Preserving The Great Bay
Great Bay is the deepest pool in the web of tidewater that flood the Piscataqua Basin. It’s also a symbol of the tenacity of both nature itself and of the goodwill and enterprise of those who are inspired to help preserve it.
When it began in the 1960s, the environmental movement was not action but reaction. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” drew a link between pesticide overuse, declining animal populations and cancer. Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River was so slicked with flammable chemicals that it occasionally caught fire. And on two occasions in the middle of the decade temperature inversions in New York City trapped enough air pollution at ground level to cause nearly 600 deaths.
A few years later, in 1973, residents of Durham were put on guard when anonymous outsiders began buying up options on large tracts of land around Great Bay and in the Isles of Shoals under dubious pretenses. Then as now, New Hampshire was an idyllic sort of place that had mostly been spared the ravages of heavy industry. But it was also an era, with Meldrim Thomson as governor and William Loeb directing the New Hampshire Union Leader, when “Live Free or Die” was often glossed as “open for business.” The seacoast real estate buyers, who turned out to be agents of Aristotle Onassis’ Olympic Refineries, had evidently gotten the message. The shenanigans entered the light of day when Gov. Thomson announced that a $600-million oil refinery was to be built on Durham Point.
It really wouldn’t have been surprising if the project had gone off without a hitch. The ingredients were there: a business-friendly, regulation-wary population living in a place still unspoiled enough that environmental catastrophe might not register automatically as a possible outcome. This wasn’t Gary or Pittsburg, where inflamed lungs or sludge in the waterways were daily reminders that the world was getting filthy. But a hitch did come. An impressive grassroots opposition took shape. In one memorable episode, Onassis was helicoptered over the planned site, only to see a message stomped in the snow telling him to leave. Despite intense lobbying and unabashed support for the project from the state’s most powerful quarters, the residents of a town of 5,000 handily beat back the ambitions of one of the planet’s richest men.
The victory over Olympic Refineries was a rare instance of farsightedness trumping myopia. Sufficient consensus was mustered to say “Stop” before the dirty work could gain momentum. It was the advent of a movement to protect Great Bay that was inspired not by regret at what it had become, but by appreciation of what it was.
Strictly speaking, Great Bay is only the most recessed pool of the tidal basin behind Portsmouth. It is shaped like Australia would be shaped if Salvador Dalí were its cartographer, melting south at both ends. Moving back oceanward from Great Bay proper, you pass north into Little Bay, then thread your way between Goat Island, Dover Point and Fox Point, turn sharply southeast, and enter Long Reach, a straight section of the Piscataqua River that runs almost to Portsmouth Harbor. John Winthrop, early governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, referred to this meeting of waters and the surrounding constellation of English settlements as “Pascataquack.” The word is a variation on Piscataqua, thought to mean something like “branch of a strong-flowing river.” Drawing on its geologic past, one author called the basin the Drowned Valley. In a broad sense, this whole web of tidewater is Great Bay.
Circling the estuary today is a perimeter of trees, fields and meadows that subtly gives way to salt marsh and then, depending on the time, to open water or mudflat. Forest occurs in patches, not the blankets that cover most of the state, hinting at the pastured look of an older New England. The heights of a broad promontory north of the Lamprey River afford a panoramic view over the otherwise mostly flat basin. There is almost no commercial development, only the occasional house designed to waken a sense of the pastoral, although a few working farms remain. The impression is of a salubrious rurality. Set back from the bay, along each of its affluent rivers, are towns: Dover on the Cochecho, Durham on the Oyster, Newmarket on the Lamprey, Exeter on the Squamscott, and Greenland on the Winnicut. The towns are small, but not tiny, and guard picturesque vestiges of their light-industrial pasts.
Thanks to a ball set rolling with the Olympic Refineries fiasco, much of Great Bay today falls under the umbrella of the Great Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, which includes more than 10,000 acres of protected land and water. At the organization’s Great Bay Discovery Center in Greenland, exhibits teach youngsters about estuarine ecology. A boardwalk outside takes visitors through the woods and over the salt marsh to the water’s edge. The view northward is over Great Bay proper, which resembles a lake and alone has a shoreline longer than the New Hampshire seacoast.
