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New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services

Designated Rivers
The Ashuelot River
Report to the General Court
June 1993

II. The Ashuelot River Nomination

A. Description

The Ashuelot River nomination begins at the dam at Butterfield Pond in Washington and flows for approximately 64 miles throughout the communities of Lempster, Marlow, Gilsum, Sullivan, Surry, Keene, Swanzey, Winchester and Hinsdale. The Ashuelot River drainage basin encompasses 420 square miles from its northern boundary including Cherry Brook and North Pond to its mouth at the Connecticut River.

Land use along the upper portion of the Ashuelot River, from Washington/Lempster to Gilsum/Sullivan is primarily forested and sparsely developed. The lower reaches of the river, from Surry to Hinsdale, are characterized by a mix of forests, wetlands, farmland, and commercial/residential/industrial development.

B. River Values and Characteristics

The Rivers Management and Protection Act (RSA Chapter 483) lists nine river values and characteristics which may qualify a river for designation into the program. The Ashuelot River supports many of these natural, managed, cultural, and recreational resource values and characteristics at a level of either statewide or local significance. The resource values which qualify the Ashuelot River for designation include geological resources; wildlife, fish and plant resources; water quality; open space, scenic values; water withdrawals; wastewater discharges; historic and archaeological resources; community resources; and recreational resources.

1. Natural Resources

a. Geologic Resources: The headwaters of the Ashuelot River begin in Pillsbury State Park at an elevation of 1,600 feet. From here the river flows 30 miles, dropping at a rate of 37 feet per mile and creating a steep gorge in Gilsum. It is here that numerous waterfalls are located. A number of potholes, including Devil's Chair, are also located in this reach of the river. Rapids and a waterfall are also located at Shaw's Corner. Throughout the river corridor you can find remnants of glacial activity such as varved clay deposits, deltas, drumlins and glacial Lake Ashuelot. Also of interest are the many quarries in the area producing sand, gravel, semi-precious stones and the high potential aquifers found in the river corridor.

b. Wildlife and Plant Resources: The Ashuelot River corridor supports a variety of diverse habitats that are home to a wide array of plant and animal species, including several endangered species. Important river habitats include rocky ledges, mixed deciduous coniferous and hardwood forests, wetlands and pasture. Of particular note are several great blue heron rookeries in the watershed; a total of eight colonies comprise 7.5% of the statewide total for heron colonies. Fourteen deer yards have also been mapped within the river corridor. The Ashuelot River, due to the river's general north-south orientation, is naturally used as a migratory path for raptors, waterfowl, and songbirds.

A number of species of plants and animals which occur along the Ashuelot River corridor are considered to be endangered or threatened species. The river corridor provides feeding areas for the federally endangered bald eagle. The northern harrier, a state threatened species, has been observed in marshy areas along the river. The blue-gray gnatcatcher, common loon, and the common nighthawk, all state threatened species, have been seen nesting and feeding along the Ashuelot River. The state endangered wild sensitive senna and spiked needlegrass, as well as several other state threatened vegetative species, have been observed along the Ashuelot River. The river corridor supports two ecologically significant natural communities: the Northern New England seepage marsh and the Southern New England circumneutral talus forest/woodland, in Marlow and Surry, respectively.

c. Fishery Resources: The Ashuelot River is both a cold and warm water fishery that provides habitat for approximately 15 resident species, including eastern brook trout, large and small mouth bass, and walleye. The river also contains a catadromous species of fish (fish that live in freshwater but return to saltwater to spawn), the American eel. The Ashuelot River is also home to the federally endangered dwarf wedge mussel. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has identified the Ashuelot River as one of the four most important refuges for this mussel. The Ashuelot River is currently included in the Connecticut River Anadromous Fish (fish that live in saltwater but return to freshwater to spawn) Restoration Program for smelt rearing and fry release. However, the program is not anticipated to start in the Ashuelot River for approximately five years.

d. Water Quality: The Ashuelot River has been designated Class B by the New Hampshire General Court. The upper reaches of the river have met or exceeded the standards for a Class B river. However, sections of the lower reaches have had some difficulties meeting the water quality standards for a Class B waterway. Efforts are underway to meet the standards through regulations, monitoring programs, and advances in municipal standards.

e. Open Space: The Ashuelot River corridor affords the surrounding communities a wide variety of open space opportunities. Located at the headwaters of the Ashuelot River is the 9,000-acre Pillsbury State Park, a relatively undisturbed wilderness of woods, ponds, wetlands, and hillsides. Surry Mountain Dam and Recreational Area encompasses 1,625 acres of open space. The City of Keene owns and operates the Ashuelot River Park, consisting of 46 acres and approximately 2.5 river miles. Further downstream, in the towns of Swanzey and Winchester, are more examples of open space, including Yale Forest, Dickinson Forest, a 189-acre parcel currently owned by the Winchester Conservation Commission, the Muster parcel, a 180-acre Winchester Town Forest, and the 13,400-acre Pisgah State Park.

f. Scenic Values: The Ashuelot River corridor abounds with scenic view and values. The Official New Hampshire Visitor's Guide lists all of Route 10 from Marlow to Winchester as a scenic drive, the river winding along much of this way. The guide also mentions the numerous covered bridges located in Swanzey and Winchester. The river itself provides outstanding visual characteristics, from the tumbling waterfalls at Gilsum Gorge to the quiet pools and meanders in West Swanzey. Along the way there are vistas of forested mountains and hillsides, farmlands and wetlands.

