Blueback Trout Mysteries Deepen

I’ve found a new second-favorite native fish — one I’ve never touched, laid eyes upon or, for that matter, even knew existed before last week.

No. 1 is still Eastern brook trout: our New England fish. No. 2? Well, that would be the native fish few know: the blueback trout.

So let’s take a deeper look at this ancient blueback, discovered last week by chance after learning about traces of Arctic char found hidden in long-ago forgotten layers of ancient Lake Hitchcock’s bed. The char-fin fossils were discovered in the past 15 years by archaeologists examining lake-bottom varves deposited 14,000 to 18,000 years ago when our Connecticut Valley was submerged under a 300-some-mile-long proglacial lake of various widths and depths, extending from Burke, Vt., to Rocky Hill, Conn.

Myself a native of this valley and a veteran trout fisherman, I had indeed heard of Arctic char and knew that Eastern brook trout and lake trout were members of the char family, which is also related to Atlantic salmon. But blueback trout in New England? Uh-uh. I can’t claim to have heard so much as  a  whisper about this intriguing New England “native.”

On tight deadline last week, with no time to delve deeper into the riddle, I speculatively wrote that perhaps these ghost-like bluebacks had evolved into Eastern brook trout, which can indeed, in the proper water at the right time of year, sport a steel-blue back that beautifully bleeds into the sky-orange belly, accentuating bright, multi-colored spots associated with North America’s most beautiful trout.

Well,  that knee-jerk hypothesis wasn’t far off. Although there still seems to be some disagreement among scholars, blueback trout are not descendants of Arctic char; they are Arctic char — the landlocked version. Yes, leftover Pleistocene refugees stranded by the retreating Wisconsin glacier and trapped ever since in proglacial lakes with no exit. Today this fish exists in isolated, cold, deep Maine lakes that are not inhabited by lake trout, which eat them. Although trophy-quality bluebacks measure  nearly two feet in length and can weigh up to five pounds, fish so large are rare indeed. This particular coldwater fish is far more common in lengths ranging from six to 12 inches and weights of less than a pound. So they’re no match for their much larger, predatory lake-trout kin, which commonly weigh 30 to 40 pounds and can grow to world-record weight of 102 pounds, which would reduce a largest blueback on record (5 pounds, 3.84 ounces, caught at Pushineer Pond, Maine, in 2008) to a bite-sized minnow.
Blueback trout likely resided right here in the Happy Valley during the late Pleistocene/early Holocene period but had probably vanished or were very rare by the time our shores started receiving European settlers in the 17th century. That said, these fish then would have probably been common in deep North Country lakes, such as those of New Hampshire’s Lakes Region and far northern-Vermont lakes like Willoughby, Barton, Seymour and Champlain. The problem there was that in our enduring bigger-is-always-better Western mentality, lake trout and landlocked salmon were eventually stocked into popular North Country fishing lakes that had none, and this intervention brought a lethal predator that bellowed a death knell for bluebacks.

The same can be said of western Maine’s Rangeley Lakes, where bluebacks were its most numerous species into the late 19th century. That’s when landlocked-salmon stocking began, leading to blueback extirpation. Lake Mempremagog, two-thirds of which lies in Canada above the Vermont border, also likely had bluebacks if you go back far enough, but no longer holds any. Lakers, landlocked salmon and many other game fish are caught there today.

Experts aren’t sure whether the Sunapee trout associated with New Hampshire’s Lake Sunapee are bluebacks or a remarkably similar, related Arctic-char subspecies thought to have found its way here from the North Atlantic during preglacial times. R.J. Behnke, author of “Trout and Salmon of North America” and the preeminent contemporary scholar on the subject, classifies both fish as Salvelinus alphinus oquassa.

Online research uncovered a public-radio site with a published narrative about North Country storyteller Willem Lange’s pursuit of the mysterious blueback trout after, quite by dumb chance, catching one on a Maine fishing trip 45 years ago. Curious about a fish he was sure he had never before seen, he investigated and was told by an old Maine Guide that it had have been a rare blueback. Lange, from East Montpelier, Vt., has traveled back to that remote pond three times since that day to land another and confirm his catch was a blueback, but he has never caught another.

The online NPR narrative quotes Lange as saying, “In 1971, on a pond deep in Maine, I caught a strange-looking trout. It was grayish-blue along the back and upper sides, with brook-trout spots and white on the leading edges of its fins beneath. I held it for a moment and slid it back into the water.”

Brook trout are plentiful in that same pond and much easier to catch because they lurk in the top 30 feet of water most of the time. Not so with bluebacks, which hunker deep, stay below 30 feet and are thus very difficult to catch.

I suspect some online images of blueback trout are misleading and unreliable. These photos look remarkably similar to the small Eastern brook trout I well know after catching them from boyhood into adulthood. In fact, if indeed every online photo of fish labeled as a blueback is what it claims it is, then bluebacks and brookies are virtually the same fish; however, I think some of the fish identified as bluebacks are not what they say they are. They are instead misidentified Eastern brook trout that can be found right here in the valley.

Arctic char are coldwater fish that live within and along the margins of the Arctic Circle. Thus their New England descendants do not do well in shallow lakes, where they cannot find cold enough summer depths in which to survive. This deep option would definitely have been available at Lake Willoughby in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, with depths plummeting more than 300 feet. The same could be said of Lake Champlain to the west, 100 feet deeper, but it appears that lake trout are also native there, which would probably have left the smaller bluebacks vulnerable to their large predatory cousins and reduced to a short-lived population of bait-fish.

If so, why then did these landlocked char thrive so long in the Rangeley Lakes and New Hampshire’s Lake Sunapee? Did these bodies of water have no native lake trout or landlocked salmon? Can anyone say for sure? Like many questions Mother Nature can fling your foggy way, we may never know the answers.

In online United States Geological Survey records documenting 73 sites where blueback and Sunapee trout have been reported since the 19th century, 64 come out of Maine, seven come from (stocked) Idaho, with one each from Vermont and Massachusetts. The Vermont and Massachusetts bluebacks were both reported in 1896, with no sites identified. The descriptor in the “status” column for both reads “failed.” So who knows the story there? Around that time, several state blueback or Sunapee stocking initiatives were launched, including here in Massachusetts; they all failed.

That said, a man with a little determination and a lot of energy and angling expertise can still find bluebacks and catch them if he wants to travel to the North Woods, the land of dense black-fly swarms that can drive a man loco after the ice goes out in May.

Archaeology Conference A Feather In Eaglebrook’s Cap

Arctic char in our prehistoric Connecticut Valley?

Yes indeed, if you read the hidden information contained in ancient sediments (or varves) left behind by glacial Lake Hitchcock, which filled from south to north as the Wisconsin Glacier receded over approximately 4,000 years — beginning some 18,000 years ago. At its peak, the lake of various widths and depths filled our Connecticut Valley from Rocky Hill, Conn., to St. Johnsbury, Vt., covering more than 200 miles and dammed by some “natural” obstruction, be it ice floes, large stones, vegetation, all of the above or — dare I? — maybe even the unnatural handiwork of ancient giant beavers of our Pocumtuck Range’s “Beaver Myth” fame. Back then, the late-Pleistocene rodents were the size of today’s black bears. So who’s to say these gargantuan beavers didn’t at some point make some contribution to the obstruction holding Lake Hitchcock back? Hmmmmm? Who knew or would have guessed it could have actually been Beaver Pond Hitchcock that finally breached around 14,000 years ago, eventually leaving us with a terraced Connecticut Valley of river cuts, oxbows, marsh  and fertile cropland?

