June 2010

Monthly Archive

Fishway Lock Outs: three dams by bike on the May full moon

Posted by on 11 Jun 2010 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, Bellows Falls Fishway, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Conte, CRASC, New Hampshire, salmon hatchery, Vernon Dam Fishway

© 2010 by Karl Meyer

Fishway Lock Outs: three dams by bike on the May full moon

May 28, 2010.  The full moon is a trigger for spawning in many fish species.  It can have a strange pull on mammals too.  Its light can cut into a deep sleep and leave you awake at 3:18 a.m.  Such is what occurred with me on the night of the May full moon.  I knew I had the following day off, and had wanted to do more low/no-carbon fish run tracking.  “What more could I witness?,” I’d asked myself.  I could take off by bike to Holyoke again, but I knew what I’d find there—guys fishing the run, and windows full of passing shad.  Nothing new.

Then I started thinking about completion—what could I do to begin to complete this journey.  There wasn’t time to reach the headwaters.  But the headwaters are really not what the heart of the Connecticut’s runs are about.  What I could do was ride to Bellows Falls, the last historically-accepted upstream falls and dam site accepted as passing spawning American shad back into pre-colonial times.  But it was 45 miles upstream, and that’s direct by interstate highway.  What it would mean was a minimum of 90 miles of cycling for me.  The idea drew me in, but I was skeptical about pulling it off.  Did I have the energy?  Was my bike up to it?  It has been slightly clunky since the trip to Old Saybrook.  I’d sleep on it.

But not much—as dictated by that full moon.  At 3:18 a.m., I was somehow awake and alert enough to know the weather would be pretty warm, but good, and that I should probably take this challenge.  As I once heard a birder say, “You are only allotted a certain number of Mays in a lifetime.”  I figured, if I have the inclination and the energy, better hop back on that bike.  I also loved the idea of a symmetry developing for completing the shad’s upstream run—and mirroring it against my trip to the Connecticut’s mouth on the first day of the month.

So, out the door I went—on the road north through Greenfield at 5:15 a.m.  The bird migration would soon be ramping up into full song, but the sun had not come up yet.  Robins were doing their early pumping, in the 50 degree chill.  Along the edge of a golf course I thought I caught the last beeps of a woodcock, displaying in low light to find a mate.

What was stunning on this upstream ride, mostly on Rt. 5 as I went north, was the damage of the great wind and lightning storm two days earlier.  Street after street in Greenfield was blocked by cones and tape, trees toppled over power lines and roads.  I saw three cars sitting idle in driveways with tree trunks and heavy limbs toppled onto them.  Heading north into the farms of Bernardston and Guilford, many were without power—generators droned in the background.  What was pleasantly interesting too was a lack of traffic on this early Friday before the Memorial Day weekend.  I listened to thrushes and warblers, grosbeaks and wrens, orioles and sapsuckers, as I made my way silently northward.

I was in Brattleboro Center before 7 a.m., not having had much more than a cup of coffee.  The place was quiet.  My foraging led me to a little bakery behind Main Street that didn’t have open hours until 9 a.m.  Nonetheless, as I peered in the window I was signaled to enter, and there had a tasty wild cherry scone and a good cup of coffee, brought to me by a pleasant couple who were busy readying the day’s baking.  It’s called Common Loaf, and I had a hint of a religious theme inside.  No matter to me at this juncture.  I sat for 10 – 15 minutes and enjoyed the break, the scone, and the coffee.  I thanked them for their hospitality, and headed out.

I zipped through the rotary at the north end of Brattleboro; then began the hills that you find in Dummerston and further on into Putney.  The day was warming and the sun was now out.  Traffic remained light.  I rolled into—and out of, Putney, just as that village was getting its day underway.  School buses and dump trucks were whining into gear.  The hotdog-coffee cart guy was just getting set up south of the library.  I slipped right through without a hitch, besting the siding that houses Basketville without an inclination to shop.

Hitting the steep part of Putney Hill, I long ago found a much-preferred alternative when biking north—it’s a right turn at the sign for Landmark College onto River Road.  What it saves is the chug up a long, punishing hill that—at least back in the day, had very narrow shoulders, and lots of trucks, as you pumped your sorry way up past Santa’s Land.  I honestly don’t know if Santa’s Land exists anymore, and its doubtful, but I had some long runs up that hill and have preferred River Road—even though its dirt in places, for decades now.

There’s a wonderful, long, long, paved downhill into the Connecticut’s broad and fertile floodplain to start.   What’s not to like.  I swooped along quietly, being passed by maybe two cars, a truck and a school bus over the next half hour.  Wonderful!  The farms roll out, ancient and sprawling, in the flats.  Spring birds sing in the woodland hollows and uplands on the west bank of the road.  Here too, I find a lovely patch of hemlock, still seemingly unaffected by the wooly adelgid plague, but for how long?  I enjoy it for its marvelous, dappled light, and the song of a black throated green warbler nearby.

Swinging back the last uphill mile to return to Rt. 5, I’m on the approach to Westminster, VT, which sits amidst the flat upland of a spectacular old oxbow of the Connecticut.  In the curling wetlands that surround it, green frogs call, and a kingfisher scoots away with a small fish in its bill—returning to its tunneled nest.  In the air, tree swallows dance among the early dragonflies.

