Early Antlers?

Full moons, phone calls and velvet. Enticing indeed.

So let’s go back to Sunday morning, July’s Buck Moon  in the overnight sky waxing toward its full Tuesday splendor. And, oh, how beautiful that full moon was at 3 a.m. Wednesday, casting a surreal silver light across the front yard that even fooled the cat, which usually awaits  daybreak to climb the bedroom screen window to inform us that it’s time for an additional bedmate.

Back to Sunday morning, I had returned home from a robust walk with the dogs and the caller-ID indicated that old friend Rogie had called while I was away. I grabbed the phone, sat down, selected his name on the screen and returned the call. We’re old friends. Good friends.

He immediately picked up, knew who was calling and, not unexpectedly, opened with a customary smart-aleck remark. “Hey, why don’t you throw your dogs in the truck and drive down here to go looking for deer. Then, when we’re done, we can go down to the bottom of the hill and split some cordwood.”

“Yeah, right,” I responded. “Not today, Pal. I work Sundays.”

He wasn’t serious. Just cranking me up. Whate else is new? On his mind was an interesting deer sighting that had unfolded before his eyes an hour or so earlier on the lush lawn bordering the forest out his den’s large back windows. From the underbrush slid three handsome, antlered bucks — twin spikehorns and another older deer with larger antlers. All three of the deers’ antlers, covered in a thin, silky, olive-brown velvet, seemed to him to be fully grown. It doesn’t take long for bucks to remove this soft, thin layer and put a hard sheen on their antlers by rubbing saplings that keen hunters’ eyes always search for in an attempt to assess the buck activity in a given woodlot. Deer continue polishing their headgear right through the fall rut. By then, dominant bucks rub more aggressively and leave gummy saliva on branch tips, pine needles or even leaves while pawing furiously to make wide, splashy scrapes on the ground. Centered in the ripped-up turf at the base of these rutting trees is a prominent single hoof-print depression into which a “calling card” is urinated to mark territory.

Most interesting of the three sets of  antlers my buddy viewed was one of the spikehorn’s drop-tine lying flat against its face between its ear and eye and curling back toward its shoulder. “When I first noticed that heavy line running back across the face, I thought it was a gash or cut, so I grabbed my binoculars and glassed him,” he said. “Then I could see it was an antler bent back. He must have caught it on a tree or fence or something when it was still soft. I’ve read about that happening to deform antlers.”

The topic happened to be apropos for me. I had been giving much thought to bucks in velvet ever since a prolific emailer I hear from daily sent a photo of twin Leverett 4-pointers with velvet antlers that appeared fully formed on June 27, three days before my birthday. Long years of monitoring such natural wonders told me it was early for fully-grown deer antlers in velvet. I use my June 30th birthday as a measuring stick for that particular phenomenon, and sightings have always occurred after my birthday, with full growth typically occurring over the second half of July. But perhaps I was misremembering, like witnesses or suspects sometimes do. Or, then again, maybe  deer antlers, like virtually everything else during this spring and summer following an unusually mild, snowless winter were ahead of schedule.

Well, it didn’t take long for more data to appear from a colleague and neighbor I affectionately call Big Boiczyk. The young man often shares Greenfield Meadows wildlife sightings because he knows I like to keep track of such things. He told me of nearly hitting what he called “my buck” trying to cross Plain Road near the Nims Farm just after Fourth of July Weekend. He was referring to  an animal that is now a dominant 5- or 6-year-old racker with a distinctive splayed front hoof print I can  easily and do often recognize, having observed this wise old deer since he was a spotted fawn nursing his mom. Big Boiczyk claimed that deer was sporting a full set of nice  antlers in velvet, which, again, seemed early to me.

Then, just like that, more local data from buddy Rogie, another reliable, experienced and knowledgeable wildlife spotter, adding to the mystery with his Sunday sighting. So, fellas, take it to the bank — local bucks greeted Tuesday night’s soft, silver Full Buck Moon wearing full headgear in velvet.

According to the Farmer’s Almanac narrative explaining full-moon names, that’s uncharacteristic of June/July antlers. The almanac explains that the Indians called this moon the Buck Moon because, “July is normally the month when new antlers of buck deer push through  their foreheads in coatings of velvety fur.”

So, see, just like the broken-off, pointy-green-leaved, red-oak limb-tip I found floating down the Green River a couple of weeks ago, it sporting good-sized acorns that were, in my assessment, more indicative of August, deer antlers in this neck of the woods are also ahead of schedule.

Even though it’s vacation time and the two “credentialed” sources I tried to reach did not respond in time to add their insight before deadline, I’m more than confident that I’ve received enough evidence to confirm my suspicion, one based on many years of observation and formed with knee-jerk immediacy upon viewing that June 27 email photo of the twin Leverett 4-pointers on my high-def computer monitor.

Never in my recollection have I seen full velvet antlers like that before my birthday.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

——————

Updated numbers that will be “final,” at least for American shad passage in the Connecticut River basin, arrived this week from Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle, who oversees our river for the United States Fish & Wildlife Service and announced that the regular spring lift schedule concluded Friday.

The shad numbers (392,067) dropped  a bit from  last year’s hefty total of 416,355. But,  on a more  positive note, the passage through Turners Falls and Vernon, Vt., to the historic Bellows Falls, Vt., terminus was better than most over a long restoration effort. A total of 54,069 shad made it past Turners Falls this year, and of those fish, 35,732 passed Vernon and 1,973 were counted at Bellows Falls. Sprankle noted that the Bellows Falls number was a record while Vernon’s was No. 3 all-time.

Meanwhile, according to Coordinator Sprankle, “(Endangered) shortnosed sturgeon continue to enter the Holyoke facility in strong numbers, with 10 fish trapped on July 14 and eight more  trapped on Friday. Holyoke Fish Lift will operate on a shortened lift schedule specifically for shortnose through the summer and into the fall. … Many of the passage numbers remain provisional but are not expected to change much, with only a few end-of-operation dates/counts at upstream ladders missing at this time.”

As for Atlantic salmon, another has been counted since my last report, with a total of six now, compared to 22 last year. The sixth salmon was captured and tagged below the Leesville Dam on Connecticut’s Salmon River. The other five salmon were counted on the Westfield River (2) and at the Holyoke dam (3).

This is probably  this space’s final anadromous-fish-passage report of the season.

——————

A reader who viewed the photo accompanying last week’s column about a round, narrow, cement-filled, barrel-like obstruction (new photo from a different angle on Page D1) that log-jammed in the Green River — creating a high-water eddy whose swirling water had built a midstream sandbar or small island since last fall — believes the object is an old water heater. He’s probably right, and I must admit I initially considered water heater due to the one-inch pipe protruding from the capped top end. The reason I didn’t mention that potential identification was that the 12-inch, tube-shaped object seemed too narrow for a water heater.

“No,” said the reader, “some of those old water heaters were only eight- or nine-inches wide and a lot of farmers used them for different things, including culvert pipes. It looked like an old water heater to me in the photo.”

Case closed. I have reinspected it and do believe the reader is correct. It is an old water heater filled with coarse-gravel cement and used as a footing for a small bridge or riverside pier.

Observe, Ponder, Hypothesize

Strawberries have gone by, raspberries and blueberries are ripe for the picking, my roma tomato is waist-high and quickly climbing a 10-foot rebar stilt and, for a month or more, a 300-yard leg of my daily mile walk again ventures up the shallow Green River, always a refreshing summertime bonus for me and the dogs.

My pets’ fascination are the scents that draw them splashing back and forth and up and down the river and into the bushy wooded perimeters, always hunting, swimming, chasing; rollicking like euphoric children liberated after a long Xbox and boob-tube winter. But me, well, my curiosity was immediately drawn to a new midstream feature created between October and June. And still, everyday, I stop to evaluate this pointed, oblong, eddy-deposited sandbar island that sends my mind  back to an engrossing late-fall/early-winter research project focused on recreating what the majestic falls between Turners Falls and Riverside/Gill looked like in their natural, majestic, pre-colonial splendor.

Call this new midstream Green River feature a temporary, random, unintentional human obstruction. One dropped into place from who knows where, originally dislodged upstream by a powerful flood. It’ll eventually get jarred loose by another furious river surge and continue working its way slowly downriver until it vanishes into some deep muddy grave in the lower Green, or maybe the silty lower end of the Deerfield, even the mighty mother Connecticut, where over time it may become a forgotten remnant buried forever deep in black sediment.

