Chasing the River, Part 2

In a previous post, I described a student named David who decided to “chase the river”–more accurately the series of brooks and ponds and rivers–that carried his backyard runoff to the sea.

Many students after David found their own watershed pathways, working with the classroom set of topographic maps and other resources. Our distribution varied, from year to year, but we always had a fair number of students who lived in the school’s own watershed, the Blackstone River watershed, along with many from the Sudbury, Assabet, Concord and Nashua sections of the Merrimack watershed to the north, a few from the Charles River watershed, to the east, and a few from the Quinnebaug, to the southwest.

Kids had all sorts of adventures following their watershed pathways, naming nameless brooklets and ponds, asking helpful neighbors what they knew, and playing in the mud.

Once, when we were stumped, I made a house call. Marissa lived on the very top of a hill, typically a watershed boundary. According to the map, her front yard would drain into the Sudbury, and her backyard into the Charles. In actual fact, it all went into the street drains, whose outflow ran into a holding pond, whose outflow ran into the Charles. Not for anything would I have missed that rainy afternoon slogging around in rubber boots, peering down through street drains to be sure which way the water was flowing.

Eventually, with the help of other map freaks, I discovered National Geographic’s Topo software, which let a student use a mouse to trace a pathway on a seamless electronic topographic map, then printed for us the annotated map that resulted. So a student could start with the little trickle that ran across the back of her yard, and keep going, without even needing hip waders or bug repellent. (It’s a shame to miss that entirely, though, and most kids got both experiences: on the map and on the ground.)

Andrew working with Topo cropped

Once a student had done his electronic tracing, he could ask the software for an elevation profile, and see how his pathway was all going downhill, except for a lake or a pond–a long flat stretch–or a place where a hand twitched and the path climbed out of the river briefly. To trace a pathway from brook to pond to river, then flip that path and see it from the side, sliding down the edge of the continent—that was pretty cool.

tracing watershed pathway cropped

If a small group of kids did this together, squeals and screams might erupt from their corner of the classroom, applauding the kid who just kept “sailing” down Narragansett Bay all the way to the open Atlantic. The group above, working with Terry Lunt, parent volunteer extraordinaire, is following the unfamiliar path of a classmate who lives way out in Charlton.

Kids who shared the lower part of their pathways, what they called “the big river,” could meet together and see, for example, how much area was drained, by all their different routes, to become the power of the Blackstone, harnessed for the mills and re-channeled for the canal that gave the Blackstone Valley so much of its identity.

Then what? The maps and their pathways could be put up in the hall for the rest of the school to see.

Topo watershed printouts whole group cropped

Like a dare to everyone passing by: wherever you live, some story like this belongs to you. You can go find out, and you can get started with a map.

Some years, students created posters to share with each other and parents at a special watershed night. Some years, we were even more ambitious, ridiculously ambitious. At the outset of Touchstone’s Older Student Program–supported by a state arts grant and with the help of a wonderful video consultant, Veda Reilly–Katy Aborn and I worked together to create a multi-part video called Voyage to the Sea. Voyage included documentary sections about topics such as the water cycle and water power, as well as story sections about two teams engaged in a regional competition called The Blackstone Watershed Relay.

In the final chapter of the video story, Bill McHenry, then director of Touchstone’s Extended Day Program, posed as the director of the Watershed Protection Association, the fictitious nonprofit that sponsored the equally fictitious relay. Speaking to students who had become fired-up environmentalists as a result of learning about their watersheds, Bill repeated a quote from Bernie McGurl of the Lackawanna River Association, one of thousands of real-life organizations of people who have gathered together to learn about their watersheds and to protect the quality of the water flowing through them.

Water has a voice. It carries a message that tells those downstream who you are and how you care for the land.

Within those words, and within all these connected river-chasing experiences, there are lessons within lessons, like watersheds within watersheds: lessons about the ways learning is grounded and deepened and enriched by attention to place; lessons about everything that flows to us and everything that flows from us, and the responsibilities we share with others and to others; lessons about what we can learn from each others’ small views, flowing together to become a wide view; lessons about the power of the learning community.

