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The Devolution of a River Restoration: killing the Connecticut softly

Posted by on 31 May 2011 | Tagged as: American shad, Atlantic salmon, Bellows Falls Fishway, blueback herring, Connecticut River, Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission, Conte, CRASC, Farmington River, federal trust fish, New Hampshire, Rainbow Dam Fishway, salmon hatchery, Uncategorized, USFWS, Vernon Dam Fishway, Walpole

This article appears in the current(May-June) issue of the Pioneer Valley News, a small, bimonthly news-magazine available, free, at various Valley locations.

The Devolution of a River Restoration: killing the Connecticut softly

by Karl Meyer                                   Copyright © 2011 by Karl Meyer

May 5, 2010.  7:30 a.m:

THWACK!  Standing next to the pulsing waters of the Rainbow Fishway on the Farmington River in Windsor, CT, I’d just received a watery slap in the face from a 280 million year-old living fossil.  I was travelling by bicycle, heading to the Holyoke dam from Old Saybrook, CT at Long Island Sound.  I’d left the Sound the day before, with a final destination of Bellows Falls, VT, following the Connecticut River’s fish migration upstream.  But I just had to stop at this storied tributary.  Astonished, I stared at the frothy spot where a 2-1/2 foot sea lamprey had just been cemented to the concrete wall of a 34 year-old salmon ladder–its suctioning mouth holding it in the wild current.  Now, it was gone.

Wiping the spray from my cheek, I look upstream to the next frothing pool.  There, peeking just above the water like a spy-hopping whale is my lamprey.  Its snakelike body flutters in the current while its round, jawless-mouth keeps it fused to the concrete as if joined by Crazy Glue.  Two flooded basins downstream, three more lamprey do the exact same thing; in the pool beyond, another, nearly as thick as my arm, waves like a streamer in violent water.

THWACK!—another sprits of Farmington water hits me.  In a flash, the ropey, mottled-brown fish disappears, only to emerge a second later in the next higher pool, glomming onto the steep wall.  Its rudimentary gills writhe like bellows in the froth as they siphon needed oxygen.

I am witnessing a miracle of tenacity and evolution as these ancient fish scale an impossible fishway.  I’m also witnessing everything that is wrong with the Connecticut River basin’s failed 44 year-old federal-state migratory fish restoration here at the first dam on Farmington River–the longest tributary in the state of Connecticut.

This fishway is a trap.  It kills fish.  In fact, the Rainbow Fishway kills most of the fish the New England Cooperative Fisheries were charged with restoring way back in 1967—the American shad and blueback herring that once fed humans along 172 miles of the Connecticut River, as well as up tributaries like this one–all the way from Long Island Sound to Bellows Falls, VT.

In 1976, state and federal fisheries officials came up with the design here—a ponderously steep ladder with punishing flows charging through rasping, pebble-ridden concrete slots not much wider than a splayed hand.  It was based on West Coast ladders designed for Pacific salmon–here to be used for the Atlantic salmon, extinct in the Connecticut River since 1809.  From day one, Rainbow proved a killer.  For the past 35 years this ladder has drawn spawning-run shad and blueback herring upstream to its watery promise by the tens of thousands—only to flay them alive in repeated attempts to pass.  Those that succeed expire soon after reaching the top, their reward for tenacity.  In total, Rainbow Fishway has quietly killed more migrating shad and herring–classified as “federal trust fish,” than it has ever assisted.

Lacking scales, a’ la salmon, the scrappy sea lamprey is this fishway’s—and the Connecticut River restoration’s, single, unequivocal, unintended success.  By the end of the 2010 spawning season Rainbow had passed a grand total of 4 hybrid salmon.  But 3,090 sea lamprey made it out the top of Rainbow–exhausted, but otherwise uninjured.  Concurrently, those narrow, flaying, concrete slots injured and likely killed all 548 American shad and 25 blueback herring that were counted as “passing” the fishway.  That number is a trick.  The counting window is located in the bottom third of those 64 treacherous pools–where hapless, de-scaling migrants still have a wrinkle of life left in them when the staff checks them off.

