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DESPERATE MEASURES : salmon hatchery program a grave threat to the Connecticut River

Posted by on 13 Nov 2011 | Tagged as: alewives, American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Connecticut River ecosystem, CRASC, didymo, MA Division of Fish and Wildlife, Rock Snot, salmon, Salmon eggs, salmon hatchery, shortnose sturgeon, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USFWS

Copyright © 2011 by Karl Meyer        All Rights Reserved

This article first appeared in the Pioneer Valley News, www.pioneervalleynews.com, on November 9, 2011.  Hard copies of the free Pioneer Valley News are available at many locations from Holyoke, MA through Brattleboro and Bellows Falls, VT.

DESPERATE MEASURES: salmon program a grave threat to the CT River

TURNERS FALLS, MA.  “Didymo is not going to drive our decisions,” said Dr. Caleb Slater, Anadromous Fish Project Leader for the MA Div. of Fish & Wildlife and Tech Committee Chair of the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) at a hastily convened CRASC meeting September 23, 2011.  Their 44 year-old federal/state salmon restoration program was in crisis, having again produced just nine-dozen returning fish on the year.  Now, their main hybrid salmon hatchery had been reduced to rubble by rampaging White River waters from Tropical Storm Irene.  But moving out the surviving salmon at the White River National Fish Hatchery (WRNFH) in Bethel, VT, posed a big problem: it could potentially increase the spread of river-bottom smothering “didymo” throughout the Connecticut River basin.

CRASC and its US Fish and Wildlife Service partners were scrambling at the Conte Anadromous Fish Lab, trying to figure out how best to lobby federal representatives to get $10 – $14 million in “emergency Congressional funding” to “completely rebuild” USFWS’s White River hatchery.  They’d even brought back Jay McMenemy, recently retired from VT Fish & Game, and CRASC’s Tech Committee, and seated him at the members table.  CRASC’s Steve Gephard of Connecticut’s DEP was worried officials might not be willing to again resuscitate this facility to produce its main product: 5 million salmon fry released to the Connecticut River each spring, “You guys have to do that lobbying,” said William Archambault, USFWS Region 5 Deputy Assistant Regional Director of Fisheries.  A week prior his boss, USFWS Region 5 Director Wendy Weber sent a letter to Washington outlining the giant funding request.

But first, WRNFH would have to be completely “de-populated,” then “disinfected,” according to Archambault.  There were also other significant risks involved in doling-out it’s surviving fish beyond spreading didymo–a bottom-smothering algae known as Rock Snot that New England states have been working hard to contain.  Nonetheless Archambault was encouraging CRASC members from VT, CT, MA and NH to quickly find a way to parse-out the 900 surviving “broodstock” salmon left at the hatchery to a handful of federal and state hatcheries–and also to find places to release remaining excess “stock” into lakes and basin streams.  Caleb Slater remarked on how stocking spawned-out hatchery salmon to Bay State ponds “gets a real PR boost” from anglers.  Once the $ millions in emergency public funds were in hand, CRASC and USFWS could start all over.

“As a Service we’re uncomfortable with the risks,” Archambault said as disclaimer, “It (the decision to accept potentially tainted fish) will have to be done on a state-by-state basis.  We can’t be 100% sure that didymo won’t be taken out of the facility.”  Spawning the survivors at White River was out of the question.  Those salmon had been newly-exposed by the dace, white suckers and other fish–living and dead, which had mixed into the crippled facility when Irene sent them upstream infected waters where didymo had been found in the White River four years prior. “Our focus is on rebuilding, not spawning right now,” said Archambault.

Alternatively, they’d have to again destroy all surviving hatchery fish and eggs—an extreme procedure that had been employed twice recently at White River facility.

But fall breeding season was arriving.  Full hatchery production—“stripping” salmon females of eggs and mixing in the milt of surviving sea-run males (who’d be injected with stimulating hormones a week prior), could not wait long.  They could delay injections a week or two, tricking the hybrids.  But then staff would have to get down to fish production—mixing the genetic fish fluids by hand, careful that computer-matched genes of certain fish were mingled into the correct plastic eggs tubs; then placing fertilized hybrid eggs on industrial racks to be washed over by an endless stream of water.

But there was another big catch: the ever-present and growing risk of centralized hatcheries spreading emerging fish diseases.  Before any surviving WRNFH salmon could be moved they’d have to be tested; quarantined for 28 days.  Hatchery salmon can spread a variety of plagues deadly to river systems and new fish populations—including angler-beloved native brook trout and still-wild salmon populations clinging to survival in rivers up north.  All WRNFH fish would have to be quickly screened for Infectious Salmon Anemia (ISA), Furunculosis, and Infectious Pancreatic Necrosis (IPN)–a disease discovered infecting salmon downstream in 2007 at the Cronin National Salmon Station in Sunderland, MA.

From there, federal biologists had ferried that deadly virus 140 miles north to the Vermont’s WRNFH–through the salmon eggs Cronin Station sent them for winter incubation. Both WRNFH and Cronin Station were subsequently depopulated; chemically disinfected.  Personnel at Cronin had to kill all 121 “sea-run” salmon on-station that fall.  It was the public’s seasonal return on 40 years and over a $ half-billion spent on hybrid efforts to create a substitute fish for a strain extinct here since 1809.  Ten dozen fish were the Connecticut’s entire salmon “run” back from the ocean in 2007; when their program began in 1967 they’d predicted 37,000 salmon annually.  WRNFH staff also incinerated all 718,000 salmon eggs it had begun nursing for the following year’s stocking.  Of the millions of fry delivered into Connecticut River tributaries the next season–by school kids, trout groups and fisheries technicians, not a single baby salmon would come directly from a fish that had arrived back from the ocean.  All fry stocked into the ecosystem from Cronin and White River that spring were at least two industrial generations removed from anything that natural.

Following that 2007 disaster over $500,000 in emergency-funded “bio-security” upgrades had to be put in place at the USFWS’s Cronin Station in Sunderand, MA.  A similar mix of costly hardware and complex chemical protocols were installed at WRNFH.

But just months after the IPN debacle of 2008, disaster again struck WRNFH.  Upstream in the same White River waters the hatchery used to nurture its eggs, didymo was discovered choking the bottom.  WRNFH now risked spreading this algal plaque through the Connecticut River basin via hatchery salmon.  They could no longer use the very river water they were expecting their hybrid salmon to be restored to.  No water, equals no hatchery.  Again, CRASC and USFWS put out an SOS for emergency public funds for White River —and, again, millions in public funding was procured to design, dig and computerize a segregated system of wells and piping to water their fish, eggs, and fry.

In 2010 yet another disaster befell WRNF.  A sampling of young salmon groups being raised from eggs for CT River stocking programs revealed that 60% of those hatchery fish were developing cataracts, crippling their ability to feed.  Again, thousands had to be destroyed.  No publicly-disclosed disasters were known to befall WRNFH or Cronin National Salmon Station in 2010, yet White River infrastructure consumed $723,000 in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) cash for “upgrades”—the bulk of it funneled to corporations far from New England.  Over $590,000 in contracts for electrical upgrades and new “chillers” went to two firms: one in Missouri and the other Washington State.

THIS DAY, just four years after the IPN outbreak; just three years after the didymo crisis and new well fields, one year after cataracts—and a year after a yet another WRNFH Recover Act cash infusion, the USFWS, CRASC and the White River National Fish Hatchery are going to the mattress to save their foundered hatchery at all costs.  Didymo, and the millions of dollars spent to protect against its spread throughout the Connecticut River watershed, are being downplayed as just the price of doing business.

