On March 11th, the Mad River Valley Libraries and Friends of the Mad River hosted Zac Cota-Weaver from the North Branch Nature Center to bring an awesome Amphibian Road Crossing training to the MRV. We explored the lives of amphibian species like the Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), the Jefferson Salamander (Ambystoma jeffersonianum), and the American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus) – among many others. We covered the basics of how our amphibian neighbors live, how to help them cross the road, and how to capture important community science data along the way. If you missed the training, the whole thing can be found online at the NBNC website.
After the event, Zac let us know that a TON of volunteers signed up to be Amphibian Road Crossing volunteers here in the Valley. It is exciting to know that there are so many of you out there with curious minds, a willingness to pitch in, and a love for amphibians!
One of the challenges of helping our amphibian neighbors is the fact that they tend to only move around on warm, rainy nights. Springtime offers a handful of those warm, wet nights – but predicting the weather in Vermont ain’t always easy!
Friends and the Mad River Valley Libraries want to invite anyone who attended the training event (or anyone who is interested in amphibians – we just ask that you watch the NBNC training videos first or join up with someone who has) to join us on a warm, wet evening sometime in the next few weeks. We will keep an eye on the weather forecast and when the conditions look good, we will give you a 24 hour notice with the time, location, and parking directions. We hope to see you out there!
What: Amphibian Road Crossing In-Person Event
When: A warm, wet night sometime in April – with 24+ hour notice
Hosted by: Friends of the Mad River, the Mad River Valley Libraries, the Northbranch Nature Center
For: Volunteers who want to learn about their amphibian neighbors and help them safely cross the road!
Friends of the Mad River’s Storm Smart program launched its fourth field season this week. The program has worked with dozens of community members at more than 100 Valley properties to help property owners sustainably manage runoff and reduce erosion. Friends of the Mad River (FMR) staff offers homeowners and property managers a free assessment and a custom report, similar to a home energy audit, that outlines steps they can take on their own property to save dollars and contribute to the Mad River’s clean swim holes and the community’s resilience.
“Since launching in 2018, the Storm Smart program has helped people across The Valley ‘spongify’ our landscape. By slowing down, spreading out and sinking in water as it crosses the land, we can reduce the impact of storms like the heavy spring rain we saw last week. We can slow runoff on our roads and swim holes, recharge ground water and build resilience into the landscape,” said Ira Shadis, Friends of the Mad River stewardship manager.
“It’s been a pleasure to see that many of the green infrastructure practices used to manage water can also benefit wildlife. Healthy connected forests slow rain in the canopy while deep roots make a more porous floor below. Rain gardens, flush with native flowers, sedges and bushes, can provide important habitat for pollinators, birds and other small wildlife neighbors. Planting along streams, ponds and drainages can reduce pollutant loads while also providing shade and clean water for fish and amphibians alike,” he continued.
In 2020 and again this year, Friends of the Mad River partnered with Friends of the Winooski and the Winooski Natural Resource Conservation District to offer the Storm Smart program to the entire Winooski watershed.
“Expanding Storm Smart from its beginnings in the Mad River watershed is an opportunity for this community to be both an incubator and collaborator,” said Corrie Miller, FMR executive director. “With so many people seeing value and seeking to play a part, each doing their bit in their backyards, we have so much to learn and share.”
“That same spirit of collaboration and creativity informs a lot of our work. As we grapple with big, complex issues like climate change, we see a lot of value in broadening collaboration across our community,” Shadis added.
The Watershed Project is a new partnership between Friends of the Mad River, the Community Engagement Lab, Friends of the Winooski, the Vermont Energy Education Program and a pair of professional artists that helps educators bring the connection between art and science to their students. Interested educators can contact Claire Tebbs at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.communityengagementlab.org/the-watershed-project.
To schedule a Storm Smart assessment or learn more reach out to Shadis at Stormsmart@friendsofthemadriver.org, or call (802) 496-9127, or visit www.friendsofthemadriver.org/storm-smart.
