Live & Learn

March is near, the deep-freeze just won’t let leave, and I’m dry-docked, thinking about place — my place and that of my ancestors, the one I chose not to leave and continue to learn about by the day, the month, the year, and when things get really exciting, by the very minute.

It all started as a young South Deerfield lad following frozen Bloody Brook on skates, a human snowplow pushing a shovel from Urkiel’s to Yazwinski’s, building streamside forts and fires, getting into the kind of harmless mischief I hope kids can still find in shadows hidden from adult scrutiny.

Once the snow left, we’d follow the same infamous brook, fishing rods in hand, using treble hooks to foul-hook plump suckers beneath the retaining wall in front of the old Kelleher place, even pulling out a rare little squaretail now and then dunking worms far downstream. Honestly, I can’t believe there are still brookies in that sluggish stream that took its name from crimson wartime mayhem.

When we got older and rode our bikes from one end of town to the other, picking up schoolmates along the way, we started venturing out, following gullies, fence rows and tilled edges east to the base of North Sugarloaf, where, in winter, we packed ski and toboggan trails on Boro’s and Gorey’s hills and spent long, cold, windy days horsing around, no adults invited. Then, when the snow left those hillside playgrounds, we found the Indian trail our folks told us led to the peak, a steep footpath on which we sidestepped occasional ugly vipers coiled along the climb to the high, lonesome shelf cave. Once we reached that lofty, secluded perch looking down upon the village, we felt free as mountaintop eagles waiting to set sail and soar over the valley whenever they felt like it.

As we grew bolder, we’d wander deeper off the trail into unfamiliar woods down the east slope of the ridge to see what we could find, often realizing too late that we were far away from familiar ground and must find our way back. But find it we did, no Boy Scout leader or preacher’s deputy necessary. It taught us all that we could process crises on our own, find our way home from the foggiest upland swamps and tangles by calmly assessing the predicament, reviewing the options and devising a plan. We always found a way out, which built innate confidence that we could solve our own problems without crying for help.

When I was a boy, this is what we thought we were supposed to do, having sat through nightly bedtime reading sessions with our mom going a chapter a night through “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn” or maybe “Drums Along the Mohawk” or “Boy Captive” tales. These oral-reading sessions endured until our heavy eyelids dropped shut, opening up a fanciful dream world. And now, here I sit, writing for the local newspaper, still trying to piece it all together in this place I call home, anxiously awaiting the day when I can share the whole story, the one preferred by sophisticated readers, bored with cream of wheat. It’s like the difference between childhood tales you’d tell a Cub Scout troop and the ones you’d share with your trusted friends and lovers. It’s no secret that the difference is significant, so much more spirit and meaning in the latter, yet still, always the danger of ruffling bright, tidy plumage, if you get the gist. What can I say? I’m a feather-ruffler from way back, and it’s way too late to change now. For what? Ecumenical-council praise or maybe an award from some fraternal order of windbags, bluffers and hypocrites? No. Not for me. It’s meaningless.

Running thin on space and trying not to curdle my slow-simmering stew — always steaming and gently bubbling in some deep, dark chamber of my soul — let me close this narrative with a new local legend I stumbled across quite by accident while reviewing a version of Sugarloaf’s indigenous beaver myth I had seen and forgotten in E.P. Pressey’s “History of Montague.” Brought to my attention by a friend assembling an exciting archaeological display in a sparkling new town-hall cherry cabinet, I read and evaluated it as OK before noticing another tale below associated with Mt. Toby, the higher peak to the east now capped by a fire tower, the expansive range straddling Sunderland, Leverett and Montague t’other side the river, as they used to say with a New England twang in this neck of the woods.

Titled “The Demon Wittum,” it’s a deep-history yarn from this splendid slice of the Pioneer Valley, involving the same indigenous transformer spirit Hobomock, a benevolent behemoth of Algonquian lore said to have bludgeoned the beaver that died submerged in Lake Hitchcock before appearing in the drained valley as Mt. Sugarloaf, North Sugarloaf and East Mountain or Pocumtuck Ridge. The question is, why did I happen upon such a relevant topic while reading about European spelunking for Paleo art? Could it be a random coincidence that in the process of studying cave art I happened upon the tale of a man-eating Mt. Toby cave-dweller? No! I don’t believe in coincidence. I think things happen for a reason, this just another example.

Pressey’s source is Deacon Phineas Field of Charlemont, a 19th century character who seemed well versed in upper-valley Indian history. So it was he who recounted for the author the ancient tale of Hobomock taking it upon himself to rid the valley of a problematic demon named Wittum. After flushing this dangerous villain from a deep, dark cave hideout high on the eastern face of Toby and chasing him through treacherous cliffside terrain to the peak, the evil spirit leaped for the river below and Hobomock followed, clubbing his fleeing foe to a bloody death. It is said that Wittum’s carcass fell to earth in a Sunderland meadow and vanished, leaving only an eternal bare spot for posterity.

So now it looks like I’ve got some exploring to do when Old Man Winter finally decides to release his white-knuckled grip on Franklin County. Yes, come joyous, inspiring spring, with the snow gone and the upland footing solid, I’ll be there to chase the legend of Wittum, probing caves, finding that “secret glen in the fastnesses of the mountain,” and hunting that bare spot in a riverside Sunderland meadow.

I do have an idea where that bare spot lies. Native elders claim that when you get to know your place well enough, even white men, the land speaks to you.

Call me crazy, but I follow the whistles and whispers of the wind sliding through trees and ledge and upland bogs. It pays to listen carefully because they deliver.

The Key Factor

Isn’t it refreshing to discover that indeed an old dog can learn new tricks?

I rode just such an updraft earlier this week while reading with interest a fascinating R. Dale Guthrie book titled “The Nature of Paleolithic Art” — cutting-edge analysis of deep-history art forms, such as but not limited to cave drawings and decorative, symbolic carvings on bone and stone tools and weapons, all told through the insightful lens of a North American artist/naturalist/anthropologist/archaeologist.

