how i learned about the middlesex1 canal (or as i like to call it, the "middle sex canal") is rather convoluted. i was doing some research on old boston, back in the 1600's when it was first known as shawmut peninsula, and then eventually grew via land reclamation within the next two centuries, expanding the peninsula to 3x it's original size to become the city geography we know today. that a canal existed connecting lowell to boston wasn't as interesting as discovering that the canal actually went through parts of neighboring towns of somerville and medford (just skirting by cambridge). it seemed like an intriguing piece of lost history right in my own backyard. so i dug around for more info about the middlesex canal.

the middlesex canal was in operations for the first half of the 1800's, before the arrival of the trains the middle of that century. it was a boon for local business, importing raw materials into boston and exporting manufactured goods further inland. not only did the canal spur the economic growth of massachusetts towns, but it also helped the neighboring state of new hampshire, which connected to lowell through its own series of canals.

the middlesex canal employed a series of locks to compensate for any elevation differences, and the occasional raised aqueducts to traverse the most challenging terrains. boats were pulled by horses who walked alongside the water on a parallel towpath. the fastest speed was a mere 4 mph and usually took a day to travel the whole canal (8 hours at least), but a single horse could drag 30 tons of material on a barge, compared to a team of oxen pulling a wagon on the road that could only carry 3 tons.2

the canal did have its disadvantages, one of which was it'd freeze up for 4 months out of the year due to the new england winters. but locals would take advantage of the frozen canal and use it as a pedestrian skate path to travel from lowell to boston and back in just a day. when the railroads arrived it marked the end for the canal. trains could operate during the winter and mostly importantly it moved more cargo - 300 tons. ironically, it was the canal that shipped the materials to build the trains, and that would eventually put it out of business.

anyway, i learned that there was a guided walk starting from the middlesex canal museum at the faulkner mill in north billerica this afternoon. i'd never been up those parts before, but google map plotted a course that only took 8 directions, so it seemed like an easy ride (18 miles, estimated 33 minutes).

before i could do that, the first order of business this morning was to pick up some more cafe supplies from the supermarket. my 2nd aunt wanted 3 gallons of milk this time, along with an assortment of vegetables. with milk crate packed with goods, i slowly bicycled to the cafe. that's when my aunt told me i got the wrong thing, heads of lettuce instead of cabbage. i told her i'd be back with the cabbage, and pedaled home. i motorcycled to the supermarket, got the cabbage, dropped it off, then came home again.

i checked out an open house on nearby arcadia street: a 9193 square feet 2 bedroom 1st floor condo (of a 3 unit house) with its own private off-street parking spot selling for $379k. kind of on the pricey side, and one of the bedroom is so small and of an irregular shape that i don't even think a twin sized bed could fit. there were a lot of people looking, and the real estate agent even asked if i was selling when i told her i lived in the area.

i got caught up talking with my neighbor ed. it's the first time this year that we've chatted. during the winter we each retreated to our respective caves and only now, with the return of warmer weathers, do our paths meet again. we were checking out the frenzy of prospective homebuyers when we weren't admiring our busty ethiopian neighbor. ed is full of stories, some of which he's forgotten that he's already told me. he's a little unfiltered, and was telling me about how growing up there was only one black kid and one asian kid in his class, and he was friends with both of them ("they called us the mod squad," he said).

talking with ed put me off my schedule a little bit. even though google map said north billerica was just half an hour away, i wanted to get there early in case i got lost. maybe it's the weekend, maybe it's the nice weather, maybe it's just the location (route 3A), but there were a lot of motorcycles out today.

about 6 miles into the trip the motorcycle started to acting weird, like it was running out of power. i switched to the reserve gas tank, which seemed to do the trick. according to the odometer i'd only traveled 60 miles, and i wasn't expecting to refill until 120 miles. might have something to do with the winter storage though, and running the engine during the oil change. but riding in reserve put me in a panic. i've run out of gas before and it's not fun. fortunately that time i was within walking distance of the cafe. i dreaded being stuck on the highway in the middle of nowhere, but at the same time i was racing against the clock, trying to get to faulkner mill by 1:30.

