Tuesday, September 20, 2016

OARS Annual River Cleanup 2016

OARS: Poster listing sponsors.
Click on photos to enlarge.
The OARS 30th Annual River Cleanup took place on September 17, 2016. Teams of an estimated 200+ volunteers were assigned locations along the Assabet, Sudbury and Concord rivers. In Maynard, nearly 30 high school students were part of the effort, their presence organized by Maynard High School science teacher Rochelle Lerner.

At the post-event pizza celebration, dirtied and tired workers were joined by U.S. Congressional Representative Niki Tsongas and State Representative Kate Hogan, who had both been making a morning's effort to visit several of the day's river events. Tsongas and Hogan spoke to how efforts of organizations such as OARS (Organization for the Assabet, Sudbury and Concord Rivers) have made such a difference to our state's waterways. They also thanked the students for this year's service and charged them with the need to give something back to their community and country wherever their lives take them.

This appeared to be a watershed year (pun intended), as Maynard had more volunteers than trash to be removed from the river. Past years had yielded as many as 100 car and truck tires, plus bicycles, shopping carts, and tons of iron pipe, scrap metal, broken pottery, old carpets and miscellaneous junk. This year, only two tires, one bicycle, and an estimated total of less than one ton of glass, metal, plastic, broken furniture, etc. Not much in the way of newer stuff such as aluminum cans or plastic bottles. Clearly, less and less is being thrown into the river each year. Hurrah!   

Elmo (from Sesame Street), here posed kicking a soccer ball, was
salvaged from the river, as was hundreds of pounds of miscellaneous trash.
Each year the finds from the river include intact glass bottles with a bit of history. A Coca-Cola bottle, volume 6.5 ounces, with "LOWELL" inscribed on the bottom, was dated to the mid-1950s. In 2013 the find was an amber glass pint bottle embossed with the words CALDWELL'S RUM and the image of a three-masted sailing ship alongside a dock. The company had been started by Alexander Caldwell in 1790. Markings on the bottom signified that the bottle had been made for Caldwell's Rum in 1953 by the Anchor Hocking Glass Company. The oldest find to date is a one cup size bottle embossed with TURNER CENTRE SYSTEM, representing a dairy bottling and home delivery company active 100 years ago. 

Trash collected by the students.
 This year's find was a plain glass bottle with NEW ENGLAND VINEGAR WORKS embossed on the bottom, no other markings. Turns out NEVW began its life in 1865 in Somerville as the Standard Vinegar Company. Arthur Rowse bought the company in 1900, changed the name to New England Vinegar Works in 1907, then moved it to Littleton in 1930 to be closer to Massachusetts' apple orchards. Some time around then or a bit before, he created the name Veryfine, after bringing in pasteurization equipment and going into the apple juice business.

Veryfine and its popular bottled water brand Fruit2O remained a family owned business until 2004, when it was sold to Kraft. As part of the deal, the Rowse family insisted that Kraft keep any of the 400 employees who wanted to stay. Approximately fifteen million dollar from the sale was used to pay bonuses to employees; those who had been there more than 20 years got a bonus equal to a full year's pay. Kraft sold Veryfine to Sunny Delight in 2007. Sunny Delight closed the Littleton facility at the end of 2015 while continuing to make the Veryfine and Fruit2O brands at other sites. The Veryfine label has a banner that reads "Since 1865." Let's just call that a stretch.

As to the means by which thousands upon thousands of glass bottles ended up in the stretch of the Assabet as it wended it way through Maynard, think bridges and backyards, and the opinion that anything disposed into the river went "away." This is not a new problem. From the 1913 Annual Report of the State Board of Health "The Assabet River has at various times been seriously polluted in different parts of its course, the most serious condition in recent years below Maynard where the river receives sewage and manufacturing waste from a very large woolen mill and a considerable quantity of sewage also from the town... the river continues to be objectionable in appearance and odor, especially below Maynard."

To learn more about our rivers, go to: www.oars3rivers.org

U.S. Congress Representative Niki Tsongas (right) and State Representative Kate Hogan (dark suit, 
left of center) pose with Maynard High School students. Kneeling is Alison Field-Juma, Executive Director 
of OARS (left) and Lisa Vernegaard, Executive Director of Sudbury Valley Trustees (right). Science teacher 
Rochelle Lerner is in green shirt, to left.


Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Rabbits Multiplying Like Rabbits

A plague of rabbits is upon us - brazen bunnies lollygagging about on our lawns and in are garden - barely deigning to hop, hop, hop away when one walks too close. A few theories can be put forward as to what cause or convergence of causes has led to this point, but whatever the reasons, we've got rabbits multiplying like rabbits.

Eastern cottontail, well camouflaged against summer-browned grass.
The rabbits we see are not the native, New England cottontails. Rather, they are the Eastern cottontail, a closely related species. From Mass Audubon: "The New England cottontail has a darker back, a broad black stripe on the outer edge of the ear, and usually a black spot between the ears. The eastern cottontail differs only slightly, with a paler coat, a cinnamon-rust nape, and a narrow black margin extending along the front edge and tip of the ear. It sports a white or light brown spot on the forehead." Another subtle difference between the two is that Eastern rabbits have larger eyes, the better to see approaching predators.  

The two species, despite physical similarities, inhabit different ecologies and do no interbreed. The natives, now scarce, prefer thickets and young forests, as might occur after a farm is abandoned or in areas where fire has cleared older growth. Eastern cottontails prefer more open space, such as in suburban habitat.

As to why Eastern rabbits are here, their history was not a natural expansion from the central Atlantic states. Rather, tens of thousands of rabbits were deliberately introduced 1920-1940 to give hunters another species to shoot at.    

As to why more rabbits now, this may be a convergence of weather and change in predators. Last year's winter was mild and low snow, all contributing to better winter survival of rabbits, which do not hibernate. Spring being earlier than usual meant breeding started sooner. Easter cottontails can reach sexual maturity in as short as three months, so this year we are already into the second generation and by October will be overrun by the third.

Eastern  cottontail on green lawn, Click on photos to enlarge.
While coyotes are a natural predator of rabbits, a greater consequence of coyotes in the area is the now rarity of people letting their pet cats outdoors. Ten years ago, many outdoor cats. Then a period of "Lost cat" signs. Now, far fewer outdoor cats. In addition, the prolonged drought has reduced the populations of raccoons, skunks and opossums. All of these are predators of young rabbits.     
  
Rabbits and kin can be called other than "rabbit." Males are bucks, females are does. There's bunny, as in bunny rabbit, or coney, an archaic term still heard in parts of Great Britain, also mentioned as a possible name origin for Coney Island, New York. We hear hare and jack rabbit for related species, also "cottontail" as appearance-descriptive for our local rabbits. Culture and children's literature gave us Playboy Bunnies, the Easter Rabbit, Peter Rabbit, Br'er Rabbit, Bunnicula and The Velveteen Rabbit.

Movie-named rabbits include Harvey, Roger Rabbit, the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog (Monty Python and the Holy Grail), the Were-Rabbit (The Curse of the Were-Rabbit) and Frank (Donnie Darko). Rabbits were featured in Watership Down and Alice in Wonderland. And lest we forget, there is Bugs Bunny, the Ur-rabbit of fictional rabbitdom. In 1997, he was the first animated character to appear on a U.S. postage stamp. Rumor has it that Mickey Mouse could have been first, but Disney wanted a royalty.

A rabbit in possession of all of its feet.
Rabbit's foot for luck? People still remember when it was not rare to carry a rabbit's foot keychain, preferably made from the left hind foot of a rabbit killed in a graveyard. It was for luck, especially gamblers' luck, and to ward off evil, with a history linked back to both European and African traditions. Rabbits' feet can still be found for sale on the internet, either in natural color, dyed various colors, or faux rabbit feet fashioned from fake fur. But as one pundit noted, "Depend on the rabbit's foot if you will, but remember it didn't work for the rabbit."

Another memory of rabbits' feet - back in the 1970s there were several butchers' shops in Little Italy, Boston, that displayed skinned rabbits in the window - headless - but with the feet still covered with fur. I asked one butcher why the feet were left intact. He paused for a moment, then answered, "That's how you know I'm not selling you a cat." There is a German proverb which suggests this was not a joke. It goes, "Kopf weg - Schwanz weg - Has!" translates as "Head away - Tail away - Rabbit!"