The subject was a large-mammal rule of thumb I am quite familiar with and have often written about pertaining to species like deer or mountain lions growing larger in colder latitudes. I must admit I never studied the formula dynamics but was told and had read that the reason for this was related to a need for a larger body mass to survive harsher climates. It’s no secret among hunters that a trophy Pennsylvania whitetail buck sporting eight-point antlers typically weighs in the 120- to 160-pound range while similar deer in Maine tip the scales 100 pounds heavier. So it just made sense to me and raised no red flags when I was told that deer grew larger in climates where survival is more challenging.

Although I still factor in that assessment, Guthrie introduced a new twist relating to size of European deer in Spain and northern Scandinavia climates. Acknowledging that “underlying pressures for biogeographic variations are such things as climate, terrain, population density and diet,” he identified a botanical factor that’s more important in the production of larger bodied and antlered deer in northern than southern Europe, explaining:

“One explanation for this biogeographic size gradient is that plants mature rapidly and more or less at the same time in warm climates. This means that young vegetation, which has the highest levels of nutrients, is actually available for a shorter time in Spain than in Sweden. This may seem paradoxical at first, but the levels particularly of protein and other critical growth nutrients are highest in immature plants. Although there may be several fewer months in which green forage is available at high latitudes, if animals in those regions can find six to eight weeks worth of high-protein young plants, they can grow larger than southern counterparts who may have only three weeks of such high-nutrient foraging. Protein and other critical growth nutrients are key here – not simply caloric intake.”

So there you have it: the rest of the story, articulating the salient reason why big Maine whitetails average out much larger than large North Carolina bucks.

A thoughtful friend reaching back to my grade-school daze rescued an old, folded, wrinkled Greenfield map from a library Dumpster believing I’d be interested, and he presented it to me at work one night last week. I was tickled to get it, one of 1,900 copies printed in 1953 — 1,750 sold to the public — produced for Greenfield’s bicentennial celebration. That year also happens to be the year I was born in Greenfield, which gave the map personal meaning.

Anyway, the rolled map had lain on a cluttered, winter kitchen table for a couple of days when, on a cold, snowy-day whim, I thought, “Gee, I bet there’s nobody at Staple’s right about now. Maybe I ought to run down there to see what the rehabilitation options are.”

Well, my instinct was good — not a customer at the copy center, had the place to myself. My options were limited: lamination ($6) or laminated to a board ($21). I chose the second option and declined on the black-and-white PDF. Had the technology been capable of reproducing the red color elements, I would have gone for the PDF, too.

Well, I couldn’t believe the results: crisp, clean and sharp, no trace of a fold or wrinkle, preserved and protected for posterity.

There was just one little problem, though, one that’s oh so typical and annoying about local history and careless local historians. A line of red dashes identifies the route of Deerfield’s 1704 captives being led north on foot to Canada by their French and Indian captors. The problem was that the route depicted did not agree with Thompson’s History of Greenfield as to the site of the first overnight camp in the Meadows. Or did it?

I seemed to recall Thompson placing the campsite at the confluence of my backyard Hinsdale Brook with Punch Brook, perhaps 300 yards downstream. The map placed the first encampment a mile or so south of me, at the base of Greenfield Mountain behind Butynski Farm in the Lower Meadows.

Well, I went immediately to my library and dug out Thompson to refresh my memory. On Page 90, he writes, “Until recently, the place of their encampment upon the night of the fatal day has been supposed to be in the swamp just west of the old Nims (now Butynski) farm. But later the discovery of an ancient broad ax (believed to be a portion of the Deerfield plunder) at the former junction of Hinsdale and Punch brooks makes it seem more probable that the first camp was made about in the middle of the (Upper) Meadows of Greenfield.”

Hmmmmmmm?

I guess whoever had final say on that 1953 map wasn’t buying the broad-ax hypothesis. I tend to agree. It’s weak.

Oh yeah, maybe now I can get back to that book I briefly mentioned last week about our extinct passenger pigeon, read with interest over my December vacation.

“The Passenger Pigeon,” by Erroll Fuller (Princeton University Press, 2015), tells a poignant, wasteful, gluttonous and maybe even horrifying tale Americans should be ashamed of. This handsomely illustrated book is worth the cost ($29.95) simply as a coffee-table display piece, fun to just page through for the many colorful artists’ renderings, including some by John James Audubon himself.

There has been a run of passenger pigeon volumes in recent years to commemorate the historic passing of Martha, our last passenger pigeon that died confined in a sorry cage in 1914. It was thus the 100th anniversary of her death last year.

Isn’t it interesting how European interlopers destroyed an asset utilized for millennia by North America’s first people as a valuable source of food and rich airborne fertilizer deposited on the Earth Mother by flocks so dense and deep that they were known to block a bright midday sun for hours. Wanton, irresponsible slaughter took care of that by the turn of the 20th century, when the proud native bird was relegated to zoos, cages and museum taxidermy … similar to the likes of full-feathered Sitting Bull traveling with Buffalo Bill or Barnum & Bailey or some other traveling freak show.

We all know the pathetic disclaimer plea: “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do;” and continue to do with a greedy Occidental grin.

Snowed In

More than a month, now, sleeping in a La-Z-Boy recliner, and the winter doldrums have set in. I’ll get through it. Always have. So why dwell on it?
Which brings me to an interesting development brought by unexpected visitors. They left their tracks overnight Tuesday along the wide path my snowblower cleared to the backyard kennel and beyond, along frozen, snow-covered Hinsdale Brook’s elevated southern bank.

And to think I was committed to writing about extinct passenger pigeons and a beautifully illustrated Princeton University Press book I had read over vacation about the native bird whose massive, migrating flocks used to block out the sun for hours. But no, out of the clear, blue, sunny, Wednesday-morning sky, there they were to greet me: deer tracks, where the walking was easy and predator-free, smack-dab in my backyard between barn and cook-shed.

Just Tuesday afternoon I had noticed trails suggesting deer through the narrow line of trees on the opposite stream bank. Then, sure enough, confirmation appeared next morning on my side. I must be stuck in a holding pattern. Upon sitting down last week for this weekly chore, I had intended to write about deer. Then a wayward whim pushed me elsewhere. Now, just like that, again totally spontaneous, back to deer. Why not? The subject’s timely.

