Fawning Season

Father’s Day has dawned and I’m back in my study, where I’ll remain until the cold of winter shifts me to my kitchen writing nook near the woodstove. Facing two sun-splashed windows instead of sitting with one at my back, this seat can brighten my perspective some. Plus, my library is closer, which is a fact-checking convenience.

I returned yesterday afternoon from an overnight stay at the Capital Plaza Hotel in Montpelier, Vermont, where they’re still digging out from last summer’s devastating downtown flooding. We were in the Green Mountain State Capital to attend my grandson’s high school graduation in a bordering community.

Whew! How time flies.

As I sit here, thinking, there’s no time to malinger. I must buckle down to the task at hand, which is to crank out another column – this one addressing a topic I could have covered a couple of weeks ago, had not my focus been elsewhere.

So, let’s drift slightly back in time to the fawning season, right after Memorial Day, when wobbly fawns rise from their nests on spindly, unstable legs and quickly learn to run and dart and bound like deer. It just so happens that, lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, I got to witness a teaching moment between a doe and her spotted twins, and I want to describe it.

I remember that daybreak during the first full week of June as cool and refreshing – me clad in shorts and a t-shirt. It was breathlessly still, with grey skies suggesting rain as I rambled down the home stretch of my daily two-mile walk around Greenfield’s Upper Meadows neighborhood.

Though a few interesting events had unfolded, it had been, by recent standards, a largely uneventful spring on the wildlife-sighting front. Most salient was the absence of turkeys where they have been common. Curiously, I heard not so much as a distant gobble during the month of May and the weeks leading up to it. Strange indeed.

I attributed this void, in my May 9 column, to a great horned owl nest I watched in my friend’s yard up the road. It may or may not have been the reason why turkeys had vacated a place where typically there are many. Then, just when I had written it off as a wait-till-next-year scenario, on three or four days during the third week of June, like clockwork, between 7 and 9 a.m., gobbling from the woods south and west of me.

Hmmmm? The second mating of a hen that had lost her first nest? Hard to say. And truthfully, I can’t say I wasted much time evaluating it. It just happened.

Prior to those unexpected, phantom gobbles, the most extraordinary wildlife sighting of spring was a beautiful, large, shiny black bear – likely a solitary bruin in the 250- to 300-pound class, whose daybreak path I interrupted. He was headed for a Nichols Drive crossing as I passed through, up close and personal.

The burly beast detected me coming and froze like a statue, facing me from about 40 yards away. His nose and ears raised on high alert, he watched me approach before turning tail, sauntering three strides back and turning 180 degrees to face me as I headed toward Plain Road.

It was my first bear sighting in three or four years. Both were close encounters. This face-to-face was about twice as far from me as the previous one, but I’d say the first bear was larger. I can’t say I felt threatened on either occasion. Both bears were palpably cautious in my presence. I kept a peripheral fix on both of them and continued on my way without incident.

As it turned out, I wasn’t the only person who crossed that bear’s path that morning. A fella named Craig Franklin did, too. I learned that a week to the day later, when he stopped his grey Chevy pickup truck to report the sighting and the day it occurred. We often pass in our early-morning travels, and I always give him a friendly wave. He infrequently stops to report notable sightings.

Franklin must have seen that bear soon after I did that day. I wonder how many others neighbors saw it, or at least knew the beast had passed through. Probably not many, unless it left random calling cards.

OK – enough of the superfluous chatter. Back to the deer story I sat down to tell.

It unfolded less than a half-mile south and east from my home, along the eastern perimeter of a slim, 100-yard finger of woods partially dividing two hayfields. The timber stand shelters a spring that bubbles from the ground and trickles south, past a small burial ground and into another spring that connects with Allen Brook.

Walking west on Meadow Road, I was about 150 yards from a sighting that always leaves a warm impression when one is fortunate enough to bear witness.

Always, in passing, I carefully scan those hayfields for deer and often find them in varying numbers, this spring ranging from one to nine. This time it was three – obviously, given the size discrepancy, a doe and her fawns. I wasn’t surprised. Other does have nested in that midfield refuge over the years, and many more will likely choose it in the future. It’s a perfect birthing place.

Back when I routinely meandered the perimeter of those fields a doe once burst out of the tree line and bounded across the hayfield in front of me. She was obviously trying to distract my attention from her hidden nest by showing herself and romping through the field.

This time the fawns were on all fours, and from my vantage point they appeared to be nimble. Engaging their mother in an entertaining catch-us-if-you-can game, the little ones displayed remarkable agility for their young age. The frolicking fawns ran, darted, and jumped in tight half-circles around their mother, who feigned aggression by occasionally stomping in their direction, encouraging development of their agility and escape ability. I have seen an identical game played out many times between a bitch and her litter.

It was a joyous sight to behold – one I have witnessed less than a handful of times, and heard many others describe over the years. Come August and September, I will undoubtedly bump into this family unit many times, as the fawns lose their spots and continue to gain mobility.

Wildlife observation never gets old for an observant walking man who stays alert and knows where to look.

Shad-Run Surge

With fragrant pink weigelas in full bloom and mock orange buds opening into white flowers, I know the annual Connecticut River American shad run is near its end, typical with Memorial Day in the rearview.

Long ago were the days when I was among the eager anglers wading the margins of deep, narrow migration channels transporting these upstream-swimming anadromous fish to spawning grounds where they were born. I can’t say I miss battling these strong fish that are fun to catch. Nope. As they say in Chi-co-pee (emphasis on the middle syllable), “Been dere, done dat.”

Good ole Chi-co-pee, a mill and sports town where it seems every other dwelling contains an angler of some stripe. I’ve bumped into them on my favorite local trout streams – heaven forbid – as well as places like northern Vermont, western Maine, northwestern New York, and even freakin’ Wyoming, for Chrissakes.

Of course, the Chicopee fellas don’t refer to themselves as anglers. Uh-uh. They’re just plain fishermen, old style, thank you. No need to honor gender-neutral political correctness. No sir. Not in Chi-co-pee, or even Chicopee Falls for that matter – where fishing likely dates back to soon after the peopling of our fertile valley some 15,000 years before the present.

This year’s shad numbers, tracked weekly by the federal Connecticut River Coordinator’s office in Sunderland, reveal that by recent standards, it’s been a good year. Why not? We’ve experienced optimal river conditions for anadromous runs. Everything lined up to near perfection, beginning with a mild winter and little snowfall, followed by a favorable spring, without disruptive rain events unleashing torrents of heavy, run-altering, fish-passageway-closing flooding.

So, migrating fish had it easy this spring – a steady swelled flow and a gradual rise in water temperature, all favorable to spawning runs.

This year’s run past the Holyoke Dam counting station looks like it will top 400,000 for the second time in 10 years, though it pales in comparison to the last one to do so – the 2017 run brought more than 537,000.

The best year on record since the counting began in 1967 was 1992, when nearly 722,000 shad passed Holyoke. Back then, state and federal officials manned several other valley counting stations to compute an annual total-river run, a practice that ended in 2017.

The record 1992 total-river count was a whopping 1.628 million, one of four recorded runs exceeding a million. The others, in declining order, occurred in 1983 (1.574 million), 1984 (1.231 million), and 1991 (1.196 million). Holyoke counts in the same order for those other three banner years were 528,000, 497,000, and 523,000.

In the six-year span from 2012 to 2017, an average of some 350,000 shad – rounded off to the nearest thousand – passed Holyoke annually. In the six years since, excluding this year’s incomplete total, the annual figure dropped to 278,000. So this year’s little surge is good news, considering threats of a warming planet on which sea levels and temperatures are rising along with Northeastern river temps that govern spawning runs and behavior.