Not in the newspaper column: 

The proverb means cut the head and tail (and feet) off a cat and you've got a rabbit. Famines and sieges have often led to people eating dogs, cats and rats; cats eaten often enough that during World War II there was a slang term, "roof rabbits," or in German, "dachhasen." During the 1870-71 siege of Paris, the residents consumed all the horses in the city, then dogs, cats, what rats they could catch, and finally the zoo animals, finishing with a pair of elephants.   

On a different note, why do rabbits have white tails? There is an interesting theory that having a conspicuously visible tail can help with evading predators. For some species - birds especially - a colorful tail on the male birds improves their mating success. Peacocks are an extreme example. This is not true for rabbits - both sexes have white tails and tail display not involved in courting nor in male-to-male competition for territory or mating rights. 

The key to the answer appears to be that when rabbits flee a predator such as a fox or coyote they are frequently changing directions. Visually focusing on the white tail may cause the close-following predator to guess wrong on which way the rabbit is turning, because the white of the tail lags behind which way the front of the body turned. The same probably applies to white-tail deer escaping from pursuing mountain lions, although deer also use tail raising to alert other deer in a group of possible danger. One way of testing the theory on rabbits would be to trap all rabbits in one area and apply hair dye to half. Then, in the fall re-trap rabbits and see which half had better survival.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

New Singletrack Trail in Acton

Viewed from the Maynard side, this stone marker, just east of
the outlet from the wastewater facility, has an "A" on the west
side and a "S" on the east side. The latter is not "M" for
Maynard because the stone was set when the land west of
Acton was still part of Stow, before Maynard created in 1871.
Hat and gloves resting on top of stone.
Acton volunteers have been working this summer to create new singletrack trail suitable for hiking and off-road bicycling. Access is from Old High Street, which is a right turn off High Street when driving south, toward Route 62. Old High Street is a dead end. Toward the end, on the right, there is an area to park on the grass. Do not park on the road itself. The future intent is to bring in gravel to make this an all-seasons parking area, perhaps complete with an entry sign and map display.

The new trail is not suitable for inexperienced off-road cyclists. For hikers, walking stick advised, and boots/shoes that you do not mind getting muddy. As always, check clothing periodically for deer ticks.

Length of the new section is 0.5 miles. It is currently marked with yellow ribbons tied to trees, to be replaced with paint blazes or some other form of markers. At the end of the new section - at the Acton/Maynard border (where it crosses the outflow from the Maynard wastewater treatment facility) - it connects to two existing trail networks:

Sign for ASSABET RIVER WALK
1) Going straight enters Maynard, which has two exits, on Concord Street and on Colbert Ave. Both exits have signs reading ASSABET RIVER WALK. Distance to either exit is 0.7 miles. OK for off-road riding to the place where the trail divides, and to the end of the right fork (Concord Street exit). From here it is possible to return to the starting point on roads: East on Concord Street, which becomes Parker in Acton, right onto Adams, right onto High Street and finally right onto Old High Street. Total distance for loop is 2.4 miles. The left fork of the Maynard trail crosses a wooden bridge. Farther on, it gets progressively harder to ride because of roots and rocks. Parts very wet after heavy rains and during spring thaw.

2) Making a sharp right turn at the border enters a network of singletrack in Acton, much of it marked with white paint blazes, that has exits to Pine Hill Road in Maynard and Parker and Adam Streets, in Acton.

Branches and log sections laid across muddy stretches = corduroy trail.
This photo is of the best section - the others have smaller, shorter branches.
Conditions on new trail: The first 40 yards of the trail is crisscrossed by lots of roots, but that stops once into the trees. Modest ups and downs. There is poison ivy in spots, but to the sides. It is possible to walk the trail without brushing against any greenery or having to duck under branches. About 1/4 mile in there is a creek crossing that in the future may have a bridge, but is now an awkward ford on foot and much harder if trying to cross carrying a bike because the mud is slippery. Toward the west end there is a gradual climb skirting the edge of a hill, then a gradual downhill to the Acton/Maynard border.

The new trail goes through sections of wetland - wet even during this summer's drought. Do not know what it is like after heavy rain or spring snow melt. For the present there was an attempt to make this walkable by laying sections of branches and logs across the trail (called corduroy trail). These sections can still be squishy and slick, especially in wet weather, so expect to get shoes wet. There is one section of corduroy trail before the creek and several after, quality getting progressively worse. The intent is to replace these with ground-resting boardwalk.

