Animal Instinct

A strange, busy week it’s been, spiced by interesting visits, some physical, others mental, maybe even a tad esoteric.

We’ll begin with a light little deer caper anyone can get their head around — an unusual encounter that, due to its rarity, will not be soon forgotten — then see if there’s room for anything else. My wildlife encounter occurred on a splendid Monday morning, one of two such bright, crisp fall-like days bookending a gray Tuesday, the day of a visit by the man who’s been pursuing me for some time. Persistent, we finally connected for a couple of hours, he frustratingly attempting to push me into places I wouldn’t venture before — hail patience, perseverance and a dash of luck, not to mention dogged determination — he finally brought me to a place I agreed to go. Though circuitous, I think we arrived where he wanted to go, that is with me reciting a reading he may splice into a musical CD he’s recording with a theme of activism and protest. Whew! Was I happy to get that behind me. And here I sit in this familiar Wednesday station, trying to say what I have to say in one narrow column on one tidy newspaper page, seldom easy.

Monday morning, sunny, cool, the tall clock’s minute hand ticking toward 10:30 as I secure a brace to my balky left knee. I’ve been reading published correspondence (“Distant Neighbors”) between poet/writers and counterculture spokesmen Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder as my dogs await backyard breakfast followed by a daily meadow romp. The selected literary correspondence between these two brilliant American thinkers who view the world through different lenses with much common ground is gripping, at times even tingling, thus my La-Z-Boy “procrastination” by the sunny window, much to Lily and Chubby’s dismay. They’re eager to eat and tour enticing acreage without restraint. Well, I guess it’s always there if needed, but I’m a freedom and liberty man, not the law and order type.

When we finally arrive at upper hayfields, a dense mix of clover and timothy the dogs enjoy exploring, they run in ecstasy, searching for places where deer have eaten and left behind shiny black pellets that for some reason they eat and, when so inclined, roll in with carnal glee. Why they seek deer scat for dessert I’ll never know, but in my mind, they wouldn’t eat it if there was no nutritional value. Call it my faith in animal instinct and Mother Nature. I guess no one has ever instilled in the dogs the idea that scat is gross and filthy and disgusting. All they have is their nose and instinct, which pulls their heads to the turf. Who am I to question this?

We reach the back corner of a one-acre parcel known to the Nims family as Hideaway and the dogs are all jacked up by scent passing through thick, verdant clover bedding between Christmas trees. As we approach the thorny path through a slim treeline between meadows, Chubby, on a mission from Satan, disappears into the wooded escarpment lip overlooking a narrow swamp bordering Sunken Meadow. I never worry about Chubby, or Lily for that matter, running off, so I just let him do his thing as I walk my trodden trail. But this day, when I get through to the other field and can’t hear him rustling through the swamp below, I give a whistle — no sign — buzz his collar — not a glimpse — and whistle again before, last resort, sending a low-level shock, which soon brings him back winded from an aggressive chase.

“Hmmmm?” I ponder. “Turkeys?”

We continue on, reach a gate, walk the gradient into Sunken Meadow and, on a whim, I choose the opposite direction we typically walk around the perimeter, just a spontaneous little change of pace. We pass the barren riverside apple tree and follow the swamp toward a beaver pond when Chub-Chub breaks through the brush into the mucky tangles, a typical move to which I pay no attention until I get some 100 yards away and realize there’s no sign of him. I call, figuring he’s near, then whistle, then call again in a louder voice, but still no Chubby. Thinking, “Uh-oh, maybe he’s picked up where he left off on that previous chase,” I buzz him — no sign — whistle without results and give him another electric tickle that soon produces a flash of white headed my way. I first think it’s Chubby but am surprised to see a fawn hightailing to a collision course with me. The little creature runs up to within 20 feet of me and 10 feet of Lily, standing with a friendly wag, and the little deer stops, stares briefly and flees. I hear something approaching, glance right, and here comes the mom, bright white flag bobbing, Chubby in playful pursuit, giving that pathetic yip I often hear when his mom goes inside their dog house and won’t let him in. He wanted to play, would have undoubtedly licked that deer affectionately had she permitted.

The small doe finally turns and takes a playful run at Chubby, who circles playfully away as the deer switches direction and takes three or four bounds right at Lily and me. She freezes and looks me in the face, probably looking for her fawn, but seemingly without fear of us, displaying the countenance of a pet approaching for affection. I speak to her in a soothing voice, saying, “It’s OK, Baby, we won’t hurt you.” She flexes her ears forward, cocks her head this way and that, as though trying to understand my words, before Chubby arrives and she flees down the trail left by her little skipper.

What a sight to behold, a moment in nature that sticks with you. Those deer and others that live there know me, my truck, my dogs, my voice and whistle, and typically skirt us year around without incident. This day was different. We must have caught them out feeding late in the clover and Chubby just couldn’t resist chasing hot scent. I was the beneficiary.

Ooops! That’s it. No time to delve deeper into Berry/Snyder or the musician’s home visit. But let me leave you with this poignant exchange from Wednesday morning:

Stirring in bed and ready to rise as my wife passed on her way to an early medical appointment, she stopped briefly to say, “Honey, can you imagine that four years ago today we were at the auction.”

That’s code for the night 28-year-old son Gary was stricken with an aortic dissection that required surgery he did not survive. More recently, just this past April, younger brother Rynie suffered the same fate, dying a day before his 29th birthday. So, yes, it’s been a difficult time for us, last week’s column hitting the street on the first anniversary of Rynie’s surgery.

“That happened on Sept. 17?” I responded, speaking of Gary’s dissection. What I really wanted to say was, “Please, Joey, give it up. Danger lurks when you look in the rearview and take your eyes off the road ahead.” I believe that and try to live it.

But that’s enough. Back to Berry and Snyder, a Heartland Christian and a San Francisco Buddhist in heady discussions, me soaking it up in the comforts of a brown La-Z-Boy by a bright, sunny window that locks me into the present, hoping for better days ahead.


Guinea Gulch Is Calling

An interesting crosstown trip to the feed store after my morning walk, a behemoth faraway bear, many familiar people, my ears buzzing with swarms of feedback about this and that, all of it pertaining to recent topics aired out right here in this space. Why not a little ramble?

No, no, no! Fear not. I’ll keep to the out of doors, sort of, which is about as confined as I prefer to be, no razor-wire fences, no foreboding “Keep Out!” warnings, please.

