Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Day 4: Dan Shafto

Day four - Sunday, June 12th - saw Dan Shafto and I paddling down towards Dighton Rock on the Taunton River. Below is his account of our trip.

Up until the end of May, I knew nothing about the North and South Rivers Watershed Association’s Wampanoag Canoe Passage. Then, sitting in traffic one Sunday afternoon, I turned on WATD to hear Captain Lou interviewing Nik about the upcoming event. Having grown up in Marshfield, I was familiar with the NSRWA and the great work they do for the health of our rivers. As I listened to Nik describing this fundraiser, now coming into its third year, I was struck by the ingenuity of the idea. What could inspire people to care about these rivers more than recognizing how critical they were to all aspects of Wampanoag life for hundreds of years?

Just a couple weeks later, I was on the river with Nik and his horde of supporters for Day 1 of the paddle up the North River. It was a beautiful, sunny day—perfect for a paddle on the river. Two days later, Nik graciously invited me along for Day 4.

We shoved off from the Summer Street bridge (under construction) with the threat of thundershowers, and immediately I was struck by the quiet of the undeveloped banks of the upper Taunton River.

Since it was only Nik and I in the canoe, there was little time for picture-taking, but as we made our way steadily downstream, we observed much wildlife: hawks, otters, herons, cormorants, even a lone fisher startled by our presence. Though the banks were mostly overgrown, we encountered a few landings with evidence of human activity. The first was populated by a series of structures formed by sticks tied together with twine. Some looked like chairs, others like tables, and still others resembled no practical shapes, but instead hung eerily from the branches of trees. We continued on downstream.

Along the way, Nik told me more about the passage and its importance to the Wampanoag as a throughway, as a food source, as a hospitable area for settlement. Many of the bodies of water along the passage today are plugged by dams, polluted by modern industry, or simply forgotten. But each year Nik paddles its length, more people become reacquainted with this living historical landmark and its importance as a vital ecosystem, a source of food and water, a mode of transportation, and a recreational area. It is a part of our collective heritage and it’s to our benefit to keep it healthy.

After passing under some bridges with faster-moving water, we pulled out at a clearing to take a short break and have a look around. There was a large fire pit and a few chairs under a handmade awning. We took a mental note of this excellent camping spot for possible use on future paddles.

Under the next bridge, we ran the fastest stretch of water yet, then passed around a few bends and came to our pullout, only to find a welcome committee at the finish line!

We carried the canoe up the bank, a bit disoriented by the commotion of the modern world after a few hours paddling through the serenity of the upper Taunton River. As it turned out, the Route 44 bridge was being dedicated to a local soldier who had received the Medal of Honor.

After tying the canoe on top of Nik’s van, we were off to find our starting point. But that was not as easy as we thought it would be! Due to the construction, the Summer Street bridge was closed, and all roads around it were blanketed with detour signs directing us away from our destination. After a half hour of contemplation and driving around in circles, we finally came upon the Summer Street bridge—on the opposite bank from my car. Luckily, the bridge was not blocked to pedestrian traffic, so I walked across uninhibited and rescued my abandoned vehicle.

I have to admit I thought no river could compare in beauty to the North River, but I was impressed by the Taunton and its environs. Equally impressive, though, is the contribution the Wampanoag Paddlers have made to the NSRWA and toward raising awareness for our local waterways, which must be seen not as resources to exploit, but as invaluable natural systems to appreciate and preserve.

Day 3: Warren Winders

Day 3 saw my youngest sister Eliza, Warren Winders and I paddling the Satucket River to the Matfield to where they meet up with the Town River to form the Taunton - finally! Many thanks to both of them. Below are some thoughts on the trip by Warren, the head of the local Trout Unlimited Branch and one of the principal agents of the restoration of Red Brook, an outdoorsman and environmentalist. Thanks also to Randy Julius for his hospitality.

The Wampanoag Canoe Passage has symbolic and actual importance on several planes.