Anyway, what I had wanted to say last week was that I think it’s been a tough winter for deer, which are now entering their weakest, most vulnerable annual stage. I read that message loud and clear when, suddenly, following the storm that left our landscape dangerously icy more than a month ago, I hadn’t cut a deer track anywhere on my daily lowland travels. Before that storm, the deer sign was consistent; after it, gonzo. Spooked by the glare ice that swept me off my feet and cracked my right rib cage, and which can, with one unfortunate step, splay a deer helplessly out on its belly, the hoofed creatures knew it and took precautions.

Just like that, they disappeared from the flatlands, were out of Dodge, so to speak — not only due to treacherous walking, but also because they could no longer paw through the surface to eat grasses or nuts or low-clinging, leafy plants they dig for winter food. My guess was that they had fled to freshly logged terrain where they could devour tender, nutritious browse without having to work too hard or travel far. Either that or they had crossed the Green River and joined scores of deer in an impressive deer yard that accumulates annually above the Webb Farm on Leyden Road. If you have never been there to witness it in March when they’re breaking up and heading home, you ought to take a ride now that the covered bridge has reopened.

It was my kids who first alerted me to the late-winter herds of deer on and off the road there. Several times they entered the house excited and demanded I accompany them back to the site they had just passed. I heeded their call and was quite impressed, if not shocked, having never seen anything quite like it. In fact, I was so curious about the phenomenon that I reached out to a deer-biologist friend of mine for an explanation. Although unfamiliar with the site itself, the man understood precisely what I was describing. He informed me that such deer yards on selected southern exposures warmed by the sun and rich in winter foods annually attract deer from 20 and 30 miles away, maybe more. Then when spring breaks and the days lengthen, the yards break up and the deer return to their home ranges.

The three deer that used my backyard as overnight refuge Tuesday were not likely members of that bulging yard no more than two miles east of my place. No, these deer probably winter on the steep southern exposure just up the hill from me, feeding on whatever they can find in a given year, with browse, wild apples and residential evergreen landscaping bushes available in the neighborhood. My nighttime guests nipped at my blueberry bushes and raspberry canes and those of my abutting neighbor, and also appeared to sample buds on the same neighbor’s pruned dwarf fruit trees. They also took quince fruit from two bushes in my yard.

I find it interesting that just Tuesday afternoon I had a telephone conversation with a friend and neighbor who said that, judging from the backyard tracks behind his place, deer had probably checked out his neighbor’s Brussles sprouts — never tastier than when harvested during a winter thaw. Pungent indeed, the deer must have been attracted to the strong cabbage-like smell buried hard and deep. I doubt that they were able to mine the vegetables in this cold, but I’d bet they’ll be back when the earth thaws. They don’t forget such things.
Plus, I do expect I’ll soon see more sign of these deer, if not the deer themselves. They’ve ventured into their desperate winter feeding mode and will likely again be competing with Lily and Chubby for the quince fruit. Rock-hard in the fall, quince fruit softens by late winter, when my dogs eat it with glee.

Oooopps. Gotta go. Six plump bluebirds are feeding in the burning bush right out the window. They usually follow snowstorms into my yard, flittering from the wild-rose bush, to the burning bush to the row of mock orange for berries and seeds. Unlike deer, songbirds are not safe in my yard. In the past few weeks I have seen a sharp-shinned hawk and a barred owl snag birds in broad daylight within spitting distance of my inset porch. My wife even got a photo of that owl sitting on a low branch of the aging front-yard sugar maple a few days later and posted it on Facebook to much acclaim. I hate but accept it when nature’s mayhem occurs in my face, but it’s not nearly as bad or wasteful as what we did to the passenger pigeons I had intended to discuss today.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll get to that topic next week. Well, unless something better tickles my fickle fancy.

Devil’s Dance

Here I sit, dry-docked, sparse snow waltzing through gray peaceful sky peering down. The dogs are disappointed, our daily walks temporarily on hold because of deep snow and a base too icy to get even a four-wheel drive with aggressive tires off-road to park.

I’ve heard more analysis than I can take about “Butler’s Pick” that brought another Super Bowl to New England. Live with it, haters, and focus on what matters — that MVP Tom Brady, harried throughout by a spirited pass rush that even he has wilted under in the past, scraped himself off the turf, stood tall and delivered tactical strikes under the perilous pressure of a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit. To me, that was the story, one reminiscent of Ali’s greatest moments: first, when he rallied to stop Frazier down the stretch in the “Thrilla in Manila,” then when he took to the offensive after a masochistic rope-a-dope ploy that stunned the world and worked to perfection against bigger, younger, power-punching world champion George Foreman, a man packing as heavy a wallop as any boxer before or since, yet he could not break Muhammad’s will to win. Well, Brady stepped into that rarified realm in my mind with his fourth-quarter rally for the ages Sunday, joining the best of my lifetime: Bill Russell, Bobby Orr, Jim Brown and Sandy Koufax. Others were close, but challenged to select one man for one game in their sports, that’s my four.

Which, woe is me, brings us to an entirely different subject, one I revisited during idle time early Wednesday morning. The thought process began with the vivid image of a recent parlor fire popping, crackling and hissing, orange embers glowing, flames dancing up the back brick wall and out of sight through the wide Rumford fireplace’s throat. I was hosting accomplished, interesting overnight guests with whom I was eager to sit and chat, no matter where the convivial conversation rambled. The fireplace-cooked menu included savory New York Strip steaks, spicy fried peppers, onions, elephant garlic and mushrooms, and oven-baked Idaho russets. Waiting in the cool butler’s pantry off the dining room were two bottles of Chianti, six or eight local porters, and even a fancy decanter of Wild Turkey’s finest, holiday-issue Rare Breed, a smooth, potent, proven conversation elixir. It proved to be a good mix, just what the doctor ordered, and it just so happened we had a scientist with that academic title in the house.

