Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Poquanticut Cedar Swamp at Borderland State Park, North Easton, Mass.

The former Poquanticut Cedar Swamp, where Leach's Pond ends and Poquanticut Brook begins. The two humps of trees in the center of the photo, now islands in Leach's Pond, were once islands in a dense white cedar swamp, where a modest upward elevation change allowed white pines and oaks and maples to grow. "Islands in the swamp" such as these are common in the Hockomock Swamp, several miles to the south, and were marked and mapped and named by the 1700s.

After the Hockomock Swamp, the largest Atlantic white cedar swamp in Easton was Poquanticut Cedar Swamp, which is now underneath Leach's Pond in Borderland State Park at the Easton-Sharon line.

In his 1886 History of Easton, William L. Chaffin (who referred to Leach's Pond as Wilbur's Pond) writes:

"These two streams both flowed into the Poquanticut Cedar-Swamp, where Wilbur's Pond now is. They united in the swamp, the main outlet for the swamp being the same as the outlet for the pond, namely, Poquanticut Brook. The larger of the two branches that unite to form it is Poquanticut Brook, or River, the branch at the west."

In the 1820s, after the Poquanticut Cedar Swamp was clear-cut of all its trees, General Sheperd Leach mined the swamp for bog iron ore. After the bog iron was removed, a natural earthen berm on the south side of the swamp was raised to make a pond to provide water for mills in Furnace Village at New Pond on Foundry Street (Route 106).

According to Chaffin, the Poquanticut Cedar Swamp had two outlets, with Poquanticut Brook being the larger and more westerly. He describes a second brook that drained the swamp from the east:

"This small stream had its source in the swamp spoken of, before Wilbur's Pond was made. It was considerably larger once than now, because it helped drain the swamp ; but the dam checked the flow of water into it, and cut off its main supply. It still contrives to live, however, drawing from the swampy land through which it wends its sluggish way enough water to make a stream. It flows southerly, crossing Rockland Street between the Tarteus Buck and the Mrs. Horace Buck places."

This information tells us that Leach's Pond was most likely created by closing off the east outlet of the Poquanticut Cedar Swamp and building a small dam at its westerly outlet, Poquanticut Brook. The dam at the head of Poquanticut Brook no longer exists. Leach's Pond now spills naturally into the brook at a depth of just a few inches.

Poquanticut Brook as it begins at Leach's Pond.

Leach's Pond

Because it raised the water level of the Poquanticut Cedar Swamp by only a few feet, Leach's Pond has always been shallow, never more than 5-6 feet deep in most places. Today, the pond is rapidly reverting to an expansive wetland.

In just the past 40 years, from when I first went canoeing at the pond with my father and brother in the early 1970s, Leach's Pond has changed dramatically. At that time much of the pond was sufficiently free of water lilies to allow for easy fishing without constantly getting your lure or bait tangled, and thick weed growth was confined to the shallow coves and shoreline. Today, nearly the entire surface of the pond is carpeted with water lilies, pickerel weed and floating bog islands. This can be seen in contemporary aerial photos in which it is difficult to even recognize a pond.

A long, low east-west gravel berm which forms the south side of Leach's Pond and the walking trail along the pond suggests the berm is natural, glacially made feature, most likely a small moraine. Moraines are formed when the front of a glacier remains stationary for a period of time, causing the rocks and gravel locked in the ice to be all deposited in one position. This occurs when the melting rate of the glacier is equal to the forward speed of the glacier, meaning the glacier is still moving (in this case, to the south), but its front remains in one spot. By this piling of gravel, a long, low natural dam is created, often with a large, shallow pond behind it. As the pond slowly fills with rotted vegetation, it becomes a wetland and finally a wooded swamp. The Poquanticut Cedar Swamp was likely formed in this way. Once the cedar was clear-cut and the bog iron removed from around the cut stumps, Gen. Sheperd Leach needed only to block the eastern outlet brook of the swamp and increase the height of the natural berm by a small amount to create a 200 acre pond that exists at Borderland today.

Upper Leach's Pond

Upper Leach's Pond (or what my father called the "back pond") is a vastly different place than Leach's Pond and is unique in Easton. It is much smaller than Leach's Pond and follows a north-south axis with steep shorelines. There is a small wooden dam at the outlet of the pond, which is only 2 feet high, and its outlet stream flows for just a few yards into a cove at the northern end of Leach's Pond. The stones in the outlet stream are stained bright orange with bog iron and in the summer tiny hornpout can be seen in its pools.

Most notable about Upper Leach's Pond are the numerous floating islands that dot its surface; its depth -- which ranges from 5 to 15 feet; and its crystal clear water. These floating islands, which are natural gardens of pitcher plants, sundew, swamp azalea and other bog plants, reveal the pond's original character -- a quaking bog.

A northern pitcher plant on a floating peat island in Upper Leach's Pond.

A quaking bog is created when over thousands of years, layers sphagnum moss fill the entire bowl of a pond. Deep layers of sphagnum moss form what we call peat moss. Peat behaves like a kitchen sponge when it is saturated with water. If you press down on it, it easily gives, and water squirts out the sides, top and bottom. Imagine carving an enormous kitchen sponge so that it perfectly fits the bottom contours of a pond. Now try to walk across it. Like a sponge, the surface of the bog bends under your weight, water squirts out from the pressure of your feet, but you still can walk across it. Imagine a small tree growing on the top of the sponge, just above the water level. If you jump up and down on the "sponge," you can make a miniature earthquake and make the tree bounce up and down. If you can do this, you are standing in a quaking bog.

A pitcher plant growing in a floating garden of sphagnum moss in the middle of Upper Leach's Pond, Borderland State Park, North Easton, Mass.

Quaking bogs are not common because they require a very special set conditions to be created. Most quaking bogs in New England begin as glacial features called kettle holes. A kettle hole is made when a glacier is in its final stage of melting and retreating. During this melting process, enormous amounts of water and gravel flow out from the bottom of the remaining ice. As the melt water flows in various directions it often cuts off small blocks of glacial ice from the main body of the glacier. These blocks of ice (which can be hundreds of acres in size and 100 feet thick) become buried under many feet of gravel and stone. When these buried blocks of ice melt, they leave a water-filled depression in the ground. If this depression (the "kettle") intersects with the local water table it becomes a permanent pond. If the kettle only intersects with the local water table during the spring, it becomes a vernal pool, the birthplace of toads and salamanders. If the kettle is deep with steep sides, it will remain a pond for millennia. Henry Thoreau's Walden Pond in Concord is a classic kettle hole pond, as are most of the deep, spring fed trout ponds on Cape Cod, like Hamblin's Pond, Schubael's Pond, Deep Pond, Spectacle Pond, Peters Pond, Mare's Pond and Big and Little Cliff Pond way down in Nickerson State Park in Brewster.