But let’s not wander off to never-never land. Too many questions. Not enough answers. But oh-so ripe for tasty discussion, speculation, hypotheses … and the lively, meandering ebb and flow of intellectual sparring.

The intriguing mention of Arctic char in glacial Lake Hitchcock’s archaeological record was introduced Saturday at Eaglebrook School in Deerfield by Stuart Fiedel, senior archaeologist for the prestigious Louis Berger Group. The final presenter, Fiedel was one of many fascinating scholar-lecturers at Saturday’s cutting-edge archaeology conference — “Glacial Lake Hitchcock and its Primal Inhabitants” — sponsored by the Western Chapter of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society at the posh pre-prep school. The all-day, comprehensive conference began with keynote speaker Richard Little, the ubiquitous emeritus Greenfield Community College  professor who spoke about his trademark “Geology of the Connecticut Valley.” Then came ancient-stone analyst Barbara Calogero’s “Lithic Resources During Early Prehistory,” followed by three informative presentations by Western Chapter President Richard M. Gramly, who spoke on “The Palaeo-American Cultural Sequence in New England,” “What a Single Discovery of a Pelaeo-American Artifact Might Mean,” and “The Bowser Road (Middletown, N.Y.) Mastadon Site and its Implications for the Lake Hitchcock Region.”

After an absolutely delicious lunch on Eaglebrook — one that included smoked duck and homemade, native strawberry shortcake among many other sumptuous, healthy entrees — the program resumed with Deerfield’s Peter Thomas’ insightful “Riverside Archaeological District and the Valley’s Geomorphology Following Lake Hitchcock Drainage,” followed by Ashfield’s Lester Garvin’s “Mapping Lake Hitchcock” and Fiedel’s “Potential Utility of Lake Hitchcock Data for Identifying Cultural Resources.”

It was one fascinating discussion about  our valley’s deep history after another, with many new avenues of discussion and debate opened up along the way. The conference attracted more than 100 attendees. Who could have asked for or dreamed of a more dynamic day of archaeological discussion, the likes of which may have never previously touched down in Franklin County?

As for the prehistoric Arctic char population, well it  left behind 15,000-year-old fin marks in the Lake Hitchcock varves explored by researchers from Tufts University and elsewhere during this new millennium. Add those archaeological ancient-fish fossils to traces of sculpin, bullhead and lake and blueback trout that were also discovered, and it provides a native-fish profile of what would have been here for the earliest people of  our valley, potentially extending back to pre-Clovis days before Lake Hitchcock drained. In fact, that was the question Fiedel posed before launching into his mop-up  presentation at around 3 p.m. “Were there people here before the lake drained?” was his question. When he ended a nearly hour-long PowerPoint presentation by returning to that thought-provoking query, his answer was, “Probably yes,” which may well have riled a few of the more conservative experts in attendance.

Intriguing questions of origin do indeed arise from this recent discovery of Arctic char in our deep-history profile. Remember, when these fish were here, we were on the arctic edge as are today’s Arctic char residing in our northern climes along the Arctic Circle. Did these fish follow the slow glacial melt north? Did they come from afar and circle in from the oceans? Did most of the char migrate north with the receding glacier while others took residence to eventually evolved into Eastern brook trout, our native trout and a member of the char family so ravaged and threatened today by toxic acid rain falling through industrial air pollution that drifts across the Northeastern skies from the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes Region? Arctic char are known in different vernaculars as blueback trout, and the native brookies I’m familiar with do have a distinctive steel-blue back and sides? Perhaps they inherited this hue from ancient char. Who knows? I’ll dig a little deeper and see what I can find.

The answers to the all of the above questions will likely by answered by exciting new research. Hopefully such findings will be presented at annual or semi-annual Eaglebrook conferences, which could become the place for answers as well as exciting new questions for future exploration.

The consensus of attendees questioned in the days following Saturday’s maiden voyage was that the Eaglebrook event was a home run. We can only hope it was just the first of many, an event that could in the future become a tough ticket to come by, and a feather in Eaglebrook’s cap.

Ali, Columbus Revisited; Fish-Run Update

Scurrying to meet a last-minute, early-deadline mandate necessitated by printing-press issues, the desk phone rang at 3 p.m.

It was Tobias Houpe, son of late, great Columbus, Ohio, Police Athletic League boxing coach Roy Houpe, Cassius Clay’s 1959 AAU and Pan-Am Games teammate who groomed young boxers at the long-ago bulldozed inner-city  gym on the corner of Mt. Vernon and 22nd.

Pressed for time but wanting to at least confirm a few details dredged from foggy, 41-year-old memories, I took the call, disciplined myself to keep it short and discovered that the 55-year-old man had probably attended the 1975, pre-Christmas, 10- or 12-bout fight card we had promoted to raise money for the Columbus PAL. The main event pitted  light-heavyweight contender “Dynamite” Billy Douglas from Columbus versus Miami up-and-comer Lee Royster in a scheduled 10-rounder. As it turns out, Douglas was the father of  Buster Douglas, who in 1990 shocked the world with a 10th-round knockout of presumably unbeatable world heavyweight champion Mike Tyson.

What salient memories do I retain from that six-week phone  deal, pitching ads for the fight program book from an office inside the PAL building? Well, I remember the impoverished, African-American neighborhood. I remember the nearby luncheonette where every day, at Roy Houpe’s recommendation, we ate absolutely delicious skillet-fried chicken or  perch (the only two lunch choices) with all the fixins’ and a large glass of milk for under five bucks. I remember the windowless bar farther down the street where we had a drink or two and shot eight-ball partners against neighborhood sharps. I also remember separating the most promising sales leads into a special stack reserved for afternoon calls, when the young boys arrived after school to work out, the background noise of young voices, banging  speed bags and jumping rope working as great sound effects for a sales pitch that  included some form of “Keep ’em in sports and out of courts.” And how could I ever forget our gregarious, Fu-Manchu-ed, 400-some-pound promoter imploring, “If you want to live in style, spin the dial.”? What a hoot, these vivid, distant memories.

Oh yeah. One more digression, another  unforgettable recollection. How could I not tell of the wild city-wide victory celebration in which my friend and I participated after Ohio State staged what legendary Buckeye football coach Woody Hayes called, “Probably our greatest comeback” after beating Michigan, 21-14, with two improbable fourth-quarter TDs? When the downtown bar scene started to get out of hand after dark, mounted police appeared on High Street  to announce through megaphones a strict 11 p.m. curfew: “No exceptions. Everyone off the street by 11.”

Well, my friend and I  retired to our second-floor efficiency apartment just under the gun and watched through the window as a thinning, unruly crowd remained boisterous after curfew. The mounted police, long riot sticks in hand, went into action and did quite a number on anyone they could get their hands on. We watched in horror from a birds-eye perch and could even  hear the crunch of night sticks on human flesh and bones below. Occurring not too long after memorable Kent State in another Ohio college town, it left an indelible mark on a Happy Valley lad who had grown up in a two-cop town, one by day, another by night.

