Six Community Organizations that Support Learning on the River

Six Community-Based Resources Support Learning on the River

Our river ecosystems are about more than just water – they about thousands of species of plants and animals, fascinating natural history, and the connections between humans and their surroundings. By utilizing resources made available by a handful of local community-based organizations and events, families can learn about and connect with our local landscape.

The Westfield and Connecticut River are ecosystems made up of beautiful landscapes and filled with fascinating natural history, home to a great many creatures of all shapes and sizes. By utilizing resources offered by community organizations and plugging into local networks, families can access the many community-based learning opportunities that our local habitat affords us. From species identification to Native American culture, the our rivers are filled with opportunities to engage in community-based education… Read the rest of this entry »

Hilltown Families on Mass Appeal: River Walks & Nature Centers

Hilltown Families on Mass Appeal: June Segment
Nature-Based Learning through River Walks & Nature Centers

Hilltown Families and Mass Appeal (a weekday, hour-long lifestyle program on NBC) have teamed up to offer a live monthly segment on WWLP 22News!  Each month, Hilltown Families’ Founder & Executive Director, Sienna Wildfield,  joins Mass Appeal hosts to talk about ways to engage in your community while supporting the interests and education of your children (and yourselves!).

This monthly segment continued on Monday, June 20, 2016. This month Sienna and Lauren talked about intergenerational ways to engage in natural resources to support interests and education, including River Walks and Nature Centers:

Click here to view video.

Learn more about River Walks and Nature Centers in Western MA:


Mass Appeal is a live weekday program that airs at 11am on 22News (Springfield, MA).  Our next visit to the Mass Appeal studios will be July 18th, 2016!

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Urban And Rural River Walks and Trails Highlight Natural and Human History

Urban And Rural River Walks & Trails Highlight Natural and Human History

Housatonic River in Great Barrington, MA.

Western Massachusetts’ landscape is filled with rivers. They run like veins between our ancient hills, and give life to human and non-human communities alike as they flow constantly onward. The warm months of the year are the best time to engage in experiential learning about local rivers, a task made more inviting through a handful of riverwalks and river-following paths found locally. Through explorations of a variety of local rivers, families can explore local ecology, connect with local history, and deepen their sense of place. In particular, comparisons of urban rivers and rural rivers can illuminate the ways in which humans past and present have depended upon our rivers.  Read the rest of this entry »

Wild & Scenic Saturdays Offer Experiential Learning Along the Westfield River

Wild and Scenic Saturdays on the Westfield River
April through October, 2014

Click to view larger image.

Wild and Scenic Saturdays cover a wide range of topics and include activities that cater to families with children of all ages. Additionally, the learning embedded in each and every one of the events will help children not only to better understand the river ecosystem, but will allow them to connect the things that they experience in the watershed to concepts that they’ve learned and home and school.

For over twenty years, the Westfield River has been distinguished as a National Wild and Scenic River. The river and its watershed provide critical habitat for a great many plant and animal species (rare ones included!), serve as a source of clean drinking water for humans, and offer us a place to commune with nature and enjoy activities like kayaking, fishing, and hiking.  Treat yourself each month to Kurt’s column, The Ripple: Stories About Western MA Rivers. This month he features the Westfield River in his post, “The Cure for All Things Pavement.”

During the coming months, the Westfield River Committee is offering a series of Saturday workshops, work days, guided explorations, and other events in order to engage the community in a process of learning about and how to care for the river and its watershed. The Wild and Scenic Saturdays offer a mix of educational activities, opportunities to engage in community service, and adventures into the watershed’s fascinating wilderness. Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: River Therapy

Take Me To The River

(Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

I really love looking at pictures of people enjoying rivers. Lakes, ponds, pools and the ocean: these are great, but (with the exceptions of oceans) they are stagnant. I do love oceans, yet they’re too big to get a handle on and—dare I say it—beaches get boring.