There are also places where long pieces of black plastic are half-buried near or along the trail. This plastic was installed to reduce erosion while the Acton wastewater treatment plant was under construction. Left behind, and now half-buried. Future work may involve removing this plastic.

Powdermill Dam on the Assabet River, Acton, MA. Click on photo to enlarge.
Harking back to the parking on Old High Street, it is a short walk to the end of the road, which stops at what used to be a bridge over the Assabet River. The body of water to the right is called Ripple Pond. It is created by the dam, which was built in the 1800s to supply water power to a gunpowder mill. A short walk to the left of the building provides a glimpse of the river cascading over the top of the dam. The brick and concrete structure houses a turbine used to generate electricity whenever the water flow is adequate (not this summer!).

Well into the 1970s this body of water was extremely foul smelling and algae plagued. It still can develop surface growth of algae and duckweed in times of low river flow, but not nearly as bad smelling. The problem was that Maynard's wastewater treatment plant has its outflow to this part of the river. Federal and State regulations now call for a much reduced outflow of phosphorus and nitrogen, and prohibit the outflow of sludge, so the eutrophication of Ripple Pond has been partially reversed. The body of water now supports fish and other water and wetlands species. A wooden structure in the river, visible looking upstream, was built with the hope that ospreys would use it for a nest site. Ospreys do live in the area, but have not yet taken advantage of the platform.  

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Maynard's High Schools 1871-2016

The school that opened for the 2013-14 school year replaced the building next door that had served as Maynard's High School for 49 years. The high school before that one had served for 48 years. The next to last school had a troubled gestation. In 1961 the town vote was against building a new high school. This was short-sighted, as the existing school had an official maximum capacity of 350 students (already exceeded), no library and a too-small gym. One year later the vote went the other way, in favor of spending up to $1.7 million dollars to go forward. 

The project was way overdue. Projections based on the Baby Boom were that the high school population would swell to 600 in ten years. And in truth, it hit 644 in 1971. Junior high school students were already on split sessions due to overcrowding and the elementary schools were averaging 30 to 35 students per classroom. The new school relieved overcrowding across the entire school system.

MAYNARD HIGH SCHOOL sign destroyed along with the building in 2013.
The Class of 1965 was the first class to graduate from the school building that met its demise in 2013. Joseph Mullin was the class president of 124 graduating students. The class motto was "Non est vivere est valere vita," which translates as "Not merely to exist, but to amount to something in life."

As for the newest iteration of Maynard High School - the sixth to serve that function since the town was incorporated in 1871 - construction broke ground in 2011. Classes began with the 2013-14 school year even though the building and landscape were still works in progress.

Enrollment at Maynard High School ebbed from that 1970s peak of more than six hundred to numbers in the low three hundreds for the last ten years, resulting in graduating classes of about 70 students. There has been a recent uptick in enrollment, but still small compared to our neighbors. Acton-Boxborough graduates 450-500 each year. Nashoba (serving Stow, Bolton and Lancaster) graduates about half that number. To the south, Lincoln-Sudbury sees off about 400 each year, while eastward, Concord-Carlisle says good-by to approximately 325 seniors. What all ten towns share in common is that the great majority of their graduates go on to further education.

One bit of history many current residents are unaware of is that Alumni Field became the school's sports site long before the high school moved to the south side of town. In 1928, while Maynard High School was still at the Summer Street location, the town transferred the land that had been the Town Poor Farm meadow to the School department. The football team started using the new playing field for the 1928 season. Within a handful of years Alumni Field gained a cinder track around the playing field, bleachers, hockey rink, field house and tennis courts.

   As for a list of all the high schools:
       Nason Street          1871-1877
       Acton Street           1877-1892
       Nason Street          1892-1916
       Summer Street       1916-1964
       MHS                      1964-2013
       MHS                      2013-

At the time of the incorporation of Maynard in 1871, the new town was served by ten teachers working in four small school buildings. Salaries were in the range of $9-15/week. The small school building at Nason Street became the first high school, with a total enrollment of 35 students. Six years later a new high school was built on Acton Street (site currently occupied by Jarmo's Auto Repair). Then back to the Nason Street site, and then Summer Street before decamping to the south side of town.

