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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