Six or seven feet long, the key component of this logjam is a heavy, coarse-gravel and cement-filled 10-inch cast-iron tube with a centered 1-inch pipe capped by an attached right-angle elbow protruding from one end. Likely not sturdy enough to support a highway bridge, it must have been a footing for a riverside dock jutting out over a deep hole for swimming and diving and horsing around on hot, steamy summer days. Whatever it supported was likely washed away by Tropical Storm Irene many years ago. Undoubtedly, the cumbersome object will continue rolling and crashing along the stream bed to its final destination during only the most violent flooding. Were it not round, it would likely have stayed where it fell.

This new obstruction is multifaceted. The base is a prostrate, waterlogged dead fall solidly anchored into the stream bed. Behind it is the heavy, wedged-in cement-filled iron pipe, which  from time to time accumulates a tangle of vegetative debris behind it to create an impenetrable little midstream dam that forces the river around it on both sides, creating a little sandy-bottomed drop-off pool downstream to the left of the exposed sandbar island formed by the swirling eddy that appears only when the river’s high. Each event adds a new layer to the fine, fertile sandbar isle now greening in the summer sun. The dynamics of that natural river process reminded me immediately of the December discussion group I had joined in an effort to iron out differences and create an accurate drawing of what the Connecticut River falls at Riverside/Gill would have looked like before colonial European settlers discovered them. The problem is that they recognized the water-power potential and it didn’t take long for the natural treasure to be deemed ideal for dams, canals, industry and now electric-power generation.

The pre-contact beauty of the original, undisturbed falls has long been a fascination of mine, triggered by exhaustive research into historic and prehistoric anadromous fish runs and the temporary seasonal indigenous fishing villages they brought to known deep-history spring fishing sites. The most popular ancient Pioneer Valley fishing sites along New England’s longest river were at Riverside falls, Rock Dam a mile or so downstream and South Hadley Falls at the site of today’s Holyoke Dam. The intriguing topic of what the natural falls between Gill and Montague looked like was publicly raised by historian Peter A. Thomas at November’s monthly Great Falls/Peskeompskut Fight Battlefield Grant meeting.

“How can we map the battle before we map the landscape, which has changed dramatically,” queried Thomas at the public meeting. And how could anyone disagree?

Thomas’ query sparked immediate discussion at the meeting, followed by a lively interactive email exchange pulling in many interested parties, who went back and forth sharing information for weeks. Obviously, the landscape dictated where the indigenous fishing and fish-processing sites would have been situated, and also the location of any temporary villages as potential military targets for wee-hour ambush. The collaborative search was on.

The discovery mission  came to a head at a December weekend meeting of four minds at a private residence. The four-hour, fact-finding process included dynamic discussion, sharing of historic maps and documents, and a half-hour PowerPoint presentation displaying old photographs that documented the evolution and construction of the various Turners Falls dams. The photos were disturbing to anyone committed to preservation and conservation. Construction projects beginning after the Civil War and continuing into the 1960s unleashed a series of explosive interventions aimed at removing large chunks of sturdy bedrock protruding from midstream, forever altering an incredible geological formation and wonder of nature that had formed New England’s most beautiful and important waterfall. I told my wife that Indians would weep at the sight of the construction photos I saw. Such a maiming of river bedrock would be akin to removing their mother’s arms or legs. They post-blast photos looked like something out of 1945 Germany. Of course, not everyone sees it that way. Some chalk it up as progress. But in my world view preservation and conservation are worthy goals.

A week or two after that meeting of the minds, Thomas — supervisor of three Riverside archaeological excavations in the 1970s — had already sketched a remarkably accurate depiction of what the falls would have looked like on May 19, 1676. That infamous day in local history marks the Capt. William Turner-led battle known as the “Falls Fight,” widely  credited for  tuning the tide of King Philip’s War in favor of New England colonial troops. Thomas’ pencil sketch, dabbed with color, was based on all the information gathered over a month or so of interactive research and at times contentious debate. But the debate remained civil and eventually arrived at consensus a tad short of unanimous.

Perhaps the two most contentious issues bogging down the discussion were the 1.) location of Burnham’s Rock — which jutted out toward the Gill shore to funnel water down a narrow, 400-yard-long flume that was advantageous to gathering anadromous fish running upstream — and 2.) whether a three-acre hayfield ever existed on a flat, fertile plain at the base of Great Island, as claimed by Gill historian Ralph M. Stoughton (1879-1966), a third- or fourth-generation Riverside farmer whose family harvested the hayfield.

It is the hayfield argument that the recent discovery of the small new Green River island brought me back to. Having argued in favor of a hayfield on that island below the immense Great Island bedrock protrusion and above another smaller bedrock outcropping below, at the outflow of Fall River, this new sandbar below a river obstruction was to me a pale microcosm of a process that occurred often during river surges through the fishing falls between Gill and Turners Falls. During maximum-flow events through the site, Great Island bedrock stood tall and split the river, sending one roaring channel through the Gill flume and another over the wide stony bed along the Montague side that ran practically dry during low summer flows. This surge of split energy collided at the base of the falls with the outflow of Fall River, which, along with a sharp left-hand sweep of the Connecticut River and an outcropping of ledge, would have helped created a swirling eddy to deposit rich silt over the hayfield, which was protected and never took the full force of the destructive river. I have seen this many times on trout streams flooded and discolored by torrential summer rainstorms, and can picture it happening at the base of Great Island.

Thomas isn’t certain the hayfield could have survived increased flows and flooding brought on by 19th-century clear-cutting of Vermont and New Hampshire forest above Turners Falls. Those forests once absorbed a lot of water that never made it to the Connecticut River. But had construction crews not dynamited the massive, immovable bedrock foundation of Great Island, even if rare floods inundated it, the hayfield may have been sheltered  enough to remain intact. A large, stiff midstream outcropping like that still routes water around it even on the rare occasions when its overflowed, if ever it was. Who knows?

So that’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it. If the island was still there today in its original form and the dam wasn’t, I believe the hayfield would be there, too. That conclusion is drawn from daily observations on my river walks and from countless others made during more than 50 years of rainy-day fishing along free-flowing, high volume trout streams.

Enough! Off I go.

Rock Dam Ramble

Approaching noon on a sunny Fourth of July morning — a dry, refreshing northwesterly breeze perfect for hiking — and we’re crossing Gen. Pierce Bridge from Bingville to Montague City for a quick Rock Dam tour. Having never visited the site, a dear old pal from South Deerfield had called the night before suggesting a trip to the natural basalt dike and recreational haven that crosses the Connecticut River from its steep eastern bank to forested Smead Island, separated from the Greenfield shore only by a slim, shallow channel.

Looking upstream as we drive over the bridge, three or four wading anglers are enjoying the holiday, presumably not fishing for American shad, which stopped running a couple of weeks ago. By then, the daytime river temps had stabilized in the mid-70s Fahrenheit, signaling the end of shad fishing and the beginning of shad spawning, when the fish stop migrating upstream to establish permanent lairs.

Headed north toward Avenue A, we take a left over the iron bridge and into the Patch, referred to by smart-asses as the capital of Turners Falls. A left t’other side the bridge leads us to a paved road following the canal to Cabot Station, not far from where we park to walk a well-worn footpath to the river’s edge just below the narrow Rock Dam waterfall. Surprisingly, a moderate power-generating flow is obscuring the slim eight- to 10-foot drop another friend had observed just last week under lower-flow conditions. Luck of the draw in the world of power-producing rivers. Unfortunately, we arrived at the wrong time to see the narrow waterfall that at low volumes funnels the entire downstream flow over it. But fall or no fall, the entire flow was still being pulled through a 15-foot gap in the natural stone dike, and the flooded waterfall didn’t detract from the site’s beauty or mystique.

We walk quite a way downstream over the baked stone stream bed, inspecting rocks for ancient artifacts, old river-rounded bricks and familiar red Connecticut Valley sandstones among the mixed cobbles and flat skimming stones we used to skip across the water as kids. Then we double back toward the outcropping of ledge, 10 or 12 feet tall, framing the Montague side of the waterfall, which on this day appears more like a chute of flume for chartreuse- and hot-pink-clad kayakers.

Before jumping a shallow, two-foot-wide, rust-colored spring stream trickling out of the Montague bank to pick up a worn path over exposed roots and around knobby trees to the top of the ledges, we encounter a thin, gray-bearded, middle-aged man with two boys making their way down the hill with fishing rods in hand.

“You guys are fishing, too, huh?” I asked. “We saw three or four fishermen from the bridge and wondered what they were fishing for. Not shad, I assume.”

