A canoe trip from the headwaters
to the Concord
by Sophie Wadsworth
Public Outreach Volunteer
The Assabet River falls 31 miles from its source in Westborough to confluence with the Sudbury River in Concord.
May 27, 2000
Westborough and the Assabet Reservoir
Through purple loosestrife and grasses we push the canoe into
the water and slowly climb in. The stream is barely wider than the canoe.
We shove off with our paddles, taking our first strokes, our blades
scraping the bottom.
We have begun a two-day trip down the Assabet River from its
headwaters in Westborough to the river's end, over 31 miles later, at
Egg Rock where it joins the Sudbury River to form the Concord. I am
paddling with my friend, Tom Faber, in his Old Town canoe. Although
we've both canoed sections of the Assabet, neither of us has seen the
entire river, and we are curious about what it might be like to paddle
from Westborough to Concord in a single trip.
Just before put-in on the Assabet Reservoir in Westborough, Mass.
We put in at the Mill Road boat ramp on the Assabet Reservoir
in Westborough. Fishermen were pulling their boats out as we slid ours
in at 8:00 a.m. We paddled to the Nichols dam and portaged the canoe
over the hummock of earth that separates the reservoir from the river.
Our boat contains a small library of field guides in a 10-gallon pail,
including our favorite, Ron McAdow's The Concord, Sudbury and Assabet
Rivers: A Guide to Canoeing, Wildlife, and History. Also packed
are camera gear, a tent, sleeping bags, two days' food, and life-preservers.
It takes most of our strength to portage it over the hill.
Where does the Assabet begin: at Assabet reservoir? The brooks
which feed the reservoir? Or this stream bed? Does the river begin in
the clouds, or from deep springs? How can something as wayward as a
river have a precise "beginning" anyway? As we paddle we hear a red-winged
blackbird trilling "ok-a-lee ok-a-lee." Then the banks close in. We
plunge into thick brush, and the canoe stops.
Poet/writer Sophie Wadsworth carries guides the stern of the canoe through the fully-bloomed thicket in the Assabet's wilds of Westborough.
The shrubs grow so thick we must bushwack more than paddle through
dense thickets of gray dogwood, multi-flora rose, red maple, and river
grape. At points you wouldn't know the river was even there; it feels
like we're following a rivulet through a deep thicket. All this affirms
what the guide books say: we are well above the Assabet's "navigable
waters." In fact, if we hadn't gotten so much rain this spring, we would
be carrying the canoe down this first stretch.
As it is, we alternate between poling the canoe forward with
our paddles and getting out to pull it over the streambed. We hold one
arm up to shield our eyes from branches. Twigs crack, leaves snap off.
We joke: 'There's enough kindling in the bottom of the canoe to start
a fire. And enough varieties of spiders and ants to do an invertebrate
study just inside this canoe!" Suddenly, we are coughing uncontrollably.
Maybe it's the pollen in the air, possibly the wild grape. A crash through
a thicket of leaves- a deer- we see its white tail, startled by us and
we're by it. Finally, the brush opens up. Hot and scratchy, we climb
into the river to swim. It's noon. We check McAdow's guide book: we've
gone one mile. Tom jokes, "We'll be camping in Westborough center."
Paddling again, we smell chlorine and hear a stream flow in.
It's the effluent from the Westborough Wastewater Treatment Plant, a
stream that appears equal in flow to the Assabet itself at this point.
Immediately downstream, the canopy opens and we see painted turtles
sunning themselves. A two foot long snapping turtle rests on the bank,
too. There is significantly more flow now, also more aquatic vegetation:
underwater we see thick green plants, perhaps waterweed, and a long
grassy one that resembles water celery. A meadow vole darts into thick
grasses on the bank. Up close we can see raccoon, otter, and deer tracks
in the mud. We also notice arrowwood, alders, and pickerelweed. The
honeysuckle has just passed flowering and the nannyberry and the yellow
pond lily are in bloom. Stinging nettle, currants, and green briars
grow here too.
Just ahead, a pair of Canada geese hiss at us, necks outstretched;
a flock of goslings hurry in front of one goose's prodding beak while
the other keeps hissing. We follow the river's snaking course through
Northborough's Juniper Hill Golf Course. Passing under a small bridge,
we startle a flock of barn swallows whose nests are clustered on the
underside of the bridge. It feels like we're canoeing right through
a golf green- and we are. Through the clear shallow water you can see
white golf balls lying on the river bottom. A spotted sandpiper dabs
at the shore. Buttonbush lives along the sunny banks.
