When Ed Oleksyk was growing up around the Blackstone River, he and his best friend roamed the river valley with nothing but their imaginations and ingenuity.
As they traveled up the river on land, they collected tires, pieces of plywood, metal poles and whatever else they could find along the way – the Blackstone, known as the birthplace of America’s Industrial Revolution, was once more a dumping ground than a place of recreation.
“The challenge was to ride everything we put together” like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, Oleksyk said Aug. 12 as he prepared to paddle a section of the river in Massachusetts from Grafton to Uxbridge in a canoe with his son Jack.
Ed and Jack Oleksyk joined a small group of travelers last week for a leg of the Blackstone River Commons Paddle, a four-day, 60-mile paddle across nearly the entire historic waterway to draw attention and advocate for preservation of the river.
Traveling down the river from Worcester, Mass., to Narragansett Bay tells a story harder to see from land, said Emily Vogler, associate professor of landscape architecture at Rhode Island School of Design and creator of Blackstone River Commons. , which hosted the paddle along with several other organizations.
The river’s complicated past, its recovery and the precariousness of its future are on full display from the seat of a kayak drifting through its waters.
Due to drought conditions in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the water table and the river are extremely low. Many parts of the river the group paddled on Friday were no deeper than mid-shin.
This paddle is more of a workout for the abs than the arms, Vogler said, because when a kayak gets stuck in a shallow spot, it takes a bit of scooting to get it floating again.
Even though the river was high, paddling in a group means working as a team, offering guidance on how to navigate safely and successfully under logs, around tight turns and even on dry land when dams and dry locations require it.
“River to the right,” the elder Oleksyk called in front of the rest of the group, telling us to head for the outside bend of the river, where it tends to be deeper. “You learn to read the river,” he advised a nervous ecoRI News reporter on her first river paddle.
Frank Cortesa, president of the Rhode Island Canoe & Kayak Association, which lent some of the boats for paddling and provided ground support throughout, suggested searching for the “V” in the water to find the deepest point. deep in a passage and lean over obstacles. rather than moving away to avoid tipping over.
While the low river conditions made paddling difficult in some places, it also made it easier to descend the “rapids” and reduced the danger of colanders – hanging or downed trees and branches that can catch boats and people on higher waters and faster conditions, Cortesa said.
The low water level also reveals things long hidden.
Paddling past an old junkyard, Vogler showed the exposed river bed, covered in different types of debris, from sheet metal to the innards of a bicycle tire.
Although some of the tires and debris along the river looked old and rotten, some of the tires and other debris from the river were new.
By the end of Friday, the second day of paddling, the group had spotted over 100 tires in and around the water. They also spotted a few bicycles, a kiddie pool, an abandoned kayak, the bed of a truck, the frame of a car, and several traffic cones, among other smaller debris.
This type of litter is strewn across the Blackstone River watershed today, but it was much worse years ago, before serious efforts began to clean up the river and tighten environmental regulations. A river cleanup is scheduled for August 27, the 50th anniversary of the massive 1972 cleanup called ZAP the Blackstone.
After the colonization and industrialization of North America and before the Clean Water Act, the Blackstone River was a place where people dumped their waste and businesses dumped their trash.
The river fed Slater Mill in Pawtucket, which was the first water-powered textile mill in America and where the Industrial Revolution began.
Slater was the first of many mills to pop up on the banks of the river and then leak or drain chemicals into the water; locals would say the river changed color based on the dyes used by fabric makers every day.
The mill weirs, some of which are still in use today, remain scattered along the river and required the party to bring their boats ashore to continue the journey. Not only do the dams slow down paddlers, they also prevent fish from moving freely from the river out to the ocean and back to the lower parts of the Blackstone. But removing dams is tricky and expensive, as the structures trap toxic sediment buildups left over from the industrial age, which would wreak havoc on downstream environments.
People were – and sometimes still are – afraid to interact with the river.
Donna Williams, watershed advocate and board chair of the Blackstone River Coalition, said her husband used to tell the story of someone they knew who let their dog swim in the river in the 1970s, after which the dog fell ill and died.
“It was awful. But that was when the river was terrible,” Williams said.
Now Williams and her husband have let their dog swim in the Blackstone and he ‘just smells a little worse than before he came in’.
Water quality has improved dramatically since the 1970s and even since the early 2000s, Williams said. She was one of the organizers of Expedition 2000, the event on which the Blackstone River Commons Paddle was loosely based. (Williams saw the land events surrounding the paddle, but didn’t jump this time around. “I’m getting older, so I haven’t been on the river lately,” she said.)
Some of the river improvements were spurred on by this original paddle, Williams said, which inspired people to get involved in watershed advocacy.
Yet signs of past and present damage frequently crop up along the Blackstone. The crew rode over and under old sewer lines on Friday, reminiscent of several serious effluent leaks earlier this year that left the river temporarily untouchable.
A group of fishermen on the banks warned paddlers of the potential for spills.
But the history and industrial hues that give Blackstone a bad name can often be forgotten floating under the green canopy of trees along the river.
Many creatures live in or near Blackstone, including a blue heron that brushed paddlers’ heads to a family of ducks that scared an ecoRI News reporter when she got a little too close to their nest, setting off a lot of flapping and quackery on an otherwise calm stretch of river.
Nature engineers also call the Blackstone home, with beaver dams lining the river. A beaver’s tail was spotted floating underwater during Friday’s race.
The group also purposely beached themselves to stop and admire an eagle perched above the river.
“Jack and I have walked a lot of trails,” Ed Oleksyk said, skirting a small island filled with green herons (a smaller cousin of the blue one they had seen earlier), “but there are more wildlife on the river itself.”
Many more people are beginning to appreciate the beauty of the river.
“The number of companies that now have the word Blackstone in their name has … increased 100-fold,” Williams said. “People were a little embarrassed to say they lived in Blackstone Valley, but all that activity has just brought a huge sense of pride.”
The purpose of the paddle was to highlight past accomplishments and the beauty of the river, while reminding the community of what more is possible.
The paddle was partly inspired by the release of the Blackstone River Catchment Needs Assessment last year by the Narragansett Bay Estuary Programme. The report, produced in collaboration with dozens of groups during the pandemic, made recommendations on how to improve the river so it can be a better resource for people and wildlife.
Since the publication of the assessment, some progress has been made. This has already prompted the creation of the Blackstone Watershed Collaborative and the hiring of Stefanie Covino as coordinator. She participated in the full 60 mile paddle.
Some of the report’s suggestions included creating a green jobs program, developing a wetland restoration strategy, increasing access to fish, and opening up equitable access to river.
The report also described how to offset some of the effects of climate change, which threaten the river, its inhabitants and the people who depend on the watershed for an important and currently scarce resource: water.
“I’ve never seen it like this,” Oleksyk said as he struggled through parts of the river that were so dry that for hundreds of feet paddlers dragged their boats from shallow pool to the other.
Covino, who decided to take a snack break before getting out of his kayak for the fifth or sixth time to drag his craft on land, found that all the water, or lack thereof, in the area was tied together.
The Blackstone River is part of a watershed covering nearly 550 square miles and encompassing thousands of lakes, other rivers, ponds, reservoirs, and personal wells.
As another tributary and channel emptied into the Blackstone, the water eventually rose and the group were able to complete the paddle paddling at Uxbridge to join the RiverFest scheduled for the afternoon.
The four-day event ended on Sunday with a public paddle to Narragansett Bay which attracted 60 participants and a celebration at the Narragansett Brewery.
Colleen Cronin is a Report for America member who writes about environmental issues in rural Rhode Island for ecoRI News.