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.

 

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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?

 

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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.

 

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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.

Super Bowl/Ali Analogy

It’s noontime Tuesday, gray and wet, home snow-removal chores in the rearview, televised Patriots parade underway in Boston.

I’m walking the dogs in steady rain that’s softening the shallow coating of fresh, white, sticky snow. The precipitation had changed from snow to sleet to rain as I whisked clean the snow-blower blades and carriage after yard cleanup.

I’m watching Lily and Chubby romp through the Christmas trees on a floodplain meadow, rain audibly dripping from naked hardwoods, the dogs’ joie de vivre palpable as my mind drifts off as it usually does while walking. I’m thinking back to something I heard Bill Belichick say from ESPN’s on-field, postgame broadcast podium after his Pats’ dramatic, 34-28 overtime win over the Falcons in Super Bowl LI. Talking about his team’s record comeback from a 25-point  deficit, he told retiring sportscaster Chris “Boomer” Berman that Bill Parcells — a former coach under whom he worked and from whom he’d learned much about winning — was fond of usung a boxing metaphor when describing what it takes to be a great champion. He believed that the mark of a true champion is the ability to get up off the canvas and win.

“I think we did that tonight,” beamed Belichick. And who could argue?

Mulling that Belichick quote as I walked the southern perimeter of my daily ramble, dogs chasing scent in and out of the wooded wetland border, my thoughts brought me to Muhammad Ali, the greatest boxing champion of my lifetime. I was trying to compare the Pats’ remarkable Super Bowl rally to one of Ali’s epic wins, and for some reason started with the “Thrilla in Manila” against Joe Frazier. But, no, thinking it over, I knew that fight for the ages hadn’t mirrored what occurred Sunday night at NFG Stadium in Houston. The reason was that at the start of that memorable 1975 fight, it appeared that Ali would make quick work of Smokin’ Joe, peppering his face like he was working an Everlast speed bag in the gym. But a determined Frazier somehow absorbed the punishment and responded by bearing in on Ali and hurting him on the inside until, after Round 11 of a scheduled 15, it looked like Frazier may just beat “The Greatest.”

Not so fast. In Round 12, Ali dug deep, found his second wind and started battering Frazier. By Round 14, Smokin’ Joe could no longer see through badly swollen eyes. Concerned trainer Eddie Futch threw in the towel. Proud, fierce Joe Frazier could not answer the Round 15 bell. Ali had won by TKO. Afterwards, Frazier said, “Lordy, Lordy,” he had hit Ali with shots that could have shaken  the walls of a city yet could not beat him.

The Pats’ historic Super Bowl victory Sunday night really didn’t have that ebb and flow, those changes of momentum. Down 21-3 at the half due to two costly turnovers, New England was getting dominated by Atlanta on the scoreboard. Then, after the Falcons tacked on another score to make it 28-3 with 8:31 remaining in the third quarter, die-hard Pats fans knew a comeback was unlikely indeed, even for an all-time-great QB/coach tandem like Tom Brady and  Belichick.

Which brought me to another Ali fight occurring a year before the “Thrilla.” We’re talking about 1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle” versus a seemingly unbeatable and heavily favored heavyweight champion named George Foreman, a younger, stronger man who packed a mighty wallop. So, what was Ali’s strategy in this fight that few thought he could win, and many feared could end his career, if not his life? He came out by decisively winning the first round with dazzling combinations to Foreman’s face, then shocked the world by leaning back against the ropes, protecting his chin and allowing the powerful champion to whale away at his midsection in a ring tactic dubbed “rope-a-dope,” designed to “punch out” the opponent. Trainer Angelo Dundee pleaded with Ali to get off the ropes while loyal fans wondered what was wrong with “The Greatest.” Was he losing his freakin’ mind? He was going to get killed laying on the ropes in front of such a powerful brute.

After six rounds of his best impression of a heavy bag, Ali sprang off the ropes in the eighth round and dropped Foreman to the canvas with a well-placed combination of punches to the face. Foreman went down, could not get to his feet before the count of 10 and Ali, hands raised above his head,  had a stunning knockout to regain the world heavyweight crown.

That Ali fight was the one that most resembled Sunday’s stunning Patriots comeback in Houston. No, the Falcons did not come into the contest as prohibitive favorites, and they were not recognized as the big bully on the block, either. But with a 25-point lead and 20 minutes remaining, the underdog  sure had taken on a superior demeanor.

Then, like Ali in Zaire, the Pats came off the ropes to score the final 31 points and win their fifth Super Bowl of the Brady-Belichick era. Some called it a miracle. Others blamed it on Falcons coaching ineptitude.

Longtime WFAN-New York, AM-660 sports-talk host Joe Benigno had it right Monday morning when he proclaimed that only one team could have pulled off that historic comeback, then labeled Super Bowl LI as the win that will forever define these New England Patriots’ greatness. Though not a popular view on that station or in that city, where callers and hosts alike prefer to insult the Patriots as cheaters, suffering Jets-fan Benigno had taken a fair view, giving justifiable credit and admiration where due.

It takes a man to tell it like it is in that hostile Big Apple market, and, on the other hand, an arrogant loudmouth like Mike Francesa to claim that the Falcons coaching staff handed the win to the Pats on a silver platter.

It’ll be interesting to see what Francesa’s excuse is next year.
******

The preliminary all-season 2016 deer harvest released last week by MassWildlife is 12,233. This includes record archery (4,661) and primitive-firearm (2,484) harvests and an average shotgun harvest of 4,907, including 58 kills during the special, controlled, four-day Blue Hills Reservation hunt. An additional 53 deer were taken by special permit during the annual Quabbin hunt, and 128 additional deer were taken during the annual pre-archery youth hunt.

Backboned by the archery and blackpowder records, the total harvest was in near-record territory, following a sub-par 2015 harvest. Last year’s low harvest was likely due to unseasonably warm weather, lack of snow and an abundance of wild food, which meant that deer could be virtually anywhere and did not have to move much when hunters were in the woods. The increased 2016 harvest was likely related to the previous year’s low harvest and low winter mortality, plus this year’s excellent hunting conditions.