So let’s begin with a playful little apology to the place that shows up in my checkbook as the acronym GFCE, which means Greenfield Farmers Cooperative Exchange. That’s where I buy my pet food and anything else I need that’s sold by the local store run by local families. Why? Well, because, given a choice, I always support local economy and stay away from corporate big-box establishments. Just me, I suppose, and not the least bit ashamed to admit my local bias. I’m from here. My soul evolved here. Plus, I happen to know folks who own stock in the place, good people I’m happy to support. I can’t pretend to have similar loyalty to the Walton boys from the Sunny South, no matter how much cheaper they sell stuff.

Anyway, I went to this popular local establishment on a whim one morning this week to buy food and cedar bedding for the dogs, which I had just walked on a cool, pleasant day, plenty cool enough for them to safely remain in their crates a little longer than usual as I shopped. When I walked up to the counter, female employees I didn’t think knew me from Adam recognized me and started right in with, “Hey, you caused quite a commotion around here. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who asked us what you feed your dogs.”

The ladies, smirking, were referring to something written here recently about the earthy-crunchy, corn-, glucose- and filler-free dry food I had been feeding my pets with extraordinary results at the recommendation of a helpful employee named Jeff.

“Sorry,” I grinned, “but I didn’t name the product because I didn’t want to be accused of promoting brand names.”

They understood.

When I turned to leave, standing right there to my left was Ernie Kelley from Conway. I hadn’t seen the man in years, had coached his son, Loren, in youth baseball and basketball. Then my brother coached the kid at Frontier. Those youth-coaching days are to me distant memories by now, but that didn’t stop us from having an enjoyable chat that moved from the counter to the parking lot to the warehouse storage racks. As we moved from one subject to the next out on the pavement, Frank Karas, an old South Deerfield friend, passed accompanied by his daughter and new grandson. I didn’t have a chance to talk to them but would have liked to, his daughter home briefly from England.

But enough of that, and, no, I still won’t name the pet foods I feed my dogs and cat. I can, however, tell you there are many products out there that fit the earthy-crunchy profile I speak of, and pet owners who desire peak performance and health in their four-legged friends should give them a try. Trust me, you’ll see the difference.

As for the big bear, well, email photos of it came to me from longtime South Deerfield reader Patricia Potter, who has intermittently chimed in on this and that over the years. This time, presumably because she knew Bay State bear season was underway, she sent shots of a massive brown grizzly bear recently killed in self-defense by Alberta, Canada, hunters who, quite by accident, lured it in with an elk call. If you trust the story accompanying the photos taken from many angles, the beast that was well known to local ranchers — it had killed three horses, five cows and a penful of chickens at the very least — walked to within 10 yards of the caller before his alert partner spotted and killed it with five rapid-fire shots from his .338 Winchester Magnum rifle. The big bruin stood 11¾ feet tall on its hind legs and weighed 1,300 pounds. Just for fun, I forwarded the photos to a couple of bear-hunting buddies, warning that they had better hope nothing like that ever came their way in the woods.

Another subject that drew higher-than-expected feedback was last week’s hard- and soft-mast assessment based on what I’ve been seeing daily on my bottomland meadow romps. The chatter emanated from the uplands, where reliable sources say the apple crop is no better than what I’m seeing lining agricultural plots. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes just a couple of miles above you,” said one trusted old pal on the phone. Then another source from the neighborhood of the historic Uncle Abel Dinsmore House in Conway wrote to say the apple crop there is sparse because of a late frost that froze tender spring blossoms.

When I responded to my Conway source, an Amherst native, with a tease that it wouldn’t be difficult to lure me into exploring Guinea Gulch, a forested marsh near him which I suspect to be a place of “high spirit” on the ancient Native American landscape, he begged off, saying he’s headed for China and unavailable. In the next breath, he suggested I look up an old trapper I’ve known most of my life. He couldn’t have suggested a better man. I bet he had no clue I knew him. Not only that, but I can say without hesitation that there is no one on earth with whom I would rather probe that deep, dense, verdant upland bog and aquifer than the man he recommended. Once an artistic stone mason, now a clever handyman working toward a state pension, my late son Ryan often ran into him and considered him “cool.”

Which reminds me of how much I’m missing Rynie. Like older brother Gary, who died three years before him, he’s gone, not a thing I can do about it. What I can, and pledge to both late sons I will do is continue placing one inquisitive foot in front of the other while following my life path, the forward pull growing stronger by the day, the week, the month. Who knows where it’ll lead? Who cares?

Somehow I get the idea my next stop will be into Guinea Gulch, that hidden sanctuary few choose to roam — wet, wild and saturated with meaning and significance in this hollow, tweeting, texting, twerking land that’s lost its way and seems destined for destruction.

This trip I won’t be looking for deer or bears or moose or grouse. No, I’ll be hunting native whispers I can’t decipher but can follow. Sometimes whispers like that can lead you where you want to go.



Don’t let this hot summer weather deceive you. Fall is slipping in. I have felt it for a while now, seen it in the swamps, the sumacs.

Just this week I spotted a nice, full, bitter but tasty triangular bunch of blue wild grapes, and the sight and scent immediately transported me back some 30 years to an old Williamsburg haunt that was, before the Audubon Society took over, my favorite partridge covert, also a productive spot to hunt turkeys and deer. I knew the old codgers who owned the farm, shared many Connecticut Valley genes with them and actually helped the old hunchback with chores when I caught him out in the act. Brothers in their 80s, they qualified as what used to be called hayseeds, yes they were, and I guess they “didn’t want none of them damn McMansions” built on their old scenic pastures. So today, despite the constant presence of coyotes, bobcats, fisher cats, hawks, eagles, owls and many other natural pests and predators that call it home and wreak havoc on singy-songy birds, you can’t even walk your freakin’ dogs through the mostly wooded 535-acre parcel. Yes sir, times change — and not always for the better. In fact, I’m not even sure the “protected” birds have it better.