But, back to Tobias Houpe, who  called from his car by cell phone. He was scurrying around before departing for Louisville, Ky., where he would attend Ali’s Friday funeral as an old friend, and cover it for his newspaper employer, the Columbus Post. Tobias said that before his dad’s sudden Dec. 27, 1987 death, Ali used to stop to visit the family of his amateur flyweight (125 pounds) teammate whenever he passed through Columbus.

“They were friends from Golden Gloves and AAU days, not to mention national amateur champs and Pan-Am Games teammates in 1959,” he said. “Ali would stop at the house and take my father out to eat. He even sparred with us kids, just horsing around, but I’ll never forget it.”

When I shared with him his father’s awestruck praise of Ali for being “a boy beating men,” it sounded like he had heard the same gushing words many, many times himself. Exactly what those  gasping words of praise referred to is unclear, but it seems to me that he was speaking of the Pan-Am Games, where young  Clay would have fought older Latin American boxers as a 17-year-old light heavyweight. But, without doubt, the former teammate’s praise could have spilled over into the first years  of Ali’s pro heavyweight career. Clay’s first two pro fights occurred before his 19th birthday. Then he posted eight wins as a 19-year-old and six more at 20. For his first title fight on Feb. 25, 1964 in Miami against Sonny Liston, 29, Clay had just turned 22, entering the bout with a 19-0 record as a 7 to 1 underdog. He won that fight by seventh-round knockout and beat “The Bear” again 15 months later with a first-round KO in Lewiston, Maine.

Ali’s title was stripped in 1967 after beating Zora Folley to increase his unbeaten record to 29-0. Then, after a 3½-year banishment that slowed him down and allowed ring rust to accumulate, he returned to beat Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena, entering  his “Fight of the Century” versus champion Joe Frazier on March 8, 1971 at Madison Square Garden with a 31-0 record. He suffered his first loss in that hallowed New York venue by tight decision in a fight that placed the winner, Smokin’ Joe Frazier, in the hospital for three weeks.

I can’t remember the name of the trainer or expert who uttered these words, but no truer words could have been spoken in  assessment of “The Greatest” in his prime: “The only man who could’ve beaten Muhammad Ali was Cassius Clay.”

He floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee.

The annual spring Connecticut River Valley anadromous fish run is slowing to a stop, with water temperatures fluctuating between 68 and 74 degrees Fahrenheit for the past two weeks, so this year’s American shad run through Holyoke will likely not reach last year’s total of 412, 656.

Nonetheless, with shad still trickling in and 379,929 having passed Holyoke through Tuesday, 400,000 may not be likely but ain’t impossible, either. The river has basically reached the optimal spawning temperature, when upstream movement slows to a crawl before coming to a halt. When fish stop instinctually traveling upstream, the females will establish stationary spawning lairs, where they deposit eggs to be visited and fertilized by males. The progeny will starting hatching after two weeks and populate the river as juveniles next month. Those that escape foraging predators and grow to sufficient juvenile size to travel downstream will head for the Atlantic ocean this fall and return to spawn as mature adults in the 3- to 6-year-old range, with a few precocious 2-year-olds following. Most but not all shad die after their upstream spawning runs.

Not much has changed pertaining to a spotty fish-passage riddle through Turners Falls. Despite three connected passageways that eventually funnel all migratory fish over the Spillway Fish Ladder and past public viewing windows toward the shad run’s historic terminus at Bellows Falls, Vt., the network has proven inefficient over its nearly 40-year history. The fish count there does not seem to be a high-priority this year for some reason. The report from Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle shows that, through May 27, only 24,595 shad had been counted passing Turners Falls. Meanwhile, the count through Vernon, Vt., larger at 25,104. Remember, no fish that pass Vernon can do so without first passing Turners Falls.


Why can’t they seem to get things sorted out in the Powertown? The migration figures through there have been curiously low ever since the fish passageways were opened in 1980. The obvious question is, why go to the time, effort and expense to build fish ladders if they can’t be maintained to optimal efficiency? It’s puzzling, and has been since day one.

On the salmon front, a total of five Atlantic salmon have been counted in the river system this year. Two of those fish went up the Westfield River. Three others were transported over the Holyoke Dam by the Barrett Fish Lift. All five of the fish were briefly captured, tagged and released to be tracked while spawning naturally in the river system. The annual salmon numbers have been in steady decline since the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service pulled the plug on its restoration project in July 2012. Since then, the number of returns from 2013 through 2015 have been 92, 32 and 22, in that order. This year’s incomplete total of three could grow slightly. Atlantic salmon spawn in the fall and can enter their destination river until August and September.

Neither of the two salmon to pass Holyoke have gotten past Turners Falls. They could be hanging out in virtually any tributary between Holyoke and the Powertown.

Muhammad Ali Blast From The Past

Where do you begin a story like this, one that unfolded 41 years ago, faraway, a generation before many folks who’ll read it were born?

I suppose the best place to start is with “The Thrilla in Manila,” which I watched with friends and colleagues on a closed-circuit broadcast in an old Wilmington, Del., theater not unlike the Garden, the Calvin or the old Victoria on Chapman Street? The difference was that the crowds I grew up with in those local theaters were white. Not so in angry Wilmington — still smarting from race riots of the late Sixties — where for the first time in my life, the five of us were the only white folks in a packed house, the male fight crowd leaning heavily in favor of Philadelphia favorite son Joe Frazier over Muhammad Ali, the “Louisville Lip” from the land of Daniel Boone in Kentucky.

We felt confident Ali was going to put away ‘Smokin’ Joe’ early as he dominated the early rounds. But then the tide turned when a fearless, determined Frazier started boring in, attacking Ali on the inside. Throwing caution to the wind, the bullish Philly meat-packing-house brute just kept coming, and hurt Ali with punishing body blows and occasional stiff shots to the head. The pro-Frazier crowd was eating it up and Ali looked vulnerable indeed, maybe even on his last leg and ready to fall by the 12th round. But then “The Greatest” dug into his deepest reservoir of athletic pride and will and rebounded to finish the fight by TKO when Frazier, wobbly and blinded by eyes swollen to slits, could not answer the 15th-round bell.

“What a fight,” friend, teammate, roommate and traveling companion Chip Baye from Northampton and I marveled to each other for weeks, having been there to watch the ebbs and flows. Ali’s fierce competitiveness had once again prevailed under duress in front of that hostile crowd watching in living color on the big screen.

After that epic fight, stunned that he had lost, a bemused Frazier lamented to writers that he had hit Ali with shots that could have brought down the walls of a city but he wouldn’t buckle. He wasn’t exaggerating. Ali himself admitted not far from the showers that he had, down the stretch, been as close to death as a man can get without actually dying.

That fight for the ages was fought on Oct. 1, 1975, and we remained in Delaware for a couple of weeks to complete a deal for the New Castle County Police before heading for Columbus, Ohio. The trip by car took us down the long, steep hill to Wheeling, W. Va., over the bridge, and up the steep hill on the other side as Wheeling disappeared in the rearview. The six-week fundraising gig we were headed to would be our last deal of the year before heading home for Christmas and New Year’s 1976.

Our Columbus mission was to raise money for a floundering Police Athletic League boxing program headquartered at the brick, Mt. Vernon St. gym located in the heart of the ghetto. That gym, torn down for a grocery store at the corner of Mt. Vernon and 22nd Street, stood in an urban neighborhood that had produced two-time Ohio State University Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin, a storied Woody Hayes running back who played but never really made it in the NFL, as well as prizefighter “Dynamite Bill Douglas,” a professional light-heavyweight contender and headliner of the 12-bout card we would promote. The fundraising bouts were scheduled for a couple of days before Christmas at the Ohio State Fairground’s storied Lausche Building, home of many previous fights.

