Humdinger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A humdinger.

 

Cougar Spatz

Oh no. Not again.

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

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

I was reluctant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

No Way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Toby Travelers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The world was a better place with Ace.

 

Trigger Happy

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

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

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

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

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

“Again?” he smirked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blind Faith

He was out for an afternoon walk on a sunny fall Friday, I on my way home from hunting, a fun day behind two seasoned gun dogs through thick thorny cover.

I pulled over, stopped, slid down my passenger’s window and said hello, he having just crossed to the south side of a bridge. I have known the man for many years and share many of his Whately roots, but don’t ask me how the conversation began because I don’t recall. Eventually, though, I pulled down from over my visor a computer printout of Alvan Fisher’s 1821 oil painting of Mt. Sugarloaf to show him. I could see he was having difficulty deciphering the image and, to my astonishment, a few minutes into the conversation, he sheepishly inquired, “Please tell me who I’m talking to? I can’t see. The doctors say I’m legally blind, and I can’t recognize you. I was watching TV and seeing fine around noontime one day, then the next minute I could see nothing.”

When I identified myself, the conversation took on a warmer glow. At our core, we are Whately brothers separated by time and what some would call progress. To me, well, modern technology is not always a good thing. What you gain in time and convenience with all the new contraptions and gadgets, you lose tenfold in your knowledge and wisdom of the place you call home. I guess that’s what draws me to that thick swamp I was hunting, a bottomland tangle once owned, trod and worked by my ancestors. And I suppose that’s why, according to my aging octogenarian friend, “You’re about the only one who still consistently hunts that mess. Another hunter was telling me the other day that the state ought to do something about it.”

I sure hope not. Because if they transform that so-called “mess” into something similar to the popular Greenfield covert known as the Filter Beds by poisoning rosebush, scalping cover and maintaining brush-hogged lanes for hunters to walk, it’ll then be to me just another boring covert. Give me deep, wet and thorny any day, because I prefer a robust physical challenge, and so do my springers.

Honestly, I value every second spent speaking to elders like this man I met by chance that day, a wise, rooted native who farmed and hunted the land — a humble man who loves his place and enjoys imparting wisdom if you hit the right chord, which I often do.

Out of the clear blue sky, he changed the subject.

“Do you still hunt deer?” he asked.

I paused.

“Well, I guess so. My dilemma is this damn knee brace I’m wearing. It can get pretty ripe after daily walks and strenuous hunting seasons, and I feel at a disadvantage hunting prey guided through life by a superior nose.”

“Aaaghhhh,” he grunted in his soft, reserved Yankee way, “do you believe that? I never had problems hunting deer without all those new soaps and scents they’re selling. I’d just milk the cows, throw on my barn coat and head out. Never had much of a problem.”

So there. Call it Yankee logic or whatever you choose. Whatever it is, it ain’t far from the truth, and it’s coming from a man who’s killed scores of deer. All these scentless deodorants and scent-neutralizing body soaps and sprays and detergents are money-making gimmicks aimed at consumers, and hunters are buying the pitch, even cynics like myself. Not only that, but writers are field-testing free samples and singing high praise. Sometimes you need a wise old man to set you straight, and I must admit I got a helpful dose of reality on that fine Friday afternoon.

Our conversation moved from the lowland swamps and pastures to family matters, the land and the uplands up by the Whately Glen and beyond. I would venture a guess that no one knows the rocks, rills and ridges between North Street, Whately and Roaring Brook Road, Conway better than this sage gent. But remember, that terrain is in my blood and soul, too. We talked about the old Sanderson mills on the first rise, the size and depth of the pond there. When I told him Forbes Library once displayed a long-lost, late-19th-century painting of the site, he oozed how he’d love to see it, has never seen a picture.

“Do you know what kind of mill it was?” he asked.

“No, I’m not certain,” I responded, “but I think it was the sawmill, and the gristmill was across the road.”

“They say a drunken man drown in that pond,” he said, recounting a tale I would not for a second doubt. “I guess he was passing too close, tipped his carriage over and drown. At least that’s the story I was told.”