Shad start running up the Connecticut River once its water temps reach into the 50s Fahrenheit. The run peaks in the mid-60s and ends as optimal spawning temps rise to 70. That’s when shad stop their upstream migration and establish spawning lairs in the shallows. There spawning unfolds as females deposit eggs to be fertilized by males. At this stage of the annual run, shad are preoccupied with reproduction and will not strike anglers’ shiny, sparkling offerings.

I’m sure local shad anglers have, over the past couple of weeks, been enjoying great success at Rock Dam in Montague City and many other popular Franklin County fishing haunts. The best Franklin County fishing is always a little later than Holyoke’s, providing serious anglers with the opportunity to follow the run upriver and extend their recreational opportunities. Some devoted anglers, many employing boats, fish the entire month of May, and then some, by starting at Enfield Falls and following the run all the way to Turners Falls.

Too bad the power company maintaining the Turners Falls fish-passage facilities doesn’t take its role in the anadromous fish migration game more seriously. Improvements are sorely needed to optimize fish passage past the Turners Falls Dam. Yet, sadly, the power companies overseeing the operations have never strived for peak efficiency.

So, don’t hold your breath awaiting impactful – and costly – adjustments aimed at improving poor anadromous-fish passage through the Powertown. Though power officials will continue feigning altruistic concern and giving the toothless plight good lip service, our warming planet will likely kill the shad run before the passage issues are ever resolved.

 

Constant Bliss Ambush

Gray, rainy, spring morning. Woodstove idle. Cool indoors. Still writing in my comfy winter kitchen nook.

I’m thinking about colonial New England soldier Constant Bliss, who, by chance, popped into view during recent local-history meanderings.

What a name, huh? Constant Bliss. Something to stive for. Perpetual joy. Very un-Puritanical.

Born to Reverend John and Anna Bliss in 1715, Constant hailed from Hebron, a small central-Connecticut town southeast of Hartford and below Manchester. Stationed in his 31st year as a Deerfield sentry under the command of a man recorded only as “Capt. Holson” on the fateful day of August 22, 1746, Bliss and nine comrades marched for Coleraine. (Note the obsolete spelling.) If there were horses involved, none are mentioned in published accounts.

The ongoing French and Indian War was aflame, and the times had taken a perilous turn for the English in this neck of the woods. Northern Indians from the Lake Champlain corridor – many of them carrying proud Connecticut Valley roots from between Springfield and Northfield – were on the warpath.

Yet the Connecticut soldiers were totally unaware that just two days earlier, in what is today North Adams, Deerfield favorite son John Hawks, vastly outnumbered by some 750 French and Indian attackers, had been forced to surrender Fort Massachusetts. Those on the northward march also had no clue that danger awaited where their trail would begin its upland ascent.

Historians don’t specify the precise marching orders for Bliss’ small party, but the destination was most likely Fort Morrison, also known as North Fort. Standing tall and strong in the northern part of the isolated colonial town, just below today’s Vermont line, Morrison was the most formidable of four Colrain strongholds. The other three all stood in East Colrain: Fort Morris, or South Fort, on the hill across the road from today’s Pine Hill Orchards store, and Fort Lucas and Fort McDowell, the fortified houses of Andrew Lucas and Reverend Alexander McDowell, nearer to the Chandler Hill Burial Ground.

Though the troop was undoubtedly sent to make sure all was well in Colrain, that we can only speculate. Documentary evidence, if there ever was any, apparently vanished long ago. Does it really matter now? No. They were soldiers doing what soldiers do.

What delivered me to this inquiry was a map I recently viewed that traces the soldiers’ path that day to within an underhand stone’s throw of my upper Greenfield Meadows home.

I discovered this interesting, hand-annotated, pullout map of Greenfield tucked into a rare Massachusetts Society of Colonial Wars pamphlet celebrating the dedication of a Greenfield monument to Capt. William Turner of King Philip’s War fame. This little paperback book, titled Capt. William Turner and the “Falls Fight,” May 19, 1676, was handed out at the July 26, 1905 ceremony memorializing a new stone salute to Turner and his fallen comrades.

The “Turner Monument” gala was a grand affair, brass bands and all, unfolding at the now largely forgotten North Parish Church Square at Nash’s Mills, which along with its tranquil pond enjoyed by many was removed to make way for Interstate 91 in the early 1960s. At that time the monument was also moved, down the hill and across Green River, to its current location beside Nash’s Mill Road below the outflow of the so-called “Greenfield Pool.”

As it turns out, the monument’s current placement is actually closer to the spot where Indians killed the fleeing Turner, as he crossed the Green River below the waterfalls cascading to Mill Brook’s mouth.

Though the creator of the pamphlet map goes unnamed, it’s a good bet contemporaneous local historians George Sheldon of Deerfield and Francis M. Thompson of Greenfield had a dominant hand in it, as well as the publication’s other fold-out map of “Nash’s Mills.” The two friends and Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association colleagues were repeatedly identified in the local press as leading voices behind the Turner commemoration. Their correspondence, housed at Deerfield’s Memorial Libraries, also clearly establishes a strong promotional relationship.

One annotated “X” on the Greenfield map immediately pulled me in. Not more than a quarter-mile above my house, the note accompanying it reads “Constance Bliss killed by Indians August 22, 1756.”

First of all, disregard the mistaken year – a very understandable transcription error. A few inches to the right of this marker lies another “X,” marking a later deadly neighborhood Indian skirmish known as the Country Farms attack, which claimed the lives of townsmen Shubal Atherton and Daniel Graves. This tragic event in Greenfield lore occurred on August 23, 1756, ten years and a day after the Bliss killing. Whoever wrote it was stuck on 1756.

As for the pamphlet’s spelling of Bliss’ first name – Constance – Sheldon and Thompson just had it wrong. Sheldon probably lifted it from 18th-century Deerfield records, and Thompson copied his spelling. Remember, Bliss was a transient soldier stationed only briefly in Deerfield. An outsider. Thus, the confusion. Historians in Sheldon and Thompson’s day didn’t have the luxury of Ancestry.com and other online sources, which consistently use the gender-appropriate spelling – Constant – in birth, death, and probate records.

Bliss was the lone ambush casualty that dreadful day. Personal knowledge, which I’ll get into, tells me he was killed and scalped at a predictable site where the ancient Indian trail tilts uphill to Colrain. Although his nine companions aren’t named, one of them was presumably Capt. Holson.

Historians trust that the survivors escaped to Colrain – an assumption likely based on the fact that Colrain was closer than Deerfield. Terrain Navigator measurements bear this out. The closest Colrain bastion, Fort Lucas, was nearly four direct, wooded miles from the ambush site, while Deerfield was nearly six miles away on flatter, more exposed terrain.

The reason I call the upper Meadows site “predictable” for this ambush is that it’s located near three active springs, which still run pure today. Better still, the one closest to the ambush “X” came equipped with an ancient permanent trailside mortar, hollowed into sturdy ledge and used for millennia to grind nuts into gruel grain.

The mortar was there for good reason. Early records note a prolific butternut grove just north of my property during the colonial period, and there are still many butternut, walnut, and other edible-nut trees standing in the neighborhood and surrounding hills. That includes two huge black walnut trees in neighbors’ yards. Walnuts, butternuts, and white-oak acorns were among our indigenous people’s most valued nuts.

Some, if not all, of the Indians who killed Bliss also participated in a sneak attack three days later in what is known in Deerfield lore as the Bars Fight, also memorialized by a stone near Stillwater. By the time the dust had settled on August 25, 1746, five colonists were dead, one miraculously survived a fractured skull, and young Samuel Allen, 9, had been taken captive.