When I hit Westminster Station I’m still just cruising—happy to have decided to make this run.  River tunes and music play across my brain.  I decide to take the bridge here over to Rt. 12 in North Walpole, NH, mostly just to add another state to this upstream run.  It will add another mile or two on the route to Bellows Falls, but I’m practically there now.  This detour swings me away from the river, into farmland and a wide road with logging trucks and some commerce.  But the shoulders are wide.  As I tool along, looking for the next bridge that will bring me back toward Vermont, I come hard up against a big shopping center.

Deciding I could use a break, I lean my bike and head into one of those big discount stores that has a bit of everything.  What I’m looking for, strangely, is a cheap pair of waders, or at least some of those water shoes, for some fish scrambling I’m intending to do.  This is, of course, a long shot, and they have neither, so I head back out without even finding a decent energy drink to bring along.  My watch says 9:10 a.m.  Not bad.

Quickly I find my way to the Vermont crossing—the Villas Bridge, which has been closed for months due to structuring erosion.  It is blocked by Jersey barriers, but they are not a hindrance to passing a bicycle over, and walking the bridge.  But, first, I park my bike and grab my camera, deciding to take a few shots of the mostly-waterless gorge here beneath the bridge, and the Bellows Falls dam, canal, and power works on the opposite shore.  As I walk back downstream for a better angle, I am pleased to be serenaded by the rough calls of a common raven, circling above.  I call back to it.

Walking across the Villas Bridge I look for the first entrance down to the water.  It comes as a gravel road, heading down along the factory brickworks of the power complex.  I take the steep route down to the riverbed rocks, looking for the public fishway, or at least a path to the water.  There’s a lot of still water below, and nothing coming through this section of riverbed.  Down somewhere on those rocks are some of the few petroglyphs found in this region of North America, some simple depictions of humans dating from a time unknown.  There’s no fishway down this chute, but I do get a chuckle out of the woodchuck scrambling out of site along the rocks.

So, I walk my bike back up the steep gravel, and head west again, going through a little brick canyon in the old complex, and coming out on a town Bellows Falls thoroughfare.  Here, quickly, I find the power company’s office, and also the sign leading to the Bellows Falls Fishway.  That peppy little sign for public visitors sits on the front of a chain link gate that is unceremoniously padlocked at 10:00 a.m., on the Friday of the start of Memorial Day Weekend, smack in the middle of fish passage season.  I guess they don’t have much visitor demand here—either for seeing fish, or access to the public’s river.

What’s pretty much known by all is that you will be lucky to ever see a migratory fish in the windows of the Bellows Falls Fishway.  Still, I’m surprised to find the place padlocked.  I look a little closer and find that the power company does do a tiny bit to accommodate the public—the viewing site is open for a part of the day on Saturday, and open for shorter hours still on Sunday.

It’s a crime that folks here in Vermont and New Hampshire have been duped out of their right to meaningful migratory fish runs.  That connection to the sea has been robbed from kids who might be inspired by it.  They could be inspired seeing American shad here, or get hooked by pulling one up on a line in the currents below.  But there’s no one fishing at Bellows Falls this day.  Just me, I guess.

Nonetheless, I’ve completed the top part of the day’s journey.  I take a little time and walk my bike along the central streets of Bellows Falls, and neat little town center.  I head over to the train depot and visitors info center, where there actually is a decent public restroom, and someone who can provide a map and information.  My main interest is a Vermont map though, which is supplied.

I bicycle up to the north end of town, looking for place to get one of those energy drinks.  Grocery stores are not apparent, so I end up in a big drugstore, and come out with a quart of cold Gatorade.  I sip my water, stuff the cold drink in my bike bag, and I’m off south.  Its 10:45 and getting warm.  Next stop: the Vernon Fish ladder.

The ride back continues my decent luck as far as traffic goes.  I again take the River Road cut-off to avoid Putney Hill.  My energy is good, but I’m now wondering how close I’ll be cutting it if I want to visit both the Vernon Fishway and the Turners Falls Fishway—which closes at 5 pm.  I’m hoping to spend a little time at these sites.  I’m passed by a total of two vehicles in the course of taking this route alternative.  Uncharacteristically, and with a nod to the heat, I take off my helmet and ride with the wind in my hair for the whole five or six miles.  There’s a satisfying freedom to such interludes.

As I pump back up the last mile to rejoin Rt. 5, there’s a modest sized office-warehouse with a company sign outside that advertises, “Mailing, Printing, Fulfillment.”  I’m thinking I might like to go in and get some fulfillment.  And, I take this a bit further in my thoughts and think its high time the power companies at Turners Falls, Vernon, and Bellows Falls start fulfilling their obligations to the public—to future generations.  We are all owed a meaningful river, living migratory fish runs, and the right to participate in the Connecticut’s ancient connection to the sea.  People here in Putney, Westminster, Walpole and Bellows Falls were once fed by spring runs of American shad.  Fish passage, public access, life-sustaining flows–its time those obligations were filled.

I’m back through Westminster and Putney in pretty good form, and chug up the last hills into Dummerston before the drop into Brattleboro.  I move through the noonday traffic and reach the town center, where I decide to take a break in the shade of the public library.  Sitting on the wall, people watching, I’m doing little more than chugging some energy drink and chowing on a gluey peanut butter sandwich.  I look up, and across the way a tall gentlemen is dodging cars and crossing toward the front door of the library, “Hey Fred!,” I call out.

