On Slocums River and beyond
Down on the south coast of Massachusetts there's a remarkable tidal estuary bounded by a landscape that alternately looks lifted from the highlands of Vermont or the sands and marshes of Nantucket. Sounds unlikely, but on June 16, 2007 that's what we found paddling Slocums River in South Dartmouth and the adjacent open-water zone of Buzzards Bay.
The people - we broke into two groups: the open water group headed out and over to Allens Pond...and the river explorers. This is the account of the open water group.
The put-in for this trip is several miles upriver at Russells Mills, essentially the back of nowhere, but easy enough to find if you follow directions. The trip organizer was late due to...uh..."staging issues" with his son. As expected, they pulled into the parking lot to a round of razzing and watch-pointing from the assembled and ready band of paddlers. Astonishingly, the entire fleet was in the water right at the stroke of 10:00 AM, as planned.
A scenic river
Our objective was to ride the tide out...and several hours later catch the early incoming tide back up to the put-in. At the Russells Mills launch site... the furthest upriver one can go in a kayak...the close surroundings and narrow character of the river belie the vistas and marine environments further down toward the ocean. The tea-brown water was placid and barely moving as we made the first easy strokes toward a wider, marsh-lined stretch just before the first bend. Rounding that bend we came upon an unoccupied Osprey nesting tower, an omen of what was to come.
From that point on, Slocums simply became more interesting at each stage.
The river opened and narrowed, sequentially revealing more of the landscape and horizon as we paddled into ever clearer waters. We soon emerged into a deep section bordered by broad stretches of marsh grass and punctuated by more Osprey towers. The first of those towers was indeed occupied by a complete family of the magnificent sea eagles — dad perched on the nest, mom taking a break off to the side, and several little chicks poking their beaks above the rim. A few of us slowly approached the shoreline for a better look...and, sure enough, the Osprey dad took to the air to reconnoiter our fleet and make some circling passes to warn us off. We backed off.
Again, the banks closed in for a little stretch. Then, Slocums opened up to present us with an expansive view that seemed like it belonged in the hilly uplands of Vermont. To the west, wide open farmland rolled down from a low ridge to the marshy banks lining a vast inlet of the river. A few lonely silohs and barns studded the ridgeline. I, for one, got the sense of passing through a unique and special place.
We paddled onward, and it took some time to move from the open area into another narrower section of the river. Here and there, some beautiful homes emerged from the trees...most of them with equally impressive docks, of course. We could tell that we were getting closer to the ocean. Soon enough, the horizon ahead grew much wider with the umistakable brightness of the ocean illuminating the sky. Open sandy terrain and a few scrub pines confirmed it: we were coming to the wide mouth of the river bordered by Demarest Lloyd State Park.
Sand and color, birds and fish
Right from the put-in, we were dealing with headwinds...and they picked up a little as we got near the ocean. Buzzards Bay westerlies kicking in, but easy enough to handle.
As we moved closer to the ocean, the water in the river took on a distinctly different character...much clearer and more active. I saw several large fish cruise right underneath my kayak...while off to both sides fast moving little white seabirds patrolled the air...making frequent dives to pick up minnows and launch themselves back to the sky with their wriggling breakfasts. Several times I stopped to check out the sandy bottom through the clear water — and each time I saw something different: fish of all stripes and sizes and many types of crabs seemed to call this energetic environment home.
Soon we were in the open zone where Slocums mingles with Buzzards Bay, and this is where it all changed from a river environment to an ocean world — with a striking contrast between the light tan of the sandbars and flats and the darker greens and blues of deeper water. After passing across several sandy shallow water flats our group gathered just off the Demarest Lloyd State Park beach to confirm our commitment to the next stage out onto Buzzards Bay and over to Allens Pond. In honor of the occasion, Jordan graced the group with one of his trademark spontaneous rolls.
To the East...the narrow peninsula of Mishaum Point, with its remote military signal installation at the outermost reach.
To the South...the dark hulks of Cuttyhunk and the Elizabeth Islands fading off into the sea mist.
To the West...the wild and sandy stretch of Demarest Lloyd state park beach, leading way out to Barney's Joy Point. We could see some distant surf on the rocks off the point, around which we needed both clearance and caution.
Our quiet scenic river tour was about to become more challenging. Of course, that's why we were all there in the first place.
A good chop
The seabird activity seemed to pick up as we moved up along the beach toward Barney's Joy point. The sound and mist of breakers on the beach, along with the sight of their glassy rolling backsides reminded us to stay well offshore. From a distance, it seemed like there was some major action around the rocks off the point, but as we got closer, it turned out to be nothing much at all. We rounded the point into some classic Buzzards Bay chop with an occassional swell for good measure.