Sheldon identified those attackers as “St. Francis Indians,” and gets even more specific by calling one of them a Scatacook. Both designations suggest the strong possibility that some of the assailants had deep roots here and knew the old trails through community memory and elder guidance.

As for the trailside mortar stone in the woods behind my house, I have not seen it with my own eyes – just learned of it in independent conversation with two neighbors who had. One of my sources is a friend five years older than me. The other, older than my parents and long dead, would be well over 100 today.

Both men last visited the mortar stone more than a half-century ago. They agreed it was about knee- to hip-high, near a spring on the perimeter of an old orchard long ago choked off by reforestation.

Had I learned of this ancient indigenous site during my first 15 years of Meadows residence, I undoubtedly would have forced myself to find it during deer-hunting diversions. Although I no longer hunt deer, I did search for the stone once, maybe five years ago, with an archaeologist friend. When our search came up empty and I described the unsuccessful mission to my surviving source, he suspected we had focused too far south.

Oh well, I guess I’ll now have to take another poke at finding it. I’ll begin where the spring meets the road and scour both sides. Hopefully, the lay of the land and outcroppings will offer helpful hints.

So, stay tuned. I may return with a photo.

Great Horned Owls Nest

All I can say about last week’s start of the four-week 2024 Massachusetts spring turkey-hunting season is, what a difference a year makes.

It matters not that I no longer view wild turkeys through a hunter’s lens. My interest in the state gamebird will never fade. I will forever continue to observe and learn about these large roadside birds, which did not exist during my South Deerfield boyhood.

Last year, beginning about a month before opening day, I was greeted daily over the first half-mile of my daybreak walks by aggressive gobbling along the northern perimeter – rain or shine, far and near – interrupting the calming still of dawn. Later, on the Meadow Lane home stretch, occasional gobbles could be heard from the wooded western hillside across the road from my upper Greenfield Meadows home.

This year, not a peep – not even one of those distant, barely discernable rattles I long ago learned to identify. Hmmmm?

Why?

I suppose, with deep analysis, I probably could have arrived at a hypothesis sooner than I did. But I can’t say I ever really dwelled on it. I just kept my daily antennae alert, heard nothing and figured the gobbling would soon begin.

One obvious factor that didn’t line up and only confused matters was our mild winter and early spring. Why, of all years, would spring gobblers choose silence this year? It made no sense. Just another peculiar stoke of nature, I surmised.

Then, on the evening of the April 8 eclipse, my phone rang. A neighbor and friend called to chat about a new discovery in his yard. A woman who lives across the street from him had alerted him to a Great Horned Owl (GHO) nest, wedged into the crotch of a dead white pine about 40 feet above his driveway.

Interested, I walked to his yard to take a look – my first observation of a GHO nest in more than 70 years on this planet. What a treat. A mating pair had taken over and reinforced a former crow, raven, red-tailed hawk or maybe even gray squirrel nest, and it contained two large, light-colored fledglings being fed by the adults. According to many sources, GHO nests typically produce two nestlings.

By the time I saw the fledglings, I would estimate they were about six weeks old. They stood stoic and motionless on the nest’s edge, calmly peering down at me on that first encounter. Numerous online sources report that GHO nestlings begin practicing hunting skills at three weeks by pouncing on sticks comprising the nest. By six weeks they become “branchers,” hopping from limb to limb and eventually stretching their wings in preparation for flight.

Awkward flight tests then begin at seven weeks, and they maneuver their way to the ground after about eight weeks. Their parents continue to feed and protect them through the summer, and by autumn the young ones move on to seek new territory of their own.

The fact that the nest was there didn’t come as a great surprise. I had been aware of new owls in the neighborhood for at least a few months. I now know the timing made perfect sense. Online information identifies GHO as early nesters in the bird world.

I can’t recall when I first starting hearing those unfamiliar adult hoots, but it was probably in late December or January. I regularly heard them as I passed marshy meadows skirting the upland base north of my home. I immediately suspected GHO because I knew there had been a previous nest in the same area many years ago, when I was directly impacted.

Back then my sons were schoolboys and my daily Recorder shift brought me home at around 2 a.m. My last chore before bed was to run and water my English springer spaniel gundogs out back by the brook. That was the last time I remember hearing the long, haunting GHO hoot, which in no way resembles joyous barred owl hooting with its familiar cadence of Who cooks the stew? Who cooks for you awwwwwllllll?

When my small, female, calico Manx, Kiki, went missing, I felt certain she had been the victim of those large, wee-hour GHO I kept hearing, and I still believe this to be the case. Known as the “tiger of the north woods,” they hunt small animals like rabbits and squirrels. Kiki was no larger than a rabbit, and her highly visible white base would have made her easy pickings as she hunted the backyard stonewall day and night for mice, chipmunks, and you name it.

I now believe that the loud presence of GHO in the neighborhood is a likely reason why turkeys seem to have vacated territory within earshot of my home and morning ramble. I know turkeys do not view owls as friends. That I discovered as a turkey hunter who employed barred-owl locating calls to stimulate aggressive responses from combative gobblers establishing their domain.

On the other hand, hen turkeys likely try to avoid building their ground nests near the nests of large owls capable of devouring their broods. If hens leave a habitat, gobblers follow.

Thus far this year, my lone Meadows turkey sighting occurred at around 7 a.m. in corn stubble slightly more than a mile south of my home. There I caught two lonely hens scratching and feeding their way west toward Colrain Road. That’s it. Not another sight or sound of turkeys in a place where they have previously thrived. This at daybreak no less, prime time for gobbling – better still gobbling that carries great distances from high in a tree.

My neighborhood owlets disappeared from view about two weeks ago and are likely by now flying and helping to thin out the upper Meadows squirrel and rabbit population. I hope they eat young woodchucks, too. Woodchucks have menaced me and my neighbors in recent years.

As for the temporary scarcity of turkeys, well, I can’t say I’m concerned. They may not be in my backyard these days, but I don’t have to travel far to find them.

 

New Weir Information

I spoke too soon about ancient Indian weirs in the neighborhood. So, with new information in hand about the stone fishing structures, a follow-up’s in order.

My last column questioned the curious (to me) design, and thus the functionality, of two extant, manmade, downstream-pointed weirs on the lower Westfield and uppermost Chicopee rivers. Little did I know that recent research has been done to analyze fishing practices on a similar structure closer to my doorstep.

Reader Michael Bosworth alerted me to this fact in a March 30 email query wondering if “the Indian dam on the Ashuelot River in Swanzey, New Hampshire was another example?” Accompanying his question was a reference to Page 50 of Robert G. Goodby’s 2021 book, A Deep Presence: 13,000 Years of Native American History, which I had not previously heard of.

I immediately went online, learned that Goodby is a respected Franklin Pierce College anthropology professor and contract archaeologist, and ordered his book, which had not arrived in the mail before deadline. It’s based on more than 30 years of New England archaeological fieldwork – at least 10 of them (2002-12) on the Swanzey site. After an exchange of emails Goodby sent me his 2014 site report, co-authored by Sarah Tremblay and Edward Bouras: The Swanzey Fish Dam: A Large Precontact Native American Stone Structure in Southeastern New Hampshire.

This 19-page report and its three-page bibliography shed new light on Indian weirs and fishing practices of Eastern Woodlands people. Finally, important information that was at best elusive the last I explored the topic some 35 years ago. Back then, the most helpful source I could find was Hilary Stewart’s liberally illustrated Indian Fishing: Early Methods of the Northwest Coast. Although the Native people she featured lived on the other side of the continent and fished for different but related species, I presumed their practices couldn’t have differed greatly from their Northeastern kin, and still believe that to be true.