Upper Leach's Pond does not have the classic form of a kettle hole pond: which are roughly circular and have no inlets or outlets. However, its features suggest that like a kettle hole, it began as a glacially scoured depression filled with ice, which then melted, leaving a pond of medium depth that has been slowing filling in more many many centuries. So exactly how do we describe a very unique place like Upper Leach's Pond? This requires detective work.

A swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum) growing on an island of floating peat in Upper Leach's Pond, Borderland State Park, North Easton, Mass.

First, we note that Upper Leach's Pond is quite deep for a small pond. In most places, aside from the floating islands of peat and surface plants, the pond is 10 to 15 feet deep. Next we note that the dam at its outlet, a stack of three 8 x 8 boards, is only 24 inches high. If these three boards were removed, the pond would only drop in elevation by two feet, still leaving a fairly deep pond.

I have no idea what this flower is, except that it is growing out of the water at a floating peat island at Upper Leach's Pond. Note the white insect egg cases on its stem.

Third, we note the abundance of pitcher plants and sundews on the floating mats of peat that dot Upper Leach's Pond. Pitcher plants and sundews are quite unique in that they trap and eat insects. Pitcher plants do this by folding their leaves into a tall cylinder with a trumpet shaped bonnet that allows rainwater to collect inside. Thousands of fine hairs coat the inside of the trumpet, all pointing downward. Insects, especially ants, that explore the interior of the trumpet fall down into the tube and into the pool of rainwater at the bottom. The downward pointing hairs make it difficult for insects to crawl back out. Once trapped at the pool in the bottom, the insects drown and are dissolved and digested by the pitcher plant.

A pitcher plant at Upper Leach's Pond, showing the fine hairs pointing downwards that keep bugs from crawling out of its maw.

Sundews are much smaller than pitcher plants and capture insects by a very different method. The stems of a sundew end in a fleshy pad that looks like a canoe paddle. Each paddle is studded with tiny stems so that it looks like a pin cushion. The end of each pin is covered with a drop of sticky, glistening liquid. When an insect lands on the pin cushion, they become stuck in the drops of sticky liquid and many cannot escape. Once an insect is trapped, the sundew slowly wraps these pins around the insect and eats it.

A sundew on the edge of a floating peat island in Upper Leach's Pond, Borderland State Park, North Easton, Mass.

Pitcher plants and sundews evolved the ability to attract and eat insects because they live in wetlands that lack key minerals they need to live. While most plants obtain these minerals from the soil, pitcher plants and sundews basically live in water, and more particularly, water that lacks these minerals. To make up for this deficit, pitcher plants and sundews obtain these minerals by catching and eating insects. Ponds and swamps that are fed by perennial brooks contain enough minerals in their water to give plants all they need. Only in special cases, like a kettle hole bog fed only by rain and snow and groundwater, do pitcher plants and sundew have the advantage over other aquatic plants due to their ability to catch insects and extract their food directly from them.

A sundew next to a water lily about to bloom on a floating peat island in Upper Leach's Pond, Borderland State Park, North Easton, Mass.

An important feature of Upper Leach's Pond is its inaccessibility. When I first went there, in the early 1970s, the entire area was still owned by the Ames family. One Saturday morning, my father put our canoe in the truck and we drove up Lincoln Street to Bay Road and down the unmarked dirt road to the white farm house next to Leach's Pond, in what is now Borderland State Park.

We put the canoe in at the east end of Leachs' Pond and as the morning went on and the sun rose higher we made our way to the northwestern end of Leach's Pond. Upon entering a small weedy cove, we pulled the canoe out and dragged it over a gravel berm and entered the "back pond," Upper Leach's Pond. Once in the back pond, from my seven year old eyes, we entered a different world.

The pond was much deeper than Leach's Pond, where your canoe paddle would often touch the bottom. And it was full of strange, floating islands and mats of vegetation that suddenly dropped off to the bottom, which we could not see. The water was crystal clear, and when the sun was at the right angle (it was noon by this time), you could see "caves" beneath the floating mats of peat and, sometimes, if you cast your Jitterbug just right and didn't hook the island, a 2 pound bass would come out from a cave and suck in your Jitterbug with a resounding thwop.

Because we were in a canoe, we could paddle right up to the mats in the middle of the pond and look at the scarlet and green pitcher plants growing at their edges, and my father explained what they were and how they caught bugs. When we went home that afternoon, as the sun went down, I felt as if I had been briefly dropped by spaceship into a weird world where some things were familiar, like bass and pickerel and lily pads and water, but much of it, like floating islands covered with odd looking plants that ate bugs, were nothing like I had ever seen before.

To get the photos of seen here, I brought my underwater digital camera and swam out to one of the larger floating islands and precariously pulled myself on top of it and then walked around as if I was its proud, albeit, temporary, owner. This is something I have wanted to do since I was 7.

Puds Pond

Puds Pond is due east of Upper Leach's Pond, and the two lie almost parallel to each other like tiny finger lakes, separated by a small neck of high ground extending south from Mountain Road. Puds Pond is created by a 12-15 foot high poured concrete dam, which due it its design and materials, appears to have been erected in the early 20th century by the Ames family. Chaffin makes no mention of Puds Pond in his 1886 History of Easton, which suggests the pond and dam did not exist when he wrote his book.

Unlike Leach's Pond, Puds Pond is deep, at 12-15 feet at the concrete dam. Unlike Upper Leach's Pond, it has no floating islands of peat, and based upon the height of the dam at its outlet, it was never a natural pond. What is now Puds Pond was until the early 20th century a small, clear, fast-flowing brook that shrank to a near trickle during the summer. This can be deduced by measuring the height of the dam and the length of the pond. The height of the Puds Pond dam is about 12-15 feet and the length of the pond created by the dam is about one half mile. This can be seen at the pond's inlet at Mountain Road, where it is a small wetland with a surface just a few feet below the road bed. This tells us that in the half mile distance from Mountain Road to the 12-15 foot high dam at the outlet of Puds Pond, the brook dropped 12-15 feet in one half mile. That is a gradient of 24-30 feet per mile, which is a very fast moving stream, perhaps one of the fastest in Easton. The road at the top of Puds Pond was not called Mountain Road for nothing.

