Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Muddy Waters

     There's Muddy Waters (the great Chicago bluesman) and then there's muddy waters (murky streams and ponds). A recent paddle on the Poultney River immersed me in the lower case variety. Since then clarity/turbidity have been on my mind (we'll skip the clarity/turbidity of my thought processes for now).

On the border
The bow of the canoe is on the stateline, NY left and Vermont right
Looking downstream at East Bay Road bridge

     Holly, Tom and I launched our boats on the Vermont end of the East Bay Road bridge and headed upstream. The southern end of Lake Champlain reminds me of a hydra with its tentacles (the tributaries) coalescing to form the body of the lake. There's Wood Creek, the Mettawee, the Poultney and South Bay (feed by Pike Brook and South Bay Creek ) as well as numerous other small streams. On most maps the Poultney becomes East Bay somewhere below Carvers Falls. But it still feels more like a river and as we shall soon see there may be an interesting reason for that.

In this illustration by Libby Davidson the Poultney, the Mettawee and South Bay join to form the southern reach of Lake Champlain

     About those muddy waters, the simple explanation lies in post-glacial history. Large meltwater lakes once occupied what is now the Hudson-Champlain lowlands. As the glaciers receded turbid streams carried vast amounts of sediment into those lakes with the finest of these sediments, the clays and silts, drifting towards the low centers.

On this soil map areas labeled 5 and 14 are lake deposits with high clay content

     Today, over 10,000 years later, most of the high elevation streams and ponds are clear with a light load in suspension. But lower sections of Fort Edward, Fort Ann, Kingsbury and Whitehall have the heavy soils that cloud the water.

The clear, dark waters of Pike Brook flow from the Adirondack uplands into low, milky South Bay
(Google Earth web image)

     Timothy Dwight who traveled the Northeast extensively in the early 1800's was not pleased with this area. Of the route from Granville to Sandy Hill Dwight wrote, "...the few streams were a succession of puddles, lying in a loathsome bed of clay between steep, ragged banks, and of the color of dirty suds...A person accustomed only to the limpid streams of New England can form no conception of the disagreeableness of this fact."

     Fortunately, we didn't let Dwights's bad attitude cloud our enjoyment of the Poultney. Yes, the water was "the color of dirty suds" but the banks were lined with a profusion of wildflowers, eagles soared overhead and the limestone cliffs of Warner Hill were striking. We weren't into marathons, instead going just a few lazy miles upstream before turning back. The ambitious with time on their hands might be able to go all the way to Carvers Falls.

Lila dog scouts the way in the green 'pack' canoe with Holly in the kayak and the cliffs of Warner Hill beyond

     Below the falls at Carvers the lower river was at one time more of a deep water bay.  According to research by Paul Marangelo of the Nature Conservancy this changed dramatically in 1783 when the Poultney broke thru a ridge, changing its course and washing a huge amount of sediments downstream. There was so much material deposited that it turned a bay navigable by schooners into a shallow stream just barely passable by canoe.

Scene of the crime: the Poultney River with Rt. 11 bridge bottom right and Carvers Falls at top
(Google Earth web image)

     The site of this event is in the stretch downstream from the present day Rt. 11 bridge into Vermont. It is on private property and only accessible by canoe. I've never paddled here so can't give any advice. I have seen guidebooks that claim you can run the river from Poultney Village on down but expect ledges, rapids, strainers and other challenges. Obviously not for everyone. There is good access at Carvers Falls but you would be paddling upstream from there and I'm not sure if that's possible. If anyone does this part of the river I'ld love to hear about it.
Poultney River below Rt. 11 bridge

Poultney River above Carvers Falls

     In Feel like going Home Waters sings "Brooks run into the ocean, man, that ole ocean ran into the sea". I like paddling them brooks, even the muddy ones 'the color of dirty suds'. 

     * Here's a link to Muddy Waters singing Feel like going Home.

     * And here's a link to Paul Marangelo talking about his research on the Poultney.