With the Holiday season finally over, and winter settling in, it’s a time to reflect on our gifts; a time to pause and consider where they came from and what they mean. Christmas gifts can come in unusual shapes and forms – from unexpected sources. Some are as simple as a warm shirt from a favorite aunt. Others are more complicated.
One long ago Christmas I received a copy of Ernest Schweibert’s extraordinary fishing memoir, “A River For Christmas.” I’m ashamed to say that I can’t remember now who it was that gave me the book, but whoever it was knew I loved fly-fishing, and the name of the book fit the season. Schweibert’s book provided much needed transportation away from the long winter nights to rivers that even then I knew I’d probably never get to. My reading of “A River For Christmas” consisted in equal parts of a rich man’s memories and a poor boy’s hopeless dreams.
But last Christmas we received the gift of a stream that, unlike Schweibert’s Laxa with its 40-pound salmon, is near and accessible. And the source of that gift was unexpected.
A few years back (2010), a college student named Nik Tyak sent me an e-mail telling me that he thought that he’d found some brook trout residing in a small stream that empties into a much bigger stream named Third Herring Brook.
Beginning as tannic springs flowing from beneath the stunted cedars of a vast wetland known since colonial times as Valley Swamp, Third Herring is fed by, and serves as a main stem for several lesser streams draining the red maple swamps that characterize the coastal plain of the Massachusetts South Shore.
And Third Herring Brook, in turn, is just one of a complex spider web of tributaries that feed into a long tidal river that moves the ocean miles inland on the coastal plain. This long, quick flowing estuary is called the North River because, when the tide is running out, its current runs north for much of its length, before abruptly turning east to where it sweeps through a wide opening in a barrier beach at the town of Scituate. Just before it enters the ocean, the North River is joined by two other tidal streams. The stream entering from the north is called First Herring Brook. The larger flow that joins from the south is appropriately named the South River.
Third Herring Brook enters the North River, over eight winding miles of marsh-rimmed river from the North’s mouth. Here the North River is still a full-bore tidal stream. And twice daily its water moves up into the lower reach of Third Herring Brook drawing with it, in season, rainbow smelts, river herring American eels, and lamprey eels along with a few striped bass and American shad.
And on high bank above Third Herring’s wild rice tide marsh, sits the house where Nik Tyak grew up.
I knew of Nik from Samantha Woods, the CEO of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association. Samantha had told me of how Nik had raised money for her organization by paddling the length of the Wampanoag Canoe Passage. That Nik had actually paddled and portaged the difficult Canoe Passage that travels across two watersheds, the North River and the Taunton River, was enough of a recommendation, but Nik had also received an E.A. Mellon grant to collect data on Third Herring Brook’s suitability as herring spawning habitat. The data, which included detailed information on water temperature and chemistry along the entire length of Third Herring, was to be compiled in a report that Nik would submit at summers end. Without hesitation, I arranged to meet with Nik at a coffee shop that happened to be located just down the road from Jacob’s Mill Pond and Valley Swamp, the headwater of Third Herring Brook.
Dressed in a T-shirt, shorts and sneakers, and with a curly mop of sun-bleached hair, Nik Tyak looked like the typical young surfer that in fact he was. But unlike a cool, laid back stereotypical surf bum, Nik was focused and articulate right from the beginning of our introductions at the trendy little coffee shop in the town of Norwell.
It didn’t take much conversation with Nik for it to become clear that I was being reeled in. The brook trout in the Third Herring tributary were the bait, and I had taken that bait. What Nik was angling for was some help from Trout Unlimited with the removal of the Tack Factory Dam, an ancient structure that for centuries had obstructed Third Herring Brook not far upstream from Nik’s home. I assured Nik that I was all for pulling old dams, and that trout weren’t a requirement as far as I was concerned, but the trout, or the promise of restoring trout, were the incentive needed for TU’s involvement.
It turned out that I knew of the stream that Nik wanted me to see. MassWildlife’s Southeast District regional fisheries biologist, Steve Hurley, had found numerous brook trout when he had sampled the lower part of Nik’s unnamed creek a few years prior. Steve hadn’t been to the stream’s upper reach however, so I was curious to see what Nik was excited about.
