It is said that in the Wampanoag language Nemasket means place of fish. Today as in days of old this name suits Nemasket well. Each spring as early as February they begin arriving, at first alone as scouts and then in small groups. As the spring sun rises higher and the water warms they swarm up Nemasket by the tens of thousands. By late April early May the fish flowing up stream seem to overwhelm the water flowing down. At the end of the run in early June more than one million of these fish will have made their annual journey up Nemasket.
It is here at Nemasket, perhaps more so than anywhere else in this region that ancient cultures of the past join hands with our modern one. Like an unbroken common thread, Nemasket flows through us to connect the Ancient Archaic to the later Woodlandís and on too our modern culture. For near ten thousand years people have continuously come to the riffles at Nemasket each spring to greet the return of these fish called Alewives.
In times past the reasons for coming here were clear, food, irreplaceable sustenance for both people and their crops. Today the reasons are not so clear. Although some folks still use the fish for a fertilizer and others still fry their row to eat and still others catch them to bait larger fish, there is something else that brings us to this place.
What is it about Nemasket and these fish that draw us here each spring? Itís a difficult question to answer, and ten different people would probably give you ten different answers. However, one common theme that runs through most answers to this question is, "we simply like them." Naturally, the follow up question would be why do you like them? More often than not people respond to this question with a simple shrug of the shoulders and a smile.
For many people including myself it's fond childhood memories of warm spring afternoons spent scooping alewives from the water with bare hands. It is also the spectacle of seeing so much life rippling through such a narrow space. There is also the underdog factor, where we instinctively feel for a creature who against long odds struggles to reach its birthplace to spawn a new generation.
Nemasket maintains the largest run of alewives in New England. This is in large part due to the wide pristine waters of the Assawompsett Pond complex in Middleboro, Lakeville and Rochester. The outlet of Assawompsett is Nemasket River. Dr. Maurice Robbins in his book Wapanucket states that "In pre-colonial times the Nemasket River flowed out of the lake at a point some distance east of its present location. An earthen dam now crosses the ancient bed and parallels the shore of the lake." Apparently at some point in colonial times they moved the outlet of Nemasket to its present location. This is visible when approaching Assawompsett by canoe. About a hundred yards from the outlet the river widens and its course runs almost perfectly straight toward the pond. Apparently some enterprising souls attempted to channel Nemasket for a shipping canal. They either ran low on shovels or strong backs, fortunately for us and Nemasket the scheme was a failure.
From its outlet Nemasket meanders lazily through marsh and swamp lands until it goes under Rt. 495 and then Rt. 28. Passing beneath Rt. 28 heading downstream, the new Middleboro little league field would be on your left. During construction of the field they unearthed an Ancient Wampanoag village. Unfortunately they dug up and hauled most of the site away before it could be well documented. The remaining artifacts suggested that the site was several thousand years old, and was probably a heavily used area in ancient times.
Below here the river continues down to the dam, and the alewife fishing site below it at Wareham St. Nemasket scrambles down one of its few riffle reaches here, leading to a short stretch that brings you to the Ancient Wading Place at the Rt. 105 bridge below the center of town. Traveling further down through more meadow and swamp lands, you come to the place called Muttock, otherwise known as Oliver's Mills at Rt. 44. This was the site of another extensive Wampanoag village and fishing site which was used from ancient times to the colonial period. Where the bones of the old mill complex now litter the river there was once a stone fish weir used to catch alewives and shad. The Wampanoags village and ancient burial place sat above on the hills over looking the stream to the south and east.
Once past here Nemasket continues its meandering course down under Rt. 44 past the Middleboro Sewer Plant and on into the peaceful undeveloped marshes of North Middleboro. It is about half a day paddle from here to its confluence with the Taunton Great River above Titicut St. in Bridgewater.