By then, the stately, colonial, center-chimney home on that first bluff looking east toward Sugarloaf was the home of my uncles, aunts and cousins. One of my prized possessions is a six-drawer wedding chest from the Glen, wearing on its back the hand-written names of all the brides who owned it. But my branch of the family left the site with the 1824 death of Deacon Thomas Sanderson, father of Alvan, the Ashfield minister and Williams College man who founded Sanderson Academy.

Mention of that tall chest spurred our conversation to the Whately Glen forest and landmarks within.

“The first bride’s name on that chest is Mehitable Wing,” I told my friend. “From Conway, I always wondered how she met husband Silas Sanderson. But then when I explored Conway’s first cellar hole, that of Cyrus Rice, I was able to put it together. Right there in the same neighborhood were two Wing farms, one of which was Mehitable’s home.”

“I betcha one of those cellar holes is on our property,” my friend said. “I could show it to you if you want. I don’t know how we acquired the land. My grandfather believed woodlots would always hold value.”

The man invited me to visit some day when I have time and he’ll take me to the site, plus show me some interesting stone bounds marking the Conway/Whately line. Also, he’d like to show me the bound where Conway, Whately and Deerfield meet, the stone marked with a C, a W and a D, and chiseled marks left every seven years during mandated town-border walks.

I’ll surely take him up on his offer to glean every ounce of wisdom he wants to share. Imagine that: being led by a blind man to ancient sites buried in the forest. The man’s eyesight may be failing, but his vision in that place is acute, way better than 20-20.

He knows the way.

 

Branching Out

Saturday morning, after 10, gray, damp, rain holding off, me reading, phone rings. My buddy Cooker’s calling from the field on his cell, hunting over young male springer spaniel, Gizmo.

“Hey, I’m hunting down by Duncan’s and, trust me, it’s your kinda covert. You ought to head down. You’ll like it. I’ve already killed a hen, flushed two roosters and have the place to myself. It’s three times the size of (your favorite covert), and thicker.”

Intending to hunt later, anyway, it was exactly the kind of impetus needed to rouse me from the La-Z-Boy, having already fed the dogs and endured their pathetic, expressive gestures toward the truck, like, “Pretty please, can we go hunting?” So, yeah, I was ready and so were the dogs.

I bookmarked the page I was reading in Gary Snyder’s book of essays, “The Practice of the Wild,” me focused on “Good, Wild, Sacred” — so powerful and dynamic that I was reading it for the second time in two days, and will assuredly return to it someday. Check it out online. This guy Snyder, best known as a West Coast poet, is on a higher plane than bestselling novelists like Cormac McCarthy or Barbara Kingsolver or even, in my humble opinion, heartlander Wendell Berry, himself a cut above. But why digress, back to the phone call from my buddy.

An added enticement to the wetland he was luring me to was the fact that many years ago I had lived in a then brand new condominium complex along its eastern perimeter, so I knew it held pheasants. I vividly recall seeing them scooting around like roadrunners in the parking lot back then. Plus, Cooker had encouraged me to the site before, but I had begged off — first, because there was no need to travel so far to find enjoyable hunting and, second, because I suspected the hunting pressure would be more than I was willing to travel for.

Call me spoiled if you will but, basically, if I don’t have a covert to myself, I don’t want to be there. Crowded coverts are too hectic, with too many hunters and gun dogs, many of them winded, out-of-control pests. The problem is that in this new era of focused stocking on state Wildlife Management Areas and neglecting the old private coverts I grew up hunting, it’s becoming more and more difficult to find what I consider a quality hunt, especially on Saturdays. So don’t expect me to pinpoint new finds to my liking. Forget that! Maybe I’m selfish, but I’m not looking for company. Pushed away from coverts I hunted regularly five years ago, I’ve been forced to find new ones that fit my tastes. And how did I go about finding them? By revisiting old private coverts I once hunted and upon returning discovered they still held birds and few hunters. Some of these spots are not directly stocked but eventually attract pheasants released into adjacent sites with inferior cover. Even farm-raised pheasants that survive the first few flushes and become acclimated to their new digs have a way of finding thick, wet, thorny cover loaded with seeds and berries to feed on.