This article was originally published in the Valley Reporter on April 1st, 2021
The Mad River Valley runs north-south. It’s namesake river draws from the Green Mountains to the West and the Northfield range to the east before draining into the Winooski River. It has followed this path for thousands of years, only interrupted in it’s workmanlike carving of rock and soil by the grinding of glacial tides. The river and glaciers alike work ever downward, drawing out the sculpture hidden in the bedrock beneath. Ancient beds of mud, pressed under the ages, form veins of schist stretching the length of the valley. Crystal knobs of quartz betray phyllite plumes folded into the landscape. Bedrock arms lunge out from the mountains to cajole the river, here a dog-leg, there a gorge. As the Wisconsin glaciers ebbed, inching ever northward, they pushed and prodded cobble, silt, and sand. Frozen dams hid the river’s winding path beneath the depths of reservoirs whose shores remain, piecemeal, as sandy banks and gravel pits spread haphazardly along the valley’s contours. The dams burst and for 14,000 years the river and its tributaries have slipped through the seams of geologic history; the Mad has seen generations of lichen and moss give way to sedge and grass, it tributaries have arced the path by which boreal firs have grown as neighbors to maple and beech, its willowy shores have been the canvas for brook trout, blueberries, and beaver to paint the passing of their days.
My first steps in the Valley happened sometime before I can remember, but through the years I have made memories of all kinds exploring its peaks and troughs. I lived most of my life along the Winooski but spent many summer days dipping my toes in the Mad. As luck would have it, I was given the opportunity to work with Friends of the Mad River a few years ago.
Since then, the Valley has opened up before me, idiosyncratic in its history of glacial lakes and steep, rocky slopes; its pastoral farmland and anachronistic villages; its young, low lying forests, and its ancient peaks of rugged spruce. It offers a layer cake of natural history, a true delight to explore. And though I might carve out my own path through these layers, there are many who have come before me - and each of us, in our own way, trace the path of water, whose often slow, yet sometimes sudden, etching of stone and soil marks our way. Yet, the water is so much more than a marker. It carries us in our canoes or on our skis; it flows between us and all our neighbors, the clouds above, the roots of trees, and the beer in our bottle; and so, the path water takes through the Valley is, in the most vital of senses, the path we all take through the Valley.
As water works its way down steep slopes, it winds through leafy canopies, layers of humus, the mosaic of soils deposited in ancient lakes or dropped by glacial taxis, and inexorably downward to the very bedrock below. It is in our tributaries, in the outcroppings along the main stem, in the mighty limbs of ledge crisscrossing the landscape, that water reveals its most long standing sculptures. The smooth, whirling lines of this stone are evidence of millenia of eddies, currents of water trapped in brief whirlpools, again and again like the subtle chipping of the mason’s chisel. The course of the water shifts over time, giving way to harder stone here in favor of softer stone there. In this way, erosion reveals a story written somewhere between the tempestuous raindrops and the stoic folding of geologic time.
At the southern tip of the Valley, small bogs and rivulets begin to form the very headwaters of the Mad, and the Granville Notch separates two very different stories. A drop of water that falls just to the south of the Mad River Valley might slip into the Alder Meadow brook to become part of the babbling chorus that joins the White River, then the Connecticut, and last, some two hundred miles as the cloud flies, flows out the estuary into the Long Island Sound.
For the water that lands just to the north, a different story unfolds. The headwaters of the Mad slowly build momentum, starting as little more than a stream, a few inches deep, and narrow enough to step across. A few little trickles here and there are followed by the drainage from Alpine Lake. Then the Austin Brook, its many little tributaries drinking up the water from the Green Mountain National Forest. Then Mills Brook, which is the drainage for Blueberry Lake, itself a catchment for the Roxbury State Forest. The Northfield Mountains cup the southern and eastern edges of Blueberry Lake. The gentle slopes give rise to modest peaks, though still enough to edge out the morning sun and allow cool air to roll banks of fog into the Valley below. The Roxbury State forest is both border and portal. Its broad, interwoven canopy stretches over the Valley walls and provides habitat and mobility to white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and black bear (Ursus americanus) alike. Water that lands amongst the trees will slowly trickle down into the seams of bedrock. Then, moving at a snail's pace, it will eventually breach the confines of these hidden aquifers and spill out in seeps, streams, bogs, and even manmade lakes. In time, though, water that has not evaporated or transpired finds its way ever downward, ever seeking to follow the path the Mad has cut for ages.
