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Heady days for the Ipswich

The sun has come back to Ipswich, the old town of wood and stone set along the river's edge. A saw buzzes. Children squeal in a schoolyard. Birds sing. Really?

What of that gull-gray afternoon, just Monday, when the cold rain ran down to the river and then up, leaving the rubber-booted bartender to stare at a belching basement? A few doors down Market Street, a jeweler, a sturdy man, could only wonder as the rising river reached for his floorboards. Soggy watches for sale?

It came on Friday with a pulsing pour through the silent slumber of night. The rock ledge in the basement of my old home sprung a leak. It was a job for mops and tattered towels.

By Sunday morning, though, that old rock ledge became a stream bed, and a neighbor, if ever there were one, beat it to Home Depot in Danvers to grab me a pump. There were none left. He brought back sand bags.

For 21 hours, I sat there in a beach chair, getting up every 10 minutes to bail 10 gallons of water from a makeshift pool.

We love water here, in this land set hard against the ocean, woven with the steady bends of the river that runs 40 miles from trickle to the sea. In summer, the Ipswich River gasps with thirst, drained down for drink, dishes, and backyard sprinklers. More than 300,000 North Shore homes draw from it.

The river's time comes in spring, when we are left to watch. On Tuesday, a slope-shouldered woman pulling a suitcase on wheels spun in the ceaseless spatter on Choate Bridge. She stopped and stared at Natalie's, a flooded restaurant, and sobbed.

The rushing water swallowed parking lots and porch posts, footpaths and a real estate office. A mother and her 5-year-old son joined the steady stream of hundreds, come to rubber-neck. ''I am just charged up by seeing the power of nature," she said.

A yellow-slickered lady walked out of an office with a pond in the basement and reported that the orthodontist's computer records, at least, were safe.

Down on County Road, I bumped into another neighbor, a full-bearded Ipswich native and a builder of things. He and I chatted as town workers closed a bridge, fearing that it might collapse.

The neighbor, whose great-grandfather carted stone in a sloop to build the arches of yet another bridge, farther downstream, scoffed. The river rose in 1996, and 1987. There was a big flood back in the 1930s.

''Those bridges aren't going anywhere," the neighbor said.

Indeed. But neither is the river.

Tom Haines is an award-winning travel writer for the Globe, who returned early last Saturday from the red-dirt desert of Utah.

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