistakenly) and ended up in a complex of the Carver Cotton Gin Mill. The mill was owned by the Carver Cotton Gin Company between its establishment in 1842 and was used to manufacture cotton gins and later oilseed processing equipment until the early 1990's. The Carver Cotton Gin Company is still around as Cotton, Inc, with its new headquarters in Savannah, Georgia.

The dam and factory must have been of great use over the years for making cotton gins; however, it posed a problem for us as the only way to follow the river was to paddle down a narrow spillway through the dam. Instead, after investigation, we decided that the best way to move forward was to carry the canoe up the steep bank and portage around the spillway, putting in just afterward to carefully make our way past and underneath the factory.

After making it past the factory, we entered the last stretches of the Satucket River --- an incredibly tiring portion of the trail --- where it winds behind residences in a forested area. Pretty as the river continued to be, we were tired and dehydrated enough to not appreciate the many oxbows and even more numerous downed trees. It seemed as if there were always a downed tree right around the corner, so that right after we had gotten back in the canoe, we'd spot another obstruction ahead and have to get out yet again to portage. Needless to say, about halfway through this part of the trip we realized it was probably best to eat lunch, and jumped up on the bank for a much needed break.

We were never happier when the river finally came out into the open and broadened, the frequency of logs blocking our way decreasing to a tenth of what it was before. We saw our first otter of the trip; along with maybe 8 Snapping Turtles, and started to pick up speed, making up the distance we had done earlier in a quarter of the time. Trying to make some headway down towards the Taunton, we paddled through the gorgeous last portion of the Satucket River before Bridge Street, the beginning of the Matfield up til High Street, and finally saw the transmission lines that marked right before where the Matfield meets the Town River, and took the left into the Taunton.

The much broader Taunton River proved to be much more navigable than some of the other parts of the passage, and we were able to get around any downed trees in the river --- that is, until we reached one huge tree that spanned the entire passage. Spotting an area where the trunk dipped down, however, we tried to go over it and were rewarded, prompting Seth (and all of us) to celebrate not having to portage. Even more exciting was our completion of the last official portage of the passage: a dam and spillway right after Rt. 104. After 104 the Taunton leaves development behind temporarily to enter a beautiful wooded area, especially right above the Cherry Street Bridge, and this was reflected in the abundance of songbirds, warblers and Great Blue Herons we saw. I was particularly excited to see a few Wilson's Warblers flying back and forth, along with a couple Ospreys we frightened off. We soon passed the Cherry Street Bridge as well, continuing on to where the Taunton flows past beautiful farmland before returning to the forest. Here we saw our second otter of the trip carrying some green vegetation to its burrow, but it ducked underwater before we could take a picture of it. We coordinated at this point with my father, Peter, and friend, D.J. (my dad was coming to pick up Seth and Olaf to drive them home, their portion done, while I would go with D.J. to get ready for the last day) to pick us up at Summer Street, as the Auburn Street Bridge turned out to be non-existent, other than a few burnt pilings.

Along our way to the end-point of our day's journey, we became more and more impressed with the beauty and tranquillity of the forest-bound, swift-flowing Taunton and its wildlife. Trees on either side seemed about to fall in, their roots often exposed by the bank, while other old-growth beauties reached their coronas upward towards the sun. One particular dead tree lying partly in our way looked almost like a post-modern sculpture. By the time we had reached our destination for the day, we were all happy to have experienced the beauty and relative facility of the Matfield and Taunton Rivers --- and to have actually been able to paddle without stopping for more than ten minutes!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Day 3: Osceola Island to the Carver Cotton Gin Mill at Rt. 106

We woke up to rain on day three of our journey, but made the most of it, enjoying a wonderful breakfast of eggs, bacon and tea thanks to Seth's exquisite backcountry cooking skills, and even invented a new food: Fitness bread cooked in bacon grease! We disliked the rain at first until we realized how shallow the beginning of the Satucket River was at the north end of Robbins Pond, and saw that the rain was actually helping us by raising the water level. The first item of note once we had set out was, somewhat ominously, an abandoned boat --- and soon enough we felt like abandoning our canoe when the river broadened out into a shallow, muddy meadow. Even with the addition of a night of rainwater, we had to get out and drag the canoe, contending with deep mud that seemed like quick sand at times.