We parked on the shoulder of a narrow road where the now tiny headwater stream flowed from dense woods to pass through a culvert. It had been a hot, dry summer, but the little creek was cold to the touch. And we’d only walked a few yards when we saw fish streaking upstream ahead of us. I knew instantly that they were brook trout.
There aren’t many freshwater fish that can match the speed of a brook trout bent on finding cover, and I doubt that there are any fish as wary as a wild brook trout in skinny water, and this was skinny water. And that was the other thing that gave them away. Brook trout are the only fish that can occupy such a desolate looking little rill in numbers, their only requirement being that the water – whatever there is of it – be cold.
While we never got close enough to clearly see the numerous blue streaks waking through the stream ahead of us, I told Nik that I was confident that they were brook trout. A year later I’d accompany a MassWildlife survey crew as they confirmed my identification. Just as it had been when Nik led me to it, the little spring seep was full of brook trout that ranged from young of the year to fully mature fish.
Not long after we had explored the unnamed brook trout stream, Nik paid a visit to Red Brook where we discussed the changes that were taking place at that salter brook trout stream. The removal of four dams obstructing Red Brook had been completed the year prior to Nik’s visit, and I was able to show him pictures of the dams and their impoundments to give him an idea of the changes that were taking place at Red Brook as a result of the removal of the dams. Nik would use Red Brook in his report to illustrate what changes one might expect to see in Third Herring Brook if its dams were to be removed.
Meanwhile, my curiosity about the history of Third Herring Brook had been piqued. Reading Samuel Deane’s “History of Scituate”, published in 1829, I learned that colonists had described smelt as running the length of the stream to its headwater where a large spring bubbled up in Valley Swamp. During August of the summer following my meeting with Nik, with the smelt in mind, I put my canoe in at Jacobs Pond and paddled across the pond and as far as I could into Valley Swamp by following the old stream channel that was now a weed choked, slack water creek backed up by the millpond that it flows into.
My intention had been to see if there were any of Third Herring’s indigenous brook trout clinging to existence in the wilds of Valley Swamp. But after pushing the canoe up the flooded channel as far as I could, I gave up on finding brook trout. At that point I put my thermometer in the water and was surprised to see that it read a cold 58 degrees on a sultry 85-degree August day. After paddling back to Jacobs Pond, I dropped the thermometer in at the north end of the pond. The water was 80-degrees. These findings further confirmed what the temperature data in Nik’s study illustrated – until the dams, and later the well fields had been placed along Third Herring Brook, it had been a coldwater stream. Brook trout had retreated to the stream’s tributaries as dams had fragmented their habitat and heated the water beyond their tolerance during summer.
And unfortunately, the uppermost millpond on the system inundates the cold springs that give birth to Third Herring Brook.
One Dam Down
Mill Pond Dam, what remained of it, was removed with help from Mass. Div. of Ecological Restoration, Hanover YMCA, NOAA, American Rivers and others. This was a project that North and South Rivers had first attempted 10 years earlier, only to be stymied by the Town of Norwell’s refusal to issue a permit. This time, the permits were issued for the purpose of creating a new stream channel through a breach in the dam that had opened during a flood.
With Mill Pond gone, NSRWA now focused on the first dam on Third Herring, Tack Factory Dam, also known as the Tiffany Pond Dam. The owners of the dam, Cardinal Cushing Center, wanted the dam removed, but being a nonprofit school serving children with special needs, they lacked the funds to pay for the dam’s removal. Abutters of the pond, meanwhile, argued that the dam should stay, but none of them wanted to pay for the repairs and upkeep that the dam needed.
As resistance to removing Tack Factory Dam was cresting, Trout Unlimited threw its support behind the North and South Rivers Watershed Association and its effort to remove Tack Factory Dam. TU members attended public hearings in support of removal, and also advocated for the dam’s removal at town conservation commission hearings. Significant early funding for design came from TU’s partnership with NOAA. Other funds came from Greater Boston Trout Unlimited, and more came from the Sea Run Brook Trout Coalition. Facing overwhelming support for the dam’s removal, the pro dam resistance eventually dissipated.