First, it reminds us of the people who lived here for thousands of years in a sustainable way, and in so doing, makes us consider the consequences of a "way of life" that we have largely, unthinkingly inherited. Second, doing the Passage brings attention to the watersheds and raises money for a worthy cause, the NSRWA. Third, being able to do the Passage, or parts of it, with friends and the support of friends, helps to build a community that recognizes the vital, life sustaining roles that these rivers play in our lives.

Lastly, and most importantly, there is the personal experience. Paddling the North River with Randy Julius involved considerable time travel as we talked about people paddling their mishoons up and down the river; stopped to read the signs where the old shipyards had been; and landed on Blueberry Island to briefly explore for Indian artifacts and imagine Wampanoag hunters and fisherman taking a break from their paddle, as we were doing. The brilliant green of the new saltgrass, osprey, gulls, heron; the effort of paddling against a steady wind; the changing light as storm clouds darkened the sky all lent a timelessness to the journey, as though we could have been paddling at any point in a chain of a thousand or so years.

A day later, traveling the Satucket with Nik and Eliza , in the hypothermic haze of the 50 degree late spring drizzle, team work and maintaining a good attitude were the drills as we waded more than floated the river, hauling the canoe and then scrambling over and under an endless succession of fallen trees. This is when the character of the people you are with becomes very important. That I actually found this trip, and the challenges that it posed, to be enjoyable can be attributed to Nik and his sister. Very obviously, log slogging the Satucket is not for everyone, but it seems that we were actually having a good time, at times laughing a little insanely as we ploughed forward through thick clouds of vampire mosquitoes. Early on we bounced over the ancient Wampanoag fish weir that helped us recall the Satucket's past abundance of herring that made their way up to Robbins Pond to spawn. And, not far past the weir, we we got out of the canoe and floated it through the sluice of the Cotton Gin dam that blocks the herring from reaching Robbins Pond today.

The broad and, mostly, log free Matfield and Taunton Rivers came as a relief after the blow downs and confinement of the Satucket's steep clay banks. On the Matfield we encountered a Momma wood duck and her brood. We followed her down stream as she played her injured duck role to distract us from her young. From time to time snapping turtle heads emerged from the current for a quick look at the passing canoe. Occasionally, a gangling blue heron would rise from the stream bank, its spear fishing temporarily interrupted by our appearance. Nik pointed out the massive swamp oaks that dotted the grassy flood plain. At times a house would be visible in the distance; but, for the most part, we were paddling through a riparian wilderness seemingly divorced from the bustle of humanity that we knew was taking place nearby. At one bend a surprised deer, in its sleek, red summer coat, scrambled from its streamside bed and bolted up the high bank for the woods.

Even so, one human impact became apparent as soon as the Satucket joined the Matfield. The pungent, almost too sweet smell of treated water coming from Brockton's treatment plant took over for the rest of the trip. It was a not so subtle reminder that the river is still being degraded by all that human bustling. As we paddled, we tried to imagine a time when people drank directly from the river to quench their thirst. The idea seemed very foreign to me as we floated along on a river of nutrients flowing out of Brockton.

Not too long after hauling around the treacherous maw of a collapsed dam (old pilings protrude from the river like the teeth of a hungry jaw), located just below Route 104, we arrived at the steep rip rap of the Cherry Street Bridge. By now darkness was closing in. Wet, cold, and covered with mud, Nik and I hauled the canoe up the rip rap and across the road while his sister went on ahead to start the van parked in the grass just off the tar. As the van's heater slowly warmed us, Nik drove me back to Randy's place where I had joined them hours before. We parted ways in the damp glow of the porch light of Randy's log cabin. Driving home through a steady rain, I thought about all that I had learned from Nik, and from other friends like Tim and Randy. Wisdom doesn't necessarily come with age. In my case, it may never arrive, but it helps to have friends who drag you along on the exploration of rivers, and an idea, with all that it entails - like the Wampanoag Canoe Passage.