One significant difference on this side of the continent, however, seems to have been common use of downstream-pointed weirs to harvest upstream-migrating anadromous fish on their spring spawning runs back to their natal streams.

“Huh?” I pondered. “Upstream-swimming fish on spawning runs confronted first by an abrupt point rather than the inviting, wide-open mouth of a V guiding them into a narrow trap?”

It made no sense based on what I had previously learned about Indian weirs pointing in the same direction as fish migrations and sketched in Stewart’s book. So, I questioned late-19th-century historian and former Whately pastor J.H. Temple, who, in his comprehensive histories of North Brookfield and Palmer, described slightly different fishing practices on downstream-pointed weirs.

That is not to say Eastern Woodlands Native people never built the upstream-pointed weirs preferred by their West Coast cousins. Just that on Connecticut River tributaries and other streams up and down eastern North America on this side of the mighty Mississippi, upstream-pointing weirs or dams spanning the entire width of streams were widely used to harvest migrating fish. These stone structures built across streams forced fish toward narrow manmade shoreline channels in which they were easily harvested by net, spear and arrow.

The Swanzey Fish Dam was such a structure, as were the previously mentioned shore-to-shore weirs or dams on the lower Westfield and uppermost Chicopee rivers. Recent research accelerating during the final quarter of the 20th century has uncovered similar structures begging for additional study. The closest sites to us are in Connecticut, on the Housatonic River and the Bashan Lake outflow in East Haddam, while others are known to exist in Maine’s Kennebec River watershed.

Who knows where else similar structures will turn up now that they are on archaeologists’ radar?

Let’s hope future research uncovers footprints of complementary, wooden, weir-associated apparatuses. Indians knew the value of durable, water-resistant woods like chestnut, cedar, and locust for companion pieces, and would have used them to build fences, lattices, and platforms to aid fish-gathering procedures. Because such woods have shown remarkable survival capabilities in submerged archaeological environments, the outline of such structures could likely still be mapped by field researchers.

Sadly, one important fact now out of reach is quantification of the various pre-colonial fish runs up and down the Connecticut River, and tributaries like the Ashuelot. There is just no way to attach accurate numbers to those prehistoric anadromous and catadromous fish runs. But take it to the bank: they dwarfed the largest modern runs on record. The volume of ancient runs matters in any assessments of pre-European Contact Period Native fishing practices and related structures.

The Swanzey Fish Dam is shaped like a checkmark. It rests approximately eight straight-line miles –perhaps 12 meandering river miles – from the Ashuelot River’s Hinsdale, New Hampshire mouth. Radiocarbon dating brings the structure back to the Terminal Archaic Period, some 4,000 B.P. (years before present). It was still in use by Squakheag or Sokoki Indians into the second half of the 17th-century – likely one of many fish-gathering constructions of various styles built along the Ashuelot’s 65-mile reach.

The most important fish migrations targeted by our indigenous fishers were the upstream anadromous spring runs of shad, salmon, lampreys, sturgeon, and herrings. Then came the downstream fall runs of valued catadromous American eels. The Indians would have known what type of adaptations were best for each species, and most of the adjustments would have involved wooden embellishments.

Although the Swanzey Fish Dam was known to colonial settlers at an early date and became local tradition, little effort was taken to understand the indigenous fishing operation. Goodby first showed interest in the site at the dawning of the 21st century. He ramped up his investigative efforts after the August 2010 removal of West Swanzey’s 1860s Homestead Woolen Mill dam. As had previously been the case during a 1950 dam-repair project that drew down the upstream impoundment, the Indian stonework was exposed, setting the wheels of discovery into motion.

The rest is history. Goodby’s site report appeared in 2014. Seven years later, A Deep Presence hit the street. Now, following local press coverage, scholarly articles in academic journals, a dissertation, and random book reviews, the Swanzey site is in the public eye… sort of.

Although there’s still plenty to learn about the social and economic activities at ancient indigenous fishing camps situated along large and small Connecticut Valley streams, at least new discovery is underway. New information will hopefully continue to surface, starting with radiocarbon dating of the other aforementioned New England sites.

As archaeologists continue poking and probing, they may yet open a clear window into what ancient indigenous fishing operations looked like in our fertile valley before the post-King Philip’s War (1775-76) diaspora took hold.

Buried in the floodplain meadows and river sediments are the answers we seek.

Indian Weir Dynamics: A New Twist

A long, winding path sat me in this bow-back Windsor chair this morning – seasoned-oak oozing warmth from the woodstove to stimulate thought about Indian weirs.

My introduction to these manmade fish-catching structures occurred more than 30 years ago. Deerfield artist/illustrator Al Dray had been following my columns on salmon, shad, and ancient spring fishing camps situated around the Great Falls between Turners Falls and Riverside, Gill, and wanted to take me on a little field trip.

He’d been poking around the Connecticut River’s eastern shore down by Rock Dam in Montague City and was convinced he’d found vestiges of a weir above the “fishing falls” there. We went to the site, he pointed out the open mouth of a V-shaped stone column facing us, and suggested it was the handiwork of Native fishermen. The object was to funnel migrating fish into a shoreline trap. Though I was looking at my first, his argument was convincing.

The concept of fish weirs and traps fit snugly into my interests at the time. I was then passionately fishing for shad, studying waters I frequented, publishing weekly migration numbers during the upstream spring spawning migration, and taking the unpopular opinion that Connecticut River salmon-restoration was doomed.

With little helpful information about Indian fishing camps and practices available in the standard Connecticut Valley town histories, I hunted additional sources and found thin picking. Then came Hilary Stewart’s richly-illustrated Indian Fishing (1982 paperback), focusing on Washington State and British Columbia. Though the camps she sketched were faraway, I believed the tools and practices would differ little from those used by our own indigenous people. Subsequent research supported that opinion.

The rule of thumb linking all stream-fishing camps I reviewed was that upstream-pointing weirs were the rule for catching upstream-migrating fish.

Then, in recent weeks, I happened to read something in Rev. J.H. Temple’s History of Palmer (1889) that sang a different tune about Native fishing on the upper Chicopee River and its headwaters. Repeating an assertion made two years earlier in his History of North Brookfield (1887), Temple reported that Indians fishing the spring Atlantic salmon run there employed nets, spears, and arrows to catch ascending fish, and weirs to catch survivors returning to sea.

I knew nothing about the Chicopee River before exploring this topic, but have since learned that it starts at the confluence of the Ware, Quaboag, and Swift rivers in Palmer’s Three Rivers village and flows some 18 miles to the Connecticut River.

This was the first mention I ever found of fishing for spawning-run survivors returning to the sea. The new paradigm raised my interest after nearly 50 years of carefully tracking and extensively reporting our valley’s spring, anadromous-fish spawning runs of shad, salmon, striped bass, herring, alewife, and eels. Anadromous fish are born in freshwater, live as adults in saltwater, and return in their reproductive prime to spawn in natal streams.

Why, I pondered in print and then in email correspondence with a reader, would anyone exert time and energy catching an exhausted, depleted resource? Less than 10% of the annual Atlantic salmon run survives for out-migration, and those fish descend in weakened condition. Certainly not optimal specimens for human consumption.

Having witnessed as an angler the behavior of migrating fish on their upstream journey, I felt like I had insight and understanding about spawning-run dynamics. I learned to catch shad swimming in their preferred interior river channels, discovered how water flow and temperature governed runs’ ebbs and flows, and could easily identify their last dance in the sluggish shallows – a circling spawning ritual signaling the end of fishing season. About 50% of the shad run dies, leaving in its wake pungent, bloated reminders for scavengers.