in the end caution won out. i also realized i wouldn't make it even if i didn't stop to refuel. i pulled into the nearest gas station and filled the tank. i felt better that i wouldn't be stranded, but knew my trip would be in vain since i'd be late.

i didn't arrive in north billerica until 35 minutes later (google map lead my astray!). i figured at the very least i can visit the museum and check out the canal remnants on my own. when i got there though, there was a long line of people walking down the street. i parked the bike and followed them. turns out it was the tour group. they'd just finished seeing one section of the canal and was on there way to see another.

i was surprised to see such a large group of people interested in historical canals, approximately 60 participants. seeing the canal for real, had i not known the history, i would've just thought it was wooded stream - unusually straight - but seemingly natural now that the forest has reclaimed much of it. if this is what these canal remnants look like, i wonder if i'd seen them in the past in my various nature sojourns but just didn't know it.

much of the trail was on leveled ground, but in some areas we had to scramble over fallen tree trunks. i misjudged one particularly wide log and stabbed my knee with a sharp wooden spike and poked the back of my thigh as well. i hobbled the rest of the way out of the forest.

being so close to water, i expected more mosquitoes, but things were relatively quiet (maybe because there were just so many people to feed on). there wasn't much in terms of naturing, just a lot of emerging vegetation. i mentally identified plants as i followed the group, creating a mental checklist in my head: cinnamon fern, sensitive fern, sessile bellwort, poison ivy, starflower, mayflower, violet, dandelion, indian pipe, jewelweed, horsetails. i'm actually glad there wasn't a lot of cool natural wildlife, makes me feel better that i haven't been out naturing all this month.

there was only a handful of people taking photos. one older woman in particular, i wonder if she's never been in a forest before, because she was photographing everything, straying behind the group because she was so engrossed in photomaking. i admire her dedication but i'm curious to know what she was seeing.

back at the parking lot, i checked out the museum across the street. they had some free refreshments and i helped myself to half a fudge cookie. it was my first food of the day (by then it was already close to 4:00).

the ride home as uneventful. route 3A must be nice on the weekdays, when there are less cars around. one annoying thing about the route is the constant changing from double lanes to single lane.

my order from amazon.com was waiting for me on my doorstep. after a quick shower, i made myself a sandwich for lunch (even though it was 5:00). finally i had time to check out my new toys. i expected the helmet mounted light to be brighter, but i suppose it's bright enough (especially if you look at it head-on). it mounts a little high on my bike helmet only because my helmet doesn't have a lot of vents. can't wait to test it out in the field tomorrow night. the fry thermometer seems functional, but i didn't realize it only goes up to 400°F. not that i'd ever cook anything that hot, but i wonder if this is normal for fry thermometers.

in the early evening i took a soak in the bath. usually i relax with a magazine, but this time i just submerged myself until my fingers began to get pruny. for dinner i ate a hot dog. i then tried to make a brown cow. the first attempt was unsuccessful, too much root beer (a whole can) but not enough vanilla ice cream. also when the root beer mixes with the ice cream, it starts to foam, which isn't what i want. the second attempt i used a lot of ice cream with a bit of root beer (half a can). it was a lot better, but maybe the ice cream melts too fast or i blended it too much because it still seems too liquidy. the third attempt was pretty much the same as the second. 2 cans of root beer and half a tub of ice cream later, i still haven't perfected the recipe. however, i'm pretty sure ice cream is a banned substance when you're lactose intolerance because i was pretty gassy (amongst other symptoms) the rest of the night. at least it gave me a few opportunities to get some reading done.

1 middlesex comes from the old english name meaning "middle saxons."

2 http://www.winchestermass.org/globecanal.html

3 might not be accurate, since it may also be including the backyard deck.