The third high school served from 1892-1916. This was a newly built wooden, 12-room schoolhouse at the current site of the Maynard Public Library. The school suffered a minor fire on September 12, 1916, then burned completely on September 20th. Both fires were thought to be arson. 

Maynard's new high school (1916). Click on photos to enlarge.
The fourth high school started out as part of the building currently occupied by ArtSpace. Construction was completed in time for the start of the 1916-17 school year. The school was nameless until 1932, when "Maynard High School" was approved at a Town Meeting vote. A timeline compiled by Ralph Sheridan and David Griffin for the Maynard Historical Society noted, among these many facts, that football was reestablished as a school team for the fall of 1917, after a 12 year hiatus. The team lost the first game by 59-0.

The Bridge on the River Assabet

Preparing the bridge for removal, August 11, 2016. Notice
orange lifesaver ring in this and last photo. OSHA
regulations require this when working near water, even though
in this instance the river is less than one foot deep.
Click on any photo to enlarge.
Spoiler alert: The climax of the 1957 movie "The Bridge on the River Kwai" occurs when the British officer in charge of the prisoners who built the bridge for the Japanese Army, deeply conflicted, also mortally wounded, falls on the detonator wired to the explosives that destroy the bridge. What happened in Maynard August 11th was not nearly so dire - no World War II, no explosives - but a bridge did end its life. A large crane brought in by D'Allessandro Corporation lifted the bridge from its stone foundation and gently lowered it onto a truck. Once the cables were in place the entire operation took less than ten minutes.

The wooden bridge, forty feet long, six feet wide, had been installed in 1989 as part of the creation of John J. Tobin Riverfront Park. The site was where the railroad bridge had been removed in 1980. Many residents of Maynard remember walking that bridge over the river - no railings and a twenty foot drop.

Cables in place to lift bridge.
Tobin was a long-time resident of Maynard. He was a Board of Public Works member for over 30 years, and also active at times on the town's Finance Committee, School Building Committee and the Board of Appeals. He was so active in town that people referred to him as "Mr. Maynard."

His death in 1986 was a catalyst for the town's government to choose some means of remembering his contributions. Tobin Park encompasses greenspace on either side of the bridge site. This is one of the few places in town where it is possible to walk right down to the riverbank. Barefoot wading is not recommended, however, as while literally hundreds of pounds of broken glass, pottery shards and rusted metal have been removed, much remains.

Up, up and away! If you weren't there at 8:45 AM, you missed it.
The bridge removal and replacement process had originally been scheduled to begin in October and finish by March 2017. D'Allessandro Corporation, the construction company with the contract for the entire project, decided to accelerate the process in order to take advantage of summer's low water level in the Assabet River. The intent now is to have the replacement bridge in place by early December. In the interim, people have to detour fifty yards south to Main Street, cross the river on the Main Street Bridge, then return fifty yards north to the original route. No big deal.

The current view from Main Street bridge includes what looks like very large white bags. These create a cofferdam, which provides for a dry workspace in an area that would otherwise be under water. Each bag holds approximately one ton of sand or gravel, and is lowered into place by a crane. Once the new abutments are in place, a prefabricated new bridge, 62 long and 16 feet wide, will be installed and the cofferdam removed. Why so wide? The intent is to provide for six foot lanes in both directions (standard for new rail trail construction), plus allow two more feet to the railings, space for people to pause to look at the river.

Bridge loaded onto D'Allessandro truck.
The bridge is not the only part of the construction project being accelerated. Through August and September the remaining stumps will be cleared and railroad ties removed, followed by trucking in hundreds upon hundreds  of tons of stone to create a base for the asphalt. The center of town will see more curb, sidewalk and path construction. Parking lots will be reconfigured and telephone poles moved. The intention is to complete as much as possible before winter puts a halt to construction.


Cofferdams on both sides of the Assabet River are in place
to keep the base of the walls dry while work is going on.
Work has also been sped up in Acton. Under the original plan all paving, end to end, was to be completed by late 2017, with fence, bench and extensive landscaping (new trees!) scheduled for early 2018.  Although no formal change has been announced for completion date, this could all be done in 2017.

A revised Construction Schedule was shared after this column was submitted to the newspaper. Although much is sped up, completion of the Maynard footbridge is still shown as occurring in spring 2017. We will see.