By 1970, just three years after its start, fisheries officials had turned the basics of Connecticut River migratory fish restoration on its head–placing the extinct salmon as priority one, and relegating American shad and blueback herring to poor step-child status.  Their overarching federal mandate was to create “high quality sport fishing opportunities” in the Connecticut basin, and to “provide for the long-term needs of the population for seafood.”  The large, sporty American shad was the top fish named in that mandate; followed by the extinct salmon, and then those migratory herring.  Federal and state managers were entrusted with both river ecology and fish runs. At Rainbow, they crushed the possibilities of both.

Historically, for millennia, American shad fed Native Peoples and later European immigrants throughout the Connecticut Valley.  Herring were salted and eaten too, and used in livestock feed and fertilizer. Here, that extinct salmon had colonized the Connecticut River system just a few hundred years prior at the very southern edge of their cold-water range–during the Little Ice Age in New England, 1400 – 1800 AD, a time of shifting ocean currents and unusual cold for Northern Europe and Northeastern North America.

The salmon were large but few—amounting to perhaps one fish in five thousand in the annual runs of migratory fish.  Though tasty, they never fed the populace.  And, with warming Atlantic currents and the first dams on the Connecticut, the salmon run had died off by 1809.  Yet, in 1976, fisheries officials built this fish trap in the name of salmon, fueled by their trophy fish desires.  It flew in the face river ecology principals, and it has crippled fish restoration on the Farmington and depleted the Connecticut River’s migratory fish stocks for decades.  Four salmon used this ladder in 2010.  Four.

One biologist refers to Rainbow Fishway as “the world’s greatest shad de-scaler.”  That’s what it does–it rakes the scales off hapless two foot-long American shad, drawn into those narrow slots by the upstream current.  Thousand perish annually.  With bellies flayed raw in the effort, they either wash back down downstream, or expire after reaching the top of the dam.  The smaller, foot-long herring receive the same fate.  And the public hasn’t a clue.  Remarkably, Rainbow holds an “open house” each June, with smiling state fisheries personnel standing over a few listless shad, live-trapped at the base of the dam.  They politely explain how the system functions…  The place is a PETA protest waiting to happen.

Though few people admire this member of an ancient order of jawless fish, I’m watching a miraculous creature—one that does nearly everything a salmon restoration effort on the Connecticut never will.  The wonderfully adapted sea lamprey is ghoulish-looking.  They appear more eel-like than fish, but they are fish indeed.  They were thriving before the glaciers arrived here—indeed, living-well before even the molten rise of the Holyoke Range and the ancient layers of earth rose and parted to later become Turners Falls. Sea lamprey were making a good living 200 million years before dinosaurs laid tracks here in the fogs of Valley pre-history.

Lamprey are large, but hardly sexy.  They are writhers, not leapers.  Indeed, upon hatching they will spend well over half an unglamorous decade rooted and waving like worms in riverbed silts, growing slowly as they filter nutrients and detritus from the downstream current.  Then, in an amazing transformation, they head to the sea to spend the final two years of their decade-plus lifespan in the open ocean, maturing quickly into two- and three- foot fish who making a living as ocean parasites attached to larger fish–using their sucking-disc mouths full of hundreds of needle-like teeth to draw in nutrition.

Then, come spring– blind, fasting, and loosing those teeth, they return to the Connecticut River tributaries of their birth to spawn.  Using their powerful sucking jaws, the male and female will move fist-sized rocks to create a rounded rock nest called a redd– remarkably similar to one a salmon would make.  That rock-corral will catch the doomed couple’s fertilized eggs after spawning.  Their life-cycles complete, upon spawning all adult lamprey perish, leaving both their thousands of tiny eggs and their rotting carcasses to the clear-running reaches of Connecticut River tributaries.

In a 2007 study, Drs. Keith Nislow and Boyd Kynard of the UMass-Amherst Dept. of Natural Resources and Conservation surveyed the results of 20 years of sea lamprey spawning research on the Fort River–a Connecticut tributary in Hampshire County, MA.  Their findings show that the quick-rotting carcasses left by spawned-out adult lamprey contribute critical ocean-derived nutrients–including phosphorus and nitrogen, to freshwater systems at a time when other spring nutrient sources are largely unavailable to freshwater organisms.  In short, dead, unlovable, lamprey carry needed “seafood” to our streams—like salmon on the West Coast.