The Northborough Aquaduct
As we glide under a beautiful railroad bridge, an arch of rough
hewn stone blocks, we hear only the dripping of water off our paddles.
Winterberry, highbush blueberry, and skunk cabbage grow here. We are
many miles upstream from the military land of the U.S. Army's Sudbury
Annex, but here inexplicably, a gigantic army tank looms over the river
bank. We reach a large fallen tree which we pull the canoe over, and
then, two strokes later, must lie flat on our backs to slide under a
red maple, just barely. Our heads are lower than the gunwales and yet
the leaves still graze our faces.
At the Sawmill Dam portage, across Route 20, we see an orange
sign: "Custom Parts for Your Harley Davidson." When the traffic breaks,
we cross carrying canoe and gear, walk through a field, and eat lunch
at the put-in. Back on the Assabet, we paddle the whitewater below the
dam. We watch a kingbird catching insects. More upland trees grow here:
oaks, maples, and beech.
Mill Dam in Northborough
Another portage at Woodside Dam: we haul the canoe up the steep
bank, over a guardrail, across a road. Soon we're paddling through a
floodplain where the river flows slowly but makes such snaking turns
that if we fail to hug the inside of each bend, we head straight into
the opposite bank. Dry clumps of grass and leaves hang from low branches,
signs of the river's height during May's heavy rains. The sweet fragrance
of the flowering willows fills the air. We greet a man who is wading
upstream, pulling a boy in a kayak. "The river ends up ahead," the boy
tells us, straight-faced. The father nods in agreement. Could we have
taken a wrong turn somewhere? We check our guide book which reassures
us that it's only another portage that lies up ahead.
Soon, a massive concrete structure with metal storm grates rises
in the distance: the Tyler flood-control dam. Here the river does seem
to end as the Assabet flows unseen underneath it. I can barely slip
my flattened hand in the gap of air between the concrete and the water,
it's that narrow. McAdow says if we were muskrats we could swim the
pipe under it. But we'd never get the canoe through. It's a tough haul,
dragging the canoe full of gear up and over the steep dike. We count:
one ... two ... three ... then pull, count, then pull.
Back on the river, a great blue heron rises from the marsh and
slowly flaps its broad wings, disappearing into the trees. A wide bridge
spans the river under Route 290. Every sound echoes as we paddle down
the length of its cool tunnel, leading us to sing notes at random, our
voices echoing as if in a huge cathedral. We name it the Singing Bridge.
When we hear an ice cream truck's jingling music we know we
are approaching Hudson. Kids play on swings in Riverside Park, and chimney
swifts call overhead. We take out above the Washington Street Dam, at
the Hudson fire station parking lot. Yellow iris blooms at the water's
edge. To portage through Hudson town center we haul the canoe and gear
through Veteran's Park, down a sidewalk and, in a break in the traffic,
cross Route 85. It takes two trips. 8:00 p.m: we still have five miles
to the halfway point, and we haven't eaten dinner yet. We hide the canoe
behind a building and buy eggplant subs, which we eat afloat. Is it
because we're so hungry that they taste divine? Just below Hudson, where
you can still see houses standing close together, two beavers plunge
into the river, not far from a large willow branch with a chewed end.
Broad cattail marshes come into view as coolness settles over the river.
The clouds have turned dusky pink by the time we find a place
to camp. We hear red-winged blackbirds trilling and the cry of a red-tailed
hawk. Then a veery's call and a Baltimore oriole. Pines lean and wave
their brushing branches. We dip our hands in the river like two raccoons
and agree that this is one of our favorite sections of the Assabet.
Green frogs across the river sound like plucked banjo strings. I wonder
if the very water that has traveled with us from the headwaters passes
our campsite while we sleep. Perhaps by morning it will flow as far
as our destination in Concord.
May 28, 2000
We wake to a beaver swimming downstream around the bend. Ahead,
two herons fly slowly towards the broad slope of Stow's Orchard Hill.
Ron McAdow writes that it's a drumlin, a hill rolled into a lump by
glacial action, and its grasses provide good nesting habitat for bobolinks.
