Following the Blackstone River

Despite hundred of years of industrial pollution, the Blackstone River Valley survives.

A complex of rivers, tributaries, wetlands, forests, lakes and streams., the Blackstone River Watershed contains more than 30 dams  in its 46-mile length. This does not include dams on tributaries and other waterways, only those on the Blackstone itself.

West Dam

The watershed links two states and 24 communities. Over time and with the demise of the mills and disappearance of the factories, the dams created marsh and wetlands that have become critical to the ecosystem.

Mumford River, Uxbridge
Mumford River, Uxbridge

Several lakes are part of the system, including Webster Lake and some big ponds that seem to be nameless. They are just there, by the road, sometimes with boat slips or docks, occasionally having little beaches where you can swim, if you can find them.

The Blackstone River‘s levels rise and fall with the seasons, with heavy rain and melting snow, and with periods of drought.

About Those Dams 

Depending on who you ask, there are at least 30 dams on the Blackstone, but there many more dams if you include tributaries and large streams. In fact, there are dams just about everywhere if you look for them. They create waterfalls and exquisite ponds, as well as wetlands.

Manchaug

Dams would typically be associated with a mill, but many now appear to stand alone. Probably, there was a mill there once. But it’s gone.  The dam lives on in the middle of nowhere. Figure there was something there  — maybe a gristmill for local farms or something like that. Some  of these old dams are works of art.

cropped-75-blackstonegold-nk-1.jpg

Old Stone Fences

Speaking of the middle of nowhere, a lot of land around here was cultivated but has returned to forest. Our home is on former farm land. Many clues about the history areas in New England can be found if you can find the stone fences.

96-StoneFence-HP-2

Our modest acreage is crisscrossed by stone fences. These walls mark the edges where fields were. Now, they’re the middle nowhere, which of course is just where I live.

Finding Places

Most of the good stuff is invisible until you get out of your car and take a walk. I look for areas where I can safely stop and park (the definition of what is good enough changes depending on terrain and how badly I want to stop). With narrow roads bounded by close-growing woods and wetland, it’s good to be cautious when you take your vehicle to an unpaved area.

Often, patches of ground that look like weedy, slightly muddy ground are the edge of the marsh. I use the “if it looks wet but it hasn’t rained in the last few days, don’t go there” rule. That generally works. I am not as intrepid as once I was . The problem is always to find a safe place  for the car that still puts me within modest walking distance from my target area. I should mention that I can’t walk too well these days. My goat-girl clambering years are past.  I’m not surefooted and my hip joints and I have a deal: I let them alone and they let me walk.

Swans_20 - Marilyn Armstrong

I look for little sandy pull-off areas that appear to adjoin a dirt road, and if possible, near an overpasses. An overpass tells me that the river is right under me, so whatever I’m looking for is not far. When you see a pull-off next to a dirt walking trail, that means other people come there. Not instructional and surely not on any map, but for this area, pretty good. Unlike the suburbs, rural areas don’t have signs telling you what you can or cannot do … or where you are. They figure you know where you are or ought to, and you’ll do whatever you came to do.

On the up side, you’re unlikely to have anyone yell at you that you’re not allowed to go there. For that matter, if you fall in the rapids and drown, it might be a while before they find you. I have adjusted my roaming accordingly. I try to bring a friend who can call 911 if I do something dumb.

If these places have names, there’s no sign. Rhode Island is better about signage than Massachusetts, where the attitude is “If you don’t know where you are, why are  you here?” Rhode Island is more densely populated, maybe because it is so tiny.

Here, in south central Massachusetts, there’s a lot of open areas that don’t seem to belong to anyone and it’s rare to bump into other people. When you do, they aren’t chatty. You don’t go to places no one can find to converse with strangers. Thus, most places I go  places are unmarked. No road signs, nothing to tell you which piece of river, lake or dam you’ve found. If you don’t find it amusing, you’ll spend all your time grousing, so you might as well laugh.

Photograph by Garry Armstrong. Aldrich tributary.
Photograph by Garry Armstrong. Aldrich tributary.

When I’m shooting, I roam. I often have no idea how I got to wherever I landed. Sometimes the GPS helps, but many places are off-road and not on the map. There are places I’ve been once, but never found again. Off a path by a bridge along a side road near a farm, maybe in Massachusetts, perhaps Rhode Island. I have always loved going wherever the road took me.

I’m especially fond of the old low stone bridges that I call “keyholes” but probably have another name. A lot of them are also now in the middle of nowhere, on paths that are long gone and not even accessible by foot.

The Canal in Fall

Some of the oldest bridges are still in use, repaired and rebuilt many times, now supporting heavy traffic — cars and trucks — on roads that were designed for horse and buggy or herds of cows. Better not to think too hard on that.

One of the larger lakes that forms a part of the watershed is Webster Lake. A map from 1795 shows the name as “Chargoggaggoggmancogmanhoggagogg”. A survey of the lake from 1830 names the lake as “Chaubunagungmamgnamaugg”, which is an older name. The following year, both Dudley and Oxford, which at that time bordered the lake, filed maps listing it as “Chargoggagoggmanchoggagogg”.

75-SundownOnTheLake-HPCR-3

Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg or Webster Lake is probably the largest open body of water in the valley. Spelling of  this lake’s long (probably Algonquin) name varies a lot, depending on where you read about it. Since it isn’t English, it’s at best a rough transliteration anyhow. The actual meaning is conjecture. Local residents pride themselves on being able to pronounce the long name of the lake. I can’t. I just call it Webster Lake. It doesn’t make it less beautiful.

And so it goes. Hopefully there will come a day (soon!) when the pollution is gone and our river is clean. Meanwhile, the beauty is there for all of us.

Author: Marilyn Armstrong

Opinionated writer with hopes for a better future for all of us!

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