Nice spring day.
Bright sun, powder-blue sky, refreshing cool air circulating in variable, gusty west winds, at times strong enough to sweep off your hat toward wet, flowing oblivion. All in all, a splendid day for a Connecticut River stroll, following shortnose-sturgeon experts and advocates Boyd Kynard and ubiquitous Karl Meyer.
So there we were, late-morning Saturday, perhaps 30 of us, mixed-gender, adult, cars parked a quarter- to half-mile north of the intended site called Rock Dam, Bernie stickers in view. The program began with a shared oral presentation by Meyer and Kynard. We then we hoofed it to the river’s eastern shore to view the surreal geological formation that looks like a stone dam built by an ancient giant of indigenous transformer tradition. The site has attracted fishermen for thousands of years. A sting of six or eight basalt outcroppings as big as small rooms extend east-west across the river to Smead Island, another deep-history site that is misidentified on contemporary maps as Ames Island, most likely a transcription error made long ago by a careless cartographer.
Meyer shared a little history as we walked: “Following the 1676 ‘Falls Fight’ of King Philip’s War, soldiers burned more than 100 wigwams on that island.”
We were at that moment on the paved road following the western bank of a long, narrow impoundment leading into Cabot Station. There, the 100-year-old power station draws canal water to produce electricity before spitting it back into the river below, some quarter-mile above Montague City Bridge. The problem, according to Myer and Kynard, is that the canal removes too much water from the river between Turners Falls dam and the station’s outflow, above which stands Rock Dam, where endangered shortnose sturgeon dating back to dinosaurs have annually spawned. Even worse, Cabot Station administers a lethal double-whammy of sorts, which not only removes too much water for sturgeon-spawning to occur but also releases an enticing outflow that lures anadromous fish to bloody murder and mayhem through meat-grinding turbines.
Experts claim this human burden to the river’s ecosystem is a reason — perhaps the reason — why far fewer American shad and Atlantic salmon make it above Turners Falls than in the days before the first dam was constructed during the final decade of the 18th century. As dams at that site have evolved between then and now, growing to the current gargantuan presence, a long, multi-component, bedrock waterfall and deeply incised flume capped by Burnham’s Rock off the Gill shore has been submerged and hidden. Obliterated and underwater is what’s left of a remarkable geological wonder described by 19th century Pioneer Valley professor/author Edward Hitchcock as New England’s most beautiful falls. Rock Dam, about a mile downstream, is similarly impressive and equally significant and alluring in Pioneer Valley deep history, the human part of which begins with our First People’s spiritual landscape.
The river was running high Saturday, not flooding but swollen and strong. Two fishermen anchored on the Smead Island side were casting Rapala’s and other lures from a small bass boat anchored just downstream from Rock Dam; they were working the western edge of a narrow, frothy channel flowing through a deep channel overflowing the inundated Rock Dam waterfall near the eastern shore. At lower summer flows, the same site displays a pretty constricted waterfall with a narrow eight- or 10-foot drop. On this day, with the rushing river sucked over the capstones on both sides of the buried fall, the sound of rapids was powerful and soothing, worth recording as a bedside sleep aid.
West Coast poet and environmentalist Gary Snyder, an articulate and outspoken advocate for intimate sense-of-place awareness, wrote something in his essay “The Place, The Region, And The Commons” that came to mind as we stood there absorbing the stimuli. Snyder writes of a Crow elder in the Seventies telling a group at a Bozeman, Mont., conference that, “If people stay somewhere long enough — even white people — the spirits will begin to speak to them. It’s the power of the spirits coming up from the land. The spirits and the old powers aren’t lost, they just need people to be around long enough and the spirits will begin to influence them.”
The spiritual aura of Rock Dam — that place, that day on New England’s largest river — was powerfully palpable as we watched and listened to the river surging through the small, inundated fall. Almost the entire flow of the river was passing through that tight, turbulent spot, creating below it a narrow superhighway for fish migrating upstream. Combine this special site with the Beaver Myth of the Pocumtuck Range and Sugarloaf, Native myths and legend associated with Mt. Toby and Mt. Warner, the high shelf caves of the two Sugarloafs, Pine Hill and many other archaeological treasure troves on both sides of the river between Northampton Meadows and Turners Falls, and the deep history is dynamic and enthralling indeed.
Those unfamiliar with this easily accessible, often-fished Franklin County landmark known as Rock Dam, just downstream from the infamous Turners Falls “Patch,” should do themselves a favor by visiting it, studying it and performing a little research to better understand it. Search for Native legends, oral traditions and the colonial record. Listen to the neighborhood tales, the drowning, the tragic accidents. Once you get a good grasp, revisit the site on a quiet day to just sit there, blend into the habitat, watch, listen, pull the scents through your nostrils. Feel the power. Allow it to transport you to a reflective, meditative state. It’s one of those places where ancient spirits lurk, begging recognition. Intercept them, embrace them and let their magic consume you.
It’s a special place … has been for longer than most can comprehend.
KID’S STUFF: Two upcoming Saturdays, beginning this week, worth noting for young anglers wanting to participate in 11 a.m. Millers River Fishermen’s Association trout-stocking extravaganza’s for kids, who get to stock the fish, then wet their lines to catch the trout they’ve just released into the Millers River.
• The first kicks off this Saturday at the Orange Wastewater Treatment Plant on Route 2A.
• The second will occur on May 14 at Allen Rich Park, Main St., Athol, at the bridge spanning the Millers River there.
SHAD COUNT: American shad are still trickling in at counting stations here and there in the Connecticut River basin but probably not yet in sufficient numbers to start chasing them with a fishing rod in hand. A fresh Wednesday-afternoon email from Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle arrived Wednesday afternoon, showing a total of 7,220 counted thus far in the valley, the mother lode (7,146) recorded at the Barrett Fish Lift on the Holyoke dam. Otherwise, we’re looking at 23 at the Mattabesset River in Connecticut and 51 at the DSI Dam on the Westfield River. Water temp at Holyoke was 51 degrees Fahrenheit, way low for productive fishing, which picks up dramatically once the river reaches the 60s, which stimulates the annual migratory run to peak levels.