The all-season preliminary totals in Zones 10 (2,313), 11 (2,715) and 9 (1,115) comprised a bit more than half the statewide harvest. Meanwhile, local Zones 4 North (531), 4 South (299), 2 (479), 5 (542) and 6 (126) combined produced a mere 16 percent of the statewide harvest. My, how times have changed since I was a kid.

The final harvest figures and analysis will be released in May or June.

Conway Cats

Looks like the late Ted Cromack from up on the Mohawk Trail across from Call’s Corner in Shelburne wasn’t the only local fella hunting bobcats back in the day. Not only that, but I guess that 38-pound cat I long ago witnessed Conway trapper Ed Rose carrying out of the Williamsburg woods wasn’t that big after all.

These new revelations arose from one quick look at the classic black-and-white photo emailed this way last week by Bill Burnett of the Conway Burnetts, whose old South River-side farm and sugarhouse embrace the confluence of Poland Brook.

The photo from the Burnett family archives shows Bill’s grandfather, Frank Burnett, standing between a shed and his vintage Ford sedan sporting a 1939 license plate. There, the man displays a 45-pound bobcat he and veterinarian brother Dr. Russell Burnett shot on a hound-assisted hunt through the Conway woods. Peeking out from behind the proud hunter, hanging bobcat’s back legs tied to a thick stick, is one of the happy hounds that likely treed the cat.

Above the attached email photo is an explanatory note beginning with, “In response to your recent articles about bobcats,” and proceeding to describe his grandfather and great uncle as “avid hunters and trappers who supplemented their income by selling furs.” It all made a lot of sense in rural pre-World War II America, which was still digging itself out of the Great Depression.

Burnett then shares a recent sighting: “On the afternoon of Sunday, Jan. 8, at about 3 p.m., my sister and I saw three bobcats of all the same size cross our field on the Ashfield/Conway town line on Route 116. We called neighbor (and retired game warden) Tom Ricardi, who said it was a rare sighting, probably a family unit.”

I would have shared this Burnett email last week had I not already jumped into another interesting bit of feedback that had arrived a day earlier by snail-mail from Haydenville. Unwilling to switch gears with a story underway, I decided to let the Conway tale ferment for a week.

When I phoned Burnett last week to tell him I was going to run the photo, I disclosed that I knew his property well from fishing in my youth. There, wearing hip boots at dawn, I often bumped into old pal and baseball/football coach Tommy Valiton deftly lifting trout from the streams with his long flyrod baited with nightcrawlers. It was also not unusual to run into Whately brothers known in South Deerfield lingo as the “Sudsy Twins,” whose real names were Don and Dave Sadoski, now passed, but for decades a fixture on local hilltown trout streams.

I most often bumped into the “Sudsies” on the lower end of West Whately’s West Brook, but South River and Poland Brook were also on their circuitous weekly tour. Many Franklin County fishermen knew the twins’ Chevy or GMC pickup with a large camper reaching back over the top of their cab, and the wise ones knew enough to fish elsewhere.

Funny how an old photo like Burnett’s can evoke fond memories.

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Sticking to bobcats and moving a bit north and east to my own upper Greenfield Meadows neighborhood, I have to assume that the two cats that left tracks crossing my daily path last week were same two neighbor Anne Echeverria reported seeing out her kitchen window a few weeks ago. The two cats, one lager than the other, had covered the entire meadow, meandering throughout while slipping in and out of the narrow bordering wetland. The cats were likely hunting mice, rabbits and squirrels, all of which flourish in this terraced riverside plain of mixed hardwoods, wild grapes, sumac, fruit and berries, and croplands.

The tracks of a cottontail rabbit told me all I needed to know about the bobcats’ riverside mission. Typical tracks of a cottontail hopping through a meadow are a foot or less apart. Not so in the southwest corner of the first field I walked. There, the prints in the snow were a full five feet apart.

Obviously, that bunny knew it was in the company of dangerous predators, and was fleeing for safety. No sign of blood or hair anywhere.

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More leftovers: In a “Country Journal” article mentioned here last week and written by Mike Donovan about his native Woronoco — a quaint Russell village located at the base of Mount Tekoa, where timber rattlesnakes are known to lurk — Donovan writes that “some believe the word ‘Tekoa’ meant ‘place of the snakes’ in the (Eastern Algonquian) language of the Woronoak Indians,’” who populated the Westfield River watershed. Well, that got my wheels spinning and sent me off on a Google and library search aimed at confirming or denying the Native American origin of Tekoa.

The first source I dug out was a fresh new (2004) University of Oklahoma Press compendium written by William Bright and titled “Native American Placenames of the United States,” which did not list the word Tekoa or anything resembling it.

“Hmmmmmm? Very unlikely the word was of Algonquian origin,” I surmised, before digging deeper and going to a couple of old standbys, first J.C. Huden’s “Indian Place Names of New England (1962),” then J.H. Trumbull’s “Indian Names of Connecticut (1881),” neither of which produced a word resembling Tekoa.

Then, off on a cursory Internet search to see what I could find on the word Tekoa, and — Bingo! — there it was: a biblical origin.

So, it looks like the Native American origin is a creative myth.

Locked In Place

A white No. 10 envelope. That’s what awaited me Monday on my Recorder desk. It brought me to a place I love to visit and never leaves me.

Imagine that. Captivating snail-mail? Oh yeah. A blast from the past. Old-school correspondence. On the envelope and below the signature at letter’s end was a paste-on return address for Gary R. Linscott of Haydenville. The man starts the tidy, two-page, hand-written letter by introducing himself as a “faithful” reader born in Greenfield to Leverett parents. Then he traipses off on a hilltown ramble.

Cursory online research uncovered no simple route to a phone number or I would have called Linscott. I did discover his age, at 65, a couple of years older than me. So, yes, I guess he qualifies as an old-timer. At least he would have when I was, say, in my 30s. My, how perception changes as we age.

Anyway, it appears that Linscott has lived in Haydenville ever since his parents left Leverett and touched down in that Hampshire/Franklin border town when he was a mere 6-month-old babe. So, it’s safe to say he knows his way around the Adams Road neighborhood he describes as the site of many interesting wildlife sightings.

