Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

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Some thoughts on –

SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN

 

 

A few years back, I went to see the movie “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.” I had to overcome my distaste for the preposterous idea implicit in the title, that an oil rich Sheik can bring salmon to a place where they can’t survive without copious human engineering and the expenditure of unthinkable amounts of money… but my girlfriend wanted to go to a movie, so given my choices, a title with the word salmon in it seemed better than the rest.

 

The movie, despite my misgivings, turned out to be entertaining. The plot, roughly, is as follows: An office bound, government bureaucrat salmon biologist, played by Ewan McGregor, is enlisted against all of his principles by Emily Blunt to help a Sheik achieve his goal of bringing Atlantic salmon, and the coldwater they depend on, to the desert of the Arabian Peninsular. The Sheik also happens to own a castle on a salmon river in Scotland, where in billowing traditional Arab attire, he plies the river for wild salmon with a two handed Spey rod. Initially, McGregor’s character refuses to cooperate, but two events force him to take on the Sheik’s project. The British government decides that it needs some ‘positive press’ from the Middle East, whereupon the hapless biologist is forced to comply with the seemingly ridiculous plan. And then, while salmon fishing with the Sheik in Scotland (the biologist happens to be an avid salmon fisherman) McGregor’s character comes to respect the Sheik’s genuine love and admiration of salmon.

 

While “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” ultimately degenerates into a shmaltzy love story, it does seem to me that the movie’s original premise – the lengths to which people will go to fish for Atlantic salmon – hit on some very timely matters related to our salmon and trout fisheries here in New England.

 

Through the Southeastern Massachusetts Chapter of Trout Unlimited’s newsletter, former Chapter President, Tom Magee, has introduced readers to passages from an obscure 1833 publication, authored by Dr. Jerome V. C. Smith, titled “A History of the Fishes of Massachusetts”. Tom’s reason for doing this is to give chapter members a view of the native brook trout and salmon fishery that once abounded in the coastal watersheds of Massachusetts and Maine. Looking at our rivers and streams today, it is hard to imagine that this wealth of brook trout and salmon could have existed.

 

Today, the native trout and salmon of our coastal streams have been nearly extirpated by clear cutting, dams, agriculture, and more recently by roads, houses, parking lots and groundwater withdrawals.

 

For many years now while working as a TU volunteer to restore Red Brook, a sea run brook trout stream, I’ve pondered why this destruction of our streams and our trout and salmon was, and is allowed to happen.

 

Oddly enough, “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”, by providing a view of the British esteem of their fisheries as a source of wealth – controlled by the wealthy – provides some insights into why the outcome for trout and salmon has been so radically different here in New England.

 

Tragedy of the Commons

One key insight involves the survival of sea-run brook trout at Red Brook. Red Brook was owned by Theodore Lyman III, the scion of a wealthy Boston family. Theodore Lyman’s wealth enabled him to buy much of Red Brook in the late 1800’s,  and eventually try and duplicate there, on a small scale, the Scottish salmon fishing estates that he had become familiar with during his travels in Britain. Thus, Red Brook was saved from becoming a cranberry bog ditch – the fate of so many of the other trout streams in the region.

 

During my first years at Red Brook, a wide rift between my fishing experience and that of the Lyman family became apparent when Hal Lyman (Theodore Lyman’s grandson) told me that he and his brother were in the habit of making annual trips to Scotland to fish for salmon. When Hal innocently asked if I’d ever been to the salmon rivers of Scotland, out of politeness I had to choke back a laugh (actually a guffaw). Fishing in Scotland is now, and will be forever beyond my means. While I’m grateful to the Lyman family for saving Red Brook, I’ve found myself asking why the rest of the Yankee Upper Crust didn’t preserve our rivers the way British Nobility protected the rivers of Scotland and England. It would have saved the famously thrifty Yankee blue bloods the expense of travelling to Scotland to fish.

