August 22, 2012

The Deerfield River, a Year After Irene

Occasionally, the Principal Undergardener needs to get out of the garden.  But, even when he does, horticulture is never far from his mind.  So it was yesterday, when Betty and I took a day trip to kayak the Deerfield River in western Massachusetts.

The Principal Undergardener and
the Master Gardener
The Deerfield River is usually a broad, placid rock-strewn stream coming down from the Berkshires.  Rising in southern Vermont, it parallels the very scenic Route 2 for much of its 76-mile route toward the Connecticut River.  Part of its tranquil nature is man-made:  nine hydroelectric dams, some of them more than a century old, dot the river. 

Several times a week, one or more of these dams releases excess water and, for a few hours, the Deerfield River bears a passable resemblance to one of those wild western rivers where it’s Man Against Nature.  Several commercial outfits have sprung up to take advantage of those man-made rapids.  We went with CrabApple Whitewater, which offered us a four-hour ‘self-guided’ tour in an inflatable kayak through eight miles of river including Class I and II rapids.

It was supposed to be fun and it definitely was, but along the way, I saw a reminder that when it’s Man Against Nature, nature is invariably the winner.

This is Route 2 in Charlemont. 
Portions of the roadway were
washed away
A year ago this week, a weak, slow-moving storm named Hurricane Irene plowed into New England.  It was barely a hurricane when it made landfall and was quickly downgraded to a tropical storm and then a depression.  The track of the storm was also considerably west of the predicted track.  Once expected to hit Eastern Massachusetts, it missed Boston (I wrote about it here and here) and, for several hours, The Weather Channel wrote off the storm as a ‘near-miss’ and its blue-jacketed reporters headed off for the next meteorological calamity.

The Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne
Falls.  See the video link below.
What happened next was almost unthinkable.  The great, soggy tropical mass headed up the Connecticut River Valley and stalled for hours.  Western Massachusetts and southern Vermont received ten-plus inches of rain - 100 trillion gallons (15 trillion cubic feet) in the Deerfield River watershed alone.  Already saturated from much higher-than-normal rainfall in July and August, the rain from Irene flowed down mountainsides and into valley and rivers. 

The result was a catastrophe. On the weekend of August 27 and 28, rivers in southern Vermont and western Massachusetts (and, most spectacularly, the Deerfield River) turned into monsters, creating the worst flooding in recorded history in the region.  You can see video footage from the height of the flooding here.

Most of the subsequent news coverage focused on rebuilding roads, but the damage to the river was also substantial.  When the flood waters receded, farm fields adjoining the river were buried under six inches of silt.  Debris dams consisting of trees ripped out by their roots and large boulders blocked the river at multiple points.  Where there were no debris dams, there was ‘stream reaming’ where fast-flowing water created a newly gouged riverbed that made the river unusable for recreation.

The Deefield River on Monday. 
The trip was spectacular.
A year later, there is still lingering damage evident, and navigating the river came with some warnings.  On our eight-mile kayak journey down the Deerfield in Charlemont, we saw the damage up close.  Jen Mooney, who runs CrabApple’s operations in Massachusetts, warned us before we set off of silt deposits and tree debris that, even after a year’s work, made respecting the river all the more important.  “Keep to the left at an island in the river channel; avoid silt and rock buildup just a few inches below the water’s surface,” she told us.  We saw areas where the riverbank was pocked with small ravines and gullies.

Me on the river
But the river’s restoration is also remarkable.  In most areas, it is as though there was never a storm.  The restoration has been a joint effort by the state and volunteer organizations.  What they have accomplished is to be commended.

We had a wonderful trip.  It was a reminder that our ‘near miss’ was western Massachusetts’ horror.  A year ago, I wrote, “The next person who calls Irene a dud will get nothing but a cold stare from me.” 


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