I can only speculate that his reason for writing to me at this time was my recent mention of sites located within his domain, places like Henhawk Trail and High Ridge, which are dear, if not sacred, to me. In fact, so dear are they that for decades I have resisted  naming them  in the public sphere. They’re wild, idyllic places that are, frankly, in my humble and unwavering opinion, better off known by few and explored by fewer. Big woods scare people off these days, even though pocket-sized GPS technology can indeed inflate confidence.

The primary reason Mr. Linscott reached out for a personal connection after many silent years of reading was to share an interesting little front-page, above-the-fold, banner-scraping “Country Journal” story about Mt. Tekoa timber rattlesnakes in the quaint Russell village of Woronoco. “The Journal,” a Turley Publications hilltown weekly, circulates through 16 upland Westfield River valley towns west of Northampton, Easthampton and Westfield.

The story was written by a reporter named Mike Donovan. A Woronoco native, Donovan grew up where  rattlesnakes were part of life, thus respected. Donovan writes of neighbors’ summer confrontations with rodent-hunting rattlers hiding underneath porches and hen houses, coiled under cars or slithering though dry, sun-splashed backyards bordering streams. Although snakebites were rare, folks in that little hamlet knew enough to be wary during the summer, and to stay away from Mt. Tekoa when snakes are active.

A “fact”  Linscott wisely questioned was Donovan’s mention of a famous photo from a 1930s Springfield newspaper. The shot  showed teenaged George Church displaying what was reportedly an 8-foot, 10-inch Eastern diamondback rattlesnake killed on Tekoa. Perhaps climate-change will someday shift that venomous snake’s range this far north, but today this viper is found only in the South, beginning in Florida and extending west as far as Louisiana and north into southern North Carolina.

Perhaps that newspaper snake pictured some 80 years ago really was  killed on Tekoa. More likely, it was a hoax or had been captured in the sunny south and released here. Maybe it escaped from a traveling circus. Hey, it’s even possible that snake was a rare, behemoth timber rattler that had survived to abnormal old age. Not impossible, I suppose. According to National Geographic and other reputable online sources, timber rattlers top out at a little more than six feet. Nine feet? Ummmm … seem like a stretch.

Linscott didn’t stop with snakes. Uh-uh. That was just his intro, accompanied by a copy of the “Journal” article. Then, as though he had been compiling wildlife sightings in his fanny pack, he opened the top flap for me and allowed them to escape after many years of captivity. All of the tales came from his neck of the woods, which happens to be a place I know and worship after many years of woodland rambles along discontinued roads, faded footpaths and game trails, not to mention freewheeling, whimsical, at times daring diversions. He mentions sightings by him and others of mountain lions, moose, deer and coyotes, all of them between Conway’s Poland Brook Wildlife Management Area and West Whately’s Mountain Street Reservoir. The area, known in topo-map lingo as the Williamsburg Quadrangle, is a splendid mix of upland deciduous and conifer forest, high, stony, hardwood spines, and dense wetland tangles. There, if you know the woods and don’t fear them, among the potential discoveries are an incredible balanced rock of ancient ‘Burgy lore and a high and hidden 1926 brass plaque dedicated to late Daily Hampshire Gazette editor/publisher and High Street Walking Club member Edward C. Gere.

If you do your homework, you may even get to know the cellar hole of 18th-century Whately rabble-rouser Perez Bardwell, a brave soldier who got himself into quite a fix as a post-Revolutionary rebel. Look him up. He’s a fascinating local example of the colonial firebrands called “Old Revolutionaries” by late MIT American-history scholar Pauline Maier, who wrote the book. We’re talking about fiercely independent radicals in the mold of Samuel Adams, Dr. Thomas Young and Patrick Henry. These patriot “activists” ignited the American Revolution, then were kicked to the curb by moderate Federalists after it was won. But let us not digress.

Most of Linscott’s reported sightings unfolded near the old Graves Farm, now an Audubon Society preserve off-limits to dogs. That’s what keeps me away. Back in the day, I knew the elderly, hunchbacked Graves brother who lived in the old farmhouse. His name escapes me, but something tells me it was Marshall. Then again, I could be thinking of the Colrain Denison brothers I got to know through early-morning fishing. Does it really matter? I talked to this old Yankee farmer many times, pulling right through his barnyard to hunt or scout, before parking in the back pasture on  a knoll with  a lonely old apple tree. I shot a deer, many partridge and woodcock, and my first turkey on that 535-acre spread.

On my way home one afternoon, the bent old man was out behind the woodshed bucksawing 15- to 20-foot logs into heavy 18-inch pieces to be split for cordwood. He was  80-plus at the time. Grateful for the privilege of hunting and parking on his property, I pulled over, got out, rattled his cage a bit, and helped him for the last couple hours of daylight. I must have bucksawed off 20 or 30 chunks  before quartering them with a maul while he carted them to the woodshed. I still feel good about helping him and must say I thoroughly enjoyed the homespun conversation.  In fact, it was from that man that I learned about a Sanderson farm on the southern perimeter of his property that had burned to the ground in the early 1900s. I knew the old, charred ruins and chimney but had no idea who lived there.

“Maybe you’re related,” he said.

“Yes, we’re definitely from the same bolt of cloth,” I assured him, “though I don’t know  how. I’d wager that his family came from Whately, probably a West-Whately branch.”

Later research confirmed my speculation on both counts.

Isn’t it fascinating how, the more you study your place — its people, roads and rivers, churches and folklore, its deep history of oral literature and sacred landscapes — it seems only to grow  smaller and more dynamic? That, and easier to stitch the random  threads into a meaningful tapestry.

This Linscott letter to me, written in a neat, steady hand, was just one more reminder of how small our world becomes when we focus on place. Linscott and I are brothers of sort, careful observers of our own little worlds, which, for us, meet in a mystical overlap. Though we have not met and likely never will, our bleeding wrists are joined on the middle ground.

Call it shared,  savored love of place.

Bobcat/Lynx Feedback

Whenever I write about local wildcats, it seems that the feedback locomotive gets rolling full-steam ahead. So it was no surprise that last week’s column drew a spike in reader email.

