An Unusual, Extended Bear Family?

How about that? A new twist to Beldingville bears, featured here last week after a harrowing incident that came this way from a local woodsman who, descending Ashfield’s distinctive, gumdrop-shaped Mt. Owen, ran into trouble.

For anyone who missed it, that tale involved Jack Shea, a retied 68-year-old Eaglebrook School teacher and Shelburne Falls native who lives off Beldingville Road in Ashfield. There, quite by chance, Shea became the unintended target of what unfolded like a “bluff charge.” Then, a few minutes later, he was indeed the intended target of aggressive body language from the same large, nervous black bear that had previously aimed its black fury at Shea’s 2-year-old black Lab bitch, Nye, rambling carefree in her neighboring forest.

Shea survived unscathed the first charge that came within spitting distance, then was able to short-circuit the second challenge by shouting at the bear walking downhill toward him. His pet wasn’t  so fortunate. No, frisky, young Nye absorbed a swat from the indignant, perturbed, feeding bear that was likely surprised while devouring sweet, salubrious wild blackberries on the edge of thick, thorny logging slash. The bear’s quick, powerful swipe resulted in several abrasions across Nye’s upper chest, two of which were deep enough to require eight stitches at the Greenfield veterinary hospital Shea visited for repair the next morning, after discovering his pet aggressively licking at the scabs.

But, enough of that story, told in detail last week. On to a new tale emanating from the same Ashfield neighborhood. From there,  a reader chimed in by email to share  another fresh bear story that immediately attracted my interest, not to mention that of Westfield State University wildlife biologist John McDonald, a bear expert to whom I forwarded Nancy Garvin’s thorough, well-written  narrative along with  my response. The blow-by-blow narrative told of a situation I immediately suspected to be unusual. But, being no expert, I reached out to credentialed McDonald, who confirmed the rarity of what Garvin had witnessed.

Garvin lives a mile and a half away on the same Beldingville Road section of Ashfield where Shea’s incident occurred. She and husband Lester Garvin, of Lake Hitchcock mapping fame these days, are beekeeping hobbyists and thus must be alert for bears, which can be a nuisance around honey hives. Plus, husband Les has a deep interest in wildlife, having devoted undergraduate and graduate studies to wildlife biology at the University of New Hampshire and UMass-Amherst. So, let’s just say the Garvins are not strangers to bears.

On July 21, Nancy walked out on her back porch looking for her husband and had the most peculiar sighting unfold before her disbelieving eyes. First, there was a good-sized bear cub standing a short distance away at the garage door behind her husband’s truck,  parked inside. With sweet-smelling beekeeping equipment inside, she figured the bear was interested and about to investigate, so she yelled at the cute ball of black fur and was seemingly ignored.

When she started down the steps, two smaller cubs “came tumbling out of the garage on the other side of the truck.” Then, when she yelled again, another cub, the same size as the bigger one she first saw came out behind the smaller ones. It gets better. Soon, a fifth bear, much larger, assumed to be an adult sow, came out on the same side of the truck as the first cub, and there they stood, all five of them — a sow with what appeared to be two cubs from this year and two from last year. No, not a common sight.

“I yelled at the mother and she stood up and looked at me before turning and heading away from the garage,” wrote Nancy, who  started to follow and realized the cubs were scrambling up a nearby tree. “So I stayed where I was until the mother collected the young and headed off.”

Of course, husband Lester knew that this configuration  of sow and cubs from separate litters was unusual. He had studied bears and was quite sure females had cubs every other year, raising their young into their second spring before rejecting them and  finding a mate and start a new family in the winter den. Curious, the Garvins told experienced bear hunters in town what Nancy had seen and received unanimous confirmation that it was unusual for a sow to be with cubs of two different age classes.

