© 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.