Exploring the Winter Rivers: The South River Barrens

My second foray to one of the AWWA region’s frozen rivers brought me to the South River, which enters Province Lake almost exactly at the border between Parsonsfield, Maine and Wakefield, New Hampshire.

Starting right about here.

Focusing right about here.

I was excited to get out onto the South River, as it is the largest river system entering Province Lake.  I’ve been working in the Province area quite a bit as of late (as you can see here, here, here, and here too) to help reduce the cyanobacteria blooms which have occurred in the area repeatedly for the past several years, so I thought it would be nice to check out one of the lake’s biggest tributaries.

Province Lake

Province Lake

I started my trip off Rt-153 where the South River runs under a culvert into Province Lake. From here, I made my way over the icy snowbank and began my trek into the marshy surroundings of the river.  Despite the clear definition of the river where it meets the culvert, I still had a difficult time keeping track of the main channel as I pushed away from the road. The South River didn’t have a coniferous canopy cover to shield it from winter’s barrage of snow and ice, and as a result the river was completely hidden from view with the exception of a few sparse patches of water popping up in the wetland brush. The river also takes multiple small channels through a wetland area within the first several hundred feet. I eventually found myself hundreds of feet away from the main river, wondering both where I had gone wrong and how a large river can just disappear.

Pretty easy to get lost walking through this.

Pretty easy to get lost walking through this.

A quick bit of recon led me back to the river and the road. Once again, I made my way following the river’s path; this time really focusing on following the main stem.  At one point I even found the faded tracks of another animal that appeared to have followed the river. The recent thaw and refreeze had blurred the tracks’ definition, but whatever had made them was definitely bigger than a house cat.

Finally, I pushed through the scrubby wetlands and into a section of open river. The river straightened out and I could see a few thousand feet in front of me, and hundreds of feet on either side.

The vast icy expanse surrounding the South River

The vast icy expanse surrounding the South River

The running water was clearly channelized now, tearing an uninterrupted white band through the scrub. The river’s normal banks were defined on either side by a sudden rise in elevation, however a closer look at the surrounding wetland vegetation and geography tells the whole story. Scrubby wetlands vegetation means that the ground hundreds of feet on either side of the South River stays wet. That is somewhat common in slow moving rivers. The less obvious thing is that on either edge of this wetland we can find sharp rises in elevation.  During floods, the water in this area rises above the normal banks and floods the entire wetland area.  The area of woodland vegetation begins to occur on the sharp rises past the wetland area, where “normal” plants can put down roots and survive. This means that during a high water time, the South River likely triples or quadruples in width.

I continued onward, the sparse vegetation and glaring white snow of the river giving a dystopian feel to my little walk. I traveled only a mile or two in that day, but the South River felt endless in snowshoes, each step leading to more of the same, each slight angle around bend in the river revealing another vast expanse of ice.

Time and space seem to work differently here.

Time and space seem to work differently here.

And then I found poop, and it brightened my day.

Hoo-ray!

Hoo-ray!

I’d had a suspicion about the ill-defined tracks from earlier that day. My identification skills being somewhat dull from city living and never having them in the first place, I naturally assumed they were something big and dangerous like a mountain lion, or possibly a long extinct relic of the ice age hunting me behind the cover of the bushes. My mind wanders when I’m alone in nature.

Obviously the work of something that wants to eat me.

Obviously the work of something that wants to eat me.

My logical side however, thought it was likely beaver, mink, or fox. Of course, I otter have known better.

Get it?

It was otter scat, is what I’m getting at.

funny-otter

Even this otter hates my puns.

Now, not to focus on the poop, but there was poop all over the place.  I had first noticed it  a while back and had my suspicions that whatever was dropping scat was living in the water by how frequently it popped up by thawed pockets. Then there were two key pieces of evidence:

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Exhibit A

I tried to capture a photo as clearly as possible, but those pictures show an opening in the river with tracks that come out of the water, move about 15 feet away in a semicircle, and loop right back into the hole. This narrowed it down to otters or beavers, and then I saw this:

IMG_0508Exhibit B

That is a track clearly marked with a belly slide. River otters love to slide where they can; it’s a fun, fast, and efficient way for them to move. Also, a closer look at the scat (because how can you not look closer, right?) revealed small stones and bits of shell from their favorite meal, freshwater mollusks.