When I myself read her tale, I immediately responded to tell her I concurred with the assessment but had forwarded my response to McDonald, who I was certain could add much insight, maybe even speculation as to why the five bears were together. The man did not disappoint. He confirmed the rarity, admitted he had heard a few similar tales, and offered a few hypotheses:

• 1.) Pehaps the cubs were the same age but different sizes. Litters of four are not uncommon and there can be some cubs that get bigger faster within the litter. “However, I’m betting that if you say two were a lot bigger than the other two, that they really were.”;
• 2) Maybe it was just a coincidence that the sow and her two cubs found the garage and beekeeping supplies at the same time the two yearlings happened to be there. Yearlings usually leave the mother in late May or early June, but often stay with each other for weeks or months before permanently separating. So, yes, it is possible that they just happened to be there together … and, if so, the yearlings would still act as subordinates to the adult female;
• And, finally the third and most interesting scenario, 3) Even though bears do have a breeding season, usually in late May through August or so, unlike deer, which ovulate on a regular basis and can only breed within a short time window (a day or two per month), there is evidence that black bears are induced ovulators and only shed eggs in the presence of a male. Females with new cubs usually won’t associate with males and drive them off. Males will sometimes try to kill new cubs, the thinking being that they don’t know who the father is, but if they kill the cubs, the female will be available to breed that year. … “What could have happened in this case is that the female could have been separated from her new cubs for some time during the breeding season last year (cubs can live on their own in June or so of the first year), and they were apart long enough for her to encounter a male and get bred before reuniting with her cubs. Once reunited, she would have kept those cubs with her (pregnant) and given birth to new cubs in this past winter’s den.”

Asked if a sow would possibly adopt orphaned cubs crying out for their lost mother, McDonald said he doubted it.

“Once sows are out of their dens and free-ranging,” he wrote, “they  likely would not respond to cubs not their own. I believe biologists have attempted to foster cubs with females with litters during the post-denning season and have always failed. Sows either kill or abandon them. On the other hand, it is pretty easy to do so while the sows are still in their dens.”

McDonald asked the Garvins to keep and eye out for future visits by the same extended bear family, and said he hopes that publicizing this unusual sighting might coax out additional reports from the people living in the same neighborhood who see or have seen this same unlikely grouping of bears.

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

If you want to read a book with much expert insight about bears, bear behavior and bear interaction with human beings, pick up a copy of “Grizzly Years,” by Doug Peacock.

A Green Beret Vietnam vet who returned to the states in 1967 and needed time to regroup and process out his identity, Peacock lived for many years studying grizzly bears in Yellowstone and the Washington State. He named many of these massive beasts, could identify many from afar, learned their habits and the way they interacted socially with other bears, and survived more than one “bluff charge” while trying to get close-up photos.

I would recommend this book on many levels as one of my better reads over the last few years. Of course, I knew Vietnam vets who returned home and “drifted” for many years before re-entering society. They didn’t wander off to live in the wild around grizzlies, but they were dealing with many of the same issues that troubled Peacock.

Beldingville Bear Encounter

Who hasn’t experienced vivid, realistic, twilight dawn dreams that transport them back many years to an indelible, possibly terrifying memory in the company of dear friends or hated rivals, the whole thing presented in living color and dynamic Dolby sound that seems as real as the distant day on which it happened.

Then, of course, there are those sudden, spontaneous, real-life occurrences that drop unexpectedly into your lap and immediately flash back to some distant, haunting memory … not at all unlike the surreal scenario that unfolded before Jack Shea’s worried eyes Sunday morning off Beldingville Roas in Ashfield, a reoccurrence more realistic than any nightmare.

An avid bowhunter and outdoorsman, the recently-retired 68-year-old Shea taught for 44 years at Eaglebrook School, covering subjects including art and outdoor adventure. A Shelburne Falls native and member of old Arms Academy’s final graduating Class of 1967, he also happens to be the proud grandson of late former world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Sharkey. These days Shea resides in the rural nirvana of a secluded Beldingville home he built of native timber 33 years ago. Looking south from this peaceful abode, Mount Owen dominates the landscape as a steep gumdrop mound of stone and mixed forest, mostly hardwoods, where deer and bear and — dare I? — big cats are known to lurk. Shea knows that mountain like the back of his hand.