Saturday, I arrived on the scene around noontime, and steady rain had begun falling maybe five miles west of my destination. It was not rain that would even tempt me to cancel a hunt, but did indeed require windshield wipers. Fact is I prefer gray, threatening skies and light rain for pheasant hunts, the low pressure driving the scent downward and creating optimal scenting conditions for hunting dogs. Although I would have preferred foggy 40s for temperature, hey, I wasn’t complaining, and I can’t say I was expecting much, either. I just figured I’d check out a new covert and give the dogs a robust, pleasing romp.

I met my friend at a home across the street from the expansive, alluring aquifer we were about to hunt, met the work-at-home, data-processing wife of his friend, sampled a couple of leftover bite-sized Halloween Milky Ways for energy and headed out. Cooker didn’t steer me wrong. After meeting him as a softball teammate in Northampton, we’ve hunted birds for nearly a quarter-century together, and he knows my covert preferences, namely punishing, thorny tangles that are cattail wet and thick with brush, bordered by mixed wetland forest of poplar, soft maple and alders that in places jut out into play as refuge fingers. Well, I must say it was all there and then some. Not only that but pheasants were flying for their lives, the dogs floppy ears flying up out of the brush. Better still, the only shots I heard were ours, and I never saw another hunter or even a hunter’s vehicle anywhere along the road on my way home through a densely populated suburban neighborhood that’s grown since I lived there.

Traveling a familiar road I often take as a shortcut, I checked out a couple of other farms with wetlands known to hold pheasants and never saw a trace of hunters anywhere. Of course, hunters and especially guns are not real popular in this particular town, so I wouldn’t expect a sea of orange and one sharp barrage of gunfire after another. Still, pheasants are not stocked in posted areas closed to hunting, and I know from trusted friends who wouldn’t steer me wrong that the farms I was passing are still stocked.

Hmmmmm? I guess I’ll have to do a little research, poke around a little more when I have time, and see what else develops. I’d call what I discovered on my maiden weekend voyage promising indeed, in a place I briefly called home, no less.

Yes, with coverts I’ve gravitated to for years now annoyingly overcrowded, I may well have found a hidden gem buried in, from a political perspective, the most unlikely of places.

Sometimes a man must branch out in search of something new.

 

Myth Mayhem

As the Beaver Moon builds in the midnight sky, I’ve been stuck on the ancient beaver myth, my meandering thoughts briefly disrupted by backyard leave-removal chores and a fresh cordwood load dumped out back Wednesday morning by Blue Sky, a good man who left a tidy mound in front of the sliding woodshed door. I do hope to get it in promptly and return to pheasant hunting.

Lily and Chubby, eager and capable gun dogs, have been displaying that familiar, palpable, pouting melancholia they wear when anxious and frustrated on idle pheasant-season days. They’ve grown accustomed to hunting daily, if only for an hour or two, and are quite disappointed when dry-docked. Me too. But I had to button down a few chores, including this one, just in case that predicted winter storm does add an interesting twist to Sunday’s Pats-Broncos tussle, not to mention my considerable yard work.

My refocus on the Mt. Sugarloaf beaver myth of ancient indigenous origin began last week during a spontaneous, post-hunt visit with a late friend’s wife and daughters. I had never before met the ladies, who reside and raise horses and goats on a picturesque knoll with as good a view as exists of the petrified beaver bludgeoned by Hobomock to rid the terrain of a threatening beast causing death and destruction in and around proglacial Lake Hitchock some 15,000 years ago. As the legend goes, Hobomock — a giant transformer of the ancient Eastern Algonquian spirit world, believed by some early historians to have been evil — killed this pesky beast by issuing one well-placed blow to the neck with a massive tree trunk, which sank the dead pest’s belly to the murky depths. When the lake drained to become what is today our Connecticut Valley, the beaver reappeared on the landscape as the distinctive Sugarloaf/Pocumtuck range: Mt. Sugarloaf the head, North Sugarloaf the shoulders and torso, and the long Pocumtuck ridge the tail. The deep notch between the two Sugarloafs, where I often explored as a boy, is the site of the fatal blow.