Though you can’t hook’em, sea lamprey were eaten in former times in Hampshire County, and also fed to the hogs, according to Sylvester Judd’s posthumous, 1863, History of Hadley, 1905 edition: “Lampreys came above the falls in great numbers, and entered the streams that run into the Connecticut, until the Holyoke dam was built in 1849.  They were very numerous in Fort River in Hadley, below Smith’s mills, and were caught by the light of torches, sometimes several hundred in a night.  Men waded into the stream, and grasped them with a mittened hand and placed them in a bag…  Some were eaten in a few towns in old Hampshire, but most were carried to Granby, Simsbury and other towns on the Connecticut.”

I’d actually left Simsbury, CT that very morning—biking the six miles to Rainbow Fishway.  It was still early, 8:10, but no one was around.  The gate, supposedly open at 8 a.m., was still locked.  I’d snuck in.  Special “salmon transport” trucks sat idle in a fenced-off area.  The thwack-splash of lamprey was ever present–but no sign of a single shad, herring or salmon, living or dead.  I backtracked over Hatchet Hill to the Farmington River bikeway as jets from nearby Bradley Airport roared above.  I’d make my way through Granby, then across Southwick and Westfield, MA on my way to the Holyoke dam, some 30 miles distant.  I’d told a friend I’d meet him by noon.

By 12:15, I was rolling through the streets of Holyoke, down to the Connecticut and the Holyoke dam at South Hadley Falls.  Grabbing my wallet, I left my loaded bike, and headed over the cement wall to the river near Slim Shad Point.  There, a dozen guys are waist deep in the river, flicking shad darts into an ample current.  My friend Tony is one of them.  They’ve had some luck this morning.  Upstream, the river makes a low roar rolling over the dam and through the spillway at Holyoke Gas & Electric’s generating plant.

I was hoping to catch Tony for lunch, but he’s too involved.  Shad fever, they call it.  He greets me, can hardly turn around—so intent is he on the catch.  “Sorry, I can’t stop,” he says.

One of his compadres, getting that I’d biked from Long Island Sound just the day before, chides, “Geez, he won’t even leave the water to shake this guy’s hand.”  Tony does offer me one tidbit though, “Karl, you’ll never guess what a guy caught this morning.”  From his tone, it’s obvious, a salmon.  “Thirty-three inches,” he laughs, “tossed it back in.”

Though classified as “extirpated” by the USFWS, you still cannot catch or keep the Connecticut hybrid they’ve created through a series of $ million-dollar hatcheries across New England.  Just a few dozen from the millions of industrial-hybrid salmon fry dumped in Connecticut River tributaries each spring grow and survive to adulthood to swim back from the ocean each year.  “Too bad he didn’t keep it,” I say, “We could’ve had a barbeque!”  The fishermen laugh.

I grab my bike and walk the quarter mile back to the Holyoke Fishway next to the dam.  This fishway is the prototype for what should have been the Connecticut River’s successful fish restoration.  Built in 1955, it is the East Coast’s oldest and most successful fish passage facility.  Since 1848, all migratory fish here had been blocked by Holyoke dam.  In its first year, the lift installed here passed over 5,000 American shad–more than the total number of hybrid salmon that have returned over the entire 44 year salmon program—a hatchery based effort that has cost taxpayers well over a half billion dollars.

Simple, direct, elegant—over the last half century the elevators have successfully passed tens of millions of fish upstream here—all kinds, all species—including shad, herring, lamprey, salmon—even endangered shortnose sturgeon.  The design is common-sense-simple: a square, water-filled elevator with one swinging-door side that closes behind fish drawn to it by an ample flow of downstream “attraction” current.  You corral the fish; close the side door–and lift them over the dam.  Done.  A winner, this design is what they might have copied 21 years later, when they built Rainbow.  But they went for sexy, they went for salmon.  Today, they are left with a festering, open sore.

A public viewing site, this is opening day at Holyoke Fishway.  Two of the fishway guides greet me as an old friend, “They’re here,” they assure me.  I climb the stairs.  Scores of shiny blue-green shad are nervously milling in the windows.  A few lamprey are here as well–all waiting to be released upstream.  There are no herring, no salmon, but a lone white sucker lurks near the bottom of the tank.  Still, this window is full of promise–agitated, determined life.

It’s early in the run; the shad are mostly males—sleek, wiry, “bucks” about two feet long.  I check the bulletin board: already 15,000 have passed here.  By season’s end that number will be 164,000, hardly a record.  In 1978 this fishway was further improved by adding a second fish elevator.  The fish runs blossomed.  By the mid-1980s totals of shad and herring here averaged nearly a million fish passing annually.