Just before a small, wooden footbridge, however, we were able to get back in our vessel and forge ahead, ducking carefully to avoid the poison ivy that seemed to reach out towards us from the left-hand side of the underpass. After the bridge, the Satucket finally becomes deeper and opens up into a verdant, secret river world, hidden by pristine green forestland. The river meanders through a floodplain covered with Sensitive Fern and other wetland plants along with beautiful White Swamp Oaks.

We followed the winding path of the river, having to portage a good deal around the many downed logs, and even found moose tracks. We passed the Washington Street and Bridge Street bridges, after which the river becomes shallower and straighter, without the floodplain corridor of before, and followed the Satucket to the Carver Cotton Gin Mill at Rt. 106.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Day 2: East Monponsett to Osceola Island (in Robbins Pond)

After saying goodbye to my mother we made our way to where Stetson Brook meets East Monponsett Pond. From the mouth of the brook we paddled west to a public landing marked by a white buoy to the north of Monponsett Inn. We portaged across nearby to West Monponsett Lake, stopped briefly for lunch and to apply Tecnu, and then canoed north and then west to the opening of the Stump (?) River.

The cedar swamp through which the narrow but easily navigable river meanders is one of the most remote and beautiful parts of the trip, designated on the north side as the Peterson Swamp Wildlife Preserve. We saw several ospreys, a swan and her children (the fluffy signets sprinted across the surface of the water to escape us) and majestic Swamp Cedars, a tree notably absent from the North River since they were killed by the higher salinities brought by the opening of the New Mouth by the Portland Gale in 1898. Birds sang, flying back and forth between the sides of the marshy corridor, and we even spotted a Green Heron, though this sole specimen of its species was out-numbered by the maybe six Great Blue Herons we saw as well.

At the end of the cedar swamp, the river runs into a line of trees separating it from cranberry bogs and cuts to the south to a dam after which the waterway turns into the shallower Stump Brook. We hopped over the dam and began the journey south, noticing thousands of frogs hopping around and croaking at us. The brook is pretty straight, bordered on the east side by marsh and the west by woods. This should have made our passage relatively easy; however, we soon realized how the Brook must have gotten its name, as it is blessed with what seemed a never-ending series of stumps coupled with their fallen trunks blocking our way. It was here that I realized how lucky I was to have my uncle Seth, a physics professor at MIT, and his postdoc friend Olaf, with me, as they showed me ingeniously how to rock the bow of the canoe under logs and step over instead of portaging (an already too-common phenomenon on our trip).

After portaging a minor culvert, we put into the last section before the Stump Ponds, another swampy area that looked fine at first but turned into a nightmare when we discovered that it was for the most part completely covered with a terrible weed necessitating us to follow an incredibly thin waterway by pushing off the not completely solid plant with our paddles. Large frogs sitting on hummocks along the side waited til the last moment to jump away, seeming to croak incredulously at us. "Do we know where we are?" Olaf asked about a third of the way through the clogged brook. We saw many Great Blue Herons in this section and along the upper Stump Brook, probably due to the high density of frogs --- Seth told the story of how Heron became King of the frogs (from Aesop's Fables) in way of explanation. We eventually tired of the weedy plant and portaged to were the waterway became clear again, only advancing a bit further into Shrimp Pond and into the first of the Stump Ponds.

We were thankful for the relative facility of the two Stump Ponds, winding between trees and houses. To get from the first Stump Pond into Robbins Reservoir, we portaged over Elm and then Furnace Street. The second Stump Pond broadens into a larger pond graced with duckweed and lilypads. We discovered a pair of swans as it began to rain, but found even more (about 15 or 16) in Robbins Reservoir after following a brook into the large, swampy body of water just north of Rt. 106 in Halifax.

From the reservoir, we headed west to where what seemed like a relatively recent earthen dam separated Robbins Reservoir and Pond and portaged down, our destination finally in sight. We made good time canoeing out to the island, where Seth and Olaf had left our food, tent and sleeping bags while I was paddling the Herring Brook. Upon arrival to Osceola Island, an amenable camping site, we brought our baggage up to the campsite, Tecnu'ed up for a second time and then washed it off in the shallow pond before heading back up to start Seth's Norwegian gas burner and cook spaghetti and meatballs and eat some bread and cheese left over from the day. By the time we had finished, set up the tent and headed to bed, a comforting chorus of Gray Tree Frogs had begun to lull us to sleep, providing an unfamiliar lullaby that nonetheless must have been heard by countless Wampanoag and their ancestors during the thousands of years in which the passage saw use.