Which brings me to the riddle I’ve been tossing around during lively introspection since visiting with the three friendly ladies on that clear sunny day, to me too warm for brush-busting in heavy oil-cloth bibs. As we stood chatting, looking out at an eastern horizon dominated by the abrupt termination of Sugarloaf, I initiated beaver-myth discussion and the ladies knew the tale. I shared my personal conception of the beaver, an image formed over many years of observation from many western promontories on both sides of their property — yes, the same one described above with the long Pocumtuck Ridge as the tail. There have however been other interpretations published over the past 150 years, some identifying the beaver’s tail as the lower ridge between Eaglebrook School and the Deerfield River bank across from Cheapside. Still others extend the beaver’s tail all the way to Fall River, which enters the Connecticut just below the ancient falls first known as Peskeompskut, now hidden behind Turners Falls Dam. But if you’ve lived here all your life and patrolled the western hills, the lower slopes of which would have formed Lake Hitchcock shoreline, the head-body-tail profile is clearly defined. Placing the tail between Eaglebrook and Cheapside, gives the beaver an extra body component. The ladies agreed. Two of them descendants of Whately’s first master builder, the other the wife of a descendant, they knew the same beaver I did, and you couldn’t find a more defining view than theirs, which before the lake drained would have appeared to human eyes as two small islands and one long one, with Woolman Hill likely underwater.

Remember, as far as I can decipher, the beaver myth was first published in the mid to late 19th century by historians from deep-rooted Deerfield families, writers who obviously had learned of it as a fanciful local legend told around toasty winter fireplaces. The people who first learned of the indigenous myth were a rare breed indeed, that is people who could communicate with the contact-period Connecticut River Valley tribes. But really, how precise was their understanding, how accurate was their retelling, and wouldn’t the tale have become far less reliable after generations of oral tradition delivered through a Western Christian lens?

A similar oral-history conundrum involves a legend that circulated in Whately lore at least through the 19th century, beginning in the Parker family from which I descend. Sixth-great-granduncle Abraham Parker built the first home below Sugarloaf in the Canterbury section of then North Hatfield in 1749, migrating from Fort No. 4 in Charlestown, N.H., by way of Groton. Parker — who would have had a lot of exposure to Indians in a lifetime cut short by winter drowning in the Connecticut River below Sugarloaf (March 1757) — was probably the Caucasian originator of the witch tale that his family recited for many generations. He likely heard it from marauding Indians living in seclusion nearby and/or passing through his spread on sacred ground within the old Whately Oxbow. What became Hopewell Swamp is still today good hunting terrain that has been in continuous use by hunters for more than 12,000 years. I’ve told the tale before, but to refresh your memory, alongside a one-room schoolhouse that no longer exists somewhere near Chang Farm was an earthen depression said to have been left by a witch who leaped from Sugarloaf and disfigured the giant oak limb upon which she landed before hopping to the ground and disappearing into the spooky hole that could never be filled. Indians had witches, too, but they typically appeared as animals, for instance a bear or cougar or wolf. My guess is that the witch tale was born at that site long before colonists arrived, and the witch was probably over time Anglicized from animal to human by Christian interlopers who swindled Indians for the land.

Today, bears and maybe even cougars and wolves are back, the Indians have vanished, and old legends sprout new growth, some inaccurate if not malignant. Not only that, but a smaller beaver species is back wreaking havoc in the uplands and lowlands alike.

There’s more, much, much more. I’m currently assembling information for a spring Whately Oxbow program I agreed to present for the Whately and Hatfield historical societies. A complex subject, I hope I can meet the challenge.

To do so, I must remain open-minded and keep digging.

 

Weirdness

Weird: that’s how I’d characterize what’s been happening in my travels since we last met. Then, at other times, same-old, same-old, nothing at all peculiar. Oh well. That’s life.