Rivers, on the other hand, are dynamic and have tons of personality (Our rapid biotic assessments show us how different they are.). When we get near them after escaping buildings and cars, we experience a liberating emotional release—as Ray Davies so perfectly captures in the song, “Sitting by the Riverside” by The Kinks.

Whether it’s a leap of joy and dash to the edge, or a stoical surrender of complex thoughts to the onward round-the-bend flow, or a bright flash of sensory expansion as one is enveloped in a fresh kaleidoscope of sights, sounds and smells…People like to take pictures of themselves and their friends when they are next to rivers, and these kinds of emotional states are recorded…

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The Ripple: Engaging as Citizen Scientists Along the River

Hilltown Families Citizen Scientists
4th Annual Assessment of the Westfield River

A few days ago a friend of mine, the talented Northfield potter Tom White, posted a Facebook picture of himself holding a wild King Salmon he caught in Pulaski, NY, on the Salmon River near Lake Erie.

That’s what 30 pounds of pure aquatic vitality looks like—and once upon a time our CT, Westfield and Deerfield rivers were teeming with their cousins, the Atlantic Salmon, that were declared extinct last year by the National Fish and Wildlife Service.

This past Friday, Hilltown Families Founder, Sienna Wildfield, and an energetic group of Hilltown Families citizen scientists and I conducted our fourth annual rapid biotic assessment of the Westfield River in West Chesterfield, and we marveled at how alive this beautiful watercourse is! Consistent with the two assessments we’ve done since hurricane Irene, we found that the populations of crab-like bugs has shrunken while the worm-types have increased (Compare assessments: 2011 & 2013).

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Though we would like to find a wide variety of river bugs, because biodiversity is a sure sign of ecological health, we did catch five types of the “most wanted” cold-water oxygen-loving bugs. They signaled that the Westfield River continues to enjoy “exceptional water quality,” the highest of EPA rankings. YAY!

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The Ripple: Stewards of Our Rivers!

Rivers as Circulatory Systems

Be a steward of the river! Join Hilltown Families and Biocitizen as we do our 4th annual rivers health check-ups, through the EPA approved method called Rapid Biotic Assessment or “RBA.”

It might sound like a stretch to say that rivers are the blood vessels of the earth, but ecologists (who understand that even empirical descriptions of nature are metaphorical) have no difficulty viewing rivers as circulatory systems. Start with the rain cycle, for example: the science of which tells us that there is a finite amount of water on earth that gets pumped around, over and over again—and, it’s the exact same water the dinosaurs drank and swam in!  Move on to the fact that every dawning civilization began by developing agriculture in valleys, whose soils were annually replenished by spring floods—which means that even the letters I use to write this, first invented in the “fertile crescent,” are brought to us by the charitable trust and generous sponsorship of flowing waters.

Next, enjoy this exercise of your imagination, if you will: even now your own warm blood consists of water that, at one point or another, tumbled down mountains, splashed over rocks and spilled into basins. That connection is actual. What you are imagining is real. Not some new age fluff or sci-fi gobbedygook…

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Chester On Track: Railroad-Themed Family Festival in the Hilltowns!

Chester On Track Celebrates 174th Anniversary
Saturday, May 18th, 2013
Chester, MA

All aboard for Chester On Track, the railroad-themed family festival in downtown Chester, MA on Saturday, May 18 from 9am-4pm (rain or shine). A 10am parade sets the day’s pace along Route 20 and through the village. This free event gathers some of the very best early railroad, industrial, military and artisan talent from the across region.

Celebrate the 174th anniversary of the coming of the railroad to Chester, MA. Chester became a significant railroad hub during the age of steam. 150 men worked around the clock at the roundhouse maintaining the “pusher” engines to move passengers and freight up and over the Berkshire Hills westward.

Visit with living history re-enactors and explore the stories of the local landscape: 10th Massachusetts Regiment Civil War, blacksmithing, and Irish immigrant Western Railroad workers from Storrowtown Village, and tool demonstrations at a former granite stone finishing works.