Across the water, where Adams Point nearly pinches off Great Bay from Little Bay, is the University of New Hampshire’s Jackson Estuarine Laboratory. It is quiet early on a May morning. Inside, the smells of a library, a school science lab and the beach mingle agreeably. Surrounded by the tools of his profession — microscopes, field samples and scientific journals — marine biologist Raymond Grizzle sips coffee and looks out a window on low tide.
Great Bay is unique, Grizzle explains, because although it is in a cold-water region, it is sometimes home to intermediate-zone species. The average water temperature at its southern end is significantly higher than at Dover Point, and species that historically have not lived this far north are moving in. Similarly, the bay’s mildness makes it suitable for certain disjunct species, which exist in exclave populations beyond their normal ranges. The tidal range is about 8 feet, and half the volume of inner bay goes out to sea twice a day. A given molecule of seawater spends between 20 and 30 days inland before returning to the ocean.
Grizzle speaks with a slow Southern accent that gives an elegant cast to the sharpness of his thoughts. He is nearing retirement and hedges less than a younger professor might on controversial subjects. Although he’s an unapologetic critic of the growth economy and its deleterious impact on natural systems, he understands that those systems, when treated with a reasonable measure of regard, are quite resilient. The twice-daily water changeover, he explains, “is part of the reason why it’s hard for the bay to go eutrophic.” Eutrophication, often caused by agro-industrial pollution, results from an excess of nutrients in runoff and promotes an overgrowth of plant life detrimental to other aquatic species. Relatively low population density and a post-industrial economy leave today’s Great Bay in pretty good shape compared with other estuaries. Grizzle’s blend of skepticism (about our economy, doomsday prophets and our checklist approach to addressing environmental problems) and optimism (about nature’s ability to forge ahead without any of our character flaws) looks curiously like reason — a mental habit that sometimes appears to be headed for the endangered species list.
Outside, where the water is about to begin its six-hour flood, more than half the bay floor is exposed. Three of the five habitats of this ecosystem are visible. At the edge of the land in most places is a tough grass, dun-colored at this time of year, growing in spongy soil. This is salt marsh, workhorse of the land side of the estuarial system and the habitat most obviously threatened by our everyday activities. Salt marsh extent around Great Bay may have decreased by as much as 50% since European colonization. Below the grass, on a shelf of rock, greenish-brown algae called rockweed lies in heaps. Rachel Carson, who was first a marine biologist, called the rockweed zone “a fantastic jungle, mad in a Lewis Carroll sort of way” that dances in the pulse of the brackish water twice a day, for a few hours, until the ocean withdraws, causing it to sag into sodden piles that retain “the wetness of the sea, and nothing under their protective cover ever dries out.” The next zone seaward is mudflat, huge expanses of whose bubbling muck delight shorebirds with each ebb of the tide. Just below the surface at low are the eelgrass meadows, another place teeming with life because of the shelter and sustenance its nutrient-rich leaves provide to subtidal creatures. Finally, the deepest part of the bay is the channel bottom, which for Grizzle also means oyster beds. Oysters are his expertise.
As recently as the 1970s, oyster reef covered as much as 1,000 acres of the floor of Great Bay. By 2009, coverage had shrunk to 120 acres. Not only are there fewer oysters, but those remaining have shorter life expectancies, reach reproductive senility earlier, and are smaller. There were still reports in the 1980s of bivalves nearly a foot long being pulled from the Oyster River. Grizzle strongly suspects — although he makes no sweeping statements, saying the evidence is not yet clear — that the main culprit for the depression in size, population and reproductive capacity is disease, likely introduced by contamination from shipping. The object of UNH’s oyster restoration program, which operates under Grizzle’s guidance, is to create habitat that will encourage healthy oyster populations to rebound and thrive, so that they can perform their vital ecological function of filtering water. In nature, the reefs on which oysters exist consist of old shells. If there are fewer oysters as the generations go by, there will be less habitat. The program collects discarded oyster shells from local restaurants and buys large quantities of crushed clam shells. These are then “planted” on the bottom of the bay in hopes that spawning oysters will seek them out. In the last decade more than 20 acres of reef have been created this way.