The plan coming out of this emergency CRASC meeting at Conte Lab, is to disease-test the White River salmon ASAP; then quickly get them dispersed and “bred” at other sites including Sunderland’s Cronin National Salmon Station.  In another unprecedented move, they would then transport, hatch, and feed several million salmon fry until spring at hatcheries in river basins across New England: North Attleboro National Fish Hatchery in the Ten Mile River basin in North Attleboro, MA, the Berkshire National Fish Hatchery in the Housatonic basin in New Marlboro, MA,  Cronin National Salmon Station in the Connecticut basin in Sunderland, MA, the formerly-mothballed Whittemore Salmon Station on the Farmington at Barkhamsted, CT, and Eisenhower National Fish Hatchery in the Otter Creek/Lake Champlain drainage basin in North Chittendon, VT.  Come spring, those baby hybrid salmon fry would get re-dispersed again—stocked-out by trout groups, school children, and fish and wildlife staff to a vast network of Connecticut River tributaries.

It was desperate, seat-of-the-pants, industrial fish science policy-in-the-making by the USFWS and CRASC’s various state fish and wildlife officials.  And it was fraught with opportunity for miscalculations, mistakes and dire consequences for the web of linked ecosystems they are charged with protecting.  As with all bureaucracies, USFWS’s Bill Archambault quietly mentioned a Plan B to procure public funds if Congress balked at this latest hatchery cash pitch.  WRNFH had recently done a bit of branching out into work other than just salmon production for the Connecticut.  They were now hatching “Klondikes,” lake trout for stocking in Lake Michigan.  It might be possible to “use Great Lakes money” to resurrect White River, Archambault said.

CRASC members and the hatchery personnel in attendance left the Tech meeting that afternoon with one big, gnarly question sitting fat and unanswered on the table: would their plan disperse didymo?  You can’t vaccinate against an algae spread via tiny plant bits carried in fish gills or transported in hatchery fry or egg-nurturing waters.  Yet almost to a one, they’d expressed a blind willingness to risk spreading that plague.  Even if all emergency disease tests proved negative, no one stepped-up to guarantee there wouldn’t be the seeds of didymo hiding in fish transported to new river basins, or in the necessary waters required for shuttling those live fish and eggs.  To his credit CRASC’s Matt Carpenter from New Hampshire Fish & Game kept returning to worries about spreading didymo.  After a pause, long-time CRASC leader Steve Gephard from CT DEP offered, “We’re using salt solutions,” but it came across sounding like soft science, and he too added his disclaimer, “No guarantees can be made.”

In the group-think being employed to save the program and sway Carpenter, Gephard then went on to restate the PR value of dispersing spawned-out salmon to swim in the basin’s rivers for casual anglers.  But, there was nothing eco-system-natural in his language, it was purely industrial, “If we’re going to save this program we’re going to have to come up with a way to keep fish in production.”  Of the decades-old system created to produce a new stand-in fish for a cold-water species centuries-extinct on today’s climate-warmed Connecticut (now classified a ‘warm water fishery’) Gephard warned, “If we get down to the point where we get back 10 fish a year–its like death from a thousand cuts, the public isn’t going to accept this program.”

These were the plans and decisions USFWS and CRASC’s Tech Committee took away with them at the end of a four hour meeting on September 23, 2011.  It was expected they’d be discussed and accepted at a full, semi-annual Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission meeting just six days hence.  However, without explanation, an emergency notice went out from CRASC’s Executive Secretary Ken Sprankle at his office in Sunderland, MA, just days later, September 27, 2011: “I have just been directed by CRASC Vice Chairman Wayne MacCallum to POSTPONE the September 29th CRASC meeting until further notice.”                  #          #          #

Author’s addendum: Upon finishing this writing as the Nov/Dec. issue of Pioneer Valley News was set to go to press, no official notice had been made of when that postponed CRASC meeting would reconvene.  Yesterday (10/25/11), I learned it will likely take place November 10, 2011, but that was still unofficial.  What, if any, of these decisions have been implemented in the interim five weeks is unknown at this time.  More about CRASC plans, changes and decisions may be revealed at that next meeting.  However, when I recently noted the Public’s Right-to-Know, and asked for specifics and notes from backroom negotiations between USFWS’s John Warner and FirstLight Power/GDF-Suez to divert more migratory fish out of the Connecticut River and into the treacherous Turners Falls power canal, Warner refused to give a direct answer.  His colleague at that CRASC meeting, USFWS Region 5 Deputy Assistant Director of Fisheries Bill Archambault, then pointedly stepped in and referred me to the Freedom of Information Act.  CRASC is a Congressionally-authorized public entity that tends to share little upfront information with the public (costs, budgets, open-meeting dates, disease threats, etc.) beyond what is self-promoting for their salmon program.

This story comes directly from an emergency CRASC Technical Committee meeting.  There should be no mistake that these decisions–and the gambles being advocated with the Connecticut River ecosystem, were being promoted by key federal and state decision makers at CRASC and USFWS.  Dr. Caleb Slater is Anadromous Fish Project Leader for the MA Div. of Fish & Wildlife; Dr. Steve Gephard is Supervisor of Inland Fisheries for CT DEP, CRASC’s Genetics Subcommittee Chair, liaison to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and former international representative to NASCO (North Atlantic Salmon Commission); Wendy Weber is Region 5 US Fish & Wildlife Service Regional Director, William Archambault is USFWS Region 5 Deputy Assistant Regional Director of Fisheries; John Warner of the USFWS’s New England Field Office is CRASC’s Fish Passage Subcommittee Chair; Jay McMenemy (retired, but somehow again seated at that CRASC table) of VT Fish & Wildlife was CRASC’s Salmon Studies Subcommittee Chair, and a key long-time promoter of the Atlantic Salmon Egg Rearing Program (ASERP) in VT’s schools.   Matthew Carpenter, CRASCs lone voice of question and potential dissent that day, attended the meeting via speaker phone.  He is Anadromous Fish Program Coordinator for New Hampshire Fish & Game.

What is clear is that this program and its insular decision-making process represent an ongoing danger to the Connecticut River ecosystem.  As long as the public remains unaware of the costs and consequences of continuing to spend tens of millions of dollars on a coldwater fish strain that went extinct on the southern-most edge of its historical footprint over 200 years ago, the USFWS and CRASC will continue to dump 6 million factory fry into the Connecticut River system each spring.  In turn, we’ll continue to see a return of 10 dozen or so fish from the sea, ad infinitum, if our representatives continue funding a program with hybrid salmon at its core.

Conservatively calculating that the basic salmon restoration effort—in a year without new disease or disaster, costs taxpayers a minimum of $10 million annually (salaries aside)–the cost for the 91 “wild” sea-run salmon returning from the Atlantic this year was $110,000 per fish.  Add to that any number of “bad” years with an emerging disease or disaster–pitch in say another $14 million from public coffers, and the price of one returned hybrid salmon goes to $264,000.   Each of these then must be ferried right back to the hatchery for next year’s production.

And that doesn’t begin to calculate the huge “what-ifs?”…didymo, ISA, IPN gets shipped out of the salmon factories…

In recent OpEds from Holyoke, MA to Bellows Falls and Montpelier, VT, I’ve taken the position that the Connecticut River desperately needs a well-funded restoration program.  But it should be an ecosystem restoration program, not one based on a failed 19th century idea that substitutes fish hatcheries for functioning river systems, and prioritizes an extinct species ahead of a still-living pyramid that includes native alewives, American shad, blueback herring, endangered shortnose sturgeon, sea lamprey and American eels.  With less than half the $14 million USFWS and CRASC hope will rescue their program you could build a state-of-the-art ecosystem laboratory.  It would an excellent fit for the Five College area—where advances in upstream ecosystem restoration remain stalled behind Turners Falls dam, as they have since its construction in 1798.