Although I have never observed Atlantic salmon runs, they must have been similar to shad runs, despite fewer numbers and a higher mortality rate. Of course, if Temple can be believed – he offers no sources, and likely was not an outdoorsman – that was a moot point in the Chicopee River watershed above insurmountable Chicopee Falls. Only strong, agile salmon could clear that barrier, eliminating all other Connecticut River fish migrations above there.

I soon pushed to the backburner my impulsive inquiry into weirs designed to catch out-migrating salmon. The place was slightly out of my comfort zone. I could always revisit the topic if the spirit moved me.

That plan soon changed, however, when quite by chance a retired archaeologist friend reached out to me by email, then telephone, to discuss the ancient Indian fishing grounds bordering Montague’s Turners Falls village. Little did he know he was hitting on a hot topic.

His impetus was recent examination of a private, previously unknown, Riverside/Gill Indian artifact collection brought to his attention. When this find stirred his inquisitive juices, he dug out an archaeological “WMECo Site” report he wrote nearly 50 years ago about that Riverside excavation he led. He wanted to compare notes, so to speak.

We have often discussed Connecticut River anadromous fisheries over the years because he knows it’s in my wheelhouse and not his bailiwick. He just wanted to chat about run dynamics. Plus, he was eager to share maps and aerial photos he had found showing two extant Native weirs in the valley: one on the Westfield River, and the other on the – you guessed it! – Chicopee River in Palmer.

The photos showed two manmade, stonewall-like structures spanning the entire width of the streambeds. Both knee-high structures point downstream. The Westfield River example is a wide V. The one in Palmer is a shallow arc. Both of them point downstream and would have held back water under normal flows, forming a pool and presenting a clearable obstacle.

I told my friend I was not familiar with that type of weir. The ones I was familiar with from sketches and photos pointed upstream with mouths inviting fish into tight enclosures and traps for easy harvest with nets, spears, arrows. His downstream-pointing examples made no sense to me as weirs targeting upstream swimmers. Maybe Temple was right.

My friend suggested that such weirs extending across a river and pointed downstream could have forced upstream travelers toward narrow, manmade shoreline channels at both ends, where they could be easily harvested from shore. Other local historians have surmised that Indian fishers stood atop the weirs to take fish with dip-nets, spears and arrows. Perhaps, but smaller, tighter weirs would have been more efficient with higher yields.

Hmmmm?

Time to search for answers.

The first source I pulled from my bookcase was Stewart’s aforementioned Indian Fishing, which displayed a variety of stonewall-like, V-shaped, stream-fishing obstacles, some equipped with wooden cages, pens, fence posts and lattices positioned beyond the apex to delay fish. I could decipher none pointing downstream.

Next stop was Frank Speck’s classic Penobscot Man, about the lifeways of Maine Indians. There I found information about an important fall American eel fishery that relied on downstream-pointing weirs and traps to intercept out-migration to Bermuda Triangle spawning grounds and death.

Other than that, Harral Ayres’ The Great New England Trail mentioned springtime lamprey-eel fishing by eastern Massachusetts Natives. Then Gordon Day’s classic In Search of New England’s Native Past confirmed the importance of fall eel fishing but didn’t go into detail.

I believe it’s safe to assume that migrating spring lampreys and fall American eels were sought after by indigenous Connecticut Valley inhabitants – even after Three-Sisters, corn-squash-bean farming was adopted around 1,000 AD.

So, what to make of all this confusing information? Was the downstream-pointed weir on the Westfield River constructed to harvest fall, out-migrating American eels? How about the Palmer weir? It couldn’t have been built for fall eels, because Chicopee Falls blocked their way.

Questions remain. Food for thought. More grist for the thought mill.

The Penalty-Box Home Run

March daybreak. Frosty. Spring in the air.

Calm and clear. Brooks rattling – one a soothing roar, the other a gurgling whisper. Endless dawn sky blushing to a soft, warm blue. Soon the glitter of frosted lawns would vanish under the first rays of sun peeking over the eastern horizon.

The perfect setting for an introspective walk around the neighborhood.

I’m not sure what it was near the midpoint of that daily ramble that triggered thoughts of baseball. Probably the season. Maybe sweet, sharp cardinal chirps near and far. Perhaps the invigorating cool air filling my lungs, the exercise revving my heartbeat and circulation. Reminds me of a doctor’s advice in recent years. Discussing my mangled knees, he told me “motion is lotion.” I was living it.

Alone with fleeting thoughts, I flittered back a half-century to my short, undistinguished UMass baseball career, derailed before it blossomed due to misbehavior when it was mostly cool. Walking a quick pace, I went back to places I love to revisit. From indoor Curry Hicks Cage practice and its dim batting cage, to our weeklong spring-training trip to Miami Beach, to Sunshine State incidents that greased my exit skids, and most of all to a dramatic home run that ultimately, if you can imagine, sealed my demise.

The year was 1974, my 21st birthday a few months away. I was fit and fast, strong, sturdy and perilously untamed. Sometimes I wonder how I survived. But here I sit, undaunted and unashamed.

Wild times were in the air in ’74. The Massachusetts drinking age had been lowered to 18 the previous year. Infirmary lines of young college women awaiting birth-control-pill prescriptions were long. Booze and drugs flowed a raging torrent every night of the week. Temptation lurked in every shady campus corner. Young and frisky, I just got caught up in it. My fault. No regrets.

Count me among many voluntary victims of Sixties and Seventies excesses, when barhopping and partying were not only tolerated, but encouraged. So was challenging authority. Now I’m pretty much done with all of it. Except, well, I still tend to buck authority when the situation calls for it.

Though I have for many decades been a storyteller, the tale I’m about to tell has never been told in print. There’s a simple reason. We were sworn to secrecy by our coach, Franklin County’s own Richard “Dick” Bergquist from Orange. He demanded that what had unfolded on our curfew-free final night on South Beach should stay on South Beach. No reason to air our dirty laundry at home.

Till now I have honored his request. But he’s been dead five years and the story can finally be told. Nonetheless, why name my old friends and teammates? Unnecessary.

Our vow to secrecy concerned an unfortunate late-night incident at a strip joint a block or two up Collins Avenue from our beachfront Nautilus Hotel – home to many spunky Big Apple widows living the life with bling and bravado to spare.

On an after-midnight walk back toward the hotel after our final night on the town, my Vietnam-vet teammate and I spotted blinking blue lights and commotion within sight of our hotel. We crossed the street to discover two of our scholarship pitchers – one a senior, the other a freshman – handcuffed and getting loaded into the caged back seat of a cruiser. They were under arrest, on their way to the slammer, and would need bail for release. The charge was drunk and disorderly conduct for vulgar exchanges with a stripper.

A few of our teammates had, like us, found their way to the scene, and we decided to join other teammates in an adjacent bar to ponder strategy. Maybe we could pool what little money we had left to spring our teammates from jail before the coach caught wind of their arrest.

No such luck.

We hadn’t even begun pooling our money before our coach walked through the door with the trainer and a captain. They were rounding up players to escort back to the hotel. I had never seen the coach so angry.

After taking a call from police, he had gone looking for the captains and found one of them passed out on the white, sandy beach beside a cooler, a pile of empties, and two equally inebriated spring-break college coeds. It was a scene straight out of the movie Animal House or Hunter S. Thompson Fear and Loathing debauchery, spiking his ire.

Uh-oh. Crisis mode. The wheels had flown off the wagon.

The first mistake I made was to spend much of the short walk back to our hotel chatting with the coach as only a foolhardy drunk would. Though I don’t remember the conversation, I’m sure it was typical drunken babble that only irritated him. Have you ever been a sober listener to a drunk? I have, and I shudder to think of it.