Stop by the rail fan train show at the depot. Marvel at the Pioneer Valley Live Steamers ‘one-lung’ steam & gas engine demos, and classic cars. Displays include a number of 1920’s-era freight cars, wooden caboose, wooden velocipede, ‘Children’s Boxcar,’ Operation Lifesaver and US Fish and Wildlife’s Watershed On Wheels exhibit van.

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Call to Artists: Travel the Watershed

Westfield River Wild & Scenic Call for Hilltown Artists

Michele Beemer of Heartwood and volunteers have been working away in the beautiful Washington, MA shop, designing and building watershed suit cases. (Submitted photo)

The Westfield River Wild & Scenic advisory committee invites local artists of all ages to paint wooden suitcases that will “Travel the Watershed” this summer!

“Many artists choose to live in the Hilltowns because of the inspiring landscape and the pristine river that runs through it,” writes the Westfield River Wild & Scenic advisory committee. “The idea for a call to artists is to invite local artists to paint six handcrafted wooden suitcases that will ‘Travel the Watershed,’ inspiring others to soak up the beauty and protect the watershed.”

These suitcases will be on exhibit as works of art throughout the summer as display cases with information about Westfield River Wild & Scenic.  Local artists of all ages are invited to apply by midnight, March 1st, 2013… a great opportunity for youth artists to integrate art with environmental studies!

Selected Artists will be announced at the Westfield River Watershed Symposium held at Westfield University on March 23rd, 2013.  A $500 honorarium will be given to each of the selected artists and their work will be shown throughout the summer as the cases “Travel the Watershed.”

“We are looking for local artists of all ages, four of the selected artist must have an address in one of the ten towns with Wild & Scenic designation,” writes Wild & Scenic.  Towns include Becket, Chester, Chesterfield, Cummington, Huntington, Middlefield, Savoy, Washington, Windsor, and Worthington. To apply visit: becketartscenter.org.

Westfield River Wild & Scenic advisory committee serves to preserve, protect and enhance the special qualities and outstanding resources of the Westfield River Watershed in concert with local communities. Find out more at westfieldriverwildscenic.org.

The Ripple: Families Work as Citizen Scientists for the Westfield River

Families Learn about the Relationship Between
Benthic Invertebrates and River Ecology
with Hilltown Families & Biocitizen

Halloween’s upon us and the leaves are almost down—and for river lovers that means it’s time to do Rapid Biotic Assessments (RBA), which involves capturing and cataloging the bugs—benthic invertebrates —that live on the riverbed. Certain bugs like stonefly-nymphs need lots of oxygen to survive, and when you find a bunch of them, it’s a sign that the river water is fresh and clean and that aquatic habitat is unimpaired. Given that in the last two years we’ve endured the yin and yang of weather extremes—hurricane last year, drought this year—we’ve been especially concerned that our river bugs are reeling from the stress.

A few days ago, on a lucky afternoon when the clouds parted and the sun warmed our shoulders, Hilltown Families conducted its yearly RBA in West Chesterfield. We forged into the bracing current of the East Branch of the Westfield River and at 3 sites where the water churned white we reached down into the numbing cold and scrubbed bugs off rocks and the riverbed; dislodged, they floated into our EPA approved net. On shore, we emptied the nets into basins and “oohed” and “ahhed” at the first signs of buggy abundance. I could see after our 1st sampling that the river was healthy; the drought had not decimated the bugs.

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Glendale Falls Gets a Trail Makeover For Families to Hike!

Trustees of Reservation Property Awarded Grant
Glendale Falls in Middlefield, MA

Exciting News for the Hilltowns! The Trustees of Reservations was awarded a Mass trails grant for the One Step at a Time Down Glendale Falls Project. It has been four years since a National Wild & Scenic Westfield River volunteer in the  Walkin’ the Watershed program noticed a need for a clearer and safer route to the bottom of the stunning TOR Glendale Falls property in Middlefield MA. Many wonderful community members donated funds for simple wooden steps and countless volunteers came out to help install them.