In 1992, a record 720,000 American shad were lifted at Holyoke dam, as well as 310,000 blueback herring.  But it’s been downhill ever since.  The key reason: in 1978–two years after the Rainbow Fishway became operational, federal and state fisheries experts ordered a second fish trap built—this one at the Connecticut’s next upstream dam from Holyoke’s simple fish elevators: Turners Falls.  If Rainbow proved an ugly slap in the face for the Farmington, the design they insisted on for passing migratory fish blocked at Turners Falls since the time of George Washington proved a devastating blow to fish restoration throughout the Connecticut River basin.

Renamed the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) in 1983, it was this same group of federal and state fisheries directors in 1978 that insisted Northeast Utilities build another system based on Pacific salmon and the Columbia River at Turners Falls.  NU was obligated to create and improve fish passage under federal environmental law and regulatory statutes.  It is an ongoing obligation of all owners of federal generating licenses on the Connecticut, including the current owner—multi-national FirstLight GDF-Suez, a mandate that operators must accept for being allowed to profit from use of the public’s river.  NU, and now FirstLight-GDF Suez, derive great profits from using our river’s power at their Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage-Turners Falls hydro generating complex along a 7-mile stretch of the Connecticut.  Once this new design was completed as requested, it was agreed that no major changes in fish passage would be advanced again until mid-way through the 40-year Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license—1998.

Completed in 1980, the Turners Falls Fishway proved another day-one disaster—but on a much grander scale.  Federal-state studies from the 1980s quickly documented the failure.  But fisheries officials took little action.  Though the new Turners Falls fish passage complex didn’t kill fish outright, it essentially strangled this river migration’s ancient, upstream connection with the sea right where it had died when a dam was built here in 1798.  Rather than build a proven elevator at the dam suited to all species, they turned the migrating runs out of the ancient riverbed and forced them to attempt an upstream run through the punishing flows and the barren, silt-and-muck habitats of the Turners Falls Canal.

Annually, hundreds of thousands of shad would arrive, but 98 fish out of 100 fish would repeatedly attempt to pass that two miles of alien habitat and fail—met by the harsh pulses and quick-changing pond levels sent downstream from the unchecked operations at the upstream Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage facility.   That promised ocean-fish sport and seafood connection never reached Vermont and New Hampshire.

So intent was this group on resurrecting extinct salmon, that the pact they made with the power company to get their salmon ladders actually yanked the fish out of the Connecticut River.  They forced them up the impossibly treacherous steps of the “Cabot Ladder,” built at the downstream end of Turners Falls Canal.  The design proved so useless that–other than a handful of hybrid salmon and that ever-remarkable, unfishable, sea lamprey, it has crushed any hope for meaningful fish runs to Vermont and New Hampshire waters for these last 30 years.  That tragedy too, continues.

By utilizing the simple lift design achieved at Holyoke 23 years prior, fish officials would’ve restored the remaining 60% of historic upstream spawning reach for American shad and blueback herring all the way to Bellows Falls, VT, 172-miles from the sea, in a single stroke–a site unreachable since 1798.  Today, shad passage continues to teeter at anywhere between 0 – 5 percent at Turners Falls “fishway.”  Though it doesn’t de-scale shad, its series of ladders and jumbled currents so stresses and depletes shad energy reserves that they simply stall in the lower part of the system, and eventually wind back down to the bottom—only to begin the whole ugly gauntlet over again the next day.  The few that reach the top and enter the canal simply stop migrating at that juncture, languishing for weeks in mud-barren habitat that is nothing like a river.  The herring no longer arrive.

The Turners Falls boondoggle was such an embarrassment that CRASC has worked mightily to keep it quiet.  Responsible US Fish and Wildlife Service and state fisheries officials kept mum, partly because the system DID at least work for the few dozen returning salmon.  Costing taxpayers some $10 million per year via hatchery operations, salaries, and grant studies funded through NOAA, the National Science Foundation, state programs—and a byzantine money pipeline, the 44 year-old effort today known as the Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Commission (CRASC) restoration produced 51 returning hybrid salmon last year.  The numbers reaching Holyoke, the first dam on the main stem Connecticut remain startling: 2005—132 fish; 2006—115 fish; 2007—107 fish; 2008—86 fish; 2009—60; 2010—41 fish.  After decades and over a half billion public dollars spent.