When we arrived at the hotel, we were ordered to our rooms. The party was over. Coach was ashamed of us. He scheduled an early-morning, pre-sendoff, conference-room meeting before our departure to Miami International Airport. Eight o’clock sharp. “And don’t be a second late!” he barked, before driving one of our rented three-seater station wagons to negotiate the release of his two jailed pitchers.

Coach’s anger hadn’t subsided for our morning meeting. We should be thankful, he warned us, that he didn’t have time to reassemble a roster. Never had he been a party to such unacceptable spring-trip conduct.

I think we returned to Bradley International Airport and Amherst on a Sunday. We had five days of typical cold, windy conditions to prepare for our Saturday home opener against Springfield College at Earl Lorden Field. The Springfield and Northampton newspapers previewing the game and season published a starting lineup for the opener. I was batting fifth and playing right field.

It was to be my first regular-season game in Amherst, delayed a couple of years by injury and other issues too complicated to quickly explain. The wait had been long. I was so psyched that I even went to bed early the night before the game – a rare event.

On the day of the game, I put on uniform No. 12 in the Boyden Gym locker room and walked through the tunnel and on to distant Lorden Field for batting practice and warmups. There the starting lineup was posted on the dugout bat rack, where I discovered my name stricken from the five hole and replaced by a teammate.

My blood boiled. I approached the coach for an explanation. He told me Springfield was going with a righty, so he opted for a left-handed hitter. I couldn’t conceal my anger.

Seething in the dugout for the first pitch, I removed myself from potential conflict by going to the batting cage along the left-field line. I wanted to cool down and take out my frustrations on baseballs delivered by a teammate feeding the JUGS pitching machine. When done tuning my stroke, I returned to the dugout sullen and ready to explode. I felt like I had been done dirty and was hoping for an opportunity to swing the bat.

My chance finally came in the bottom of the seventh inning. Trailing 5-1 with two outs, two runners on base and a lefty reliever on the mound, Bergquist called my name from the third-base coaching box he occupied. He wanted me to hit for the player who’d taken my spot in the original lineup.

Totally focused, I took my stance in the batter’s box, worked the count in my favor, and smoked a waist-high fastball, away, up the right-field power alley. I knew I hit it sweet but wasn’t sure it had enough lift to clear the green, eight-foot, wooden fence. So, thinking triple as I burst out of the batter’s box, I rounded second base at full speed.

Facing Bergquist, he was signaling home run by circling his hand above his head. Time to slow down. It had cleared the fence over the 375-foot sign. As I rounded third base, Bergquist offered me his congratulatory right hand, which I whacked with all my might on my way to teammates awaiting me at the plate.

For all intents and purposes, that glorious moment was the end of my promising UMass career. I was immediately removed from the lineup and handed a seven-game suspension for my defiant “hand-shake.” I had showed him up on center stage, he charged. I finished the season on the roster, but was used sparingly, and could never get comfortable in that unfamiliar role.

I guess it just wasn’t meant to be. School and baseball never mixed well for me.

Season over, I dropped out and took a job as a land surveyor. A year later, I went on the road as a professional fundraiser traveling the land. I returned to college a couple of times, lastly in UMass’ progressive University Without Walls program.

It worked for me.

 

Punch Brook Revisited

One never knows what peripheral treasures will appear during deed research. This one focuses on new information about a brook I wrote about less than two years ago.

First, a preface.

The brook reference jumped off a deed last week while I was trying to figure out a fascinating Revolutionary War powder horn owned by a friend. This map horn was carried some 250 years ago by a clever Greenfield Meadows soldier and blacksmith. Upon its face is carved a record of the man’s 1777-78 military travels through the Lake George/Lake Champlain corridor along with symbols of war, patriotism, God, Indians and country.

By tugging at many loose threads of inquiry in an effort to understand the carvings from the “Northern Campaign” that won the war for American patriots, I was led straight to a famous Greenfield character with whom I was already quite familiar. Not the owner of the horn, his name was Captain Agrippa Wells (1738-1809) – son of Deerfield’s Dr. Thomas and Sarah Hawks Wells, older brother of Whately’s first minister, Rev. Rufus Wells, and the leader of a Greenfield militia unit that included men from Bernardston and Shelburne.

Capt. Wells was a swashbuckling downtown Greenfield blacksmith. He began his storied military career as a teenaged member of the elite Rogers Rangers of French and Indian War fame. Captured by Native warriors in June 1757 near Lake George, he lived to tell of running the gauntlet with his typical bold, confident spirit.

Almost a generation later, he led local patriots to the 1775 Lexington Alarm. Then, two years later, he took many of the same fighting men to the Lake George/Champlain corridor, where they participated in the battles of Fort Ticonderoga, Bennington, and Saratoga. His fighting spirit still burning hot as he approached 50, Wells then earned a bold star of dishonor in government circles for marching with anti-government insurgents in Shays’ Rebellion.

“Capt. Grip” settled in Leyden – then the Fall Town or Bernardston Gore – after the Revolution and is said to have moved back to Greenfield in 1793, dying there in 1809. His and wife Mehitable Smead’s (1742-1801) gravesite remains unknown, as obviously planned by the rugged individual. Meanwhile, deeds offer no evidence of him buying a Greenfield home for his final years. Perhaps he moved in with a son, a daughter or a friend after selling his Leyden Glen farm.

Enough said about the pugnacious Captain, though. His is an often-told tale. And the time is not yet right to share what I have learned about the fascinating, travelogue powder horn carved and carried by one of his townsman troopers – one who was a generation younger and eventually opposed him during Shays Rebellion. That discussion will have to wait until further discovery is exhausted.

So, let’s move to the brook reference. I stumbled across it in an 18th-century deed conveying a small parcel of upper Greenfield Meadows land from Agrippa Wells to abutter Samuel Stebbins. Written on April 1, 1786 and recorded nearly 20 years later, Stebbins piggybacked onto his Meadows farm a 6 2/3 -acre parcel that “layeth by a brook known by the name of Punch Brook.”

Aha! Finally a clue.

Punch Brook rises from prolific Smead Hill springs just above Greenfield’s northwest corner and runs through a deep ravine to a wetland meadow once owned by the people who built and owned my Upper Meadows home. Once known by anglers as a splendid little trout stream with a never-ending supply of tasty native brook trout, it passes under Green River Road and curls south and east toward its confluence with Hinsdale Brook, across Plain Road from Brookside Animal Hospital.

Because I pass this little stream at two sites along my daily morning walk, I had no trouble understanding the deed. It describes a strip of land across from Martin’s Farm, bordered west by the brook that passes through the Mary Potter Lane/Plumb Tree Lane neighborhood.

Punch Brook has been an interest of mine for most of my 26-year Meadows residence, and was the subject of a June 2022 column cited above. I suppose its most alluring attraction was historians’ speculation that the 1704 Deerfield captives marched to Canada by their Native American captors camped overnight where the stream crossed the old Indian trail east of my home.

It was also a source of personal interest because I was familiar with its upland spring hole from hunting, and am always interested in old squaretail streams. However, one vexing mystery continued to stir my inquisitive juices: When was it named Punch Brook and, better still, why?

I found no answer in histories of Greenfield by Thompson and Willard, or in Sheldon’s History of Deerfield. Nope. Not a hint. Undaunted, I queried neighbors with deeper Meadows roots than mine. Still, nada.

After probing my go-to neighborhood source to no avail, I caught a pleasant couple from across the brook walking past my home one morning. They live in the home the woman grew up in, built about 1950 for her father on the old Poor House lot. As we got to chatting about this and that, I asked her what she knew about Punch Brook, which crosses the road a short distance from her home.