Our story begins before 10 a.m. Sunday, when Shea was out on an early-season deer-scouting mission, walking up a familiar old logging trail along which he intended to install trail cameras to identify potential prey for the approaching fall whitetail-deer hunt. Accompanying him was his beloved 2-year-old black Labrador retriever bitch, Nye, named after Nye, Mont., one of Shea’s favorite elk-hunting haunts. The rambunctious pup was having a blast rollicking willy-nilly through the mixed hardwoods and hemlock, probing every new scent as all gundogs do, with head held high and alert.

Not far from a landmark site of daunting memories dating back some 31 years to a perilous black-bear encounter he had experienced with infant daughter Emily, now 33, in his arms, he recalled it as he usually does up there. Who wouldn’t? That day, taking a leisurely walk through the woods with his infant daughter, he had run into a large sow with cubs. The protective sow charged him, probably trying to buy enough time for her twin cubs to climb a tree to safety. The protective momma bear raced right up to a stunned Shea before turning and running back to where it had come from. By that time, one of the cubs had treed near the Shea’s. Jack pointed up and said, “See the bear?” to oblivious young Emily.

Well, this time around, on Sunday morning, preoccupied reading deer sign on an alternate, direct, pathless route back home, Shea had momentarily lost track of his rambling pet when his tranquil mood abruptly changed at the sound of an alarming yelp some 50 yards uphill. Shea immediately feared that the distressful sound had come from Nye, who may have either “wrenched her leg or run into a bear,” similar to he and daughter Emily that harrowing day many years ago.

Shea turned to scan the wooded uphill terrain and right away picked up the motion of a big black beast barreling full speed ahead down the hill on a direct collision course with him. Then, running ahead of the bear, also all out, he noticed dwarfed Nye, sprinting for her life and her master’s protection. The nervous dog, in full panic mode by the time she reached Shea, panting, circling her owner and trying to gain security by cowering between his feet when the bear raced right into their kitchen without a trace of palpable fear or any intention to stop. Unarmed and on full-alert, Shea knew he had a potential problem on his hands. Maybe even a crisis.

“I’ve been around grizzly bears in Alaska and was trained to stand tall, raise my arms over my head and make myself as large as possible when one charges,” said Shea, a big man in the 6-foot-3, 230-pound neighborhood. “As it got close, I uttered a load, throaty growl or scream, which stopped the bear on a dime less than 10 feet from me.”

He figured the bear estimated to weight in the 250- to 300-pound range was either a sow with unseen cubs in the area or maybe even a solo boar devouring blackberries on the other side of a dense thicket when the undetected pet got too close. Surprise is not a good thing in such confrontations, when a bear can feel threatened.

“It’s difficult to say what precipitated that charge,” reasoned MassWildlife Information and Education Chief Marion Larson, when told of it, “but bears will run toward humans in bluff charges responding to danger. They’re trying to scare the target and avoid conflict. Our bear biologists are quite familiar with bluff charges but I don’t know of anyone ever being attacked, even when cubs are nearby. The bear is just sending a message to leave the area.”

Well, whatever this bear’s intention was on this occasion, it got to within spitting distance of Shea before stopping, spinning around and sprinting back up the hill it had just descended. A relieved Shea watched the retreat until the bear got out of sight, let out a deep breath, conducted a cursory inspection of Nye for damage, found none, and turned to walk away toward home. Before long, still internally overwhelmed by what he had just witnessed, Shea spotted a stump and decided to sit down long enough to fire off a quick text spinning his neighborhood tale for wife Christie. In the process, he sensed something approaching, looked uphill and, yes indeed, that bear was ambling back down the hill toward him. The beast, perhaps unhappy that Shea hadn’t left the area, halted about 50 yards out at Shea’s yell and reversed course back uphill.

Feeling added urgency to immediately vacate the area and take his dog home with him, Shea realized that Nye was nowhere to be found and worried that maybe his dear pet was injured and lying down somewhere. Nonetheless, still spooked, he “beelined it home” only to discover that his traumatized dog had beaten him there. Still traumatized, Nye soon retired, tail between her legs, to her cushioned dog bed in Shea’s bedroom, where she remained for most of the night.