Puds Pond is the best swimming spot in all of Easton. The water is amazingly clear (you can see bottom down to 20 feet) and there is a perfect area of sand and gravel for wading at the small beach just to the right of the dam. Before Puds Pond was made part of Borderland State Park, this little beach was very popular with Easton residents, especially teenagers, because you could drive to the pond from the dirt road at the intersection of Bay Road and Allen Road, or by walking in from Mountain Road. Unfortunately, these same teenagers and young adults had a habit of trashing the area with beer cans, McDonald's wrappers, broken bottles and breaking off every nearby living tree to make bonfires. This turned an incredibly scenic and enjoyable spot into an unsightly and dangerous dump. Today, you have to walk into Puds Pond from Bay Road or by a very long walk from Massapoag Ave. and the swimming area has a goofy "no swimming except for pets" sign posted on a tree. Feel free to ignore the sign and go swimming anyways. It's your pond.

UPDATE: Since writing the above I have examined aerial Ektrachrome slides taken by my father, Allan E. Watts, of Borderland State Park during the fall of 1970. From these photos it is fairly obvious that Upper Leach's Pond was naturally a part of the lower pond, and presumably during the early 20th century the Ames family had constructed a low berm and trail to connect the west side of Borderland to Puds Pond and in doing so made a dividing barrier which created what we now see as Upper and Lower Leach's Pond. As best as I can surmise, what we now call Upper Leach's Pond was "scooped out" much more by glacial action than Lower Leach's Pond which would explain its much greater depth.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Hockomock Swamp Old Growth Cedars

Back in the late summer of 2003, I walked through the old Old Colony Railroad bed through the heart of the Hockomock Swamp near the Easton/Raynham town line and found a number of stands of very large, very old Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides). Only on my birthday in July 2009 was I able to return to this spot with a camera, and only for a short time. Luckily, the sun had come out after a torrential thunderstorm the night before.

Despite the conventional wisdom, the Hockomock Swamp is not muddy nor filled with mud. It is certainly wet, during the wet season, but the water is as clear and clean as spring water. In the place where I found these old growth cedars, the water in the Hockomock is perhaps more clean and pure than any water in the world, because it is filtered by miles of undisturbed swamp. It is probably the safest, cleanest water to drink that can be found.

And contrary to conventional wisdom, the Hockomock is not hard to walk in. Yes, you need to let your feet get wet, but in the summer, on a sunny day, the feeling is like walking along a beach with the waves lapping over your shoe tops. Apparently, what I found in this deepest part of the Hockomock is a mature Atlantic white cedar swamp that has not been cut or logged or disturbed for at least 150 years -- and possibly ever. The trees are large and tall with branches beginning 20-30 feet above their trunks and an understory of smaller trees and shrubs scattered among beds of sphagnum moss. And contrary to most wisdom, plenty of light reaches the swamp floor, because the canopies of the mature trees do not completely meet and intermingle, but instead leave gaps often as wide as their crowns.

Make no mistake. In the photos above you are seeing a place that almost nobody has seen or walked in for centuries. Yet it is just a 15 minute walk from the Raynham Dog Track. Judging by the size of the Atlantic white cedars here and the lack of any cut cedar stumps (which are easily visible right alongside the railroad bed), these stands have never been cut and have rarely, if ever, been visited by humans.

The first photo in this sequence shows a forest of sphagnum moss. Sphagnum moss is the little engine that could of the Hockomock. It is what makes all of the life possible in the swamp, because it prefers to grow with its feet constantly wet. Beneath this bed of electric green sphagnum is a bed of old, dead sphagnum 40 feet deep -- peat moss. You would have to dig down the length of a telephone pole to find a single bit of soil, or rock, or dirt, or sand. It is all vegetation. That's why the Hockomock is not muddy. To be muddy, there must be mud. And mud is made mostly of mineral soil. There is no mineral soil in the Hockomock, except so deep that it is where early humans followed caribou on a tundra 10,000 years ago and built tiny fires from twigs of trees only shoulder high. Somewhere, down very deep in this peat, many feet below the living layer of sphagnum moss are the footprints and fluted points and graves of those who watched as the mountainous glaciers receded to the north.1

How old are these cedars?

The biggest white cedar I found is 25 inches in diameter. Not having a tape measure, I estimated the tree's diameter by putting my arms around it, and my hands could not touch each other. Back home, I measured the distance of my outstretched arms and got a figure of 72 inches. Adding six inches to this (since it seemed that my hands were a few inches shy of touching when wrapped around the trunk) gives a circumference of 78 inches, which divided by pi, gives a diameter of 24.8 inches.

A "honker" Hockomock cedar with Queequeg T. Dog, Ph.D providing a size comparison. This Atlantic white cedar is approx. 25 inches in diameter at breast height.

The next question is whether this stand of white cedar regenerated from a stand that was cut when the Old Colony Railroad railbed was cut through the swamp in 1866.2 A stand that regenerated from a cut in 1866 would now be 140-150 years old. Given the documented growth rates and age vs. diameter of white cedar studied in southern New England, it would be very possible that the seedlings and small trees that were left from an 1866 cut would be in the average size range seen in this stand, ie. 14-16 inches in diameter.

However, a 25 inch diameter cedar in southern New England is of sufficient size to be as much as 200 years old. This cedar may predate the 1866 construction of the Old Colony Railroad bed by 50 years. This tree suggests that some parts of this cedar stand were logged lightly or not at all when the railbed was built; and strongly suggests the stand has not been logged in the 143 years since the railbed was built.

Atlantic white cedar is noted for being extremely resistant to rot and decay. For this reason, past logging should be shown by cedar stumps. The white cedar in this part of the Hockomock grow on massive humps or hummocks elevated three or more feet above the wetted part of the swamp. The humps created by the trunks and roots of these cedars are the highest ground in the stand. You have to literally climb up these hummocks in order to stand alongside the trees and examine them. In order for 19th century loggers to cut these trees with two-man saws, the cuts would have been made about three feet above ground level, leaving behind a considerably large stump well above the swamp floor. At least some of these stumps, particularly those from large cedars, should still be visible today.