HOUSING WANTED

“The areas that were too steep or lacked sufficient soil to place the steps were put on hold until we were able to secure funding for Master trail builder Peter Jensen to bring his crew in to create a low maintenance stone stair trail,” writes Volunteer Coordinator, Meredyth Babcock. “Over 70 stone steps and cribbing are planned. This exciting work will be happening during the month of October, 2012. We are still looking housing close to or at Glendale Falls. Do you have a large RV that you would donate to the cause for the month? We have a small budget for housing and would love to discuss the possibilities that I’m sure are out there!! Would you like to sign up to bring goodies and support the hard working crew?”

VISITING THIS FALL

If you plan to enjoy the falls this fall, do so this week as they will be closed for the month of October due to the flying rocks!! Meredyth will be posting updates on their Facebook page where she will also be posting their opening celebration once completed.

If you’d like to help the Wild & Scenic in other ways call Meredyth Babcock at 413-623-2070. The best ideas come from you who know and love the river so well!

The Ripple: Finding the Heart of the Watershed

Thinking Like A Watershed

Have you ever thrilled at a sunset—tried to take pictures of it so you could later return to the expansive glowing feeling-thoughts that came with it? Your identity magnified, your experience of life  intensified, a part of a larger magnificence… The fractal-ness of that experience of being a tiny shiny diamond in a vast galaxy of larger shiny diamonds, or of being a raindrop that becomes the ocean the moment it touches it, is also evident when we think like a watershed.

One of the funnier thoughts I’ve heard goes like this: “I want to be one with nature.” You might have heard of this thought, or a variation of it, too. The reason I find it funny is that it’s actually impossible not to be “one with nature,” if being “one” means directly, physically and existentially connected to the vital sources of being.

If, by any chance, you are worried you aren’t one with nature, here’s a simple way to find out: don’t take another breath. If you can do that, then perhaps you aren’t one with nature (or, you’re dead, and the issue is no longer of consequence). If, on the other hand, you hold your breath & feel that growing discomfort that finally consumes all other thoughts, and gasp and open your mouth and vacuum the atmosphere deep into your lungs, then you have empirical proof that you are air. For, without it, you are not you.

If you and I and our friends and family are air, then why does this fact—”Hi! I am an amalgam of air named Kurt”—seem so weird? Why isn’t the airy-ness of every moment as much a part of our surface consciousness as our cellphone # is? The answer: we take for granted, and then forget, that we are air because there are so many other things we are forced, or want, to think about. It’s these other business/family/social/daydream thoughts that remove our attention from what actually is (i.e., that we are always “one with nature”). We (over)emphasize these kinds of thoughts and they become the construction materials we hammer together to create that cell phone #-side of ourselves, that gets all the attention. Our airy side gets forgotten.This funny thought of wanting to be “one with nature” is caused by a way of thinking that presumes we are not already natural. My job (here at The Ripple) is to help you, and your family, emphasize the ways that you are perfectly “one with nature.” And one of my favorite ways to do this is to stimulate our imaginations by thinking like a watershed.

Before I do that, though, allow me to suggest a great read for Fall: The Sand County Almanac. It is one of the foundational statements of ecological philosophy, and it is written in a folksy, grandpa-ish style that camoflages its profoundly passionate explanations of how we are “one with nature.” There is a chapter in it entitled, Thinking Like a Mountain that changed, and continues to change, my life for the better. What is so wonderful about the chapter is that it explains that humans are gifted with an ability to think non-human thoughts; for example, through observation and deduction, we can think like the sky—which is another way of saying that we can forecast the weather. What is even more amazing is that thinking like the sky has a practical value (ask any farmer, sailor or pilot) but it also has other values, including aesthetic. Have you ever thrilled at a sunset—tried to take pictures of it so you could later return to the expansive glowing feeling-thoughts that came with it? What happened was your identity was magnified, your experience of life was intensified in a wonderful and glorious way not just by the image you beheld, but also by the fact that you—by witnessing and thinking it—real-ized you are part of a larger magnificence.