The Stetson Brook joins and the Mad becomes knee deep in places before plunging headlong through the whirled carvings of the Warren Falls. Then the Lincoln Brook, a steep confluence of tributaries from the Lincoln Gap, the runoff from the Long Trail, joins the Mad just before the Warren Village. The old Warren dam, one of many relics of an age of mills-gone-by, slows the bracing flow of the Mad to a crawl. Its banks stretch, widening like a deep breath, before the river leaps from the dam and careens through outstretched bedrock and bridge abutments. The Bradley and Clay Brooks run parallel, ski-like down the slopes of Lincoln peak.
By now the Mad is wide and deep, and in the summer full of swimmers and paddlers. The Mill Brook (not to be confused with aforementioned Mills Brook) is an amalgam of water tilting this side of the Appalachian gap merged with the Chase, Slide, and Lockwood Brooks. As the Mad widens, arcing serpentine along the Valley floor through the villages of Waitsfield and Moretown, it is urged on by the High Bridge, Pine, Shepherd, and Dowsville Brooks, along with dozens of other streams, all with many names lost and found to time, before losing its own name in the flow of the Winooski.
But water is so much more than its destination. As the tributaries jostle their way through the layers of rock and soil, they often find themselves meandering along shelves, winding along the contours of lost lakeshores, or dammed by depressions in the bedrock below. Areas like these are often wet for most of the year and species like Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis) find their niche. Fossil records show colonies of Onoclea sensibilis in North America were present at least as far back as the paleocene, some 56 million years ago. As water pools and filters through the ground, the forest layers on generations of plants, fungus, bacteria, and animals. Each species reflects the slow transformation from bare, glacier scoured rock to the Northern Hardwood that blankets the Watershed today.
Hidden away at the junction of woods, land, and water, the Northern Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans melanota) finds shelter among the club moss and sedges on a wet patch of ground high up in the Mad River watershed. A native, “true” frog, the green frog is an amphibian. Perched along the shore’s edge, they are quick to make their escape to the relative safety of the water.
From their lodges and dams, to their buck teeth and wide, leathery tails, beavers (Castor canadensis) are unmistakable. But their charm is not in their looks and home decor alone.
Beavers shape the landscape around them in ways, perhaps, only matched by humans. By damming rivers they create biologically rich wetlands and ponds. They divert this water from its hard won course and force it to find a new path, a new inspiration for its work.
Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) shunt and glide between shaded eddies throughout their lives. They migrate up and down the streams, their path dictated the presence of mountain springs, gravel bottoms, and overhanging branches. They are opportunists in diet as much as habitat, quick to lunge towards floating insects and occasionally even small fish. It’s little surprise that their orange bellies and speckled skin have become a welcome sight to fly fishers.
Each fall, flocks of Canada goose (Branta canadensis) and turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) cross the sky, heading south against the grain of the river far below. Like the clouds that bring rain and snow, these patterns are marked by a presence in the natural systems that spill out beyond the bounds of the valley. Each fall, the leaves change color as the tilt of the earth points the northern hemisphere away from the sun. The shorter days grow colder, air grows more dense, and the long, grey cloaks of November, cloud the sky. Water clings to itself as frost that shines in the morning light. Soon there will be snow. Though the water will still flow, under layers of ice, through blue and white catacombs, heaving and falling through the course of the winter. And still on into spring and the return of the geese and vultures, the songbirds, and the awakening yawns of black bears. Before I know it, the summer days are on us like thunderstorms and I find myself standing knee deep in the Mad.
The water moves around my legs and I can see the way it urges the Valley onward, carving and shaping as it goes, its gravity pulling the plants and animals, the people and their stories along with it. I watch as pollen and foam whirl in reflections of blue skies and leafy shores. I try and imagine what the Valley might have looked like to someone standing in that spot a thousand years ago. The ridge lines and bedrock outcrops would likely be the same, even as the twists of the river might spread far, lattice like across the valley floor. The sky would be just as blue, though there would likely be more birds across its firmament. And the nibble of fish, in all likelihood, would come more frequent to the toes. Would they feel the same shiver run along their skin, watching the wind ripple across the water, as a high cloud blocked the sunshine? What about the next thousand years? What meaning will the water of the Mad River Valley hold for the future? What will it wash away?