River Rage

Late start, full plate, probably way more than I can handle in one sitting. No problem. I’ll just save the leftovers and nuke ’em next week. Maybe I should start writing two columns a week.

Anyway, the signs of fall that started creeping onto the edges weeks ago are now everywhere. Soon the leaf-peepers will be clogging the highways and bringing fall revenue to our local economy. But similar to the Republicans in Tampa, the irate fella who phoned me noontime Sunday during a beautiful Labor Day Weekend back-lit at night by a seductive blue moon wanted to look back, not ahead. He was still steamed up by irritating summer signals lingering along the lower Deerfield River, where he, his wife and dog camped Thursday for an intended long weekend away from it all. At least, that’s what they hoped for; definitely not what they got.

It seems that the once-tranquil stretch of river between Bardwells Ferry and Stillwater ain’t what it used to be, a disheartening fact that many of us discovered long ago. I know the lower Deerfield well from years of hunting and fishing, and that picturesque gorge is stained throughout with my DNA dating back centuries, starting with the surname worn by the bridge and ferry. The last time I went there, many years ago, to a familiar spot saturated with pleasant fishing memories, I left prematurely and vowed in hot, spicy language never to return; way too much “activity” for me — as it turns out, the same type of annoying activity that necessitated the early exit by the man who called my home Sunday. The name on the caller ID was a blast from the distant past.

“I had to get out of there,” fumed the South Deerfield man and Whately native on the phone with hunter-orange anger. “Those people floating down the river are hard to take. I didn’t know who to call, then thought of you. After 3 o’clock Saturday afternoon, more than a hundred tubers came by riding anything that floats — inner tubes, cheap blow-up prizes from the fair, you name it. I even saw six or seven people having a gay ole time drinking, littering, throwing bottles into the river, off a blow-up queen mattress. No lie. I decided to pack up and leave before I punched someone and got myself into trouble. We were outnumbered. I just wanted to get my Lab out of there before he cut his foot. That riverbed is a freakin’ mess.”

Irritated, the man folded his tent, loaded it into his canoe and headed downstream for his car, which was parked in the riverside lot south and west of Stillwater Bridge. Before turning the final corner to where he could clearly see the entire Stillwater Bridge, he found a disturbing pile of trash that stoked his ire to a red-hot glow.

“There were inner tubes, deflated floating devices, bottles and cans and trash everywhere. It looked like an ugly, stinking dump. Take a ride down there if you don’t believe me and see it for yourself. I’m sure it’s still there. Who should I call to report it? It’s freakin’ disgusting.”

Our source spoke to many of the frolicking folks passing by in the water and described them as outsiders, “not from town,” many from the Springfield and Northampton area, others from Worcester and Rhode Island. The most common question he was asked was, “How far to Stillwater?” That’s where they said their buses were waiting. Apparently, the flotilla gang didn’t feel up to lugging their garbage up the bank to the buses, easier to leave it streamside for someone else to clean up. Pigs!

Honestly, I can’t imagine such unacceptable behavior by customers of trips supervised by our local whitewater companies, although the source — who I decided not to name — claims to often see the local companies’ vehicles parked at Stillwater. It seems more likely that the folks involved in the floating circus he encountered Friday and Saturday were holiday excursions organized far away. Still, the whitewater companies cannot claim zero culpability because there’s no denying they put our Deerfield River “on the map.”

The problem as I see it from this lofty perch along the trestle overlooking the Deerfield’s wild west bank is that the slobs who create the problems will be long gone by the time law-enforcement arrives determined to make a vindictive statement. The “violators” ultimately charged, convicted and made examples of will likely be victims of circumstance and undeserving of what they get. Local lollygaggers will probably be punished for the dirty deeds of outsiders.

“It’s out of control,” said my source. “I usually mind my own business but I want to report these people. Hopefully we can send them back where they came from.”

Good luck!

The days of the Deerfield River as a hidden local gem are long gone. I suppose some think that’s a good thing. Not me. I miss the “old” Deerfield River, especially the inaccessible secluded sections, places Trout Unlimited fought and failed to protect. As usual, money talked, entrepreneurs won and the ecosystem is paying the price.

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3 Responses to River Rage

  1. The real issue here is that although there may be a conflict between two recreational users of the Deerfield River any human use should not impair a reasonably functioning ecosystem. The system, of course, has other competing uses like hydropower, but I’m really not sure how active all of the units are along the MA stretch of the river since tropical storm Irene.

    As one of those who participated in the Deerfield River FERC relicensing i was surprised that TU did not negotiate for more fishing time via low flows. Certainly the white water interests got their issues approved with high water flows. And, yes, there are now no more dry ways as the results of all these negotiations-a great result after more than 90 years of long stretches of river with no water in the channel.

    There is, no doubt, still room for a great deal of improvement.

  2. I was actually hoping to smoke out a response like this, b/c I suspected this story had sturdy legs. The man I spoke to was furious. I can’t believe the first feedback was not an irate call to the publisher or editor by the commercial whitewater people, who do not like it one bit when I mention the way they’ve destroyed the river’s tranquility, not to mention its fishing prospects. Frankly, Chris, I’d like to meet you, this being the second time you’ve chimed in from afar about our river. Maybe we could take a trip downriver together sometime, camera in hand, maybe even do a little fishing for “cover” while I observe, trying to capture the flavor. I have not fished for some time but was once addicted to it and spent an awful lot of time between Bardwells and Stillwater. Why not a little undercover operation? I’m up for it. Just say the word. Maybe I could ultimately work it into a magazine piece describing the conflict between two “recreational” users of a public resource.

  3. Gary,

    Thanks so much to bringing to light the sad situation on the Deerfield. The river has been “whored out” for profit for a few companies at the complete expense of the ecosystem. The environmental police have been non-existant with the exception of places you can drive right up to and get out without spilling a coffee. While bikini watching on the Connecticut is probably more fun than enforcing the law on the Deerfield, there is a real need for a weekend presense every summer weekend on the Deerfield. A colleague of mine just got back from kayaking in California, he was surprised to encounter environmental police floating the rivers as well as in plain clothes posing as fishermen. He said the rivers were surprising clear of refuse and everyone was sharing the river and having fun within the letter of the law. Can you imagine that?
    If the EPO’s here would walk down to the river in plain clothes on a weekend they could write enough tickets to litterally add enough revenue to the state coffers to hire a couple more EPO’s. It’s that bad. Since it’s impossible to fish on the weekend these days I’ll even volunteer to float some EPO’s down the river for free, just so they can see what’s going on. The river flows are another issue entirely, with the extreme flow changes wreaking havoc on the ecosystem. There should never be more that a 500 cfs differential between low water and high water, and the paltry minimum flows have dramatically reduced biomass in the river. The little trickle you see at low water in the river (which is the way it flows for typically 21 hours of the day) is the the total habitat for the majority of benthic macroinvertabrates in the river, which need constant water to survive. Hence the Deerfield is really like a small stream in terms of biomass rather than a healthy river. Is it any surprise the hatches on the river are pathetic ? If you care about these issues please support the efforts of the DRWA and the local Trout Unlimited chapters in their efforts to make the river a place that can be shared and enjoyed by all, not just for four business owners and the utilities.

    Chris Jackson- Conservation Director Deerfield Watershed TU

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