If you want to get started on your own watershed adventure, here’s a good place to begin: http://cfpub.epa.gov/surf/locate/index.cfm 

Or you can just put on your boots and head out the door. Don’t forget the map!

Chasing the River

As a teacher learning along with my students, I met Donna Williams, watershed wizard at the Massachusetts Audubon Broad Meadow Brook Conservation Center and Wildlife Sanctuary. She told us that the word watershed means the area from which rainwater or snowmelt drains into a particular body of water. You’re always standing in a watershed, even if your feet are dry.

Watersheds are often split by town or state boundaries, complicating efforts to protect them. Before the Blackstone River could be cleaned up in any significant way, the watershed of the river, draining large areas of both Rhode Island and Massachusetts, had to get over those political identities, and some economic rivalries, too, and start thinking like a watershed, an area with a lot to gain by working together. Knowing about watersheds can help us understand both the organization of ecosystems, and the impact of environmental damage–and environmental improvement.

To make it even more interesting, we live in watersheds within watersheds.

When my hillside gets a heavy rainfall, whatever doesn’t soak into the ground runs downhill into one of several small brooks which braid together to be called Indian Brook. So I live in the Indian Brook watershed.

A couple miles downstream, Indian Brook runs up against a dam and forms the Hopkinton Reservoir, in Hopkinton State Park, which looked like this on September 18, 2013, at a time of low water and not much color yet in the leaves.

Hopkinton Reservoir cropped

After it emerges from the reservoir, Indian Brook twists and turns some before it runs into the Sudbury River, near the tracks for the MBTA train to Boston. Meandering through Ashland and Framingham, the Sudbury runs beside the Massachusetts Turnpike briefly, then heads north, through the marshes of the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. In Concord, the Sudbury joins up with the Assabet River at a place called Egg Rock, to become—presto change-o—the Concord River.

This photo of Egg Rock was taken in 1904 by Alfred Sereno Hudson [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons] from the very beginning of the Concord River, with the Assabet to the right, and the Sudbury out of sight to the left.

Egg_Rock_1904

By the time it gets to the Concord River, my backyard runoff is traveling with that of many of my past students, from Hopkinton and Southborugh and also from Westborough, Marlborough, Northborough, Sudbury, and Wayland. The story isn’t over, though, until we get to the ocean.

In Lowell, the Concord joins the Merrimack River, saying hello to a tremendous share of the runoff water from New Hampshire and central Massachusetts. Go check on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merrimack_River, and you’ll see what I mean, unless someone takes the map down. Hundreds of thousands of people live with me in the Merrimack watershed. Of course, for a humbling comparison, you could check out how much of North America is drained by the Mississippi.

Anyway, back to New England, all these waters head for Newburyport and the Atlantic, shouting for glory as they go, especially in flood season.

Many explorations opened up this story for me: walking parts of my watershed pathway, canoeing other parts—swimming in some places!—and tracing all of it on maps.

Like so many explorations in my life, this one started with something a student wanted to do. For a big individual report, David Gelman wanted to ‟chase” his own watershed pathway. Here’s something interesting: although David and his family lived only a couple of miles from me, his pathway was completely different, and led to the Atlantic via Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island.

While everyone else was reading books, David and I sprawled on the floor to read topographic maps. Step by step we figured out which body of water led to which, using the topographic contour lines to make sure we were headed steadily downhill, the way water does. At the same time, we figured out all the places where roads followed, or where bridges crossed, the succession of brooks and ponds that led David’s backyard runoff to the Mill River and then the Blackstone River.

Armed with that information, David and yet another amazing Touchstone parent, his mother Rosemary, went adventuring, ‟chasing the river.” They managed to find almost every road crossing of their watershed pathway. At each stop they did simple visual tests for water quality, and took photographs. Their thoroughness was inspiring to everyone else, and deeply satisfying for them.

David wound up knowing something about his place in the world that I wanted more kids to have a chance to know–and more grown-ups, for that matter, beginning with myself.

This stream of thought (I couldn’t resist) could go on for quite a while–It would take much more than one blogpost to tell about everywhere that led. Think of your power, David, wherever you are!

Next time, finally, I’ll jump forward to the 2012-2013 year, when we were studying New England, and did some work with watersheds using Topo software. Down by the virtual riverside.