There are larger estuaries along the Atlantic coast and arguably more interesting ones. Grizzle talks about Great Bay the way a parent might of a kid who has generally been kind, well-behaved and had Bs in school, but is perhaps somewhat lacking in ambition or originality. “It’s a nice little estuary,” he says, “with its piddly rivers flowing into it. On the whole it’s in pretty good shape.” The clearest threat he sees is rising sea levels. He looks toward the wooded shore of Newington and remarks, “I always say in a few years we’re going to have to start calling it the Island of Newington.” Salt marsh, which will be most immediately affected by higher water levels, is adapted to migrate. The rub is that it needs room to do so, and whether or not it has room will depend on how humans develop, or don’t develop, the land around the estuary. When a salt marsh no longer has healthy conditions to live in, it is swallowed up by less picky mudflats; a habitat dies and an ecosystem suffers the loss.
The tide has turned, and it’s as if this is Grizzle’s cue to turn to his work. There’s still a slight chill in the air as he walks uphill toward the lab, and he says, “I like it here, but the winters are getting longer and longer. Most of my family is still down south.” He looks up to see a magnolia tree, growing on the south side of the building and now in full flower. “It’s a real gem,” he says. “We’re lucky to have it.”
Before there was New Hampshire the indigenous people of this region, various bands of the western Abenaki, were the only human beings to call it home. Their lives moved along as they had for generations, following the cycle of the seasons in an economy that, some experts say, aspired to stability rather than growth. In the round of hunting and gathering, Great Bay — with its mollusks, its lobsters and its fish that swam upstream into weirs — represented an embarrassment of riches. The first European known to have sailed into the Piscataqua was Martin Pring, who came in 1603 and observed, “We found no people, but signs of fires where they had been. Howbeit we beheld very goodly Groves and Woods replenished with tall Okes, Beeches, Pine-trees, Firre-trees, Hasels, Witch-hasels and Maples. We saw here also sundry sorts of Beasts, as Stags, Deere, Beares, Wolves, Foxes, Lusernes, and Dogges with sharp noses.”
It would be another 20 years before the first permanent colonial settlement took hold, under the aegis of the Council for New England. Several settlements were made in 1623, but the one that lasted was on Dover Point at the end of a neck that reached down into the Piscataqua Basin, offering visibility and defensibility. (Today it’s where westbound travelers on the Little Bay Bridge make landfall.) Pockets of settlement formed around the north side of the basin, and 15 years later John Wheelwright, a dissident Massachusetts Puritan, founded Exeter along the Squamscott River, at the bay’s southern end.
For half a century, the colonists got along peacefully enough with the Abenaki, as the English to the south did with their Wampanoag and Narragansett neighbors. But in 1675, war broke out between natives and settlers in southern New England, and over the next 20 years the effects rippled northward. The situation was exacerbated by French pressure north of New England and, most importantly, according to Professor Meghan Howey of the University of New Hampshire, by the shrinking availability of fish.
Howey, who is an anthropological archeologist, says she never imagined herself working in historical archeology, where written sources complement the material ones. “But 17th-century New England is interesting,” she says, “because you have a moment of initial contact between two societies, you have nascent capitalism, and you have two ways of relating to the landscape and thus two basic economic modes — an extractive economy and a subsistence economy. I’m not really interested in anything that happened around here after 1700.” The clash that so fascinates Howey came to a head in a series of what have traditionally been called “Indian massacres” around Great Bay in the late 17th century.
Howey stands on a bank 10 feet above the river, near where it meets the bay. The bank is crumbling, with large stones protruding from the soil or perched on the slope in an arrested tumble. A few are in the water. There are clearly more stones per square yard than nature dictates here, and Howey says these are traces of a garrison foundation. Bricks of local 17th-century manufacture are strewn in the shallows, tickled by seaweed swaying in the tide. “Those are from the central chimney,” Howey explains, “which probably collapsed when the garrison burned.” The site is one of 14 garrison houses known to have stood on either side of the Oyster River in the late 1600s. Howey found them marked on a contemporary map and has been surveying them one by one. In Colonial history, “garrison” denotes little more than a house built defensively, with an overhanging second story and sturdier design. When settlements came under attack, colonists took refuge in these slightly safer houses. But, in a fire, one wooden house was as vulnerable as another. Howey’s study of this site has led her to believe that native resentment at being crowded out, mistreated and deprived of the fish on which they had always relied reached a new pitch in the Oyster River Massacre of 1694. Some houses appear to have been deliberately spared, which to Howey suggests their inhabitants may have been friendlier with the Abenaki than their neighbors were, while at this site she has found vitrified bricks. “The bricks had literally been transformed into glass,” she says. “That doesn’t happen when you just set fire to a place, run away and hope it catches. Something different had to be done to make the fire burn that hot, but I don’t know what yet. What it tells me, though, is that this was calculated, systematic violence — an act of war.”