Interestingly, there are cedar stumps of this type just outside the railbed, where the carted-in gravel and fill was used to raise the railbed above the swamp. But once you walk more than 100-150 feet away from the railbed and into the swamp , there are no cedar stumps. Because on this most recent visit I was focussed on documenting the character of the cedar stand with video and still cameras, I was not specifically searching out evidence of stumps in the part of the stand farthest from the railbed. As such, it is possible that a focussed effort to search for stumps deeper in the stand might reveal them.

The lack of any obvious stumps in the cedar stand away from the railbed suggests, pending a more detailed survey, that the builders of the Old Colony Railroad bed confined their logging operations to the immediate vicinity of the railbed and did not venture deeper into the adjoining swamp to cut trees purely for their value as sawlogs. If this was the case, it is possible that the stand of Atlantic white cedar documented here may not have been cut at all during the construction of the railbed in 1866. And because this part of the swamp was completely inaccessible and pathless prior to construction of the railbed in 1866, it is doubtful this stand of cedars was ever cut prior to 1866. This history presents the possibility that some or all of this cedar stand was never cut at all.

Another clue to the age of the stand is found in the ratio of cedars (C. thyoides) to red maple (Acer rubrum). The cedar stand documented here is atypical for the Hockomock. It is not a thick, pure, even-aged stand of white cedar with trees just a short distance apart from each other in an impenetrable and nearly lightless tangle of live, dead and fallen trees. This type of thick, dense cedar swamp forest is characteristic of the species throughout its range. The density of trees in Atlantic white cedar swamps is a key reason why they were so commercially valuable and so aggressively clearcut. It is estimated that more than 98 percent of the Atlantic white cedar swamps in the United States have been destroyed by logging.

Atlantic white cedar tend to grow in pure, dense, even-aged stands. Prior to the onset of logging in the 1700s, forest fires, windstorms and hurricane periodically created large openings in cedar swamps which destroyed enough of the standing trees to allow a new generation of trees to seed and replace them. A key clue which supports this theory is that young cedar require a sunny, well-lit, open forest floor to germinate and grow.

Unlike many New England trees, young cedar cannot survive for more than a few years in the deep shade created by their parents towering over them. For this reason it is believed that cedar swamps require periodic disturbances which remove large sections of the mature cedars in order to regenerate. Absent such disturbances, a mature Atlantic white cedar swamp would, after several centuries, become dominated by red maple (Acer rubrum). This is noted by Stoltzfus and Good:

"The pattern suggested in these earlier studies is that A. rubrum eventually replaces C. thyoides over time. As large canopy individuals die within even-aged stands, Acer rubrum individuals invade the gaps and eventually dominate. The mature-state or old-growth stand thus becomes dominated by A. rubrum rather than C. thyoides. Wetland forests dominated by C. thyoides can be maintained only by continued disturbance whereby the canopy and shrub layers are removed, providing open conditions in which C. thyoides can regenerate."3

Modern silvicultural research shows that the germination of Atlantic white cedar is almost completely halted if the cones fall into a leaf litter of hardwood and shrub leaves, ie. the typical floor of a red maple swamp.4 In other words, what we know about Atlantic white cedar suggests that mature cedar swamps eventually "go out of business" due to their own success and become red maple swamps when they remain undisturbed for a period of time longer than the natural life expectancy of the existing cedar stand (ie. 2-3 centuries).

If this successional model is true, we should expect that a very old cedar swamp that has not been disturbed by fire or hurricane-induced blowdown would be comprised of a fair number of large, old even-aged cedars in a swamp dominated by red maple and other deciduous trees and shrubs.

This perhaps describes the origin of the mature Atlantic white cedar stand in the Hockomock west of the railroad bed at the Easton/Raynham town line.

Tree Companions of the Hockomock White Cedars

This is a black gum or tupelo (Nyssa silvatica), growing beneath an old growth Atlantic white cedar.

This is a yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis), growing beneath an old growth Atlantic white cedar.

Canopy view of the Hockomock old growth cedar stand with mature Atlantic white cedar at the top and mature red maple (Acer rubrum) at the bottom. All trees shown are approx. 50-60 feet in height. Note the significant gaps in the canopy.

UPDATE: Since writing this I have examined a number of aerial slides taken by my father, Allan E. Watts of North Easton, of the Hockomock in 1970 and 1971. During this period, my father had a perennial habit of going up with a pilot named Ed Chassey from Mansfield Airport to take aerial photos of Easton. I assume he took these photos as part of his volunteer work as member of the Easton Conservation Commission and the Easton Natural Resources Trust to construct a photographic baseline of development in Easton: where it was occuring and where it wasn't. Given how much of Easton and the surrounding towns have been developed since 1970, these aerial slides have a great deal of value. These slides, which were taken in the late fall, after all of the leaf drop, show a large Atlantic white cedar swamp way deep in the center of the Hockomock halfway across a line between the Raynham Dog Track and the crossing of the Hockomock River (Town River) at Route 24 and Scotland Street in West Bridgewater. The cedar swamp is located just to the south of an open fen or marsh area where Black Brook from Easton peters out and disappears after it crosses Route 138 from west to east. More to come.

1Stone tools from the Early Archaic period (9,000-8,000 years ago) have been found along the shore of Lake Nippinicket, at the southern end of the Hockomock. See Kathleen Anderson and Ted Williams et al. 1968. "The Hockomock: A Wonder Wetland." Privately published. See also,"Taunton River Wild & Scenic Study, Notes from Archaeology Experts Meeting, 5/14/2003."
2Easton Historical Commission. 2008. "Town of Easton Historic Preservation Plan." Town of Easton, Mass. Available as 3.5 mb pdf file.
3Dwight L. Stoltzfus & Ralph E. Good. 1998. "Plant Community Structure in Chamaecyparis thyoides Swamps in the New Jersey Pinelands Biosphere Reserve, USA." in Coastally Restricted Forests, Aimlee D. Laderman, editor. Oxford University Press.
4 Aimlee D. Laderman. 1989. "The Ecology of Atlantic White Cedar Wetlands: A Community Profile." U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Biological Report 85 (7.21). Washington, D.C.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Driving While White (DWW)

Back in 2001, myself and Ron Kreisman, a Maine attorney, were leaving Indian Island in Old Town, Maine in his car from a meeting. Indian Island is the home of the Penobscot Indian Nation, which is a sovereign Native American entity within Maine and the United States, as set forth by treaty. The Penobscot Indian Nation at Indian Island has its own police department, staffed by Penobscot Indians.

