Correction And Reclamation

A mishmash of fishing stuff this week, beginning with a little correction from last week, when I incorrectly noted the old “April 15” opening day of the Massachusetts trout-fishing season.

It seems that the father of a colleague I call “Big Boiczyk” thought a “clarification”  was in order. He looked forward to opening day as we all did back in the day. Not only that, but he would have had a special reason for attaching  importance to the big day. The pre-Interstate 91  eastern boundary of his expansive Greenfield Meadows farm was the Green River, always a good trout-fishing stream.

“My father says you should have known better,” his son told me Monday at work. “Opening day was the third Saturday in April, not April 15,”

He was right. I should have remembered that opening day always fell on Saturday before year-round fishing was, according to retired wildlife biologist Jim Cardoza’s online MassWildlife history, adopted in 1974-75.

I think I was confusing our opening day with Vermont’s, which it seems to me used to be April 15 back when I traveled annually to the Northeast Kingdom to fish opening day of the Willoughby River rainbow steelhead trout run. I have fond  memories of fishing and carousing up there in the Seventies, when we’d bunk in at an old ramshackle country inn named, if my memory serves me, the Osborne Inn in Orleans, Vt. That establishment must be long gone by now, because I could not find  a word about it anywhere online. You know you’re getting old when Internet searches like that come up empty; that and the fact that you played for or against and hunted and fished with coaches who now have fields and gyms named after them. Oh well, can’t hold back Father Time.

But enough of that. Let’s move on to another fishing-related topic, brought to my attention by a 72-year-old buddy who checked in last week to taunt me with his latest foot-free retirement adventures. He has by now moved on from ice-fishing at Pelham Lake  to angling for big browns in the upper Deerfield River known for them. It seems that he and a chum of the same vintage have enjoyed success, if cell-phone photos can be trusted. But he was not calling about brown trout. He wanted to address another issue that happened to pop into his consciousness while fishing. It was a subject he figured would pique my interest: a state fisheries-management initiative that to the best of his recollection was called “reclaiming the Deerfield River.”

My buddy said he recalled the program as a poisoning  that resulted in thousands of stinking,  belly-up  fish passing through downtown Shelburne Falls in the river back when he was a kid. He wasn’t certain precisely when the river had been poisoned to remove “trash fish,” but thought it was probably in the late Fifties or early Sixties. When he brought the subject up to his buddy at riverside, the man recalled absolutely nothing. Even worse, his fishing buddy, he sensed, harbored suspicion of a tall tale. Right then and there, he decided to throw it in my lap as soon as he  got home. He wanted to see what I could come up with.

When queried on the phone, I admitted having no personal recollection of this Deerfield River program, and I told him I couldn’t  recall ever reading anything about it, either. Perplexed, I promised to fire off emails to sources who might know something and, if  fruitless, I’d perform a few online keyword searches to see what I could dig up.

My first move was a quick email to Andrew Fisk, executive director of the Connecticut River Watershed Council (CRWC), a smart man committed to protecting the Connecticut and its tributaries. Maybe he’d know something off the top of his head or have easy access to digital files he could share. No such luck, just a rapid, friendly response saying, “I’m not surprised to hear about such a story, but I don’t know any specifics about this being done in the Deerfield. It would take a bit of time to find anything in our archives, but you are welcome to take a gander.”

Although I knew a future visit to CRWC’s Bank Row office in Greenfield might develop, I opted first for a quick buzz around the Internet. The search immediately, on the first screen, brought up the 1990 Franklin County Planning Department’s “Deerfield River Comprehensive Management Plan.” On page 38 under a subhead “Fisheries,” it was revealed that, “In 1959, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Game reclaimed the river, killing the fish population with rotenone to kill off fish competing with trout. Trout were then restocked to establish a ‘native population.’ A 1972 report assessing results of the program (13 years later) revealed that the river’s fish structure had remained the same.”

When I relayed the message to my buddy, he felt vindicated and said, “Yep, sounds about right. I would have been 15 at the time. That works.”

On the other hand, no wonder I had no recollection of the project. In 1959, I was 6.

Anyway, a few days later, I got a call about another topic from Russell Dodge of Buckland, who’s pushing 80 and served in the National Guard with my friend and initial reclamation source. Great. Quite by coincidence, I had the perfect source to query about 1959 Deerfield River happenings. Did he remember the reclamation project?

“Yes, I sure do,” he said. “They killed a lot of big fish, trout included, and there were many old-timers around the Falls who questioned what the state was doing. Later, they restocked the river with trout that had buttons attached to them for research. The state put cans up along the river for fishermen to put the buttons in. I remember my father having quite a few of those buttons that I don’t believe ever found their way to the streamside cans.”

Dodge said he vaguely remembered the name of the state fisheries official in charge of the program but couldn’t for the life of him remember his name. He said he’d call a friend who’d remember and get back to me, which he did after dark. The state official was Lewis C. Schlotterbeck, who oversaw Massachusetts rotenone reclamation projects, primarily focused on lakes and ponds, for the state Division of Fisheries and Game in the Fifties and Sixties. Rotenone was a natural toxin approved as a management agent in 1952.

According to Cardoza’s online MassWildlife history, under a heading of 1959-60: “A stream reclamation project is now underway and 75,000 pounds (37.5 tons) of trash fish were removed from 40 miles of the Deerfield River, which was restocked immediately with fingerling and adult trout.”

No mention is made of how many perfectly healthy Deerfield River trout, large and small, fell victim to the rotenone, used in many states at the time for similar fish-management projects. According to online descriptions, “Rotenone is an odorless, colorless, poison used as a broad-spectrum insecticide, piscicide (fish) and pesticide.”

“That was a long time ago,” defended MassWildlife information and education director Marion Larson, “and we have not used it for many years. When we were using it, it was in widespread use. Times have changed.”

Yes indeed, they sure have. Just think of the potential impact that 1959 poisoning of the Deerfield had on the different “native” fish gene pools, such as brook trout and smallmouth bass, not to mention aquatic insects, reptiles, birds of prey and predators that may have eaten the poisoned fish. Then draw a comparison to current conservation rules and regulations, which forbid anglers from using lead sinkers and waterfowlers from shooting lead shot while the Wetland Protection Act is firmly in place to protect ecosystems and all the life within.

I wonder what would happen to a Bay State landowner who decided to “reclaim” his private pond by dumping rotenone into it and starting over with stocked fish?  I can’t say for sure but have an idea that, if caught or reported, he’d have a big problem on his hands – one that may well lead to economic ruin.

Fishing Season Is Here

In the old days, anglers would have been gearing up this week for the traditional April 15 opening day of trout-fishing season, which this year falls on Saturday. It would have been a big day for fathers and sons, grandfathers and grandsons, fishing buddies or just plain secretive, solitary anglers fishing from a boat or canoe or trout-hunting in hip boots and vest along some rattling, wooded, gravel-bed stream heading, eventually, for the Connecticut River.

“Yeah,” said an old buddy who just happened to call as I sat to compose this narrative Wednesday morning, “I remember opening day being a big deal when I was a kid. My father, my uncles, my neighbors, we all looked forward to fishing the brooks.”

Apparently, they weren’t alone. The Greenfield Recorder-Gazette obviously thought opening day was important, too, given its front-page coverage I bumped into a few years ago when researching a mid- or late-1950s death. The local paper sent a reporter and photographer Chuck Blake out touring the country roads talking to trout fishermen they ran into along the way. Quoted were people I knew from Whately and people or families I’d heard of in Bernardston, Shelburne and Charlemont. It was interesting that the article told the tale of how many trout these men had caught and how big they were; maybe even what bait they were using.