2. Cultural Resources

a. Historic and Archaeological Resources: The southern portion of the Ashuelot River Valley was first inhabited by the Squakheag Indians. The river valley was then settled by earlier pioneers in the 1700s. Settlement in the upper river valley began in the latter part of the 1700s. The river was a major source of food and power for the people of the valley. Evidence of mills are still visible today in all of the river towns where industry grew. There are numerous sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places, including Jones Hall, Gilsum Stone Arch Bridge, Dinsmoor-Hale House, and Sawyer's Crossing Covered Bridge. The Ashuelot River hosts seven Indian sites in Swanzey, and five sites in Winchester and Hinsdale. These sites range from the Paleo-indian (10,500 years ago) to the Fort Hill Hinsdale contact period (1640 A.D.) Of special interest is the Paleo-indian Site, the Whipple Site in Swanzey which boasts the first sign of man in New Hampshire.

b. Community Resources: The Ashuelot River has historically been an asset to the communities living near its shores. The river was important for food and later became important for power and still today the towns of Marlow, Winchester, and Hinsdale harness the river's power for hydroelectric dams. Other economic values include the assimilation of treated wastewater from the four municipal and two paper company wastewater treatment plants, and the use of river water for production by the paper industries. Two municipalities, Keene and Hinsdale, withdraw drinking water from wells located within aquifers along the river. The river continues to be of socio-cultural importance as towns hold various events around the river and its corridor such as the Upper Ashuelot Canoe Race, the Great Ashuelot River Duck Race, and the Art in Ashuelot Park events in Keene and the annual Poling Clinic in Swanzey to name a few.

3. Recreational Resources

a. Boating: The Ashuelot River provides a variety of boating experiences. The ponded sections are enjoyed by those who own small sailing vessels and motorboats while the open water is enjoyed by kayakers and canoeists. The Ashuelot River is listed in the AMC New England Canoeing Guide (1971) as a "beautiful tributary of the Connecticut"; the upper reaches are described as rapid and rough, the middle largely winding and placid, and the last few miles provide "some of the wildest running in New Hampshire." A six-mile stretch of river from the Gilsum Gorge to Surry is a very popular run for kayakers as well as whitewater canoeists. The run has four miles of continuous Class II-III rapids with a spectacular drop at Shaw's Corner. The Ashuelot River provides an area of Class V rapids, three miles south of Winchester, for the experienced kayaker. The "Upper Ashuelot Canoe Race" in the spring attracts participants from outside the state to compete in this US Canoe Association-sanctioned race, executed on a flatwater course.

b. Fishing: The Ashuelot River is mentioned in various fishing guides as a popular river for fishing. The AMC Guide to Freshwater Fishing in New England describes the upper reaches with cold, fast moving water as good locations for rainbow and brown trout. DeLorme Mapping Co. in its book New Hampshire Fishing Maps, lists Ashuelot Pond for small and large mouth bass, pickerel, horned pout, and yellow perch. This guide also maps the upper reaches between Marlow and Gilsum for best fishing. Local fishermen extol the portion of the river between Route 10 in Gilsum and Surry Mountain Lake as some of the best fly-fishing for trout in the region. Where the Ashuelot meets the Connecticut is a popular spot for walleye, bass, bullheads and perch. Much of the river is accessible by roads; therefore, fishing is not limited to the areas mentioned above.

c. Other Recreation: The Ashuelot River offers many opportunities for a variety of recreational activities, both on the water and onshore. The water activities include swimming, tubing, and boating. Onshore activities abound with three campgrounds located along the river from Pillsbury State Park in Washington to Forest Lake Campground in Winchester. There are also locations along the river to picnic, play golf, play horseshoes, or have a game of softball. The scenic beauty of the river corridor affords opportunities to hike either in the state or municipal parks located in the river corridor.

d. Access: There are five boat landings along the Ashuelot River, two in Washington at Pillsbury State Park and Ashuelot Pond, two in Marlow at Baptism Beach and Big Pond, and one at the Surry Mountain Recreational Area. These access areas are equipped with boat ramps and landings. Ashuelot River Park in Keene provides a small boat access. The proximity of roads along the river and numerous pulloffs provide informal access to cartop boats along much of the river's 64 miles.

4. Managed Resources

a. Water Withdrawals: Water is currently drawn from the Ashuelot River corridor for use as drinking water by the towns of Keene, Winchester, and Hinsdale. This water is obtained from municipal drinking water wells located adjacent to the river. Water drawn from the river is also used for hydroelectric power in Marlow, Winchester and Hinsdale; sewage treatment in Keene, Swanzey, Winchester, and Hinsdale; and for industrial purposes in the towns of Ashuelot and Hinsdale.

b. Wastewater Discharges: Eight permits to discharge wastewater to the Ashuelot River have been granted under the Federal Clean Water Act and state water quality laws. Dischargers include four wastewater treatment facilities, one medical facility (cooling water), one groundwater contamination treatment system, and two paper companies (treated industrial effluent/wastewater).

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