But let’s not get wanderin’ off. It’s time to return to those wild deep-blue grapes, about the size of buckshot pellets, not the only harbingers of fall I’ve been passing daily. How about the tiny black cherries that have started to accumulate underfoot? Smaller than the grapes and probably a shade darker, they started showing up this week and there seems to be no shortage. The same cannot be said for apples, though. No, judging from the trees I pass on my daily rambles, plus the one in my front yard, in all five or six mature trees, my opinion is that apples aren’t nearly as plentiful as last year. Under trees where my dogs daily ate to their heart’s content for weeks last year, in recent days they’re lucky to find one apple during furious, competitive searches to be the first to a random green one. Yeah, I know, perhaps deer or bears or something else is beating them to the site overnight, but I don’t think so; more like apples are few and far between. We’ll see what develops in the highlands. I’d guess it’s similar, but you never know. Maybe just one of those “spotty” years.

As for hard mast, well, that appears to be a different story. Acorns have been scattered for weeks along my path, and now, this week, sporadic hickory nuts have begun appearing alongside. I would from casual observation rate the nut crop thus far as “available,” with visible butternuts still clinging to their branches. Perhaps beechnuts are clinging, too, though I can’t see them; however, I can say I have yet to see one on the ground. My guess is that those thorny beechnut husks will soon start falling. Maybe the first indication of their presence will be a flinching or limping reaction of a dog that’s stepped squarely on one in the tall grass down by the Christmas trees. So, there you have it — my bottomland assessment of the hard and soft mast crop from the fertile Greenfield Meadows.

As for the uplands, which I have visited less but prefer, I have nothing current to report because I haven’t hiked the ridges in a month or more. I’ll get up there soon, though, trust me, because I’m always looking for a good excuse to venture off to the high and mighty hardwood spines shading massive outcroppings of ledge and random stones, close to heaven in my world.

But enough mast assessments, let’s catch up on a few things I’ve let linger. First, don’t be alarmed by the sound of rifle-fire in the woods near you. The first three-week segment of bear season opened Tuesday and will continue through Sept. 20. The second three-week segment opens on Nov. 3 and closes Nov. 22, a dreadful day in American history. The 2014 harvest will depend on hunting pressure, which is never as dense as state wildlife officials would like to see it. As a result, our bear population keeps growing and spilling into places too near suburbia, which can over time become an issue to the men and women hired to manage wildlife. Unless something’s changed, the experts would like to see 12 percent of the population killed annually by hunters, who have never approached that goal. Thus the burgeoning population. The problem is that bear hunters have become a rare breed, just a sliver of the ever-diminishing statewide hunter pool; that and the fact that harvesting a bear is work with a capital W, especially after the animal is dead and the successful hunter must get right to the strenuous butchering chores unless there’s a walk-in cooler available, which few have access to. Without the luxury of a cool place to hang the carcass for “seasoning,” a bear must be skinned and butchered quickly to avoid spoilage of meat in summer temperatures. And that doesn’t even address the job of dragging a large, heavy carcass out of the woods in summer weather, also no picnic when dragging dead-weight on the end of a rope.

Speaking of large, potentially dangerous beasts of the forest, we had a July 16 “downtown” Conway cougar sighting by Nancy Bovio, who lives on Elm Street. Alerted by her Scottie dog’s indoor barking, Ms. Bovio looked outside expecting the deer that had been regular visitors and was surprised to see a big tawny cat with a long tail. So confident was she of her sighting that she posted it prominently in the Aug. 14 edition of “The Visitor,” a community newsletter published by a local church, asking others to be on the lookout: “Crossing our yard near the woods was what I believe was a mountain lion,” she wrote. “It was too large for a bobcat and had a long tail. It was tan, sleek, about 6 ft. long and 3 ft. tail.”

Hmmmm? Imagine that! These local cougar sightings just keep on coming. Yes siree. Just keep on comin’. And with that, off I go … back to fascinating local history I’ve been researching but hesitate to bore you with.


Old & Eager

The swamps are sporting their royal, invasive purple, yellows are lining the edges, rose of Sharon’s in bloom, mud-splattered acorns are scattered underfoot, my favorite sweet-16 side-by-side is in the shop for repairs and — ah! — life is good. Yet, still, I find myself pondering the mortality of Lily, a dynamo gundog whose age hit double digits on my 35th wedding anniversary in April.

Of aristocratic springer spaniel pedigree, Lily is looking frisky these days, free-wheeling, a bounce in her step, fully recovered from a disastrous final litter more than three years ago. Yeah, it’s true that litter produced kennel-mate Chubby along with a bitch now enjoying pastoral splendor in the morning shadow of Catamount, but how can I forget the bad news; the two stillborns and expensive surgery to, in one fell swoop, spay Lily and retrieve the fifth pup stuck in her womb. Oh, I remember it well. Like yesterday in fact. No profits from that litter. Uh-uh. Chalk it up as an expense.

Later that fall, during the final week of pheasant season and just days before the death of my older son, another costly setback was brought on by a beaver-bog puncture wound to Lily’s ribcage that festered into an abscess requiring additional surgery and post-operative care. Yes sir, someone up there sure did put ole Lily-Butt through the ringer that year. I vividly recall longtime vet friend Doc Schmitt informing me with his wry trademark grin that she was a “tough bitch.” It was an astute observation. Yes, he hit the nail square on the head. And now the old gal is running strong, probably stronger than she should be, given what she’s endured.

I pray I’m not jinxing her, am well aware that once a dog hits 10, things can unravel fast. I watched it happen to Ringo — Lily’s kennel-mate, friend, lover and protector — not long after wondering aloud in print how many good years he had left, then marveling at his determination and stamina in the field at age 12. The way he ran through heavy cover all day long that year gave me unfounded hope that he had at least a year left, maybe two, as a productive gundog with no quit. Then, out of nowhere, like a flash of lightning in a black sky, the old fella took gravely ill, deteriorated rapidly and pathetically before my eyes, and was gone. Just like that, a week after witnessing him blowing through fresh, deep snow off an old Indian trail through the Williamsburg/Conway woods, he went into rapid decline and had to be put out of his misery.

As for ole Lily-Butt, who knows? She seems to be a survivor, a bundle of swamp-inspired fury.

“Why do you call her Lily-Butt, Grampy?” asked younger grandson Arie, now 5, long ago, and that’s been a common question from youngsters over the years. I guess the nickname is catchy among kids.

“Well,” I respond to the query, “I can’t say for sure when or why I added the Butt, but it was probably because of the way she furiously wiggles her hind quarters when pursuing fresh scent. Plus, Lily-Butt just rolls off the tongue, and she responds to it with loyal affection.”