With such a facility in place, you could easily attract endowment funding—and start producing independent science.  CRASC, and Conte Lab’s state and federal scientists and studies are now regularly contracted with, and supported by, money from power companies operating on the Connecticut—companies concerned with maximizing profit.   Corporations have little interest seeing independent science come to light that would quantify for the public their true impacts on New England’s River.

At minimum, it’s high time to stop the losses the Connecticut River ecosystem is sustaining from propping up a dangerously failed hatchery program.  Invest in keeping the Connecticut’s remaining half-dozen, naturally-breeding migratory species alive and moving upstream.

Karl Meyer, Greenfield, MA, October 26, 2011.

A RIVER RETROSPECTIVE

Posted by on 16 Jan 2011 | Tagged as: alewives, American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Conte, CRASC, salmon hatchery, Uncategorized, USFWS

A RIVER RETROSPECTIVE

Copyright © 2011 by Karl Meyer                                                               January 2011

All Rights Reserved

(This essay, with small edits, appeared in The Recorder and the Rutland Herald in early January.)

The year 2010 echoed the worst of times for New England’s Great River.  Last January 7th, radioactive tritium was found leaking at Entergy’s aging Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, right to the river’s edge.  The plume continues.  As of December 15th, still-rising tritium levels at wells next to the river registered 495,000 picocuries per liter–25-times the EPA safe drinking water standard.  Yet on November 18th, Entergy halted the groundwater extraction that slowed the radionuclide flow to the river.

May 3, 2010, witnessed Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage’s massive failure in what should have been routine maintenance.  They had not removed the sediments from their huge reservoir since 1990.  In this disaster giant turbines and the mile-long tunnel to the river were cemented shut by slumped, hardening sediment.  Owner FirstLight/GDF Suez began quietly shoveling the stuff into the river.  Daily, for 3 months, the equivalent of 40 – 50 dump truck loads of sediment poured in—up to 45,000 cubic square yards by its own estimate.

EPA counsel Michael Wagner says that on June 23rd a boater’s tip noting “a very visible plume of turbid water coming from the area of the Northfield Mountain facility” arrived at its Office of Ecosystem Protection.  EPA’s initial inspection wasn’t until July 15th–with a “cease and desist” order not coming until August 4th for Clean Water Act violations “in the navigable waters of the United States.”  Only 1/3 of the pollution was retrieved; 30,000 cubic square yards were simply flushed away–an oxygen- and-light-robbing assault on the fish, amphibians and myriad invertebrates that are the life of a river.  FirstLight was not fined.

For seven months, silt-choked Northfield produced not a watt of electricity; yet there was no hint of an energy shortage.  It begs the question: how critical, and of what value to the public are these power plants–as they abuse the letter and spirit of federal licenses and environmental laws in profiting from the public’s river?  In the 1950s the Connecticut was famously dubbed “the most beautifully landscaped sewer in America.”  Industry used it as a latrine; agencies and officials ignored it.  The 50s seem to be creeping back.

A further example: a decade back, the already-dismal annual fish passage success for hundreds of thousands of American shad reaching Turners Falls began to hover around 1%–as close to a 1950’s dead-at-the-dam-run as you get.  That began in 1999, when electricity deregulation came to the 7 miles of river comprising the Northfield Mountain/Turners Falls hydro-complex, and Northfield ramped-up its up-and-down manipulation of flows and river levels to profit from short-term energy price spikes.  The rapid fluctuations are experienced acutely at Turners Falls, as the shad attempt to pass upstream.

Last May, without foresight or pointed experimentation from the $12 million federal Conte Fish Lab in Turners, or the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC)–the 40 year old state/federal fisheries partnership charged with protecting migratory shad, Northfield inadvertently created its own science experiment by shutting down for 29 weeks.  Some 16,768 shad–the most since 1995, passed Turners dam–an 800% –1,000% increase over the decade’s annual averages.

Those counts, made by Greenfield Community College with FirstLight funding, are suspect and likely low.  Counting equipment crashed on 17 different days at the dam’s “spillway ladder”–the one shad negotiate most effectively.  It’s accessed only when rare, ample flows are released at the dam to the river’s natural bed.  Shad will then by-pass a treacherous ladder two miles south at the canal, and swim directly upriver to the dam.  Shad surged there following a May 27th deluge.  Sadly, 7 more days of data was lost when “gatehouse” counting equipment failed.  Turners “daily” fish counts were AWOL for nearly a month.  Yet even with broken data the impacts of Northfield-Turners flows–long-ignored in lieu of Conte and CRASC’s failed $500-million salmon restoration (51 fish this year), come into stark relief.

It’s 2011, not 1950.  Yet the year’s best river science arose from a giant mistake—and some of its best protection resulted from a citizen picking up a phone.  It’s time for an all-new fisheries commission–and for Northfield-Turners hydro owners to build the fish lift the public’s been owed there for over a decade.  Vermont Yankee’s record speaks for itself: it’s time to shut down.

Greenfield, MA writer and author Karl Meyer writes frequently about the Connecticut River. He followed the shad run by bicycle from Long Island Sound to Bellows Falls, VT, last spring.

Connecticut River special: “Season of Secrets”

Posted by on 04 Aug 2010 | Tagged as: alewives, American shad, Atlantic salmon, Bellows Falls Fishway, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Conte, CRASC, federal trust fish, Politics, salmon, Salmon eggs, salmon hatchery, Uncategorized, USFWS, Vernon Dam Fishway, Walpole

Connecticut River special: “Season of Secrets” with writer Karl Meyer, airs Wednesday, August 4, at 5:30 pm, on Local Bias:  www.gctv.org

(this local Greenfield cable show can be downloaded after tonight’s show, please share the link!)

Greenfield, MA.  August 4, 2010.  Environmental journalist and author Karl Meyer spent this spring and summer blogging and following the Connecticut River’s migratory fish runs, by bicycle, from Long Island Sound at Old Saybrook, CT  to Bellows Falls, VT and North Walpole, NH (www.karlmeyerwriting.com )  This was a follow-up to Meyer’s “Turners Falls Turnaround” in the March 2009 edition of Sanctuary Magazine.  Meyer spends a half hour with GCTV’s “Local-Bias” Host Drew Hutchinson talking about this year’s fish run and the secrecy and cover-ups shrouding the Connecticut River migratory fish restoration–on both the corporate and public agency levels.  Topics include:

  • Salmon farming: a river’s ecological pyramid stood on its head
  • An extinct hybrid at $300,000 per fish in public funds
  • Northfield Mountain-Turners Falls pumped storage operations grind to a halt for an entire migration season and fish passage at Turners Falls skyrockets 800%–from an average of 2000 American shad annually, to nearly 16,000 this spring
  • A year’s worth of American shad at Turners Falls disappears from the record
  • How FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain operations and impacts on river ecology and fish runs remain hidden from the public
  • Fisheries commissioners and Turners Falls Conte Lab scientists fail to respond with science to the most profound experiment handed to them in decades, i.e: What does the Connecticut River and fish passage at Turners Falls look like without Northfield Mountain pumped storage effecting river flows and levels?

“Season of Secrets,” airs Wednesday, August 4, at 5:30 pm; and repeats on Thursday and Friday August 5 & 6, at 9 pm.  The program repeats in those time slots the week of August 8th, and will be available for download on the video on demand page at gctv.org.