Oh my! Can you imagine what’ll happen when I finally jump into that Petersham mountain-lion-attacks-horse tale, which I was aware of months before it hit the news on the day after Thanksgiving, went viral for a couple of days and vanished into thin air with  the surface scratched  ever so lightly. Of course, it’s always difficult for reporters to really delve into a totally unfamiliar subject about which little is known, especially when state wildlife officials paid to answer their questions go into their best damage-control shutdown mode, buttressed by their Office of Executive Affairs gatekeepers. I’ll let the issue sit for a little while longer. Confirmation that the DNA samples gathered on the scene by the landowner were indeed left by a mountain lion, as  determined by a reputable University of Florida lab, is due soon from another respected Arizona lab.

Not that anyone doubts the accuracy of the Florida lab’s determination that the blood and hair specimens were left by a cougar. But why not wait a little longer for confirmation from Arizona cougar expert Melanie Culver? This is the same woman who used archaeological evidence from deep-history Native American sites to prove that North American cougars (Puma concolor) from all points of the compass were one animal, not different species, thus debunking the eastern-cougar-extinction distraction propagated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service mere weeks before a 140-pound male disperser from South Dakota’s Black Hills showed up dead on a Connecticut highway in June 2011.

Stay tuned. We’ll let that spicy little Quabbin Country  story simmer in the Southwestern sun  a little longer. Back to feedback from week’s piece about local bobcats and the Canada lynx possibility.

The first response to show up in my inbox came from Fred Bourassa, a Shelburne Falls native who now calls Greenfield home. “I remember back in the late ’50’s/early ’60’s that there was a man named Ted Cromack, who lived on Rt.2 in Shelburne across from Call’s Corner Antiques,” he wrote. “Seemed like every week he would have a bobcat hanging from his front porch. I’m not sure whether he had dogs or not, but he certainly was an avid cat hunter. I’m sure a lot of old-timers from Shelburne will remember him.”

Well, although I’m not sure my hunting buddy, a Buckland native I call “Killer,” admits to being an old-timer, he is, at 72, no youngster. Did he remember Ted Cromack? Oh yeah, remembered him well. And, yes indeed, he did own a pack of hounds. The Killer also confirmed that he often passed the same roadside display Bourassa described at Cromack’s Mohawk Trail homestead. “Absolutely,” he agreed. “He was quite the boy, a well-known cat hunter. My uncle Roland (Cusson) and his buddies used to hunt with him back in the day.”

Those were the only hunting-related bobcat comments to come my way, although this week Greenfield accountant, Marine Vietnam vet and former trapping defender/activist Donald E. Graves of Buckland forwarded a copy of a letter he sent to President-Elect Donald J. Trump requesting that, because sportsmen and gun owners played such an important role in electing him, he should repeal ASAP the Massachusetts law enacted by 1996 referendum forbidding hounding of bears and bobcats as well as leghold traps.

The remainder of the comments came from nature lovers and wildlife observers who’ve had the pleasure of watching beautiful bobcats, and even possibly Canada lynx, around their rural Franklin County homes. These folks sounded much like my neighbor, Anne Echeverria, whose backyard sighting down the road from my home spurred last week’s column. Among the respondents were two women, Betty Schneider of East Colrain and Marti Auriemma, town of residence unknown.

We’ll begin with Schneider, a neighbor of sorts who sent a photo (below) taken last fell by husband Bill on his way to Greenfield. “There are many bobcats in my neighborhood,” she wrote. “My sister-in-law had four in her yard at the same time. How rare is that? She has photos of them. Beautiful animals! I guess the living conditions/food sources are great in East Colrain.”

Not a bobcat expert by any stretch of the imagination, I can’t speak to the rarity of seeing four bobcats in a group but did myself once see three walking cautiously through the woods from my deer stand. I would surmise that such groups are typically family units of mother and kittens. Once the young approach a year old, they’re big and it’s difficult to visually differentiate between adult and juvenile.

Because Ms. Auriemma didn’t pinpoint where she lives, we’ll just call it Recorder country and leave it at that. She and her husband had an interesting backyard sighting a couple of weeks ago that piqued their curiosities enough to push them onto an intensive Internet search for a positive identification. Their conclusion? Canada lynx, which isn’t impossible, given that there have in the past six months been confirmed southern Vermont sightings around the Deerfield River headwaters. What is there to stop such a cat from following the riverside corridors downstream?

“I’ve searched all over online and the animal we saw most resembles the lynx,” Auriemma wrote. “It was silvery gray, with no spots and a tail that was barely there. It was coming out of the woods on its way somewhere with a dead squirrel in its mouth. For several weeks before this sighting, I heard what sounded somewhat like a cat calling most nights (it was not a coyote, which we often hear). I had no idea what it was, but when this animal appeared that morning, I figured it must have been what I was hearing. We’ve seen a lynx in Colorado and are certain that is what we saw there, as there were signs posted warning not to shoot them. The animal in our backyard resembled this lynx, especially in coloration. Interesting?!”

Yes. Interesting indeed. I love it when readers share their observations, though lynx color can vary and thus may not be a reliable identifying characteristic.

Local observers interested in establishing at least a strong suspicion that what they’ve seen is a Canada lynx and not a bobcat should try to shoot a photo in these days of cell-phone cameras. A backyard photo led to the Londonderry, Vt., cat’s identification as a lynx. That photo is easy to find online. The distinguishing visual characteristics of lynx compared to bobcats are their shorter, blacker tails, larger feet, longer ear tufts, and especially hips that are elevated higher than the shoulder in a broadside profile.

Bobcats In The Neighborhood

A noontime phone call from a neighbor, a brief conversation, a spin around the Internet and — Bingo! — another column in the making.

It all unfolded quite by chance on Tuesday, after finishing a couple of morning tasks: first, a trip to Agway to buy dog and cat food and cedar shavings on senior-discount day, then taking the dogs for their eagerly anticipated morning romp atop hard, crusty snow that they literally fly on. Funny. Not a fresh deer track anywhere during the two-day deep freeze. Then, walking through small puddles and soft, sticky snow on Wednesday morning, still no fresh sign anywhere. I guess they ventured off to a nearby feed yard dominated by browse. They never go far. Tend to stay in the neighborhood, so to speak.

But let us not digress. Back to noontime Tuesday. …

The kitchen phone rings. I’m in the adjacent woodshed gathering armfuls of dry, seasoned hardwood to refill the iron cradle beside the wood stove. My arms full, I cannot answer the call but will see who called once finished with my daily duty, the final chore  always sweeping the hearth area clean of wood debris with a broom and handled dustpan. That done, I check the phone. It was neighbor Anne Echeverria from a hop, skip and a jump down the road. I hit the call-back button.