One other suitable name for Nemasket might be river of smiles. As a resident of Middleboro I have the privilege of being a voluntary observer for the Middleboro Lakeville Herring Fishery Commission. Each Sunday morning during the fish season I go down to the run to check permits and keep an eye on the goings on.
People come from all over to see the spectacle of Nemasket's Run. Adults and children scoop the fish up, dumping them into buckets to take home. Children scamper around, trying to pick up the fish that flop out of the buckets. Across the stream a mother mink darts down to the water to snare an alewife from the shallows, people pause their fishing for a moment to watch her haul it back to her den. Down below the fishway soaking wet kids thrash about in the shallows like a gaggle of bear cubs on a salmon stream. Oblivious to the cold they scoop the fish onto the muddy bank with their hands and wrestle with each other for the silver trophies fresh from the sea.
One particular afternoon I happened to stop by the run in the early afternoon. Teachers from the local school were just arriving with a group of special needs kids. It was a perfect afternoon for catching, warm and sunny, the river loaded with fish. Teachers and chaperones wheeled the kids in their wheelchairs down to the river bank with nets in hand. It was a sight that could bring tears to the eyes of anyone with even half a heart.
I never saw a group of kids have so much fun. The teachers and chaperones had all they could do to keep them from plunging into the water. One would brace the chair, while another would hold the kids by the shoulders as they lunged out with their nets. Then another would have to help them haul up their heavy loads of fish and release them, only to repeat the seen all over again. When it was time to leave, all were tired, thoroughly soaked, covered with fish scales, smelly and grinning from ear to ear.
On another morning I was doing my watch at the run when a very old woman arrived, she was accompanied by a young woman who appeared to be her granddaughter. It was a cold raw spring morning, dark, drizzly and gray. Surprisingly the stream was quite full of fish despite the foul weather. Standing by the run I watched as the old woman shuffled down the steep incline toward me. In one hand she clutched a cane, her other arm was intertwined with her granddaughter. The old woman leaned heavily against the younger for support. She was wrapped in a heavy black over coat which seemed to swallow up her frail, hunched over figure. Her light blue eyes sat deep in her furrowed face, her complexion was as pale and gray as the dismal morning. As they approached they paused at the bench that sat several feet back from the run. The young woman motioned to the bench, the older woman said nothing. Nodding no, the old woman now took the lead, shuffling to the river bank. I smiled and said good morning as they passed, the young woman returned the greeting along with a smile. The older woman nodded as if to acknowledge my greeting but said nothing, her face showing no emotion.
Arriving at the river bank, the old woman looked down into the water at the swarms of alewives milling about at the entrance of the run. She then glanced down stream at my children, who were scrambling along the rocks laughing and grabbing at the passing fish. A bit of color came to her face as she looked out on the scene with a far away look in her eyes. I wondered to myself what she was seeing? Perhaps it was herself as a young girl, doing the same as my children were. Or perhaps she was seeing her own children playing on Nemasketís stage. Whatever it was that she saw it seemed to thaw the chill of the morning and lift the burden of old age from her shoulders. When she turned to leave, she looked up at me with a sparkle in her eyes. Then with a hint of a smile she said yes, it is a good morning young man, a very good morning.
While watching her shuffle back up the incline I couldnít help but wonder how many times similar scenes had been played out here. Itís an interesting thought to contemplate, considering Nemasketís long history. 8,000 years ago when the first clay pots were fired and the first bit of cloth was woven in Europe and the Middle East, people came here to Nemasket. 4,500 years ago when the first written language was established in Samaria, people came here to Nemasket. 2,000 years ago while Jesus Christ was spreading his gospel, people came here to Nemasket. How many old Wampanoag women have shuffled down to this very spot to relive scenes of their youth. How many Fathers, Mothers and Children have come to this very spot over the past ten thousand years to celebrate the return of the Alewives? How many, I do not know. However I do know that I along with many others find a strange comfort here in the riffles of Nemasket, the place of fish, the river of smiles.