Get Thee to Rock Dam
The Connecticut River is the Mississippi River of southern New England: from the border of Canada to the Long Island Sound, 400 miles long, slowish, wide and sandy. It is a lazy looking, yet muscular, river. From Brattleboro to Holyoke, there are few fast, rocky sections for kayakers to be challenged by, and most paddlers just drift along, feeling the serene strength of the patient roiling waters.
One of these rocky stretches is Rock Dam perhaps the most beautiful and wildlife rich section of the Connecticut River in Western Massachusetts, and it is accessible to hikers who are ready to wade a little bit.
I can’t think of a more pleasant adventure to go on, a perfect jaunt for an Indian Summer day. Bring a walking stick, camera and picnic—and some friends; you’ll love it! Give yourself 5 hours: an hour in, three hours to explore/absorb, and an hour back. (Then 2 hrs to go to the People’s Pint!)
Park at the Poet’s Seat in Greenfield (a wonderful place to view the upper Nonotuck Biome). First Light Power/GDF Suez, the multinational energy corporation, manages the public lands you’ll walk over, but provides no trail maps. Here is an old “Greenfield Trails Council” map that can be used, however. Your goal is to reach Smead Island; the Rock Dam is on its east (or Montague) side.
The Poet’s Seat/Rock Dam area is geologically fascinating. The Seat is on top of a 200 million +/- year old volcanic seep, and is a northernmost part of the Metacomet Ridge that extends to Long Island.
The descent from the Seat is steep and interesting; the oak and hemlock forest is mature and stately; look for rocks with bubbles in them: they are pumice. The descent ends abruptly, when the ridge meets the flat remains of the bottom of Lake Hitchcock. The forest that grows on this sand and gravel bench is exquisite; take time to have water, hush, and open. You’ll see the Connecticut River below you and across it, Smead Island; the easiest way to get there is straight down the front of the bench in a spot that looks easy; if you do this, make sure you avoid poison ivy. If that way is too intense, continue walking upriver on the bench trail until you reach the curve of river where it meets the top of Smead Island; the easiest place to cross is above the rapids, where the water looks unruffled, lake-like. All you have to do is walk down river and you’ll arrive at the Rock Dam.
When you cross over to the island, you’ll find a braid of riverlets, islets, pools and sand spits: microcosmic wonderlands. Look for the mussels, which are endangered, and try to avoid walking on them. Look at all the different colors and shapes of the slate rock, so many just right for skipping. Notice how the sedimentary layers are, like a slice of of birthday cake, facing straight up; you are looking at a river anticline.
The deep pool below the Rock Dam is where shortnose sturgeon, an endangered species whose ancestors lived here for +/- 90 million years, when Pangaea was splitting up, still spawn. A real miracle. See if you can spot them, these ancient ones.
So go! Be gone! Have an adventure!
Get thee to Rock dam!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kurt Heidinger, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Biocitizen, non-profit school of field environmental philosophy, based in the Western MA Hilltown of Westhampton, MA where he lives with his family. Biocitizen gives participants an opportunity to “think outside” and cultivate a joyous and empowering biocultural awareness of where we live and who we are. Check out Kurt’s monthly column, The Ripple, here on Hilltown Families on the 4th Monday of every month to hear his stories about rivers in our region. Make the world of rivers bigger than the world of pavement inside of you!