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Not all can handle the glamor of my job.

 A large area of open water with a concentrated amount of scat indicated that their burrow was likely nearby.

IMG_0507Otters aren’t the only creatures roaming the banks of the south river in winter. Not far from where I believed the otter burrow to be, I found coyote scat. It’s my belief that a coyote came to the area looking for an otter based snack, and as he was visiting he left this behind. The size was much different from the otter’s, as was the (ahem) composition.

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Not as grainy, much larger. Thanks for letting me borrow your gloves, dad!

Satisfied with the day’s  adventure, I turned north and used a shortcut to quickly make my way over dry land through the woods and back onto Rt-153. Walking between the trees, I couldn’t help but think of my thought process while working on the Province Lake Watershed Management Plan. I’d always thought about how the plan would help the lake and the people on it. My snowshoeing trip gave me a different perspective though. Preserving the Province Lake watershed doesn’t just help balance a lake with a nutrient overload for the benefit of waterfront residents. It protects the natural ecosystem of the area, plants and creatures that have lived in the region for millenia without major change, always present but almost unseen. The man made world dominates the developed, asphalt border of Province Lake, but a few hundred feet away nature still prevails. And that is a trait which will always be worth protecting.

Places like this are disappearing, but they are worth an uphill battle.

Places like this are disappearing, but they are worth an uphill battle.

I’ve added a few additional photos below. Be sure to like us on Facebook and/or Twitter (@AWWA_Lakes) and look out for next week’s blog post!

Bird's nest

Bird’s nest.

The canopy of conifers on my way out from the river.

The canopy of conifers on my way out from the river.

Some really well defined otter tracks.

Some really well defined tracks. I’m thinking raccoon.

A closeup of where i believe otters are living in the rivers

A closeup of where I believe otters are living in the river. Note the defined entryways.

Ice can freeze in many strange ways. Here we have a layer of ice over liquid wwater, being contained by a layer of snow and ice.

Ice can freeze in many strange ways. Here we have a layer of ice over liquid water, being contained by a layer of snow and ice.

Lastly, for those who came here just looking for more pictures of my dog Gir, who was in last week’s blog on Pike Brook, here he is dressed as a taco for Halloween

Gir Taco

Exploring the Winter Rivers: Gir Explores Pike Brook

It has been a long, cold winter here in New Hampshire. We’ve had a polar vortex, frequent snow storms, and I’m pretty sure my black Prius has turned permanently white with salt. However, a combination of cabin fever and a rare lull in my workload has made this the perfect time to pick up our annual winter blog series about some of the water related features in the AWWA region. The lakes have been relatively inactive since they first froze, and Dustin stole my thunder last year by doing a dam tour (the puns practically write themselves!), but one thing we hadn’t covered yet was the rivers. So, one morning I grabbed a pair of snowshoes, my pug Gir (I’m not above using cute dog pictures to get people to read this), and headed out to a nearby brook.

The first stream I tackled was Pike Brook in Brookfield. The brook’s headwaters start in Brookfield and move into Wakefield, where it meets up with Locke Brook and eventually the Branch River.

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Gir, mentally preparing for the task ahead in my parents’ driveway.

I grabbed a pair of snowshoes from my parents’ house and proceeded to drive down Stoneham Road. I grew up on Plantation Drive, just off of Stoneham Road, so I know the area well. No matter how many times I drive through it, the beauty of the small farms interspersed with picturesque woodlands never ceases to amaze me. We each have our own ways of seeing  our home state, an area which defines it, and for me Stoneham Road is about as close as you can get to a defining image of New Hampshire.

I found a safe place to park in a stretch of undeveloped land near Pike Brook. I donned my snowshoes, grabbed Gir’s leash, and we were on the move.

Some of us were more excited about this than others...

Some of us were more excited about leaving the car than others…

The Pike Brook culvert at Stoneham Rd

The Pike Brook culvert at Stoneham Rd

Pike Brook goes under Stoneham Road via a large culvert. While the culvert seems to be adequate for moving  water under the road, it lacks a naturally lined river bottom as well as an adequate size to maintain the river’s width. This can serve as a barrier to aquatic life forms such as aquatic insects and fish by increasing the velocity of water moving through the river at this point. To its credit though, the culvert is larger than most in the area, and there seems to be a minimal impact downstream.