The myth of Atlantic salmon, Daily Hampshire Gazette, OpEd

Posted by on 23 May 2010 | Tagged as: alewives, American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, CRASC, federal trust fish, Salmon eggs

May 11, 2010

The myth of Atlantic salmon

I was a preschooler when I teased apart the whacky logic of an Easter bunny delivering eggs–a little absurdity all kids eventually figure out.  Today a different mythology is being offered in dozens of Massachusetts schools.  It’s ASERP, the Atlantic Salmon Egg Rearing Program.  Fertilized hatchery eggs are brought into classrooms.  Kids feed them as they hatch and grow to tiny, hybrid salmon.  Those that survive are released into streams.  ASERP teaches that salmon are the key to restoring migratory fish populations here; that salmon hatcheries are critical to a healthy ecosystem.

Hatcheries are potential dispersal points for diseases that can spread to other river fish and onto ocean populations.  Since 2007, Connecticut River salmon hatcheries have had these emergencies: IPN, a deadly, highly-contagious virus discovered in Sunderland—all breeding salmon plus 700,000 hatchery eggs destroyed; station flushed with disinfectant.  In 2009, 10 of 21 salmon adults captured at Holyoke turned blood red and were dying when they reached North Attleboro for “reconditioning” prior to breeding: cause unexplained.  Cold Water Disease discovered at Palmer, 300,000 salmon fry destroyed; station “disinfected.”  At White River, cataracts discovered in 60% of a sampling of 1 year-old salmon, thousands destroyed.  Rock Snot, an easily-spread, habitat-smothering, alga was found in the White River upstream of the hatchery; a new water source had to be found.

After 43 years and over a half billion dollars spent on salmon, 60 adult hybrids returned to Holyoke Dam last year.  Yet students are told humans will evolve a new, self-sustaining salmon hybrid—to replace a minor strain that died out here 200 years ago.  Kids think it’s the river’s most important resurrection.  ASERP was first leveraged into classrooms 13 years ago.  Many students are now adults, perhaps wondering: what happened?  While kids may be buying the program, fish clearly are not.

Begun in 1997, ASERP is a partnership formed by angling groups and federal and state salmon hatchery operators, biologists, and research employees to reach into schools.  It offers a tidy niche for teachers, incorporating basic science principals, but its message is self-promotion.  The science and math paints a stilted river picture—salmon, and more salmon.  Teachers are encouraged to submit PR photos and stories; even advised how to stall difficult media inquires asking more than a one-fish tale.

What kids aren’t learning is that 97% of all the Connecticut’s federal trust fish reaching Turners Falls dam today are stuck there–where they’ve been pinched-off since 1798 when John Adams was President.  Virtually none are salmon.  They are American shad and blueback herring, the very foundation of the Connecticut’s migratory ecosystem.  Literally millions of fish have been turned back there in the past 40 years alone, while dam owners reap their own millions.

Its clear teachers aren’t offered the big picture either.  Still, if it’s about science and math guidelines, the same concepts can be conveyed raising aquarium fish.  Or study vernal pools where native amphibians and eggs can be experienced in the field.  Kids get all the concepts without coming away thinking hatcheries and classroom “chillers” are keys to evolution and healthy wildlife populations.  Native blueback herring passing Holyoke dam have plunged from 65,000 in 1997 to 39 last year; 620,000 passed in 1985.  It’s important to know 720,000 shad crowded Holyoke in 1992, while in 1997 just 300,000 returned.  That run dropped to 160,000 fish last year.

I’m all for spending on native, wild fish.  But five dozen hybrids–after decades and millions of fry fertilized at the hands of humans dumped in, is a myth gone terribly wrong.  Each spring government staffers and kids release clouds of tiny fish, and the same rabbit remains stuck in the same hat.  Spend that money, and teaching effort, saving the still-living shad, blueback herring and alewives—fish runs disappearing today.  Don’t shackle kids and the river to a coldwater fish lost centuries back when a briefly-colder climate warmed here.

Meanwhile, kids should know that Turners Falls-Northfield Mountain hydro owners are mandated to get fish safely upstream, and that fish elevators are ten years overdue there.  Tell them the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission and the New England Cooperative Fisheries are responsible for protecting those runs since 1967. And FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, is mandated to enforce license requirements.  Kids deserve to know too that the river is being unnaturally warmed by effluent from the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, just upstream.  Just 19 shad swam past Vernon dam there last year, compared to 37,000 in 1991.  Most importantly teach them that those fish–and this river, belong to them, not the corporations.

Award-winning children’s author Karl Meyer of Greenfield taught preschoolers at Northampton’s Vernon Street School for five years.  He is following this years fish runs at www.karlmeyerwriting.com.

Long Island Sound to Simsbury, CT and the Farmington

Posted by on 20 May 2010 | Tagged as: alewives, American shad, Atlantic salmon, Connecticut River, Nature, salmon

Long Island Sound to Simsbury, CT and the Farmington

© 2010 by Karl Meyer

May 4, 2010:

I wake up early in Old Saybrook, and spend a good hour writing in my journal.  Then, there’s checking the weather, which is not as straightforward on a multi-channel TV as one might expect.  But the weather looks clearing, and humid, with a few, pop-up “afternoon thundershowers possible for those heading north.”  No big deal.  I shower, and sort through the small pile of maps I’ve accumulated.  Brewing the final motel coffee, I down that, pack my bike, drop my key-card at an empty desk, and finally hit the road at 8:45 a.m.  So, I’m not the early bird.

I get my last looks at the mouth of the river off Rt. 154 in the Otter Creek area, and I’m moving north again on a lovely morning.  I quickly scoot by Essex and head north toward Deep River on the left bank of the Connecticut.  Traffic is light.  I’ve already missed the rush to schools and work.  Orioles and yellow warblers chirp.  I hear my first scarlet tanager and prairie warbler of the season.  There’s also a roadside feeding cottontail, and a cutely-clumsy and confused young chipmunk, surprised by an old guy on a bike.

As I near Deep River I take a chance at an intersection and choose what looks like a promising, old “upper” road, which veers a bit west of Rt. 154.  It allows me to miss Deep River center, and will perhaps show me something new.  This is an old thoroughfare, the 18th century houses telling me it won’t take me far from the river’s reach.  I follow Union Street which eventually merges into to Straits Road.  Along the way I’m treated to one of the startling spectacles of the trip: the disaster eliminating the Easter hemlocks.

I’ve written about this in Sanctuary, even spent a day nearby with Harvard Forest biologist Dr. David Orwig in Killingworth, Ct., documenting the devastation of this plague caused by a tiny insect that we imported from Asia–the woolly adelgid.  Here, in stark contrast to a rocky hillside that spent decades sheltered in the shade and diffuse light of hemlock needles, the bare, rock-bone of this roadside escarpment is baking in mid-morning sun.

Bleached and blown-out trunks of hemlock lay quietly scattered up the hillside, as a once-thick forest duff dries to a dusty consistency in May light.  A whole suite of plants, birds, and amphibians will be lost in this corner—one of many thousands of like corners, the result of our heedless globalization and lust for cheap commodities.  This scene will repeat, again and again as I bike northward, but to a lesser scale.  The adelgid is a cold sensitive insect.  But this hemlock plague is an easy case in point: it is creeping ever further northward as we continue our rapid, seemingly-incremental warming of the planet—on a time scale we pointedly refuse to comprehend.

I snap a few photos of this emblem of a global holocaust, and head on beneath blue May skies.  At one point a woman out for a bike ride passes me, and I ask if the road will take me into Chester.  The question is timely, as I’m at the intersections where I should turn east, Spring Street.  I thank her, and head down a shady, winding lane with a stream that trips along next to me wherever it is not ponded by little, colonial mill dams.  This, I know, will be the same alewife stream that bisects Chester itself.

Three minutes later I’m in town–on a Chester, Monday morning.  It’s just after 9:30 and I’m off my bike and ordering coffee and a thick-looking square of bread pudding at Simon’s Market.  I ask for the cook, and am told to find him out back.  There’s Alan Demick, brother of my buddy Tony.  I’d met him on the ride down.  He sits for a few minutes as I try his bread pudding—quite good.

