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Off-topic: A River Runs Through It

Living in Ipswich, we are fortunate – spoiled even – to be surrounded by so much natural beauty. From woods and fields to marshes, dunes, and our stunning coastline, our little town holds more than its share of gorgeous landscapes.

But there is one treasure that we often take for granted – the Ipswich River.

Unlike the forests and seashore, which exist on the fringes of our daily rounds, the river winds its way though the heart of our community and our lives. It is an unpretentious presence, weaving its way under bridges, along streets, and through backyards. A simple walk through town provides ample opportunity to commune with this watery way, if only we would take a moment to pause.

But, familiarity breeds, if not contempt, a certain blindness. In part because of its intimate proximity, we place too light a value on this critical resource. We assume that what has always been will continue to be, but nature never exists in a state of stasis.

Like the ecosystem of the river itself, our relationship with this natural byway is complex and always evolving. The river was one of the chief reasons John Winthrop Jr. chose to settle here in 1633. For centuries afterwards, the river worked alongside the people of Ipswich, turning mills, facilitating transportation, providing fresh water, and feeding a thriving fishing industry.

Today, modern technology has rendered most, but not all, of the river’s functional purposes obsolete. Though the mills are gone and we no longer regularly travel along it, the Ipswich River still serves as a primary and critical source of water for over three hundred thirty-five thousand people in fourteen communities.

Though progressive innovations in power, fishing, and other industries have easily usurped the river’s role in these areas, there is no industrial replacement for the river’s other gifts. No longer just an element of our survival, the river has become a source of inspiration, solace, and recreation.

Artists from all around the North Shore find in the river a muse for their poetry, paintings, and photography. Outdoor enthusiasts paddle up and down its length in canoes and kayaks. Countless others find a much-needed reprieve from the hustle and bustle of busy lives as they walk along the riverbank, slowing their steps to match the river’s easy flow.

It is said that brooks babble and oceans roar, but the voice of a river is not so easily defined with a cliche. A river’s personality changes with its surroundings, in part reflecting the characteristics of the human communities it travels through. A river can be comforting or mysterious, ebullient or reflective, a symbol of hope or regret.

The Ipswich River has inhabited many identities in our eyes and continues to transform. Only a few years ago, it earned the dubious distinction of being named the third most endangered river in America. Happily, our river no longer has to bear the burden of that title. Its ongoing recovery and restoration is due in great part to the dedicated team of professionals and volunteers at the Ipswich River Watershed Association.

The IRWA is working with communities and corporations all along the Ipswich River to ensure the river’s health. From education and access to advocacy and logistics, this organization is giving the Ipswich River a voice for today and the future.

The river was here long before we were, but we bent it to our will, building dams to harness its power for our own purposes. Today, the IRWA, in cooperation with other agencies, is working to release the river from these bonds so that it can resume its natural flow. There are many considerations, but hopefully we will one day see the Ipswich River running as it once did when the first settlers of Ipswich fell in love with this little corner of the New World.

To learn more about the work of the IRWA and how you can support or volunteer, please visit or e-mail You can also visit the IRWA at their headquarters at 143 County Road.



 This piece was originally published as part of my bi-weekly column in my local paper, The Ipswich Chronicle


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  1. Lovely, lovely post. I can see it in my mind’s eye. Cheers! Kaarina

  2. Hi, Jamie. Came here from Live to Write-Write to Live. I grew up in NH and lived in Rowley in the 1990s. Love the Rowley, Ipswich, and Essex Rivers! Visited Ipswich in July. Such a lovely NE town. Thanks for this post — brings back some great memories. Loved seeing the clam-diggers on the mudflats in the early morning. May those rivers always be preserved and lovely! ~Joyce

    • Thanks for coming by, Joyce. This IS a beautiful area. I feel so spoiled to have been able to live my whole life here.

      So glad to have stirred up some good memories. Hope you are enjoying the natural spaces where you are now.


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