The canopy along Pike Brook

The canopy along Pike Brook

I’m lucky to have a small dog, because the snow pack consisted of powder covered by a thin crust of ice; the result of recent melt and refreeze. My snowshoes kept me from the worst of it, and 20 lb Gir was able to traverse it without breaking the upper layer. Immediately after the stream crossing, the brook meanders back and forth throughout the woods. Its banks are well defined, and there is a massive amount of canopy cover keeping the brook cool in the summer. The woodlands in this area are lush, with a healthy mix of conifers such as pine and hemlock; as well as deciduous trees such as oak and beech. The stream was narrow, and carved through the woods away from the road.

Gir was more than a little interested in this area

Gir was more than a little interested in this area

A snowmobile trail runs through this area, and I was happy to see that there appeared to be no ill effects. If anything, it is what is preserving the surrounding area as forest, and maintaining valuable wildlife habitat. Snowmobile riders enjoy the woodlands and keep the area undeveloped, maintaining a buffer area for wildlife.  I saw a few songbirds, and even a few holes from small mammals (likely squirrels, but I’m no wildlife expert).

We continued to trek our way along the stream and noticed it began to widen. The woodlands opened up into what appeared, under the thick blanket of snow, to be a meadow. The vast number of dead trees however, reveal that this is actually a wetland. Initially I thought this might have been caused by a beaver dam, but reaching the end I discovered it went back to a narrow woodland stream with no impediments. When water from a stream or river saturates a low point, it often causes the roots of trees (especially deciduous trees) to rot, quickly killing them where they stand. The brush in this area was thick, but we pushed on; me finding the path of least resistance and Gir attempting to eat every bit of grass, brush and loose snow he could find.

As we continued over the frozen wetland, I began to realize the significance of this area. The numerous snags (standing dead trees) provide habitat and food for insect larvae, which in turn provide for woodpeckers and other birds. By breaking the line of the forest, a large portion of edge habitat is created for fauna such as hawks, crows, songbirds and deer. This one wetland area creates many new niches for species to fill, and promotes the overall biodiversity of the area. While no animals were present that day, I can see how the area would be a hotspot for all sorts of creatures come spring. I tried to quickly outline my thoughts on the matter in the video below.

Reaching the end of the wetland area, we decided to make our way back to the car. On the way back, Gir and I noticed something that really sums up why AWWA loves to plant vegetated buffers along lakes and streams.

For those who can’t watch the video, that is a root mat from a fallen tree, and you can see just how well it holds the surface soils together. Some really amazing stuff! And yes, of course Gir tried to eat it.

Above: One VERY tired pug.

Above: One VERY tired pug.

I made my way back to the car along the snowmobile trail. I wondered what the rest of the stream looked like, what the headwaters uphill looked like and how the Pike Brook met up with Locke Brook. My time tromping around Brookfield was up though; I had to get back to the AWWA office, and I’m pretty sure Gir was sleepwalking at this point. I loaded my gear and my pup in the car, and we drove off down the bumpy New England road, a man, his dog, and the memory of a babbling winter brook.

 

I’ve posted some additional photos from the hike below. Also, stay tuned as I’ll be adding a new river blog each week while winter lasts:

Open water dots the wetland area

Open water dots the wetland area

The bed of the stream is heavily vegetated, suggesting that it is somewhat it receives minimal flow through the dry season.

The bed of the stream is heavily vegetated, suggesting that it receives minimal flow through the dry season.

while some parts are covered entirely with snow and ice

Some parts of the stream are covered entirely with snow and ice…

While some parts remain open water

…while some parts remain open water

Dense brush dominates the wetland section of the stream. It consists mostly of birch, dogwood, and box elder.

Dense brush dominates the wetland section of the stream. It consists mostly of birch, dogwood, and box elder.

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This branch fell 30 ft from a tree top and landed about 12 feet from us. Always be aware when hiking, especially if you’re alone!

 

Snow shoes were invaluable for traversing the deep snow in the woods

Snow shoes were invaluable for traversing the deep snow in the woods

Another great example of a root mat!

Another great example of a root mat!