Fred Taylor is my old writing instructor and one of my advisors from my days at Antioch, up the road.  It’s been about four year since we’ve seen one another.  We hug.  “So, what are you up to?” he asks.  I tell him about my shad run upstream, broad strokes. “Well, that sounds like you,” he says, “ You certainly are holding down your carbon footprint!”  He nods at my bike.  Fred used to live and teach college writing in the Pacific Northwest.

I’ve read some impassioned writing by Fred on the importance of the half dozen species of Pacific wild salmon to the cultures of native people there.  Most of those species are now struggling for survival, endangered, in good part, by a hatchery system put in place long ago at the base of every massive power company dam.  Those fish factories now pump out poorly-adapted, farmed salmon that don’t survive in the wild.  But they make new fish each spring.  The hatchery system thus becomes the excuse for not fixing these broken river systems.

Fred tells me he’s been doing quite a bit of work in local churches around the issue of climate change.  This sounds like the Fred I know.  He’s in the line up on honest thinking about this issue here, along with the likes of Bill McKibben.  We talk about getting a boys night going, me, Fred, and Tom Yahn, who is from Brattleboro, and my advisor from UMass days.  Somehow we seem to cob together an outing a few times a decade, usually for beer, BS, and politics.  Maybe it will happen this summer.  “Hey,” Fred says, “I read something you wrote recently.  I really liked it.”  He can’t remember the topic though.  “Maybe fish?” I smile.

We say our goodbyes, and within half an hour I’m pulling past the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, and rolling up to the driveway at the Vernon Dam and Fishway.  As I approach I’m wondering if there might be a few shad in the windows to cheer on this day—or even just a smallmouth bass.

It’s 1:00 pm when I turn into the driveway, and I quickly have my answer: the chain link gates are padlocked shut, there’s not a soul around.  So, as a citizen, a member of the public, a customer—I’ve been shut out twice now in a day.  It’s the height of fish passage season, the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, and I’m not even offered a drink of water on my home river.  “Move along folks, nothing to see here,” that’s what the power company might as well post on their sign, which clearly states this fishway is open to the public, the gates close at 3 pm.  I biked here a week ago Saturday, and at 1:50 in the afternoon those same gates were barred.

But, face it, just 16 shad that managed to squeak through this fishway last year—in all the thousands of hours that comprise an eight week fish migration on the Connecticut.  This just reaffirms the obvious—the power companies do whatever they please on the river, the state and federal agencies sit idly by–mute on all meaningful issues other than pumping out hatchery fish and experimenting on them.  There is no meaningful fish passage on the Connecticut River beyond Holyoke dam, and that was fixed in 1955.  It seems no one cares.  I look below the dam and there is not a fisherman on the beach.

My energy holds for what will be pretty much a hundred miles of biking this day.  I’m pleased with that, and knowing I’ll make the Turners Falls Fishway with time to spare.

I get to their gate at just before 3 pm, and these folks are open for business.  I lean my bike against the bricks, pull out my notebook and a pen, and head in.  I’m standing, slightly surprised, copying down their updated fish numbers.  They have actually passed some shad here in the past two days, over a thousand spotted by the guides.  It’s a drop in the bucket, but it is something.  Those tallies: shad seen today: 250; yesterday: 950; for the season: 2,582.  Blueback herring: 0.

One of the guides, Terry, who I have known for years, sees me and is suddenly all flustered and fall all over asking me to hold on.  She starts erasing numbers, and adding the next few fish she can remember—then stops and tries to think if she missed including three or four shad.  “Terry, relax, it’s not going to make a whole lot of difference.”  But Terry’s a true believer, the perfect person to have offering the power company’s line here.  Her son’s middle name is Salar, the Latin for salmon.  Seriously.  Her husband is one of the chief proponents for pushing the salmon in the schools, hatchery egg program in Massachusetts.  The Kool Aid has already been drunk here.

Ironically, I worked for a time at the Northfield Mountain Visitors Center.  I loved being around the fish migration and would offer to substitute if fishway guides needed a day off.  There was one catch though: I was only willing to work at the Holyoke Dam.  But they never asked me to substitute at Turners Falls—they knew I would tell the public the truth about this tragedy—the decades-old farce of this failed fishway.

I head down the stairs to look in the windows.  Also to my surprise, it’s dim in this cavern.  There is no power, another remnant from the storm at this power company site.   But there are shad in the windows, and the pass along in small, regular pulses, in groups of five, six, and eight.  Nice to at least see some fish, even though I know there are thousands left behind, just downstream.  Meanwhile, Terry is giving her professional explanation of why the fish are finally running through here, “The river temperature really warmed up.  They just wanted to get upstream,” she tells a handful of eager visitors.

These folks don’t understand they are not looking at the Connecticut River, just some of its water.  That water is pushed through here in generating pulses from the company’s upstream pumped storage plant, and for the powerhouse adjacent, as well as to feed the turbines at its Cabot Station plant downstream.  What they are seeing is about money and power.  The river and fish are peripheral considerations here.  But, as I watch the fish in the afternoon’s dim light, it seems the current is slow this day.  The fish are not repeatedly making a few feet of upstream progress, only to be pushed back downstream and out of sight in the powerful flow.