Nowadays, there’s no opening day, just year around fishing. Yes, the thrill is gone.

Myself, I can’t say for sure where my love of fishing was spawned. My dad didn’t fish, but my mother’s father, aunt, brothers and Nova Scotia relatives sure did. Perhaps that first pre-school trip to Cape Cod with Grandpa Keane planted the seed. Or maybe it was that trip a year later, to Nova Scotia, where my mother’s maternal Comeau family living in Comeauville on the upper Bay of Fundy had a long history in commercial fishing and other maritime enterprises. All that’s left of those long-ago vacations are a black and white photo of smiling 4-year-old me holding a stringer of Cape Cod “punkinseeds” and faded memories salt-cod-filets hanging to dry on wooden racks on a dock in the hot summer sun.

I must have been attracted to that subtle, tap-tap-tap nibble followed by a furious struggle after the hook was set, because I sure chased stream fishing with passion well into my 30s, typically arriving at the water’s edge before the first bird sang.

As difficult as it is to believe, it is a fact that I have not fished regularly for nearly 30 years. Which doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten how to softly deliver bait with a spinning rod and open-faced reel or hit the spot fly fishing with a roll-cast or double-haul. And I haven’t forgotten how to shoot line or play the loops when casting into tough winds. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m sure it would take a few minutes to get it down after the long layoff. But I’m sure I could and someday will be back to the stream when I find more leisure time, be it teaching my grandsons or just enjoying a rainy summer day astream. My equipment, likely in need of a little TLC, is stored away and waiting, including all the bamboo rods I snagged over the years in my auction, flea-market and yard-sale travels. I always kept my antennae alert for fishing equipment, particularly locally made bamboo rods. Oftentimes such items were peripheral discoveries while hunting down Griswold cast-iron cookware, Whately stoneware, decoys, paintings, Americana and you name it. In the process, I was fortunate enough to find a few collectible cane rods that I still cherish. Someday, if the heavens continue to smile upon me, I’ll introduce these classic bamboo rods to my grandsons, teach them to use and protect them with special attention and care. A few of them are truly local art forms by the likes of Marc Aroner and Sewell N. Dunton, the former a world-class Tonkin-cane rodmaker from Greenfield.

To teach kids to fish, it’s wise to start with spin-casting lessons in the yard. Hula-hoops are a great target to throw out on the grass. Teach the beginners to long-cast overhead, medium-cast sidearm and pinpoint pendulum-casts to hit delicate, protected stream locations with finesse, where overhanging hemlock roots or branches and submerged driftwood roots and tangles lurk along with big, hungry trout. Then take them where the fishing is easy, starting with simple ponds that hold many “pumpkinseeds.” There is not a better way to learn the basics of casting, detecting a nibble, setting the hook and playing the retrieve.

Never ever even think of beginning with fly-casting. That more sophisticated skill can and should wait until after spin-casting is no longer a challenge. Get a kid started on 6-pound test, No. 8 bait-holder hooks and nightcrawlers cut in half and threaded up the hook shaft with just one loop for realistic presentation. Hooked like that, a crawler is able to contract and expand in the water and entice trout into striking. Start on small brook-trout streams where 8-inchers are big before moving to larger brooks, of which there are many locally, especially in the hilltowns. Once that becomes old hat and little challenge, a young angler will move on to something bigger, like the Sawmill or North rivers, then the Deerfield or Millers, where the stream is much wider and deeper, but the dynamics remain identical — same pools, same runs, same riffles, same eddies, same methods of fishing. Just a larger playing field. Not much different than moving to the 90-foot baseball diamond from Little League.

Then, of course, there’s always an introduction to lakes and ponds, where boats come in handy but are not necessary if you know what you’re doing. We used to nail nice trout from shore at places like Cranberry Pond and others I won’t name for a variety of reasons, using lures such as spoons and spinners. Later, thanks to old “Indian Al” Niemiec, a Chicopee commercial fly-tier, I was introduced to the bobber-and-fly method, which gets the shore-caster’s streamers out more than twice as far as you can cast even a heavy a lure. The reason is the added weight of a bobber filled or partially filled with water, according to the depth of the water you’re fishing. It works.

The best experience I recall with Indian Al was fishing from shore for landlocked salmon at ice-out on the Quabbin. We’d follow a feeder stream in and fish the outflow, where hungry salmon and lake trout were feeding in open water on smelts, and we’d nail one beautiful salmon after another in total, nirvanic privacy, the action heavenly indeed. Again, it took skill to determine the perfect depth at which the fish were feeding and manipulate enticing action on colorful streamers. Our favorite and most productive were “Al’s Magic” and “Mickey Fins,” attractor streamers colored bright red and gold. We also had luck with dull, drab “Joe’s Smelt” and “Muddlers.” I can’t imagine that these popular streamers have today disappeared from local bait-and-tackle shops.

Another pursuit young, developing local anglers chase as they increase their fishing expertise and grow bored with repetition is shad fishing. Again, I credit old friend “Indian Al” for turning me on to shad. I had tried fishing for the anadromous fish a few times with spinning gear and shad darts, which just didn’t float my boat, so to speak. Then Niemiec taught me how to catch them with fly tackle, sink-tip line and willow-leaf blades soldered to large brass hooks. What a freakin’ blast, catching three- to 10-pound migratory fish hand over fist on a 8- or 9-foot graphite rod. Nope, can’t say I did ever once fished for shad with one of my treasured bamboo rods. Too nervous about nicking the finsh while casting hardware into a crosswind. Tonkin cane rods are not made for shad fishing. Graphite works just fine, thank you.

Well, that’s about all I’ve got this week. As for what’s next, one never knows. But I must say that I have an idea my fishing days are not yet over. All I need is leisure time, which, hopefully, ain’t far down the road.

A Dark, Sunny Place

Spring is the season of hope and optimism, fertility and life, mating and nesting, buds and sprouts; also spontaneity, which unexpectedly seized me noontime Sunday.

It all begins Saturday night at 10, returning home from day two of “Writing Naturally,” a three-day environmental-writing workshop led by “Orion” magazine editor H. Emerson Blake. The circle discussions drew 16 kindred creative-writing spirits to the snowy, wooded, Rowe Conference Center mountain retreat.

Immediately greeting me following a long day that began at dimmest dawn are two long, thin piles of soft, wet snow — one deposited by a plow, extending some 60 feet across the foot of my driveway, the other nearly 40 feet long, dropped in front of the carriage sheds by our slate roof. A warm overnight forecast left flexibility for snow-blowing chores. No urgency. The piles would only shrink and soften in the next day’s sun.

In the backyard kennel, my two frisky English springer spaniels are likely restless. The workshop had forced cancellation of our daily, morning, riverside ramble they so anticipate and enjoy. They would have to wait. I’d visit them shortly, but first had to get inside to greet my wife and two grandsons, the boys so in need of our love and affection. Life has not been fair to the sweet, young, fatherless schoolboys, dealt by fate a heartbreaking hand.

I greet the boys harboring internal thoughts of deuces: two workshops; two vulnerable grandsons; two annoying spring snow piles; two forlorn dogs awaiting attention; and the two of us to help teach the boys life’s lessons. Although even a sucker knows the probability of winning with deuces is slim, sometimes you just have to play them and hope the heavens are smiling.

Next morning, I awaken to a bright low sun softly illuminating my bedroom through light-colored curtains, sleeping cat Kiki cuddled to my belly. I pet her. She rolls over, affectionately exposing her underbelly. I lightly scratch her chest and massage her shoulders and armpits. She purrs. I roll to the right, stand to greet the new day and walk to the bathroom door, where my bathrobe hangs from a brass hook. The smell of fresh coffee is inviting.

