Observe, Ponder, Hypothesize

Strawberries have gone by, raspberries and blueberries are ripe for the picking, my roma tomato is waist-high and quickly climbing a 10-foot rebar stilt and, for a month or more, a 300-yard leg of my daily mile walk again ventures up the shallow Green River, always a refreshing summertime bonus for me and the dogs.

My pets’ fascination are the scents that draw them splashing back and forth and up and down the river and into the bushy wooded perimeters, always hunting, swimming, chasing; rollicking like euphoric children liberated after a long Xbox and boob-tube winter. But me, well, my curiosity was immediately drawn to a new midstream feature created between October and June. And still, everyday, I stop to evaluate this pointed, oblong, eddy-deposited sandbar island that sends my mind  back to an engrossing late-fall/early-winter research project focused on recreating what the majestic falls between Turners Falls and Riverside/Gill looked like in their natural, majestic, pre-colonial splendor.

Call this new midstream Green River feature a temporary, random, unintentional human obstruction. One dropped into place from who knows where, originally dislodged upstream by a powerful flood. It’ll eventually get jarred loose by another furious river surge and continue working its way slowly downriver until it vanishes into some deep muddy grave in the lower Green, or maybe the silty lower end of the Deerfield, even the mighty mother Connecticut, where over time it may become a forgotten remnant buried forever deep in black sediment.

Six or seven feet long, the key component of this logjam is a heavy, coarse-gravel and cement-filled 10-inch cast-iron tube with a centered 1-inch pipe capped by an attached right-angle elbow protruding from one end. Likely not sturdy enough to support a highway bridge, it must have been a footing for a riverside dock jutting out over a deep hole for swimming and diving and horsing around on hot, steamy summer days. Whatever it supported was likely washed away by Tropical Storm Irene many years ago. Undoubtedly, the cumbersome object will continue rolling and crashing along the stream bed to its final destination during only the most violent flooding. Were it not round, it would likely have stayed where it fell.

This new obstruction is multifaceted. The base is a prostrate, waterlogged dead fall solidly anchored into the stream bed. Behind it is the heavy, wedged-in cement-filled iron pipe, which  from time to time accumulates a tangle of vegetative debris behind it to create an impenetrable little midstream dam that forces the river around it on both sides, creating a little sandy-bottomed drop-off pool downstream to the left of the exposed sandbar island formed by the swirling eddy that appears only when the river’s high. Each event adds a new layer to the fine, fertile sandbar isle now greening in the summer sun. The dynamics of that natural river process reminded me immediately of the December discussion group I had joined in an effort to iron out differences and create an accurate drawing of what the Connecticut River falls at Riverside/Gill would have looked like before colonial European settlers discovered them. The problem is that they recognized the water-power potential and it didn’t take long for the natural treasure to be deemed ideal for dams, canals, industry and now electric-power generation.

The pre-contact beauty of the original, undisturbed falls has long been a fascination of mine, triggered by exhaustive research into historic and prehistoric anadromous fish runs and the temporary seasonal indigenous fishing villages they brought to known deep-history spring fishing sites. The most popular ancient Pioneer Valley fishing sites along New England’s longest river were at Riverside falls, Rock Dam a mile or so downstream and South Hadley Falls at the site of today’s Holyoke Dam. The intriguing topic of what the natural falls between Gill and Montague looked like was publicly raised by historian Peter A. Thomas at November’s monthly Great Falls/Peskeompskut Fight Battlefield Grant meeting.

“How can we map the battle before we map the landscape, which has changed dramatically,” queried Thomas at the public meeting. And how could anyone disagree?

Thomas’ query sparked immediate discussion at the meeting, followed by a lively interactive email exchange pulling in many interested parties, who went back and forth sharing information for weeks. Obviously, the landscape dictated where the indigenous fishing and fish-processing sites would have been situated, and also the location of any temporary villages as potential military targets for wee-hour ambush. The collaborative search was on.

The discovery mission  came to a head at a December weekend meeting of four minds at a private residence. The four-hour, fact-finding process included dynamic discussion, sharing of historic maps and documents, and a half-hour PowerPoint presentation displaying old photographs that documented the evolution and construction of the various Turners Falls dams. The photos were disturbing to anyone committed to preservation and conservation. Construction projects beginning after the Civil War and continuing into the 1960s unleashed a series of explosive interventions aimed at removing large chunks of sturdy bedrock protruding from midstream, forever altering an incredible geological formation and wonder of nature that had formed New England’s most beautiful and important waterfall. I told my wife that Indians would weep at the sight of the construction photos I saw. Such a maiming of river bedrock would be akin to removing their mother’s arms or legs. They post-blast photos looked like something out of 1945 Germany. Of course, not everyone sees it that way. Some chalk it up as progress. But in my world view preservation and conservation are worthy goals.

A week or two after that meeting of the minds, Thomas — supervisor of three Riverside archaeological excavations in the 1970s — had already sketched a remarkably accurate depiction of what the falls would have looked like on May 19, 1676. That infamous day in local history marks the Capt. William Turner-led battle known as the “Falls Fight,” widely  credited for  tuning the tide of King Philip’s War in favor of New England colonial troops. Thomas’ pencil sketch, dabbed with color, was based on all the information gathered over a month or so of interactive research and at times contentious debate. But the debate remained civil and eventually arrived at consensus a tad short of unanimous.

Perhaps the two most contentious issues bogging down the discussion were the 1.) location of Burnham’s Rock — which jutted out toward the Gill shore to funnel water down a narrow, 400-yard-long flume that was advantageous to gathering anadromous fish running upstream — and 2.) whether a three-acre hayfield ever existed on a flat, fertile plain at the base of Great Island, as claimed by Gill historian Ralph M. Stoughton (1879-1966), a third- or fourth-generation Riverside farmer whose family harvested the hayfield.

It is the hayfield argument that the recent discovery of the small new Green River island brought me back to. Having argued in favor of a hayfield on that island below the immense Great Island bedrock protrusion and above another smaller bedrock outcropping below, at the outflow of Fall River, this new sandbar below a river obstruction was to me a pale microcosm of a process that occurred often during river surges through the fishing falls between Gill and Turners Falls. During maximum-flow events through the site, Great Island bedrock stood tall and split the river, sending one roaring channel through the Gill flume and another over the wide stony bed along the Montague side that ran practically dry during low summer flows. This surge of split energy collided at the base of the falls with the outflow of Fall River, which, along with a sharp left-hand sweep of the Connecticut River and an outcropping of ledge, would have helped created a swirling eddy to deposit rich silt over the hayfield, which was protected and never took the full force of the destructive river. I have seen this many times on trout streams flooded and discolored by torrential summer rainstorms, and can picture it happening at the base of Great Island.

Thomas isn’t certain the hayfield could have survived increased flows and flooding brought on by 19th-century clear-cutting of Vermont and New Hampshire forest above Turners Falls. Those forests once absorbed a lot of water that never made it to the Connecticut River. But had construction crews not dynamited the massive, immovable bedrock foundation of Great Island, even if rare floods inundated it, the hayfield may have been sheltered  enough to remain intact. A large, stiff midstream outcropping like that still routes water around it even on the rare occasions when its overflowed, if ever it was. Who knows?

So that’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it. If the island was still there today in its original form and the dam wasn’t, I believe the hayfield would be there, too. That conclusion is drawn from daily observations on my river walks and from countless others made during more than 50 years of rainy-day fishing along free-flowing, high volume trout streams.

Enough! Off I go.

Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.
Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Mad Meg theme designed by BrokenCrust for WordPress © | Top