I’m tempted to contribute, but don’t quite have the energy to give a decent lesson to these folks.  What Terry the true believer is leaving out, are a handful of things I’d mention.  The power company adjusts flows–and can let water over the dam and down the river, or send it pulsing through this canal at punishing rates, as it pleases here.  The fed scientists at the Conte Lab just downstream have had the evidence for years, but have remained publicly mute.  As to the power company, what’s different this year is that they’ve gotten a little bad press this spring for their poor passage, as well as last fall when they killed thousands of baby shad by draining their power canal last September.

And, kept largely from the media, the company stopped pumping the river up and down for a full three weeks at their adjacent Northfield Mountain plant just upstream this May.  They were draining their reservoir for the first time since the 1990s.  Their pumped storage operation is the single most immediate source of disruptive water flow impacting this section of the Connecticut.  With the disruptive pumping fluctuations virtually stopped just upstream, there seems to be a wide-eyed common sense relationship with more shad being able to swim upstream here and reach the canal—waiting then for the power house folks to ease back on the money-making gas pedal.

As of yesterday there were still 16,000 local customers without electricity, so demand is down–less need to be flushing money for dollars down the canal this day.  That quiet could help a few fish.  Ironically, these numbers are looking better than they have in most of a decade—since they deregulated the site and the fisheries officials looked the other way when passage already-crappy passage numbers dropped by 85%.  With a million dollar migratory fish lab next door, you would think they’d be all over this.  But I guess it’s nothing you want the public to be able to speculate on–it has no effect on the river’s 60 hybrid salmon.  Rather feed them the power company’s line, delivered with a smile, the shad arrived here–just in time for Memorial Day visitors, simply because, “The river warmed up.”

I take off, but stop on the low fishing bridge on the canal, just below the bridge.  The canal water is not teased up into what is often a froth of tiny whitecaps at this site.  Four people are fishing the bridge, one a middle-aged, shirtless guy I’ve met before, “I’ve had three,” he says, signaling with his hand, “I threw them back.”  This crew has been here a couple of hours, and they are in good spirits.  One younger kid says he’s been seeing “thousands” in the dim canal waters.  “Well,” I say, “there are fish going by in the windows over there, but not in thousands.  For every hundred fish you see here, there are ten thousand that don’t make it.  These are the strongest of the strong.”

Then I explain the 30 year old salmon ladder mistake here, and how the shad are starved for oxygen trying to come through, “They do know the right conditions and how to pass more fish here.  The power company used to do it ten years ago.  But it’s all about the cash,” I tell them.  I linger a minute or two, looking for shad along the canal.  I don’t spot any.  I bid them adieu, and they thank me for the info.

At 3:58 pm, I’m back in my door in Greenfield, a hundred biked miles behind me.  It’s a satisfying way to greet celebrate a full moon and begin saying goodbye to May.  Sadly, I can’t say as much for the two locked fishway gates at dams in Vermont, and the tiny–and ironic, burst of a few more shad passing Turners Falls for the first time in a decade.

The Holyoke Fish Lift: 55 years and just one success–a walk-through visit on www.billdwightshow.com (podcast); two public CRASC meetings in June; for the birds—“Sitting Down with Nighthawks” in the current Bird Watcher’s Digest, by Karl Meyer

Posted by on 08 Jun 2010 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Conte, CRASC, federal trust fish, salmon, The Bill Dwight Show, USFWS

THE HOLYOKE FISH LIFT: 55 years of simply lifting fish–the only migratory fish passage success story on the main stem Connecticut River; CRASC public meetings in Turners Falls, MA: the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission’s (CRASC) Technical Committee meets June 17, and the CRASC Board meets June 22–witness the officials and the politics steering decisions affecting your river.  They meet just twice a year.

The migration season on the Connecticut River is far too brief–and far too thin, these days.  It must be highlighted and enjoyed within a narrowing spring window.  For a perspective on the beauty, and the myths, and the half-truths that are eroding migratory fish runs upstream on the Connecticut River, visit: www.billdwightshow.com , “Jurassic Park on the Connecticut” from June 4, 2010.  This is a river system that is seeing its runs of federal trust fish wash away.  It suffers desperately from waste, dishonesty, a lack of common sense science, and a dearth of public information and agency oversight.

There are two public meetings of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission this month.  The CRASC Technical Committee meets on Thursday, June 17, 2010, at 10:00 a.m., at the USF&WS Conte Anadromous Fish Lab in Turners Falls, MA; and the full Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission meets on Tuesday, June 22, 2010, at 10:00, at the Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Lab on Migratory Way in Turners Falls.

CRASC is the tiny collection of state and federal fisheries representatives that have been making decisions about Connecticut River fisheries science, spending, and public policy for decades.  Their accountability, advocacy, and credibility would benefit from members of the public and the media attending meetings.  CRASC oversight is supposed to serve as the river’s–and the public’s, protection from environmental damage by the power companies operating on the Connecticut.

Out of 24 positions on the CRASC Board and Tech Committee, not one is held by a woman.  There has not been a public representative on the CRASC Board in Massachusetts in nearly three years.  Sound fishy?  Help the river: pay them a visit.

