The Water Closet, March 8, 2013

The mouth of the Ipswich River as seen from a helicopter. Stream team photo


    For seven years, we Closeteers and Stream Teamers here in the Water Closet have extolled the virtues of our rivers on the North Shore and the estuaries into which their waters mix with the sea.  Descriptions have been from the ground, canoes, kayaks and dories.  Last week a lucky Closeteer was invited to join a long time town of Middleton leader as he opened his 80th birthday gift.   Henry Tragert’s family had given him a helicopter ride.  There was room in the transparent package for pilot and guide as well Birthday Boy.  The old Closeteer who was asked to serve as guide has an active interest in the Ipswich River and area history.  Friend Henry, long president of the Middleton Historical Society, kindly allowed him to come along.

Last week on a quiet afternoon, blessed by a gentle southerly breeze, three of us climbed aboard a small capsule with a great blade and no wings.  The Closeteer who had never been in a “chopper” before wondered about the absence of wings.  He said to himself, “Hell, if TV traffic guys do it everyday so can I”.  The pilot, owner of the helicopter, was soft spoken and reassuring.  After warming up the engine and donning headsets to cut out engine-blade sounds and to allow easy talk, our vessel slowly levitated above the tarmac at Beverly Airport.  Then in what seemed no time at all, we were flying east at 1000 feet doing 90 knots.  Any worry about the seemingly fragile machine was overwhelmed by the pleasant scene and replaced in the guide by a concern about what he was seeing.  From a fifth-mile up, the hills flatten out; nothing is as seen from the ground.  The familiar ocean on the starboard bow cheered him, he knew well the coastline made famous in Henry Longfellow’s poem, “The Wreck of the Hesperus”.  Another Henry pointed out the reef, Norman’s Woe, where Longfellow’s creation went down a century and a half ago.


It was the schooner Hesperus,

       That sailed the wintry sea;

        And the skipper had taken his little daughter,

      To bear him company.”

You can guess the rest.  The seas on our flying day were without the gales that had taken so many ships on the often treacherous lee shore below.  Very quickly we were looking down on the rocky indentations of Manchester and Magnolia harbors with the world famous one of Gloucester seen clearly ahead.  Big Misery and Little Misery Islands passed astern.  Those islands, if they could, would also have ship destroying tales to tell.

On our portside, to the north of mighty Route 128, woodlands on ledge frosted with snow stretched on into Essex where over 3000 wooden ships had been built, many for fishermen out of Gloucester now coming up fast beneath us.  Beautiful Cape Ann seems much smaller from the air.  We turned north and followed the Annisquam River to Wingaersheek Beach.  The sands beneath high tide made the waters appear shades of green.  The bottom was easily seen down several fathoms.  What an array of colors from sea to upland: the blue of the sea, the blue-beige-greens of the shallows, the several light hues of beach sand and then dark granite buttresses followed by white snow paved woods.  This spectrum swung west, northwest and then north in a great arc to New Hampshire and beyond, all within view.  We flew on over sand bars with breaking waves outside the turbulent mouth of the Ipswich River, white streaks on an otherwise calm sea, and then on up the Plum Island River where we turned west at the Merrimack.  En route up the coast, the old Closeteer’s mind went east to the horizon where Giovanni da Verrazano, Samuel de Champlain, and John Smith in summers, four and five centuries before, had admired this green paradise from small ships.  Too bad for the natives that more and more Old Worlders followed.  Such thoughts not worthy of the day, lasted only fleetingly. Over Newburyport the copter turned back toward the Ipswich River, our main objective.  We passed up it too quickly to identify each of many great curves known when in canoes.  In just three minutes from Willowdale Dam, Great Wenham Swamp was behind us.  A canoe can take two hours on the river’s sinuous channel.