It’s funny. The last kid who questioned the nickname a few weeks back in my backyard brook was 3-year-old Saben from Cambridge. When he returned home from a long weekend in New York City, his mother wondered why he was calling one of their dogs Lily-Butt. I got a charge out of that one. Good thing she’s not the type that washes a kid’s mouth out with soap. No, not at all. Quite the contrary.

But why digress, back to Lily’s current geriatric enthusiasm. I truly believe I can credit her youthful vigor to a man named Jeff at the Greenfield Agway store. A reader and fellow springer owner from Leyden, the man recognized me at the till a few years ago when Chubby was a young pup and asked my why I fed my dogs a well-known high-end brand I was purchasing. When I told him I believed it to be a superior product and had had good luck with it over the years, he said, “Let me show you something,” and proceeded to introduce me a lesser-known food that was less advertised, thus cheaper, yet better for my dogs. Grain-, gluten- and filler-free, I tried it, the dogs loved it, the food agreed with them and over time I noticed a difference in their overall health and zip.

I have now switched over to a similar cat food and have noticed a big difference in overall appearance and health in her, too. Though I must admit to being previously clueless to such healthy pet foods, and have since discovered that my old preferred brand even offers the same type of food (more expensive), I have stuck with my Agway source’s recommendations ever since. When the first brand he showed me was bought out by another company, then sold again, he showed me the new labels and others like it, which I have faithfully purchased.

I would recommend this type of pet food to anyone who desires peak health and performance from working pets. And while you’re at it, maybe you ought to investigate what you yourself are eating off big-box market shelves. I did, started making smarter choices and have reaped the benefits, dropping weight and even reducing irritation to my chronic left knee simply by adjusting to a less contaminated diet some would call “earthy-crunchy.”

That’s OK. Call it what you wish. I’m sold on it for my pets and me.


Nuts & Bolts

Photographer friend Erik Hoffner, whose eclectic interests intersect mine in several areas related to nature, worldview and politics, chimed in from the wilds of Ashfield this week speculating that, judging from what he’s seen thus far around home, there’s a bumper-crop of acorns this year.

Although I haven’t toured my favorite high ridges, where freeborn spirits whisper in primitive tongues I cannot understand near geological wonders of our little world, I tend to agree with my friend. On the bottomland terrain I daily tour with my dogs, not only acorns but butternuts as well seem to be plentiful. So now I guess I have impetus to soon find a partner who wants to take a hike to a special place with me, maybe tote a camera up to the balanced rock and beyond, where the distant hardwood ridges are chock full of oak, hickory and beech groves to ramble and conduct a hard-mast assessment along the way. Maybe I’ll even try to find that rare, large, high-altitude, seven-trunked shagbark hickory tree I found a few years back and neglected to snap a photo. It’s not far above an expansive hickory grove to the south, the largest of its type that I know of, where many years ago I sent a bear hunter I barely knew through a mutual pal. I showed him the spot and, go figure, on his first day in the woods, the man from somewhere in the eastern half of the state came away happy indeed, driving home with a handsome 285-pound afternoon bruin shot through the chest with a Winchester .308 while leaning his back against one of many massive outcroppings of ledge complementing the soft, passive-gray, shaggy-barked woods on a gentle, sun-splashed southern slope within earshot of rural dirt-road traffic. I imagine a hunter’s chances would be far better in that spot today, with the bear population likely three times or more what it was back then, in the 1980s.

That’s about all I have on bears, which will in a couple of weeks be fair game to hunters during the annual three-week September season that always begins the day after Labor Day. The hard mast may lure the beasts into the deep woods this year instead of lurking around silage cornfields, but the agricultural enticements are always worth investigating because food is easy for the taking there, and farmers rarely deny hunters who help eliminate pests that create crop damage and harvesting issues.

Better late than never dept.: Some fresh news to mix with old from the catfish-derby circuit, which seems to have cooled since the Channel Cat himself, old buddy Donald Partyka of Chicopee, passed on to the happy hunting grounds likely known to men of his ilk as Cautantowwit-ski’s House in the land of the setting sun.

So, let’s start with the old news first, that of the 34th annual Holyoke Post 351 derby Partyka founded, promoted with all his affable energy for decades, and proudly boasted of it as the granddaddy of all catfish derbies. This year’s edition was held in July and winner Geoffrey Croteau of Chicopee came in with quite a fish that tipped the scales at 14 pounds, 6 ounces before being released back into the Connecticut River to swim another day. Runner-up Nick Yelle of Gardner came in with a 13-pounder, followed by third-place finisher John James, who, from parts unknown, also caught a 13-pounder weighed after Yelle’s.

Fresher is the news that arrived on my desk this week, courtesy of Greenfield’s Gary Hallowell, who along with his brother founded and ran last weekend’s fifth-annual “Last-Cast Catfish Derby.” Like Partyka’s granddaddy of them all, the local derby is held “anywhere on the Connecitcut River and its tributaries.” This competition is annually headquarters at the Turners Falls Rod & Gun Club on the southern shore of Bartons Cove.

James Lund of Greenfield was the top dog with an 11.75-pound catfish, followed by A.J. Sackett from Gardner (10.33), James Miller of Greenfield (7.03), Cooper Southworth Purdy of Montague (6.98), and Patrick Woods of Northfield (5.66).

Chiming in: Although it’s too early to start running victory laps and bouncing victorious cartwheels on the town common just yet, men of my ilk who love the woods and favor conservation and preservation find comforting the negative response to the proposed natural-gas pipeline targeted for Franklin County. Don’t let your guard down, fellas, because the folks in favor of the project are still lying in the grass waiting to strike in favor of this controversial pipeline. Trust me, they’ll soon be out in force, crowing in the public square about the jobs this project could deliver — good-paying jobs at that — not to mention ready access to cheaper natural gas for business and industry alike. They’ll likely call it a win/win economically, using threadbare arguments as inevitable as November frost. Although support is building momentum behind the scenes, I suspect the pro-growth crowd has a steep hill to climb on this one, no matter who takes the lead in crafting a sales job. From this white-oak perch just west of Bill and Camille’s in Shelburne, it seems to me that proponents are baying up the wrong tree. Just one rooted man’s opinion.


Sales Jobs

Why not traipse back this week to that old, familiar topic of salmon?

Yes, salmon, specifically Connecticut River Atlantic salmon, which I once spent a lot of time and energy on before wandering off to other subjects that tickled my fancy. But now, briefly back to the fish fit for kings and noblemen. Who knows how long before I’ll revisit it again, if ever? For that matter, who cares?

