I cannot believe that we are just getting around to writing about where we are camped for the summer and the summer is going to winding down very soon. After a really great five week road-trip we arrived at West Hill Park and settled into a summer gig with the Army Corps of Engineers in Southern Massachusetts.
Our job site at West Hill is in the heart of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, a very special type of National Park consisting of over 250,000 acres between Worcester, Mass and Providence, RI. This park consists of whole cities and towns, dozens of villages and half a million people. It is not a traditional nation park as it is not federally owned or operated. Instead, people, businesses, non-profit historic and environmental organizations along with 20 local and two state governments and the National Park Service work together to protect its special identity and future.
We are smack dab in the middle of the corridor and this little park is a hidden gem. West Hill operates under the auspices of the Army Corp of Engineers. As a result of their response to a devastating local disaster to the area, a secluded slice of preserved nature is now available to be enjoyed by anyone who seeks it out. It is a beautiful backyard for Unbridge and the surrounding towns and it is our backyard for the summer much to the delight of our two little dogs.
Two hurricanes, Connie and Diane, in August of 1955, dumped 12” to 20” of rain from the Berkshires to the Massachusetts coast after coming in across Long Island Sound. Streams gushed and rivers jumped their banks, washing away bridges, roads, homes and businesses. virtually flooding the entire area and causing more than 200 deaths and $680 million ($6 billion in today’s values) worth of damage. On August 20th, President Eisenhower declared many locations in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island nas disaster areas. (Source NOAA.gov)
These tragic losses prompted the US. Army Corps of Engineers to hasten the building of several flood control dams that had already been authorized by the U.S. Congress. In 1958 the Corp began construction of a series of flood control dams to help prevent future damage. The West Hill Dam project, completed in 1961, now protects Uxbridge, Woonsocket, Providence, and the other communities along the path of the Blackstone River from flooding damage. The dam itself is 48’ above the West River bed and is comprised of rolled earth, concrete cutoff wall and rock-slope protection 2400 feet in length. When filled to spillway crest the reservoir is approximately 5 miles long and has a surface area of 985 acres and 23 miles of shoreline. The West Hill Dam itself is called a run-of-river dam and has no permanent pool. It is designed to hold back flood waters during heavy rains, until rivers begin to recede and the stored water can be safely released. Our campsite is on a hill in the heart of the park, so we do not worry at all about flooding. That’s not to say that our camper would not be a great ark with all of the various animals in and around it!
The Reservoir Regulation Team at the Corps Headquarters is the nerve enter for managing all the flood control dams in New England. Hydrologists and engineers use satellite communications and computer technology to constantly monitor river levels and weather conditions. Without exception, we have a wonderful team of Corps Rangers here who collect hydrologic data and operate flood gates at the dams to store and release flood waters in the river valleys. They are subject matter experts who bring a variety of skills to share and it is fascinating to work with them and learn from them. (Also, as a result of some Smokey the Bear childhood fantasy I seem to have, Arnie looked really cute to me in the Ranger hat they let him try on.)
On a quiet back road and across from an old stone arch bridge lies West Hill Park where the West River widens to form a large, natural swimming hole known locally as Harrington Pool. This is our home for the summer. The agreement provides us with a beautiful campsite in a forest clearing complete with raised bed garden space, a fire ring, concrete pad for the camper, water, sewer, landline, electricity. A nice open space for a back yard is mowed for us once a week and a woodpile that is also provided with our resident garter snake feeds our campfire. We are allowed to make improvements to the site, so we have added a perennial garden and fern border along with a pen for the dogs.
The dogs have a nice fenced in space and Cracker, the African Gray has a natural playground made out of limbs to climb and boss the dogs from. Many days, he hangs out in my outdoor studio under the EZ-UP awning. He has learned to screech like a hawk that lives very close to our clearing. It is such a blessing to wake up with the songbirds each morning with windows open. We don’t miss the Florida summer heat!
The habitat is ideal for those songbirds. In creating the flood dam and protecting the surrounding acres, a natural protected area was created for wildlife as well as humans.The West River winds through 600 acres of white pine and red oak forests, widening at one point to create a natural swimming hole and two sandy beaches known locally as Harrington Pond. We share responsibility for tending the day fee entry booth with another host couple and it is fun to see the kids coming in so excited about going swimming. We’ve created a loaner program for beach toys from all of the left-behind toys that we pick up on the beach each day. It has become pretty easy to recognize the carloads of kids who come in without their own and the squeals of delight over plastic pails, shovels and sand toys are music to our ears.
About five miles of multi-use hiking trails lets walkers wander all over the woods, offering unhampered views of the river, wildlife, birds and open fields. Sitting in the entry booth last week, we watched a doe walk out of the edge of the woods, look about and then quietly slip back out of sight. We wondered if she might have a fawn hidden just out of sight.
The park is very, very dog friendly and, on any given day, we are apt to see 20-30 different breeds of dogs and an assortment of happy mutts walking to their own designated swimming hole. We are getting to know many of them by name as they stop by to say hi to our two little ones who sit in the fee booth with us each day.
The main river channel is stocked with fish for the enjoyment of anglers and in-season hunting of deer, small game and pheasant. At the beginning of the season, we saw some large trout coming out of the pond! Hikers are in and out all day and into the evening and we really enjoy seeing the folks come in horseback riding. Some stop by for a pat. I especially love the little pinto named Tucker. Tucker lost an eye to a bad infection last year, but it has not hampered him at all, He drops his head sweetly so you can tell him how beautiful he is and rub his forehead.
Periodically we welcome scout troops for camping with special permission. These are busy bathroom cleaning days! One morning, while cleaning the bathrooms, I encountered a little one sobbing in the ladies room. “What’s the matter honey ?”, I inquired. “I slept in a tent last night and I pooped in my pajamas. It always happens to me!”, she elaborated between gasps. I got her quickly reunited with her parents. Her brother, who had been instructed to escort her up to the bathroom took off like he was shot out of a canon at her first utterance. Some scout!
But the best part of being here is the diverse habitat in the park that makes it a perfect home to at least 200 known varieties of birds, a group of coyote, five different kinds of local snakes, red maple swamps, and several natural bogs. Three small brooks feed the river and are home to spring peepers, nesting box turtles, owls and great blue herons. The West River winds through 600 acres of white pine and red oak forest and, walking along it, you might see beaver, otter, muskrat and mink which play along the shorelines. Painted, snapping and other species of turtles, along with bull frogs bask in the surrounding wetlands. We can hear their grunts and calls early in the morning and at dusk.
An 18 acre restored grassland habitat abuts the river and it is nice to walk here and see what animals are out and about. These grasslands attract monarch and other species of butterflies, field mice, kestrels, screech and great horned owls along with several species of hawks. The volunteers here enhance the bird populations with regular maintenance of bluebird, kestrel and owl nesting boxes. We have been listening to the hoots of an owl near camp for the past few nights after we go to bed.
This is one of the finest birding areas in Worcester County, with over 200 species sighted annually. The Audubon Society volunteers who come in frequently to do maintenance and research are extraordinary and Arnie has really enjoyed getting to know them and learn from them. He has participated in banding and what fun that was! The researchers band those tiny little legs with great care and then allow us to hold and release the birds. What a thrill for us “Nerders” (nerdy birders) ! We have songbirds, wading birds and waterfowl resting in and near the river while we work and the herons feed along the streamside. We do feel so lucky to have a place like this to get quiet and still and also to make a contribution.
And as always,