Let’s Get Mystical

mystic riverIllustration by Adam Szymczak for the September/October issue of Scout Somerville.

“The water is so slow that when you’re on the river, a patchwork of colorful leaves surrounds you,” says Patrick Herron. His favorite thing to do on the Mystic River—something you can only do in the autumn—is push out on the water’s surface in a kayak or canoe to look at the falling, colorful leaves. “It’s a kaleidoscope of color. It can be really spectacular.”

Herron is the executive director of the Mystic River Watershed Association (MyRWA), and he spends quite a bit of time taking in the river’s beauty.

While the Charles River is a more well-known body of water when it comes to recreation, the Mystic shouldn’t be overlooked. The waterway is a historically and ecologically important blue gem that spans 7 miles, meandering along 22 communities. It served as a channel of commerce from Somerville and Medford out to the Boston Harbor for generations.

Over the last few decades, however, the Mystic has become less about commerce and far more about fun, which is something to get excited about—especially since the Mystic is far less congested than the Charles during the warmer months of the year.

Taking a page from Herron’s book, there are several places in Somerville where you can push out onto the water in a kayak, canoe, paddle board—or whatever other equipment you have on hand. The Amelia Earhart Locks is one location, right next to the Assembly Square T stop. Just across the river, by the Wellington T station, is the Wellington Mystic Yacht Club. Head upriver and you’ll find two more launch points close to or within Somerville: The Blessings of the Bay Boat House in Ten Hills and the Mystic Riverbend Park in Medford. Canoe rentals can be made at the Blessings of the Bay Boat House, but only during the summer months.

There are also plenty of opportunities for both advanced rowers and those who are curious about the sport to get out on the water. The Gentle Giant Rowing Club holds year-round group rowing sessions out of the Blessings of the Bay Boat House, and they offer novice lessons, too.

Boating not your thing? At several points along the Mystic, you can go ahead and jump in for a swim (before it gets too cold). Herron, who holds a Ph.D. in ecology, takes his children to the watershed’s Shannon Beach in nearby Winchester (4 Mystic Valley Pkwy.). With an on-duty lifeguard and a nice, sandy shore, Shannon Beach is bike accessible and family friendly, perfect for swimming or for a picnic along the shore.

There are all kinds of options outside the water, too, including the numerous parks and reserve areas around the river. From Assembly Square, you can easily grab a quick ice cream cone from JP Licks or a pastry from PAUL Bakery and walk right onto the Mystic River Reservation trail with a friend. Or you might bike along the same trail, making a loop to Torbert Macdonald State Park in Medford, which looks across the water to Assembly Row.

MyRWA recently hired urban planner Amber Christoffersen to push modes of active transport along the river’s banks and bring the area’s fragmented bike trails together.

“Much like in transportation, waterways flow across political boundaries,” Christoffersen, the director of the Greenways initiative, explains. As such, MyRWA, municipalities and other agencies have worked to bring incremental stretches of trails to the Mystic River’s banks. Each new link brings sections of the Mystic River Greenways closer and closer together, about a half mile at a time. The goal is to create a contiguous circuit of trails along the Mystic that connects Medford, Somerville, Malden and Boston. While there are great trails now, residents will, over time, find themselves with an even more beautiful, and safer, biking alternative for getting to neighboring cities.

Perhaps the most special thing about the Mystic River is the opportunity it presents for community engagement. MyRWA hosts numerous volunteer events and community activities, including the chance to help clean up and maintain this once-murky river. The Mystic’s more turbid industrial history won’t come as a surprise even to those less familiar with the waterway. Like many major U.S. waterways during the industrial age (and prior), the Mystic, now largely a pleasure destination, served trade, first and foremost.

Herron explains that for hundreds of years, industries along the Mystic included tanneries, coal tar factories and chemical processing facilities. The waste from these factories was discharged into the river and surrounding areas. This legacy of pollution is an issue that MyRWA, the Environmental Protection Agency and environmental advocates still contend with today, long after these industries left the region.

In Woburn and Wilmington, for example, there are three superfund sites at their points of contact with the Mystic River due to industrial waste discovered in the 1960s. (Superfund sites are EPA-designated areas where the agency is in the process of remediating extensive pollution or a contamination disaster. These are considered to be the most polluted sites in the nation.)

“We don’t see those kinds of egregious emissions anymore, but those pollutants are still in the sediments,” Herron explains. “We have a lot of work to see those remediated to prevent future emittance to the river.”

In some isolated areas along the river’s 76-mile course, communities still contend with commercial and industrial toxicity. But today, most contamination issues come from pollutants in the form of stormwater runoff—which contains nutrients, such as phosphorous, that accelerate bacterial growth in waterways—and invasive species like water chestnuts.

These are pollution issues that the community can help resolve. Several times throughout the spring and summer, MyRWA organizes volunteer opportunities to maintain the river. On weekend mornings, groups of Somerville residents and members of surrounding cities pile into canoes at the Blessings of the Bay Boathouse and glide out onto the water. Under the early morning sunshine, volunteers grab up fistfuls of bright green water chestnuts and collect them in laundry baskets nestled between their feet. It’s a fun, outdoorsy way to help the river… and as a bonus, there’s usually pizza afterward.

MyRWA offers other volunteer opportunities throughout the year, such as the annual herring run, for which volunteers can sign up to help count the herring as they swim upstream to spawn. If counting isn’t your thing, there’s also an annual MyRWA 5K in honor of the herring. Even with its polluted past, the Mystic River now has one of the largest river herring runs in the state, according to Herron.

“We’re documenting the incredible resilience of the river here, despite the checkered industrial history,” Herron says.

For more information about the Mystic River, including volunteer opportunities, trail maps and more, head to mysticriver.org.

This story originally appeared in our September/October print edition, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.