Next morning, before 8, Shea’s wife noticed their pet furiously licking at its chest and suggested to her husband that he inspect the area for injuries. A quick look revealed a deep, scabbed gouge across the upper chest near the jugular, necessitating a trip to Dr. Edward L. Funk’s Brookside Animal Hospital in Greenfield. The veterinarian shaved the dog’s chest, exposing the full extent of the bear’s scratches and closing the deepest two cuts with seven stitches above and one below.

“Nye is one lucky dog,” said a relieved Shea, snapping cell-phone photos in my driveway on his way home, “and I must say I’m one very happy dog owner,” … vet bill notwithstanding.

A few days later, with Nye still “lying low,” according to Shea, the man was still uncertain whether he’d ever again allow his pet to accompany him up Mount Owen. But somehow you get the idea that the animal learned a valuable lesson Sunday, and will likely forevermore be extremely cautious when bear scent enters her nostrils.

Chalk it up as experience.

**********

OK, so now what are we to make of this rare local encounter between man and dog and a random bear?

Should we be afraid to walk through the woods? Keep dogs leashed for all woodland rambles?

Hmmmm?

Well … it depends.

No doubt we should always be alert and wary when patrolling bear country. According to wildlife biologist John McDonald, the former MassWildlife Deer Project Leader who’s done a lot of bear research and been the target of more than one bluff charge, it’s always a good idea to make noise in the woods to telegraph your presence long before a bear sees you.

“From what I can gather, that Ashfield bear had no idea the man and dog were in the woods until the dog was right on top of it. That’s why it reacted as it did,” he said. “If the bear knew the man and his dog were there, he would have been long gone. They must have been quiet, the wind must have been wrong and the vegetation was probably thick, so the bear was caught by surprise.

“Had the man, not his dog, surprised the bear, most likely it would have run away. Bears don’t seek conflict with humans. Dogs are another story. Bear won’t hesitate to go after a dog.”

Like his former colleague, MassWildlife I&E guru Larson, McDonald said he knew of and has witnessed many bluff charges in Massachusetts and cannot recall any that resulted in physical attacks.

“They charge to send a message,” he said. “I’ve seen bears get to within six or eight feet and start opening and closing their mouth, clicking their teeth together to make a threatening sound, before running off. They want you scare you, convince you it’s time to leave their territory.”
Informed of that expert analysis, Shea didn’t challenge it but did have a little cautionary addendum.

“I may get bell for Nye to announce her presence up there,” he said. “Because in a situation like Sunday, my dog put me in potential danger, a problem dog owners should be aware of.”

**********

I have, myself, encountered many bears in my woodland travels and have never felt threatened or been the target of a bluff charge. Every bear I have personally encountered, with or without dogs, has fled.

Last year on a morning walk near home, I wrote in this space about jumping a bear from close quarters. Although I must have had made plenty of noise leading up to flushing that beast, the bear must have gambled that I would pass wide and it decided to lay low in the thicket to continue feeding on spring skunk cabbage. The beast guessed wrong and bailed out like a runaway locomotive when my dog got to within maybe 10 feet of it, both of us separated by a dense, impenetrable wild-rose-bush border. Still, even though we got close, that bear took off, making no attempt to challenge us. But it had to have been aware of my presence at least 100 or 200 yards before it fled.

Although I hate to leash my dogs and always allow them to run free on upland hardwood spines, that description is somewhat misleading because I can always have them under control with Tri-Tronics remote-controlled collars if they don’t respond to the shrill whistle dangling from a lanyard around my neck. If my dogs disappear out of sight for too long, I first try to whistle them back (which announces our presence to any animals within earshot), and if the dogs don’t promptly reappear, I can bring them back with the collars, which come equipped with audible and adjustable electric-shock enforcement. The collars are quarter-mile leashes, although I can’t say I ever allow them to get that far away before bringing them back into  sight. Plus, I often speak to my dogs during our walks, just silly talk that unintentionally marks my presence to wild beasts long before I get too close for comfort.

Among the golden rules of etiquette all woodsmen and women must be cognizant of when in the wild is the one that demands always to respect nature, be alert to potential danger, and try at all costs to avoid it.

Why invite trouble?