At Gleasondale Dam we drag the canoe out on the left bank, at the edge
of someone's backyard. A man waters the lawn. We have difficulty locating
where to take out, but the portage is a short and easy carry crossing
a backyard at the river's edge.
A little stretch of whitewater carries us past Gleasondale's
red brick mill buildings to a lovely meandering section of the Assabet.
The river is banked with grasses, arrow arum, as well as blueberry,
winterberry, alders and oaks. We approach the Sudbury Annex, military
land that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expects to acquire shortly
for conversion into the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge. A model
airplane, loud as a real biplane, rumbles overhead. Seems like a lot
of noise for one person to have fun. We pass a burned area of pinewoods
where most of the trees have brown needles and the trunks are partly
burned, their bark singed a strange copper color.
We find a television bobbing in the water. Also, nearby, a long
aluminum landscaping rake. We haul them both into the canoe, propping
up the rake behind the t.v. in the stern. The fishermen who troll by
us may think we've got a t.v. with one giant antenna on board. As we
cross the calm backwater above Ben Smith dam, dozens of fins break the
surface of the water. They are carp, mating. Pairs chase each other,
tails wriggling, and some swerve close enough to rock the canoe.
Below the Ben Smith dam, paddling at a fast pace in a strong
current, the end of the landscaping rake snags on an overhanging branch.
The canoe jolts to a halt, nearly capsizing us, and lurching me halfway
out of the stern. After we regain our balance and detangle the rake,
we have a good laugh at our foolishness. It's cloudy now, and cool.
We approach the Maynard Wastewater Treatment Plant and the nearby site
of the Acton plant, currently under construction.
Dumpsters are located at the river's edge behind some stores;
one overflows with Styrofoam peanuts that spill down the bank. A bright
hill of snow stands behind the Valley Sports skating rink, as if winter
lingers in one last place. A lesser yellowlegs wades near shore, dabbing
the water with its beak. We find a bicycle helmet in the water, grimy,
but it fits perfectly and gets added to the gear in the canoe.
At Powdermill Dam in West Concord, we meet two men fishing at
the take-out. "Caught a largemouth bass," one reports. We hear the lovely
calls of the scarlet tanager and woodthrush. The current below the dam
takes us quickly downstream to Damonmill where we wave to OAR's office.
We float past a backyard picnic and two German shepherds who follow
us, barking, along the shore.
The canopy along this section is especially dense and shades
much of the river. Silver maples and oaks, arching high above the river,
touch their leafy branches. At Route 62 we take out before the stone
bridge. A dumpster above the landing spreads loose trash towards the
river. We follow raccoon tracks up the bank and walk into West Concord
Center for ice cream, in no hurry to reach our destination.
The last stretch of the Assabet. The tree's reflections ripple
where we dip our paddles. On this section of river, past Route 2, other
paddlers appear, a kayaker, and then two people and two dogs in a canoe.
We pass the stone tablet dated 1896 in memory of George Bradford Bartlett,
a devotee of the Assabet, "By the ancient hemlocks grim and gray
our boat drifts slowly on its way. . . ." Where the sunlight comes
through the hemlocks the water is shot through with a milky light, and
blue and brown colored stripes of shade. The river widens at Egg Rock,
the Sudbury's waters flow in, joining with the Assabet. For a little
ways we dip our paddles into the Concord River.
During two days on this river, paddling over 31 miles through
nine towns, we have been astonished at the variety of river's flow and
the terrain along its banks, from rapids to mill ponds, and from marshes
to pinewoods. We enjoyed a lot of quiet, too, seeing more muskrats than
people on the Assabet, during this sunny Memorial Day weekend. And we
were amazed by the diversity of wildlife: how many kinds of shrubs and
flowers, the range of bird songs, and animals. Nathaniel Hawthorne had
it right when he wrote of the Assabet in Mosses from an Old Manse:
"A more lovely stream than this. . . has never flowed on
earth,- nowhere, indeed, except to lave the interior of a poet's imagination."
Late afternoon at the landing by the Old Calf Pasture
in Concord, we pull the canoe out one last time. Beyond the sound of
wind in the maple leaves, song sparrows and a red-winged blackbird sing
as if, like the river itself, they will never end.
Special thanks to Tom Faber whose humor and wise understanding
of the natural world made this trip a pleasure and significantly contributed
to this article.