A pond adds both beauty and value to a country home.
Here's a way to create a stream pond without resorting to expensive
and soil-damaging heavy equipment.
(See diagrams of how to build a stream pond in the image gallery).
A Stream Pond That Carves [and Cleans]
One summer I swam in a stream pond in the second curve of
an oxbow in Abbott Brook. The flow had chiseled into the
bank, sweeping out a 20-foot bowl, then doubled back where
the roots of a poplar grove held the bank together.
Rebounding sediment had settled into a sandy beach on the
shallow bank. You could swim all day against the current
and never get anywhere.
This stretch of brook with its whirly-pit was one of the
brightest lures when the surrounding land was deeded to a
young family from California. Lee Ann and Mike turned
salvage from an old carriage house into a post-and-beam
saltbox near the bank and counted on the pond for household
water and summer baths. One summer afternoon, with some
help from their daughter Heather, they laid up a stone dam
to deepen the basin to six feet. They chopped down a poplar
to bridge the brook — great for hanging by the knees
in the free current. But with autumn rains came a tide of
silt that filled the little pond, and ice and spring
snowmelt crumpled the dam.
Just south, Dave and Victoria built a silo house out of
dismantled Army barracks trucked from Michigan. It was a
memorial to thrift and sixties sentiment. Really monumental
were their cellar sauna and front-yard pond. The sauna was
a real beauty. Clear cedar boards lined the interior, and
two racks of slatted benches crisscrossed the room. A
mail-order sheet-metal stove burned with cheery red cheeks
near a knee-high window that peered over a rocky brook.
During tower construction David and Tor had let the brook
run loose. With the house together, they looked around and
decided to make a pond. They built a stone dam and shoveled
silt out of the basin. The dam was laid up loose enough to
pass the flow and contain a pool. It filled deep enough to
inspire David, after a midnight sauna, to climb the ladder
to his tower roof and leap for the dark pond below. But
spring came with runoff that punched out the dam and swept
in a load of silt — a nuisance for the rest of us and
potentially fatal for David.
So a ritual grew in the summer. Neighbors gathered at
different stream ponds for dam repair and silt shoveling.
Given a good blend of hot sun and cold beer it was OK,
until you got your toe crunched. I began to ponder a better
solution. I found it in a 15-year-old illustrated bulletin
published by the New York State Conservation Department.
"The stream pond," I read, "must lie below the
dam." It's simply geology: Pools form naturally in the wake
of a waterfall.
"Log pyramid pool digger" is the title the conservationists
tagged their pond-making method, and it wasn't long before
I saw how smoothly it worked. With my neighbors, Blake and
Aletta, who live on the brink of Podunk Brook, I raised a
barrier of logs and stones across the water, triggering a
waterfall that carved out a pond. Now it flows like a
self-propelled excavator and even sweeps itself clean every
spring — a sorcerer's impoundment. We just call it
the digger pond.
A sidehill pond is a bath; the digger is a whirlpool.
Still-water ponds lie under ice half the year; the churning
digger pond freezes for two or three of winter's coldest
months, at most. The digger attracts native trout without
trapping them, simultaneously stirring up a richly aerated
pond suitable for cage-culturing fish.
As with all forms of pond making, success depends on
tapping natural advantages of terrain. A stream has a way
of hinting at the best site for a digger pond: a hollow
that could be enlarged, a slow shallow flow between stable
banks, or a pool already forming under existing falls.
Banks should be at least three or four feet high and sites
prone to flooding avoided.