Our temporary boiler-room sales office was set up in a conference room west of the dusty gym, where we had 12 or 14 phones installed on rented tables. As I recall, we entered the gym daily by climbing a flight of outdoor cement stairs to a sturdy door entering the southwest corner of the building. Once inside, we’d walk along the gym’s west wall past the corner office of Columbus Police Sgt. Richard Hoover, who ran the gym and had deep affection for boxing coach Roy Houpe, a man who had risen to boxing glory there through the Golden Gloves program before getting into trouble with the law for a crime of sudden anger involving another man. Word around the gym was that Hoover and others had spoken on behalf of the Columbus boxing legend to spring him from jail so that he could teach Columbus kids from a city’s toughest neighborhood to box.

My friend and I got to know Houpe, his warm brown eyes and welcoming smile, by working in the same space for six weeks, often reaching out to the man to talk and learn some tricks of his trade. He told us where to go for lunch and where to shoot pool, but more than anything else, he loved to talk and teach boxing, imploring us often “to stick around after work. I’ll put you on the program, work you out and have you in the ring before you leave.” Although we never took him up on that offer, we did dabble a little here and there under his tutelage.

Early on, one evening after work, we were pounding away for ha-has at speed bags when Houpe approached to chat. We were talking about boxing and training and jumping rope when I mentioned Muhammad Ali as a hero. That’s when we learned that he knew Ali personally, having traveled the same Golden Gloves circuit as a boy before becoming AAU and Pan-Am Games teammates. In 1959, Houpe and Cassius Clay were national AAU champions at their weight classes. When our conversation turned to the recent Thrilla and the fortitude Ali had displayed to win that landmark fight, Houpe was not the least bit surprised. He had seen Ali fight since he was a boy and said that everyone who had been around him knew he was an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime fighter among elites.

Speaking of the Pan-Am Games competition of 1959, he praised his precocious friend with wide, reverent eyes, saying, “He was a boy beating grown men.” Those warm, soft brown eyes said it all. The man was in awe. The Ali he knew was superhuman. A god. A boxing deity. A legend. But that ability to rise above overwhelming odds to beat opponents the public believed he had no business beating only continued in the professional ring, particularly when Ali twice beat the unmerciful bully Sonny Listen. Especially in that first Clay-Liston bout that earned Ali his first world championship, the man who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee was indeed a boy fighting a dangerous man … and defeating him decisively.

Our discussion then turned to Ali’s title fight against champion George Foreman about a year before the Thrilla. I told Houpe that before the fight I was worried that Ali might get hurt badly. The source of my concern was television footage I had seen of Foreman working out before the fight by hitting a heavy bag held from behind by a 200-plus-pound trainer. Each Foreman blow was lifting the trainer back off his feet and I sensed danger. Then, during that epic “Rumble in the Jungle,” in Zaire, Ali defied logic by laying back on the ropes for seven rounds of “rope-a-dope” punishment from Foreman. Then, having absorbed the pounding and tired Foreman, he came off the ropes and dropped the champion with a flurry of well-placed blows late in the eight round. No one could believe what they had just witnessed. Such a strategy was unimaginable to the pre-fight pundits who gave Ali no chance of beating a younger, bigger, stronger Foreman, a champion who had won the title by pummeling Frazier in a short fight.

“Have you ever hit a heavy bag?” Houpe asked, pointing to one hanging from a metal ceiling frame nearby.

I hadn’t.

“Well, give it a shot,” he challenged, trying to prove a point I didn’t suspect.

I walked to the bag, hit it with a hard uppercut and felt like I may have broken my wrist without moving the bag more than an inch or two. I shook my hand a bit, looked down at it and Houpe smiled, then grunted out a little friendly chuckle.

“You can’t hit a heavy bag like that,” he scolded. “It’s too heavy to hit with your fist. You have to drive your shoulder and body through it or it will hurt you.”

I knew than that the rope-a-dope punishment Ali had endured from Foreman was much more severe than I had imagined, and that was precisely what Houpe wanted me to understand. That’s why he told me to hit the bag. Once again, the Ali legend had grown. I, too, knew than that he was a god, probably the greatest of all American athletes.

And that doesn’t even address Ali’s greatness as a man of the world, a spokesman of a generation — a man who spoke truth to power and was loved even by enemies of America.

There will never be another Muhammad Ali. Had it not been for the government, which stripped him of his title for more than three years of his prime, when he was at the top of his game, he would probably have retired an undefeated champion. He would have as a younger, faster man taken on Frazier and Spinks and Foreman earlier and beaten them decisively.
The man was an American original, in my mind, “The Greatest.”

A Spring, A ‘Fridge, And A Rattlesnake Lair

I think of it as dry, buoyant flotsam, tiny pieces of bark or twigs, maybe dried leaves, slowly circulating around an eddy.

In such a scenario, the floating objects often make the same circle more than once before catching an alternative drift and disappearing downstream to a new eddy that momentarily traps them in a similar swirl, temporarily stalling downstream flow that will eventually, if lucky, find its way to the main artery, the ocean and beyond.

Anyone who’s fished free-flowing streams understands this dynamic and uses it to their advantage when trying to coax a strike from a quick, alert mountain trout, be it dead-drifting live bait or hand-tied artificials. A skilled angler capable of keeping the baited hook off the bottom while continually manipulating it around the same loop is more likely to be successful than an angler lacking sophisticated finesse.

Now, with that streamside imagery in view, let’s jump to the pursuit of historical research and the way people and places and salient issues keep coming back at you like that feathery flotsam circling an eddy and moving on to another, where it will repeat the process. And think of the often-interrupted downstream flow as the tedious journey to a conclusion, if ever you are fortunate enough to arrive at one.

The historical figure who reappeared this week in the continuous flow of information that seems to find its way to me is Deacon Phinehas Field — born 1799 in Northfield, died 1884 in Charlemont. I first bumped into the good deacon when I found him cited in Pressey’s History of Montague as the source of an Indian myth associated with Mt. Toby, then was reintroduced when 19th century Gill historian/landowner Rosewell Field appeared and I tried to genealogically connect the two. From the same bolt of Northfield cloth, it turned out they weren’t as closely related as I assumed.

A contemporary of Deerfield historian George Sheldon and a prolific profiler of local history deep and shallow, Deacon Field swung through my sphere with his “remembrances” recorded from East Charlemont on Aug. 2, 1871 in the earliest volumes of Pioneer Valley Memorial Association’s “History and Proceedings” now under the professional scrutiny of Dr. Peter A. Thomas of South Deerfield. Thomas emailed snippets this week, including an interesting short narrative titled “Rattlesnake’s Den, Northfield,” which he knew would spark my sense-of-place curiosity.

Accompanying Field’s “remembrances” was a friendly professorial challenge from Thomas: “Now I want to see how you slip the account of the rattlesnake den and Indian legend into your column.”

