Home Commentary The Way I See It: A River Runs Through It

The Way I See It: A River Runs Through It

My husband and I purchased the only house we have ever owned, an unpretentious structure built in 1896, in the autumn of 1978. Our lender, the Farmers’ Home Administration, fearing rogue behavior from the meandering stream in our backyard on Elm Street, required us to purchase flood insurance.

As far as we could tell, no one who lived along our stretch of the North Branch paid it any mind. Most houses had a barrier of brush between the yard and the water, effectively putting the river out of sight. 

But we were excited by the prospect of living beside water. The next summer, we began clearing the brambles and grasses behind our house. Over the next several years, we coaxed lawn to grow to the river’s edge despite minor, seasonal flooding. 

We brought lawn chairs down to the riverbank and were astonished to find deer, green and great blue herons, muskrats, and even the rare moose thriving just a mile from the Statehouse. We watched as woods and marsh grew up on the far side of the water where only two decades earlier cows had carefully picked their way down the steep hill like elderly ladies with canes. 

And then we had children. When we moved into our house, our next-door neighbor confessed that she had kept her young children on a trolley in the backyard to protect them from the river. But we embraced it. We put a picnic table on our new lawn and bought a canoe. On sultry summer evenings, we would paddle downstream to Cano’s Market to get creemies. 

We built a treehouse in one of the towering black willows, planted up and down the river 60 years earlier by the Civilian Conservation Corps to help control erosion by drinking lustily from the damp earth. From that perch above the river, our son and daughter watched otters frolic and beavers as fat as bear cubs build and tend their huts. 

During winters of little or no snow, the river froze as dazzling as obsidian, and we hosted ice skating parties. We raised ducks and released them on the river, where they were more entertaining than clowns.

All along, we were learning more about the river. For their fourth grade state history projects, our children excavated the riverbank, digging up objects that had been buried as fill after previous floods — everything from dishes to piano keys to Montpelier-embossed Coca-Cola bottles to, strangely, official papers from a 1912 lawsuit in New York City. (Who knew that Coke once had a bottling plant near the intersection of River and Northfield streets?) For a science fair project one year, our daughter identified the different animal tracks etched in the snow-covered surface of the river like hieroglyphics. 

One day more than two decades ago, I was up on a ladder scraping paint from the front of our house when a car pulled up and Elizabeth Carpenter Metcalf got out. She told me she had grown up in our house; in fact, her family had lived in the house for almost half a century. 

She had been nine when her father walked her and her older brother home from school through rising waters on November 3, 1927. She recounted how her family had fled to the second story of the house and stayed there as roiling, muddy water rose ever higher up the stairway. 

The barn next door was pushed off its foundation by the rushing water and crashed into her family’s barn. Terrified, they listened for hours as the dining room table and chairs floated free, banging into the walls downstairs. 

I am amazed that the Carpenters stayed put after the Flood of ’27. They must have had great faith in the Wrightsville Dam, built several miles upriver by the CCC from 1933 to 1935 with the goal of ending the river’s tantrums. And indeed it has. Half a dozen times during our 42 years in this house, we have gone up to the dam and seen for ourselves how vulnerable our house would be if the dam had not been built and built well. 

We have seen the North Branch angry and we have seen it as sluggish as tar in the hot sun. Almost every spring, during runoff, the yard is swamped. But for the most part, the river has brought us immeasurable pleasure. 

These days, it is attracting more and more people, as the Elm Street parklet now affords access to kayakers, canoeists, ice skaters, and cross-country skiers. Young families in the neighborhood have created their own waterfronts. Some days, the river beyond our backyard is actually busy. 

When we bought our home in 1978, the river was considered a liability, but we have never thought of it that way. To us it has always been a gift. 

I remember New Year’s Eve in 1999. My children were at parties and my husband had to work. Just before midnight, I laced up my skates and walked through the snow back to the river. There, under a bright moon — in a time before masks, doping scandals, and yet another war — I skated by myself in the glittering promise of a new millennium.