The fractal-ness of the experience of glorying in a gorgeous sunset, that feeling of being a tiny shiny diamond in a vast galaxy of larger shiny diamonds, or of being a raindrop that becomes the ocean the moment it touches it, is also evident when we think like a watershed (A fractal is form like a circle that retains its identity whether it is perceived on micro- or macro- scopic level.).

A watershed is a geological form that looks like, and is often called, a basin, the rim of which is defined by ridge tops. All rain that falls within the basin is pulled by gravity to the lowest altitudes, where it coalesces to form streams and rivers. Many Hilltown Families readers live in or near the Connecticut River watershed, which is one of the largest in the eastern USA.

As you can see from the map on the Connecticut River Watershed Council website, the CT River watershed is an amalgam of many smaller watersheds. Here is an example of the fractal-ness of nature—of the tiny worlds within bigger worlds within even bigger worlds reality that makes nature so fascinating and resilient. The Westfield River watershed is comprised of (at least) three smaller watersheds, all nested within the whole; and this whole is one of many smaller watersheds that make up the CT River watershed.

Notice, too, that the watershed form resembles a leaf. The streams are leaf veins, and they lead to the midrib which is a brook. The midrib leads to tree branch, in the same way a brook leads to a river; and a river, like the Westfield, leads to a larger river, like the CT, the way a branch leads to a tree trunk. From there, it flows back to the ocean from whence it came; like the trunk that returns to the roots and the earth, from whence it emerged. Aren’t fractals fun?  Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Adopt Your Local Stream or River

Adopt Your Local Stream or River

If you and your family love streams and rivers, and would like to develop a deep and meaningful relationship with them, this is what I invite you to do: Adopt your local stream or river; make a commitment to care for and watch over it like a parent cares for a child.

Rivers and streams are beautiful. That’s why we are drawn to them, deeply and elementally. The first colonists in Western Massachusetts hugged close to the rivers because of the abundance of life that issued from and through them, and our (or at least my) favorite town of all—Northampton—still retains much of the vibrancy of its original biocultural character: an idealistic, community-oriented and caring character generated by the serendipitous confluence of river, fertile alluvial fields and small but striking volcanic mountains. Take away the river, and there would be no “Paradise City.”

Rivers and streams are creative. They speak to us of permanence amidst ceaseless change, and when we feel drained of energy and crazed by the myriad burdens of these crazy days, a trip to the river can ease our bodies, minds and souls. “In the woods is perpetual youth,” said the sage of Concord, and there are few other places adults can go in this world, and in our woods, to reflect upon existence and to return to the simplicities and sufficiencies that delight the child, both real (as in our kids) and metaphorical (as in that sacred part of us that never gets jaded).

Rivers and streams, our rivers and streams of the Connecticut and Westfield watersheds, are alive—and once you are initiated into the ways of perceiving that life (also known as biome), you pass through the portals of knowing them as “scenic” and begin to develop a relationship with them as intimate and fulfilling as that of a child to a parent. For they are actually the circulatory system of an otherwise listless geology; (ask any desert, and you’ll find they agree). Mid to late summer is the perfect time, for example, to see and touch the wild flowering plants such as Cardinal Flower and Joe Pye Weed our rivers “express.” Go—find some! Compare them, their supple composure and light presence, to the rowdy new “invasives” called Japanese Knot Weed and Purple Loosestrife that spread like the common cold and cram together along the banks, choking off all other knee-high plant life. What we see in the spread of invasives is the changing of our riparian landscapes from ancient reciprocal patterns of native plants and the creatures that depend upon them to a new and flashy pattern of chaos that starves and exiles our native creatures. Wherever Loosestrife takes over, Cardinal Flowers disappear—and that’s why Mass DEP recommends eradicating invasives wherever you find them .

Rivers and streams need us to love them, and it is actually possible to do this, out of gratitude (for the life, health and beauty they generously share) and out of concern (that their integrity is disrupted by our present way of living).