“No, shad-fishing ended a couple of weeks ago,” he answered. “Mostly bass this time of year. That’s probably what those guys downstream are fishing for.”

He turns slightly, facing upstream at Rock Dam, head lifted, nose into the breeze and says, “Can’t you detect that fishy smell. It’s dead shad. A lot of them die after spawning. When it smells like that down here, you know shad-fishing is over.”

The current, the white frothy water surging through the waterfall gap, and the gravel streambed has the feel of a trout stream like the Deerfield or Green River, not so far away. So I ask if trout are ever caught there.

“No, trout are a long-shot here,” he quickly resplied. “Maybe even a miracle.”

Not so, interjected my friend, a couple of years younger than me. His family farm borders the Connecticut’s western bank above Sunderland Bridge, and he had some veteran river wisdom to share.

“Trout use the Connecticut River more than most people think,” he said in a friendly manner. “Especially brook trout. That’s how they get into all the little unstocked brooks between here and Hatfield.”

It’s true. The Connecitcut works as a superhighway for trout of all kinds seeking suitable habitat with cold summer water. A classic example occurred many years ago when, fishing for shad from a motorboat below Sunderland Bridge with late friend Walter T. Kostanski Jr., and son Richard, I got a strike on my own willow-leaf lure and was quite surprised to discover a pretty 14-inch rainbow trout from one of the local hatcheries. Who knows where it came from? It could have been an escapee from the state hatcheries in Sunderland or Montague or, then again, it could well have come indirectly from either hatchery after getting stocking into the Deerfield, Green or Sawmill rivers upstream from our fishing location.

Something else about these small Connecticut River tributaries like Clapp Brook in Deerfield or Sugarloaf Brook in Deerfield/Whately. Early settlers used to catch shad and salmon around the mouths of such small streams when the water was high in the spring. There are written accounts of 18th century fishing hauls being made from the mouth of Sugarloaf Brook, which empties into the Connnecticut River at Herlihy Park in Whately.

Take it to the bank: an angler could still take shad there when the water’s right, usually during high-water big-river events that chase fish up smaller tributaries for temporary refuge from the wild main stem. So, yes, in these days of put-and-take trout fishing, a creative man can find trout where they ain’t stocked. Nice trout. No secret when I was a boy, and still true today. Not only that but, the liquid migratory superhighway known as the Connecticut River also delivers anadromous fish into those same small streams where most anglers would not dream of catching them.

Enough!

And to think that this entire narrative was inspired by a quick, simple holiday trip to Rock Dam — that magical ancient landmark that can really stir your creative juices, like a fiddle in a spring-floor ballroom. And, mind you, I didn’t even bite for that initial urge to approach the site from an altogether different angle — that of deep-history and indigenous lore, always more alluring and, better still, invigoratingly mysterious.

*************

Sticking to spring Connecticut River anadromous-fish runs, for all intents and purposes, they’re history.

Yes, a straggler Atlantic salmon might come through between now and fall-time. But does it really matter? Thus far a whopping five have been monitored in the river system compared to 22 last year.
Two of this year’s salmon are currently in the Westfield River system. The other three are in the Connecticut River system between Holyoke and Turners Falls — perhaps the Deerfield River but possibly even smaller tributaries like Sawmill River in Montague, Fall River in Gill or Mill River in Hatfield. Other possibilities include the lower Green River or possibly even such Deerfield River feeders as the South and

Bear rivers, or even Dragon Brook. Hey, for that matter, you might find one hidden away below the cold Hawks Brook falls just off the Shelburne  bank above the mouth of the South and the old Conway Station railroad-trestle abutment in the river.

As for American shad, well, a good year all in all with 384,996 through Holyoke and a total of 391,097 in the river, just a tad under last year’s totals of 412,656 through Holyoke and 416,355 in the river.
Meanwhile, the curious saga of Turners Falls’ shad passage remains perplexing indeed. Numbers released by Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle show 50,770 shad passing Turners Falls as of June 7 and 30,534 passing through Vernon, Vt., through June 15. As it stands today, only 13 percent of the shad that made it past Holyoke made it through Turners Falls as well, which may be misleading given that the run lasted two or three weeks longer than charted. On the other hand, 68 percent of the shad that  passed Turners Falls made it past Vernon, which is not a bad number.

Hopefully, we’ll see the day when Turners Falls gets it together and turnstiles the majority of Holyoke’s fish upstream, headed toward the annual run’s historic terminus at Bellows Falls, Vt.

Wishful thinking after all these years of expensive dysfunction?

Maybe.

No! Make that absolutely.

Blueback Trout Mysteries Deepen

I’ve found a new second-favorite native fish — one I’ve never touched, laid eyes upon or, for that matter, even knew existed before last week.

No. 1 is still Eastern brook trout: our New England fish. No. 2? Well, that would be the native fish few know: the blueback trout.

So let’s take a deeper look at this ancient blueback, discovered last week by chance after learning about traces of Arctic char found hidden in long-ago forgotten layers of ancient Lake Hitchcock’s bed. The char-fin fossils were discovered in the past 15 years by archaeologists examining lake-bottom varves deposited 14,000 to 18,000 years ago when our Connecticut Valley was submerged under a 300-some-mile-long proglacial lake of various widths and depths, extending from Burke, Vt., to Rocky Hill, Conn.

Myself a native of this valley and a veteran trout fisherman, I had indeed heard of Arctic char and knew that Eastern brook trout and lake trout were members of the char family, which is also related to Atlantic salmon. But blueback trout in New England? Uh-uh. I can’t claim to have heard so much as  a  whisper about this intriguing New England “native.”

On tight deadline last week, with no time to delve deeper into the riddle, I speculatively wrote that perhaps these ghost-like bluebacks had evolved into Eastern brook trout, which can indeed, in the proper water at the right time of year, sport a steel-blue back that beautifully bleeds into the sky-orange belly, accentuating bright, multi-colored spots associated with North America’s most beautiful trout.

Well,  that knee-jerk hypothesis wasn’t far off. Although there still seems to be some disagreement among scholars, blueback trout are not descendants of Arctic char; they are Arctic char — the landlocked version. Yes, leftover Pleistocene refugees stranded by the retreating Wisconsin glacier and trapped ever since in proglacial lakes with no exit. Today this fish exists in isolated, cold, deep Maine lakes that are not inhabited by lake trout, which eat them. Although trophy-quality bluebacks measure  nearly two feet in length and can weigh up to five pounds, fish so large are rare indeed. This particular coldwater fish is far more common in lengths ranging from six to 12 inches and weights of less than a pound. So they’re no match for their much larger, predatory lake-trout kin, which commonly weigh 30 to 40 pounds and can grow to world-record weight of 102 pounds, which would reduce a largest blueback on record (5 pounds, 3.84 ounces, caught at Pushineer Pond, Maine, in 2008) to a bite-sized minnow.
Blueback trout likely resided right here in the Happy Valley during the late Pleistocene/early Holocene period but had probably vanished or were very rare by the time our shores started receiving European settlers in the 17th century. That said, these fish then would have probably been common in deep North Country lakes, such as those of New Hampshire’s Lakes Region and far northern-Vermont lakes like Willoughby, Barton, Seymour and Champlain. The problem there was that in our enduring bigger-is-always-better Western mentality, lake trout and landlocked salmon were eventually stocked into popular North Country fishing lakes that had none, and this intervention brought a lethal predator that bellowed a death knell for bluebacks.

The same can be said of western Maine’s Rangeley Lakes, where bluebacks were its most numerous species into the late 19th century. That’s when landlocked-salmon stocking began, leading to blueback extirpation. Lake Mempremagog, two-thirds of which lies in Canada above the Vermont border, also likely had bluebacks if you go back far enough, but no longer holds any. Lakers, landlocked salmon and many other game fish are caught there today.

Experts aren’t sure whether the Sunapee trout associated with New Hampshire’s Lake Sunapee are bluebacks or a remarkably similar, related Arctic-char subspecies thought to have found its way here from the North Atlantic during preglacial times. R.J. Behnke, author of “Trout and Salmon of North America” and the preeminent contemporary scholar on the subject, classifies both fish as Salvelinus alphinus oquassa.

Online research uncovered a public-radio site with a published narrative about North Country storyteller Willem Lange’s pursuit of the mysterious blueback trout after, quite by dumb chance, catching one on a Maine fishing trip 45 years ago. Curious about a fish he was sure he had never before seen, he investigated and was told by an old Maine Guide that it had have been a rare blueback. Lange, from East Montpelier, Vt., has traveled back to that remote pond three times since that day to land another and confirm his catch was a blueback, but he has never caught another.

