Sunset at Couch Beach on the North River.

In this final hour of the autumn equinox, my companions and I drift down the moonlit North River. A cool September wind blows steadily at our backs, as if proclaiming the arrival of fall. Still warm from the last days of summer, the water is covered with a fine gray veil of mist and fog.

The sounds of rushing traffic and buzzing streetlights fade into the night, replaced by the lapping of river on shore. Having just launched our inflatable raft from the old stone bridge in Hanover, we float with the current, passing silently through sparsely forested backyards, unseen by dogs standing midnight guard. It is dark on the river, and if not for the dull glow of porch lights in the distance, we might not see the surrounding houses at all.

The shore is high and wooded along this stretch of the North, land well suited for development. Hardly a spare half-acre exists among houses and docks. At first, my companions and I talk quietly; however, hearing our conversation reflected back at us by the water, we lower our voices to a whisper. The wind blows through the trees, rustling the leaves as if to hush us further.

As we drift slowly downstream, carried along by the ebbing tide, the banks become lower and grassier. As the forest retreats from the main channel, the mud, grass, and tall reeds of the marsh take its place, dividing the water and the land. Here, where there are no houses, it is easy to picture the North River of long ago. The quarter moon puts the features of the woods, banks, and marshes in shadow.

It is a beautiful night — cold but not unbearably so; while mist and fog rise from the water, the sky appears almost completely clear. The air smells of pine, mixed with the rich scent of decaying leaves. Obscured from plain view by a stray cloud and the moisture in the air, the moon looks distorted; seeming to change shape with each passing bend of the river, it appears as a haze, a streak, a beacon.

The marsh at night is a new experience for me. I marvel at how alive the river environment seems. During the day there are fishermen and naturalists on the water and along the shore, motor boats and canoes moving up- and downstream, jets and the occasional biplane flying overhead. This activity essentially ceases as the sky darkens into night. As the backdrop of human activity wanes, the presence of other life on the river becomes much more apparent.
It is easy to overlook the fact that nature carries on, with its own schedule, independent of human influence. While it is a human tendency to shut down at night — to grow quiet, to sleep — the natural world does not necessarily follow this example. “The creek runs on all night,” Annie Dillard writes, “. . . whether I wish it or know it or care.”

With summer not far behind, the reeds tower over us as we glide along; not yet toppled decay or crushed by snow, they sway in the breeze, bending down as if to enclose us, to fold us into the embrace of the river. Some sections of North are characterized as having experienced little change in the past four centuries. With nothing to see but marshland, nothing to hear but the music of nature, no signs of ‘progress’ or pollution, this stretch of the river must be one of them.

As we round a final bend, the tranquil environment of the river at night is abruptly disturbed: traffic. A hum deepens to a roar as we approach Route 139 and our intended stopping point. Even late at night, the highway is busy. Still, it is refreshing to know that there are places right here on the South Shore – some in our own back yards — where it is possible to get away from the noise, if only for an hour.

by Kezia Bacon Bernstein, Correspondent
July 2002

Kezia Bacon Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.