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.

IMG_0396

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.

IMG_0452

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!