She said she and her sisters played there as kids, and that their late father often mentioned it as a remarkable rivulet that never froze. Bingo! That little speck of information set my wheels awhirl. Was the brook that never froze a neighborhood tradition? Could it have been the impetus for the name Punch Brook, because, like rum punch, it didn’t freeze even in bone-chilling cold?

I went back to my top neighborhood source, who had nothing to add, then questioned a woman whose childhood home bordered the stream and, likewise, nothing new. Neither of them had heard a whisper about the brook that didn’t freeze.

Maybe my original source’s father would have known something, but he’s been in his grave for many years, would be over 100 today. It’s possible that members of old Meadows families who still occupied historic family homes carried the fading tradition well into the 20th century before it vanished. Very possible, yet difficult to substantiate.

Then appeared that Agrippa Wells deed reference concerning family land originally granted to his Deerfield-proprietor father. Yes, there it was, Book 19, Page 381, 1786: Punch Brook. The name was obviously well-known by then, which suggests a much earlier origin that dated back at least to Dr. Thomas Wells (1693-1743).

That brings us back to pre-settlement Upper Meadows days. Who knows? Perhaps even back to the 1704 Deerfield attack and the overnight stay by the captives, who remembered savoring its water in frigid winter darkness. Those captives who survived the perilous northern trek to return may have pointed out the campsite many times in their travels, and told of the spring that flowed freely across the frozen Indian trail. Maybe they said it flowed like rum punch on cold winter nights. Thus, the name Punch Brook that’s recorded on 19th-century maps, and on the 18th-century Wells-Stebbins deed.

Although I cannot be certain, it makes a lot of sense to me.

I wonder what the Indians called it?

Sugarloaf Suicide

Boyhood memories, however vivid they may seem, can be unreliable.

Of this sobering fact I was reminded recently regarding a Mount Sugarloaf suicide that occurred during my free and easy days as a South Deerfield youth. I have over the past decade or so tried unsuccessfully many times to chase down that story in newspaper archives. I couldn’t understand why it was so elusive. I knew it happened, and thought I had clear memories of the details that spread around town like wildfire. Atop the list was the “unforgettable” name of the victim: Cheney Bigelow. How could anyone forget such a distinguished New England name?

My latest round of inquiry into this man of South Deerfield lore was inspired by friend Chip Ainsworth’s recycled 2019 column about another tragic Sugarloaf death, that one an accidental fall involving a Smith College beauty queen in October 1965. The old column popped up on Facebook, recounting the tragic tale of Karol Rae Hummon, 21, then the reigning Miss Alaska from the ’65 Miss America Pageant. I remembered the incident well. It happened when I was 12. Hummon slipped and fell 300 feet to her death while casually hiking and sightseeing along the edge of the mountain’s cliff face.

Ainsworth’s column, which I had not seen when it was published in the Greenfield Recorder, immediately got my wheels spinning. I emailed Ainsworth to share my frustration following several unsuccessful attempts to find a newspaper story about the Sugarloaf suicide. I was quite certain it had occurred soon after the tragedy he featured, but he didn’t remember it.

Hmmmm? Another Sugarloaf suicide chase was underway.

I cut and pasted my email to Ainsworth into a Deerfield Now Facebook post, added a few details, and trolled for community feedback that failed to appear. Not a word. I was surprised. Figured the post would stir interest. Maybe it needed time.

Later that day – and quite coincidentally, I might add – my phone rang. The caller ID read David White, an old townie friend we called “Hopper.” I had chummed around with him as a kid and hunted pheasants with him as a young man, but had lost contact with him since I moved to Greenfield in 1997. Recently retired and building his family tree, White knew I, too, chased genealogy and was eager to chat about what he had thus far learned about his rich Yankee roots reaching back to the Mayflower.

“So,” I interrupted early into our conversation, “you’re not responding to my Facebook post from earlier today?”

“What Facebook post?”

“I trolled about that guy who leaped to his death off Sugarloaf when we were kids. I think his name was Cheney Bigelow.”

“Cheney Bigelow?”

“Yeah. That’s the name I remember.”

“Not me. I think it was Edgar Mathias.”

“Hmmm? Maybe so. That name does ring a bell.”

I thanked my old buddy for the tip and promised to dig deeper on Edgar Mathias. Inspiring. Finally, a new clue.

Our rambling conversation ended and I went immediately to my laptop. There I pulled up Fultonhistory.com online, did a few Mathias searches and – Bingo! – finally got a local hit. It was a Memorial Day, front-page Greenfield Recorder story below the fold, headlined “Man Killed in Jump off Summit.” Dated May 29, 1967, the suicide had unfolded the previous day, a Sunday. The victim’s name was indeed reported as “Edgard F. Mathias,” the second “d” in the first name likely a skeleton-crew holiday typo that wasn’t caught.

Born in 1932, Mathias was 35 and living in Springfield when he decided to end his life on South Deerfield’s ancient Connecticut Valley landmark. According to findagrave.com, he was an Army veteran and, given his age, most likely served during the Korean War (1950-53). He is buried at West Springfield’s Saint Thomas Cemetery next to his father, Edgar F. Mathias, Sr. (1894-1974), and mother, Yvonne Montmeny Mathias (1899-1998).

My recollection all along was that the suicide did not occur on a school day, because I remembered being out and about when word hit the street. So, Sunday makes sense. I’m sure the first hint of trouble would have been the sound of the downtown fire alarm rallying call-firemen to the station. Then speeding cars, flashing lights, sirens, and the other typical commotion brought by the loud alarm horn.

Reports started circulating about a suicide leap witnessed by Sugarloaf sightseers and an active search for the body. Kids raced to the scene on their bikes. Many of us knew Sugarloaf and its northern brother well as our childhood playgrounds.

I can’t say I remembered state trooper Ralph Olszewski finding the unconscious victim still breathing at the base of the cliffs, but that was what the newspaper reported. I knew Olszewski from the downtown drugstore. His family was from South Deerfield. In fact, a day or maybe even hours before finding the newspaper account naming him, I had read his obituary.

Isn’t it strange how things like that happen? Had I remembered Mathias’s name and found the newspaper article years ago, I could have probed Olszewski deeper for all the gory details. I often bumped into him near his River Road home in Whately, long after confidentiality restrictions had passed.

Judging from the 1967 Recorder story’s content, confidentiality policies back then weren’t nearly as strict as today’s. Not only did the paper immediately name the victim, it even reported that he had been a recent Northampton State Hospital patient and carried in his wallet papers to prove it. That would not have been reported today. At least not the next day.

Although the paper didn’t report the time of Mathias’s leap, memory tells me it occurred at midday, perhaps between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Sugarloaf-reservation caretaker Charles Sadoski of Whately reported seeing Mathais “quite deliberately jump.” The newspaper was, however, wrong in reporting that Sadoski had “emerged from the summit house” just in time to witness the leap. That was impossible, because the summit house did not exist in 1967. It had been destroyed by fire some 15 months earlier, on the snowy night of March 7, 1966. Sadoski must have, instead, exited an adjacent toolshed that survived the fire.

Whoever wrote the front-page story may have missed another little tidbit that bounced around town like a Superball that day. The story I recall was that witnesses sensed something bad was about to happen when they noticed Mr. Mathias lingering in peculiar fashion along the chain-link fence bordering the cliffs. Their suspicion was validated when he pulled his wallet from his back pocket, removed his wristwatch, wrapped it around the wallet, placed the tidy packet on the pavement, scaled the fence, and took a swan dive to his death before anyone could “talk him off the ledge.”

Only the wallet is mentioned in the newspaper article, because it revealed his identity and mental-health issues.

Mathias was near death when loaded into the ambulance and pronounced dead on arrival at Franklin County Public Hospital. The official cause of death was a skull fracture but, obviously, many additional traumas would have resulted from such a fall.