Alan notes I look a lot better this day, but that’s only because I had a shower two hours back.  He takes me out and shows me the scenario on the deck at the rear of the store where he first met one of the State of Connecticut’s prominent fisheries biologists—and likely its biggest, salmon proponent, walking up that alewife stream looking for signs of a run.  They had a very funny interaction over the failures of the restoration—likely quite the surprise to a biologist who thought he was just talking to the odd chef!

I shake Alan’s hand, get some last minute directions, and remind him to email his brother Tony that I’ll be seeing him fishing below Holyoke dam tomorrow, “Tell him not to leave before noon,” I say.  The continuing run up Rt. 154 is pleasant through mid-morning.  There are some wonderful views of the river, and the bridge and Goodspeed Opera House looking into East Haddam.  Coming into Haddam village I just had to take a picture of the old jail, soberly constructed of slate and granite at the foot of Jail Hill Road, sometime in 1800s.

And then there was the town historic marker, quietly not explaining how the town managed to get a small group of Native Americans, mostly matriarchs, to deed over their lands to these colonists in 1660.  The downstream annihilation of the Pequots by the United Colonies just two decades earlier, and subjugation of the nearby tribal people may have played a small part in those concessions.  That story will not be enshrined on a road marker.  We erase and exclude our own history in the landscape in a way that seems to connect to our environmental miasma as to our real predicament here.  Just across the river, tons of deadly nuclear waste containers sit—stored, and largely forgotten by the public, at the site of a nuclear plant that closed after nearly exposing its core through lax safety checks some 15 years back.  There’s no road sign for that either.

Just up the two-lane I note two cars parked along a siding that leads down to a steep pitch over railroad tracks, and to the riverbank.  There’s a big hoop net in the back of one.  I lean my bike on a post and scramble down.  Two retirement age men are talking quietly, one with a line in the water.  I hover above them, and cough to make my presence less surreptitious.

When they give me a hello I ask how the fishing is going.  They are just getting started, says the one—in what I hear as a Polish accent.  He says no, they are not going for shad, he’s after striped bass, fish that are here for the river herring, and to a much lesser extent, the shad.  No luck this morning just yet, but the do pull them in here.  I thank them and head on, soon into more of an urban landscape, as Rt. 154 finally peters out.  This morphs into a poor biking stretch of old macadam that is Rt. 9, south of Middletown.

Middletown Center is dense, and busy, but the construction that is fouling up Main Street slows everything to little more than at crawl–something cyclists get to glide through.  But, I realize I’m a bit information-challenged, and make my way to the tourist info office, at the Chamber.  There, I pick up a newer state map, and a local street map of Middletown and Cromwell, which hopefully will get me out of town going west—with my destination somewhere near Farmington, so I can eventually see Rainbow Dam fishway on the Farmington River.

I get into a conversation with a black man who likely has just a couple of years on me.  He tells me he used to bicycle regularly, for about three or four years running, but it’s been some time since then.  “You can still get out there,” I tell him.  He smiles.

The route is now uphill and away from the Connecticut.  This will be an afternoon that sometimes finds me in knots, and negotiating seeming dead-ends, faced with busy, four-lane traffic and tiny shoulders to ride on.  Its unpleasant, to say the least, at times, but you just persist—turning back and trying again where things get too dicey.  In the world that exists all around me, people would be traveling without taxing their landscape sense and travel wits at all—a cell phone or GPS readout telling them what to do.  All decisions coming from outside.

I clear the density of Middletown, and head through busy Cromwell on a spider web of roads I’m piecing together.   I crisscross the floodplain of the Mattabassett River, a small artery I’ve written about in my work perhaps a dozen times.  I’ve never seen the river though.   At one point, as I’m trying to find my way across the barrier of Interstate 91, I pick a small side-road called Pasco Hill.  Finally cresting it zipping to the bottom, I cross a little bridge in the midday heat.  I look to my right and there’s a small dam, just upstream of the crossroads of what was once a little industrial section, now somewhat derelict.  There’s something about that dam…

I curve back on my bike, and there’s the picture–one I’ve put captions to: the StanChem Dam on the Mattabessett.  This is a tiny dam that–with a fishway project that is currently in something of a stall and waiting for more funding, “will reopen the entire historic habitat range for American shad on the Mattabesset.“  Those are my own words.  Shad would regain over 16 miles of this river, right to their full, historic range.  Were these fish salmon, Connecticut fisheries would have had this site on the fast track decades ago…

This is a very busy travel corridor, and the biking is somewhat less than satisfying at times.  But seeing the dam site is a bonus, offering a bit of quiet in a hurried landscape.  I get directions from a town DPU guy having an ice cream in front of the locked, StanChem property gate, and head off uphill once more.  Ultimately, I’m at a busy spot in Berlin, trying to find my way along busy Rt. 372, when the Berlin Bike Shop comes into view.  The proprietors–like me, solidly in their fifties, are affable and interested in a bike traveler.  Mike takes the time to give me a couple of maps, and point me in the right direction.

Those directions hold through Berlin, and into a corner of New Britain, but my brain can only keep so much in play, and the maps are still fairly general.  Skies that I mistakenly thought were deep blue, are darkening to more of a powdered coal with banks of clouds.

One bonus though, as I make a small rise, is the red barn of an old siding that reads, “Avery’s Beverages.”  I’ve read about them somewhere by some coincidence, likely National Geographic.  It’s a family soda making and local market operation that’s been in business since 1904.  I have to stop.

What I again find is a couple-of-three guys, near my age, two of them from Avery’s, standing inside the old barn filled with wooden crates of soda, and two genuine, old style refrigerators stocked with cold pop in a rainbow of flavors mixed on the premises.  Again I’m treated with some deference, likely due to white hair and my odd journey.  I’m offered the best new directions that these three can chart in a round-robin discussion.  I try to keep it straight in my head as I suck down a tasty Avery’s orange soda.

Soon, I’m following a thoroughfare past hospitals and housing projects that I thought was one marked route, only to find that the street name has become an unfamiliar one.  The skies are spitting, the wind is picking up.  I’m bouncing around like a confused ping-pong ball.  Finally, an old Latino man in a car gives me a good spin and I’m heading in the right direction.  I few more turns and tries and the rains have come.  I take shelter under the large portico of the Connecticut School of Broadcasting—letting the woman at the front desk know I’m out there, and not homeless.  She smiles.  In a half hour, that downpour is done.  I head out.

More crazy roads and bouncy directions come into play as I try and make my way to Farmington, and the Farmington bikeway.  Finally, after a long, curving downhill, I’m in Farmington itself, facing the well-appointed Miss Porter’s School.  Soon I’m heading down a main drag toward Rt. 10, which should bring me up to the bikeway.  It’s drifted into late afternoon now, with a lot of stops and queries along the way, but I’m finally on the trail.  It’s great being out of traffic.

I think of my old friend Carol Hurst, now gone, who wrote a children’s book, “Through the Lock,” about the canal that was the original thoroughfare this rail trail is built on.  She may have even made me a minor character in that book.  I’m in one of them.  I think too, of Sylvester Judd of Northampton, whose journals I studied for my master’s degree.  Judd was an investor in this ultimately cash-poor and failed canal back in the 1840’s.

The real challenges of the day come in Avon.  Tired, I’m trying to make my way through an incomplete section of the trail which sends you briefly onto streets.  I must’ve mis-heard directions from someone and find myself following busy Rt. 44, a real mess of traffic on a four-lane at rush hour.  And, the rains return.  Determined to not soak my entire rig and take on pounds of water, I stop, jumping into the local D’Angelo’s, and ordering a sandwich—both for sustenance and shelter.  It’s quiet at the moment.  The two middle-aged guys behind the counter offer me a phone book when I ask about motels, but one warns that none will be cheap on this stretch.  How true that proves!