Even in our somewhat clunky Tsunami 145s, my son Geoff and I had a blast in these conditions. The occasional plunge of the bow and splashover was an energizing change of pace from the easy cruising back on the river. Of course, I could only imagine what this was like for certain others in their classic 18 Ft. soft-chined expedition boat, their smooth tracking british-style tourer...their composite this and that..and other such craft. But gear envy has no place on the water...so I just enjoyed it all. Jordan, of course, pulled a few rolls just for the fun of it.
The missing inlet
Our goal was to find the inlet to Allens Pond, reputedly one of the most pristine tidal ponds in the Northeast. The maps put the inlet just beyond a set of dunes that we could see up ahead. GPS readings confirmed it. It was supposedly difficult to see until one comes right upon it, so Geoff moved closer to the beach to scout it out. Little did we know how elusive the inlet would ultimately prove to be. As we moved abreast of the dunes, we began to question our sighting abilties. Surely, we thought, we have just missed it and paddled too far down toward Horseneck beach and the Rhode Island border. But Geoff...who had been paddling quite close to shore...confirmed that we had not. We continued on for a while and then decided to beach the kayaks for lunch and reconnaisance.
It was a beautiful beach, and a beautiful day to be at that beach. My impression was of the southeast coast of Martha's Vineyard...and the long stretch of sandy warmwater between Oak Bluffs and Edgartown. It looked much the same, the water was much the same......And there was even a tidal pond behind us, just like on the Vineyard. But this particular body of water was definitely Allens Pond. We could even see the channel to it...but no opening. Yet, there were some canoeists plying the channel...and other people camped out on its shore.
We ate our lunches...and pondered what the heck was going on with the maps. GPS units came out again to compare points and measures. By all reckoning, we should have been looking right at the inlet over at the dunes we had passed. But we saw nothing but sloping beach. Then we caught the canoeists cruising by us again...but this time coming from the other direction...out on the open water. The mystery deepened. Surely, they had simply portaged over the sand. Yeah...that's the ticket. They portaged.
A local lady walking the beach then stopped and asked if our group was one for which she was looking. We were not, of course, but we did take the opportunity to ask THE question: "Where the H*** is the inlet to Allens Pond?" She laughed and simply pointed up the beach a little way...and, sure enough, we could just barely see it....but nowhere near where it was "supposed" to be.
She explained it all for us. The inlet, it seems, naturally moves up and down the beach each year...it never stays in one place. Sometimes it closes up entirely...and the DCR waits a few months and then opens it up to start the cycle all over.
Duh! We were just slightly embarrassed, but we were having such a good time lounging on the beach...we just decided that it was too late in the tidal cycle to make a go of it against the current and up into the pond.Change of plans. We stayed put to enjoy the place....
...and occassionally glance at two small figures playing out on the water in the outflow current from the inlet.
Turkeys to the rescue
For a few quiet minutes, we just enjoyed the sun and breeze with Cuttyhunk off in the distance in front of us.
We heard some voices out on the water. Then we heard them again. They sounded a little more urgent each time. We looked around at each other...and then tried to figure out if they were coming from the two tiny figures out in the current. Was one of them waving their arms? We all sensed something amiss at about the same time. Nelson headed off at a run down the beach...and toward a little girl who, it seemed, was running our way. My son Geoff (a trained EMT by the way) decided to do a twenty-second load-up and just get his kayak in the water to be ready. Nelson returned at a fast run...the little girl still far behind. He confirmed that the two in the water were having trouble.
At this point, Jordan was saddled up and launching his kayak as Geoff headed right by him angling his way out to the scene. Jordan and Geoff raced ahead, with Nelson and Ron right behind. Several of us on the beach met the little girl who, in tears, told us that her mother and brother were caught out in the current and couldn't get in. She was running to get her grandmother just down the beach.
By the time I looked up, the Turkey team was on the scene, and towing the pair in to the beach. They confered out there as the rest of us got our kayaks in the water. The girl came back with a very distraught grandmother, who was visibily relieved when she learned that her daughter and grandson were being helped into the beach. All ended well.
Several minutes later, when I met up with Geoff out on the water he explained that the boy had been playing in the current and called to his mother that he couldn't get in. She went out to help him and then got caught in the current herself. By the time the kayaks reached them, they seemed to be moving out of the danger zone, though quite exhausted and frightened. The arrival of help was most welcome.
Makes one wonder. Just perhaps...is it possible that we were supposed to miss out on Allens Pond?
After that, the return trip was uneventful. Ironically, when we got back on the river the wind had shifted around and we faced the dual challenge of a yet another headwind and some rather shallow stretches of water, sometimes barely enough to get a decent stroke. Even so, the scenery was as spectacular going in the other direction.
We made the put-in around 3:00 PM, loaded up...and then capped the day with a visit to the local general store at Russells Mills — reputed to be the oldest in the country. It was a memorable trip. Fine weather, great scenery, fun ocean conditions, a nice beach, a mystery...and a little drama.
Next time, we may make it into Allens Pond....and I might even arrive on schedule.