We got pulled over for speeding. The police officer was a Penobscot Indian. We were speeding, probably by about 10 mph. So the cop gave Ron a speeding ticket and then we were on our way back down to Augusta and Hallowell, Maine, where we both lived.

It is at least possible, but in no way provable, that if we were Penobscot Indians, the cop would have let us off with a warning. And it is possible, but in no way provable, that the cop gave Ron a speeding ticket in part because he is white and not a Penobscot Indian. Again, there is no way to prove this, but it is possible.

I recall this story because in the United States about the only way that a white male can suffer police discrimination because of their skin color is if they are pulled over on Native American land by a Native American cop.

And that doesn't happen much.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Trout Brooks of Easton, Mass.

Easton, Massachusetts is at the watershed divide of two rivers: the Taunton (Cohtuhticut) to the south and the Neponset to the northeast.

All of Easton's brooks have their headwaters in the northern end of town and all flow to the south and southeast, eventually arriving in the Taunton, which empties into Narragansett Bay.

Correspondingly, the two towns directly north of Easton, Sharon and Stoughton, are the southernmost end of the Neponset River watershed and their brooks flow to the north and east toward the mouth of the Neponset at Milton and Boston. This drainage divide is also documented in the county lines of southeastern Massachusetts. Easton is the northernmost town in Bristol County, while Sharon and Stoughton are the southernmost towns in Norfolk County.

The boundaries of Easton were first laid out in 1662 as the northeastern corner of the Taunton North Purchase. The imprint of the Taunton/Neponset watershed boundaries on the boundaries of Easton and Bristol and Norfolk Counties are not coincidental. They are the direct imprint of the tribal boundary between the Pokanocket Wampanoag Indian tribe to the south and the Massachusett tribe to the north and east. At the time of English colonization, the center of the Pokanocket tribe was at the mouth of the Taunton River, near Bristol, Rhode Island. The center of the Massachusett tribe was at Massachusetts Bay in Boston, at the mouths of the Neponset and Charles Rivers. The northern boundary of Easton follows the watershed boundary of the Taunton and Neponset because the sagamores of the Pokanocket tribe possessed ancient title to the lands south of this watershed divide. The lands north of this divide were recognized as under the ownership of the Massachusett. What is now called Easton was most likely a lightly populated "buffer zone" between the formally recognized territories of the Pokanocket Wampanoag to the south and the Massachusett directly to the north.

Easton is also the drainage divide between the uppermost and lowermost Taunton River watersheds. The brooks in the eastern side of Easton, the Queset Brook, Whitman's Brook, Dorchester Brook, Black Brook and Dailey's Brook, all flow into the Hockomock Swamp which forms the headwaters of the Nunketetest, the Town River, which flows east out of the Hockomock Swamp in West Bridgewater to form the headwaters of the Taunton River.

The brooks on the western side of Easton, Poquanticut Brook, Beaver Brook, Mulberry Meadow Brook, Gowards Brook and the Canoe River, flow into Winneconnet Pond, which is the natural headwater pond of the Cohannet (Mill River), which enters the Taunton at its head of tide. Because the Taunton River takes a nearly circular course to the southeast and southwest before it enters saltwater, the brooks on the western side of Easton would have made a much shorter and faster canoeing route from Easton to the Pokanocket tribal center at Mount Hope (Montaup) Bay. This canoe route would have started at the junction of Poquanticut and Beaver Brooks at Route 106, down Mulberry Meadow Brook to Winneconnet, down the Snake River to Sabbatia Pond and down the Cohannet to the head of tide near Weir Village in Taunton. By this route, saltwater is only about 15 miles from South Easton.

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This aerial map of Easton shows Bay Road at its center. Bay Road, which is an ancient Indian path from Narragansett Bay to Boston, forms the east-west drainage divide in Easton. Every drop of water which falls west of Bay Road flows into the Cohannet at the head of tide in Taunton. Every drop of water which falls east of Bay Road ends up in the Hockomock Swamp and to the headwaters of the Taunton.

Lincoln Street is the only north-south drainage divide in Easton. All of the water which falls on the north side of Lincoln Street ends up in Queset Brook, which flows southeasterly into the Coweeset and enters the northwesterly end of the Hockomock Swamp via the Hockomock River. All of the water which falls on the southerly side of Lincoln Street goes into the Black Brook, which flows south and enters the northwesterly end of the Hockomock near Foundry Street (Route 106). That Lincoln Street is a principal drainage divide in Easton and intersects with Bay Road on its western end suggests it was an ancient east-west Indian path.

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Lincoln Street almost perfectly follows the drainage divide between Queset Brook to the north and Black Brook to the south.

Most, if not all, of Easton's brooks probably supported native brook trout prior to damming in the mid 1700s. However, Queset Brook is the only brook in Easton where there is historic evidence for the presence of Eastern brook trout, the only trout species native to Massachusetts. This evidence is found in Chaffin's History of Easton, which includes a very old map showing Queset Brook with the name "Trout Hole Brook." Many North Easton residents from the 1950s through 1970s remember well when Mr. William Parker annually stocked his small pond along Main Street with brown trout each spring. Many of these trout survived for many years and grew to nearly two feet long in the short, free-flowing sections of Queset Brook between Hoeshop Pond, Parker's Pond and Shovelshop Pond.

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Queset Brook rises from Ames Long Pond (top left of image) and the now drained Flyaway Pond (lower left of image) and flows east through Picker Pond, Hoeshop Pond, Shovelshop Pond and Langwater, or Fred's Pond. In this short distance, the brook falls 50 feet.