I walk into the kitchen and Joey is standing at the counter preparing breakfast for the kids, slicing fruit as she awaits the toaster’s whistle and pop. The boys are playing video games. Jordie, wearing headphones and looking like a character out of “The Jetson’s,” is into his Xbox mode on the dining-room TV. Arie, curled snugly on his side in a La-Z-Boy, is focused on his mini-iPad in the adjacent parlor. Eight thirty-six on the Eli Terry shelf clock pleading for its daily winding. As I had been leaning at midnight, I was now certain, facing the mid-afternoon start to a new workweek, that I would not be attending the workshop’s final half-day. I had absorbed enough over the first two days, and felt an overpowering responsibility to the kids, due to depart in just a few hours. Then I’d tackle the looming snow-removal chores under bright, endless blue skies that displayed not a wisp of a cloud anywhere.

I flick on a Sunday TV news program for background noise in Arie’s parlor and try to catch up on his recent adventures. Time flies. In no time, it’s 11:30 and my wife and grandsons are rolling down the driveway toward Vermont.

Having seen them off, I return inside, dress for my walk with the dogs, grab my keys, and retrieve from under the sink an aerosol can of silicone lubricant to leave out in the hot sun for later application to the snow-blower. I fire-up the truck and back it out alongside the old, stone, moss- and lichen-blotched stockyard hitching post. There, I open the truck’s cap, tailgate and porta-kennels and walk back to the dogs, kenneled along Hinsdale Brook, roaring like a dangerous Nor’easter wind. Anxious Lily barks impatiently as she always does. Stoic Chubby stands tall and straight, on full alert, ears perked, tail wagging enthusiastically. They know it’s time to eat, take a short ride and race willy-nilly around familiar riverside meadows. Maybe on this fine day they’d even take a springtime dip in the milky, swollen Green River down by the big old apple tree slightly overreaching the west bank, some roots exposed by erosion.

Less than an hour later, we’re back home, refreshed and fulfilled. I re-kennel the dogs and empty what’s left from a plastic gallon jug into their water bowl before returning out front to the carriage sheds. There, I lube the snow-blower chute and blades, start the tractor and leave it on low idle as I return inside to refill the jug. Task complete, I return out to the tractor, take a seat, disengage the emergency brake, open the throttle, engage the snow-blower and break through the carriage-shed pile. More than a half-hour later, it and the slushy pile at the foot of the driveway are wet shadows on the road and driveway; that and random pale-white blotches on greening grass.

I park between the carriage sheds and flagpole, use a battered old broom to partially clean wet snow from the snow-blower’s chute and blades, and leave the machine out in the hot sun to melt away what’s left. Time to return inside to shower and start thinking about the start of a new workweek. I pass through the bright, sunny, rectangular west parlor into my warm, sunny bedroom, bed tidy, cat elsewhere. The bright, warm rays pull my attention out the two double-hung windows and I instantly focus on the wall between them, where a narrow, 11-drawer spice chest is screwed head-high. Centered atop this little punkin’-pine chest, which I first remember on a thin, paneled wall between doors in spinster great-aunt Gladys’ kitchen, are two small, capped, metal urns decorated with geometrical designs. Colored gold and silver, they hold my sons’ ashes.

Another deuce had been dealt, casting a melancholy hue over a bright, warm place following a weird, unseasonable storm.

Mesmerized briefly in poignant mental meanderings, I promptly sat at the kitchen table and composed this spontaneous response to that.

Work could wait.

Lunchtime On Boondocks Pond

As MassWildlife’s Western District stocking crews deposit netfuls of large, fresh and frisky trout along the upper Deerfield River this week, diehards are still ice-fishing at secluded upland ponds nearby. Well, at least I think there’s still enough ice left up there.

“I hope so,” growled my buddy Killer, still a hard-charger at 72, when I called Wednesday morning to double check. “I’m getting ready as we speak. The boys will be here at 11 with a couple dozen shiners.”

Even back a couple of weeks ago I was surprised to learn the ice was still safe at a place not that far from home which my dad affectionately calls the boondocks. There was good reason for my skepticism. On a March 4 trip to Bridgewater State University for a Northeastern Anthropological Association conference, a man could have taken his motor boat or canoe for a spin on any of the lakes and ponds we passed on Route 2 east of Orange/Athol. Yes indeed, open water in central and eastern Massachusetts and 16 inches of ice still covering western Franklin County ponds … a month later. Maybe that’s why they call it God’s country, huh?

Anyway, this week’s fishing tale goes back to midweek last, when the Ole Killer called to chat as he so often does after 3 p.m. He had a good yarn to spin that day, having just returned from a well-known pond not far from the southern Vermont border. He, his geriatric friend and the Killer’s 20-something grandson were there ice-fishing for perch and largemouth bass, which had been hitting pretty good after a long, dormant winter. Just the previous week, the trio had pulled a nice 19-inch bass and a tasty 12-inch yellow perch through the ice. That and many pickerel, which Killer and crew aren’t fond of, even though he does savor the liver and roe, which he calls health food. Leave it up to the Killer to make use even of undesirables.

“What good are they, otherwise?” reasons the Killer. “I open them up and they’re full of small perch. Plus they eat our shiners, which aren’t cheap. When we catch them, the legal ones don’t go back into the pond.”

Which reminded him of another matter troubling him about this pond located not far from one of the old line of French and Indian War forts positioned as guard posts along Massachusetts’ northern border from Northfield to eastern New York State. Yep, after a spontaneous, informative pond-side conversation with a ranger, the Killer was all stirred up about trout-stocking at the pond.

“I spoke to him, nice guy, for quite a while and he told me they stock the pond with brook trout,” he said. “The problem is that the pond is shallow and warm, never gets deeper than 10 or 12 feet, and the trout can’t make it through the summer. That’s why I’ve never caught a trout ice-fishing. Not one in decades. Why the hell would they stock trout in a pond that can’t support them?”

Hmmmm? Good point, Killer. But let’s not go there now. Back to the tale at hand. Why stir up the fellas?

Anyway, back the hilltown tale, it seems that last week, after boring holes with a power auger and setting up, the boys were answering their tip-ups’ flags and pulling many a pickerel through the ice, the legal ones of which were lying around on the ice for future attention. When Killer for no particular reason looked up into the sky, he noticed a speck of a soaring bird of prey high, high above. Shielding his eyes from a blinding sun in a bright blue sky to get a better look through cool, midday mountain air, he could clearly see a white tail and head.

“Hey boys,” he yelled, pointing up, “look at that bald eagle circling way up there. I bethca he can see our pickerel.”

He soon realized that the eagle was slowly descending closer and closer to the playing field, and he focused on the decent. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before the majestic bird had dropped to a height not far above the treetops overreaching the shoreline, eventually landing in a big pine tree across the way. Apparently, this bird knew the drill in the Berkshires and was more than willing to wait for tasty leftovers after the boys’ departed.

Well, a gnarly old poker player and trapper, to boot, Ole Killer can indeed be a patient man, but not in this case, especially with young legs in the party. Curious, he decided it was time for action, so he called out to his grandson:

“Hey, Kid (he calls most everyone Kid, even family), “why don’t you pick up a few of those pickerel and walk out a hundred yards or more toward that eagle? When you get out there far enough, throw the fish as far as you can and we’ll see what happens.”