Here, I’m stuck for 45 minutes until the next storm clears.  Then I’m off, but still confused, and heading wrong, ultimately finding myself stymied by a sea of traffic.  I pull of into a mall lot, the acres of pavement offering very little in the way of relief.  Happily, a young woman inside the doors of Barnes & Noble takes a minute, and offers me a course that seems promising.  I have to backtrack through the mess I’ve just finished.

Again, finally back on the rail trail, I’m heading north.  But the skies are darkening once more, and the wind is picking up.  I’m hoping to beat them into Simsbury, but its still a few miles away as the storm bears down.  I turn back, recalling a small shelter at the side of a trail intersection about a mile distant.  Here, at a site bordered by a broad field and tobacco barn to the west, I take cover in a lean-to built by the Avon Rotarians.  I share it with sheltering bumblebees as the storm swirls.  It hits hard–almost all wind.  Dust fills my eyes as I peak around at the clouds.  Trees are bending in gusts that near 50 mph.

I snap a few pictures and wait.  And wait, as the wind rages.  I finally take to my bike after almost an hour, thinking it’s done.  Then, the rains finally come.  I run back.

In another ten minutes, all is over.  Unbeknownst to me, trees are down all along the valley heading north.  I’ll see them all the way home–road and utility companies will be out clearing them right up through Sunderland, MA, and I’ll come across one sprawled over this rail trail at the Massachusetts border in the morning.

I head on.  It’s now after 6:30, damp, and still windy, plus its gotten cool–to say the least.  I have nowhere to stay, but I do have my tent and bag for a damp night in the buggy brush if all fails.  Perhaps this trip is conspiring to have me spend a night camping.  This won’t be pretty–or scenic, though, just ditch camping.  At one juncture the trail moves parallel to Rt. 10, and I take to the road, my best shot at finding a room on the edge of town.  I come across a Marriot someone had mentioned, but when I ask the desk woman about a single rate she quotes me $189.00.  A bit much for a few hours and a shower.  Back on the bike.

Simsbury is another private school town, and my hopes for a reasonably-priced stay quickly go south.  A picture perfect history is manicured into the town’s presentation, though its plaque mentions that Native Americans put the torch to it a couple of times– see the first writing on the wall way back in the first part of the 17th century.  I come upon a bed and breakfast.  What the heck?—I set myself a limit; I’ll offer $90.00, take it or leave it.  No one comes to the bell.

As I near the town’s northern edge there is something looming on the left, a blue-gray building, perhaps 1970’s vintage, three stories tall.  The Iron Horse Inn.  It looks a bit like a low-to-mid priced place you might see in the denser towns of Cape Cod.  But it’s mostly empty at 7:05 p.m., just three cars sit in a large parking lot.  Still, I have nothing to lose.  I walk in to a modestly lit lobby, the other corridors are dark.  No one is at the desk, but there’s a phone, and a sign: for service, pick up the phone.

A young woman answers.  I ask if they have a single rate.  Yes, she says quickly, its $84, including tax.  Despite the thin carpet and sparse presentation, this may be something.  I mostly ignore the air that seems like it could use a good venting by merely leaving the lobby door open.  “Where are you?  Downstairs??” she asks.  They are not used to people walking in, apparently.  “Are you interested?”  Yes.  “I’ll send someone down.”

And down comes Melind, perhaps Indian or Pakistani, in his young thirties, I’d guess.  He too wonders, “How did you find us?”  They are right on Rt. 10, but it seems not a popular stop.  I start to give a tale of biking and wind, but cut it short.  “So, what does $84.00 get me?”  “Would you like to see a room?”  Melind takes me up a flight of stairs, then starts toward another, “Do you have anything on this floor?”  The place is empty, after all.  I figure one car is the woman’s on the phone—likely Melind’s girlfriend, the other is his, and the third…is the killers.  “Well, if you don’t need a king-sized bed I can grab another key.”   He runs back down the stairs.

The room is large, suite-sized—long, with a fridge, stove with two burners, microwave, writing table, etc.  I can’t completely ignore the musty air, the stain in the ceiling tiles.  I ask if the doors open.  They do, onto a deck overlooking a pool that doesn’t look like it’s primed to open this spring.  There’s a TV, “but the cable went out about an hour ago.”  “Sure,” I’m thinking.  I’m also thinking this place may be in receivership.  But the bed looks clean, and the price is right, and Melind seems willing to bend the rules a bit and allow me to bring my bike into the lobby for the night.  I guess they worry about the plush state of the indoor-outdoor carpet throughout.  I tell him we have a deal.

In truth, the TV cable did come back up later.  I got to watch the weather.  Melind sent me to a pizza joint that actually had reasonable prices, and I walked out, dead-tired, with a chicken-pesto sandwich on fancy bread, and a dose of curly fries.  That, and a bottle of beer, conspire make my return to the Iron Horse a minor triumph of bike travel for a white-haired guy.  Surviving a rough day on the road is part of the adventure.

I set aside the beer, eat half the large sandwich, and take a satisfying shower.  The double doors are thrown open to the damp, cool, clearing night.  Wrapped in a towel, I take the only two snapshots I have of myself on the journey—reflected in the long bathroom mirror.  A tired man, but satisfied to have pulled this rabbit out of this hat.  Hotel stalkers, be damned!  I sprawl on the bed, write in my journal for most of an hour and a half; then have that beer and a bunch of cold, curly fries while looking at the weather—along with reports of the thickening oil-spill disaster in the Gulf.  Somewhere toward midnight I switch off the light, coming to life again just before 6:00 a.m.

Enfield to the Sound

Posted by on 11 May 2010 | Tagged as: alewives, American shad, Atlantic salmon, blueback herring, Connecticut River, salmon

Enfield to the Sound                                        © 2010 by Karl Meyer

May 2, 2010

This will prove the downstream ride’s best day—actually the best day of the trip.  At 6:00 a.m., I check the skies above the sprawling pavement surrounding my Enfield address.  There’s high, grey cover.  It’s humid and cool, but already in the upper 50’s.  The TV update says upper 80’s today, with afternoon showers.  I grab my own shower, and then head to check out.  The kind woman at the front desk tells me I get a free complimentary lunch at the chain next door, “Do you have time?”

I go and order up a cooked, breakfast sandwich, to go.  It takes about 15 minutes, but I pack it on my bike, grab a quick cup of the motel’s complimentary coffee, and I’m off, coffee in hand.  I scoot back down south through Enfield, a combination of newer homes, with the occasional colonial place delineating the original town layout.  I dive right, down Old Depot Road, to Thompsonville and Warehouse Pt., examining the landscape that dictated where humans first walked here, and fished, and where Pynchon found it necessary to build his trading warehouse in the 1630s, due to the rapids just upstream.

I intersect Rt. 5, and head south.  It’s 7:45 a.m., and traffic is generally light on this Sunday.  In places this road has a real urban edge, with stores and commerce spread broadly across the river terrace.  Other places are given over to pasturing horses, and idle land, with a few farms and garden center operations in between.  Most telling, to someone traveling in the silence of a bike, are the hundreds and hundreds of fertile acres given over to pavement—oil atop earth, for the sole purpose of auctioning off thousands of new cars, here sitting in storage.  As I ride past this, a great oil slick is spreading over the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.