The online NPR narrative quotes Lange as saying, “In 1971, on a pond deep in Maine, I caught a strange-looking trout. It was grayish-blue along the back and upper sides, with brook-trout spots and white on the leading edges of its fins beneath. I held it for a moment and slid it back into the water.”

Brook trout are plentiful in that same pond and much easier to catch because they lurk in the top 30 feet of water most of the time. Not so with bluebacks, which hunker deep, stay below 30 feet and are thus very difficult to catch.

I suspect some online images of blueback trout are misleading and unreliable. These photos look remarkably similar to the small Eastern brook trout I well know after catching them from boyhood into adulthood. In fact, if indeed every online photo of fish labeled as a blueback is what it claims it is, then bluebacks and brookies are virtually the same fish; however, I think some of the fish identified as bluebacks are not what they say they are. They are instead misidentified Eastern brook trout that can be found right here in the valley.

Arctic char are coldwater fish that live within and along the margins of the Arctic Circle. Thus their New England descendants do not do well in shallow lakes, where they cannot find cold enough summer depths in which to survive. This deep option would definitely have been available at Lake Willoughby in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, with depths plummeting more than 300 feet. The same could be said of Lake Champlain to the west, 100 feet deeper, but it appears that lake trout are also native there, which would probably have left the smaller bluebacks vulnerable to their large predatory cousins and reduced to a short-lived population of bait-fish.

If so, why then did these landlocked char thrive so long in the Rangeley Lakes and New Hampshire’s Lake Sunapee? Did these bodies of water have no native lake trout or landlocked salmon? Can anyone say for sure? Like many questions Mother Nature can fling your foggy way, we may never know the answers.

In online United States Geological Survey records documenting 73 sites where blueback and Sunapee trout have been reported since the 19th century, 64 come out of Maine, seven come from (stocked) Idaho, with one each from Vermont and Massachusetts. The Vermont and Massachusetts bluebacks were both reported in 1896, with no sites identified. The descriptor in the “status” column for both reads “failed.” So who knows the story there? Around that time, several state blueback or Sunapee stocking initiatives were launched, including here in Massachusetts; they all failed.

That said, a man with a little determination and a lot of energy and angling expertise can still find bluebacks and catch them if he wants to travel to the North Woods, the land of dense black-fly swarms that can drive a man loco after the ice goes out in May.

Archaeology Conference A Feather In Eaglebrook’s Cap

Arctic char in our prehistoric Connecticut Valley?

Yes indeed, if you read the hidden information contained in ancient sediments (or varves) left behind by glacial Lake Hitchcock, which filled from south to north as the Wisconsin Glacier receded over approximately 4,000 years — beginning some 18,000 years ago. At its peak, the lake of various widths and depths filled our Connecticut Valley from Rocky Hill, Conn., to St. Johnsbury, Vt., covering more than 200 miles and dammed by some “natural” obstruction, be it ice floes, large stones, vegetation, all of the above or — dare I? — maybe even the unnatural handiwork of ancient giant beavers of our Pocumtuck Range’s “Beaver Myth” fame. Back then, the late-Pleistocene rodents were the size of today’s black bears. So who’s to say these gargantuan beavers didn’t at some point make some contribution to the obstruction holding Lake Hitchcock back? Hmmmmm? Who knew or would have guessed it could have actually been Beaver Pond Hitchcock that finally breached around 14,000 years ago, eventually leaving us with a terraced Connecticut Valley of river cuts, oxbows, marsh  and fertile cropland?

But let’s not wander off to never-never land. Too many questions. Not enough answers. But oh-so ripe for tasty discussion, speculation, hypotheses … and the lively, meandering ebb and flow of intellectual sparring.

The intriguing mention of Arctic char in glacial Lake Hitchcock’s archaeological record was introduced Saturday at Eaglebrook School in Deerfield by Stuart Fiedel, senior archaeologist for the prestigious Louis Berger Group. The final presenter, Fiedel was one of many fascinating scholar-lecturers at Saturday’s cutting-edge archaeology conference — “Glacial Lake Hitchcock and its Primal Inhabitants” — sponsored by the Western Chapter of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society at the posh pre-prep school. The all-day, comprehensive conference began with keynote speaker Richard Little, the ubiquitous emeritus Greenfield Community College  professor who spoke about his trademark “Geology of the Connecticut Valley.” Then came ancient-stone analyst Barbara Calogero’s “Lithic Resources During Early Prehistory,” followed by three informative presentations by Western Chapter President Richard M. Gramly, who spoke on “The Palaeo-American Cultural Sequence in New England,” “What a Single Discovery of a Pelaeo-American Artifact Might Mean,” and “The Bowser Road (Middletown, N.Y.) Mastadon Site and its Implications for the Lake Hitchcock Region.”

After an absolutely delicious lunch on Eaglebrook — one that included smoked duck and homemade, native strawberry shortcake among many other sumptuous, healthy entrees — the program resumed with Deerfield’s Peter Thomas’ insightful “Riverside Archaeological District and the Valley’s Geomorphology Following Lake Hitchcock Drainage,” followed by Ashfield’s Lester Garvin’s “Mapping Lake Hitchcock” and Fiedel’s “Potential Utility of Lake Hitchcock Data for Identifying Cultural Resources.”

It was one fascinating discussion about  our valley’s deep history after another, with many new avenues of discussion and debate opened up along the way. The conference attracted more than 100 attendees. Who could have asked for or dreamed of a more dynamic day of archaeological discussion, the likes of which may have never previously touched down in Franklin County?

As for the prehistoric Arctic char population, well it  left behind 15,000-year-old fin marks in the Lake Hitchcock varves explored by researchers from Tufts University and elsewhere during this new millennium. Add those archaeological ancient-fish fossils to traces of sculpin, bullhead and lake and blueback trout that were also discovered, and it provides a native-fish profile of what would have been here for the earliest people of  our valley, potentially extending back to pre-Clovis days before Lake Hitchcock drained. In fact, that was the question Fiedel posed before launching into his mop-up  presentation at around 3 p.m. “Were there people here before the lake drained?” was his question. When he ended a nearly hour-long PowerPoint presentation by returning to that thought-provoking query, his answer was, “Probably yes,” which may well have riled a few of the more conservative experts in attendance.

Intriguing questions of origin do indeed arise from this recent discovery of Arctic char in our deep-history profile. Remember, when these fish were here, we were on the arctic edge as are today’s Arctic char residing in our northern climes along the Arctic Circle. Did these fish follow the slow glacial melt north? Did they come from afar and circle in from the oceans? Did most of the char migrate north with the receding glacier while others took residence to eventually evolved into Eastern brook trout, our native trout and a member of the char family so ravaged and threatened today by toxic acid rain falling through industrial air pollution that drifts across the Northeastern skies from the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes Region? Arctic char are known in different vernaculars as blueback trout, and the native brookies I’m familiar with do have a distinctive steel-blue back and sides? Perhaps they inherited this hue from ancient char. Who knows? I’ll dig a little deeper and see what I can find.

The answers to the all of the above questions will likely by answered by exciting new research. Hopefully such findings will be presented at annual or semi-annual Eaglebrook conferences, which could become the place for answers as well as exciting new questions for future exploration.

The consensus of attendees questioned in the days following Saturday’s maiden voyage was that the Eaglebrook event was a home run. We can only hope it was just the first of many, an event that could in the future become a tough ticket to come by, and a feather in Eaglebrook’s cap.

Ali, Columbus Revisited; Fish-Run Update

Scurrying to meet a last-minute, early-deadline mandate necessitated by printing-press issues, the desk phone rang at 3 p.m.

It was Tobias Houpe, son of late, great Columbus, Ohio, Police Athletic League boxing coach Roy Houpe, Cassius Clay’s 1959 AAU and Pan-Am Games teammate who groomed young boxers at the long-ago bulldozed inner-city  gym on the corner of Mt. Vernon and 22nd.

Pressed for time but wanting to at least confirm a few details dredged from foggy, 41-year-old memories, I took the call, disciplined myself to keep it short and discovered that the 55-year-old man had probably attended the 1975, pre-Christmas, 10- or 12-bout fight card we had promoted to raise money for the Columbus PAL. The main event pitted  light-heavyweight contender “Dynamite” Billy Douglas from Columbus versus Miami up-and-comer Lee Royster in a scheduled 10-rounder. As it turns out, Douglas was the father of  Buster Douglas, who in 1990 shocked the world with a 10th-round knockout of presumably unbeatable world heavyweight champion Mike Tyson.