Let’s start with the reference, word for word, as it appears in the “Proceedings”:

On the Gulf Road, half-way up the mountain, is what is known as Cold Spring; on the brow of the steep hill east of this is what is called “Rattlesnake’s Den.” In the olden times, “Uncle Nezer” (my grand father’s brother) was wont to go in late autumn and early spring, on sunny days, to hunt the reptiles — while they were basking in the sun, before they “denned” for the winter, or before they dispersed for the summer. “Uncle Nezer” was a sort of “medicine man” and held the gall and oil of the rattlesnake in high estimation. The den is composed of a number of fissures in the rocks that blow cold in summer, and hot in winter. The current is so strong that a dried leaf is carried off by it, and so warm in winter that no snow can lie un-melted near these openings. My father, on a cold winter day, once while sled ding wood, resorted to this place to warm himself, but the atmosphere soon produced faintness.

Then, immediately following that tale, the indigenous folklore:

An evil spirit has his abode deep down in the ground in this place, and these fissures are his breathing holes. Long ago, he foamed and bellowed so, in his deep cavern, that he shook the whole mountain, and large rocks were thrown into the air. This monster has been quiet, so I am informed, since I first knew his dwelling-place.

With those little tidbits in mind, the chase was on. Some local historian, naturalist or hunter from Northfield had to know something about these interesting landmarks, especially the upland spring, likely a water source that’s still important to someone, be it a landowner, hiker or health nut committed to drinking pure water from Mother Earth’s womb.

Well, that speculation bore no fruit. Zero. Zilch. One potential source, a woman named Joanne McGee, was unavailable this week.

“They travel,” said a source who knows Joanne and husband Bill McGee, “and are probably out of town.”

Good news. There’s still hope we can dig up something from Ms. McGee when she becomes available for a thorough brain-picking.

“If you reach her and she wants to take you to the site, I’d like to go with you,” said Northfiield’s Sam Richardson, who had been suggested as a potential source but had never heard of the sparkling spring or vipers’ den.

Likewise, Joel Fowler — another recommended source, history buff and member of the Northfield Historical Commission — knew nothing of either site despite often touring the woods off Gulf Road. The same can be said of Ms. Jessie Wiggan, another devoted hiker, explorer, dog-walker and history buff who’s spent a lifetime in Northfield and has deep roots there, to boot. Nonetheless, despite no personal knowledge, she did offer a tinge of hope.

“I once hiked with Joanne McGee to the Ice Cave up there and she marked the site with her GPS and, I think, she took photos of it,” Wiggan reported. “I think she’s your best bet if you can get through to her.”

Given the apparent geological similarity between the Rattlesnake’s Den and the contemporary Ice Cave, simple deductive reasoning could lead a man to the knee-jerk conclusion that they are the same site. But wait. Not so quick, despite their similar characteristics and proximity. They do indeed both breathe warm air in the winter and cold air in the summer, thus Ice Cave’s early use as a natural refrigerator. According to the “History of the Town of Northfield” by J.H. Temple and Sheldon, both sites are adjacently located on Brush Mountain but are not the same: “Passing up the Gulf Road, one comes to Cold Spring, about 20 rods (some 320 feet) from which is a fissure in the rocks, perhaps 10 feet deep by 4 feet wide, extending into the mountain indefinitely, where ice and snow collect in winter, and are usually found in considerable quantities as late as the fourth of July. A little to the south, and higher up the mountain, is the den. This is a small opening to an internal cave where the reptiles resorted in great multitudes for their winter sleep.”

Later in the same Introduction narrative, Temple and Sheldon echo Field by identifying Brush Mountain as a place of high spirit to the Squakheag tribesmen who called Northfield home before colonial settlers arrived during the last quarter of the 17th century. Their collaborative narrative reads: “They believed that Hobamok, the (same) evil Spirit (associated with the Beaver Myth of Deerfield’s Pocumtuck Range beginning with Mt. Sugarloaf), dwelt inside the mountain, and that the fissures in the rock above Cold Spring, where the snakes dwelt, were the holes through which he sent forth his hot breath and melted the snow. … Partly from dread of the evil Spirit, and partly from the fear of rattlesnakes, the Indians shunned the Gulf, and the adjacent mountain sides.”

Meanwhile, another reliable source, old friend Tom White, a Northfield potter and hunter who’s familiar with the Gulf and beyond but does not know the spring, the ice cave or the rattler’s den, promised to make a few well-placed queries with folks in the know. So that’s another lead that could bear fruit as well.

“You know, that’s where they wanted to build the gas pipeline and compressor,” he said. “You ought to come up here soon and we’ll take a ride up there and look around. I have access to a spot that’s been cleared up there, where you get one of the most spectacular views in the region. On a clear day, you can see Mt. Wachusett, Mt. Monadnock and Mt. Ascutney.”

Could you also see the southern mountains named Sugarloaf, Toby, Warner, Tom and Holyoke? Well, he wasn’t certain but said, “Probably.”.

Stay tuned. Another interesting discovery mission has flowed this way and must be further explored.

Off I go.

Upstream Fish Migration past Turners Falls Pathetic

The query came from Lynn Stowe Tomb of Gill, where, as editor she is leading a dedicated collaborative of local historians and town officials to put the finishing touches on a new, comprehensive book focusing on the history, deep and shallow, of Riverside — that small village butted up against Barton Cove’s tail before the impoundment tumbles over the Turners Falls dam spillway.

One of Tomb’s editorial assistants from the Gill Historical Commission had read something in this space that he found confusing, if not unlikely — heaven forbid, maybe even inaccurate. He queried her and she queried this space by email with: “Is it possible that (last year, according to your column) there were 416,355 shad in the Connecticut River Basin and only 60,000 made it past the Turners Falls dam?”

The knee-jerk answer was, “Absolutely. In fact, last year was a great year at Turners despite the huge drop-off from what had passed Holyoke.”

So, count Ms. Tomb among those who, for good reason, may have trouble comprehending why such a major discrepancy would exist at a relay station designed and built at considerable expense to provide upriver access to migratory fish headed from Holyoke to Bellows Falls, Vt., and beyond. Bellows Falls has forever been the shad-run terminus. But don’t blame Ms. Tomb. Frankly, it makes little sense in the big picture of upstream fish passage for such a correctable inefficiency to exist anywhere in the fish-passage network. But also it’s a dynamic that few members of the general public know, or probably care, about. Hey, it’s only fish, right?

Not that anyone would be shocked to discover power companies may not be totally committed to optimal anadromous fish passage around various dams equipped with different types of fish lifts and ladders. No. Such a realization is pretty much par for the course for public utilities using public resources for private gain and riches. It’s just not a subject that gets a lot of play in the mainstream news. And when it does appear, the most vociferous critics are outspoken environmental crusaders like local gadfly Karl Meyer as well as anonymous recreational anglers who discuss it in coffee-shop conversation or activists addressing small isolated audiences. Pretty much preaching to the choir.

The fact is that, entering this year, the average annual number of migrating shad passed at Holyoke that make it past Turners Falls since 1976 is less than five percent despite consecutive “great years” by historic standards in 2014 and 2015. Yes, during the past two shad runs, the percentage of shad to make it past Turners Falls jumped to an almost unimaginable 10.8, then, even better, an all-time best 14.1.

Could this recent spike have anything to do with the fact that five dams from Turners Falls to Bethel, Vt., are currently under the public microscope during the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) relicensing processes? Or could that be just another coincidence?


No matter how you frame it, anadromous-fish passage past Turners Falls has been pathetic at best, even during the best years. Last year was the second-best year ever. Tops was 60,089 the 1992, when 721,764 passed Holyoke. Do the math. That all-time record year shows a paltry 8.3 percent of the fish passing Holyoke made it past Turners Falls. Definitely nothing to boast about. In fact, whoever’s responsible should hide their heads in failure.