I keep watch for the Scantic River.  Dr. Boyd Kynard tells me there used to be a pretty good blueback herring run up this river.  When I finally dip into its crossing in East Windsor, I stop on the narrow bridge, looking down to the semi-dark waters as a scattering of trucks shoot past.  It’s a tripping little river here, semi-dark in the bottomland woods.  I can make out no fish in the morning light—not that they would be moving necessarily at the moment.  A mallard scoots away, and two Canada geese take flight.  There may be another dam between me and the mouth of the Scantic, but I think not, as I’m only a mile away.  Later I discover that the first dam is miles upstream in Enfield, and that this river had a pretty good run of shad in the 1970’s, and even today a few river herring knock on the door of the dam each spring.  Both, have been left hanging for decades without assistance.

Stripping down to a t-shirt, I head out of the bowl of the Scantic and quickly find my way onto North Main Street.  This turns out to be a wonderful secondary road, laid out in the mid-1600s above the Connecticut’s broad, flood plain.  It’s quiet, straight, and flows down through the old settlements, with many of the old houses still standing.  The East Windsor Hill Post Office, from 1727, is still in business, as is the refreshingly untidy Porter House, dating from 1694.  I follow south, largely untrammeled by traffic.

Other cyclists heading north for a recreational ride slide by in twos and threes.  At South Windsor I pass the birthplace marker for the Reverend Jonathan Edwards, born in the first years of the 18th century.  This connects me back to an upstream town.  When I lived in Northampton, MA, Edwards and I were neighbors of a sort.  I lived across the tracks, less than 200 yards from Edwards Square–his old digs when he was an early fire and brimstone preacher.  The citizens of Northampton had the good sense to run Edward’s and his brand of fear mongering out of town.  His bloodline apparently continued though, as I read that Aaron Burr was his grandson.

Continuing on down South Main through East Windsor, the road grows slowly less rural, with less of the preserved, cookie-cutter, historic ambiance it cultivates at it most opulent horse-farmy acreages.  It was time to leave this quiet anyway.  Soon I’m in East Hartford, which would have been a real challenge on a weekday, but at 10:00 a.m. on a Sunday, is highly doable.  I’m still on the old, historic path, but the road widens, merges with Rt. 5 as Main Street.  I cross the entrance to one sprawling Pratt and Whitney plant, and not long after, another.  It astonishes me at the time how much of our wealth is derived from the implementation of industry in service to warfare.  What a sad use of the earth’s good soil.

In the center of East Hartford, beneath its looming spire, I chat briefly with another cyclist while stopped at a busy intersection.  He’s pleasant, though he can’t offer much in the way of good directions heading south.  I just try to keep on Main Street, ever leaning toward the river, which should lead me into Glastonbury.  Though I do lose the trail at times, I eventually make it to a back street intersection that is tempting: Naubuc Avenue.  It’s again a quiet, colonial path—very likely of Native American origin, and it goes through an old, and unpretentious colonial neighborhood, interspersed with modest, early and mid-20th century houses.  Plain, working people.

This is another fine, straight, route, which takes me a few miles, including down a short side chute to Keeney Cove, and old meander of the Connecticut.  Here, in the 80 degree morning sun, people have parked a few pickup trucks and cars.  They are angling for fish at the lip of the Cove, which has yet to be unburdened on the recent spring floods.  Part of the pavement is under water.  I ask one shirtless, tattooed young guy who has just waded in from a small, dry rise in his bare feet if the guys fishing there have caught anything.  He can’t say for sure.  I head back out, not knowing if this is a shad or herring site, with a connection to the main stem Connecticut.

It is warm.  I fidget my way onto Main Street in Glastonbury, where it’s sunny, flowery, and well-off.  Hills and narrow roads close in, a function of the ancient geology here, and plate tectonics.  The road gets busier as I head south toward Portland and Cobalt.  I pass Moodus, the place of a memorable earth quake in the 1700s.  Suddenly I’m adjacent to the motel/inn that I’ve scoped out for the end of today’s journey.  It looks ok, but a bit forlorn on its little siding, with the nearest commerce a gas station 1/3 of a mile away, and no where to walk on narrow Rt. 66.  It’s 11:15 a.m.; there are no rain clouds apparent.  If I stop now, I’m stuck in a boring pocket for the day.  I head on, not knowing where I’ll end the day.

I grab an iced coffee in Cobalt, against the heat, and find I’ve missed a turn south.  A woman tells me I can take the adjacent road I’ve been eying, back over the Rt. 154.  It’s Hog Hill Road, an interesting old colonial route dating back at least 2-1/2 centuries.  I hear wood thrush and oven birds, and yellow warblers.  Soon I’ve scooted down to my river route and the entrance to Hurd State Park.  It’s hot, but, I want to keep rolling.  One hill, then another, takes me over the ridges of Haddam Neck, a rocky ridge reaching to the Connecticut’s shore that once hosted a nuclear plant.  It was shut when valve problems threatened to uncover the reactor’s core, which the public never learned.  Repairs were too pricey to ever restart it.  Today, it has been dismantled, but its toxic nuclear legacy remains stored and guarded on site, costing citizens a million bucks a year to safeguard it.

I shoot down a long curve and up along the last few miles of the Salmon River, stopping on the bridge above to scan for fish.  I walk down an old side road, where the Leesville dam has long had a set-up to pass—wouldn’t you know, salmon.  The place is posted up and down about salmon, and how to ID them.  But I see not a single leaping salmon.  However, as I crouch down nest to the gurgling waters before the dam as silver-grey fish writhes and disappears in an instant.  Its perhaps a little more than a foot long, and the only fish I can equate with this behavior in the shallows is American eel.  Gone in a flash.  As I’m left pondering this I note the head of a smallish northern water snake lifted out of the water just a few feet beyond.

I drink in the heat and get back on the bike.  Soon I come abreast of Salmon Cove, the long marsh leading to the river’s intersection with the Connecticut.  Two boats sit fishing just beyond where the Salmon flows in.  Quickly, I’m in Haddam, tourist town and home to the Goodspeed Opera House, and a bridge across the river.  It’s busy.  I’m heckled by two punks in a pickup, and can’t resist giving them the finger.  Not a place for a cyclist to linger today.  I cross the river and bridge in good traffic, stop on the other side at Tony’s Market, where they have “Connecticut River shad and roe” for sale.  But I’m just there for a Gatorade at this point, which I slug down.

Quickly I’m heading downstream toward Chester, and traffic thins.  Pretty views of the Connecticut roll toward me.  One of the lovely things that you rarely get on roadways while moving through beautiful spaces is the quiet.  Suddenly, every now and then the cars disappear, and you can experience the beauty and the quite in tandem.  And it is lovely.

Chester is so compact, old, and set up so neatly in the landscape that it’s hard to deny its charm, despite the obvious tourist and money bent.  I stop to say hello to a friend’s brother, who I’ve yet to meet.  He the chef at little place called Simon’s.  I get the cook’s tour, including the little alewife stream out back that bisects the town center.  Alan buys me an iced tea, and tells me its not too many miles to the coast—I’m guessing less than twenty.

The roads continue good, and I pass through Deep River, and am just on a southward roll, smelling the salt and that final destination—the Connecticut’s mouth.  The skies are holding.  I reach the turn-off for Essex, which I’ve never explored.  The sign-posts say I’m only six miles from crossing into Old Saybrook, and the skies are holding.  There’s still a little gas in my tank so I pedal toward town.  It’s old, the architecture is interesting, but the place is so meticulously preserved, and already chockfull of tourists, that it’s hard to see beyond the opulence and check for a soul.  The landing and harbor in this tidal section look out on a broad reach of river.  There’s a regatta in progress, and I can already see that the water will be overwhelmed by the expensive boats sitting, Saran-wrapped in the marinas, within just weeks.  I quickly put Essex behind me.

