Canoeing the upper Charles

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Flag of United States  , Massachusetts
Monday, June 16, 2008

One of the things I like about my city is that you don't have to go far to get away from it all. 15 or 20 minutes in almost any direction will bring you to the woods, hills, river or bay. In addition to that there are numerous things in my own neighborhood--a stroll around Jamaica Pond, Arnold Arboretum, or Franklin Park, all within short walking distance or just a nice sit out on the back porch surrounded by trees. All of this and a quick ride to downtown on the T around the corner.
Having a canoe in one's back yard allows access to other things not accessible by the standard means. Numerous spots to launch around the outlying towns make for a nice calming experience floating down the river, fishing or looking for wildlife.
Of course, if one catches a fish, it is best not to eat it. After all, it is the Charles, once so polluted it stank up the whole city, especially on a hot summer day.
It has been about thirty years since the cleanup effort began, and the results are clearly visible. Apart from the occasional beer can or soda bottle and in a couple of places the rusting lump that might have been an old car engine, the Charles is reasonably clean, though cloudy. When that old band sang "love that dirty water" they weren't kidding. One of the nicknames is "The Muddy Charles," though it is hard to tell if the suspended particles are of organic origin or a more toxic variety. In the end it is probably best not to soak one's hand in the water. Though it is probably perfectly safe, the reputation of this meandering stream does not die so easily in the back of one's mind. . .

Winding through fairly populated areas, one is surprised at the wildness of this river. I myself have taken numerous trips by canoe, exploring many sections, and went through many areas that are totally undeveloped and in their natural state. Just around the bend, wetlands full of birds, aquatic mammals and fish await in the middle of the city!
With my friend Zero Boy on a visit from New York, (, we loaded the canoe onto my van's roof rack, drove 15 minutes, and launched. A couple of hundred yards downstream the road disappeared, the sound of cars driving faded, the houses became fewer, and another world opened. Trees line the mainland side, and on the other are silty banks, filled with marsh grass, nettle and tough small shrubs. Perfect habitat for migratory birds and many other native species, all enjoying the bounty of early summer.

A partial list of wildlife seen:

Great Blue Heron: A spectacular wading bird, about a meter tall that looks and sounds like some prehistoric creature, a pterodactyl perhaps. We managed to drift very close to one as it examined us with an ancient eye.

Goldfinches, cardinals, blue jays, orioles, robins and towhees, catbirds, martins and crows. Sparrows, swallows, and swifts creating a din of birdsong, flying and nesting everywhere. Since the destruction of habitat and the introduction of invasive species such as the European Starling, the songbird has been on the wane, but you wouldn't know it here. Perhaps the little colorful feathered fellows have other such oases in other states, biding their time to make a comeback when we least expect it. I sure hope so, I miss their pretty songs and detest the clicking ugliness of the starling.

Beaver. Otter. Muskrat. Two rodents and a weasel. Otters and muskrats make their home in burrows in the silty mud of the bank, and beaver lodges are evident on the side of one of the numerous "ponds" the river slows into. The beaver's flat tail becomes evident as well, when the canoe startles him, flapping on the water to make it seem there is some hidden sea monster waiting below the surface.

There are the flowers as well, and huge old trees, oaks and maples, birches and elms that somehow escaped the axe all those many years ago. Some of them are close to the bank and indeed even in the water, their eroded roots giving out the support from under and those that are still standing resemble mangroves with their twisted patterns. Wild roses and morning glory peek out from the grasses, and cat-tails, arrowroot and yellow water-lily flowers grow in the shallows.
The water itself teems with fish, insects, and plants. Smallmouth and largemouth bass live down below, yellow and white perch, carp and a host of others. Water skaters of all sizes use the surface tension as their highway, and dragon- and damselfly in the middle of the mating season attach like squadrons of fighter planes refueling in midair.
The full cycle of life, from predator to prey, scavenger to feed and back to predator is apparent in a single glance.

A beautiful day with much to see. As much as I regret forgetting my camera, it is still a joy to describe the sights with words instead. Perhaps something has been lost in this technological age--one needs not remember so much detail, as it is all there, right in the camera. One also needs not write so much in the way of description, as a picture "tells a thousand words." Still, to me there is something perhaps better in a written description, it makes one bring up the memory in vivid and living color rather than rely on the crutch of some electronic device to store it by proxy. The human mind, after all, though its data may be corrupted, never runs out of batteries.

Yeah, right. Next time the camera comes along. .
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