My friends, both recreational hunters and anglers at various times in their lives, now hunt with shovels and trowels and five-gallon bucketsful of Mother Earth dumped and worked through quarter- and eighth-inch, wire-mesh screens standing on four, four-feet high legs. These homemade contraptions sift the fine soils through, leaving exposed long-buried clues of forgotten history, known today in the most sophisticated circles as “deep history” related to “deep ecology,” which we’ll return to later. Anyway, our relaxed discussion began with a meeting we had just attended, then spun toward my guests’ recent ventures and future endeavors before, out of the black night sky like a sudden bolt of lightning, came a quick transition to a new subject I was eager to explore. The question was: What is a newspaper outdoors column, and how far can it stray from the tired old hook-and-bullet yarns that raise the ire of no one except the occasional vegan, anti-hunter or gun-control advocate?

“When I think of great American outdoor writers,” offered the academic doc who spent much of his adult life in northern New England, “I can’t say Gadabout Gaddis or Bish Bishop come immediately to mind. No, in fact, I first think of Thoreau and Emerson and John Muir, later Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, today Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry and Gary Nabhan. Even (former Boston Globe columnists) Monty Montgomery and Tony Chamberlain were a cut above because they ventured into nature issues, maybe pollution or global warming, that drew a wide audience of non-hunter/fishermen.”

Interesting indeed, and right in my wheelhouse. My scholarly pal had just praised thinkers who fit into the “deep-ecology/deep-history” genre — people spiritually closer to primitive hunter/gatherers, Native Americans and Far Eastern worldview than that of Occidentals, that is Christians who laid the foundation for destructive, capitalistic, corporate/industrial Western Civilization. One school views mankind as just one component of nature that’s no better or worse than plants and animals and insects and reptiles and rocks and rills and watersheds; the other views man as a superior being placed on earth to exploit nature for pleasure and profit. It was that Occidental perspective that by the 1960s had polluted our rivers, killed our Great Lakes and produced toxic air to breathe. Of course, there are still those who wish nothing had changed, that they could still for the sake of private gain work in an unregulated environment that destroys many precious resources we need to survive. Although I myself cannot get my head around that greedy, selfish school of thought, I suppose at the core of it is the belief that someone else will have to deal with it, and when they do, our advanced technology will allow us to unravel the mess. Good luck, dreamers.

That reminds me of a promotional morning email from Amazon.com, providing a list of books about Manchester, N.H.’s, Amoskeag Falls. Desiring to learn about the rich indigenous past of this prolific, ancient, native, Merrimack River fishing station, I found UMass anthropologist Dena Dincauze’s monograph on the Neville Site and ordered it online. But that book was virtually all I could find on the site’s deep history. Then came the Amazon email highlighting several sources detailing the proud industrial history of textile and paper mills that wiped out deep history in favor of “progress,” ultimately leaving a polluted mess of a grand New England river. It’s typical American history, which begins and ends with the glorious riches brought to these shores from Europe. Perhaps if the deep history was as strongly promoted by historians, the public would gobble it up with gusto, and comprehend that there is another, better worldview.

It’s time to face facts, fellas. This belief that we can conquer nature and be saved from our industrial sins by clever science and fuzzy math is a dance with the devil. Count me out. I just hope I’m gone when the music stops, musicians quivering on their bellies, gasping for oxygen that does not exist, the dancers following them to the floor like fallen timbers.

Yes, it’s true that Mother Nature is forgiving, but there is a limit to her patience. So when she gets fed up and goes “Beast Mode” — like maybe the Seahawks should have on the Sabbath past — it could get ugly indeed, with no one to blame but ourselves.

Humdinger

I remember well the wry grin worn by last week’s new crescent moon slouching east and facing west in the southern sky. I now know that sly, waxing sliver of amber energy building toward next week’s full Snow-Moon climax brought with it winter fury … and local suspense.

It’s true old witch Mother Nature spared us the deep, swirling, drifting snows our neighbors to the east grappled with. But she did deliver squeaky winter cold, which appears to be here to stay awhile. Should we be surprised? Heck no. What should we expect from a February moon? Beach blankets and suntan lotion? So, suck it up, Buttercup. Before you know it Valentine’s Day will be here, to me the first harbinger of spring euphoria and songbird glee.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch — cracked ribs slowly mending following a sudden, traumatic fall three weeks ago on treacherous backyard ice, the pain now temporarily flared by winter chores — here I sit, pondering just where this week’s ride will take us once I spin my wheels a whirl to stir material from the murky depths and fill this space I’ve filled for nearly 35 years. Yes, 35 years. A long time. More than a lifetime for departed sons Gary and Rynie. Me? I remember when I thought 35 was old, then just about perfect, now young. That’s life. I’m not complaining. Just trudging along, one foot in front of the other till the road peters out. Maybe, just maybe, someone else will pick up my trail, a path less traveled but more revealing, one that’s fertile, will likely disappear quickly if it goes to seed.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, of course I’ve heard that hilltown rumor, which is another type of storm altogether. A wild tale it is that’s rollicking from coffee shop to greasy spoon to tavern to city square. Yes sir, it’s spreading fast. I heard it last week … a hilltop barnyard off a dirt road, an injured horse, tattered and bloody, a dead, stomped-upon wildcat nearby. I poked around, got a surname, Googled this and that, came up with a cell phone and called it.

“Who did you say you are?” asked the cautious lady who answered last Thursday afternoon in Florida and is not due home until April.

When I told her who I was and tried with deft touch to build trust and gather guarded information, she confirmed everything I had heard, sort of, and what a farmer down the road later heard from a horse-owning, hay-buying member of the town crew who had heard the rumor at a breakfast stop. But the lady in Florida who owned the assaulted horse and had spoken to the person who discovered the alarming scene at her unoccupied family hilltown farm the morning of Jan. 14 wouldn’t go into further detail. Apparently she was receiving mixed signals from town authorities she had dealt with. She was getting weird vibes, I guess. At least, that was my sense, without her putting it in those precise terms.

“Believe me,” she informed me in a less-defensive, congenial tone, “I’d talk to you if I was home, because if what I think happened did happen, then I don’t think it should be a secret. I think people should know, especially neighbors with animals or kids. But I’m far away, don’t really know what to make of it all from here, and don’t want anyone angry with me.”