The impetus for this step back in time is twofold 1.) a recent rereading of Catherine Carroll Carlson’s 1992 UMass doctoral dissertation based on archaeological record and titled “The Atlantic Salmon in New England Prehistory and History: Social and Environmental Implications” and 2.) a surprise press release that found its way to me from Oswego County, N.Y., promoting what may prove to be just another pie-in-the-sky Atlantic salmon-restoration fantasy.

More than anything else, what leads me to suspect a fruitless scheme in the making is the press release’s lead paragraph stating with bold bravado that, “Back in the early years of the 19th century, Lake Ontario had the greatest population of landlocked Atlantic salmon in the world. So many ran the tributaries each fall to spawn that men could drive horse-drawn wagons into the streams and spear or net a loadful. Housewives would wade in up to their knees and catch salmon dinners in their aprons.”

Oh boy! Here we go again, fellas. Talk about hyperbole? Haven’t we been through this before? Remember the stories about walking across shallow Connecticut River constrictions on the backs of large, bottlenecked salmon? Yeah, right!

All I can say is thank the heavens I made it a habit way back when of taking rhetoric classes each semester during an erratic but not totally wasted college adventure. What that subject taught me was to avoid one-source stories and be suspicious of all messengers and authoritative filters. When you understand who the messenger is, and why he or she’s trying to sell whatever it is they’re pushing, you learn to be skeptical, which I truly am. In fact, by now I may even be a proud and committed cynic.

But isn’t it interesting that such a press release would, by chance, at this time, arrive in my inbox right on the heels of rereading Carlson’s scholarly treatment of a topic that should have been vetted before the infamous Connecticut River Salmon-Restoration Program was ever kicked into high gear some 50 years ago and ultimately failed miserably?

What most folks probably don’t realize is that there were indeed insiders who were skeptical from the start of the altruistic salmon program. We’re talking about trained, card-carrying fisheries biologists, no less, men who warned true-believer colleagues that their pet project was a long shot at best, that in their humble opinions, Atlantic salmon never populated our Connecticut River in great numbers. And if ever salmon were plentiful, it was just a temporary southern range shift triggered by the Little Ice Age, which New England rivers just so happened to be benefiting from during colonial times.

The problem was that the people in charge wouldn’t listen to reason or alternative hypotheses, and in fact went so far as to rudely ignore voices of reason and caution during what should have been open and honest information exchanges. Well, there was none of that, just nasty looks and threatening gestures. Oppositional feedback was unwelcome. It was a recipe for disaster, which eventually came to fruition this millenium, forcing the plug to be forever pulled on the program in 2012. Turn out the lights, the party’s over. Yet, still, a total of 123 salmon stragglers have migrated upriver the past two years, down to 31 this year.

UMass student anthropologist Carlson delivered her bad news in 1992 to a chorus of boos and catcalls from true-believers chasing an impossible dream of a establishing a viable Connecticut River salmon sport fishery. Yes, it seems Ms. Carlson took it upon herself to investigate some 75 known Northeastern prehistoric Native American fishing sites and, go figure, found almost no archaeological evidence of salmon. The great salmon myth had finally been debunked.

But no. Whoa! Hold your horses, Dude. That was not what stubborn proponents wanted to hear. In fact, they refused to listen and went into their finest damage-control mode, choosing instead to mount a public-relations campaign discrediting Ms. Carlson’s work, and anyone with the audacity to cast light upon her findings. Included were the four advisors who supervised and signed off on the validity of Carlson’s study: Dena F. Dincauze, Boyd E. Kynard, H. Martin Wobst, and Alan Swedlund — all bona-fide experts with the papers to prove it — not to mention any scribe diligent enough to find it and inappropriate enough to report the troubling conclusions.

Now, in a different place called the Lake Ontario watershed — where industrialists had by the Sixties literally killed the lake, polluting it to the level of fire hazard before a clean-up efforts improved water quality — they’re trying to restore landlocked Atlantic salmon as a new component to a viable trout and salmon sport-fishery that pulls in mega tourist bucks. The targeted tributaries are the Salmon and Oak rivers, where the initiative seems from afar to be a long shot given the results of other Atlantic salmon-restoration attempts over the past 25 years. Who knows? It may work. But the odds seem weighted against it.

So don’t hold your breath waiting for a rare success story to unfold on Lake Ontario, and don’t buy the propaganda about 19th century housewives scooping salmon supper from feeder streams with their aprons, either. It’s a tawdry sales job that most who read it will swallow hook, line and sinker without questions.

Which reminds me … I have in recent years polled students attending elite colleges and have concluded that rhetoric is not generally offered these days. Why? Well, I can only speculate, employing my alternative world view. My guess is that it has something to do with the fact that marketplace skeptics and cynics don’t buy sales pitches cranked out by clever spinmeisters earning big money in our consumerist culture, where everything from toilet paper to presidents is sold to a dazed, indebted public that prefers its news from tweets and texts and 15-second sound bites.

Orwell sounded the alarm long ago, when few listened. Even fewer want to hear it today. I find myself pondering whether it’s already too late to take heed?

A Teaching Moment

This subject’s been sitting handy on my desk for three weeks now, printed and pushed aside at least twice to allow for bear banter that came to me the same way most things seem to come: by email, phone or personal conversation. So, having now put the bear discussion to rest for a while, let’s take a few steps back to that lingering subject, the genesis of which was mention right here in this space of a hen turkey my spry, 10-year-old springer spaniel bitch, Lily, flushed from a tall, dense, fragrant hayfield awaiting its first cut a month back.

After that flush occurred toward the end of our daily ramble through upper fields, Sunken Meadow and back up, I made brief mention of my fear that a nest of little hatchlings could have been nearby, and that I wanted to avoid either or both of my two dogs discovering them unable to fly and quite vulnerable, even to soft-mouthed gun dogs more apt to pick up and retrieve them unharmed than crunch and kill. Still, I always try to play it safe.

Also included in that narrative was speculation that, given what I have seen most years when my dogs find young broods in our travels, poults seem to gain flight and the ability to follow their mother onto a tree limb out of harm’s way quite quickly, maybe even within a week of hatching. I didn’t Google “immature turkey flight” or anything of the sort before putting that in print, just took an educated guess based upon what I had seen with my own eyes many times in the summer — a flock of winged footballs fleeing with their mother to lofty tree limbs.