What salient memories do I retain from that six-week phone  deal, pitching ads for the fight program book from an office inside the PAL building? Well, I remember the impoverished, African-American neighborhood. I remember the nearby luncheonette where every day, at Roy Houpe’s recommendation, we ate absolutely delicious skillet-fried chicken or  perch (the only two lunch choices) with all the fixins’ and a large glass of milk for under five bucks. I remember the windowless bar farther down the street where we had a drink or two and shot eight-ball partners against neighborhood sharps. I also remember separating the most promising sales leads into a special stack reserved for afternoon calls, when the young boys arrived after school to work out, the background noise of young voices, banging  speed bags and jumping rope working as great sound effects for a sales pitch that  included some form of “Keep ’em in sports and out of courts.” And how could I ever forget our gregarious, Fu-Manchu-ed, 400-some-pound promoter imploring, “If you want to live in style, spin the dial.”? What a hoot, these vivid, distant memories.

Oh yeah. One more digression, another  unforgettable recollection. How could I not tell of the wild city-wide victory celebration in which my friend and I participated after Ohio State staged what legendary Buckeye football coach Woody Hayes called, “Probably our greatest comeback” after beating Michigan, 21-14, with two improbable fourth-quarter TDs? When the downtown bar scene started to get out of hand after dark, mounted police appeared on High Street  to announce through megaphones a strict 11 p.m. curfew: “No exceptions. Everyone off the street by 11.”

Well, my friend and I  retired to our second-floor efficiency apartment just under the gun and watched through the window as a thinning, unruly crowd remained boisterous after curfew. The mounted police, long riot sticks in hand, went into action and did quite a number on anyone they could get their hands on. We watched in horror from a birds-eye perch and could even  hear the crunch of night sticks on human flesh and bones below. Occurring not too long after memorable Kent State in another Ohio college town, it left an indelible mark on a Happy Valley lad who had grown up in a two-cop town, one by day, another by night.

But, back to Tobias Houpe, who  called from his car by cell phone. He was scurrying around before departing for Louisville, Ky., where he would attend Ali’s Friday funeral as an old friend, and cover it for his newspaper employer, the Columbus Post. Tobias said that before his dad’s sudden Dec. 27, 1987 death, Ali used to stop to visit the family of his amateur flyweight (125 pounds) teammate whenever he passed through Columbus.

“They were friends from Golden Gloves and AAU days, not to mention national amateur champs and Pan-Am Games teammates in 1959,” he said. “Ali would stop at the house and take my father out to eat. He even sparred with us kids, just horsing around, but I’ll never forget it.”

When I shared with him his father’s awestruck praise of Ali for being “a boy beating men,” it sounded like he had heard the same gushing words many, many times himself. Exactly what those  gasping words of praise referred to is unclear, but it seems to me that he was speaking of the Pan-Am Games, where young  Clay would have fought older Latin American boxers as a 17-year-old light heavyweight. But, without doubt, the former teammate’s praise could have spilled over into the first years  of Ali’s pro heavyweight career. Clay’s first two pro fights occurred before his 19th birthday. Then he posted eight wins as a 19-year-old and six more at 20. For his first title fight on Feb. 25, 1964 in Miami against Sonny Liston, 29, Clay had just turned 22, entering the bout with a 19-0 record as a 7 to 1 underdog. He won that fight by seventh-round knockout and beat “The Bear” again 15 months later with a first-round KO in Lewiston, Maine.

Ali’s title was stripped in 1967 after beating Zora Folley to increase his unbeaten record to 29-0. Then, after a 3½-year banishment that slowed him down and allowed ring rust to accumulate, he returned to beat Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena, entering  his “Fight of the Century” versus champion Joe Frazier on March 8, 1971 at Madison Square Garden with a 31-0 record. He suffered his first loss in that hallowed New York venue by tight decision in a fight that placed the winner, Smokin’ Joe Frazier, in the hospital for three weeks.

I can’t remember the name of the trainer or expert who uttered these words, but no truer words could have been spoken in  assessment of “The Greatest” in his prime: “The only man who could’ve beaten Muhammad Ali was Cassius Clay.”

He floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee.

———————
The annual spring Connecticut River Valley anadromous fish run is slowing to a stop, with water temperatures fluctuating between 68 and 74 degrees Fahrenheit for the past two weeks, so this year’s American shad run through Holyoke will likely not reach last year’s total of 412, 656.

Nonetheless, with shad still trickling in and 379,929 having passed Holyoke through Tuesday, 400,000 may not be likely but ain’t impossible, either. The river has basically reached the optimal spawning temperature, when upstream movement slows to a crawl before coming to a halt. When fish stop instinctually traveling upstream, the females will establish stationary spawning lairs, where they deposit eggs to be visited and fertilized by males. The progeny will starting hatching after two weeks and populate the river as juveniles next month. Those that escape foraging predators and grow to sufficient juvenile size to travel downstream will head for the Atlantic ocean this fall and return to spawn as mature adults in the 3- to 6-year-old range, with a few precocious 2-year-olds following. Most but not all shad die after their upstream spawning runs.

Not much has changed pertaining to a spotty fish-passage riddle through Turners Falls. Despite three connected passageways that eventually funnel all migratory fish over the Spillway Fish Ladder and past public viewing windows toward the shad run’s historic terminus at Bellows Falls, Vt., the network has proven inefficient over its nearly 40-year history. The fish count there does not seem to be a high-priority this year for some reason. The report from Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle shows that, through May 27, only 24,595 shad had been counted passing Turners Falls. Meanwhile, the count through Vernon, Vt., larger at 25,104. Remember, no fish that pass Vernon can do so without first passing Turners Falls.

Hmmmmm?

Why can’t they seem to get things sorted out in the Powertown? The migration figures through there have been curiously low ever since the fish passageways were opened in 1980. The obvious question is, why go to the time, effort and expense to build fish ladders if they can’t be maintained to optimal efficiency? It’s puzzling, and has been since day one.

On the salmon front, a total of five Atlantic salmon have been counted in the river system this year. Two of those fish went up the Westfield River. Three others were transported over the Holyoke Dam by the Barrett Fish Lift. All five of the fish were briefly captured, tagged and released to be tracked while spawning naturally in the river system. The annual salmon numbers have been in steady decline since the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service pulled the plug on its restoration project in July 2012. Since then, the number of returns from 2013 through 2015 have been 92, 32 and 22, in that order. This year’s incomplete total of three could grow slightly. Atlantic salmon spawn in the fall and can enter their destination river until August and September.

Neither of the two salmon to pass Holyoke have gotten past Turners Falls. They could be hanging out in virtually any tributary between Holyoke and the Powertown.

Muhammad Ali Blast From The Past

Where do you begin a story like this, one that unfolded 41 years ago, faraway, a generation before many folks who’ll read it were born?

I suppose the best place to start is with “The Thrilla in Manila,” which I watched with friends and colleagues on a closed-circuit broadcast in an old Wilmington, Del., theater not unlike the Garden, the Calvin or the old Victoria on Chapman Street? The difference was that the crowds I grew up with in those local theaters were white. Not so in angry Wilmington — still smarting from race riots of the late Sixties — where for the first time in my life, the five of us were the only white folks in a packed house, the male fight crowd leaning heavily in favor of Philadelphia favorite son Joe Frazier over Muhammad Ali, the “Louisville Lip” from the land of Daniel Boone in Kentucky.

We felt confident Ali was going to put away ‘Smokin’ Joe’ early as he dominated the early rounds. But then the tide turned when a fearless, determined Frazier started boring in, attacking Ali on the inside. Throwing caution to the wind, the bullish Philly meat-packing-house brute just kept coming, and hurt Ali with punishing body blows and occasional stiff shots to the head. The pro-Frazier crowd was eating it up and Ali looked vulnerable indeed, maybe even on his last leg and ready to fall by the 12th round. But then “The Greatest” dug into his deepest reservoir of athletic pride and will and rebounded to finish the fight by TKO when Frazier, wobbly and blinded by eyes swollen to slits, could not answer the 15th-round bell.

“What a fight,” friend, teammate, roommate and traveling companion Chip Baye from Northampton and I marveled to each other for weeks, having been there to watch the ebbs and flows. Ali’s fierce competitiveness had once again prevailed under duress in front of that hostile crowd watching in living color on the big screen.