If you and your family love streams and rivers, and would like to develop a deep and meaningful relationship with them, this is what I invite you to do. Adopt your local stream or river; make a commitment to care for and watch over it like a parent cares for a child. To care for it, you have to know it, and to know it you have to look deeply into it and understand how it works—where comes from, where it goes, what it’s connect to, whose water supply is derived from it, what kinds of specific creatures depend upon its living waters.

One of the best ways to perceive, and care for, the life of our rivers is to participate in the annual “citizen scientist” activity of Rapid Biotic Assessment (RBA). A RBA is done in the early Fall, takes about 2 or 3 hours to do, and involves collecting the bugs (called benthic invertebrates) that live in the stream bed. The health of the river can be understood by the amount, and type, of bugs that you collect. A RBA is an annual health check up, actually, and when done year after year, you can find out if your river is getting healthier or sicker.

Biocitizen, the non-profit school I work for, has been setting up an RBA program that “cares for” the rivers and streams in the Hilltown Families region; in fact, Hilltown Families has been conducting RBAs of the Westfield River in West Chesterfield for the past 2 years with us. I invite you to contact me at info@biocitizen.org if you would like to participate in our initiative, either by joining in an established RBA, or developing a program for your local stream or river. You can also log onto biocitizen.org, where I’ll be posting RBA events in coming weeks.


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!

[Photo credit: (ccl) Steve Guttman]

The Ripple: Westfield River, the Heart of the Hilltowns

Heart of the Biome: Rivers

The Westfield River is the most Hilltowny of flows, featuring a full range of terrains and moods. (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

A few days ago I was walking along the Connecticut River, at the Bashan in Hatfield (the green space off “Bashin Rd.” on this map), and the mist from the low-belly clouds touched its soft, purling surface—connecting the earth and the heavens. I was alone; there were no motor boats (this river is often a highway) and—dripping like the leaves—I absorbed serene, wonderful moments of simple raccoon and heron prints in the sand, of patient muscular hurlings of water molecules from mountains to sea, and of the paradoxical, rousing smell of sweet ferns and mushrooms. The quiet strength of these things (and more), and the feeling of equanimity and ease returned with me to my home, pouring from my character for others to splash in ’til bedtime came and we all drifted away in our own birchbark canoes of sleep and dreams.

Being alone, without distractions, helps one to connect to a river; and always coming and going, shrinking and growing, the river connects us to the elements and creatures in a manner that lakes (too static) and the ocean (too big) can’t. Let us cherish our friend the river, who leads us out of the cares and the cages we live and work in, and helps us recall that the world is bigger and more beautiful than our conceptions of it.

And let us gather by it, with our friends and family, and strangers who we meet, who have been drawn by its ability to draw us in, and absorb us—whether through its calm or its cacophony, its embrace or its danger. Even in great cities, with scores of museums and millions of diversions, people gather by the river, to pause and reflect, and feel bigger and freer than anywhere else. Be it the Ganges, the Spree, the Tiber or the CT, rivers always take us when we give ourselves to them.

Hemingway wrote the “Big Two-Hearted River,” which expressed the way a river can heal the wounded amongst us, and while I love the tale and its message, I love its title the most. The river is the heart of any biome, any region, any political geography. A city built away from a river, is a city that cannot and will not last. Souls, it might be said, that are too long abstracted from the flush and fury of uninhibited rivers, wither. And rivers dammed, like our own lives, soon silt up, get diseased—and then, with that soft power that creates grand canyons, cracks and overwhelms the obstruction, restoring the flow. All rivers are hearts, beating vitality into stones, dusts and dirts: (re)charging the fields and forests, and even those glorified ashtrays we call cities, with bios, with life. And life must be, and always is, shared—just like our rivers.

You are invited to share the heart of the Hilltowns by Meredyth Babcock, Volunteer Coordinator of the Westfield River Wild and Scenic organization, to join up with others to learn about, and care for, the Westfield River. The Westfield River is the most Hilltowny of flows, featuring a full range of terrains and moods, and I urge you to take care of any riparian business you have, or would like to have, at any of its three conveniently located branches.