And, oh yeah, don’t hold your breath waiting for the annual percentages to improve dramatically and permanently anytime soon, FERC relicensing or no FERC relicensing. This year, despite assurances last week that he’d finally have passage number at Turners Falls by this past weekend, no word that they have indeed appeared for Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle’s perusal.

Must be the same old song … or worse.


No Wednesday anadromous-fish report from the Connecticut River Coordinator’s office but, through Monday, with no river temperatures reported (but they must be into the 60s Fahrenheit by now), a total of 287,265 American shad had been counted in the river basin, the lion’s share (283,872) of them counted at Holyoke.

Thus far, not an Atlantic salmon anywhere. Nope, not a solitary one. Sad. The restoration effort is over, and now perhaps the run is history as well; however, it’s more than likely that occasional wayward travelers are likely to continue finding their way to the Connecticut for many years, maybe even building redds as they did at a site in Connecticut last fall.

As for shad, who knows if this year’s total will rival last year’s of over 400,000? But, remember, shad runs are governed by water temps and rain events that effect them and can thus be erratic, so it’s not unlikely that this year’s run still has a way to go. Heavy rain events decrease water temperature and increase turbulence that necessitates fish-passageway closure on dams for days, thus temporarily delaying runs and pooling migrating fish below dams. When the flow returns, the fish come like gangbusters until the river temperature steadies around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Then they establish spawning territories, mill around in one small space and stop hitting colorful lures offerred by anglers.

Who can forget the spring of 1984, when a Memorial Day Weekend deluge flooded Routes 5 & 10 along Old Deerfield’s North Meadows and provided shad fishing clear through to the end of the fiscal year, June 30? No lie, people were catching shad in the lower Deerfield River and at Rock Dam almost to the Fourth of July holiday, an anomaly for sure, one that has not been repeated since but could reoccur with a flood.

Never say never.


No word yet on surplus allotments, but Memorial Day Weekend always signals the end of the spring trout-stocking schedule here and throughout the Bay State. MassWildlife hatcheries are now assessing their stock to determine what kind of a bonus they can put out in selected waters next week. Because it’s a rare year when a surplus doesn’t exist, take it to the bank that you’ll be seeing a stocking truck or two on the road next week. Good random reviews from anglers who’ve taken spring trout, included among them my neighbor’s report of a handsome 21-inch brown trout taken while fishing from a canoe with his wife at Cranberry Pond.

It’s Been A Wild Spring Thus Far On Shad Front

An unusual spring it is, a peculiar winter it was in the Happy Valley, where haywire harbingers seem to be the rule.

Take, for instance the lilacs now sweetening local neighborhoods. Do they not typically bloom a little later, when mornings are warm enough to allow the pleasant fragrance to enter homes through screen doors and windows? Not this year, when we must adjust by picking bouquets and placing them in tabletop or countertop vases to introduce that sweet, welcome spring aroma indoors.

But that’s not all which is not quite hunky-dory this spring. How about bridal wreath, whose white flagrant flowers typically appear for Memorial Day and the first week of June? This year, hints of the delicate white blossoms started to appear over the weekend, a couple of weeks earlier than usual, and are now maturing toward their full-bloom splendor.

So what about the annual Connecticut River shad run, which far outproduces the other spring anadromous fish migrations for species such as Atlantic salmon, alewife, blueback herring, striped bass and Atlantic sturgeon? Plus, throw in endangered shortnose sturgeon, which were at one time anadromous but now seem to be landlocked between, say, Springfield and Turners Falls, with preferred ancient spawning grounds around Rock Dam in Montague City. Well, all of these migrators seem to be running strong and a little early. It promises to be a somewhat drawn out run ruled by water temperature that’s still five to 10 degrees below the peak 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit, which may soon arrive and may not. All depends on the weather. Heavy spring rains bring flooding and water-temperature drops, but we have yet to experience an event close to that, which, if this spring is like others, can’t be far away.

Now, mind you, despite the fact that no one’s quite bold enough to call what we’re experiencing this week and late last week the peak — with water temperatures at Thompsonville, Conn., under 60 degrees Wednesday — what appears to be an all-time single-day record shad run of 54,000 through Holyoke did occur last Thursday, a day when Rock Dam anglers were enjoying consistent action fishing the classic migration channel there. Not surprisingly, on that productive day the river temp had climbed to just over 60, peaking Saturday at 61-plus. That slight rise in temperature produced runs of 36,687 on May 11 and 54,006 on May 12, when Holyoke water registered at a low 55 degrees.

“I went through records back to 1976,” wroye Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle, “and could find no single-day run over 50k.”

By this week, with river temps again dipping below 60, the Monday and Tuesday runs through Holyoke were 14,242 and 7,531. If clear sunny days and warm nights stabilize for the rest of this week, expect another surge and, yes, now’s definitely the time to fish Franklin County, where the fish passageways are tardy in reporting numbers. Thus far, not a word about how many shad have passed Turners Falls’ three fish passageways, a fact that seemed to rankle Sprankle some. But he sounded confident that he’ll finally have some numbers by the weekend.

“Having a delay in fish counts is fairly typical for many facilities that do not staff live counting humans,” he wrote Wednesday morning. “That being said, this year the delay in fish counts from Turners Falls as well as Vernon facilities is becoming a noticeable concern to many people.”

He pointed out that for Turners Falls’ fishways, the Federal license contains Article 38, which notes the licensee “shall file with FERC an annual report detailing operation of the facilities, problems in design or operation, and listing the number, by species, of all fish passed upstream.”

So, despite the fact that the license language does not specify timing for counts at Turners Falls, Sprankle says, “it is obvious that fishery managers, anglers and the public have an expectation that fish counts will be timely — in the sense that once thousands of say shad have passed Holyoke, there will be regular updates at Turners and at the next project.” He added that he does intend to address this issue at the June Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission meetings in an effort to better understand what caused the delays, and what the options are to produce timely reports in advance of next year.

Sprankle praised conscientious Greenfield Community College for its role in providing Powertown numbers over the years, writing: “The Vernon fish ladder’s counting operation is the responsibility of Vermont and New Hampshire. This year they decided to contract the review of the digital imaging (files) to Greenfield Community College, which has been doing that task for Turners Falls for many years — and doing a good job. It is of course most imperative that a good job is done and counts are considered accurate — which has always been the case with the GCC crew. In the past, the delay in counts from TF (and Vernon) has not been so protracted as this year.”

Thus far, a total of 232,445 shad have been counted in the river system, the lion’s share (230,626) passing Holyoke. It would seem we’re well on our way to another big year rivaling last year’s total of 416,355 in the river and 412,656 through Holyoke.

Meanwhile, not an Atlantic salmon has yet appeared anywhere in the valley, which seems curious given river conditions that should be about perfect for the king of North Atlantic game fish. On a more encouraging note, a new season record was established Monday when the 17th shortnose sturgeon was hoisted over the Holyoke dam by Barrett Fishlift.


During a pleasant midday visit to Rock Dam last Thursday with Dr. Peter A. Thomas — an anthropologist/archaeologist/historian/author who has devoted much professional energy and intellectual investment to the Turners Falls area’s indigenous past, not to mention its geology — we had the opportunity to watch what some might view as an uncomfortable relationship between recreational and commercial users of the swift channel overflowing the falls.