“Hi neighbor,” I respond to her hello. “So, what’dya see in your backyard?”
“Two bobcats,” she reported. “They were walking through the woods out back. I saw them through my kitchen window. I wouldn’t say either of them was large. One was bigger than the other. I watched them through binoculars. What beautiful, graceful animals.”

Although it may come as a surprise to some, Bobcats are not a rare sight around my Greenfield home. My wife was quite pleased to once catch a beauty passing right through our yard in broad daylight along the barn. The  highest-profile incident occurred more than a decade ago when, around lunchtime, a rabid bobcat went on a much-ballyhooed rampage through the Upper Meadows, attacking a neighbor in his western Meadow Lane backyard garden four doors down. Minutes earlier across Colrain Road, the cat had  threatened to attack a man and his young child near a backyard swing set.

Talk about a beautiful day in the neighborhood. The cops were quickly on the scene that day, instructing folks by loudspeaker to stay inside until the threat passed. It didn’t take long before the rabid animal was trapped under a rubbish barrel and shot less than a mile east of my home, at Martin Farm on Plain Road.

It was exciting summer drama, attracting Springfield TV news crews and quickly finding its way to the Boston news stations. My kids were living with us at the time and seemed to be enjoying the commotion. Not only that, but they were amused by my response. What’s that? Well, I went to my gun safe, spun the dial, pulled out my holstered .38 caliber snub-nose revolver, loaded it with five hollow-points and strapped it inconspicuously to my hip … just in case.

By then, I had grown accustomed to seeing bobcats in my travels in and around the Meadows. I’ve seen them deer hunting and  driving home from work late at night during the winter, when I have many times caught one or a pair thereof hunting the winter cornfield puddles for overnight waterfowl settled on the Colrain Road-Plain Road crotch a mile south of my home. I had only two “neighborhood” deer-hunting sightings: one a large, leggy cat a quarter mile across the road, south and west of my home, that I still believe could have been a Canada lynx because of its long legs; the other an adult female and two small kittens passing my late-afternoon, ridge-top, Smead Hill stand a mile behind my home. I got a good look at one of those kittens just before dark. Defying some type of silent warning signals from its mother, the alert little animal came to within 10 yards of me as I sat invisible against a large, twin red pine, face covered by a woodland-camo mask. Suddenly, the pretty little creature froze, lit up with caution brought by a sixth sense that detected something wasn’t quite right, and slowly turned and walked away. I was surprised to encounter such small kittens in December, but was later told by a state wildlife biologist that it must have been, for one reason or another, an unusually late litter.

Prior to moving from South Deerfield to Greenfield in the spring of 1997, and having spent a lot of time in the woods of Deerfield, Whately, Hatfield, Conway, Ashfield and Williamsburg — not to mention my days in the woods near and far as a land surveyor — I had seen just one bobcat in 40-some years. That sighting occurred while sitting still and quiet during deer season with my back up against the western face of the highest ridge off Henhawk Trail, an old Indian Trail and discontinued road through the Conway State Forest, connecting Williamsburg to Conway. I felt privileged to see such an animal furtively making its way through wet terrain just south of Sikes Hill, west of Cricket Hill and northwest of High Ridge. Where better to see one? Back then, in the 1980s, the state had conducted a trap-and-collar bobcat study right there in that general area, live-trapping and collaring just shy of 20 bobcats for the study. The one that crossed my path wore no collar. But, yes, Bobcats have coexisted with us in these parts for many years, despite the fact that most people will never see one.

Not 50 years ago, bobcat hunting with packs of trained, baying hounds was a popular cold-weather activity in our Hampshire and Franklin hills. I remember the late Bill Gaffigan of Buckland speaking fondly of participating in the annual activity with his Buckland/Shelburne/Ashfield pals. And don’t forget that before leghold traps were outlawed in 1996, local trappers sold many a bobcat pelt at auction. In fact, I ran into just such a man who supplemented his income trapping, outspoken Ed Rose — who some may have known from his Holly Barn restaurant in Conway. Yes, I will never forget that cold November day at the Burgy outflow of Henhawk Trail, where I caught Rose exiting the southern woods carrying a large, 38-pound cat he was quite proud of. He should have been proud. It was a massive bobcat, the largest he had ever trapped, he said.

Online information confirms Rose’s assessment. Male bobcats ranges in height from 17 to 23 inches at the shoulder, weighing between 16 and 28 pounds. Canada lynxes appear to the eye to be bigger because they have longer legs. But the fact is that both are classified as medium-sized wildcats and are about the same height and weight. Bobcats and lynx both have tufted ears, Lynx’s a bit longer. Another distinguishing feature is the tail. The lynx’s bobbed tail is shorter and blacker than a bobcat’s. Also, unlike bobcats, lynx stand slightly taller at the hips than the shoulder.

It isn’t impossible that Canada lynx have already or soon will pass through Franklin County. One was photographed in the southern Vermont town of Londonderry in June. Since then, sightings have been reported in Searsburg, Vt., located downstream from the Deerfield River headwaters at Somerset Reservoir. Canada lynx are classified as an endangered species, which, until very recently, had not been seen anywhere south of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.

So, there you have it: a quick discussion of bobcats and lynx, all started by a random, friendly neighborhood phone call reporting a kitchen-window sighting.

You gotta love it.

A Good Read By A Local Coauthor

There’s a little something for everyone — be they waterfowlers, anglers, paddlers, collectors, historians, anthropologists, designers, you name it — in the University of Minnesota Press’ recently published “Canoes: A Natural History in North America,” by Mark Neuzil and retired UMass/Amherst journalism professor Norman Sims, a familiar local whitewater enthusiast.

This nice, sturdy, cloth hardcover — printed on thick, durable glossy pages — is a good coffee-table book that can either be read from beginning to end or by cherry-picking through chapters  of personal interest. “Canoes” hit the market in November and can be purchased ($39.95) online directly from the publisher or  from several other retailers, and at bookstores.

Just short of 400 pages, the book is liberally illustrated with beautiful historic artwork and photography in vivid color. The cover (below) displays Homer Winslow’s 1897  “Canoe in Rapids,” by permission from Harvard University Museums.