The weirdness started on my ride home from work through The Meadows before midnight a week ago. In a field where I often see deer, yup, you guessed it, a set of shining eyes I suspected to be those of a deer and were indeed — a doe, ears at 45-degree upright alert, head high, lying in a shin-high hayfield. Honestly, I cannot remember ever seeing a perfectly healthy deer lying in a field on the side of the road like that, just chilling. I swung my lights partially in its direction to check for antlers but it had none, just lying there alone and quite comfortable, though alert to my approach. Its countenance suggested that it was just fine, but I did check the spot next morning to see if it was dead or dying, which was not the case. It had vanished.

What happened next is even more bizarre, playing itself out a few days later in the backyard alcove created by my north-pointing woodshed and barn, joined on the south by the carriage shed’s back wall. It was Sunday morning when my wife first alerted me that she was hearing some strange gnawing or pounding at the house outside the west bathroom. She wasn’t sure but thought maybe a squirrel or raccoon was in the upper unfinished shed area above the carriage sheds and extending over the long, narrow west parlor, historically the third stall of the carriage shed, housing an overstuffed tool shed and workshop I’ve only seen in photos. Before the carriage shed and scale house were built to attach the home to the barn, there would have been an exterior staircase along the west wall of the wing, leading up into the ballroom’s fiddler’s box from the north. Anyway, enough of the history lesson, back to the noise that was concerning my wife.

Around noontime Sunday, I went in to pour a fresh cup of coffee following my daily meadow romp with the dogs and heard something banging away like a machine gun out back. I walked to the counter, looked through a corner French window and spotted a downy woodpecker hammering away at a white vertical corner board to which he had already done significant damage. Quick Google research identified the deep new additions to the board as roosting holes. Hmmmmm? The question was, why? No woodpecker had ever before done damage like that to a home I’ve lived in. Why then?

Well, further Internet investigation by my wife led to conversation that pulled the answer from my memory banks. She said such woodpecker behavior often occurs when a bird has lost a mate and drums on a building to call it back or attract a new mate. When she mentioned that, I recalled a day or two earlier finding a dead downy woodpecker on the ground under a set of four long, slender windows that act as a picture window looking out toward the backyard brook through the west parlor’s north wall. Many birds have hit that window over the years, including a pair of ruffed grouse I once wrote about salvaging for supper many years ago. Others birds have hit one of those windows as I’ve sat there reading or watching TV. Some survive, others don’t. Luck of the draw, I guess. That downy woodpecker was dead as a doornail. I picked it up by the feet and underhanded it into a large pine tree along my neighbor’s driveway. So that’s what my destructive feathered guest must have been searching for; either that or a suitable replacement. Thankfully, it seems to have given up on my yard and moved on. I kept chasing it away and haven’t seen it since Tuesday afternoon. Thank god. Before departing, the little critter was kind enough to leave me some deep-hole destruction by which to remember him.

Which reminds me … an hour or two after discovering that destructive little bugger banging away out back Sunday, and several times chasing it off, I was reading in my La-Z-Boy in the everyday front parlor when someone started knocking on the door leading from the inset porch into the dining room. I arose, looked out, and saw a man I didn’t recognize with a gray goatee. His name was Peter Tusinski. He had seen my truck in the yard and stopped to report a cougar sighting up close and personal a couple weeks ago on lower West Leyden Road in his hometown of Leyden. He isn’t the only person in Leyden who’s seen the mountain lion. He claims members of the Neipp family have also seen it.

Tusinski placed his hand about thigh high to describe the height of the cat, which he described as smaller than he’d expect but very muscular and powerful looking. He estimated it to have had a three or four foot body and a tail about the same length or a little longer. When the beast stepped out in front of his car, he stopped and they looked each other in the eye for several seconds before the cat went back into the woods he came from.

I have no reason to doubt the man’s sighting. It was withing 10 feet of him. And it’s not the first sighting reported to me from that vicinity. In fact, I’d call that part of Franklin County a hot spot, with many sightings reported on both sides of 10-Mile Bridge, which crosses the Green River from Leyden to Colrain below old Denison’s Mill. It’s wild country on the north end of a daunting gorge known to the earliest Colrain settlers as the Falltown Gore, which you could only travel through, not across.

Off I go, leg-weary and satisfied. Chubby and Lily burned me out this morning in a dense, thorny, punishing covert we all know well — always challenging and worth the effort.