I knew I should have double-checked when an old South Deerfield pal, who makes a habit of observing and even feeding wildlife around his palatial forested home, questioned my flight assessment, contending that poults are grounded for weeks, not days. I didn’t doubt him but wanted to put the issue to rest. No, no, no, I didn’t Google it. Didn’t have to. I knew exactly who to query: my retired UMass professor brother-in-law living an idyllic retirement on his secluded Maine gentleman’s farm. I don’t believe there is anyone who knows birds better than Buzz, a cerebral man pushing 70 with a lifelong study of birds in his thorough, professorial ways. Recently, his ornithological fascination has been especially focused on wild turkeys, populations of which began populating his tidy upland farm perhaps 20 years ago and have taken off like gangbusters on terrain he manicures as a wildlife sanctuary.

So, without further ado, take it straight from Buzz the teacher, who spared no words in his email response to me, written in English, one of at least three languages he is fluent in. Here it is in its entirety, with a few minor editorial changes and one little typo repair:

“I have read that poults can fly enough to reach low limbs by 10 days of age. I have watched them for years now and note that from three days old they are constantly trying to use their wings — almost always fluttering them as they rush to stay up with the hen. By day eight or so, they actually jump, flap their little wings and remain airborne for three or four feet as they follow her.

“Once they are able to get to low limbs (10 days or so) three feet or so off the ground, they do what is called “limbing” — an activity in which they flutter/jump from limb to limb, acquiring skill, strength, and dexterity all the while. This goes on for several months as they become true experts in navigating tree limbs and moving about in trees — a skill needed to avoid danger, find a good perch or navigate their way out of trees.

“When very young, poults will simply hide, remaining motionless if danger approaches. This behavior goes on from day one to roughly day 10 or 15, I would venture. On more than one occasion I have come upon a hen that pops up out of tall grass, putts repeatedly, and walks about putting lightly — and on such occasions I have seen a poult or two (some with decent wing feathers) hunkered down motionless in the deep grass. I have generally left immediately, allowing the hen to collect her brood and move away.

“At some point around day 10 to 15, poults will flush with the hen, who may just run or fly a short distance. At this age, they cannot fly too far, perhaps 30 yards or so before a disorderly landing in tall hay. I consider this the poults’ most vulnerable time, and the hen gets very upset upon seeing them flush. Given age and lack of experience, it can be a challenge for the young to regroup with the hen. The tall grass could be an impediment.

“At about 21 days, the young can fly quite well and the hen knows this — thus she will often flush to a nearby tree, and the poults will do likewise. I would venture that it is birds of 21 days of age or more that you are thinking of when you call them footballs. I say 21 days because they are all decent fliers by this point — and they have really developed their regrouping skills. They simply become more proficient with each passing day. Leigh and I do try to avoid these stressful encounters by noting where turkeys happen to be when we are leaving for a walk, and by leaving the area immediately if we happen to run into a family.

“Several years ago we encountered a hen and five poults for several consecutive days. The hen grew increasingly alarmed over time and shortly thereafter moved her brood elsewhere. I theorized that she left my fields because of these encounters. I would venture that some hens are more tolerant of human contact than others. That said, I have since noted that a number of hens and young on my place move away from my fields for several weeks once the young are about four weeks old. I think that the hen wants to expose them to new territory, and the young are quite skilled and alert — able to handle various challenges that come with exploring new territory. This move may also be due to better feeding conditions in other areas birds have not foraged. It could also be because, by four weeks old, the young need fewer insects that abound in fields and are crucial to very young poults’ diet. It could also be because instinct tells the hen that the young need time in the deep, open woods. Though uncertain of the cause, I have noted this phenomenon for several years.

“In any event, these same groups often resurface on my place several weeks later, then appear and disappear throughout the rest of the summer and fall. The young have so much to learn — what to eat, their range, what to avoid and how to avoid it. No wonder the efforts to restore turkeys with farm-raised birds failed. All they knew was the inside of their pens and where the feeder was located!

“I do hope these unscientific observations are of some help. It is a complex puzzle. The more information one has, the better.”

So there you have it — from a man who knows yet likely never took wildlife biology in a college degree plan focused on languages and linguistics. So, let me pose this question: Is he professional or amateur?

In my judgment, he could hold his own with any card-carrying ornithologist. Not only that but, although retired on a peaceful slice of Nirvava, isn’t it blatantly obvious how much he still loves to teach?


Close Encounter

Although there’s other stuff I could get into, interesting topics I’m confident readers would enjoy, it’s back to black bears — specifically a big Wendell bruin that may be attempting to befriend a dear old friend of mine, himself a large, bearded, bear-like man and gentle giant.

Who knows? Maybe the burly four-legged creature thought my buddy, Big R, was his long-lost brother or half-cousin. Stranger things have happened, I suppose. And remember, my buddy’s great-grandfather was a full-blooded Algonquian of the Ottawa tribe. So one never knows when it comes to relationships between Indians and wildlife, especially bears, for which a special place was reserved in Native Americans’ spiritual realm.

This, mind you, is the same pal I have previously written about regarding past bear capers. An old softball teammate, hunting buddy and personal friend, you may recall the story about the wounded bear he kept encountering in his yard, one that was walking on three legs and may have had a compound fracture to a front leg, judging from an ugly protrusion visible maybe a foot above a front paw. That big beast, likely a male, kept visiting my friend’s yard a year or two ago in search of easy victuals — you know, stuff like garbage, garden goodies and bird-feeder fare. My big buddy on a few occasions got eerily close to that wounded black beast out by his deck and on the driveway, even on occasion speaking calmly to it, telling it something to the effect of, “Hey Big Fella, this isn’t cool. You’re gonna have to screw before something bad happens.” Eventually the beast disappeared, probably as soon as wild berries and nuts ripened and called from the wildlands.

Well, folks, here we go again: same man, identical wooded Wendell home.

Having read my last two columns about a solitary bottomland bear I jumped one morning on my daily walk with the dogs — and how by the morning after I had jumped it from a dense narrow swamp, the bear had, to a farmer’s dismay, torn up five hay bales wrapped in white plastic along the woods bordering the 15-foot escarpment it ran up to flee us — Big R was thinking the grainy, faraway photo accompanying last week’s piece was weak. He knew many opportunities had over the years presented themselves to him, offering better shots of bears much closer if only a camera had been handy.