After that epic fight, stunned that he had lost, a bemused Frazier lamented to writers that he had hit Ali with shots that could have brought down the walls of a city but he wouldn’t buckle. He wasn’t exaggerating. Ali himself admitted not far from the showers that he had, down the stretch, been as close to death as a man can get without actually dying.

That fight for the ages was fought on Oct. 1, 1975, and we remained in Delaware for a couple of weeks to complete a deal for the New Castle County Police before heading for Columbus, Ohio. The trip by car took us down the long, steep hill to Wheeling, W. Va., over the bridge, and up the steep hill on the other side as Wheeling disappeared in the rearview. The six-week fundraising gig we were headed to would be our last deal of the year before heading home for Christmas and New Year’s 1976.

Our Columbus mission was to raise money for a floundering Police Athletic League boxing program headquartered at the brick, Mt. Vernon St. gym located in the heart of the ghetto. That gym, torn down for a grocery store at the corner of Mt. Vernon and 22nd Street, stood in an urban neighborhood that had produced two-time Ohio State University Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin, a storied Woody Hayes running back who played but never really made it in the NFL, as well as prizefighter “Dynamite Bill Douglas,” a professional light-heavyweight contender and headliner of the 12-bout card we would promote. The fundraising bouts were scheduled for a couple of days before Christmas at the Ohio State Fairground’s storied Lausche Building, home of many previous fights.

Our temporary boiler-room sales office was set up in a conference room west of the dusty gym, where we had 12 or 14 phones installed on rented tables. As I recall, we entered the gym daily by climbing a flight of outdoor cement stairs to a sturdy door entering the southwest corner of the building. Once inside, we’d walk along the gym’s west wall past the corner office of Columbus Police Sgt. Richard Hoover, who ran the gym and had deep affection for boxing coach Roy Houpe, a man who had risen to boxing glory there through the Golden Gloves program before getting into trouble with the law for a crime of sudden anger involving another man. Word around the gym was that Hoover and others had spoken on behalf of the Columbus boxing legend to spring him from jail so that he could teach Columbus kids from a city’s toughest neighborhood to box.

My friend and I got to know Houpe, his warm brown eyes and welcoming smile, by working in the same space for six weeks, often reaching out to the man to talk and learn some tricks of his trade. He told us where to go for lunch and where to shoot pool, but more than anything else, he loved to talk and teach boxing, imploring us often “to stick around after work. I’ll put you on the program, work you out and have you in the ring before you leave.” Although we never took him up on that offer, we did dabble a little here and there under his tutelage.

Early on, one evening after work, we were pounding away for ha-has at speed bags when Houpe approached to chat. We were talking about boxing and training and jumping rope when I mentioned Muhammad Ali as a hero. That’s when we learned that he knew Ali personally, having traveled the same Golden Gloves circuit as a boy before becoming AAU and Pan-Am Games teammates. In 1959, Houpe and Cassius Clay were national AAU champions at their weight classes. When our conversation turned to the recent Thrilla and the fortitude Ali had displayed to win that landmark fight, Houpe was not the least bit surprised. He had seen Ali fight since he was a boy and said that everyone who had been around him knew he was an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime fighter among elites.

Speaking of the Pan-Am Games competition of 1959, he praised his precocious friend with wide, reverent eyes, saying, “He was a boy beating grown men.” Those warm, soft brown eyes said it all. The man was in awe. The Ali he knew was superhuman. A god. A boxing deity. A legend. But that ability to rise above overwhelming odds to beat opponents the public believed he had no business beating only continued in the professional ring, particularly when Ali twice beat the unmerciful bully Sonny Listen. Especially in that first Clay-Liston bout that earned Ali his first world championship, the man who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee was indeed a boy fighting a dangerous man … and defeating him decisively.

Our discussion then turned to Ali’s title fight against champion George Foreman about a year before the Thrilla. I told Houpe that before the fight I was worried that Ali might get hurt badly. The source of my concern was television footage I had seen of Foreman working out before the fight by hitting a heavy bag held from behind by a 200-plus-pound trainer. Each Foreman blow was lifting the trainer back off his feet and I sensed danger. Then, during that epic “Rumble in the Jungle,” in Zaire, Ali defied logic by laying back on the ropes for seven rounds of “rope-a-dope” punishment from Foreman. Then, having absorbed the pounding and tired Foreman, he came off the ropes and dropped the champion with a flurry of well-placed blows late in the eight round. No one could believe what they had just witnessed. Such a strategy was unimaginable to the pre-fight pundits who gave Ali no chance of beating a younger, bigger, stronger Foreman, a champion who had won the title by pummeling Frazier in a short fight.

“Have you ever hit a heavy bag?” Houpe asked, pointing to one hanging from a metal ceiling frame nearby.

I hadn’t.

“Well, give it a shot,” he challenged, trying to prove a point I didn’t suspect.

I walked to the bag, hit it with a hard uppercut and felt like I may have broken my wrist without moving the bag more than an inch or two. I shook my hand a bit, looked down at it and Houpe smiled, then grunted out a little friendly chuckle.

“You can’t hit a heavy bag like that,” he scolded. “It’s too heavy to hit with your fist. You have to drive your shoulder and body through it or it will hurt you.”

I knew than that the rope-a-dope punishment Ali had endured from Foreman was much more severe than I had imagined, and that was precisely what Houpe wanted me to understand. That’s why he told me to hit the bag. Once again, the Ali legend had grown. I, too, knew than that he was a god, probably the greatest of all American athletes.

And that doesn’t even address Ali’s greatness as a man of the world, a spokesman of a generation — a man who spoke truth to power and was loved even by enemies of America.

There will never be another Muhammad Ali. Had it not been for the government, which stripped him of his title for more than three years of his prime, when he was at the top of his game, he would probably have retired an undefeated champion. He would have as a younger, faster man taken on Frazier and Spinks and Foreman earlier and beaten them decisively.
The man was an American original, in my mind, “The Greatest.”

A Spring, A ‘Fridge, And A Rattlesnake Lair

I think of it as dry, buoyant flotsam, tiny pieces of bark or twigs, maybe dried leaves, slowly circulating around an eddy.

In such a scenario, the floating objects often make the same circle more than once before catching an alternative drift and disappearing downstream to a new eddy that momentarily traps them in a similar swirl, temporarily stalling downstream flow that will eventually, if lucky, find its way to the main artery, the ocean and beyond.

Anyone who’s fished free-flowing streams understands this dynamic and uses it to their advantage when trying to coax a strike from a quick, alert mountain trout, be it dead-drifting live bait or hand-tied artificials. A skilled angler capable of keeping the baited hook off the bottom while continually manipulating it around the same loop is more likely to be successful than an angler lacking sophisticated finesse.

Now, with that streamside imagery in view, let’s jump to the pursuit of historical research and the way people and places and salient issues keep coming back at you like that feathery flotsam circling an eddy and moving on to another, where it will repeat the process. And think of the often-interrupted downstream flow as the tedious journey to a conclusion, if ever you are fortunate enough to arrive at one.

The historical figure who reappeared this week in the continuous flow of information that seems to find its way to me is Deacon Phinehas Field — born 1799 in Northfield, died 1884 in Charlemont. I first bumped into the good deacon when I found him cited in Pressey’s History of Montague as the source of an Indian myth associated with Mt. Toby, then was reintroduced when 19th century Gill historian/landowner Rosewell Field appeared and I tried to genealogically connect the two. From the same bolt of Northfield cloth, it turned out they weren’t as closely related as I assumed.

A contemporary of Deerfield historian George Sheldon and a prolific profiler of local history deep and shallow, Deacon Field swung through my sphere with his “remembrances” recorded from East Charlemont on Aug. 2, 1871 in the earliest volumes of Pioneer Valley Memorial Association’s “History and Proceedings” now under the professional scrutiny of Dr. Peter A. Thomas of South Deerfield. Thomas emailed snippets this week, including an interesting short narrative titled “Rattlesnake’s Den, Northfield,” which he knew would spark my sense-of-place curiosity.

Accompanying Field’s “remembrances” was a friendly professorial challenge from Thomas: “Now I want to see how you slip the account of the rattlesnake den and Indian legend into your column.”