But the New England Indian Wars came too late to have any lasting defensive effect for indigenous people. The settlers were building an economy that relied on control of the land, the imperative to extract resources from it intensively, and the right to exclude those who stood in a nonproductive relationship to it. Seemingly limitless resources meant that this budding economy could sustain an ever-larger population. A combination of disease, competition for resources and habitable land, and violence pushed the native population north and west, eroding its numbers as it did so. It was a horrific chapter in history, the kind one wishes undone. It’s tempting to see a less gruesome parallel in the struggle against Onassis three centuries later, and to interpret its happier outcome as the result of a lesson learned from the past. But there’s a question that won’t go away: What if the Abenaki had sent a clear warning to Martin Pring when he came up the Piscataqua in 1603?
But history doesn’t have a rewind button. Already by 1675, there were 15 water-powered lumber mills around Great Bay. It was at about the same time that a significant decline in fish was noticed. This earliest New Hampshire economy was one of crude extraction — cutting trees down and pulling fish from the water, with no thought for the finitude of either. Over time, industry developed: Mills and plants began converting the raw materials into lumber, bricks and ships. These facilities required water power, so the population moved back from the tentative bayside settlements and up the inflowing rivers to the first waterfalls they found. This was also the point reached by tidewater, and large boats could be brought up under favorable conditions, giving easier access to markets. The early economy drew hard on its land base, but it had an integrity and an elegance. A symbol of this was a shallow-drafted wooden barge known as the Piscataqua gundalow (a rejigging of “gondola”). These tidewater workhorses relied primarily on tidal currents for locomotion, as the larvae of some marine invertebrates do, although they could also be sailed. Gundalows carried timber, cordwood, bricks and other wares in the periodically shallow waters and were beachable for easy loading. They delivered hinterland goods down to Portsmouth, and there are even reports of them sailing on the ocean in calm spells.
Then, in the 19th century, came highways and railroads, which needed bridges. Bridges, however, interfered with the flow patterns of the waterborne economy. As early as the mid-18th century there was strong opposition to a planned bridge over the Squamscott River. Many feared it would curtail Exeter’s commercial usefulness. Nearly 30 years passed between the initial proposal of a fixed crossing and its erection in 1773. Textile and paper mills later became a major player in the area’s industrial maturation. Taking their raw materials from farther afield, they intensified the explosion of the microcosmic Colonial-era economy and spilled harsh toxins into the ecosystem. But after their demise, the mills became emblems as powerful as the gundalows — and now their brick and granite shells are succinct reminders that the legacy of any past is complex.
Today there’s something pleasing about the mills as they rise in blocks of red or gray above flat water that shows the trembling reflection of tall trees where once there was stubbled pasture. The great cathedrals rose in dark times, but do we wish them gone? It took 300 years for this place to settle into its current quiet, so perhaps it’s no wonder that the residents of Durham in 1973 were unwilling to see it ruined again overnight.
On William Wood’s 1634 map of New England, the basin behind the New Hampshire coast is marked simply “the Bay.” By 1676 it had been promoted, on another map, to “Great Bay.” The change reeks of a public relations trick. But somewhere along the way people must have grown into the name, accepting that New Hampshire was a little place, though perhaps not insufficient. When you have only 18 miles of coastline, calling your only biggish bay “great” is a reassurance that your world is whole.
Great Bay may not look like much to the commuters who stream down the Spaulding Turnpike every morning — but there are no gas flares on the horizon, and the water and the air are pretty clean, and the places around have stories to tell, and there are people who love it enough to fight for it. Maybe all these goods add up to a great.