Then, lo, just like that, another golden opportunity arose, this time camera-ready. Big R was alerted to the bear’s presence by his yapping female Jack Russell Terrier, a little nipper nicknamed “Shuggie,” for Sugar, tied outside to the deck post and barking her fool head off. Big R, cell phone in hand, walked outside onto the deck, where, to his amazement, stood a massive black bear, which didn’t seem the least bit unnerved by human presence, never mind that of the little lap dog. No, the shiny beast just stood there docile, looking my buddy square in the face, making no threatening sounds, gestures or sudden movements. The Big R picked up Shuggie, wedged her into security under his armpit, snapped a quick shot with his cell phone camera and decided to go inside for a better camera that was handy. Plus, he wanted to put Shuggie inside, out of harm’s way in a crate.

When he returned to the deck, sure enough, the bear was still standing right there at the base of the stairs 10 or 15 feet away, quite comfy with the presence of my big buddy, who snapped several up-close-and-personal photos. At one point, the bear, curiously observing and listening to the sounds of the camera, even calmly placed its two front paws, one after the other, onto the first step, as though it was coming up to join my buddy, the thought of which got his wheels spinning off into wild places.

“Yeah,” he chortled, “I was thinking that, if he charged me, I may not have time to get inside. But that bear never made a threatening move. He just stood there like a pet that wanted to be my friend and follow me inside for something to eat.”

Could it have been the same bear, healed, that came around wounded previously?

“You know, that’s a good question,” he answered. “It could have been the same animal. Truthfully, I never even thought of that. He was bigger. That’s for sure. But he did seem awful comfortable around me and my yard. Maybe it was learned behavior. It’s possible.”

Did it favor a front leg?

“No, I don’t think so,” he answered, “but it’s possible because I was too focused on the bear itself to look for that. Maybe I can zoom into the photo and see if I can notice any imperfections in a front leg. Plus, if he comes back, which I wouldn’t doubt, I’ll check for a limp.”

It’s difficult to estimate the size of the bear, but my buddy stands 6 feet, 5 inches tall, weighed about 280 the last time I saw him and would blend nicely into any offensive-line quadrant of an NFL locker room. He said he had to go to the peak of his reach to hang his suet tubes from a rope, and the bear had no trouble tearing them down. He estimated it to be seven feet long on all fours.

“Those tubes are more than eight feet off the ground,” my buddy estimated, “and that bear’s head, standing on his hind legs, was right in the neighborhood.”

Ah, yes, nature’s classroom and the beautiful sights of big shiny-black bruins. They’re beautiful indeed to watch, but nothing even a big man like my buddy would want to wrassle, or invite in for dinner, for that matter. One playful swipe could ruin your day fast.


Photo Finish

I can’t claim shock because I had an idea a neighbor or random passerby had probably seen that bear my dogs and I recently jumped out of a narrow strip of wetland before it tore up five plastic-covered hay bales nestled along an adjacent tree line above.

In fact, I was confident additional information would come my way. Hey, maybe even a photo — definitely not out of the question these days when most people carry cell phones and are thus camera-ready. That’s one good reason why I wrote about my close encounter with that burly black beast last week. I was smoking out a story. It has always worked for me. And, well, I guess I can chalk this one up as another success.

Yes, indeed someone did get a photo of that bear, albeit not atop the hay bale as her husband, then she had seen it before she was unfortunately forced by uncooperative traffic to pass the site and return. By that time, the bear was getting out of Dodge, heading west across the paved road. Her faraway cell-phone snapshot caught the fleeing beast climbing over the flex-beam guardrail and into a small marshy depression. I betcha from there it followed Allen Brook right to Angie Menard’s tasty bird feeders. No, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if that beast got a little taste of Angie’s treats.

When on Tuesday morning I told my next-door neighbor about the new developments pertaining to last week’s bear column, she wasn’t surprised. A hardy lady, she rides her horse and sometimes 4-wheels on the ridge above our homes, where she said she often runs into bears. In her opinion, there are many bears in the neighborhood, and she’s concerned that her dog, Molly, a chocolate Lab, could on the wrong day find conflict requiring vet bills. Most interesting from her perspective are the yearling twin cubs she’s happened upon more than once, very cute.

But, back to that Monday email with photo attached that was waiting in my inbox late Monday night at home. There it sat, just before midnight as I was preparing to run the dogs one last time before winding down into bed following my nightly Recorder shift. The sender, identified only as Keith, who later confirmed that we are “kinda neighbors,” opened his message with this creative little yarn:

“I was headed to town and saw a tall man in a black gorilla suit leaning against the white plastic hay bales and scratching them open. Hard to miss the contrast of black against white. I thought, ‘Can’t be,’ backed up, then, ‘No, that’s a bear,’ and watched it for quite a while as it continued to scratch open the top of the hay bales. (I was wondering if there were still grasshoppers/grubs alive in them.)

“At one point the bear climbed on top of one and was on all fours when it took a mouthful of hay and dropped it. After a while I rolled down my window and yelled to knock it off because (the farmer) would be upset getting his bales all messed up. I was ignored. I went to town and called my wife to take a picture, which is attached.”

Had his wife enjoyed an open road to herself, there would have been more than enough time to snap off a few shots of the bear atop the hay bale. No such luck. The traffic dictated and she had to drive past the site, turn around and come back from the south, by which time it was too late.

Oh well, better late than never, because we still did smoke out a citizen photo, an accomplishment to savor in this game I’ve played for many decades. I attribute the stroke of luck to constructing a personal relationship with readers, which I think is crucial to getting information. If sources don’t trust or respect a scribe, they don’t offer much.

Anyway, I’m sure that bear has negotiated its way around me and my dogs for days or even weeks, and will likely continue to do so for days and weeks to come. To their credit, my dogs, carefully bred pursuers of birds and beasts, must know better than to pursue the big black beast even though they’re aware of its presence along with the deer that routinely allow us to pass, always ready to spring up out of their beds and flee if we make a move in the wrong direction or get too close.

I guess by now we have become part of that riverside habitat, not unlike the hunter who secrets himself for hours on stand in the woods and can palpably feel himself blending into the landscape, senses sharpening acute. To me, settling into that fascinating place is more pleasing than touching off my weapon’s loud roar.

