Round Pond in Duxbury

Both by map and from the water, it is easy to identify the source of the North River. In the tidal freshwater marshes of Hanover and Pembroke, two streams flow together: the Indian Head and Herring Brook. From this confluence, the North River is born.

But the source of the South River is not nearly so apparent.

The South River originates somewhere in the streams, ponds, wetlands and bogs of western Duxbury. Exactly where, no one knows. Not that we haven’t tried to find it. . .

One Sunday morning last month I set out on foot with about twenty other people, intent on locating the source of the South River. We began our walk at Duxbury’s Round Pond, exploring the woods and wetlands that surround it. Round Pond is a kettle pond, created thousands of years ago by a melted chunk of glacial ice. We found no natural outlet from the pond, and thus determined that this could not be the river’s source.

Next we headed downhill to investigate Pine Lake. Again, this seemed an unlikely source for the river, as it was manmade, and employed pumps and dikes to control its water flow.

Our next step was to cross over Route 3, via East Street, to the cranberry bogs near the body of water known colloquially as both Swan Lake and Stump Pond. We walked the western edge of the large pond and explored some of its smaller companions, searching for streams that might indicate the origin of a river. With so many manmade waterways, it was hard to guess how the water might flow naturally.

We persevered, and after a short while, found a likely candidate at the northern border of the property: a stream that seemed somewhat different from the others. We compared our findings against the Geologic Survey map and concluded that this was probably what we’d been looking for: although it was not clearly marked on the map, this stream definitely led to the South River. Still none of us could be sure that this was the river’s absolute beginning. Our sense of accomplishment was tempered by an equal feeling of skepticism.

A good word to describe the South River is “diverse.” At its mouth it is a sprawling, magnificent estuary, dividing Humarock’s barrier beach from the mainland of Marshfield. At midstream it is similar in character to its sister the North River, winding serenely through wide expanses of salt marsh. The upper portion of the South River is one of the area’s best kept secrets. A diminutive stream flows for miles through the woods of Duxbury, almost completely hidden from view. It passes into Marshfield near Chandler Pond and then ducks back into the trees, emerging every so often at road crossings, finally drawing only the slightest attention to itself at Veterans Memorial Park in Marshfield Center.

It was Carolyn Sones’ idea to seek out the source of the South River, and thus she led our expedition. Finding the river’s source first occurred to Carolyn a few years ago, when she was writing the NSRWA’s Canoe and Kayak Guide. The idea stayed at the back of her mind until this past September, when she made a preliminary investigation of the Swan Lake area. Our November morning walk was an opportunity to take a deeper look.

Carolyn has lived near the mouth of the South River for the past thirty years — first on Ferry Hill, now in Humarock. It didn’t take long for her to become acquainted with the estuary portion of the river, and over the course of these past three decades, her explorations have led her further and further upstream. Twenty years ago she borrowed a small boat and traced the river upstream to Marshfield Center. Ten years ago she began to explore the Chandler Pond area. Now she’s determined to find the river’s source.

I was surprised at first when Carolyn told me that, until recently, it hadn’t occurred to her to trace the South back to its origin. My initial response was “You have lived on the river for this long, and just now you’ve begun to wonder where it comes from?” Here is a woman who, in my mind, embodies the spirit of the South River: its autonomy, its versatility, its quiet strength. “What do you mean you’ve never thought about this before?”

But the more I consider what she said, the more it makes sense. It’s like studying history: you can memorize important dates and events until your synapses overload, but until you have some context to put them in, you’ll never really understand their significance. You need a certain understanding of your present circumstances before you can gain anything by looking backward. And that takes time.

I have just celebrated my twenty-sixth birthday. I am finally beginning to have a good sense of who I am and where I am going with my life. Still, I don’t quite feel grounded: I know there is something I must learn — something essential. Before I can move forward, I must look back. In order to go further downstream, I must seek out my source. I am dedicating the next year to doing just that.

After finding what we thought was the source of the South River, we turned back toward our cars, taking a slightly different route. Not far into our return trip, we noticed another stream, flowing north from the wetlands on the opposite side of the highway. There was not enough time to investigate it fully, but our initial impression was that this stream flowed into our original “source.” So much for determining the exact beginning of the river. The search continues . . .

Perhaps we will never find out where the South River begins. The investigation is certainly worthwhile, but I think the value is not so much in finding the answers as much as encountering new questions along the way. It is important to look back, but it’s also a good idea to keep one foot firmly planted in the present, whether you’re stuck in an eddy, swept up in the current, or just floating comfortably midstream.

by Kezia Bacon
December 1997

Kezia Bacon serves on the Board of Directors of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association.