The forward is the work of none other than Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McPhee. A Deerfield Academy alum, longtime Princeton University professor, author of more than 30 books, and longtime staff writer for “The New Yorker,” McPhee is a top-shelf non-fiction writer probably best known locally for his 1966 biography “The Headmaster: Frank L. Boyden, of Deerfield.” Either that or perhaps his more recent “The Founding Fish (2002),” a book about American shad that partially focuses on the  Connecticut River. In that book, McPhee  relies heavily on expert input from Dr. Boyd Kynard, known locally as a   conservationist committed to saving the endangered shortnose sturgeon.

Why McPhee for the forward? Well, because he’s  a lifetime canoeist who’s often written about the activity in many settings over the past 50 years. His book most associated with North America’s indigenous watercraft is “The Survival of the Bark Canoe (1975),” followed by “Encounters on the Archdruid (1971).” In “The Founding Fish,” he canoes the Connecticut with Kynard acting as scientific guide and teacher.

The canoe is generally thought of as a North American invention  used by our indigenous tribes from coast to coast in the deepest historical record. Similar styles are found  in the Caribbean, South and Central America, the Hawaiian Islands and the Arctic, not to mention Asia and Africa. The best-known North American canoes were made of tree bark, especially white birch and elm supported by ribbed wooden frames, attached by spruce roots and waterproofed along the seams by applying spruce gum or other sticky pine pitches combined with binders such as animal fat. Accompanying birch- and elm-bark canoes in North America’s deep history were larger, sturdier dugout canoes made of straight hardwood tree trunks hollowed out by fire, hot coals and labor-intensive scraping chores employing stone and even ancient Lake Superior copper adzes.

The heavier, studier, larger and more durable dugouts lasted longer and were probably preferred on the ocean and  large lakes, such as Champlain or the Great Lakes. But the bark vessels were lighter for cross-country portages and more versatile, though more easily damaged in whitewater. When punctured, birch- and elm-bark canoes were not difficult to repair for quick recovery.

“Canoes” chronicles the versatile North American watercraft’s evolution from prehistoric to modern times, describing not only the people and tribes who built, used and maintained them, but the many different vernacular styles still in use, including Northeastern models associated with indigenous tribes and contemporary makers in Maine and the Great Lakes Region. Historic canoeists readers will recognize begin with Canadian fur trader Alexander Mackenzie, who crossed the northern continent in the late 18th century, a decade before Lewis and Clark’s explorative journey to the West Coast. Also featured are such canoeists as Henry David Thoreau, Eric Sevareid, Edwin Tappin Adney and many more.

Sims, a retired UMass honors professor in literary journalism who was enticed to the Journalism Department by founder Howard Ziff, now lives in southern New Hampshire after several years of Greenfield residence. A devoted whitewater enthusiast and active member of the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association, Sims chose his new digs because it included a barn in which to store his small collection of Morris wood-and-canvas canoes featured in the book, his sixth.

Nuezil is professor of communications and journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. As the author, coauthor or editor of seven books, he is a frequent writer/lecturer on environmental themes. He is also a past board member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Friends of the Mississippi River.
************

 

On my daily walks with the dogs through secluded riverside habitat in the fertile Greenfield Meadows, I was been able to monitor the daily travels of three does and a young buck through much of the shotgun and blackpowder deer-hunting seasons, especially with snow on the ground. I grew quite familiar with the tracks of those four deer and often crossed them meandering in, out and through a floodplain Christmas-tree farm that provides hayfield grasses with berries and acorns along the edges. Once deep snow falls, the deer seek out wild rhubarb that they otherwise seem to ignore.

Early last week, a new hoof print made its appearance, that of a familiar fifth deer, this one a buck with a distinctive splayed track I have grown to recognize over the past five or six years. Honestly, I thought that deer was dead but, no sir, he appears to be alive and well … and plenty elusive. He was down where I walk for two days (post deer season) and has since vanished. He’ll be back.

This week, out of nowhere and quite by surprise, the totally unfamiliar track of a monster buck showed up. Inspecting the perfect fresh tracks in wet snow Wednesday morning, I for a moment considered that I may be looking at hoof prints of an immature moose. Yes, they were that large. But upon closer inspection, I knew that a big buck had left them. Although I didn’t have a ruler, I would estimate that the length from hoof to heel measured six inches, with prominent double heel prints on every impression. The hooves at their widest point had to be nearly four inches across.

I have in my neighborhood seen a young 4- or 5-pointer and a nice trophy racker sporting 8 to 10 points this year, but have an idea that this large track was left by a new buck, a corker. When the shooting started, this dominant animal must have laid low in the bottomlands, maybe on posted land, then come out to play once the gunfire died. Not surprising. Old bucks survive by wisdom … and good fortune.

Close Encounter

It was the last day of shotgun deer season, a Saturday, half-past noon, and the glare of a low, bright sun in the blue southern sky was blinding, even when filtered through the skeletal, gray, naked, wetland forest bordering riverside meadows. I wasn’t hunting. Just walking the dogs on our daily route, where deer are never far away.

For the second straight Saturday, I had lingered longer than usual at my morning reading station, where on sunny days the natural light is warm, illuminating and engaging. So, eagerly awaiting, the dogs were more than ready for their unrestrained morning romp, especially 5-year-old Chub-Chub, who, unlike his geriatric mom, Lily, going on 13, is in his prime and in top shape following a robust pheasant season in punishing cover. I, too, was ready to ramble. What had delayed me on this day was Peter Cozzens’ book, “The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West,” which I found gripping and difficult to leave.

Walking south into the sun for the first half of our half-hour walk, I was bareheaded and, even though wearing prescription sunglasses, had to raise my hand as a visor to shield the sun and get an idea of what was ahead. A week to the day earlier at about the same midday hour, I had run into two deer feeding under a large red oak just below the crest of a 20-foot escarpment leading up to the Christmas tree farm on the upper terrace. The white flash of a fleeing whitetail had caught my attention. Then I got a clear look at the second deer, a stubby little skipper that ran a few steps and stood broadside looking at me from 50 yards before following the leader, likely its mom, out of sight to safety. Could have been a button buck. Maybe just an immature doe.