Must be getting old, I guess, although, to me, age is only a state of mind, one that affects people differently. While some get wiser and hone their face-to-face communication skills to a fine-art form, others grow cranky, unapproachable and totally uninterested in anything resembling open and honest discussion.

I prefer sage listener/communicators.

I passed my first summer acorns on the ground along the edge of a young cornfield over the weekend, and the sight told me woodshed time is closing in. The area is littered willy-nilly with deer tracks, yet the hoofed creatures don’t seem to be eating the small, round nuts. No tree expert, I always thought those big oaks standing atop the first escarpment overlooking the river were red oaks, which they may indeed be. But judging from the tiny, plump acorns, there could be a black oak squeezed in there. Then again, maybe I should ignore the size of the nut. Perhaps they’re immature and fell prematurely in a strong, stormy updraft.


Summer Bear

It started early last week with a startling sound, an invisible burst of energy, a rumble in the jungle, a rustling, brush- and stick-busting sprint by something near and heavy fleeing up the escarpment from a narrow wetland framing the northwestern perimeter of Sunken Meadow.

It was a Tuesday morning and the dogs and I were working our way around a large sumac tree poking prostrate out into the second row of Christmas trees and obscuring our beaten path. As I studied its drupes, which had changed color from gold to red since it had fallen in a windy rainstorm perhaps a week earlier, whatever was harbored nearby bolted off, starting maybe 20 feet from me and 10 feet from Chubby, the dog standing statuesque along the dense, thorny, tangled wild-rosebush border. Frozen, head high, ears perked, Chub-Chub bounced excitedly south a couple times along the border, threatened to pursue and decided against it.

Hmmmmm, I wondered, what the hell was that? Maybe a bear, because I hadn’t seen any white flashes and, frankly, it just didn’t sound like a thin-legged deer bounding away. Furthermore, Chubby’s tentative reaction was not indicative of a deer, which he will, more out of playful curiosity than anything else, briefly chase before returning. Whatever it was that we had disturbed, Chubby took the cautious approach, which set my wheels spinning. In fact, I often thought back to it over the next few days.

Something I was happy about in that familiar setting was that the landowner had finally harvested the upper hayfields, which I had been patiently awaiting to extend my walk an extra mile through scalped acreage. I had seen the man to wave to many times in passing but hadn’t had the opportunity to rattle his cage. You know, something playful like, “Hey, Buddy, what’s going on? On vacation this week?”

Well, I finally got my chance Saturday upon catching the man outside his barn with a young hired hand. I pulled over, slid down my window, smiled, and started in on him about taking advantage of “vacation,” which seemed to humor him some before he informed me that he had a new job teaching at vocational school, a great transition that’ll provide him more free time for summer farming. Fact was, though, that he had something else he’d been wanting to share if he caught me. So, see, we’d been trying to catch each other for days.

“Yeah,” he said, eyes wide with excitement, “did you know there’s a bear down there where you walk? It’s a big one. Tracks like this (holding his hands 10 inches or more apart). It tore through the plastic wrap into five of my hay bales lined up along the woods.”

I was now certain — given this latest revelation, and combining it with what I had heard with my own ears, seen with my own eyes, plus heard a neighbor report a few days earlier during casual conversation that a large bear had crossed the road less than a quarter-mile west of my home — that what I heard flee four days earlier had been a burly bear.

It made sense to me that bears would hang low around wetlands and agricultural plots in the summer. Soon the cornfields would be prime for foraging, then the berries and fruits before the big omnivores would head for the uplands in search of ripe, protein-rich hard-mast available in hickory, beech, oak, walnut and butternut groves. But before I put that assessment in black and white, I figured I better talk to a bear expert for confirmation of my deductive suspicions about an animal I’ve never studied, hunted or observed much.

The first two sources who came to mind were a couple of wildlife biologists — Ralph Taylor, now MassWildlife’s Connecticut Valley District manager, but formerly a bear man; and Dr. John McDonald, now a Westfield State University professor, formerly a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service specialist, MassWildlife’s Deer Project Leader and before that a member of the agency’s bear-management team. I knew either or both could tell me about summer bears, and they didn’t disappoint.

I first called Taylor but was forced onto a circuitous route back to him through a third party in the 617 area code and actually received my first response from McDonald, vacationing with his family and their new cocker spaniel on Cape Cod. Rrrrrrrrrrr! The press filter Bay State scribes must go through to get benign information from state employees with whom they may have enjoyed decades-long professional relationships is annoying indeed. But I won’t go there. Why beat a dead horse?

Obviously, McDonald didn’t have access to his office files but nonetheless wrote back that he found it interesting my neighborhood bear had torn into hay bales. He speculated the beast must have done so because it smelled something sweet and enticing.

“This time of year, bears are eating mostly vegetation, getting off skunk cabbage, which has toughened,” he wrote. “Swamps are often good summer habitat because they’re cooler and provide succulent (easy to digest) vegetation. …

“I’m trying to remember what we found in the summer scats we analyzed, and think it was a pretty wide array of foods this time of year, mostly vegetation, ants and sunflower seeds. No one food made up more than five or 10 percent of their diet.”

Taylor, finally cleared to respond by early afternoon, phoned me at home, apologized for the delay and concurred with his old friend and colleague McDonald.

“Bears will investigate anything that smells strong,” he said, “even something they aren’t familiar with. Those large circular bales wrapped in plastic give off a strong odor when they ferment in the hot sun. My guess is that’s what attracted the bear.”

He was in lock-step with McDonald on summer bear diet, saying, “They’re in their vegetarian stage now, plus insects and grubs. Soon they’ll convert to mast crops.”

When told of a rich, dense, shin-high, two-acre field of red and white clover I walk through daily with the dogs, he said, “Yes, they’ eat that, too. In fact, I think we may have a photo on our website of a black bear eating clover. They’ll also eat alfalfa and pick at carrion in freshly hayed fields.”

When told of a large, dead snapping turtle hit by a mower not far from where we jumped the bear last week, Taylor chuckled and said, “I’d expect that once that turtle got ripe and the bear caught wind of it, it got eaten.”

Told of two wood turtles that were killed during the same mowing chores, Taylor sounded sad.

“We’re concerned about wood turtles,” he said, “and have been working with farmers to delay cutting riverside hayfields until after their eggs are laid in early June. A lot of wood turtles die in June hayfields.”

Off I go.