The size of the digger basin will be limited by the breadth
of the stream, so look for a site wide enough to let you
stretch out — "Ample and large, that the arms spread
abroad might not be hurt," as Cicero described the ideal
pond — but not so wide that finding dam materials is
difficult, or where watershed runoff will overload the
structure. A stream spanning ten to twenty feet, catching
runoff from less than ten square miles, works well. Dam
materials should be close at hand. Our digger dam was built
with trees felled at the site. Round timbers about a foot
in diameter make the best structure, with hemlock, cedar,
and tamarack topping the list. For longest durability the
bark should be peeled. Stones can be used in place of
timber, although the dam will be less effective, if quicker
Dams are subject to a trio of wracking forces: sliding,
crushing, and overthrow. A strong foundation will prevent
sliding, and a tight structure will avert crushing and
overthrow. The best foundation for a digger is bedrock or
solid bottom. A base of sand or mud will undermine the
structure. If you fail to find a solid base, it may be
possible to create one using an old loggers' technique for
building stream-driven dams: Drive a row of wooden pilings
into the streambed to keep the bottom from washing away and
to form a base to which the sills of the dam can be bolted.
To be most effective, the dam should rest on a pair of sill
timbers that traverse the stream, lying flat on the bottom
and butted into the banks. To insure that the dam does not
slide, an elaborate anchoring technique was suggested in
the N.Y. State Bulletin. A trench is excavated about two
feet wide, four feet deep into the banks, the base level
with the streambed. If stream water is high, it may be
diverted to one side by temporary dams made of logs or
stone. Here on the Podunk, to save labor and comply with
Vermont regulations against stream course alteration, we
found low-water construction best.
Drift bolts are used to pin the twin timbers to the
streambed, and an additional log is entrenched about four
feet upstream. The sills are then tied to this anchor log
with galvanized poultry wire. The pond maker drills
one-inch holes every six feet or so in parallel sills and
pins down the base by sledge hammering three-quarter-inch
concrete reinforcing bars through the logs, deep into the
streambed. Six-foot lengths of rebar sunk five feet deep
leave a foot to crimp over and hold down the sills.
Obstructions in the streambed may be sidestepped by
repositioning the bolts or backfilling and weighing down
the butt ends of the sills. Additional drift bolts should
be pinned two feet to either side of the joints. The
six-inch anchor log is then entrenched about four feet
upstream of the sills, flush with the streamed, and
drift-bolted or otherwise firmly secured. The chicken wire
is then used to tie the sills to the anchor, as well as
create a ramp to sweep water over the dam. The wire is
blanketed over the width of the stream and secured to the
anchor log and sills with galvanized nails or staples. Fine
brush is layered over the wire and anchored with flat
stones to complete the seal. Finally, two logs of similar
girth are fitted into the sill crevice and spiked at the
outside ends, leaving a midstream gap of a foot or two. The
central opening is then cut wide enough to pass the entire
flow of the stream into the center of the pond. This
trimming should be synchronized with a run of low water.
Additional spikes are added to secure the logs, with an
eight-inch board nailed over the exposed sills to cleat the
Of course, nothing in the world of natural stream ponds
resembles such a structure. Aletta, Blake, and I didn't
hesitate to assemble a simpler digger dam. We bridged the
stream with a pair of balsam timbers, anchored the butts
with stones, and backfilled the upstream side with more
stones. By adding a rim of stones at the downstream end of
the pond, Aletta made sure than even in a drought the pond
spans 15 feet with four or five feet of water.
Blake and Aletta are guaranteed a regular catch from the
pond in season. And since the pond is cupped at the head of
a stretch of water that flows dead south, it gathers direct
and reflected sun. Last summer Blake built a sauna at the
northwest end of the pond, taking advantage of the sun to
supplement the sauna's wood fire. Through all but the
deepest freezes the pond stays clear for sauna baths. If
their household water freezes up, the digger pond holds a
reservoir of emergency water.
"It looks like a backwards dammed pond," Blake said awhile
back, soaking under the falls between saunas. "But it sure
EDITOR'S NOTE: Before altering the course or flow of
any stream, check with your local water resources agency to
be sure you'll be in compliance with the appropriate stream
This article is reprinted by permission of The
Countryman Press from Earth Ponds: The Country Pond
Maker's Guide , copyright 1982 by Tim Matson.