The kid saluted and marched to the friendly order, picking up a few pickerel and lugging them out to the middle of the pond through deep, heavy, slushy snow, to a spot far away from his fishing buddies. There he threw the fish, one at a time, out toward the alert eagle, which stood its ground on a sturdy limb t’other side of the pond. Mission accomplished, the “kid” walked back to where he started, watching and waiting.

“I can’t believe I didn’t bring my cell phone that day,” said the old Killer. “I always bring it with me but didn’t that day. It has a camera that often comes in handy. Although far away, I know I could have gotten something if I had my camera.”

Oh well, camera or no camera, what unfolded was a spectacle to behold. The big, beautiful, opportunistic eagle stood tall, cocked its head, stretched its wings and took flight, gliding gracefully down toward its free, waiter-furnished meal. Killer’s maneuver had worked to perfection.

“It was amazing to watch,” he recalled. “That bird never landed. It just glided, reached down with its legs and picked one of those pickerel up with its talons in one fell swoop. It might have scraped the ice a little, not much, before flying back to a tree, landing and eating it. The bird repeated the process two more times, staying just out of harm’s way too eat as we kept an eye on it and our tips.”

That spectacle, combined with pickerel livers and roe and fresh filet of bass and perch had made Killer’s day, and he was proud of a good deed done for a bird that symbolizes American freedom.

“I do hope we didn’t do anything illegal,” ever-careful Killer wondered aloud.

No, no, very doubtful. After all, I’ve known and hunted with Ole Killer for many years, and often make time to effusively praise his solemn commitment to following game laws to the letter.

Yes sir, the man’s as clean as the mountain air he so often breathes, the spring oozing from that high, shaded, mossy ledge on the cold north face of the ridge.

Beech Blowback

One never knows when a topic tossed into the city square for public discussion will attract interest and spur feedback like last week’s subject — beech trees — did.

Who knows why? It just did.

Among the folks of both genders chiming in were a card-carrying historian/archaeologist, a couple of foresters — one a photographer and poet on the side — a fiery conservation activist, and a couple of longtime hilltown readers, both natives who grew up around and explored woods containing big old beech trees and distinctive, elephant-skinned beech groves suitable for framed display on canvas.

The first comment came from historian/archaeologist friend Peter A. Thomas, who was at the time putting the finishing touches on his late 98-year-old father’s tasteful memorial service I attended Saturday at the closed congregational church of my South Deerfield ancestors. Addressing what I had written about my association of beech trees with upland landscapes, he said he too thought of  beeches as  uplands trees because he  often encountered them brightening high, lonely Vermont ridges during his days as head of the archaeology department at the University of Vermont.  However, he said, late Yale forest ecologist  Tom Siccama — who earned a doctorate from UVM in 1967 and taught in Yale’s prestigious School of Forestry & Environmental Studies for 40 years — had, during extensive deed research of ancient Green Mountain State parcels, discovered many beech trees noted as markers in lowland boundary descriptions. So, beeches are not upland trees in the historical narrative.

Although I could not find the specific report Thomas referred to, likely Siccama’s UVM dissertation, I was able to pull up more than enough online Siccama references to beech trees to accept my friend’s recollection as  fact. Not only that, but the online journey gave me a handle on the postglacial distribution and abundance of beech trees in the Northeastern archaeological record. Beeches first appear in the North American pollen records  24,000 years ago in the Southeast before creeping north all the way to the Great Lakes and Quebec as early as 7,000 years ago. By 1800, beech trees were as ubiquitous and common in the Northeastern forests as they are today.

The local ubiquity of beech trees is clear when reading email commentary by female readers Muriel Antes of Conway and Johanna Pratt of Ashfield, both of whom grew up around and held special reverence for them as youths. Antes, who grew up in Heath, remembers the woods of her farm “blessed with” beech groves, where she annually gathered tasty beechnuts.

“Any nuts that weren’t eaten on my way to the kitchen were incorporated by my mother into cakes and cookies,” she wrote.

As for Pratt, who cited three special beech trees in woods she deer-hunts and identified the beech as one of her “beloved trees,” she wrote that a salient memory takes her back to a chair-lift ride with her dad many years ago on an unnamed New Hampshire ski resort.

“It seems like 100 years ago that he pointed out a tall beech tree as we glided by and said, ‘See that bear tree?’” she wrote. “There were clear bear-claw hieroglyphics right up the side of that big beech tree. The scars displayed a crescent pattern where the bear had climbed the tree to harvest beechnuts, the front-paw marks distinct from the rear paws. Since then, I always search for bear-claw marks on beeches when hunting.”

Look for such sign she and others should, because bear-claw marks on beeches are as common as the smooth gray-barked trees they find their way to. Why? Well, I haven’t researched it but would guess it’s because beechnut meat soon dries into a tiny seed after falling to the ground, so it behooves bears to climb trees to forage this nut when the ripe smell fills the forest air. A friend speculated that perhaps the bear scratches are territorial like deer scrapes on the ground during rutting season. While I wouldn’t dismiss that possibility, it seems more likely that it’s the fruit that draws bears to beeches.

Before Pratt signed off, she shared one last interesting tidbit on beeches.

“Speaking of hunting,” she wrote, “I sometimes amuse myself on stand by biting the small, furled bud from a beech sapling. I like chewing them.”

So, I guess that habit plus Antes’ previous mention of beechnut-enhanced cookies and cakes answers the question of yet another random, unfamiliar Springfield correspondent, Ms. Maure Briggs-Carrington, who reached out with the question, “Are beechnuts edible for humans.” Yes, indeed, Maure. Just ask Antes and Pratt. Plus, anthropological records will tell you beechnuts were among the nuts gathered annually by Native American’s, joining white-oak acorns, chestnuts, butternuts, walnuts, hickories and hazel nuts.

The first forester to reach out was South Deerfield’s Michael Mauri, who sent a tiny book with a long, narrow, color photograph of a high Williamsburg beech grove folded in half to make a front and back cover. Inside  was this little poem. I do hope I’m not violating copyright laws:

 

black bear
the one who—is like us, the one who—
bends small trees in the forest

 

Accompanying the little booklet was a short note to say we had met once in the Montague Book Mill parking lot, where we looked at the topo map of a favorite ridge of mine named Walnut, where, incidentally, there are beech and hickories as well, not to mention an amazing balanced rock and ancient sacred landscape. He didn’t know the glacial erratic. Maybe someday we’ll take a hike and ponder the possibilities. Perhaps we’ll even hike a bit farther south along the spine to a seven-trunked shagbark hickory tree, the likes of which I have never seen anywhere else. I’m sure a poem could be written about this high, lonesome anomaly, which could even be a non-conformist in the mold of  Perez Bardwell, the 18th century hardscrabble rebel who lived below.

The other forester who came this way did so indirectly, through a local political gadfly with a deadly stinger.  This source called last week, then emailed me a recent state Department of Conservation and Recreation-proposal laying out a logging project targeted for the 280-acre Garnet Hill section of Peru State Forest. The initiative is aimed at ridding the plot of red pine scale and beech bark disease by aggressive logging and subsequent controlled forest-regeneration projects, including “chemical control of beech … to ensure other desirable native species can emerge after the harvest.”

Although it’s too late to delve into this complicated issue this week, it’s never too early to share the critical assessment of Michael J. Kellett, executive director of “Restore: The North Woods.”  Founded in 1992 and headquartered in Hallowell, Maine, with a Massachusetts office in Concord, this conservation group’s goal is “to go beyond endless damage control to begin restoring the health of entire landscapes.”

Kellett has reviewed the proposed Peru State Forest logging plan and gives it a disgusted thumbs-down.