On June 3rd, 2012, Meredyth will be training volunteers to explore parts of the Westfield River, and collect data and document findings that will be used to understand, and then conserve and protect, its ecological processes and systems. In short, you’ll be invited to enter, and immerse yourself the vital rhythms of, the beating heart of the Hilltowns—seize this opportunity! Call Meredyth at 413-623-2070, or email her at walkinthewatershed@hotmail.com for more information.

Go ahead—release yourself! The river is waiting for you—


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!

Citizen Scientists Discover Effects of Hurricane Irene on Local River Ecology

As You’d Expect, Hurricane Irene Drastically Altered Local River Ecology

Kurt Heidinger, Executive Director of Biocitizen School of Westhampton, MA writes:

The past Wednesday afternoon, Biocitizen teamed up with Hilltown Families to do our annual rapid biotic assessment of the Westfield River downstream of the Route 143 bridge in West Chesterfield, MA. Thank you volunteer citizen scientists!

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Before we began, our hosts Sienna, Jim and Persephone described how scarily high the river rose during Hurricane Irene. Not only did beautiful farmland across the river crumble—old barn and antique garbage dump included—into the torrent; but they also heard giant boulders rolling, bumping, crashing below the surface. In fact, they could feel the vibrations of the boulders in the foundation of their house (Face it amigos; we’re all on jello.).

A first view revealed just how drastic the re-ordering of the river, and riparian corridor, was. Tree branches high on the bank held fist-sized clumps of leaves and debris, proof the flood crested around 15 feet above its present level, which is itself abnormally high. Down at the river, Persephone (9yo)—and Rowan (9yo), Owen (8yo) and Cyril (8y0)—showed me where her fort used to be (on a sedimentary sand bank). Then we saw all the flotsam she’s collecting to build a new one, on higher ground. I was relieved to see our sampling area was basically intact, and marveled with grim fascination at the look of the whole river course, which appears to have been bulldozed.

We did 6 invertebrate collections, 2 each at 3 sites that are within 20-30 feet of each other. Our first sampling shocked us, because we couldn’t find a single invertebrate; last year, each sample teemed with writhing, boisterous bugs. Below are RBA data sheets for 2011 and 2010 for your comparison. Look at the top row of each to get the basic idea: we didn’t find any large stoneflies this year, only tiny ones. (“The meek shall inherit the earth”…?) As we might expect, we found plenty of worms that build cases and glue themselves to large stones.

So: it was a “bad’ year, if we consider “good” to be finding lots of big juicy stoneflies. But for the purposes of cold-hearted science, the drastic alteration of the riverbed and reduction of the number of bugs is “great” because the bug population will definitely rebound (“no empty places in nature”). The biotic resurgence will be cyclical, though, and might take a year or more. The benthic invertebrates we collect live their short adult life next spring and summer (some live under water for more than one year); the reproductive cycle takes at least a year. There will probably be a lot of hungry trout next summer and perhaps less osprey 2 years from now, as a result.

We look forward to next year’s RBA with anticipation—it will show us how the river is a superorganism whose health changes in response to climatic influences.

And we are pleased to report that, notwithstanding the trauma it has endured, the Westfield @ Rt 143 is a river of “excellent quality” water!

Families as Biocitizens on the Westfield River

Kurt Heidinger, Executive Director of Biocitizen School of Westhampton, MA writes:

Identifying a sample of benthic macro invertebrates (water bugs) taken from the Westfield River in West Chesterfield, MA. (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

How many times have you looked at a river thinking, how beautiful—and pulled out your camera to capture the swells of whitewater, a striking blue heron, or blazing maple tree in the autumn overhanging its banks?

A river is not just beautiful, though; it’s alive, and those who witness this life, this bios, never look at or appreciate a river the same way again. Based out of Westhampton, MA, the Biocitizen School has been training volunteers to see and understand the bios that a river is, by teaching them how to do Rapid Bioassessments. We net the benthic macro invertebrates (underwater bugs) and, by inventorying them, we can quickly assess how alive the river is.