For the birds: For a more generalist and aerial perspective on migration in the Deerfield River Valley, you might pick up the May/June 2010 issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest and read my, “Sitting Down with Nighthawks.”

The shad abattoir: the final leg home, May 5th

Posted by on 06 Jun 2010 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, CRASC, Deerfield River, Farmington River, federal trust fish, Rainbow Dam Fishway, salmon, salmon hatchery

The shad abattoir: the final leg home, May 5th: Rainbow Dam “fish ladder” on the Farmington, to Holyoke Dam, and on to the confluence of the Deerfield and the Connecticut at Greenfield, MA

© 2010 by Karl Meyer

May 5, 2010.  The shad abattoir and home: including a visit to the deadly Rainbow Fishway on the Farmington River in East Granby, CT

I am out the door of the Iron Horse in by 6:15 the next morning.  In truth, any lurking axe murderers did not seek me out.  I had a decent shower, the TV came on, and I was able to air out the room without turning on the hotel AC—something I pointedly abhor.

There is a small gas station/convenience store a block away.  I mix myself a coffee there.  Along with water, this will be my only fuel for the next five hours.  Then, I head off a little north and east, toward the little village of Tariffville and what I’m hoping will morph into a safe route to Rainbow Dam at the back of Bradley Airport.  It’s already warm, and the day will quickly work towards hot.

With my old fashioned highway maps I’m a bit handcuffed as to local roads, relying much on my general sense of direction and landscape.  That will only get you so far.  I’m in the bedroom community corridor for Hartford, just down the road, as well as Bradley Airport—just across the way.  A poor choice here could get me hammered by commuting traffic once again.

But it’s still early, and the shade near the Farmington River is lovely.  I pull into Tariffville at just before 7 am, stopping to puzzle at maps that aren’t going to give up much more information.  This is a refreshingly modest village, with homes that are older, and built on a human scale.  From the look of it, this is a small town of regular working people.  Tariffville does not put on airs.

Just a bit up the street a pick-up pulls into the only open store, a small convenience-variety place.  I waste little time in accosting a guy in his late-forties as he exits his truck.

He’s wearing a Connecticut State Corrections uniform, and I’m guessing he’s just off-shift.  “Excuse me, but would you know how to get over toward Rainbow Dam?”  He stops, thinks a minute.  “Keep going straight up here.  At the light go right, Hatchet Hill Road.  You’ll go over the mountain.  Just stay straight on that.”

I thank him, and let his errand continue, not mentioning that I was a guest at the Hartford Correctional Center some decades back—the result of a protest over the billions spent on yet another Trident sub at the Groton Naval Base.  It’s a bit early for that kind of small talk.  I’m resettling my maps and already gulping water when he comes back out, “At the bottom of the hill, go straight.  You’ll come to a stoplight—keep going straight.”  I thank him again, and I’m off, crossing the shade dappled Farmington.

Hatchet Hill is a decent climb.  It’s narrow and winding, and a bit tight in places while people head to work and school.  It is, however, a neat biking run, on a road that at least carries the cachet of some historical and landscape significance, though I don’t know its history.  I crest Hatchet Hill, rolling up from farm into mixed woods.  That pattern reverses as I head down the other side and pass through the stoplight mentioned.

There is a small crossroads with a neighborhood, then a few old houses and farmland, with development encroaching.  When I pass the Poquonock Fire Station, I’m beginning to get hopeful that this trip to the Rainbow Dam Fishway on the Farmington will not become a dreaded death-defying race against rush hour airport commuters on a crappy four-lane.  Then, things turn quickly from open field, to modern, mega-industrial.

I hear the roar of the first jet taking off, high, and a little northeast of me.  The road is newer with wide shoulders, to my delight.  But, I’m quickly turning into an ant riding into OZ—on a flat, massive, industrial sweep of pavement bordered by giant warehouses with acres of sodded lawn spaced widely across what were once ancient agricultural lands.  This is about as far away from the idea of nature and thriving fish runs as this odd cyclist could imagine.

And, it’s a damned peculiar place to find oneself in.  As I methodically make my way across these giant fields of industry I know I don’t want to make any wrong turns and find myself on the wrong side of the Farmington, or in the pipeline of rush hour traffic.  I see a FedEx truck rumbling down from the security gate of one of the warehouses.  The guy is coming to the stop sign at the main drag I’m on.  I wave him down.  “Rainbow Road?” I query, “You don’t happen to know if this is the road to Rainbow Dam?—I don’t want to miss the turn.”  He doesn’t have a clue, but points, “Why don’t you try the guy in the guardhouse?”

So, on my fully-bagged bike, in bright morning sun, sometime after 6:30 am, I begin rolling toward the big guardhouse astride the huge fence, surrounding the lawns of a towering warehouse.  There’s a big sign that says, “NO WEAPONS.”  This is slightly intimidating.  I have a moment of worry about how my bagged-approach will be received.

What I get is a man in full security garb stepping from the modern, kitchen-sized security shack.  I’m hoping not to be mistaken for a warehouse attacker.  Turns out he’s pretty peppy, mid-thirties, and likely amused at having this grey-haired guy stop.  I ask my questions, saying again that I don’t want to end up on the wrong side–of the river.  He doesn’t know where the river itself is, but he does know where the reservoir is, “If you keep going up here and head straight after the circle you’ll be on Rainbow Road.  I don’t know about any fishway, but there’s a sign on there for launching boats.”  “Perfect,” I tell him, “That’ll get me there.”