Chewier Than Saltwater Taffy

We’re standing inside a reconstructed 400-year-old trading post along the south shore of Cape Cod Canal — impressive, exposed, hand-hewn oak beams overhead — talking to a wise, trim, attractive, copper-toned Native American woman guide.

Grandsons Jordie and Arie, 10 and nearly 7, are fiddling around with soft beaver and otter pelts, wampum jewelry and a fragrant, foot-long sassafras stick strewn atop a primitive sawbuck Pilgrim table, firing off one appropriate question after another. When they run out of follow-ups, I jump in and quickly venture into a rambling and quite promising deep-history chat with our warm brown-eyed guide who, just like that, quite innocently pulls me home from this new, faraway place named Aptucxet.

I think wife Joanne could sense the grandkids getting justifiably restless with subjects growing more complex by the second. She inconspicuously wandered off with the boys toward a tiny old railroad station where we had parked, providing a chance for me to continue an enlightening conversation that was dropping many fertile seeds capable a producing future succulent research-and-discovery fruit.

Tastefully reconstructed in the second quarter of the 20th century, Aptucxet was Plymouth Colony’s first trading post, established in 1627 in a Cape Cod location then known by its Indian name Manamet, now part of the Town of Bourne, formerly Sandwich, by Gov. William Bradford and a committee of fellow upstanding Mayflower Pilgrims. Within five years, two satellite outposts had been established in an early attempt to monopolize the New England fur trade. The second post was situated at a site Indians called Cushenoc (now Augusta, Maine), established in 1628 at the mouth of the Kennebec River, and the third was right here in the Connecticut Valley at the Indian place named Matianuk (or Matteneug), today Windsor, Conn., where Plymouth Colony Pilgrims built our valley’s first English outpost in 1633.

That Pilgrim migration to a Connecticut Valley rich in fertile land and commodities like furs, timber, fish, and you name it, was soon commandeered by competing English countrymen from Massachusetts Bay Colony, effectively pushing the Dutch and Pilgrims out. The Plymouth Pilgrims had opened the valley to English settlement, which was soon expanded by Massachusetts Bay Puritans led by Rev. Thomas Hooker, who founded Hartford, Conn., in 1636, when Puritan entrepreneur William Pynnchon was contemporaneously scurrying to establish an upriver fur-trading monopoly at Agawam (today Springfield). The rest is history, with settlement quickly running straight upriver to Nothampton, Hadley, Hatfield, Deerfield and Northfield.

Suspecting that I may share DNA with the merchants appointed to that first Aptucxet Trading Post, I asked our guide who they were and she was able only to identify them as two men appointed by Gov. Bradford, whom I sheepishly identified as a grandfather. Why the hesitation? Well, you never know what a Wampanoag will think of a Mayflower descendant after being run off sacred homeland by Pilgrims.
“Don’t worry,” I told her. “I’m on your side.” And the conversation continued in a congenial tone for several minutes before I went looking for my dear companions.

A few days later, I read the five-dollar, 30-page, 1934 monograph documenting what was known about the Aptucxet site following a couple of early archaeological excavations. Although the first clerks were not identified, I did discover that my gene pool plugged into not only Gov. Bradford but also into fellow Aptucxet committee members John Alden and William Howland, two more ancient grandfathers of mine. So, all tolled, as it turned out, my grandfathers comprised 3/8 of the original committee appointed to establish our Pilgrim fathers’ first trading post, the place where the value of wampum was discovered during interactions with Dutch traders.

It’s those kinds of discoveries that often make my world seem much smaller. But it doesn’t end there. No. While on the Cape, we stayed in a home on the Wing’s Neck section of Bourne, a long peninsula reaching deep into Buzzards Bay toward the western outflow of the Cape Cod Canal. On its tip, surrounded by water, is Wing Lighthouse. It just so happens that a branch of this same Cape Cod Wing family from the mid-Cape Town of Harwich moved to Conway in the third quarter of the 18th century, settling near the Cyrus Rice homestead, Conway’s first, which stood high atop the ridge behind Pekarski’s Sausage off Route 116 in Deerfield. That first Wing farm stood south of Rice on an old discontinued road that still winds through the forest, connecting Roaring Brook and Whately Glen roads. All that’s left at those historic sites are cellar holes, capped wells and stonewalls that help to mark the footprints of the different abandoned early old farms.