Kurt helps kids sort through a sample that included stonefly nymphs. Stoneflies give an abundance of food to trout, feeding the Bald Eagles on the river. (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

Stonefly nymphs are a bug we want to catch. They are a primary food source for brook trout and, like trout, require clear, clean, cold oxygen-rich water. If there is too much nitrogen or potassium (from fertilizer run off) in the water, algae will bloom and suck the oxygen out of the river. You won’t find many stonefly nymphs—and therefore trout.

By doing a Rapid Bioassessment, you can monitor a river that is dear to you, year after year, to ensure that it’s healthy—and stays that way. Once you have been trained (this year), you can conduct the assessment yourself (next year); Biocitizen collects and sends your bug inventory to DEP, where it is checked and logged, becoming part of the public historical record. Such records are invaluable for scientific research and land-use decision-making.

Families inventoried their samples, giving proof that the oxygen-rich water was of exceptional quality! (Photo credit: Sienna Wildfield)

I had the pleasure of training a few families on the Westfield river this past weekend, just downstream from the RT 143 bridge in West Chesterfield, MA. One of my favorite moments occurred at the end, after we had identified our last worm species and had the proof we needed to judge the water of “exceptional quality.” “We have bald eagles on the Westfield,” I was told; “They fly up and down the river: must have a five foot wingspans, seem almost as big as a person!” Yes. All of us lucky families have big beautiful eagles living near us. Because the water is oxygen rich, there’s an abundance of stoneflies, which gives us an abundance of trout which the eagles find yummy: enough fish so they can nest and raise their families here too!

Find out more about Biocitizens and how your family can get involved with Rapid Bioassessment, visit www.biocitizen.org.

6th Annual Community Walk/Run in the Hilltowns

Gorge aprés Gorge
Community Walk/Run in West Chesterfield, MA
Sunday, November 29, 2009, 10AM

The Sunday morning following your Thanksgiving dinner gorge, rise and shine to join friends and neighbors for the 6th annual Gorge aprés Gorge run/walk at the Chesterfield Gorge in West Chesterfield, MA. Community members are invited to embrace winter by being outside with friends and neighbors in a three mile out and back run/walk/bike/snowshoe/ski along the beautiful Westfield River. It’s a free event and all are welcomed! It’s a family affair.

Complimentary warm drinks will be served (coffee, tea, hot chocolate, cider). Please help reduce waste and cost by bringing your own mug. Food to share is always welcome. Event will happen regardless the weather. For more information or to volunteer, email Leslie Charles leslie@lacdesign.com. Organizers ask that families kindly leave their lovely dogs at home this day.

Community Walk/Run in West Chesterfield

Gorge aprés Gorge at the Chesterfield Gorge

This is the time of year families are cooking and traveling and getting ready for their big Thanksgiving feast (= gorge #1). Following a Thanksgiving gorge, this is the time of the year area families are getting ready for the 5th Annual Gorge aprés Gorge at the Chesterfield Gorge in West Chesterfield (= gorge #2)! The GaG is a 3 mile walk/run (out & back) morning event for families to come together for exercise and a fun time, held on the Sunday following Thanksgiving. Go as long or as little as you want.

WHEN & WHERE?

  • Sunday, Nov. 30 @ 10am
    Chesterfield Gorge parking lot
    West Chesterfield, MA
    All are welcomed! It’s a family affair

WHAT TO EXPECT

  • It’s FREE.
  • If there is snow, bring your skies, snow shoes, or sleds. Or you can run and walk to make the 1.5 mile trek out to the first gate on a dirt fire road.
  • If there is sun, come run, bike, and/or walk.
  • Water will be available about 3/4 miles out.
  • Hot drinks will be served back at the parking lot, including coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and apple cider (bring mugs, if you want).


The Gorge aprés Gorge is organized by local resident (and mother of two) Leslie Charles and is supported by a Cultural Council Grant issued by the Chesterfield Cultural Council. Email: leslie@lacdesign.com
(Poster design by LAC Design, www.lacdesign.com)

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