Let’s start with the reference, word for word, as it appears in the “Proceedings”:

RATTLESNAKE’S DEN, NORTHFIELD
On the Gulf Road, half-way up the mountain, is what is known as Cold Spring; on the brow of the steep hill east of this is what is called “Rattlesnake’s Den.” In the olden times, “Uncle Nezer” (my grand father’s brother) was wont to go in late autumn and early spring, on sunny days, to hunt the reptiles — while they were basking in the sun, before they “denned” for the winter, or before they dispersed for the summer. “Uncle Nezer” was a sort of “medicine man” and held the gall and oil of the rattlesnake in high estimation. The den is composed of a number of fissures in the rocks that blow cold in summer, and hot in winter. The current is so strong that a dried leaf is carried off by it, and so warm in winter that no snow can lie un-melted near these openings. My father, on a cold winter day, once while sled ding wood, resorted to this place to warm himself, but the atmosphere soon produced faintness.

Then, immediately following that tale, the indigenous folklore:

INDIAN LEGEND
An evil spirit has his abode deep down in the ground in this place, and these fissures are his breathing holes. Long ago, he foamed and bellowed so, in his deep cavern, that he shook the whole mountain, and large rocks were thrown into the air. This monster has been quiet, so I am informed, since I first knew his dwelling-place.

With those little tidbits in mind, the chase was on. Some local historian, naturalist or hunter from Northfield had to know something about these interesting landmarks, especially the upland spring, likely a water source that’s still important to someone, be it a landowner, hiker or health nut committed to drinking pure water from Mother Earth’s womb.

Well, that speculation bore no fruit. Zero. Zilch. One potential source, a woman named Joanne McGee, was unavailable this week.

“They travel,” said a source who knows Joanne and husband Bill McGee, “and are probably out of town.”

Good news. There’s still hope we can dig up something from Ms. McGee when she becomes available for a thorough brain-picking.

“If you reach her and she wants to take you to the site, I’d like to go with you,” said Northfiield’s Sam Richardson, who had been suggested as a potential source but had never heard of the sparkling spring or vipers’ den.

Likewise, Joel Fowler — another recommended source, history buff and member of the Northfield Historical Commission — knew nothing of either site despite often touring the woods off Gulf Road. The same can be said of Ms. Jessie Wiggan, another devoted hiker, explorer, dog-walker and history buff who’s spent a lifetime in Northfield and has deep roots there, to boot. Nonetheless, despite no personal knowledge, she did offer a tinge of hope.

“I once hiked with Joanne McGee to the Ice Cave up there and she marked the site with her GPS and, I think, she took photos of it,” Wiggan reported. “I think she’s your best bet if you can get through to her.”

Given the apparent geological similarity between the Rattlesnake’s Den and the contemporary Ice Cave, simple deductive reasoning could lead a man to the knee-jerk conclusion that they are the same site. But wait. Not so quick, despite their similar characteristics and proximity. They do indeed both breathe warm air in the winter and cold air in the summer, thus Ice Cave’s early use as a natural refrigerator. According to the “History of the Town of Northfield” by J.H. Temple and Sheldon, both sites are adjacently located on Brush Mountain but are not the same: “Passing up the Gulf Road, one comes to Cold Spring, about 20 rods (some 320 feet) from which is a fissure in the rocks, perhaps 10 feet deep by 4 feet wide, extending into the mountain indefinitely, where ice and snow collect in winter, and are usually found in considerable quantities as late as the fourth of July. A little to the south, and higher up the mountain, is the den. This is a small opening to an internal cave where the reptiles resorted in great multitudes for their winter sleep.”

Later in the same Introduction narrative, Temple and Sheldon echo Field by identifying Brush Mountain as a place of high spirit to the Squakheag tribesmen who called Northfield home before colonial settlers arrived during the last quarter of the 17th century. Their collaborative narrative reads: “They believed that Hobamok, the (same) evil Spirit (associated with the Beaver Myth of Deerfield’s Pocumtuck Range beginning with Mt. Sugarloaf), dwelt inside the mountain, and that the fissures in the rock above Cold Spring, where the snakes dwelt, were the holes through which he sent forth his hot breath and melted the snow. … Partly from dread of the evil Spirit, and partly from the fear of rattlesnakes, the Indians shunned the Gulf, and the adjacent mountain sides.”

Meanwhile, another reliable source, old friend Tom White, a Northfield potter and hunter who’s familiar with the Gulf and beyond but does not know the spring, the ice cave or the rattler’s den, promised to make a few well-placed queries with folks in the know. So that’s another lead that could bear fruit as well.

“You know, that’s where they wanted to build the gas pipeline and compressor,” he said. “You ought to come up here soon and we’ll take a ride up there and look around. I have access to a spot that’s been cleared up there, where you get one of the most spectacular views in the region. On a clear day, you can see Mt. Wachusett, Mt. Monadnock and Mt. Ascutney.”

Could you also see the southern mountains named Sugarloaf, Toby, Warner, Tom and Holyoke? Well, he wasn’t certain but said, “Probably.”.

Stay tuned. Another interesting discovery mission has flowed this way and must be further explored.

Off I go.

Upstream Fish Migration past Turners Falls Pathetic

The query came from Lynn Stowe Tomb of Gill, where, as editor she is leading a dedicated collaborative of local historians and town officials to put the finishing touches on a new, comprehensive book focusing on the history, deep and shallow, of Riverside — that small village butted up against Barton Cove’s tail before the impoundment tumbles over the Turners Falls dam spillway.

One of Tomb’s editorial assistants from the Gill Historical Commission had read something in this space that he found confusing, if not unlikely — heaven forbid, maybe even inaccurate. He queried her and she queried this space by email with: “Is it possible that (last year, according to your column) there were 416,355 shad in the Connecticut River Basin and only 60,000 made it past the Turners Falls dam?”

The knee-jerk answer was, “Absolutely. In fact, last year was a great year at Turners despite the huge drop-off from what had passed Holyoke.”

So, count Ms. Tomb among those who, for good reason, may have trouble comprehending why such a major discrepancy would exist at a relay station designed and built at considerable expense to provide upriver access to migratory fish headed from Holyoke to Bellows Falls, Vt., and beyond. Bellows Falls has forever been the shad-run terminus. But don’t blame Ms. Tomb. Frankly, it makes little sense in the big picture of upstream fish passage for such a correctable inefficiency to exist anywhere in the fish-passage network. But also it’s a dynamic that few members of the general public know, or probably care, about. Hey, it’s only fish, right?

Not that anyone would be shocked to discover power companies may not be totally committed to optimal anadromous fish passage around various dams equipped with different types of fish lifts and ladders. No. Such a realization is pretty much par for the course for public utilities using public resources for private gain and riches. It’s just not a subject that gets a lot of play in the mainstream news. And when it does appear, the most vociferous critics are outspoken environmental crusaders like local gadfly Karl Meyer as well as anonymous recreational anglers who discuss it in coffee-shop conversation or activists addressing small isolated audiences. Pretty much preaching to the choir.

The fact is that, entering this year, the average annual number of migrating shad passed at Holyoke that make it past Turners Falls since 1976 is less than five percent despite consecutive “great years” by historic standards in 2014 and 2015. Yes, during the past two shad runs, the percentage of shad to make it past Turners Falls jumped to an almost unimaginable 10.8, then, even better, an all-time best 14.1.

Could this recent spike have anything to do with the fact that five dams from Turners Falls to Bethel, Vt., are currently under the public microscope during the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) relicensing processes? Or could that be just another coincidence?

Hmmmm?

No matter how you frame it, anadromous-fish passage past Turners Falls has been pathetic at best, even during the best years. Last year was the second-best year ever. Tops was 60,089 the 1992, when 721,764 passed Holyoke. Do the math. That all-time record year shows a paltry 8.3 percent of the fish passing Holyoke made it past Turners Falls. Definitely nothing to boast about. In fact, whoever’s responsible should hide their heads in failure.

And, oh yeah, don’t hold your breath waiting for the annual percentages to improve dramatically and permanently anytime soon, FERC relicensing or no FERC relicensing. This year, despite assurances last week that he’d finally have passage number at Turners Falls by this past weekend, no word that they have indeed appeared for Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle’s perusal.

Must be the same old song … or worse.

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No Wednesday anadromous-fish report from the Connecticut River Coordinator’s office but, through Monday, with no river temperatures reported (but they must be into the 60s Fahrenheit by now), a total of 287,265 American shad had been counted in the river basin, the lion’s share (283,872) of them counted at Holyoke.

Thus far, not an Atlantic salmon anywhere. Nope, not a solitary one. Sad. The restoration effort is over, and now perhaps the run is history as well; however, it’s more than likely that occasional wayward travelers are likely to continue finding their way to the Connecticut for many years, maybe even building redds as they did at a site in Connecticut last fall.