She asked me not to question her town police, and I honored that request. I thought about contacting the game wardens’ regional office in Northampton but knew I would first need clearance from the mandatory third-party screen established to prevent spontaneous communication between the press and state agencies. First, members of the media need prior approval, which would not likely be granted for such a hush-hush affair, at least not until after the public-relations people issue a press release with the proper spin. The third-party screening agency was instituted to prevent such off-the-cuff responses to sensitive press inquiries. That way, stories can be shaped just right for public consumption.

Wednesday, I was dying to call longtime MassWildlife sources who trust me and spoke freely for many years before the mandatory screening initiative went into effect. But that was impossible because all state offices were closed due to the snowstorm. Plus, I knew in my heart that even the folks who trust me and have over the years enjoyed free-flowing conversation wouldn’t talk about such a potentially controversial subject without permission.

So here I sit, knowing much more than I’m saying and growing more and more suspicious on many levels related to actions I’ve taken since learning of the tale and trying to glean more. I’m stuck in a holding pattern for now, hoping maybe this little tease will generate more information fresh from the rumor mill. Supposedly there are color photos that have circulated, and the cat carcass was quickly carted off by law enforcement for examination.

I’ve played this game for a long time now and have a hunch this little spark could ignite a fire storm of fascinating reports. Be patient. What I’m talking about is far from secret. Having grown up in a small local town, I know how fast word travels in places like where this incident unfolded.

And with that, I’m out of here — alert, anxious and optimistic. I couldn’t resist the temptation to throw it out there and see what happens. Trust me, this one’s a beauty. The best I’ve heard in a long time.

A humdinger.

 

Cougar Spatz

Oh no. Not again.

Of course, I should have known better. Doesn’t cougar chatter always draw feedback? Sometimes from faraway places you’d never imagine? Although, really, I can’t claim this one came out of the clear blue. No. In fact, I had given thought of hitting this man with an email after fielding the suspicious telephone report of five cougars crossing Route 116 in front of a northbound vehicle in broad daylight in North Amherst of all places.

Having never lived where cougars roam, I simply wanted to ask, “Could this be, even in places with high cougar density?”

I was reluctant.

Well, Cougar Rewilding Foundation (CRF) President Chris Spatz never addressed that subject in his recent email. Yes, true, but he sure did chime in on other topics of interest that I’m more than willing to share. And listen here: I hold the utmost respect for the CRF folks when it comes to cougar queries. These people — formerly the Eastern Cougar Network — are activists squarely on the side of the beast, and would like nothing more than to re-establish a (manageable) coast-to-coast population of America’s largest feline to greet colonial settlers to the Northeast.

What Spatz most wanted to correct was my assertion that a reproductive cougar population, though small, has reached Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where numerous sightings had been reported for decades. This, I know I have read and heard at lectures, but when it comes to cougar tales, one in my line of work must be cautious. There’s always questionable stuff circulating — like, for instance, five cougars crossing the road in western Massachusetts within earshot of UMass’ Southwest dorm towers. I had instant trouble getting my head around that wild morning tale told to me by the breathless witness.

I wrote last week what I have learned after many years of serious cougar inquiry and research, including purchase and careful reading of the Eastern Cougar Network textbook. My point was that cougar dispersers have been infiltrating the Northeast for decades, and that now even an Associated Press story claimed that federal wildlife officials believe this western spillover migration will eventually reach the Northeast. That’s quite a claim from people who declared Eastern Cougars extinct a few years back, just weeks before a wayward traveler, it a young male from South Dakota’s Black Hills, was killed on a Connecticut highway not 100 miles from New York City.

Well, Mr. Spatz, who’s had his differences with state and federal wildlife officials before, isn’t buying that logic, according to a detailed email with a cluster of cyberspace links attached to support him. There are way too many links to list here. If interested, check them out in the comment attached to last week’s column archived in my blog at www.tavernfare.com.

Spatz wastes no time getting to the point, beginning his polite email addressed to “Mr. Sanderson,” with:

“A female cougar has not been documented in Michigan. A female cougar has not been documented in Minnesota or Iowa or Missouri. Cougar breeding has not been documented anywhere east of the Missouri River. Young males roam east from the Dakota/Nebraska colonies, roaming hundreds of miles looking for females that aren’t there, ending up in the Michigan UP and Connecticut and perhaps, most recently, Kentucky. Without females, there will be no recovery to the Midwest, let alone farther east.”

And exactly what is it that will prevent spillover migration of a growing western population from penetrating areas east of the Missouri river? According to Spatz, liberal hunting regulations in the states along the fringe of the western cougar range.

“Due to high hunting quotas and open seasons declared east of the Dakota/Nebraska cougar colonies, the number of dispersers as measured annually by mortalities/captures has been reduced from the most, a tiny trickle of 16 in 2011, to nine in 2012, to eight in 2013, to a few drops, six in 2014. Fewer dispersers, less potential for recolonization.”

Yes, indeed his numbers are convincing. Yet I have learned when it comes to wildlife controversies like this to never say never. The way I look at it is that dispersers have already reached us despite no-holds-barred open season on cougars across to land in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Maybe it is unlikely that a female will ever reach these parts, or even the upper Midwest Great Lakes region, for that matter. But does “no documented females” mean there are zero or that no one has yet proven there is now or ever has been a solitary wanderer to pass through?

Cougar sightings are 95 percent unreliable, according to Spatz and many other experts from the studies he sent me in the form of hyperlinks. Yet there’s no denying that after a century’s worth of New England sightings that went ignored so long as misidentifications, a real, live cougar turned up dead in the road in a most unlikely location.

Yes, that road-killed cat was a young male that fit snuggly into the disperser profile and made it to Milford, Conn. So what will they say when a dead female carcass appears on the roadside in Michigan or Minnesota or even Massachusetts? Well, I hope to live to see the day because, like I said before, especially pertaining to the return of long-lost wild critters with staying power: Never say never. That’s my motto, and I’m sticking with it.

As they say in Chicopee or Ludlow or Torndike/Tree Rivers or wherever the heck it is that I’ve heard it in my travels: “Maybe I’m stupitt.”

 

No Way?

It never ceases to amaze me how, whenever I write about cougars, emails come flying at me, reporting local sightings or curious discoveries that could be the work of cougars.

