Following the thread of a river that goes home

Email|Print| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / June 10, 2007

IPSWICH -- There are many things that would come as no surprise to those who know the salt marsh rhythms of the Ipswich River .

When spring rain splatters cold and thick on swollen high-tide creeks, matted muskrats hustle from bank burrows, and plovers -- or are they sanderlings ? -- flit in the brown grass.

At low tide, rain or shine, blue herons and white egrets gather for a muddy-footed feast. Tears of water drip, drip, drip from black-chunked earth into whatever narrow river channel is left.

At dead low, before the sea surges slowly back toward land, the current cuts shallow and swift past Little Neck , leaving the river impenetrable, nearly, for a person paddling upstream.

Such details, at some level already an intimate understanding of the workings of the place, come quickly, after a few weeks spent exploring in early morning hours. Yet they are only introductions, glances of one small swath of the Great Marsh , which stretches from Cape Ann to New Hampshire and is the largest salt marsh in New England.

Discovery of the world often means travel to distant places where cultures and climates are different from our own. But what is known of home? In urban grids, neighbors remain unmet, and alleys unexplored. In the country, nature, so visible, often settles as a backdrop.

Many have made the case that we are influenced first by our immediate environment. The world in which we live shapes our personal journeys, near and far. Dylan Thomas, a Welshman eventually inspired by estuaries, but who grew up playing in the manicured groves of Swansea's Cwmdonkin Park , closed one poem with this:

The ball I threw while playing in the park Has not yet reached the ground.

I grew up in western Pennsylvania in a sloped suburb that borders the brown banks of the Ohio River. I remember early visits to nearby locks, where gates and pumps would raise and lower the river level for passing freight barges, and occasionally the Delta Queen paddle wheeler, en route to or from the Mississippi. Otherwise, the Ohio set a constant pace, morning, noon, and night, moving only westward.

The Ipswich River threads through my new hometown. It is not as wide or mighty as the Ohio, but in many ways more alive. Rising tides twice daily turn sandbars into placid pools. Receding tides offer stones perfect for throwing. That is only the surface, the kind of charge and retreat seen from someplace near the center of long-settled Ipswich, such as the town wharf.

Even there, the dynamic riverscape is enough to lure: Cars arrive in the parking lot at the wharf before sunrise. The drivers are most often alone, and idle. Some open a newspaper, or a book. Others light a cigarette. More than one sits behind the wheel and stares at the crooked curve of the river, its course rounding a blind bend, to where high-hayed banks widen and creeks retreat into the trees.

Downstream, mooring buoys have been multiplying, week after week, like so many perennial plants boldly reclaiming their place. Motor boats now tether to them, reminders that with warmer weather the salt marsh becomes a peopled place.

But not in spring. I think most often of that dark, dank downpour when I paddled up a creek that wove between flats long ago cut with narrow canals. Water running off my hat brim added another lid to a scene already capped by low clouds and fog. One sound that resonated was that of the paddle turning in the water.

Two weeks later, also near 6 a.m., full sun brought birds to life. Groves of trees emitted a chorus while only a red-winged blackbird darted into view.

There is much more of the Great Marsh to explore. In Plum Island Sound and around the wooded islands at the mouth of the Essex River , wind and currents lift a salt water spray. Farther north, the Merrimack River empties with a breadth that begins to match the Ohio.

In weeks and seasons ahead, I will travel further into this salt-soaked landscape close to home. I hope to join others who come to its creeks and beaches, mud flats and islands for work, and play.

Yet much will be learned alone, paddling and watching. This kind of engagement brings a subtler sense of home terrain. Just last week, while battling another low tide back upstream, I approached a single duck floating near a bank. It had a smooth gray head; a scoter , perhaps. A bent-billed bird, possibly an ibis, rare on the North Shore, took flight from the high grass behind the duck.

A stiff west wind delivered distant rumbles of the morning commute along Route 1A. Trucks growled and motorcycles whined. Then came the brash blast of a train whistle. This, I knew: the 7:12 to Boston.

Tom Haines can be reached at

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