One of the Wing girls born on that upland terrace was Mehitable (1790-1879), who married (Dec. 16, 1816) Silas Sanderson (1790-1863), a Deacon Thomas Sanderson son who ran the 19th-century Sanderson mills at Whately Glen (then called Sanderson Glen) before turning it over the son Elon. Part of Mehitable’s wedding dowry was a pine, six-drawer, Queen Anne chest of drawers that likely came from her late mother’s estate and was handed down to family brides over many subsequent generations.

Today, we own that unique, handsome piece of Americana and local history. I call it the Sanderson wedding chest. The distinguishing feature is six prominent fishtail drops — a semi-rare maritime motif found on some formal, late 18th- and early 19th-century case furniture produced in New London County, Connecticut and Cape Cod. These large fishtails — two in front and two on each side — descend toward the floor from the tall chest’s straight bracket base. Someday, when the boys are ready, I’ll try to put it all into context for them, connecting that family chest with its distinctive fishtail embellishment to our Cape Cod trip and much, much more.

Although this future family-history narrative will probably not last as long as the old Indian tales that could go on for days around a warm winter fire, trust me, I won’t sell them short, either. Serious discussions like that can meander widely from one subject to the next, all related, and endure for many moons when the listeners are willing.

————-

Although not a record year, the 2016 spring turkey season was not bad a’tall. No, sir, it was right up there with the best of all time, breaking the 3,000 mark for only the second time in the hunt’s 36-year history, according to preliminary numbers released by MassWildlife.

This year’s preliminary figure of 3,054, which will likely only grow a tad by the time the final harvest summary is released later this year, was a mere 31 lower than the 2009 final record 3,085. A breakdown of the numbers shows 83 birds taken during the one-day youth hunt and 2,971 taken during the regular four-week season starting annually in the first week of May. This year’s season began on April 25 and ended on May 21. Adult males comprised two-thirds of the preliminary harvest.

State Turkey Project Leader Dave Scarpitti credited the big numbers to better than average 2015 brood production and consecutive moderate winters of 2014 and 2015, reducing winter mortality.
The 12-day fall season runs from Oct. 24 through Nov. 25.

————–
Early-antler feedback:  A few reader comments regarding my assertion two weeks ago in this space that deer-antler growth was about a month ahead of July’s Full Buck Moon, which got its name, according to the Farmer’s Almanac, because July is typically the month when buck’s antlers poke through their foreheads. This year, by the time that full summer moon lit the midnight sky, local deer antlers appeared to be fully formed, yet still in velvet.

My own casual assessment of this anomaly was that the premature antlers were the product of bountiful fall hard and soft mast crops, followed by an easy winter with little snow and plenty of available food in the woods to keep deer healthy, plus many, many, edible, spring-germinating red-oak acorns on the ground through May to supplement the spring diet of deer foraging along the edge of agricultural hayfields.

State Deer Project Leader David Stainbrook returned my telephone message with a message of his own indicating that he concurred deer antlers were early this year, likely due primarily to diet. He recommended reading through Mississippi State University’s  extensive online reports on deer-antler growth if looking for in-depth research and theory.

Meanwhile, a veteran local hunter and fisherman chimed in to say he had run across several bucks with antlers while fishing the lower Deerfield, the Connecticut and Sawmill rivers in June and early July.
“I have never seen so many deer in my spring travels,” he marveled, “and most of them are bucks. Must be they’re hanging around rivers because it’s so dry and they’re staying near water.”

A week later, the same source called to say he’d spoken to another devoted deer hunter who takes the pursuit serious, makes his daily rounds and has trail cameras liberally positioned throughout deer country in Greenfield, Shelburne and Colrain. The man told my buddy he had never seen so many bucks this time of year. Could it be because in other years he couldn’t differentiate between sexes because the bucks’ were not yet sporting antlers? Probably so. But that doesn’t diminish his observation.

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.”