With a line of three or four anglers waded out into the river angling for shad, two large blue oval rafts wearing a commercial whitewater company’s name on their sides kept shooting the rapid over and over again, blowing right through the key fishing zone without apparent concern about being inappropriate. The rafters would squirt through the short, “yee-ha,” rapid, swing their vessels into a calm backwater and maneuver them to the base of mid-Rock Dam, where they’d haul the rafts over the rocks and into the impoundment above. There, they’d paddle diagonally upstream 50 or more yards before again riding the current over the swollen falls and repeating the process to their hearts’ content.

To their credit, the anglers never showed a discernible scowl or voiced dissatisfaction with the potentially annoying, obtrusive activity, but at least one observer — yes, one who leans heavily in favor of pure recreational use over commercial use of a public resource for private gain — found the commercial whitewater folks to be, perhaps unwittingly, rude and oblivious to proper etiquette, though not in any way confrontational.

This is not the first time these eyes have been exposed to this type of behavior by whitewater people passing through a place where anglers are working a stream in peace and tranquility. With flyrod in hand, I have witnessed the same thing on the lower Deerfield River between Bardwells Ferry and Stillwater, and on the Catch-and Release area known in the local vernacular as The No-Kill above Hoosac Tunnel. In none of these spots did the whitewater people give any hint that they respected the presence of anglers. In fact, I would call their behavior loud, intrusive, disruptive and maybe even obnoxious — ignoring the possibility that they may be disruptive to others who had established position before they arrived.

It was once again clear to me that commercial whitewater enthusiasts and recreational fishermen are incompatible bedfellows with many opportunities for conflict. Of course, that’s just one man’s opinion that has widespread support among critics, including an unnamed activist who fought hard for trout fishermen on the Deerfield River many moons ago during the contentious FERC relicensing process around 1990.

“They’re using Mother Nature as an amusement park,” he scoffed.

Well stated. Hey, maybe there’s nothing wrong with whitewater activity when the time is right. But when fishermen are already lined up before the rafts and paying customers arrive, maybe they ought to at the very least extend the courtesy to ask if it’s OK or maybe find another place to rollick.

Rock Dam’s Most Important Component Is Long Gone

A hectic five or six days it was. Yes, a bit of a whirlwind leading up to and culminating this past weekend.

In-laws converging from here, there and everywhere. Places like central Maine, the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont and Guatemala. A strong hint of NYC in the air emitted by the Northeast Kingdom-ites, Sixties back-to-the-earthers of the Scott Nearing mold; by chance, friends of Bernie — yeah, that Bernie — and his ex-wife, Susan, dating back to ’69.

“Hey,” interjected Vermont brother-in-law Tom Doyle, a Long Island native and no Trump fan, during a Friday-morning parlor chat over organic Guatemalan coffee with a mighty wallop. “I’d like to see that Connecticut River site you wrote about. It sounds like a cool place.”

Hmmmm? A splendid idea. One that would serve two purposes, the second an interesting field trip for grandsons Jordan, 10, and Arie, 6, who would likely eat it up with curious and dynamic gusto if framed by indigenous mystique, often a speedy vehicle to fantasy, creativity and you name it, even for an old-timer with spunk.

Closing in on 6 p.m., hard rain falling after a cookout eaten in, we embarked on our short journey to the Connecticut River. Our destination sits just above Cabot Station and Cronin Lab, behind the Farren and power-canal impoundment in Montague City. The air was gray, still and wet, the rain just short of a downpour but manageable for our short wooded hike to a place of high spirit along the eastern shore of the Pioneer Valley’s aorta. A geological wonder known as Rock Dam, it on optimal days displays as large chunks of ancient basalt bedrock protruding from the river’s bed, extending east/west as a natural obstruction crossing the river. Midstream, it passes the north end of Smead Island and terminates at the steep western base of Rocky Mountain, home of Poet’s Seat Tower.

It was not an ideal day for a maiden journey. Several days of rainy overcast weather had swelled the river so that it was breaching the natural dam that just a week earlier had funneled the full flow of the river east, through a turbulent 12-foot-wide channel overflowing and concealing a narrow, 8- to 10-foot summer waterfall that also takes the river’s full flow under normal conditions. So, no, with water overflowing, Tom and the kids couldn’t really get a feel for Rock Dam, the feature of our Friday-evening curiosity. We must return someday when the impressive line of irregular boulders is visible, a thought-provoking sight on many levels for any student of deep history and/or deep ecology. Kids, too, for entirely other reasons.

The site has a documented fishing history for shad, salmon, sturgeon and other fish dating back at least 8,600 years, according to three 1970s archaeological surveys conducted and/or supervised by Dr. Peter A. Thomas on the adjacent, more iconic, site called Riverside. No one is certain who first set eyes on this important section of New England’s largest river between Turners Falls and the Deerfield River confluence, or, for that matter, when. But some experts believe human beings have been aware of the site for 13,000 years or more, which borders on unimaginable to devoted students of the Occidental New World history, which starts with Christopher Columbus.

Viewing our place through this long-accepted European lens is limiting and short-sighted to near blindness. Unfortunately, what’s lacking is the indigenous creation and transformer myths lost by institutional removal of the people who guarded and maintained their oral history through song, dance, poetry and all of the above during annual celebrations. These festivals of thanks saluted the arrival of anadromous fish, the ripening of the upland nut groves, and the fall fattening of deer and bear and whatever bigger prey preceded them in deep-history lore.

Discussing cultural erasure recently with Dr. Thomas, he agreed with the lamentable realization that the native tales surrounding our spiritual landscape are likely forever lost. Not by accident, either. This is not entirely true in South and Central America, where extant histories written by Catholic monks and priests who witnessed the Spanish conquest do exist. These devoted teachers spent their lives chronicling the colonial conquest, describing the vanquished cultures, and recording the destruction of the protected written histories of Mayan, Aztec, Inca and other advanced Western Hemisphere tribes that were burned, obliterated and slaughtered in the name of converting pagan savages to Christianity. Canadian history is backboned by the “Jesuit Relations,” similarly written by Catholic scholars. These “Realtions” chronicle the observations of what greeted French explorers at the contact period and beyond, and what was done to convert Native tribes to Christianity; they offer many helpful cultural observations about the Indians. Unfortunately, that type of detailed information about the indigenous tribes is much rarer from the earliest New England Protestant clergy, which kept records far less sympathetic to the Indians, dismissing their spiritual customs as irrelevant and sinful, not worthy of historical preservation.

What we are left with here in the Happy Valley is a vanquished tribe of River Indians, including Pocumtucks, Sokokis, Norwottucks, Agawams and Nipmucs. All that’s left is the Beaver Myth, miraculously rescued by deep-rooted Deerfield historians like Epaphras Hoyt and George Sheldon, but told with little context and supplying no relationship to other distinctive features of the landscape. Here, we’re talking about the Pocumtuck Range, Sugarloaf, Rock Dam, and the majestic falls descending from the Barton Peninsula to Fall River, once a surreal geological formation of intense spirit, now submerged and previously blasted to oblivion by industrialists interested in supplying water-power and canals.