So, I’ve made it!  This will get me to where I did my scouting some weeks back.  I can get to the fishway this May 4th, when the fish are running.  I thank him and head on, enjoying what is not at the moment big commuter road in this industrial sector, at least before 7 a.m.  Soon, I’m around that traffic circle and onto narrow Rainbow Road, the speed trap I’ve been on before.  It’s flanked by cookie-cutter houses that back up tightly against what should be a vegetation-buffered Farmington River.

I reach the fish “ladder” at 7:15.  They gates are locked tight, but there is no way I’m going to be denied the right to visit the river at this juncture.  By its own statements the site is open during the May-June fish passage season.  So, I walk my bike about 100 feet into a tiny patch of woods and weeds to keep it out of anywhere where someone could accost it.  I grab my camera and hop a small, cursory fence, then take the gravel-dirt trail toward the fish ladder.

Yellow warblers, catbirds, robins and yellow throats pump out their spring songs.  The fish ladder sprawls out straight ahead and up along the big monolith of a dam to the right.  There is chain link fencing up flanking the ladder, wrapping back around downstream to lock off the counting and trapping facilities.  To the left are three large “salmon imprinting pools.”  They look like sludgy, forgotten wading pools and don’t appear to be used any longer.

I approach the fence and hear gurgling Farmington River water vented here from the north side of the dam.  That moving water has a wonderful spring voice as it pulses through the tight slots of this decades-old fish ladder patterned from those used for Pacific Northwest salmon.  But that water comes through in a veritable torrent in the narrow slots of this human designed cataract, 66 feet long.  And it is this that makes this structure a veritable train wreck of fisheries restoration in the Connecticut River basin—and one of the first.

The Rainbow Dam Fishway is a fish killer, a veritable abattoir for American shad.  It is so steep, and the slots so narrow, that the fish actually die trying to ascend.  This has been known by Connecticut fisheries biologists for 30 years.  Among those long in the field it has been called the “world’s best shad de-scaler.”  Few successfully spawn after the ordeal of a match with the Rainbow Fishway—upstream or down.  The fish literally scrape their bellies raw trying to ascend a mountain so long and turbulent few make it out the other side.  And most of those who do are in fatal condition.

More American shad have died in their repeated attempts to best this torture chamber than have ever been helped in the Farmington River.  It is the largest single cause of the decline in shad on the Farmington—the state’s largest tributary.  One more cut to the fecundity of the Connecticut River’s federal trust runs.  Blueback herring suffer from the impassible damage done by the Rainbow ladder too.  Its sort of like “New York, New York” in reverse—they don’t make it here, they don’t make it anywhere.  Hardly.

What makes it up the Rainbow Dam Fishway are one–sometimes two or three, hybrid salmon, fish whose lives began in a hatchery.  And, for this reason, there has been this massive run of lies and silence about the Rainbow ladder for decades.  This elite dream of a few, now this salmon hoax, has robbed this entire system of meaningful, native fish runs.  For three manufactured fish per season…  The salmon has been extinct here since 1809; I guess we’re just waiting for the same to occur with the herring and shad.

Why have real, self-sustaining populations of native fish when you can have hatcheries instead?

I look in the roaring slots of the ladder.  No struggling shad visible, though I can only view the top three-fifths of the fishway from this vantage, the rest is gated off below.  I’m wondering if they make it this far up and die, floating back down to the base, or whether most simply don’t even make it to this point.

And, or course, there are no salmon, the species this entire structure was built in deference to in 1975.

In good sunlight though I do see the one species that’s destined to gobble up all the hubris and mistakes of the salmon priesthood and spit them out the other side: sea lamprey.  Clamped to the cement walls, resting and waving like downstream streamers in this tumult are dozens of sea lamprey.  Most are clamped onto the structure just outside the turbulence of the ladder’s slots.  Occasionally you will see one or two jockeying for a new position, one up hard against another.

My regard for these fish only ramps up the more I encounter them.  What adaptation!  What tenacity!  There is no arguing with their pluck and spawning impulse.  They have returned to the sea to get it done, and by god they will.  And die afterwards.  This is a fish that has succeeded across an arc spanning hundreds of millions of years.  Unfortunately, it’s not a species with the boutique cachet of a salmon, nor, unfortunately, is it a federally trust target species—lest the old-boys salmon network would have stumbled across some success.

Staring in wonder, I occasionally see a lamprey reach its disc-mouth past the water line to clamp onto the walls, just above the pulsing current.  Looking down on these fish from above, I can’t help but be reminded of a “spy-hopping” hump-backed whale on a Cape Cod whale watch.  Those rows of rudimentary gills pump furiously as they wait for their opening.  Then, several times, I hear a crackling snap–and a spray of water patters my face as one ropey fish makes its lightning bid to best the next slot.