Soon we passed over I-95 carrying millions daily in a strip four times the width of the river from northern Maine to southern Florida.   Above Middleton we looked down at our hometown where every road, field, wood, hill and even most houses should be familiar.  They are when we are on the same plane.  At a thousand feet above that plane we were disoriented.  There was a lag in recognition that greatly bothered.  Our experienced pilot quietly admitted that he too becomes somewhat confused when looking down from above.  Perhaps that is why he had listed waypoints in his navigation system in case the old guys weren’t reliable.  Soon after a couple passes over Henry’s house things straightened out some, but only just after turning south towards Boston.  The old Closeteer thinks he would like to do his town again slowly while yo-yoing up and down in an effort to get the hills back.

We followed I-93 in and over the beautiful Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, the Closeteer calls “Wind Harps”.  Our tiny vessel was just above, yet seemingly almost among the skyscrapers with no hassle from Homeland Security or air control at Logan.  We passengers were surprised how easy it was to access our capital.  You’ve all seen the views we enjoyed from traffic helicopters so we won’t say much of snowy Fenway Park, the statehouse’s golden dome, or impressive MIT.  Our craft turned and joined the breeze on a course home over the Tobin Bridge only this time avoiding tolls.  In what seemed no time at all we were beside the Beverly Airport control tower dropping gently to the ground.

Main interests for us on this novel flight were our rivers and wetlands.  Let’s summarily list those passed over and not always quickly recognized.  The Merrimack, all the way down from the White Mountains, was our northern turning point.  Going south we looked down on Pine Island Crick meandering through the Newbury salt marsh.  The Parker River, with water down from Boxford and Bradford, was soon below, how lovely are her marshes stretching west; then under us passed the Rowley and Eagle Island Rivers, before Great and Little Necks, joining the north-south flowing Plum Island River and Plum Island Sound.  A westerly turn had us following our Ipswich River home.

From the Ipswich River in south Middleton we next came upon the Saugus River, little known to us, squiggling down from Breakheart Reservation.  After the Saugus, we recognized the dirty Mystic River and soon the famous Charles River from distant Sudbury.  Later, after seeing these rivers and their estuaries from the air for the first time, the old Closeteer thought again about their relationships with the sea.  He’d seen them many times on maps, which isn’t the same.  He looked for metaphors or analogies to explain.  Try this: face north looking slightly down.  Let the left hand be the land, the right the water.  Point fingers on opposite hands toward each other and then merge them.  Now comes the hard part, make the water fingers long, skinny and curvy, those on the left, the land, widen to fill in the spaces left by the elongated rivers and creeks.  Thus crudely represented are the all-important edges of land and sea, the estuaries where fresh water carrying sediments and saltwater carrying a dozen salts and countless organisms mix twice daily with the tides.

Any society that can make wondrous helicopters and their vast infrastructure should be capable of understanding the importance of the estuaries to those wonders and to all life.  The good news is that science does, after four centuries of ignorance and exploitation, now largely understand.  From the air we didn’t see the pollution and lack of fish due to dams; however, we well knew of them.   The hope is that with all our knowledge we will come back from distance views such as ours from on high and do right things on the ground and in our waters.


*Danvers Water Filtration Plant, Lake Street, Middleton is the source for actual precipitation data. Normals data is from the National Climatic Data Center.

** A beaver dam a quarter mile downstream from the USGS Gage has been causing invalid, thus unreleased gage reports.



Precipitation Data* for Month of:  Dec  Jan  Feb   March  
30 Year Normal (1981 – 2010) Inches  4.12 3.40 4 3.25 4.65  
2012 – 2013  Central Watershed Actual   7.12   0.93   5.12   Unav.*** as of 3/5

Ipswich River Flow Rate (S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet per Second (CFS):

For March 5, 2013: Normal . . . 111 CFS            Current Rate . . . Unavailable** CFS


***Data temporarily unavailable

THE WATER CLOSET is provided by the Middleton Stream Team: or <> or (978) 777-4584



1 Comment

  1. Kerry - March 9, 2013

    That sounds like a wonderful adventure, and you’ve described it so well that I can easily picture what you saw.