The summer after I’d first met him, Nik got a temporary job working at NOAA’s office on the North Shore of Massachusetts, and not surprisingly, it would be a $100,000 grant from NOAA that would fill out the funding needed to complete the removal of Tack Factory Dam. By the time work began on Tack Factory, $450,000 had been raised for dam removal.
In June of that year, Nik took time off from work to paddle the Wampanoag Canoe Passage and once again raise money for NSRWA. The journey began at The Spit, a massive sand bar at the mouth of the North River. A large crowd of mostly young people joined Nik for the first leg of the Passage. This first day would be a short paddle up river to Third Herring Brook. The paddlers would enter Third Herring Brook and disembark at Nik’s house, where his family had prepared a celebration with cold beer and grilled burgers. A thunderstorm broke out over the marsh just as canoes and kayaks entered Third Herring. On the hill above the stream, Nik’s dad grilled burgers amidst claps of thunder, while wet paddlers drank beer and mingled in the house.
Environmentalist and river advocate, Tim Watts would join Nik to do the most arduous part of the Passage, that section that crosses the height of land between the North River watershed, and the Taunton River. Here the headwater streams are broken by numerous dams and cranberry bogs, and there are carries and drags over roads, dams, and between the cluster of ponds that give birth to both of the rivers.
A few days later I’d join Nik and his sister to paddle through a section of the Satucket River, the Matfield River, and then into the Taunton. It was a cold, rain swept day, and Nik and I spent much of the Satucket part of the paddle in the water as we lined the canoe through the open flume of the Cotton Gin Dam and then hauled it over the numerous downed trees in that river. We pulled the canoe out as night descended, where Nik had parked a car on the shoulder of a road that crosses the Taunton. Nik cranked the heat of the SUV to high as he drove me back to where my car was parked at a friend’s house in East Bridgewater. From our pull out point, Nik would have an easy day of paddling down the Taunton to tidewater and the end of the Passage.
A Trout Stream for Christmas
It’s a few days before Christmas and more than 7 years after my meeting with Nik at the trendy coffee shop in Norwell – and it’s also one year after Third Herring Brook was finally relieved of Tack Factory Dam, ending 300 years of obstruction of its flow. I’m carrying a solar panel while following Geof Day in the growing darkness at the end of the short December day. Geof is going to swap out a smaller panel for the larger one that I’m carrying. The panel will charge the deep cycle batteries that power a PIT tag receiver operating where Tack Factory Dam once held back the water of Third Herring Brook. Geof heads the Sea Run Brook Trout Coalition and he is helping Sara Grady, a marine biologist who works with NSRWA, with a brook trout tagging project.
At the end of the summer, Southeast District fisheries biologist, Steve Hurley, placed PIT tags in 30 trout that were captured in Nik’s tributary. Actually, one of the brook trout that Hurley tagged that day was captured while finning in Third Herring Brook in front of where the tributary enters, and where a year before there was a shallow, summer heated Tack Factory Pond. During the fall, Geof had helped Sara build 3 PIT (passive integrated transponder) receivers along Third Herring Brook. The plan is to track the movements of the tagged brook trout. They hope to discover whether or not these, long isolated, brook trout will begin to use the new habitat now opened for them. Before the dams were built, it is very likely that the ancestors of the tagged trout moved down to the food rich North River during part of the year. Recently, Marine Fisheries found the brook trout of a small tributary of the South River using the tidal section of that river during the cooler months of the year. There’s good reason to believe that Third Herring’s brook trout will adopt the same behavior.
As Geof attaches the solar panel to its brackets, I watch the night’s shadows descend on the stream flowing past us and think about the events that brought us to this place. We have a long winter ahead of us, but as the stream fades into the winter night, my thoughts turn to mayflies and rising trout, and Nik Tyak, who the last that I heard is somewhere in Europe.
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