I do believe that those two deer and others where I walk, and where my presence and that of my dogs is felt, do not view us as a threat because we never pressure, pursue or threaten them, just pass through on our daily rounds. They know my truck, my whistle, my voice and my scent, and are used to avoiding us by standing still and letting us pass in their habitat. When we’re gone, they walk right down my trodden path, unafraid. It’s sort of like the friendly dynamic between deer and farmers they get comfortable with. When farmers are out in their fields spreading manure, cutting hay or corn or performing various other seasonal chores, deer stand on the periphery or even right out in the open as they work. Coyotes will do it, too. But put a stranger out in those same fields and watch the deer scatter, aware that it’s not the familiar farmer they’re dealing with.

Anyway, back to that final day of shotgun season, we didn’t appear to jump deer where I had seen them the previous week, but I could tell from Chub-Chub’s reaction around deer runs passing to and from the upper level that they weren’t far, had passed through and left distinguishable scent at some point. You can tell by the way the dog squirts through the tangled bordering undergrowth into the wetland and just stands there on a deer run, still and straight as a statue, head high, looking and sniffing. Sometimes I’ll see a deer likewise standing still and staring back, but not typically.

After turning the corner, where wild grape vines are tangled through a patch of staghorn sumac, and walking 100 yards to the southwestern terminus of our walk, we turned 90 degrees east, following the edge of the wetland forest past an old beaver pond shielded by a 15-foot-high hardwood spine. That leg of our walk heads for a large, stately apple tree standing sentry over the Green River’s west bank, some  roots exposed in the sandy, eroded riverbank. About halfway to the fruit tree, dogs scenting rabbits through rows of Christmas trees, soft northern breeze blowing from me into the wetland, I heard what I knew was a deer run off from within 15 yards of me, just below the beaver-dam outflow. Blinded by the low, bright  sun, I saw the tail flash but little else.

When I put my hand to my forehead, I could see what appeared to be a long, tall, full-bodied doe bounding away. It jumped a little brook and stood broadside 40 yards away, head turned in my direction, ears on high, straight alert. That’s when I noticed small antlers protruding no higher than its erect ears, the right beam larger than the left, probably a 4- or 5-pointer. I couldn’t see the small rack clear enough to count the points. Its mature body would probably have tipped the scales at around 130 pounds.

Upwind, my dogs never noticed the handsome animal. They just continued making their rounds through the Christmas trees as the  buck and I sized each other up.

“Don’t worry, Buddy,” I said in a soft, soothing voice I often use with  a  pet. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

Had I been hunting, that buck would have been dead. But, honestly, I believe I’m through hunting deer. If hungry, yes, I would kill a deer. But if not, why kill such a smart, beautiful creature that carries not a menacing or dangerous bone in its body?

I continued looking that buck square in the eye and speaking to him in a soft, friendly manner and, no lie, he stood there tall and proud, ears cupped in my direction, curious, cocking his head ever so slightly to the sound of my voice. Finally, after more than a minute, he spun 90 degrees from east to south, took two playful bounds and trotted away gracefully on an angle, in no great hurry. I guess my body language and unthreatening demeanor assured him he had nothing to worry about.

That buck had good instincts. He read me well.

Carlson Responds To Her Salmon-Study’s Critics

What? An attack on the New England Atlantic salmon argument developed by archaeologist Catherine Carroll Carlson in her controversial 1992 UMass-Amherst Ph.D. dissertation: “The Atlantic salmon in New England prehistory and history: social and environmental implications?”

You betcha! Dr. Carlson’s often-referred-to thesis has indeed been challenged. Which doesn’t mean Carlson is buying  the arguments of an obscure 2013 UMass research paper’s critical assessment of her conclusions. No sir. She’s firing back.

But first, a refresher on the Carlson theory, which shook the New England salmon-restoration establishment, and particularly those involved in the now-defunct Connecticut Valley program.

Based on the archaeological record from 75 known prehistoric Northeastern fishing sites, ranging from Newfoundland to Long Island, which were nearly absent of Atlantic salmon remains, Carlson concluded that salmon arrived with the Little Ice Age (1300 to 1850) and never existed in the inflated numbers reported in the earliest historical accounts. In fact, she even went so far as to suggest that some of the reports were intentionally exaggerated real-estate marketing ploys to attract emigrant settlers to infant New England. Plus, another factor contributing to overstating the salmon population was the misnaming of American shad as “white salmon” often mentioned in primary reports filed by early explorers and chroniclers who were not familiar with American shad,  the staple of anadromous fish stocks in southern New England rivers like the Connecticut.

And now the appearance of this 2013 report written by three UMass/Amherst researchers who conclude that the archaeological evidence Carlson based her thesis on was invalid because the screens used to sift the excavations were not fine enough to detect salmon remains. Thus, they argue, the archaeological record is unreliable and should not be and never should have been used to evaluate the feasibility of restoration projects, such as the failed, expensive state and federal Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Restoration Project discontinued after nearly 50 years in 2012.

“Thank you for contacting me on this,” Carlson wrote to conclude a recent response to an email alerting her to the report she had no knowledge of. “It’s curious that the authors and/or reviewers didn’t think to contact me. What does this say?”

Who knows? But it’s true that one would assume anyone critiquing a scholarly report written by a respected anthropologist/archaeologist from the same university would have had the courtesy to bring their conflicting interpretation to the author’s attention for potential feedback and discussion?

The 2013 UMass report titled “The use (and misuse) of archaeological salmon data to infer historical abundance in North America with a focus on New England” is the collaboration of S.F. Jane and A.R. Whiteley of the Department of Environmental Conservation, and K.H. Nislow of the U.S. Forest Service’s Northeast Research Station. The authors list three reasons for their new conclusion debunking Carlson’s findings:

1.) salmon bones were rare or absent at sites that still hold large salmon runs;

2.) the lack of salmonid bones in general at archaeological sites suggests poor preservation and/or recovery of bone relative to other fishes;

3.) given the presence of many non-salmonid andromous fish at sites where people fished and deposited bones, power to detect salmon bones in studies to date have been generally low.

To support these claims, the authors say they “present reliable historical accounts that help build a convincing case that salmon were historically abundant in New England rivers. We suggest that rarity of salmon bones in existing archaeological data should not have unwarranted influence on present-day conservation decision-making in New England.”