“What a disgrace,” he writes. “… This is a plan aimed solely at cutting down as many big trees as possible before they lose their commercial value.

“The so-called forest insect and disease threats are vastly overblown. They will kill some trees, but that is something that happens in all natural forests. Logging will do nothing to mitigate or stop insects and disease, and it will probably make them worse.

“… Nothing short of a full ban on logging will save these state forest lands from liquidation.”

Touche!

Obviously, policy wonks will come forward attempting to destroy this man’s credibility by calling him a tree-hugging kook or worse. But a wise observer doesn’t dismiss such criticism out of hand. No. A sage listens and probes and researches and learns, and maybe, just maybe, discovers that what has been said is legit, not wild, radical-extremist blabber.

Stay tuned. What’s happening in Peru is lurking in a state forest near you. They call it forest-management policy.

Back To The Beech Grove

I have for many decades been fascinated by beech trees and beech stands — from the mature, elephant-skinned sentries standing tall and broad, to their understory infants immediately below, to the empty, thorny husks and the small, three-sided nuts they contain for posterity — all interesting and, when you probe the depths, perplexing in many ways.

I can’t say for sure where or when I encountered my first beech tree, so distinctive and regal. The reason for this uncertainty is that I had probably passed many during childhood woodland wanderings without knowing what they were or what role they served in the ecosystem. Did I first learn to recognize these aristocratic, nut-bearing hardwoods while cutting transit-assisted line with a machete to run traverse as a teenaged member of land-surveying crews? Or was it scouting during my early days of deer and turkey hunting? Truthfully, I cannot recall, but probably both woodland activities ultimately contributed to my ability to identify these trees, which stand out no matter where you find them.

Although I generally associate beech stands with high, hardwood ridges, where deer and bears and turkeys and squirrels and jays and you name it enthusiastically forage their fall nuts, these trees also flourish in the lowlands. I pass such tall, stately, lowland beeches daily, randomly spaced atop an escarpment overlooking a bottomland Green River-side meadow, with many infant trees below in the understory. Mixed with oaks, black cherries, poplars, soft maples, sycamores, and hickories, the mast producers attract a wide array of critters during the fruiting season and beyond.

I have in the past five years learned to value beech as an excellent heating fuel. More and more of it is showing up in the cordwood mix due to a bark-blemishing disease that’s taking its toll on beeches across the Northeast. And while I hate the thought of harvesting perfectly healthy beech trees for firewood, it isn’t necessary these days. Instead they’re culling diseased trees from the forest, hoping to protect healthy specimens from disease. Whether this strategy works remains to be seen. But, oh, how sad it would be to watch beech trees go the way of the American chestnut and American elm, both formerly prolific in these parts, now gone.

Beech trees and beechnuts are not a new subject for this column. I have in the past discussed the overwhelming likelihood that beech nuts picked off the forest floor will be hollow when cracking open and inspecting them out of curiosity. I have personally probed many November beechnuts through massive upland beech groves for nearly two generations and, despite an understory overwhelmed with infant beech trees of various short heights, I routinely find not a one with meat in it. Upon delving into this mystery a little deeper, reading, observing, exposing the quandary to the light of public feedback, I have come to the conclusion that the hollow nuts are not barren. No, what appears to happen is that, once dropped by wind- or rainstorms, the yellowish-white fruit inside the thin brown shell soon shrivels to a tiny, dark-brown seed tucked neatly and inconspicuously into the base. At first glance, the interior appears to be empty, a hollow, barren tomb. But, in fact, these nuts are not empty. Upon close inspection, the tiny seed is indeed visible. That, I’d say, is what produces all the infant trees you see, even though I was once told by a forester that some of the immature stock sprouts off the roots of adults. So, that too may indeed be the case.

Recent reading of German author/forester Peter Wohlleban’s best-selling “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate” has provided me new insight into beech and many other trees of the forest. To get anything out of this groundbreaking New York Times bestseller, published in German in 2015 and a year later in English, one must put aside that all too familiar Christian lens.

“What?” demand devout Christian readers. “Trees feeling and communicating? Do you need your head examined?”

Well, no, actually there’s no need for a shrink. To grasp such non-Western Civilization concepts, one must clear dogmatic fog and view the world with an open mind, one that leaves room for fresh new paths to discovery and truth. The first time I read about trees communicating to fend off disease or insects, survive dangerous drought, and propagate where it ain’t easy was in botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants.” It’s well worth reading if you want a different twist on how nature works in a cooperative plant community. The piece that introduced me to tree communication through intermingled root systems, wind and pheromones was titled “The Council of Pecans,” presented as a “Braiding Sweetgrass” excerpt in the literary “Orion” magazine, the standard bearer of contemporary environmental writing. Then, by chance, I caught mention of Wohlleben, found his book online, knew it was of the same deep-ecology school as Kimmerer’s, and promptly purchased it.

There is much to learn from Wohlleben, but here and now let’s focus on the topic at hand: that is beech trees, for which he has affinity and explores in depth. Most interesting from my perspective is his discussion of how to age beech-grove infants shaded in the understory by vast adult crowns that quite intentionally inhibit growth of their young. Sources such as “The Sibley Guide to Trees” and many others will tell you beech trees grow slowly, so the wood is not commercially important. But that description in no way prepares the reader for Wohlleben’s discovery that the infant saplings of the grove ranging from three to seven feet tall are — brace yourself — 80 years old.

Wow! Who would have ever guessed it? I have seen many such little beeches in my rambles and have always assumed them to be in the 5- to 10-year-old class. Not so, according to Wohlleben, who’s diligently observed and studied beech trees for many years and ages them by counting tiny modules on their branches. He says these understory juveniles live in the forest as coddled children protected by their mothers for many years. When the moment arrives, due to a lightning strike, tornado or some other event that fells large trees, these children and are ready, willing and able to flourish, having been protected and nurtured in summer adult shade for decades. Given a clear, newfound path to direct rays of hot sunlight, these arrested-development kids are ready to take off, their growth accelerating dramatically to fill the gaping hole carved into the forest’s canopy.

When I walk my dogs daily past a few clusters of these immature beech trees, their dry, light brown leaves still intact, I must admit to holding new reverence for a tree I have always favored. Who would have guessed that these head-high saplings are older than me, and I’m no spring chicken?

Ah, for the wonders of nature, not to mention the refreshing, holistic perspective of deep ecologists, still unfortunately viewed by mainstream commentators as “radicals” or, better yet, “tree-huggers.”  Well, we all know the saying that starts “Sticks and stones will break my bones,” which fits this scenario snugly. The fact is that neither pejorative would insult me personally. I’d just consider the source and invite   the razor-sharp harpoon as platinum praise.

Comeback Kid

Amazing. Incredible. Astounding. Astonishing. Miraculous. Or, maybe just plain unlikely.

Those are the adjectives that snugly fit my geriatric English springer spaniel gun dog Lily’s recuperative powers as she closes in on her 13th birthday. This biddable pet never ceases to amaze me as I observe her during our daily rambles that run deep. What a remarkable flush-and-retrieve companion she’s been, and what a comeback she’s made from the precipice of demise. I admit being shocked she’s still with us.