I keep waiting for a tap on the shoulder here, a call over some speaker, telling me I’m unwelcome in the morning sun.  I am, in a way, the enemy at the gate of course—witnessing this folly and tragedy.  That tap never comes.  A state fisheries salmon truck sits parked and idle on the other side of the fence, awaiting its next, precious cargo run.  I see about all I can see from behind the chain links; celebrate the triumph of the lamprey, and feel the heat of the stupidity that’s killing shad and herring.  I take a few pictures, and retreat.  When I’m outside the locked gate I re-read the sign.  It says the gates open at 8:00 a.m.  I look at my watch.  It’s 8:10.  A lone jet roars loudly overhead.

Once again I ferret my way back over Hatchet Hill, finding the carcass of what appears to be a wood turtle on the pavement out by that wide industrial park maze.  How strange.

I get back on Rt. 189, and quickly re-intersect the Farmington Bikeway.  It travels some lovely woods and wetlands in this section of East Granby and Suffield—quite an early morning pleasure.  I know I’ve crossed into Massachusetts when the bikeway almost seems to narrow.  The pavement is newer, there’s a yellow stripe now down the middle, but it continues.  There’s a brand new sign board—but without any info on it.

About 150 yards into the Bay State, a large oak is sprawled across the trail from last night’s storm.  There are two older men and a woman standing around the blocked path.  One man has a saw, but this is a huge tree.  “You can get by,” they tell me, and you can, barely.  I want to ask about the path ahead, whether it’s complete through Westfield, but they are pretty wrapped up in talk.  I bid them goodbye.  Things are going fine for a mile or more as I’m into Southwick past Congamond Road, when suddenly, and without warning, the path turns to a dirt trench near an underpass.  Dead stop.

I head back, and decide its time to reenter the world of the road biker.  I take the right at Congamond and decide I’ll just keep heading west and north, until I intersect with Routes 10 and 202, a familiar path in this region.  I know it well by both bike and car in places.  By back roads I reach Southwick Center by 11:00 a.m.  The sun is bright, and the day is getting warm.  I need to replenish, since I’ve been running on just water and a cup of coffee since leaving Simsbury.  I grab a fat muffin at Dunkin Donuts, and refill my water bottle in their restroom, then stand outside, taking a last look at my maps and wondering if I’ll make it to Holyoke by noon, in time to catch my friend Tony shad fishing.  It’s not looking good.

What I do know is that this road will take me–though not far out of my way, into downtown Westfield, which is currently a mess of construction.  Out of the question, I say to myself.  Then, as I’m back on my bike I start figuring I should be able to lean a bit on landscape memory, common sense, and my experience out here when I used to meet my old friend Carol for lunch now and then.  I grab this back road, and that back road, and finally come to some known turf: Shaker Valley Road, and Little River Road.  I now know where I am, and have the rest of the route in my head.

I scoot through the main Rt. 20 intersection in Westfield and over the Westfield River, and proceed down back roads just west of the ridge that leads over to the Connecticut River.  I re-intersect Rt. 202 and begin grinding my way up the steep side of East Mountain, where the road is totally torn up, and in full repaving mode.  Cops and workers wave me through this stretch and that.  It’s hot, and time is running short for my noon deadline.

Finally, I crest East Mountain, and check my watch.  A few minutes past noon.  Not bad.  I figure another 15 – 20 minutes to Holyoke Dam—nearly all those last miles either downhill, or flat.  Triumphant, its just 12:23 when I pull up to the Rt. 116 Bridge downstream of the dam.  A small string of guys are fishing below, but Tony will be further down.  One guy lands a shad.  I head to the parking lot and check for Tony’s truck; then gamely leave all my bags on my bike, unlocked, and scramble down to the river.

A dozen guys are in the water, downstream of Slim Shad Point.  One, I recognize as Tony.  There’s the quiet banter of fisherman, as birds chirp in the margins.  The Connecticut has its own music too, where it’s been released to come through down the tailrace.  I’m in my bike shorts, looking a bit shaggy.  With a grin I say to their backs, “Anyone seen a guy named Demick around?  He kind-of flicks his rod??”

Tony turns, smiling.  “Hey Karl!  You still on the road?—just getting back?”  “Yeah, I came to catch you—didn’t Alan give you my message.”  “Oh, I got it,” Tony says, “Hey Karl, you’ll never believe what just happened, right down here.”   I’m quick, “Someone caught a salmon.”  “You got it.  Thirty-three inches.”  I chuckle, wryly, “Did they cook it up?  I hope so.  I hear they’re good.”  A few fishermen laugh.

I’d brought my camera down with me, thinking I might get somebody to take a picture of me and my pal Tony.  I figured we would maybe get some lunch.  But I’m mistaken, badly.  “Tony, you want to take a break—get some lunch?”  Tony is still thigh deep in the river.  There’s a pause, then, “No Karl, sorry, I really can’t—I want to keep fishing.  I’ve only got three this morning.”

I am a bit surprised.  “OK,” I tell him, “You know your brother Alan was really good with the hospitality stuff.”  One of the other fishermen pipes in, understanding I’ve just biked all the way from the mouth of the river, “Geez, he wouldn’t even leave the water to shake your hand!”  “OK, Demick,” I say, “I’ll see you.”