The Great Bend of the Queset

Unlike all of the other brooks in Easton, the Queset flows from west to east from its headwaters until its junction with the south-flowing Whitman Brook at Langwater Pond. The reason for this unusual direction is that the only large outcrops of bedrock in North Easton village keep the brook from flowing south. These bedrock outcrops have their most prominent exposures at Oakes Ames Memorial Hall, which is built on them, and in a north-south line from Pond Street and the Langwater Estate to Sheep Pasture. These bedrock outcrops force the Queset to flow east from the Ames Free Library, across Main Street, across Sullivan Ave. and Pond Street, to Shovelshop Pond, and to Langwater Pond, where the Queset does a right angle bend southward through Sheep Pasture. Just below the mouth of Queset Brook into Langwater there is a tall, slightly rounded bedrock exposure called Big Pout, which forms the corner of the Great Bend of the Queset. Just across the pond is a smaller bedrock knob called "Suicide Hill" by local sledders because it is one of the few hills in North Easton that made for good winter sledding. This east-west course around the bedrock outcrops of North Easton Village creates a significant fall in the brook, which made it ideal for colonial dam builders seeking convenient sites for mechanical water power.

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Center Street in Easton follows a north-south ridge of high ground that neatly separates the southerly course of Black Brook on the west from the southerly course of Queset Brook on the east.

Washington Street (Rt. 138) is a high north-south ridge which divides the watersheds of Queset Brook and Dorchester Meadow Brook. Dorchester Meadow Brook, which rises in a wetland just north of Union Street at the Easton/Stoughton line, flows through Knapp's or French's Pond (now almost a wetland) and Monte's Pond (drained in the 1970s) and Bigney's Pond (now almost a wetland) to Torrey Street just over the Easton/Brockton line. From the 1950s and 1970s, the defunct Brockton Fish & Game Club stocked trout in Bigney's Pond. These trout survived many seasons in the free-flowing sections of Dorchester Brook north of Torrey Street to Monte's Pond and also south, to where Dorchester Brook enters the Coweeset Brook near the Brockton/West Bridgewater line.

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Dorchester Meadow Brook flows south along the Easton-Brockton line from Knapp's Pond to Monte's Pond to Bigney's Pond, all of which have now reverted to wetlands since being first created by small stone dams in the mid 1700s.
A young beaver in Seven Mile Stream, Vassalboro, Maine. Photo by Tim Watts.

The Beaver's Imprint on Easton

Few have ever considered the profound effect the beaver had on shaping the early development patterns of Easton. Due to intense trapping for its fur in the 1600s, beaver have been extinct in Easton for 200 years and have yet to recolonize the town. Yet, we know that beaver were once common in Easton due to the name of one of its brooks, Beaver Brook, and the road in South Easton that crosses it, Beaver Dam Road.

Further evidence of the beaver's imprint on Easton is found in the use of the word "meadow" in the name of many of Easton's brooks, from Dorchester Meadow Brook near the Stoughton line to Mulberry Meadow Brook in Furnace Village. It is probable that the freshwater meadows for which these brooks are named resulted from the long-term damming activities of beaver. These dams would have kept trees from growing along the banks of the brooks and maintained a field-like meadow with a single sharp drop at the dam outlet. This meadow effect would have been further maintained by the beaver continually cropping and removing young trees growing at the water's edge. The effect would be a stair-step of shallow, sinuous ponds dominated by annual aquatic vegetation with a shoreline of mature trees many yards away.

A typical meadow created and maintained by beavers. This one is on Worromontogus Stream, Randolph, Maine.

It is not a coincidence that many of the oldest ponds in Easton were created by dams located just upstream of some of the oldest roads in town. Monte's Pond and Knapp's Pond are created by dams just upstream of West Elm Street and Union Street, respectively. New Pond and Old Pond in Furnace Village are created by dams just above Foundry Street. Morse's Pond is created by a dam just upstream of Central Street. Langwater Pond is created by a dam just upstream of Main Street. Historic documents show these dam sites are some of the oldest in town, dating back to the early or mid 1700s. These roads most likely take their present routes because they were aligned to cross shallow wading places in the streams directly below very old beaver dam sites. These road crossings, in turn, became convenient places for colonial mill builders to construct rough stone dams on top of the dam foundations built by countless generations of beaver. The earliest development pattern in much of Easton was most likely: ancient beaver dam > wading place > Indian foot path > fur trapping site > colonial foot path > mill dam at wading place > improved road with mill dam just upstream.

Because southeastern Massachusetts has lost its native beaver for so long, most Easton residents are only vaguely aware of how beaver build their dams. Having lived in Maine since 1982, where beaver are common, I have examined countless beaver dams in various stages of construction and destruction. One of the things that most surprised me was that beaver incorporate large numbers of fist to melon-sized stones in their dams, especially at the early stages of construction. Basically, the beaver build a lattice of cut saplings and brush as a first layer and then use their front paws to lift and place stones from the stream on top of the branches. This has the effect of solidifying the dam structure by keeping the first layer of saplings from floating away in the current. As the dam grows in height and width, the beaver use fewer stones and more saplings and branches.

A beaver dam under construction on Worromontogus Stream, Randolph, Maine. Note the softball sized stones placed by the beavers on the first layer of sticks. It is likely the stones help to keep the first course of sticks from floating away in the current and create a more flood-resistant base to the dam. Beaver can erect a foot high dam in a single evening.

But like any dam, even the best-built beaver dam will wash out eventually in a flood. When this happens, the saplings and branches are swept downstream but the stones layered into the dam tend to fall straight back into the river channel, creating a natural berm and riffle that the beaver use as the foundation for their new dam. In this way, over decades and centuries, the beaver create a shallow, stony wading place just below a flat, winding and open meadow. If there is no beaver dam present, these wading places look completely natural. But they aren't. They were made by beaver.

It is likely that most of the early dam sites on Easton's brooks were built on top of these ancient beaver dams and their park-like meadows just upstream.

Flyaway Pond and Native Easton Cranberries

Like many things we see and buy in supermarkets, we rarely stop to think where cranberries or cranberry sauce or cranberry juice comes from. Sure, they come from cranberry bogs, but those we see look like neat, rectangular golf courses of red and green, split by perfectly straight, mathematically arranged ditches of bright yellow sand with a little white shed in the far corner.

Actually, cranberries are native to Easton's freshwater meadows and still grow in them in abundance. They can be seen, picked and eaten in their full splendor at the freshwater meadow which used to be called Flyaway Pond, just north of Lincoln Street.

Flyaway Pond is a large, natural, rock-filled meadow fed by groundwater that flows from west to north to form Queset Brook. In the 1800s a dam was built at its outlet to create a pond to provide storage water for the various mills in North Easton village, since the Queset Brook ran so low in the summer that it provided little water to move waterwheels and machines. By the late 1800s, an enormous gravel berm was built at its outlet which made the pond nearly 20 feet deep, extending from just south of Canton Street all the way to Lincoln Street.