Less than a year ago, on May Day, I was seriously pondering her burial place, exploring peaceful places we both love, where an indiscreet grave could be dug. Now, though 90 in human age and not nearly what she was in her physical prime, the old lady’s chugging along just fine, thank you, on our daily morning romps. No, she’s not jumping up onto my pickup’s tailgate as she always did, but on a good day she still attempts it and may well have succeeded without a helping hand had I not recognized her intent out of the corner of my eye and intervened. That said, she’s jumping down without the hint of a stumble or stagger, and she’s running up and down steep slopes and through dense, thorny tangles without fear or even a hint of hesitation. She also displays no reservations when approaching frigid standing meltwater, even when a brief swim is required. Hell no. In fact, on warm, sunny winter morns, she even walks out up to her belly into the cold, swollen Green River for a refreshing drink. Yeah, of course I know this could and probably will someday end quickly. But that mortal inevitability in no way diminishes the resilience this spirited, former bundle of energy and enthusiasm has thus far displayed through trying times of growing old.

Doc Schmitt has evaluated a few canines over nearly a half-century as a vet, and he identified Lily as “a tough bitch” after she bounced back from a life-threatening pregnancy that required surgical intervention at age 8. Though he has never seen her trail and flush a pheasant or make what appears to be an impossible blind retrieve, truer words he could not have spoken. His assessment was right on the money. A tough bitch she is, and then some, not to mention an extraordinary yet fading gun dog and daily walking chum.

Back in October, just before bird-hunting season opened, I wrote that it was clear to me that Lily would be of no use as a gun dog and probably would not survive the winter. It was a poignant and painful admission, but one I believed. I had witnessed Lily’s second stroke-like event in six months – this one less severe to the eye but longer-lasting and more debilitating than the first. Although she did tediously regain her balance over time and never lost her appetite or joyful gait, she was unable to slice through dense cover during the six-week pheasant season, and was still often losing her balance and quickly tiring when breaking winter trails through fresh, deep snow. It was obvious to my eyes that Lily was playing her back nine, though not suffering, through it all eager to accompany me and her rambunctious son, Chubby, on our daily morning maneuvers.

When I described Lily’s symptoms in October, many sympathetic readers who’d watched their own dogs suffer similar problems reached out with a potential diagnosis of vestibular disease, often referred to as old-dog syndrome. Although I paid heed, Googled it and thoroughly reviewed the manifestations, I cannot say I was ever totally convinced that was Lily’s problem. All the material I read defined it as a progressive disease, which didn’t seem to fit Lily. Though temporarily encumbered, she continued to improve over time and now, after a few months, she displays no lasting effects. Zero. Plus, she has never shown any indications of associated ear discomfort or ear odor, both of which I learned long ago to keep an eye out for.

I am now convinced that Lily was stricken with two TIAs, or mini-strokes, which she eventually and quite remarkably overcame. A friend who breeds, raises and trains field springers and is a player on the national field-trial circuit believes Lily will eventually die from a stroke, and I’m inclined to agree. I trust his opinions, formed after decades in the company of high-test gun dogs, trainers and especially veterinarians. A man who intently listens to such expert discussion can absorb a lot of free wisdom by osmosis.

That said, I sense Lily’s not done yet. Who knows? At her advanced age, it’s a crap-shoot. She may soon fall on her side, go into tremors and expire. Then again, it’s possible, precluding another event, that she’ll flush and retrieve a few more pheasants this fall. We’ll see. Time will tell. Right this minute, I’m confident she’d flush pheasants from our familiar coverts.

I know better than to sell old Lily-Butt short, and would never question her resolve or resilience. She has been a truly remarkable gun dog with indomitable spirit and unusual recuperative powers. In her prime, say at the age of 5, she was an absolute powerhouse through thick, thorny cover. She literally made punishing coverts shake with her all-out enthusiasm, whether bulldozing through, bounding over or displaying an eye-catching combination of both athletic skills to locate and flush a bird.

Her best days will not be forgotten.

Never.

 

*****

 

It’s time to start thinking about removing artificial, backyard food sources for black bears, which are now active and hungry. So, take down your bird feeders, which bears will often favor over natural food like skunk cabbage, and the same can be said about garbage and compost and beehives. MassWildlife estimates our bear population to be at least 4,500, with their range expanding eastward. Take action by educating yourself and your neighbors about proactive measures to avoid conflicts with bears.

 

*****

 

As rattling brooks  flow into roaring rivers, nearly 500,000 brook, brown, rainbow and tiger trout are awaiting spring stocking from MassWildlife’s five hatcheries, including the four local ones at Sunderland, Montague, Palmer and Belchertown. The other hatchery is in Sandwich. These fish, coupled with holdovers from more than 80,000 trout stocked last fall, will provide excellent fishing in the coming months. Stocking was scheduled to begin this week in southeastern Massachusetts, with other regions of the state expected to soon follow. Anglers can get daily stocking updates at mass.gov/trout or by contacting district office for the latest stocking information.

A Twister Was Brewing

Saturday morning. Mid-May weather. Roaring backyard brook singing baritone accompaniment to the morning cardinal’s joyous melody emanating from the naked pink weigela bush. Across the horseshoe driveway’s snow-lined western leg, a thin, silent trickle of glistening snow-melt spills down toward a puddle behind the mailbox.

Ah, the ebullient sights and sounds of spring, albeit premature.

As we now know, that splendid Saturday morn was the calm before the fury of an isolated hilltown storm that bounced in from Goshen and wreaked havoc first in Conway’s Poland, then Pumpkin Hollow, that quaint  neighborhood  where rebellious spirits lurk, dating back to the earliest days when  Rev. Samuel Ely, Abel Dinsmore, Samuel Wells, Perez Bardwell and other insurgents vociferously challenged oversight and taxation from the thieving, faraway, post-Revolutionary Statehouse.

Maybe we should have seen this catastrophe coming given the rare, balmy 70-degree February day, which was indeed forecast to conclude with a threatening overnight band of heavy rain and possible thunderstorms. Yeah, that’s right, thunderstorms … in February. Hard to imagine, though no longer impossible these days when the people in charge want us to write off  climate change as a Chinese hoax. Well, tell the folks of Conway about this rhetorical “hoax.” You know, the tornado that touched down Saturday night, paying a loud, brief and highly destructive visit in the form of — um — a winter twister dancing through our Berkshire foothills. It was the first winter storm of its type ever recorded anywhere near the Pioneer Valley and its peaceful hills. Maybe it, too, was sent from China, huh? Or was it the work of Putin, our new president’s pal who apparently worked behind the scenes to sway our election? Hmmmmm? It just keeps getting more and more bizarre daily, doesn’t it? Dare we ponder where will it all end?

Anyway, I began the inspiring Saturday past with morning reading, bright warm sun filtering through parlor sheers, woodstove tipped down low and barely necessary. The telephone broke the silence. Childhood buddy Rogie wanted to know if I’d like company on my daily morning walk with the dogs? Sure. Why not? Another human being with whom too chat is never unwelcome, even over sacred, soul-searching terrain.

He arrived pre-noon and we moved right along, navigating carefully through icy shaded areas below tall stately hardwoods bordering the upper level, before following a deer run down a natural, wooded ramp cluttered with beech trees large and small, tall and bushy, head-high smaller ones still wearing a full complement of khaki-brown leaves. Where the trail flattened out onto a thorny, snow-covered, marshy thicket, a slim melt-water channel defined the escarpment base’s contour. It may not be spring yet, but it sure felt like it, minus the soothing splashes of pastel buds coloring the backdrop.

Farther along, overlooking the swollen Green River’s western bank, baying geese passing high above, three black ducks took flight and quickly vanished around a wooded bend. They were the first ducks I’d seen there for quite some time. It made sense they were there. In the cornfield a quarter-mile westward were hundreds of Canada geese, with probably dozens of hidden ducks mixed in. It was a birdie kind of spring day, flocks of red-winged blackbirds as noisy in the marshland as the starling flock we passed in the northwestern corner of  adjacent corn-stubble.