The long-lost Indian spiritual-landscape tales regarding this special slice of the upper Pioneer Valley — where five six rivers join the Conecticut within a few miles (north to south, Millers, Fall, Deerfield, Green and Sawmill) to create a number of important habitable watersheds — would bring added perspective crucial to anyone infected with a sense of place and committed to putting together the pieces. “It’s incredible and extremely rare for six rivers like that to meet in so small a space,” said well-known Paleo archaeologist Dr. Richard Michael Gramly during casual telephone conversation. “In fact, I can’t think of another place like it. Six rivers. It had have had exceptional significance in the ancient world.”

Sadly, contemporaries don’t even know what the Indians called the natural falls at Riverside or Rock Dam, and we also know nothing about how these important sites connected in the ancient mind to other prominent landmarks like Mts. Sugarloaf, Toby and Warner, Canada Hill, Rocky Mountain, Mts. Tom and Holyoke, and the Pioneer Valley oxbows in Northampton, Hatfield and Whately. The people who best knew the tales and recited the oral history, often in verse, are long gone and hard, if not impossible to find. Even if the tales did continue verbatim for generations after diaspora, the audience had been displaced and was so far removed that it had no familiarity with the relating landscape. By then, these people had for too long lived in another place, without a visual relationship and intimate knowledge of their ancient homeland.

Once a culture is displaced, it doesn’t take long for historic meaning and imagery to vanish, leaving only the conquerors to reinterpret the place through a foreign-invader’s lens.


The hot sun and warm days should raise the Connecticut River temperature and nudge the American shad run toward its annual peak.
Through Wednesday, with Holyoke water temperature at 55 degrees Fahrenheit, 47,959 shad had been counted in the river, the lion’s share of them (47,678) passing by fish lift over the Holyoke dam.

“Things are on the upturn for the shad run,” said Connecticut River Coordinator Ken Sprankle of Gill. “My observations for (striped bass) abundances are low. Anglers may say different. I’m basing my observations on what I observe during herring survey/assessment activities. So far, the blueback (herring) run is slow. Numbers are not great. I’m hopeful they are just running a little late. We’ll see. We are most focused on the bluebacks because the alewife run has ended in the lower Connecticut River. We see only a few spent fish for that species now.”

Sprankle also wanted to publicize the upcoming May 21 World Fish Migration Day (, saying: “I’ll be at Holyoke Fish Lift that day. I’ll give talks, have radio telemetry gear etc. We are, of course, expecting a high volume of shad passing if there are no weather events. This celebration is designed to raise awareness for the challenges facing migratory fishes worldwide.”


The Millers River Fishermen’s Association and affable Peter Mallet have their final Kids’ Stocking adventure scheduled for Saturday morning, rain or shine, at 11 at Alan Rich Parking Lot, Main Street, Athol. Kids will get to help release trout into the Millers River there before fishing for the fish they stock. According to Mallet, many kids from the Greenfield/Turners Falls area showed up for the last stocking event, also held in the Orange/Athol region. It’s fee. Just bring your fishing tackle and bait.

Blooming Shad Bush A Reliable Harbinger

As the annual fiddlehead-picking season fades into its brief overlap with that of asparagus this week, vocal word arrived in the Upper Meadows of Greenfield that a shad bush down road not far from Greenfield Community College is in bloom, signaling the real start of the Connecticut River shad run.

Yeah, yeah, it’s true that American shad started running up valley two weeks ago, when the annual spring spawning migration was detected in insignificant numbers at a couple of Connecticut monitoring sites, plus a few here and there were getting hoisted by fish lift over the Holyoke dam. Now, with the shad bush down the road in its full white splendor, numbers indicate that the Connecticut Valley’s most populous annual anadromous fish run is underway and building to a grand, full-steam-ahead finale down the road.

Last week at this time, the total number of shad counted in the Connecticut Valley and reported here was 7,220, the lion’s share of which were recorded at Holyoke (7,146). At the time, river temperature was 51 degrees Fahrenheit, about 10 degrees below the point at which the run starts to increase dramatically, peaking in the mid-60s. Then comes a slowdown at between 67 and 70 degrees, when females start establishing spawning beds in the shallows, where they lay eggs to be fertilized by males on patrol. From now until then, anglers can enjoy successful days astream by manipulating brightly colored attractant lures and flies at the right depth in braided channels migrating fish follow like super highways upstream.

Through Wednesday, despite river temps dipping a degree from last week because of the cool, gray, wet spring weather, the run is picking up, with a total-river count of 25,980, again most of them monitored passing over the Holyoke dam (25,848). So, yes, there should by now be fishing opportunities here in Franklin County. Though sparse, some shad are here, with better days ahead. As soon as the sun comes out and the nights warm a bit, elevating the river temps past 60, the run will kick into high gear for prime fishing.

Who knows how long the best days will last? The run is always at the mercy of Mother Nature. Rainy spring weather has a way of creating somewhat erratic river conditions and temps that fall and rise relative to a mix of rain events with hot, summer-like days, whose clear skies and bright sun can act as rapid warming factors. Then again, often when fish are coming like gangbusters and extended rains move in, flooding drops the river temps, slowing the run and sometimes necessitating the temporary closure of fish-passageways that totally stops upward migration at the base of dams. When the gates open, the delayed fish come daily by the thousands after having been sealed off and frustrated for days.

Finally, when the river progresses to optimal spawning temperature, the annual fishing bonanza halts overnight and the spawning begins in earnest, producing by midsummer a new crop of juvenile shad to populate the river briefly, before all that elude predators head for Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. There, those that mature to adults will live to return and spawn as 3- to 6-year olds, with random, precocious 2-year-olds here and there.

The best days are near, fellas. You can take that to the bank.

So get that gear fine-tuned and ready for impromptu trips to the channel below Sunderland Bridge, Rock Dam or whatever site tickles your fancy. Oh yeah, and don’t overlook the Deerfield River, which can be a productive shad-fishing stream for those who know what they’re doing.


Based on scattered information that has crossed this space’s path — including a beautiful drive-thru sighting of a mature tom shot Saturday morning by a dear hunting buddy and friend, weighing over 21 pounds, ungutted, with an 8½-inch beard and spurs just a hair under and inch — there are still plenty of hunting opportunities left for the four-week season that opened April 25. The drive-thru bird was killed between 11 a.m. and noon, and came running through the woods to investigate simple clucks from box and slate calls.

True, most hunters prefer crack-of-dawn hunts when gobblers can be called right out of the roost to the gun, if the tom doesn’t first get “henned-up” with its harem clustered in nearby roosts. But this hunter used the Saturday conditions to make things happen for him. Once gobblers have tended to their first-light hens, which one by one leave the boss to set on their nest, especially during wet weather when eggs are vulnerable, even henned-up gobblers can become easy targets if gluttonous and seeking something new after “their” hens have abandoned them.

A case in point occurred at around 11 a.m. Wednesday, when the same hunter, set up perhaps a quarter mile above where he had scored on Saturday, called in another boss gobbler that came running to clucks after his harem had deserted him. Problem was that the bird arrived too fast and appeared 20 yards away, screened by undergrowth in an open green rye field. The longbeard caught movement or a sound it didn’t like and emitted the sound all turkey hunters dread. That is, “Putt,” which means the game of deception is over, the easy stationary head shot a fantasy.

Still, even though he didn’t kill that bird and may well have educated it too much to be fooled again in the next day or two, an eventful hunt it had been. No big deal, because it sure did get his blood boiling. Isn’t that the goal?

Enchanting Power Of Place

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.