Day 2: Tim Watts

Along with friends Andrew Cha and Alex Polizzotti, river activist and author of the wonderful blog Glooskap and the Frog accompanied me on the second day of the paddle on Friday, June 10th. Below are some of his thoughts about the journey.

Traveling the Wampanoag Commemorative Canoe Passage was an interesting experience for me. I had never paddled the North River and streams above Monponsett Ponds. On the second day of our journey we paddled across Monponsett into a peaceful cove bordered by white cedar trees and swamp maples. The undeveloped shoreline hinted of times past, a snapshot of what once was. It was very beautiful. As our canoe slipped into the boggy entrance of Stump Brook the concept of time began turning in my mind.

My thoughts began wandering into what may have been an altogether different concept, relationship with this ???? we call time. The native relationship, in this case the Wampanoag relationship to time. Today we tend to take for granted our relationship to time. Relationships with distinct divisions between work, leisure and sleep and then further divisions by our clocks into smaller increments of hours and seconds.

How might our continuity of living differ without such small and sharp divisions and the resulting demands put upon our individual and collective minds by them?

Where did our template for time division come from? Have we become servants to a system we designed to serve us? Who were the architects of it and why?

It's funny, thinking such is like paddling a river with an inviting tributary around every bend. If you try to explore each the end of the river may never be reached.

This question of time comes clearest to me when framed this way. If today I am at work, working late at 7:00 in the evening then I consider myself as such, at work, working, doing something other. If I am a Wampanoag tending to a field, fish or game at 7:00 in the evening do I think of myself as working, doing other, or simply engaging in the practice of living, being?

Words and their meaning become valuable to define for thought the difference between "work" incorporated into the continuity of living and being as opposed to incorporating life into and around a tightly wound work schedule. Days diced up....... time to wake up, drive, arrive, break, lunch, break again, drive again and finally home to shoehorn in a bit of living before the cycle begins anew. It's disconcerting enough to write and read such a schedule, never mind live it. Yet many of us do, day in and day out. It is that deep seed of underlying anxiety that we sometimes sense but can't quite root out and pin down.

It is in such places while engaging in such simple activities as paddling that we can step within the tune of a different time scale and realize awareness. Instinctively most are drawn to rivers, oceans, mountains, forests all which have a subtle way of sewing seeds of thought larger than self, reconnecting us with the solar and lunar cycles all which live within us as we live within them. Hmmmmm?

Further downstream our party arrived at the dam owned and abused by the City of Brockton to retain artificially high water levels in Monponsett for transfer to Silver Lake. Silver Lake is headwaters to the Jones River which often runs almost dry from withdrawals by Brockton for the city water supply. No water was passing the dam upon our arrival.

The stream below had drained to little more than a mucky slurry, a thin veil of water covering. As we dragged, pushed, poled and paddled down Stump Brook I said to Nik.... " Well, it is interesting to catch a glimpse of the stream bed here. I have always wondered how deep the water was, it's tea like color hides its true depth during normal flows."

Sitting at the keyboard now, a week gone past the thought stirs in my mind how nature sometimes speaks in peculiar ways when we take the time to listen. Previous to seeing the stream channel drained I had imagined it much deeper, the impression from above suggested water six or ten feet deep, when in fact it was hardly two. The water by way of its tea colored nature created an illusion of depth and distance. It strikes me now that the illusion created by the dark water of the stream is similar to the illusion we create of distance from cycles natural by way of our relationship to time and modern fast paced lives. Though we cannot turn back the clocks and calenders to the time of the Wampanoags, we can by engaging with nature become aware and find ways to better balance and incorporate work into living. It is trips such as this one and simply spending bits and pieces of our busy time in these places that put the breath back in breathing and thought back into thinking.

Wampanoag Canoe Passage 2011

The 2011 Wampanoag Canoe Passage started out with a record-breaking 26 people, 6 canoes and 7 kayaks on Thursday, June 9th. Thanks to everyone who took part. Here are some pictures from Day 1. Above are some musings on the Passage from others who took part.