The sights and sounds of spring were omnipresent. As we climbed the gentle double-rutted ramp to the iron gate separating the upper and lower terraces, those same three black ducks again flushed upstream, followed by a pair of flashy white common merganser drakes, again the first I’ve seen in some time on that section of flat-water where I often rouse them.

The rambling conversation between Rogie and me focused primarily on our hometown, South Deerfield, which has changed dramatically since the days when I patrolled it afoot and on bicycles, and when Billy Rotkiewicz’s Frontier Pharmacy was our  unofficial center of the universe. Even the streets and neighborhoods have changed since then, but not nearly as much as the people and government. Gone are the kinder, gentler days of Chief Jim “Twitch” Rosenthal and “Pistol Pete” Kuchieski, friendly fathers of the kids next door who knew the difference between kids’ stuff, small-town pranks and crime.

I’m glad I grew up there when I did. Those were the days when town officials ignored the torching of a decaying Mt. Sugarloaf summit house, leaving the arson largely uninvestigated and unpunished. Then, less than 10 years later, the authorities “probed” with a wink, a nod and a bemused grin the sticks of dynamite flung from a rented plane flying over town  to augment the  1973   Tricentennial Fourth of July fireworks celebration. Many townspeople knew who was responsible for the loud prank and chuckled. Can you imagine what would have become of the mischievous culprits today? Oh my! Gitmo would have been too good for them.

But let’s not digress. Finished walking, solving the ills of the world and reminiscing about the good old days of “Sowdeerfeel,” we wound up back in the front parlor where the phone call had earlier been answered. There, after I brought in a couple armfuls of cordwood to refill the stove-side cradle, our conversation turned to the going price and work required to heat with wood. The discussion soon meandered to a counter-culture vendor from whom I’ve bought many cords, and hired when in need of tree service. When my friend wanted to know more about this interesting East Colrain character and his cordwood operation, I got tired of describing it and suggested an up-close-and-personal introduction.

“You got time to take a little ride?” I asked.

“Yeah, let’s go.”

And off we went, up the hill north, climbing steep Smead Hill Road to Van Nuys Road before winding down to Shelburne Line, West Leyden and Green River roads — a ride of six or seven miles before banging a U-ie on North Green River Road before Guilford, Vt., and heading back to the old Denison Sawmill.

Curiously, out in the boondocks at the fork of North Green River and New County roads, a solitary cock pheasant was picking at roadside gravel. Where in the world did this long-tailed rooster come from? Then, sure enough, the ringneck was still there on the return trip, clinging to the edge of a three-foot, roadside snowbank to let us pass. Maybe someone in that Stewartville neighborhood raises pheasants. Seems to me I saw a similar winter cock bird feeding there six or seven years ago on the way home from friends’ home up the road.

Traveling back up West Leyden Road, climbing west toward Colrain Mountain, Rogie detected activity at my old pal the wood vender’s place.

“Pull in,” he said. “I want to talk to that guy and take a look at his operation.”

I turned right, up a muddy driveway and past a massive pile of unsplit 16-inch wood chunks. Sure enough, there he was, Blue Sky himself — quite the fella — ready to knock off a pleasant February afternoon of wood processing on the cool north face of his ridge.

“We don’t get much sun up here,” he told Rogie, “so it’s necessary to stack it and cover the top if you want to season wood.”

“Wow!” said my friend, “I didn’t think anyone in the business did it the old-fashioned way anymore. It’s a lot of work. How do you make money?”

Blue Sky admitted he didn’t think much about that, claiming he’d been at it a long time and had a loyal customer-pool willing to pay a little more for dry, quality cordwood. His most profitable venture these days is milling lumber, especially black locust, which doesn’t absorb water and thus makes great fence posts among other things. Locust has replaced extinct American chestnut for many common uses. Not only that, but it’s a superior fuel that burns so hot that he recommends mixing it with other hardwoods to extend stove life.

On our way home, maybe a mile up the hill, approaching the old Elwell Farm, a deer trotted out in front of my truck and crossed the road as I took my foot off the gas pedal.

“Be careful,” Rogie cautioned, “there could be another one.”

And, sure enough, seconds later, a second deer soon followed, crossing the road before both high-tailed it into the woods maybe 50 yards from the old Elwell homestead. A pretty sight, maybe yearling twins. Perhaps their mom had already crossed, or maybe she didn’t survive the winter. Who knows? It seemed like a mature doe should have been accompanying two small deer.

We retraced our steps back to my Greenfield Meadows home, arriving around 2:30. Rogie fired up his truck and headed home to South Deerfield. I went back to reading in the same chair where my morning had begun, awaiting the return of my wife from a brief visit in her hometown of Hampden.

That night, we caught first wind of the Conway catastrophe, then followed it closer the next morning. At 5 p.m. Sunday, home for supper, the phone rang. The Caller-ID read Blue Sky.

“Hey, Buddy,” he said in that deep voice of his. “A friend of mine just called and said they had a microburst or tornado in Conway. Do you know anything about it?”

“Yeah,” I answered, “it happened up in my neck of the woods. I guess it did quite a number on Punkin’ Hollow, leveled the dairy barn at the old Page Farm, where the antique dealers John and Jan Maggs now live. You can’t miss it … big barn, just below Conway Pool, opposite the old town common.”

He tried to picture it but was coming up empty. Not his place.

I have an idea Blue Sky was experiencing a flashback of sorts to days past. He must have been thinking about throwing his chain saw and clean-up equipment into the truck, hitching up his noisy chipper and heading to Conway, just like he would have back in his Colrain Tree Service adventures.

Hey, a man’s gotta make a living, you know … even a 67-year-old who’s already furrowed his field and ought to be resting his feet on the living-room ottoman.

Did The Cat Come Back?

Maybe that deer I wrote about last week — relying on eyewitness Tom Ricardi’s report of watching it run for its life from a large bobcat toward the South River just upstream from Conway’s Burkeville Covered Bridge – didn’t escape after all.

Ricardi opined that had he not pulled his vehicle over to observe the chase, the bobcat would have eventually overtaken and killed the exhausted deer, tongue hanging from its mouth. Instead, the cat, unnerved by Ricardi, sat down for a moment, turned around and ran back into the pine grove from which it had come.

Nonetheless, that deer may not have been long for this world, according to neighbor Ed Mann. While out on his evening walk last week with yellow Lab, Boomer, Mann discovered a deer carcass along the river bank just upstream from the covered bridge. He speculated it may have been the same deer, given the location and timing, but wasn’t sure what had delivered the fatal blow. A deep coating of fresh snow had covered the tracks of the culprit(s).

“That cat could have prevailed at the end of the day,” he wrote. “Or, of course, it could have been taken down by coyotes, which have been passing up and down the river this past winter.”

Years ago, domestic dogs would have been the primary suspects, but that has changed dramatically with the enactment and enforcement of leash laws. So, yes, it was probably either opportunistic coyotes preying on a weakened deer they came across quite by chance, or that wily bobcat doubled back to finish the job.

Deer are often taken by predators on ice, where their hooves leave them helplessly splayed for the kill. It doesn’t happen by accident. Coyotes and wolves work in unison to force deer toward ice, where they know they have an advantage. Bobcats? Well, that I cannot say. But, when you think of it, why not? Before Ricardi’s tale, I didn’t know a bobcat would chase down a deer, only that they would occasionally ambush from above and pounce down upon an unsuspecting young whitetail or take fawns from their birthing nests.