Last week was no different: first, a deer hunter who explores Mt. Toby’s deepest reaches, then a woman who lives and grew up in Sunderland, and finally, another lady who lives in Greenfield and dabbles in wildlife photography. The latter says she clearly saw a cougar cross the road in front of her car in West Deerfield. The other woman was driving between Sunderland and Montague when she saw what she suspects was a cougar pouncing on something out in a field, As for the man, well, in his woodland travels he’s seen several weird signs that make him wonder, little clues that just don’t add up, and unfamiliar scat woven with hair.

Years ago, all three of these latest reports to cross my path, plus scores of others that I have written about, and maybe even some I chose not to, would have been ignored as misidentification, fantasy or hoax. Not anymore. No, not since a real, live cougar was killed on a southern Connecticut highway a few years back, coincidentally just weeks after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared Eastern Cougars extinct. Prior to that, the cougar that greeted New England’s earliest colonial settlers and remained here well into the 19th century were classified as “endangered.”

Why the classification change? Well, that seems to be the million-dollar question — one that has never been adequately explained. Wildlife experts know there is only one North American cougar species, be it north, south, east or west, and it was no secret that cougars prowl out west and down south. So how could anyone possibly say there was no chance that this king of North American wildcats could repopulate and/or pass through reforested Northeastern haunts of old? Or, come to think of it, how could anyone dismiss the possibility that perhaps a few big cats have always hidden out in remote Northeastern pockets and were from time to time sporadically spotted by 20th century witnesses when caught “wandering off” closer to civilization?

The new “official” theory identifies Northeastern cougars as “dispersers,” that is young western cats pushed east by dominant males, which makes sense. As populations of predators like cougars expand, doesn’t their range also expand? Plus, don’t forget the rampant wildfires sweeping through western cougar country. Couldn’t these devastating wildfires, which I don’t recall hearing much about as a kid, have an impact on western cougar displacement and migration? It would seem so, though I’ve never heard or read a word about it.

In my travels over the past 20 or more years, whenever the subject of cougars has come up in conversation with outdoorsmen and women — all reliable sources who know the woods of New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan and beyond — all seem to say the same thing: “They’re here, too, but for some reason, the authorities won’t admit it.” Then when you review the official response to Florida panther sightings in the 1980s and Michigan cougar sightings in the 1990s — both states that now have reproductive populations — you’ll recognize a similar pattern to what’s occurring here now. Officials first deny any possibility of cougar sightings. Then, when there’s solid evidence to support a sighting, they admit it could be an escaped pet. And finally, when they have no way out, they admit cougars are back, albeit in the form of wayward travelers pushed out of the Wild West. But how long before some of these dispersers stake their claims here, a stage I suspect we’re not far from. Then there’ll be vindication for all the folks who have seen one and had the guts to report it only to be told in a condescending manner that they’d seen a ghost.

When you chase a story like this as long as I have, there are always salient comments made that stick with you. Such a remark was made by a wildlife expert to me in the past 15 years. I can’t recall when or who, but it was definitely a state or federal wildlife official who admitted cougars had repopulated remote Great Lakes forest in Michigan. When I suggested to him that if they could get Michigan, there was no reason why a spillover population wouldn’t soon take root in New England, he didn’t agree, said there were far too many highways and other man-made obstacles in their way.

“Look at a map and you’ll see what I mean,” he told me.

Well, I did study a couple multi-fold road maps, double-checked and came away totally unconvinced.

 

Toby Travelers?

The full Wolf Moon curls its lip, displays a stained ivory canine and snarls from high in the cold midnight sky. Uh-oh! Here we go again. Cougars.

Yeah, you know — tawny, four legs, long, thick tail, square-ish face with black features along the nose and ears. Everyone who sees one is spellbound in awe of the power and grace, the body length, the unmistakable cat-like gait and agility. But this local tale is different from scores of others you’ve read here, because this time the reports go from ordinary to totally bizarre, in fact, out there, Dude, once referred to as “far out.”

I suppose I should begin by identifying the location, which in a general sense I’d call Mt. Toby, located east of the Connecticut River across from Mt. Sugarloaf, in the towns of Sunderland and Leverett. This deep, dense mountain forest is about as close to wilderness as we get in Franklin County, and it holds many deer. So, yes indeed, a likely spot for predatory cougars.

Although most people are familiar with Toby, its lofty fire tower and Cranberry Pond below, how many really know its deepest woods, remote outcroppings of ledge and caves? Not many is my guess, and that’s coming from a man who has explored local wild lands for 50 years or more, and that includes parts of Toby back in the day, when we followed ancient discontinued roads, likely originally Native paths, to dilapidated sugar shacks perfect for teenage mischief. Since those days of the 60s and early 70s, I had ignored Toby until exploring it a few times just this past spring, poking around large stone formations containing interesting shelf caves. But like most Toby wanderers, I didn’t venture too far off the beaten trail. The Toby woods are big and intimidating and likely worth getting to know on a lot of levels, but the first thing you need is time, which I never seem to have enough of. Hopefully, my day is near.

Enough of that, though, let’s get to the crux of the matter: recent cougar sightings reported to me. And let’s review them in the order I received them, beginning during fall bird-hunting season, when longtime Pioneer Valley scribe and 10-year Recorder employee Ralph Gordon pointed out a sighting on the Sunderland police log. I called the station the next day and talked to the police chief, who said he knew nothing of the incident reported near Cliffside Apartments. When he asked for a code number identifying the investigating officer, he named the sergeant and said he’d have him call me. That call never came, which I can’t say surprised me, but I let it pass. I’ve chased so many cougar sightings over the years that they’ve gotten old. Plus, why keep chasing a story when, after years of calling me irresponsible for reporting regional sightings, state and federal wildlife officials are now admitting that mountain lions will likely repopulate the Northeast? Honestly, I preferred it when the authorities were calling me crazy and inappropriate as more and more credible sources came forward to report sightings and criticize the arrogant, insulting responses they were getting from authorities handling calls.