Snapping a few pictures at the bridge, I head over to the fishway.  Two of the guides know me well.  It is “Opening Day” at Holyoke Fishway, the first public day of the season.  I chat with the guides a bit, and mention the salmon, which gets their attention– especially the third one, who I’ve never met.  “My friend told me it was 33 inches,” I tell them.  “Did they put it back?” they ask, two of them knowing my intense regard for this hybrid, “No, they cleaned it, and cut it up to share for barbecue.”  Later, I learn this little joke and interaction started quite the argument between the young salmon-head and these other two.  The kid stopped talking to them for the day.

I head up to the viewing windows for my first look at the run from the inside.  And there they are—American shad.  The window is busy with them, schooling nervously, as they wait for this rectangular prison to be unlocked.  They are graceful and silver-shiny.  This is not a super-heavy day, but there are hundreds before me.  They’ve already lifted 15,000.  There is one banged-up shad in the window, perhaps from an encounter with a hook.  A lone, white sucker rests on the bottom, back from the viewing windows—and I’m not referring to myself.

I’m tired; ready to be home, so I don’t quite take in fully that these are the fish I’ve been riding after all these days—don’t fully enjoy the spectacle in the way I might have if this was the sole amusement of the day.  There’s still the work of completing the trip.  I thank the two friendly guides who have watched my bike.  Vinny, the older of them, maybe sixty, says chidingly, “Drive carefully–there are people out there aiming for you!”  These two have enjoyed reading my stuff on the restoration program, and they know it’s unwelcome exposure for many.

I decide on the east side of the Connecticut for the next leg—up through South Hadley.  It’s now after 1 p.m., and I’d like to get through that town before the high school gets out.  I know this route by bike so well I’m counting in my head the number of hills for the next 35 miles upstream.  It’s not many, but, so close to home and with the tougher riding yesterday and this morning, they loom a bit larger.

I plod along up to the crest at Mt. Holyoke College; then continue along Rt. 47 up the end blip of the west end of the Holyoke Range that forms half of the water gap here as the Connecticut sweeps in between this, and the Mt. Tom Range.  Swinging widely to the west is the land once roped in by the loop depicted in Thomas Cole’s “The Oxbow.”  Once Hadley farmland, it is now the property of Northampton, and largely overrun by a marina and soccer fields.

At the Hadley Common I stop and grab a sub at a place recommended.  The guy gives me half on a plate, and half wrapped.  The heat of the day is upon me, it’s a little after 2 pm.  I sit on the Common, laid out in 1659, that I’ve written about in the past, and enjoy a good sandwich–washing it down with part of a quart of chocolate milk.  Tired but a bit refreshed, I decide to stick with River Road, Rt. 47, all the way through Hadley and Sunderland.  Ironically, a USF&WS pick-up with a trailored boat passes me as I head north.  Tracking salmon today?

As I blunder the final twenty miles or so, I’m happy that the wind is at my back for a bit. It’s hot, and I’m going through some open farmland on the Connecticut’s vast floodplain.  What is noteworthy, and has been for much of today, is the number of trees taken down by yesterday’s line of storms.  As I reach Sunderland Center there are two crews working the ancient, shattered sugar maples and stringing up utility wires.

At the Sunderland Bridge over the Connecticut it occurs to me that a ceremonial picture is required.  I look south to the knob of Mt. Tom, but its directly in the sun.  I sit for a minute, propped up against the bridge railing and drink the last of my chocolate milk, still respectably cool.  Then, I face upstream, and point my camera toward the mid-stream island and valley beyond, and snap a photo.  It later turns out to be a very satisfying shot.  As I bike down the other side of the bridge I almost miss the two fishermen casting for shad in the afternoon shadows below.

I reach South Deerfield Center and there drop in on my friend Sara, who directs the library.  She’s just over in town running a few errands, I’m told.  I decide to sit in the shade and wait.  I crunch down the last of that very good sub, and then stretch my legs walking back toward the town center.  I don’t see Sara, and start back when I hear my name called.  I wait while she catches up, and we chat a bit.  I run down a few highlights of my trip.  Nice to see an old friend as you near home.

Then, I’m back on the bike, tired, for what are truly the last miles.  I take the back roads into the south end of Old Deerfield, tract housing that morphs into rural farmland and old dairying tracts at Stillwater.  But, here too, the modern, consumptive age is at work.  Huge, rolling sprinklers, in attached, 100 foot segments, are spraying ornamental flower “crops” in two different fields.  Each, with linked segments, is about 500 feet long.  It’s a scene you might imagine in the Central Valley of California, but hardly what one envisions here to grown boutique flowers by drawing deeply on the waters of the Deerfield, not a mile from that river’s mouth.  I have to snap a photo.

At last, I pull up the final hill into Greenfield at Bank Row, and head the last blocks to my apartment.  There’s a bunch of mail in the box and I somehow decide to grab it now, since I don’t think I’ll have much energy to walk back down once inside.  I am literally stumbling up the fire escape stairs under the weight of my loaded bike when I hear a car pull up.  It’s my friend Tonia, who’s come to pick up my mail.  She can’t believe I’m back already.

Later when I’m checking phone messages there’s one from Tony, from this afternoon:  “Karl.  I’m really sorry about lunch today.  I don’t know.  I just start fishing and I can’t stop.  Obsessed, I guess that’s the word for it.  As my wife just said to me, “Once an asshole, always an asshole,” I do apologize.”

I understand Tony’s obsession with shad, they just took me on a 250 mile bike run, and I’m hardly done with the journey yet.

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