Day 2: Stetson Pond to East Monponsett

After rendez-vousing at the Herring Run Park in Pembroke with my mother, Seth, and Olaf, we drove to Stetson Pond where the Eisenbergs' very nicely let us launch from their property (thanks!). I had originally intended to paddle the entire length of the Herring Brook up til near Rt. 36, but just getting to Rt. 14 took me almost four hours, so we decided that it would probably be a good idea to jump ahead to Stetson Pond if we wanted to make it to our campsite for the night. After restocking water, thanking the Eisenbergs and taking a few pictures, we set out across the pond to the south where we were then able to portage into the Chaffin Reservoir.

After hopping over a small bank, we continued to the southwest on Chandler Mill Pond to the railroad tracks. Debating whether or not portaging over the railroad tracks would be dangerous, we finally decided to quickly hop over with our gear and canoe and relaunch into the beginnings of Stetson Brook. About ten minutes after we had gotten back into the boat, the sound of a passing train confirmed that our speedy portage (thanks to Seth's light canoe and great portaging abilities) was a good strategy. The water looked a little dirty, almost orange at first, but the multitude of fish flitting under us reassured us that
the pollution (if present) was not too dangerous.

Stetson Brook begins without being that bad, as one bank borders a field and it is not too overgrown. Looking down, we continued to see many fish swimming around in the shaded depths. However, it is a pretty deep stream so when it becomes more overgrown as you get farther to the south, with branches hanging over the brook, it gets to be more difficult as we had to get out at times and stand on logs, etc. in order to not get soaked. The brook quickly degenerated into a first-rate swamp reminiscent of Apocalypse Now or some kind of Malaysian jungle and Olaf rued his decision not to buy a machete on his pre-trip REI visit (they were on sale and would have been very useful). The overgrowth made it hard even to drag the canoe forward, so we rapidly exited the canoe, discovering the depth of the mud (up to our knees at best; up to around mid-abdomen at worst) and began our slog towards East Monponsett Pond.

Our one piece of good luck was that locals Ray and Mark Grimasson had been there before us with cutters, and had cut most of the larger branches that blocked our passage. We tried to find a better way to either side; but it just gets harder and more overgrown if you try to go either east or west, so the best (and pretty much only) way forward is to just follow the direction of the current to the south. We definitely wondered how the Wampanoags dealt with the almost impassible swamp that is Stetson Brook; perhaps they kept up the Canoe Passage much better than it is today. Nearing the end of the brook, the disembodied voice of my mother floated towards us --- she had come bearing Tecnu, a lotion to help prevent the rash caused by poison ivy, a plant present in great numbers in the portion we had just completed. Finally, we had achieved victory: the open water of the Monponsetts!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Day 2: The Herring Brook

I left the Third Herring Brook early the next morning in my kayak and paddled past the Washington Street and Rt. 53 Bridge to where the North River opens up into a beautiful freshwater tidal marsh. An osprey flew overhead as I approached the confluence of the Herring Brook and the Indian Head River. I took a left to follow the Herring Brook upstream. The brook is easily navigable at first, and adorned by Yellow Flag Iris and Purple Iris, along with many islands of Arrowhead. I saw several Great Blue Herons and a Snowy Egret, along with several Painted Turtles along the bank.

By the time I got a bit further up the brook, however, the passage got a lot narrower and became more overgrown, making it necessary to leave the boat at times. The downstream current also made things somewhat more difficult. At one point, I was definitely lost, and left my boat in a particularly overgrown and constrained area to go explore. I turned back after growing thirsty but could not find my boat for at least 20 minutes, and then finally found a portage route to what thankfully turned out to be the real Herring Brook. Not completely fazed, I was able to appreciate the beauty of the Brook as it meandered upstream, and even took some pictures of the landscape and of a brilliant blue Damselfly (the Ebony Jewelwing). Looking ahead where the marsh began to open up, I could see the Pembroke Herring Run Park and made it through the underbrush to meet up with my mother, uncle Seth and Olaf.