Before we proceed, allow me to remind you that I have reported many cougar sightings over the years in the general area we’re talking about. Let’s define it, starting from the south, as the territory between Mt. Warner in Hadley and Northeast Street in Amherst, then through Sunderland, Leverett and Montague all the way to Mineral Road between the airport and the mouth of the Millers River. Perhaps the one report that authenticated all others in that area was the long email sent by a railroad engineer who had read this column for years and chimed in to say he had encountered “several” cougars riding the rails between Cranberry Pond and Lake Pleasant. So, take that, wildlife officials. If that’s not convincing, what is?

But back to the present, the second report to reach me arrived the day before Christmas when a man from Easthampton called at 9:30 a.m. to describe what he had just seen. I hesitate to repeat it, but he claimed five long-tailed cougars crossed Route 116 in front of his F.W. Webb truck in North Amherst. Moving east across the road between the auction gallery and the northernmost entry onto the main drag through North Amherst, they were seen headed toward Cowls Building Supply. I called a South Deerfield pal, who hurried to the scene to hunt tracks in the mud, found none and called to report his findings. Then, when I called Kieras Oil in North Hadley and spoke to old friend Bobby Kieras, who had spoken to the witness moments after the sighting, the man we call The Sheik chuckled and said, “Yeah, the guy was all excited and definitely had seen something, but I don’t think cougars travel in packs, do they?”

I too doubted the pack scenario because I can’t recall ever reading about five cougars running together, thus I didn’t aggressively pursue the lead. And even if people occasionally do see a family unit traveling together in cougar country, could such a sighting be already occurring in the Happy Valley? Let’s just say I was reluctant to even shed light on the report but, hey, here it is. I report, you decide. Why not toss it out there, unlikely as it may seem.

But wait. There’s a complication. Six days earlier, on Dec. 18, Bob Gabry, Sunderland sewage-treatment-plant chief, was traveling to work before dawn on Falls Road in Sunderland and, yep, you guessed it, between Whitmore Falls and Char Pond, lo and behold, an unmistakable mountain lion standing broadside in the road, crossing from the Connecticut River toward Mt. Toby. Gabry was right on top of the large beast, got a good look with his high beams and estimated it weighed 150 or more pounds. The skittish critter crouched momentarily and leaped up the hill, disappearing like a powerful, muscular, agile ghost. Gabry called me at work to report the sighting, and a note awaited me on my desk when I returned from vacation. I followed up last week, and Gabry was still awestruck.

“I have never seen anything move so fast, graceful and powerful,” he marveled, “and I don’t care if you use my name. I know what I saw. It was a mountain lion, a big one with a long, thick tail. There was no mistaking it. It was a mountain lion, and, man, could it move. Incredible.”

So there you have it: a little something to spike your morning java. Don’t worry. No harm swishing it around in your mouth a little before swallowing it and letting your mind meander off to some deep, damp, dark depression in the Toby wilds.

 

Ace

Tuesday morning, sun bright, wind cold, up early to say farewell to an old friend and loyal colleague who lost a valiant battle to a heartless scourge.

Complicating matters on this winter morn was a visit from grandsons Jordan and Arie, prepubescent Vermonters in town for school vacation. I made arrangements to clear space and was expecting Duke of Sports co-host Mike Cadran to arrive with passenger, neighbor and Recorder sports colleague Jason Butynski — ETA 9:15. The only reason I put it in those terms is because Cadran’s a retired military man. I was confident he’s be punctual-plus and, yes, he was just that, pulling his red Jeep Patriot into my driveway 10 minutes early, jovial Big Boiczyk riding shotgun wearing his Sunday best. I was ready to go yet still scrambling after scurrying to stock the stove-side wood cradle and feed and walk the dogs on an abbreviated alternative swing adjacent to our normal daily romp before my ride arrived.

I jumped into the back seat on the passenger side and the fellas were chipper from the start for the half-hour ride to Athol, covering a little of everything, mostly local stuff and lots of Michael “Ace” Kelley, whose funeral was our destination.

We arrived early and people were already milling about on the street, filing into Higgins-O’Connell Funeral Home on brisk, sun-splashed Main Street. What a welcome surprise for three Greenfield men to discover free parking on both sides of the street at the parlor. Imagine that, will you. Not in Greenfield.

Walking into the parlor wearing a stylish knee-length cashmere coat was Kathy Horrigan, a former Athol High School coach and star athlete I often dealt with years ago, mostly on the phone. We chatted briefly inside, reminiscing, and along came another Athol icon, Rocky Stone, proud member and quarterback, no less, of that storied unbeaten 1962 Athol football team, later its coach when I was working the circuit and often found myself covering Friday-night games on the chilly shores of Lake Ellis.

The bright, sunny day was perfect for sending off the man I nicknamed Ace in the 1990s, after he jumped from the Athol Daily News to The Recorder. The man radiated enthusiasm as a sports reporter covering the local beat. Honestly, I think he at times felt a little guilty accepting a paycheck for work he so loved. The coaches and athletes he touched were aware of his commitment and energy and seemed to enjoy working with him, his enthusiasm infectious and highly contagious.

I valued his dedication and his tireless effort to please by scooping the competition, and was thus willing to quietly remove his blemishes whenever they appeared in copy. I rarely if ever had the heart to point out his mistakes in an authoritative way. Ace was a friend, and I’m always willing to help a friend and embellish copy, even if it threatens to plunk me into perilous waters.

It’s been a long time since the Ace worked for The Recorder, but we never lost contact, he more often than not calling at the absolute worst times, just wanting to shoot the breeze when lonely and probably suffering pangs of mortality though stubbornly refusing to admit it. Ace refused to wear his problems on his sleeve, perhaps even did himself harm by living in denial of his merciless disease. His final phone call came to the sports desk last week, two days before his Christmas Day passing at age 48 from complications related to his long, silent struggle with juvenile diabetes. I was home, enjoying my final week of vacation. I wish he had called me there.

That opportunity lost, I said my goodbye Tuesday morning in his hometown, where the funeral parlor was bloated with fellow well-wishers paying their respects during a service officiated by Deacon John Leary, Ace’s longtime pal and confidant. The overflow Tool-Town turnout said it all, and honestly left me with a warm glow that won’t soon cool or dim.