The last miles into Old Saybrook are uneventful.  I find my way to a siding on the wrong side of the railroad tracks and Rt. 1, but get directions from a friendly woman who runs a bric-a-brac shop.  Tired now, she sends me back over the railroad bridge, and gets me on track to Springbrook Road and the Liberty Inn.  The place, it turns out, is curiously wedged between the road and I – 95.  It’s literally at eye level with the highway, and not 100 yards off.  Remarkably, it’s quiet in my room, and comfortable.  After a shower and the end of a losing Red Sox game, I drag myself, tired, back into Old Saybrook Center to pick up the family-size pizza special, advertised in the Inn’s pages.  The package stores are closed, so I am forced to leave my bike, pizza attached, outside, while I have a celebratory Sam Adam’s at a counter of Pat’s Kountry Kitchen.  The beer is cold, and goes down nicely in honor of the river, and a fine day’s ride.  No storms yet in sight.

First fish: the nose of the run

Posted by on 24 Apr 2010 | Tagged as: alewives, American shad, blueback herring, Connecticut River, salmon

First fish: the nose of the run © 2010, Karl Meyer

April 5, 2010, Connecticut River mouth

Head down to the mouth of the Connecticut River on an unusually sun-warmed April 5th, and you’ll find the coastal plain opening onto Long Island Sound shrouded in a cool, 50 degree fog on an Easter Sunday.  It’s a dozen degrees warmer just a mile inland.  Looking out across the small state access, restaurant lot, and private marina, you can make out Saybrook Light just off Fenwick Point—a place probably best known as the former haunt of Katherine Hepburn.  What I also see in my mind’s eye as I look across that sandy lip is the massive storm surge of September 1938, thundering, Katrina-like, directly up this river opening.  Some 800 people died.

But I am here to find fish, and to plot out a route to take upstream by bicycle early next month.  Still, the pull of history and landscape in this place is strong.  Here golf courses and manicured lawns spread right to the edge of Long Island Sound.  Old money.  But, I get a feeling if I looked a little harder, I might be able to find some of those bank bailout funds us earthly folk have been forced to fork over in the name of the inflated desires of others. I spend much of an hour scratching around the town’s historic representations of Fort Saybrook, 1635, and how the Pequot, Niantic, and Mohegan seem to eventually get ticketed with bringing about their own demise here.  It’s a recounting full of holes in logic and history, interesting nonetheless.

The other piece I see here is that the myth of a grand salmon run on the Connecticut River is amply represented, right from the first—at the very mouth of the river.  An historical story-board notes an anecdote stating the salmon on the Connecticut were so numerous at times that one could walk across the river’s mouth on their backs—if a person had snowshoes on.  Snowshoes?!  Who came up with this one?  The species base on this river in terms of sheer numbers and the ecological pyramid had been anchored by foot-long alewives and blueback herring, followed by waves and waves of nearly two-foot American shad, steaming up the shoally currents here—for millennia.  Salmon never accounted for more than one fish in ten thousand, and that tiny run died out in 1809.  But the hype begins at the very entrance to this river.  Is there any question why we are losing ground on migratory fish on the Great River here?

Still, it’s wonderful to be along this shore.  I put on my yellow windbreaker and cycle south along the shore road against a good headwind.  There are just a few places the public can actually access the shoreline.  I scoot along a broadened bit of salt marsh, and also down to a little public viewing spot.  Here a pair of osprey sits in vigil, resting at their nest on a wooden platform.  Surely they know there is a growing compliment of fish soon to blossom nearby.

I head the 5 – 6 miles into Westbrook, around salt marsh curves, and then along what is the old Post Road in places.  I pass a house over three centuries old, and another, scrappier looking place that’s nearly as antique–the Jacob Chalker House from 1735.  This, I’m thinking, was an old fishing shack at its inception, and perhaps a trading site.  I snap a few pictures, and then one more of a fish market, with its salmon advertised on the sign board.

I head back along the Post Road and down through the center of Old Saybrook.  Nearing my start point at the old fort site at Saybrook Point I pass a house built in 1671, before King Phillips War.  But that is not the war that decided things in this neighborhood.  The battle for this turf was settled decades earlier, when a significant proportion of the Pequot were massacred in their fort at Mystic, just northeast of here, in 1637.  Part of that siege was engineered from this very spot.  I spend some time poking around in the 17th century cemetery just up the road from the fort site.  Here, most stones are effaced by time.  Perhaps the most interest thing is the racket made by the nesting parrots—an introduced species here.  Their large, rounded nest with a bottom opening occupies an old red cedar.  They are both curious and annoyed with me.

I head out onto the public walk bordering the Sound and the river’s headlands.  It’s not particularly busy here, too early in the season.  However, I do find two salted fishermen with poles and tackle about to be put away.  One is well into retirement age.  I ask them about the fishing.  Nothing much today.  I ask about the shad.  “Not in yet.”  Soon, they think.  The younger one, in his fifties, says that maybe two years ago the shad came in all at once, and were just pushing up against the seawall in a big, waving froth.  Here, I’m thinking–is the remnant of those true fish of old, fantasized into salmon by those desirously in need of something more “sexy” than the waves of green-gold, two foot long shad that brought this spawning river to its peak year in, and year out.  No snowshoes needed.

These guys are chatty, full of stories.  The older fellow is “sure” they are already getting stripers up at Chicopee.  That’s a stretch for April 5th, I’m thinking.  He takes out his fishing license, showing me that you now need one for saltwater here too.  It’s a one-time fee for seniors, good for the rest of his days as long as he does the renewal paperwork.  I agree with them that it does seem a shame its come to this—a salt water fishing license, just to toss out a hook.

I jump in the car, head north a bit, having noted a sign for pedestrians and cyclists to use the I-95 Bridge over the river.   I find it, and even though I’m pooped, I can’t resist the idea.  It’s warmed inland, mid-sixties at least.  I find a place to stash the car, and the next thing I know I’m looking upstream and down, over Long Island Sound and the tidewater meadows of Lord Cove, with traffic roaring by at 70 mph.  I’m delighted to be able to cross here.  I shoot down into Old Lyme, and simply must explore further.  I make it into town after intersecting Rt. 1, and head upstream a bit through the old, outlaying sections.  Here is an art colony complex, but also hints of tributaries and fish runs.

I follow a promising ancient way, Sill Road, upstream, as it follows the Lieutenant River,  then stop at a tiny bridge crossing and change out of my sweaty shirt.  Suddenly, I look down into the sun-dappled waters and twenty herring shoot under the bridge, as if I’ve startled them.  It’s so quick, I can’t quite believe my eyes.  I look for more in the afternoon current, but don’t see any more fish.  I walk across the little road, not expecting anything, and a similar number of herring dash forward, out of the shadows and upstream.  They are here!  Here are the first fish, my first fish.  As far as identity goes, they are most likely alewives who generally head upstream first.  This is also the species reported in runs here.

I linger for a bit, imagining these fish having traveled a thousand miles or more in the ocean—at least to the Bay of Fundy and back.  Now, here.  A sweet moment to witness.  There is a sign at this site forbidding the capture of any herring.  I walk back over to my bike for the few miles back across the river to my car, tired, satisfied.  As I reach for my helmet, maybe a dozen alewives shoot forward, then aside and back into downstream shadows–having somehow seen my shadow or sensed a presence.  They’ve fallen back temporarily, but I quickly relinquish their upstream destination to the sunshine and this unusually warm, early April afternoon.

Heading home, I check for commercial seiners up toward the Goodspeed Opera House and bridge near Haddam.  The crusty fisher guys said a few still pursue shad up that way.  But, it’s too early in the season.  I snap a shot or two of the famous “shad shack” up along that stretch, and head home on back roads until I reach Middletown.

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