My father, who was born in North Easton in 1936, recalled fishing and canoeing on Flyaway Pond as a youth and young adult. He said the water was so clear and unstained that you could see every stone on the bottom even in its deepest spots. By the 1960s, the various mills that Flyaway Pond had been built to power were long gone and forgotten. The pond remained, but the old earthen dam at its outlet was inspected by various officials and deemed unsafe. Using an influx of public monies, professional engineers were called in to design and supervise construction of a new, safe "modern" dam of poured concrete. This was promptly done to great fanfare. Unfortunately, the new concrete dam was not secured to any solid surface at its base, and instead sat on loose glacial sand and gravel. In 1968, a very rainy spring caused Flyaway Pond to get very high, which caused the pressurized water at its bottom to want to make tunnels through the loose sand and gravel beneath the massive concrete outlet. Which it did. And on one rainy night in April 1968, the tunnels became so deep that the concrete dam turned over like a dog on its side and all of the massive concrete stopped holding back water. And in a few hours, all of the 100 or so acres of Flyaway Pond poured downstream and destroyed much of North Easton village. Flyaway had flown away.

In an age where dams were considered as sacred as the flag, the dam at Flyaway Pond was never rebuilt in 1968 and the pond was allowed to revert toward its natural condition for the next 40 years. In 1996, the pond's owner, Robert Mailiff, Sr., sold the land upon which the pond had once resided to the Town of Easton as conservation land. As I was only 3 years old when the Flyaway dam collapsed in 1968, I never saw the pond. My brother has vague memories of it.

In 1986, on a lark at Thanksgiving, I was home from Maine and took a walk to and through the remains of the pond, getting my feet and pants soaking wet and freezing cold. And in the old remains of the pond, where it used to be 15 feet deep but was now only a foot, I discovered gigantic patches of ripe, wild, native cranberries. It was the first time I had ever seen or eaten actual wild cranberries growing in a wild cranberry bog. They tasted good. I then realized that prior to its damming 200 years earlier, what we called Flyaway Pond had been for thousands of years an immense and lush natural cranberry bog.

A decade later, in July of 1996, returned to Easton from my home in Maine to see my father, whom I never saw because he died of a massive coronary as we were going down the dirt road to our beach cottage in Mattapoisett where he was helping a neighbor pull out their boat before the onset of a hurricane. A few days later, at his wake at George Copeland's funeral home on Center Street in North Easton, John Grant moved up to my spot in the receiving line. Like my father, John was one of the founding members of the Easton Conservation Commission in the late 1960s. I had not seen him for many years. John clasped my hand and said, "We just bought Flyaway."

Four years later, in 2000, there was a short-lived movement in town to attempt to rebuild a dam at Flyaway. The effort was well-meant, led by people my age and younger, so as to recreate the pond that had been there 40 years earlier. I knew that under modern wetland protection laws, the chances were nil that a permit could be issued to destroy and flood the freshwater meadow even if the money to build the dam could be raised. So I said nothing. The money was not raised, the permits were not issued, and the dam was never built.

There is no doubt in my mind that Flyaway, the vast, tangled, natural freshwater meadow, was created in part by beaver that lived there for millennia, periodically damming and flooding the small brooks that flow into and through it. Prior to European settlement, Flyaway was most likely a prime habitat for moose, which colonial records show occupied Cape Cod and the Elizabeth Islands as late as the 1750s. And with the moose and beaver were their chief predator, the wolf. The Flyaway that I am now seeing, 40 years after the dam broke on a dank spring night in 1968, was reassembling itself into that same place.

The Chestnut Woods of Black Brook

In the 1960s the Town of Easton's school department bought many hundreds of acres of thickly wooded land south of Lincoln Street for future school construction. The Oliver Ames High School and junior high school now occupy part of this land, which adjoins the Easton Town Forest and runs west all the way to Bay Road and Randall Street. If not for this fortuitous purchase, and the Town taking ownership of the land for open space, this immense tract of woods would now be an endless daisy chain of McMansions, cul de sacs and subdivisions.

As junior high school and high school students, these woods were known as "the woods," which meant the place right across the bus parking area where you could sneak in and smoke pot and sneak out without getting caught. So while smoking pot before and after school was probably not the smartest thing to do, at least we did it in a highly natural setting. And in doing so, you couldn't help but sit there on a log and look around at the woods you were sitting in.

Because I was an extremely shy person in high school, and also had the affliction of becoming very paranoid after smoking pot (like, from afraid of getting caught), I tended to only smoke pot deep in the woods, where nobody could find me. And because I was so shy that I often went into the woods anyways, just for something to do after school, buying a pinnah for a buck and walking deep into the woods sort of fit in with the plans I had.

Only a decade after I graduated Oliver Ames High School, and even more so now, 27 years later, did I realize that the infamous "woods" next to Oliver Ames High School are American chestnut woods. Except that all of the American chestnuts in these woods died when my father as born in the 1930s. And only last year, after walking through these woods for the first time in 20 years, did I understand how devastating the chestnut blight was, and continues to be.

My father, who was a forester, could not tell me of the great chestnut forests of Easton because they were all nearly dead and gone by the time he was born. Even he had no memories of them. And it would be odd for someone to be compiling detailed memories of tree species distribution patterns when they are six.

As my brother Timothy said the other night, "The only reason there are any chestnuts left is that they can keeping putting out suckers from the old roots. If they were like oaks, which don't put out suckers, they would be extinct."

One of the places where the stumps of old American chestnuts, bludgeoned to non-existence by the chestnut blight pandemic of the 1930s, still bravely put out suckers is along the long ridge of sloping high ground between Randall Street and Lincoln Street in Easton, just east of Black Brook.

The American chestnut blight occurred because a closely related species of chestnut, from China, was imported as lumber to the United States in the early 20th century. These Chinese chestnut logs carried a fungus, the chestnut blight, for which American chestnut trees had no resistance or immunity. Once this fungus spread from eastern U.S. ports to the surrounding forests it was unstoppable. The native American chestnut from Maine to the Carolinas had no resistance to the fungus and they all died. Imagine every white pine tree or every maple tree in the United States dying in a few years. Imagine every cardinal or robin or crow or squirrel or daisy dying.

