by Kate McPherson, Riverkeeper
An American eel rests on the edge of the rock, covered in muck. I carefully climb down the rocks to the pool where it is resting, trying to remember if eels bite. I’m fairly certain they don’t, but I’m pretty sure they are slippery. What I know is that this eel needs my help getting out of the construction zone that is being actively dewatered so this dam can come down.
I recall my first visit to this stretch of the Mattatuxet River in North Kingstown, located about a mile and a half upstream of Gilbert Stuart’s birthplace on Carr Pond. It was my first week as Save The Bay's Riverkeeper, and on that particular day, I was meeting with the owner of Shady Lea Mill, neighbors, and engineers to facilitate the start of the second phase of dam removal.
The habitat behind Shady Lea mill is a secluded stretch of wide shallow river, with white oak and red maple trees shading the water on the southern bank and highbush blueberry, sweet pepperbush, and green briars tucked between the trunks. Cinnamon ferns nod at the riverbank edge and an occasional skunk cabbage crops up along the wooded bank. That warm spring afternoon was a chorus of birdsong. As we discussed backhoe access to the river, a blue-gray gnatcatcher flitted from branch to branch looking for small arthropods, a great crested flycatcher flamboyantly announced its presence from a nearby low branch, and warbling vireos sang at the pond edge. Deeper in the forest to the south, ovenbird, eastern towhee and black and white warbler sang. A pine warbler stopped to consider if the deciduous canopy would meet his nesting requirements as we considered the logistics of taking down this historic, but high-hazard, dam.
This will mean changes to the wetland habitat upstream of the old dam, but change is constant in a river system, and already the Mattatuxet River is adapting. Seeds trapped in what was the mucky pond bottom have a chance at life and new plants have emerged. Deep areas previously hidden by the pond have been revealed and may provide new breeding habitat for wood frogs and spotted salamanders.
After my eel adventure, I walk upriver to what’s left of the old impoundment, where the water collected above the dam.The painted turtles and green frogs I’ve seen here won’t mind the changes to the river, for they are equally at home in permanent ponds and small rivers. I hike through some fragrant sweet pepperbush at the wetland edge, and the gray catbirds, irritated, glare and scold. I startle a musk turtle on the move! A rare treat, musk turtles are shy aquatic species that prefer slow moving muddy bottomed waters. This turtle is moving north into the deep marsh upstream.