As for shad, who knows if this year’s total will rival last year’s of over 400,000? But, remember, shad runs are governed by water temps and rain events that effect them and can thus be erratic, so it’s not unlikely that this year’s run still has a way to go. Heavy rain events decrease water temperature and increase turbulence that necessitates fish-passageway closure on dams for days, thus temporarily delaying runs and pooling migrating fish below dams. When the flow returns, the fish come like gangbusters until the river temperature steadies around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Then they establish spawning territories, mill around in one small space and stop hitting colorful lures offerred by anglers.

Who can forget the spring of 1984, when a Memorial Day Weekend deluge flooded Routes 5 & 10 along Old Deerfield’s North Meadows and provided shad fishing clear through to the end of the fiscal year, June 30? No lie, people were catching shad in the lower Deerfield River and at Rock Dam almost to the Fourth of July holiday, an anomaly for sure, one that has not been repeated since but could reoccur with a flood.

Never say never.

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No word yet on surplus allotments, but Memorial Day Weekend always signals the end of the spring trout-stocking schedule here and throughout the Bay State. MassWildlife hatcheries are now assessing their stock to determine what kind of a bonus they can put out in selected waters next week. Because it’s a rare year when a surplus doesn’t exist, take it to the bank that you’ll be seeing a stocking truck or two on the road next week. Good random reviews from anglers who’ve taken spring trout, included among them my neighbor’s report of a handsome 21-inch brown trout taken while fishing from a canoe with his wife at Cranberry Pond.

It’s Been A Wild Spring Thus Far On Shad Front

An unusual spring it is, a peculiar winter it was in the Happy Valley, where haywire harbingers seem to be the rule.

Take, for instance the lilacs now sweetening local neighborhoods. Do they not typically bloom a little later, when mornings are warm enough to allow the pleasant fragrance to enter homes through screen doors and windows? Not this year, when we must adjust by picking bouquets and placing them in tabletop or countertop vases to introduce that sweet, welcome spring aroma indoors.

But that’s not all which is not quite hunky-dory this spring. How about bridal wreath, whose white flagrant flowers typically appear for Memorial Day and the first week of June? This year, hints of the delicate white blossoms started to appear over the weekend, a couple of weeks earlier than usual, and are now maturing toward their full-bloom splendor.

So what about the annual Connecticut River shad run, which far outproduces the other spring anadromous fish migrations for species such as Atlantic salmon, alewife, blueback herring, striped bass and Atlantic sturgeon? Plus, throw in endangered shortnose sturgeon, which were at one time anadromous but now seem to be landlocked between, say, Springfield and Turners Falls, with preferred ancient spawning grounds around Rock Dam in Montague City. Well, all of these migrators seem to be running strong and a little early. It promises to be a somewhat drawn out run ruled by water temperature that’s still five to 10 degrees below the peak 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit, which may soon arrive and may not. All depends on the weather. Heavy spring rains bring flooding and water-temperature drops, but we have yet to experience an event close to that, which, if this spring is like others, can’t be far away.

Now, mind you, despite the fact that no one’s quite bold enough to call what we’re experiencing this week and late last week the peak — with water temperatures at Thompsonville, Conn., under 60 degrees Wednesday — what appears to be an all-time single-day record shad run of 54,000 through Holyoke did occur last Thursday, a day when Rock Dam anglers were enjoying consistent action fishing the classic migration channel there. Not surprisingly, on that productive day the river temp had climbed to just over 60, peaking Saturday at 61-plus. That slight rise in temperature produced runs of 36,687 on May 11 and 54,006 on May 12, when Holyoke water registered at a low 55 degrees.

“I went through records back to 1976,” wroye Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle, “and could find no single-day run over 50k.”

By this week, with river temps again dipping below 60, the Monday and Tuesday runs through Holyoke were 14,242 and 7,531. If clear sunny days and warm nights stabilize for the rest of this week, expect another surge and, yes, now’s definitely the time to fish Franklin County, where the fish passageways are tardy in reporting numbers. Thus far, not a word about how many shad have passed Turners Falls’ three fish passageways, a fact that seemed to rankle Sprankle some. But he sounded confident that he’ll finally have some numbers by the weekend.

“Having a delay in fish counts is fairly typical for many facilities that do not staff live counting humans,” he wrote Wednesday morning. “That being said, this year the delay in fish counts from Turners Falls as well as Vernon facilities is becoming a noticeable concern to many people.”

He pointed out that for Turners Falls’ fishways, the Federal license contains Article 38, which notes the licensee “shall file with FERC an annual report detailing operation of the facilities, problems in design or operation, and listing the number, by species, of all fish passed upstream.”

So, despite the fact that the license language does not specify timing for counts at Turners Falls, Sprankle says, “it is obvious that fishery managers, anglers and the public have an expectation that fish counts will be timely — in the sense that once thousands of say shad have passed Holyoke, there will be regular updates at Turners and at the next project.” He added that he does intend to address this issue at the June Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission meetings in an effort to better understand what caused the delays, and what the options are to produce timely reports in advance of next year.

Sprankle praised conscientious Greenfield Community College for its role in providing Powertown numbers over the years, writing: “The Vernon fish ladder’s counting operation is the responsibility of Vermont and New Hampshire. This year they decided to contract the review of the digital imaging (files) to Greenfield Community College, which has been doing that task for Turners Falls for many years — and doing a good job. It is of course most imperative that a good job is done and counts are considered accurate — which has always been the case with the GCC crew. In the past, the delay in counts from TF (and Vernon) has not been so protracted as this year.”

Thus far, a total of 232,445 shad have been counted in the river system, the lion’s share (230,626) passing Holyoke. It would seem we’re well on our way to another big year rivaling last year’s total of 416,355 in the river and 412,656 through Holyoke.

Meanwhile, not an Atlantic salmon has yet appeared anywhere in the valley, which seems curious given river conditions that should be about perfect for the king of North Atlantic game fish. On a more encouraging note, a new season record was established Monday when the 17th shortnose sturgeon was hoisted over the Holyoke dam by Barrett Fishlift.

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During a pleasant midday visit to Rock Dam last Thursday with Dr. Peter A. Thomas — an anthropologist/archaeologist/historian/author who has devoted much professional energy and intellectual investment to the Turners Falls area’s indigenous past, not to mention its geology — we had the opportunity to watch what some might view as an uncomfortable relationship between recreational and commercial users of the swift channel overflowing the falls.

With a line of three or four anglers waded out into the river angling for shad, two large blue oval rafts wearing a commercial whitewater company’s name on their sides kept shooting the rapid over and over again, blowing right through the key fishing zone without apparent concern about being inappropriate. The rafters would squirt through the short, “yee-ha,” rapid, swing their vessels into a calm backwater and maneuver them to the base of mid-Rock Dam, where they’d haul the rafts over the rocks and into the impoundment above. There, they’d paddle diagonally upstream 50 or more yards before again riding the current over the swollen falls and repeating the process to their hearts’ content.

To their credit, the anglers never showed a discernible scowl or voiced dissatisfaction with the potentially annoying, obtrusive activity, but at least one observer — yes, one who leans heavily in favor of pure recreational use over commercial use of a public resource for private gain — found the commercial whitewater folks to be, perhaps unwittingly, rude and oblivious to proper etiquette, though not in any way confrontational.

This is not the first time these eyes have been exposed to this type of behavior by whitewater people passing through a place where anglers are working a stream in peace and tranquility. With flyrod in hand, I have witnessed the same thing on the lower Deerfield River between Bardwells Ferry and Stillwater, and on the Catch-and Release area known in the local vernacular as The No-Kill above Hoosac Tunnel. In none of these spots did the whitewater people give any hint that they respected the presence of anglers. In fact, I would call their behavior loud, intrusive, disruptive and maybe even obnoxious — ignoring the possibility that they may be disruptive to others who had established position before they arrived.

It was once again clear to me that commercial whitewater enthusiasts and recreational fishermen are incompatible bedfellows with many opportunities for conflict. Of course, that’s just one man’s opinion that has widespread support among critics, including an unnamed activist who fought hard for trout fishermen on the Deerfield River many moons ago during the contentious FERC relicensing process around 1990.

“They’re using Mother Nature as an amusement park,” he scoffed.

Well stated. Hey, maybe there’s nothing wrong with whitewater activity when the time is right. But when fishermen are already lined up before the rafts and paying customers arrive, maybe they ought to at the very least extend the courtesy to ask if it’s OK or maybe find another place to rollick.