So, now that I’ve pinned down the victim’s name, a blaring mystery remains. That is, where did the name Cheney Bigelow come from? I have no answer. It must, I suppose, remain a mystery buried far too deep in memory for recovery.

Sturgeon Survive, Native Fishing Camps Fade

Two recent meetings I chose to attend pulled my focus to Connecticut River Basin fisheries and, more specifically, those of our own Pioneer Valley – a topic I have explored in depth over the years, be it with books, scientific reports, fishing rods, shotguns, or paddles in hand.

First came the January 17 meeting of the Connecticut River Fish Restoration Cooperative Technical Committee (CRFRCTC) at the Conte Lab in Montague City. Then the February 7 Battlefield Grant Advisory Committee (BFAC) meeting at Montague town hall’s meeting room in Turners Falls. The first gathering stirred my curiosity about the status of majestic, endangered Connecticut River Atlantic sturgeon. The second drew my attention to ancient, temporary, Native American fishing villages built each spring near waterfalls and manmade weirs and traps on the Connecticut and its tributaries.

Soon after the BFAC meeting, I emailed Ken Sprankle, project leader of the Connecticut River Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office in Sunderland, for an Atlantic sturgeon status report. I was surprised to learn that the large anadromous fish still exists in the Connecticut, though barely.

Sprankle sent me links to informative online sources, primarily reviewing recent Connecticut Department of Energy an Environmental Protection (CT DEEP) efforts to tag, monitor, and further understand a population in peril. Atlantic sturgeon populations reach back 200 million years. Individuals can live 100 years and reach 16 feet in length.

I was surprised to learn of the ongoing Connecticut sturgeon initiative, which I had either seen and forgotten or, more likely, totally missed. My antennae have not been alert to Atlantic sturgeon news in these days dominated by the “save-the-shortnose-sturgeon” campaign championed by vociferous local gadfly Karl Meyer. Given Mr. Meyer’s loud, repetitive, activist wail, one could be excused for being unaware that grander Atlantic sturgeon share the river with their shortnose kin.

My Atlantic sturgeon interest was recently elevated by reading 18th-century Swedish naturalist Peter Kalm’s fascinating Travels into North America, probably the best natural-history account of 1750 northeastern America on record. During canoe explorations up the Delaware and Hudson rivers, Kalm observed many gargantuan, prehistoric-looking Atlantic sturgeon patrolling the shallows and intermittently leaping “a fathom” – six feet – out of the water.

Had a contemporaneous investigator made a similar trip up our Connecticut River, this same Atlantic sturgeon spectacle would have unfolded. The massive fish are, like Atlantic salmon and American shad, anadromous, which means they are born in freshwater, live as adults in saltwater, and return to their natal freshwater streams to spawn. Shortnose sturgeon, on the other hand, while also identified as anadromous, spend most of their lives in rivers and tend to cling to the shoreline when they do venture into the ocean.

Judging from the material Sprankle sent me, I would not expect a bright future for Connecticut River Atlantic sturgeon. Researchers are, however, gathering and studying progeny, so it’s not hopeless. Sadly, however, that’s about the best outlook one can have regarding the future of Connecticut River Atlantic sturgeon, and the plight of shortnose is no different. A warming climate and water pollution are the major factors weighing heavily against restoration.

Which brings us to the Battlefield Grant meeting that brings us back to the final days of indigenous Connecticut River fishing encampments like the one attacked by Captain William Turner’s troop of King Philip’s War militia in the predawn hours of that fateful day of May 19, 1676.

The peaceful village would have looked like others traditionally built and inhabited each spring at the Connecticut River’s three “Great Falls”, today known as Bellows Falls, Turners Falls, and South Hadley Falls. Similar camps would have been found at lesser falls, like Rock Dam in Montague City and Enfield Falls in northern Connecticut. A fourth set of forgotten falls on the Connecticut mainstem existed at a sharp turn in the river between North Hatfield’s Bashin and North Hadley. That once-rocky site is now submerged under Holyoke Dam backwater.

These ancient seasonal villages took advantage of natural constrictions, falls and rapids that slowed the progress of upstream-running migrant fish gathered in settling pools, where they were easily dip-netted, speared, and shot with arrows. Contributing to bountiful spring harvests were manmade traps and weirs, where fish were also easy prey. The sought-after fish were shad, salmon, herring, and sturgeon, likely including smaller shortnose.

When the BFAC discussion ventured into educational goals, my thoughts went immediately to the battleground’s deep history as an ancient fishery. Yes, metal-detecting experts are reconstructing the battlefield and its retreat-route skirmishes by following the path of spent 17th-century bullets. But that’s only a Eurocentric sliver of the infamous “Falls Fight” tale – a triumphant narrative about mayhem and massacre that turned King Philip’s War in the colonials’ favor.

The Native American people slaughtered by some of my own ancestors that day were there to fish, not fight. They had built temporary riverside shelters and workshops aimed at catching, preparing, and preserving salubrious fish after a long winter.

The indigenous inhabitants knew the drill from experience dating back thousands of years. They’d select the best fish to feast on, and preserve the rest for storage. In a celebratory process saluting nature’s bounty, there would be song, dance and games, fireside storytelling and negotiation, matchmaking and lovemaking with newfound lifetime mates.

Men, women and children were there. They knew their chores and performed them well at a safe place of high spirit and peace. There the creator had placed a river obstruction, which had to be portaged around by canoe travelers. It became a sacred, hunter-gatherer site that invited harmony and diplomacy.

Not nearly enough is known about the makeup of this fishing village, its many stations and diverse activities. Never a sketch, a detailed recollection or description of the fileting and butterflying stations. Not a word about nighttime, torchlight-spearing parties or daytime dip-netters. No discussion of trap construction and repair. It’s sad that no one who was there that fateful day recorded the layout, the contraptions and their functions.

Anthropology and ethnology were then unknown fields of study. What the attackers saw through their twisted Christian lens was a riverside Satan’s Village occupied by copper-colored Devils incarnate. Their mission was mayhem, ridding their New World of the evil, sleeping “savages” – their word, not mine.

Upon returning home from the battlefield meeting, a new source awaited me at home. Rev. J.H. Temple’s History of Palmer had arrived by mail the previous day. I snagged it on eBay and was eager to go through it before placing it in my library next to the former (1845-53) Whately minister’s histories of that town, Northfield, and North Brookfield. The price and condition were right, so I chased it.

I respect Temple as a careful, thorough, late 19th-century historian. Though I never considered it during the buying process, I also recognized Temple as one historian who displayed more than a passing interest in our valley’s indigenous people.

He didn’t disappoint in the Palmer book, immediately digging into the topic and describing Native American fishing practices on the rivers traversing the Hampden County town. We’re talking about rivers like the Swift, Ware, and Chicopee, to name few, and many smaller feeder streams in what is basically now the Quabbin watershed. Native Americans fished all of these streams for anadromous fish, and some of their V-shaped weirs were still clearly visible in Temple’s time.

New to me was his description of downstream-facing weirs with basket traps at the apex, designed to catch spawning survivors returning to the ocean. I’ll take him at his word for now, but must check other sources about Native American fishing practices on rivers in Maine, New York, the Maritimes, and the West Coast to see if I missed or forgot something.

Targeting fish returning to the ocean after spawning makes little sense to me for a number of reasons.  First and foremost is the sporadic tempo of the downstream migration, not to mention the exhausted physical condition of spawning survivors. Why target random, wobbly returnees that are spent and sparse, when vigorous upstream travelers are larger, healthier, more plentiful, and much better eating?

Stay tuned.

Mad Meg theme designed by BrokenCrust for WordPress © | Top