The other federal trust fish included for restoration in their mandate—the shad, the herring, continue their inexorable drift toward eventual failure below Turners Falls dam.  CRASC partners at the $12 million federal Conte Anadromous Fish Lab adjacent to the power company’s canal at Turner Falls, continue to do experiment after experiment on the behavior and genetics of tiny hatchery salmon fry and smolts.  They’ve become quite cozy with the recent and current owners of Northfield/TF hydro operations—who donate a paltry tithing of $40,000 per year for fish counting personnel and a few dilatory experiments proving what we knew in 1980—turning fish out of the Connecticut River and into the Turners Falls Canal is a fatal restoration choice.

The ongoing failure of officials and environmental groups to demand the fish elevator owed to the public at Turners Falls dam these last ten years is a complete abrogation of responsibility.  The current flow regimes–ignored by fisheries and regulatory officials, and ramped-up by operators of the Northfield-Turners Falls hydro complex since deregulation in 1998, compounds the treachery of this fish trap with punishing downstream surges in violation of federal environmental laws license requirements.  When I visited the true riverbed at Turners Falls last April 23rd there was virtually no river flow in the stretch of basin utilized by the federally endangered shortnose sturgeon.

It appears that, for the annual price of a mini-van, corporate donations are enough to keep dithering fisheries scientists and CRASC partners quiet next to that canal–experimenting on an extinct hybrid of a cold-loving species on a warming river in a time of documented climate warming.  At a CRASC meeting last year it was revealed that, under a bit of pressure, CRASC representatives from the USFWS and MA Division of Fisheries were beginning to talk with FirstLight about making long-overdue improvements for fish passage at Turners.  They’d already had an initial meeting—one behind closed doors and without public input.

Astoundingly, the solution they are now talking about is replacing the Cabot salmon ladder with a fish elevator at the same site–they are again ready to continue to steer those fish out of the river and into the same treacherous power canal system they abandoned them to in 1980.   Heck, it works for FirstLight–who can then use all the water they please for their 5.6 billion gallon pumped storage operations at Northfield and power generation in the Turners Falls canal, while ignoring the water levels and flows essential to the Connecticut’s biological integrity in the two empty miles of parched riverbed downstream of TF dam.  If that decision comes to pass, the river will essentially remain as it was upstream of the Turners Falls when that barrier was built in 1798–no shad, no herring, no fishing–no ocean connection, no sea food.  A restoration denied.

I hopped back on my bike that May 5th at Holyoke dam, making the final 30 miles to Greenfield by mid-afternoon.  I’d spend a full day at Long Island Sound, and completed 250 miles of river riding in five days.  But it wasn’t until the Friday of Memorial Day weekend that I completed tracing the historic upstream migration route of American shad and blueback herring to Bellows Falls, VT.  That was a “century ride”—a 100 mile round trip in a single day.  I suppose you could say I could’ve saved the bother.  The gates at both the Vernon and Bellows Falls Public Fishways were locked tight.  The reason was simple: there literally are no fish to see.  By season’s end, just 396 fish had reached that Bellows Falls counting site—392 of them were blind, slithering sea lamprey.

Curiously, on May 1st last year, Northfield Mountain ruined its pumping facility in an attempt to clear two decades worth of silt from its giant reservoir.  The downstream impacts of Northfield’s operations on fish migration were silenced for an entire season, into early August.  Even though state fisheries officials have abrogated all fish counting responsibilities to FirstLight, they were hard pressed to explain this amazing outcome: shad passage jumped an astounding 800% at Turners Falls, with nearly 17,000 fish swimming by—the most shad moving upstream since at least 1996.

What fish officials also couldn’t quite explain was this puzzling outcome: only 290 shad were counted at the next dam, just 20 miles upstream at Vernon, VT.   I’m thinking it likely had something to do with that silt from FirstLight’s Northfield Mountain.  Between May 1st and August 4th, FirstLight quietly flushed at least 45,000 cubic square yards of that muck into the Connecticut just five miles upstream of Turners Falls dam—that’s equal to 40-50 dump truck loads of mud fouling the river daily for a period of over three months.  Tired, and faced with that curtain of darkness, you might stop migrating upstream too.

The EPA finally ordered FirstLight to “cease and desist” their polluting of “the navigable waters of the United States” on August 4–the damage already done.

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

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

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

© 2010 by Karl Meyer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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