This is the time of year when deer are at their weakest and thus most vulnerable to predators, which are tuned into their struggles. In the end, it all comes down to opportunism and that basic law of nature we all know well: That is, the strong survive and the weak perish.

 

*****
Another Conway resident, Gail Connelly, chimed in to report an indelible sighting. She thought maybe someone else has seen the animal she saw “several years ago at the end of March on Hoosac Road.”

Ms. Connelly has lived in Conway for 32 years, during which she has often walked her golden retriever “on logging trails and in fields — running into deer, fawns, raccoons, porcupines, moose, bobcats and numerous black bear.”

Her most memorable wildlife sighting was that of a wildcat she believes, judging from its profile, was a Canada lynx.

“I had my Golden retriever in the car when a huge animal ran in front of me,” she wrote. “I slammed on the brakes, and when I got out of the car, the cat had jumped a small ravine and was running across a field. When it got to the edge of the woods it stopped, turned around to look at me, then slowly walked into the woods. My golden is over 90 pounds. This cat was taller than him, long furry legs, his paws were thick with fur, very padded. I’d be curious to know if anyone else has seen one in our area.”

The problem with such sightings and comparisons to dogs is that looks can be deceiving, especially from afar. I once had a similar deer-stand sighting of a “bobcat” walking gracefully along a stonewall some 50 yards away and was convinced it was too tall for a bobcat, judging it taller than my male springer spaniel at that time, Ringo. Now, that cat may or may not have been taller than Ringo, who stood about 19 inches at the shoulder, but it sure did appear taller from where I sat.

When I studied the Canada lynx photo I ran with this column last week, taken by Jim Shortell in Alaska, it occurred to me that the animal appeared taller and leggier than my current male springer, Chubby, who’s taller than Ringo was. Then it dawned on me that, because of the lynx’s leaner torso it may not, in fact, have been taller, just appeared so. It’s difficult to make such a call from a distance.

Which is not to say that Ms. Connelly did not see a Canada lynx that day. She may well have, and people in these parts may see more lynx in the future. It seems that a southern expansion of this northern species is underway.

Who’s to say that this animal wasn’t here when William Pynchon first stepped foot on this valley and is now on the comeback trail, similar to moose and … dare I say, cougars?

 

*****
One final touch of sage hilltown wisdom on the bobcat/Canada Lynx discussion, this one arriving out of the blue at the 11th hour of 4:24 p.m. Wednesday from old friend Roger “Heze” Ward. It may answer the question we ended the previous segment (above) with.

“Growing up in the hills of Buckland, a couple things come to mind about the presence of bobcat and lynx,” he wrote. “The lynx was the bigger of the of the two, sometimes hitting the scales at better the 60 pounds, whereas bobcats were generally in the 30-pound class. One difference that never failed in the ability to tell the two apart was the size of the feet. Lynx feet were huge compared to the bobcat. Your picture in last week’s paper proves that out.”

He then offered this enticing little tidbit that’s well worth sharing:

“I don’t know if you ever head the story about this ungodly noise we would hear at night. The old timers it said was a bobcat and said it sounded like a baby crying. I heard it many times and never could figure out what it sounded like. I always wondered if was some kind of mating ritual. I don’t remember anyone ever saying they saw the bobcats first hand making this noise. It always seemed to be deep in the woods, and really didn’t sound like domestic cats.”

Hmmmmm?

So there. Maybe lynx are not a new phenomenon to Franklin County.

Conway Roadside Chase

Retired state Environmental Police Officer/administrator and practicing raptor rehabilitator Tom Ricardi of Conway phoned last week and left an interesting message well after I had already launched into a piece on the Patriots’ scintillating Feb. 5 Super Bowl LI win — that record comeback for the ages from which Pats fans are still tingling to the core.

Ricardi, who lives on rural Poland Road near the Ashfield line, was driving Route 116 east approaching the Burkville Covered Bridge when an interesting, midday, roadside wildlife sighting unfolded before his eyes. He thought it would be of interest to me, given all the recent discussion here about Franklin County bobcats and the possible influx of Canada lynx. There, bounding across the road in front of his vehicle was a stressed, running doe, nervously looking back, tongue hanging from her mouth, visibly alarmed and exhausted. On the other side of the road, hot on her trail, was a large pursuing bobcat. So large, in fact, was the cat that, according to the trained wildlife observer, Ricardi, “You could have at first glance mistaken it for a cougar. I first mistook it for another deer.”

Intrigued once he understood precisely what he was watching, Ricardi pulled to the side of the road and reached for a pair of binoculars he keeps handy as the doe headed toward South River. Most interested in the cat, Ricardi focused in and got a splendid look when it wisely decided against crossing the road under obvious human observation. Instead, the creature sat down like a household kitty-cat in front of the parlor woodstove, watched the deer briefly, did a 180 and headed for cover in the pines from which it had flushed the deer.

“There’s no question in my mind that that cat would have caught the doe had I not been there to interrupt the chase,” opined Ricardi. “That was a helluva big bobcat, and it was only 50 yards behind.”

My, how that informed opinion from a sage observer got my wheels spinning about the possibility of bobcat deer predation. It’s an especially ripe concept nowadays, when leghold trapping is a distant memory and cat hunting, too, has gone the route of Edsels and DeSotos with hound-hunting forbidden. Like Edsels and DeSotos, there are still a few cat hunters around, though now they’re relegated to still-hunting and calling them into range with rabbit squeals and other prey distress calls. Still, cat hunters are a dying breed to say the least. Thus our bobcat population continues to grow and, because mature cats now survive longer, they can grow larger … and potentially more dangerous to deer.

It is no new revelation that opportunistic bobcats will await young, unsuspecting deer and occasionally kill them by pouncing off a ledge or tree limb. Plus, there’s always the possibility of random bobcat kills of newborn fawns in their brushy nests. But one mature bobcat chasing down and killing a mature deer? Hmmmm? Why not?

If a coyote or domestic dog can chase down and kill deer, then why not a big bobcat, which is faster and more athletic than canines, be they domestic or wild? And were you to place a healthy 40-pound bobcat in a steel-cage with a healthy 50-pound coyote, which do you suppose would emerge from a battle? In my opinion, the bobcat would prevail every time.

Please, don’t interpret this discussion as a blood-lust, clarion call to thin out bobcats for the benefit of our deer herd. No, that is not my intention. Predators and prey have forever coexisted in the same ranges, and smart wildlife experts will tell you prey is smarter, healthier and overall superior where predators are routinely pursuing and killing them. Look it up if you don’t agree. It’s a fact of nature.

 

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

 

Speaking of wildcats as we await Arizona lab results to confirm a summer cougar attack on a horse in the Quabbin-periphery town of Petersham, cougars have been in the national news of late, showing up in a couple of respected literary magazines. First a heartfelt “Orion” piece about the necessity of Floridians learning to live with their burgeoning panther population, then a similarly sympathetic “New Yorker” article from Greater Los Angeles, where cougars are up against long odds of preserving a sustainable breed of cat, so to speak. There, in the ever-shrinking forested hills overlooking LA, where freeways prevent a good genetic mix from faraway disperser males, an in-bred population has put the cats in peril.

Anyway, when I read such pieces and think to a future I may or may not be here to experience, I suspect the time will come when our farmers and hikers and bikers will have to learn to be wary of occasional cougar encounters, similar to how we must these days be wary of bears, which were not here when I was a South Deerfield lad, fishing streams, climbing mountains and patrolling bottomland woods and swamps.

While there are those who’ll tell you it’ll never happen, I am in the “never-say-never” camp. To me it seems the rewilding process is here, and has been underway for decades.

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