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A Drive Up-Island on Martha's Vineyard

priesters pond dam.jpeg
Nelson Sigelman
Priesters Pond dam

I’m tired of cold, damp weather. I’m tired of COVID-19. I’m even tired of baking bread, a quarantine-inspired skill.

A crocus peeking out from among the leaves in my front yard on a bright Martha’s Vineyard day motivated me to go for a drive. I left my home in Vineyard Haven and headed up-Island — that’s east to west for you mainlanders.

Earlier generations were practical about naming the three main roads that traverse the Island. There’s North Road, Middle Road, and South Road. I took North Road. I like the variety of open fields, woodlands, and hills and that the road ends at the fishing port of Menemsha.

Driving past the expansive fields of the Seven Gates Farm subdivision, I caught glimpses of Mill Brook. Outshone by the attractions of our saltwater environment, centuries ago it was a vital commercial freshwater artery. Today, obsolete dams, man-made impoundments, and restrictive culverts fetter the brook as it flows from headwaters in Chilmark to Tisbury Great Pond.

In the weeks ahead river herring will enter the brook. They’ll follow their natal instincts until they reach the Mill Pond dam, built in the seventeenth century to power a grist mill in the town center.

A small population of eastern brook trout, the genetic descendants of those that arrived sometime after the last ice age, live upstream. It’s remarkable that these delicate fish still survive despite the man-made indignities along the brook’s four-mile course.

In the summer, water flow slows and temperatures in some solar-heated impoundments reach eighty degrees. That means death for cold-water species such as brook trout.

I crossed the Chilmark town line. Passing Old Farm Road I thought about the long-running argument over a fifty-year-old culvert. Two pipes set under the one-lane dirt road now sit too high and effectively dam the brook. A shallow impoundment is on the upstream side.

The Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, a private conservation organization, owns the surrounding property known as the Roth Woodlands. Sheriff’s Meadow and the state Division of Ecological Restoration want to replace the aging pipes. A modern culvert would restore flow and habitat connectivity for fish and amphibians.

But this small step to remove one of the first links in a chain of obstacles is bogged down. Several neighbors are concerned that culvert replacement would affect area wells. Discussions have dragged on for more years than it took to approve and build the Cape Cod Canal.

American eels, a species that reminds us that natural mysteries remain in life, also swim in the brook. It’s the only fish in North America that spawns in the ocean and grows to maturity in freshwater, a cycle we don’t know a lot about.

Years ago, searching for signs of herring, I took a close look at the Mill Pond dam spillway. To my surprise, I spotted an elver, a juvenile eel, about three inches long snaking its way up a moss-covered stretch of concrete. Imagine that, I thought, this little creature was born thousands of miles away in the Sargasso Sea and here it was. Hopefully, the eel scaled the barrier, followed Mill Brook, fed until it reached maturity, and returned to the ocean to spawn.

On a cool spring day, sitting in the Menemsha parking lot looking out at the ocean, I thought, perhaps its offspring have survived the hazardous migration from the Sargasso Sea and returned to the Island. One day, I hope, the dams will be removed and the journey up Mill Brook will be less arduous.