Ace was dealt a horrid hand but went through life cupping his cards snuggly to his chest through good times and bad, which could be very bad, worse than the unaffected could ever imagine. The man hid his pain and fears, grinned and laughed and bore it all with remarkable courage, dignity and grace.

So, rest in peace, good friend, and have a Happy New Year in your new digs. You always stood tall in my eyes. I guess that’s why I called you the Ace, not to mention a few affectionately inappropriate names that can’t be printed.

Ace could take a ribbing like a man and send it right back at you wearing that trademark devilish grin – a genuine smile pulled deep from his humble soul, his kind, courageous heart.

The world was a better place with Ace.

 

Trigger Happy

Not complaining, just one of those weeks, I guess. Yes, one of those stretches when weird stuff requiring immediate attention comes at you like bugs at a hot muggy windshield.

It all started with irritating gun woes late last week. First, while pursuing a wild flush — it a long-tailed, vociferous ring-neck rooster whose landing I had marked — I was astonished to come up empty in a dense thicket and decided to expand the search over an old, tree-bordered fence line into a shin-high hayfield. I whistled for the dogs and Lily appeared first, poking out into the hayfield maybe 50 yards away and following the outer tree line at me. Maybe 20 yards away, she stopped, picked up her nose above her shoulders into a north wind and spun 90 degrees right. I knew she smelled that rooster, which I could not see, and — Bingo! — a low, loud flush burst from the short cover. The bird flew straightaway for a wet brown field t’other side of the brook. I shouldered my gun, found the bird, swung on it, squeezed the back trigger as it approaching 40 yards out and was greeted by an empty misfire click. Hmmmmm? Maybe I hadn’t pushed the safe all the way through. Although I didn’t get a chance to test my theory that day there, I did oil the safety at home, manipulating it back and forth until it was gliding smoothly.

Next day, I figured I’d give it a shot hunting with old pal Cooker in a twisted, tangled Hadley covert I had avoided because in consecutive years my dogs had been caught in traps there — first Chubby in a dry-set leg-hold, then Lily an evil wire-cable snare that lassoed her tightly around the waist. I still wear a scar where her panicked canine tooth brushed my forearm that day, and have since learned that the kind neighbor who helped me release her now carries heavy-duty clippers in case his dog ever finds such a devil’s loop.

Anyway, not long into the hunt, with Lily and Chubby jacked up by scent through young, thorn-laced alders and poplars, I heard the tell-tale “cuck, cuck, cuck, cuck, cuck” and soon saw a rooster clearing the young tree tops. I mounted, pointed, swung and squeezed the front trigger and again just a click, then silence as the bird escaped. Hmmmmm? I knew it wasn’t the safe, but something wasn’t right and I suspected the triggers. The wise old gunsmith who repaired the stock just before the season had warned me not to over-oil the triggers. With the stock removed, he found the hidden walnut tongue saturated with oil and cleaned it up before wrapping it in fiberglass tape and resetting it snuggly into the receiver.

“Try not to over-oil it,” he cautioned, and since that bit of fatherly advice I hadn’t placed so much as a drop into the trigger mechanism, not even after hunting in the rain and drying out the disassembled side-by-side on a table near the wood stove. I had a feeling it needed oil, though, and my suspicion was soon supported, if not confirmed, by another field test, perhaps a half-hour later, when Chubby flushed a hen from a small patch of woods. The bird burst out over the covert and flew right at me like a wind-aided missile. I calmly turned my back to it momentarily and waited for it to show up on the back side. Then, just as I found it going away, mounted and swung, it hooked a sharp left toward a high, deep swamp across the way. I adjusted to the sudden change of direction, caught up with it, swung and squeezed the front trigger, a sucker shot, but again just a clicking annoyance. Cooker, not 40 yards away, witnessed the whole thing and sounded amused.

“Again?” he smirked.

“Yup, again. I’ll deal with it when I get home. I don’t care what that guy told me. It needs oil.”

I went home, took the gun apart, cleaned and oiled the barrels, and went to town on the triggers, which required more pressure than I like. I pulled them forward, one at a time, put a couple of drops of my best clock and gun oil in the gaps and wiggled the triggers back and forth to work in the lubricant until they were moving free and easy. When we hunted the next day, I predicted to Cooker that my problem was solved and soon got ample opportunity to prove it. I don’t question that wise old gunsmith’s assessment of the interior mess he found. I’m sure that stock needed a good, thorough cleaning, and I will indeed always limit the oil my triggers receive. But remember, I’ve only owned that gun for about 25 years. Nearly 100 years old, it was cared for by others before me, so what the gun doctor found had accumulated over many years.

Enough of that, though. Chalk it up as a temporary issue, one that will not again happen. But, before I go, allow me to touch on two more problems that reared their ugly heads after the trigger trouble and are now behind me. First, Monday afternoon, I went to my 10-year-old desktop computer, tried to fire it up, and it responded by gurgling briefly and blinking silently at me. It’s dead. Now, if I can just recover the important data I didn’t back up and would hate to lose, I’m comfortable with late-son Rynie’s hand-me-down laptop. It took some getting used to, writing a column away from my desk, even though it was in the warm comfort of my favorite reading chair. I believe I can get used to La-Z-Boy column-writing in rapid fashion. So maybe I’ve purchased my last desktop. But let’s not get carried away. Call me undecided. Remember, you’re dealing with a man who doesn’t carry a cell phone, has never texted or tweeted, and fled from Facebook long, long ago for a variety of reasons. So, I’ll reserve judgment on the laptop/desktop question.

Finally, the last disruptive force to pass through the home front like a mischievous tavern ghost this week appeared right on the heels of that vexing computer problem. With temperatures plummeting below freezing, I tested my thermostat and discovered something was amiss with the furnace. I fiddled with the burner momentarily before calling serviceman Ed MacGray Tuesday morning and greeting him at my door three hours later. After replacing a nozzle and igniter, he was gone with a check and all is well.

So, with that, off I go, nourished dogs sitting patiently in the backyard kennel, standing and wagging enthusiastically every time they hear a sound out front.

They know my triggers are again igniting thunderous roars and are anxious to experience a few.