Hmmmmm? Doesn’t this new interpretation beg the question: Since when do “historical accounts” trump scientific research in such matters? Haven’t many historical accounts written by early explorers and colonists been proven by modern research to be biased, self-serving and unreliable? Worse still, think of the early “interpretations” that have by now been dismissed as pure rhetoric and propaganda peddled by victorious military, governmental and theological spokesmen and land speculators. So why should we believe without question the obviously fanciful folklore about walking across rivers on the backs of salmon, while dismissing the absence of archaeological salmon evidence at deep-history fishing sites where other fish bones and even fish scales 7,000 years old were recovered?

“Also,” wrote Carlson, recently retired Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Douglas College outside Vancouver, B.C., “I would continue to argue that Atlantic salmon had a brief increase in numbers in New England as a result of the Little Ice Age (LIA), then disappeared when the climate warmed.

“Dam-building began at the end of the LIA, after salmon had almost disappeared due to climate change,” she added. “So, dams are not the cause of the salmon demise. There’s so much new research on the effects of climate warming on Pacific salmon stocks that I am at a loss to understand why the authors won’t accept the LIA hypothesis. I completely disagree with their statement that archaeological data on salmon should not influence conservation decision-making.”

Carlson, a former Montague resident whose two sons were born in Northampton, is no amateur hack. A native of British Columbia, where she now lives and completed her B.A. Honors in Archaeology at Simon Fraser University in 1978, she’s a respected professional with a long list of impressive archaeological credits. After graduating from Simon Fraser, Carlson moved to the Royal British Columbia Museum, where for three years she worked in the bone lab, identifying thousands of fish and other vertebrate bones from archaeological midden sites on her Canadian province’s coast. She went on to do graduate work at the University of Maine/Orono, where her 1986 Masters of Science thesis involved the analysis of more than 30,000 fish bones from coastal middens near the Sheepscott and Damariscotta rivers. She then moved to UMass/Amherst, where she earned her Ph.D in anthropology and wrote her ground-breaking salmon dissertation.

Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., was her first stop as a teacher, working for 16 years as an associate professor of anthropology before settling in at Douglas College for the completion of her teaching career. She made a name for herself with her New England salmon dissertation, which was greeted by catcalls from the struggling state and federal Connecticut River Atlantic salmon-restoration proponents. That included officials connected with the Connecticut River program, the Atlantic Salmon Federation and virtually anyone committed to bringing salmon back to the Connecticut and Merrimack rivers, while also toiling to protect and enhance existing salmon runs in Maine and beyond.

Carson’s dissertation addressed questions as to why Atlantic salmon bones were absent at prehistoric sites across New England in places where historical accounts suggested that salmon were once abundant. She argued in favor of a climate explanation pertaining to the LIA, which would have shifted the southern extent of the Atlantic-salmon migration range to the Connecticut and, less so, Hudson rivers. Her report was the last thing supporters of salmon-restoration wanted to hear, and many officials tried to keep her findings hidden from the press. Then, when the press discovered it, the same officials did their best to discredit Carlson as wet behind the ears.

In recent discussion about the absence of salmon remains in the New England archaeological record, archaeologist Dr. Peter A. Thomas — who also received his Ph.D. from UMass/Amherst and played a key role in three Riverside/Gill archaeological digs that yielded no evidence of salmon — speculated that there may be hidden reasons why salmon remains are so rare. He said it was possible that indigenous people held Atlantic salmon in the highest esteem and thus disposed of their bones differently than other fish. He hypothesized that hunter-gatherers who attach special and maybe even sacred status to the king of gamefish may have thrown their bones back into the water rather than dumping them into riverside garbage pits, thus the absence or remains in riverside middens like those at the known Riverside/Gill site. But Carlson isn’t buying that hypothesis, either, saying she has heard it before; that the issue was raised, pondered and rejected during her dissertation process under the supervision of late UMass anthropologist/archaeologist Dr. Dina F. Dincauze, who died in August at 82.

Carlson then focused on her own Pacific Northwest to cite an example. There, she said, salmon remains are ubiquitous in the archaeological record at ancient fishing sites. “Why would salmon be viewed any differently out here?” she asked. “Our indigenous people had a first-salmon celebration. They’d celebrate the first salmon of the season caught with a thankful ceremony during which they’d throw the bones back into the river. Does that mean they threw every salmon’s bones in the river? I don’t think so.”

Still, in her mind, Thomas’ query was worthy of consideration because she had respect for him as a professional archaeologist and anthropologist with a long, impressive list of field-work credits and published reports. The same cannot be said of the UMass triumvirate that authored the 2013 report challenging her dissertation’s findings.

“They arrogantly claim I’ve misinterpreted the archaeological data, but that’s not even their field of expertise!” she emphasized, referring to the two environmental conservationists and a forester throwing academic harpoons her way.

“It’s true there have been are a few new sites in Maine with a very few salmon, which might suggest a very small number of pioneering pre-Little Ice Age colonizers, which makes sense,” she added. “The quantities of salmon bone are miniscule compared with other fish bone found in New England, not to mention comparison to sites in the Pacific Northwest.”

As for the 2013 Jane-Whiteley-Nislow report’s claim that the archaeological evidence Carlson’s dissertation was based on is invalid because the ¼-inch screen used to sift and collect remains was too coarse, Carlson totally rejects the criticism, despite more-recent excavations in Maine using 1/16th-inch screen that did uncover some salmon remains.

“At first glance, it’s same-old, same-old,” she wrote, referencing the triumvirate’s criticism, “Sampling, bone preservation, screen size, etc., all of which I can refute. …  The one comment that keeps coming back has to do with the fine-screening issue, which everyone out here knows is irrelevant to salmon. Salmon have large vertebrae that don’t go through quarter-inch screens. Fine-screening (i.e., less than 1/8 inch) is only pertinent to the recovery of small-boned fish, such as herring or tomcod (part of my MSc thesis methodology).‎

“I should probably write a rebuttal, and will seriously consider that.”

Stay tuned.

It sounds like this debate could get better. The Jane-Whiteley-Nislow report is just one interpretation regarding an open and complex deep-history issue, clearly not the final word.

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