The American chestnut blight is a compelling window into how Darwinian evolution works. Evolution occurs because every time an organism reproduces there is the chance of a copying error (a mutation) in the DNA as the parent gives its own DNA to its children. These mutations pop up in the same random way as the chute of water pouring over a stone in a tiny brook will produce a big bubble sometimes, a small bubble sometimes, and sometimes no bubbles at all, but in no predictable way, hence the term "babbling brook." While it is 100 percent predictable that mutations will occur in the DNA of a species, it is impossible to tell where and when these mutations will occur and what affect they might have on the baby animal or plant which inherits these mutations from their parents.

It is likely that the chance mutations that would have given resistance and immunity for American chestnut to chestnut blight arose countless times in chestnut trees from Massachusetts to the Carolinas over tens or hundreds of thousands of years. But because there was no chestnut blight in North America for these mutations to be useful against, these mutations blinked on and then off again from the chestnut genome without a trace, much like a melody that comes into your head while you are working, and then disappears when you get in the truck and go home. A key aspect of evolution is that it has no foresight. It cannot predict or prepare for the future. Species are the future as viewed through the rear view mirror.

For this reason, the American chestnuts of Easton in 1200 A.D. could not "save" genetic mutations in their DNA that would save it from chestnut blight that would only come onshore from China 700 years later and reduce its towering forests to rubble. Which is what happened.

What do Poquanticut and Queset mean?

Despite that people have lived in Easton for nearly 10,000 years, only a handful of Indian place names are recorded within the town. Two of the most prominent are the names of brooks.

Poquanticut is the name given for the brook that rises in the natural ponds and bogs at the Sharon line, in Borderland State Park, and flows due south across all of Easton to Furnace Village, where it joins Beaver Brook to form the Mulberry Meadow Brook. Poquanticut is also the name of Poquanticut Ave., which runs north and south from Foundry Street to Rockland Street.

Queset is the name of the brook that rises from Flyaway Pond and Ames Long Pond and flows through North Easton Village and then southeasterly until it meets Dorchester Meadow Brook east of Turnpike Street to form the Coweeset River.

So what do these names mean?

New England Indian historian Kerry Hardy offers the following suggestions:

Poquanticut, according to Huden, is "at the clear, shallow stream" (if its spelling accurately reflects how the Narragansetts said this name). However, if they said Pokan-, pogon-, pogun-, or something like that, it would mean "at the river of nut trees" (or specifically, butternuts).

And ...

Coweeset, Queset, Cohasset -- all the same word: Kuwes, white pine; -et, the place of. Coos County, NH; "Cowasessick" on the ancient Sheepscot River; and today's Cowasuck people (who have a cool website) all share this root, along with a million other places in New England.

These two Wampanoag Indian words introduce us to the wondrous complexities of the Wabanaki language. If the ancient Greek writer Heraclitus said "you cannot step into the same river twice," then a Wabanaki speaking person might have said, "you cannot give a river the same name once."

In the most simple terms, Wabanaki people did not name rivers the way Europeans do. Europeans give the mainstem of a river the same name from its mouth to its headwaters. Like the Amazon, or the Congo, or the Mississippi or the Connecticut.

In most, but not all cases, Wabanaki assigned "place names" to very specific places on rivers, based on an easily discernible physical feature. This name might refer to a falls, a gravel bar, a grove of white pine, or the location of a fishing weir. But in most, but not all cases, this name referred to the place on the river, not the entire river from its mouth to its headwaters. This difference in how things are named -- and what is actually being named -- caused endless confusion with English and French visitors to Wabanaki country.

A perfect example of this confusion is seen in a 1686 court deposition by a Wabanaki man named Perepole who lived in central Maine. In this deposition, which involved a land dispute between two Englishmen, Perepole describes how his people had at three different names for what we now call the Androscoggin River. The lowermost reach of the river, Perepole said, was called Quabacook, the middle reach was called Pejepscook and the upper reach was called Ammoscongon:

I Perepole of Lawful age testify and say that the Inden name of the river was Pejepscook from Quabacook what is now called Meremeeting bay up as far as Amitgonpontook what the English call Harrises falls and all the river from Harrises falls up was called Ammoscongon and the largest falls on the river was above Rockamecook about twelve miles, and them falls have got three pitches, and there is no other falls on the river like them and the Indens yousd to catch the most Salmon at the foot of them falls, and the Indens yousd to say when they went down the river from Rockamecook and when they gat Down over the falls by Harrises they say now come Pejepscook."

The Wabanaki of Massachusetts, as far as is known, did not have standardized units of distance such as inches, feet, yards and miles or centimeters, meters and kilometers. But they did have a very unique and useful measure of distance: the "look." To understand what a look means gives a great deal of insight into the Wabanaki mindset. It is a unit of measurement completely derived from canoe travel on a river, especially a large river. A look is the farthest distance up or down a river that you can see from your vantage point.

No matter how straight a river looks on an aerial map, it still has subtle bends and corners in it. These corners prevent you from seeing all the way down the river. Even on a fairly straight river channel, there is a point in the distance where the channel curves just enough to the left or right that all you see is the opposite river bank. The distance from where you are to where you can no longer see the channel continue is one look.

On the Kennebec River in central Maine, where I live, the looks on the Kennebec are 1-3 miles long. When my nephew and niece first canoed down the Kennebec as young children, they were very perplexed because as they looked ahead in the distance, the river channel seemed to stop in the distance at a solid wall of trees and hills. To them, it looked as if the river had become a long, narrow lake with its end in the faraway, but viewable distance. One day my niece Hallie, who was in the front of the canoe, said, "Uncle Doug, the river stops down there. What are we going to do?" Without consciously knowing it, Hallie was correctly discerning a look.

In canoe travel, units like feet or yards or miles have no useful meaning. Canoes do not have odometers and rivers do not have mile markers and exit signs. Even if a map tells you that a dangerous falls is three miles below where you put in, it is nearly impossible to gauge three miles while paddling a canoe. But if someone tells you that a dangerous falls or an excellent camping spot is five looks below where you started, you can keep perfect track of your movement towards it and know exactly when it is coming just by counting looks.

This is one look at Negwamkeag on the Kennebec River in Sidney, Maine. This look is about two miles long.