 

Then again, when fishing is involved expense is a dirty word, even for Yankee blue bloods.

 

As I was to discover, the Lymans were not alone on the spate rivers of Scotland, many of their friends and relatives had been making the jaunt for generations. Why had they not, early on, stepped forward to save the salmon and trout of their own country instead of returning to the auld sod to pursue the Fish of Kings? (It should be noted here that Hal Lyman was an active leader in the Atlantic Salmon Federation and other conservation groups, and that Theodore Lyman III actually won a Supreme Court decision that forced the Holyoke Company to put a fish ladder on their dam on the Connecticut River). It may be that the answer involves ownership of the fish, combined with an extractionist view of the New World passed on as the legacy of the colonial, British mercantile system.

 

In Britain, the salmon and trout belong to the owners of the land abutting the rivers. If you want to fish, you pay to become a member of a fishing club with a lease of beats along a stream, or you pay for a beat as an individual, or you buy or inherit the land along the stream. Trout and salmon fishing is profitable and the rivers are prized accordingly.

 

In contrast, where I live in Massachusetts the fish are owned by the citizenry and managed by the state. The obvious shortcoming of this arrangement has been that, because the fish were general property, the landowners found it difficult to profit off of them, choosing instead the expedience of using water for power. And for centuries the owners of river-side land were able to do as they pleased, including damming rivers and streams to generate power and operate machinery for profit. If fish were lost, it was just part of doing business in the New World, a World that – in the cultural mind set of the people from Britain arriving and settling in New England – existed entirely for the taking. As a result, we now have more than 3000 dams in Massachusetts alone, with most of them standing as derelict eyesores serving no purpose… other than to block fish passage and needlessly warm the water by impounding the streams.

 

This sorry state of affairs could be placed under the label of a tragedy of the commons; however, over time laws have been passed that make it difficult to dam a stream in a fashion that harms migrating fish. Other laws, dam safety laws in particular, make dam owners liable for the safety of their dams and any property damage or loss of life resulting from dam failure. The result is that many dam owners would be happy to receive help with removing their dams. Some owners, in frustration, have pulled the flashboards from their dams and walked away.

 

And then there is the, seeming, irony that recreational angling now generates $669, 574,000 a year and thousands of jobs in the state of Massachusetts. One would naturally assume that the opportunity to enhance this economic engine should be justification enough for removing many of the relic dams from coastal watersheds.

 

And when we add up the many liabilities of dam ownership, and the obvious benefits coming from restored flows and connectivity, one would think that dam removal should be proceeding along at a rapid clip, but it isn’t. Our rivers and streams are so utterly dammed that people have lived their entire lives looking at our waterways as a series of ponds. Unable to imagine a free flowing river or stream with its full assortment of fluvial fish and other ecosystem deliverables, people choose instead to protect what they’ve always known. They defend their sediment filled ponds, all the while expecting the dam’s owner or the tax payers to maintain the dam. They may not be able to swim in it, and mosquitoes from its stagnant waters may give them West Nile, and the stench of mid summer fish kills may force them to keep their windows closed, but it’s their pond. It is all they’ve ever known, and they love it.

 

Where are the people who built those dams today? They’ve spent the last century, or more, resting under an old slate headstone in the local cemetery. And yet, their dams persist. These are the dams that Jerome Smith complained of in “A History of the Fishes of Massachusetts”. These are the dams that Thoreau was writing of in “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” when he wrote the words “If fish could cry.” Yet, even the most obvious candidates for removal are often dams that some people will want to save because of their historic significance, or because the river will run dry if the dam is removed. It’s hard to be patient under these circumstances, and getting harder as time passes.

 

My friend and Trout Unlimited colleague, Peter Schilling, has a slide show on salmon fishing that kept coming to mind while we were watching “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”. Peter has slides covering New England’s, once great, salmon rivers – rivers that were great until dams ended the runs.

 

There is certainly far more hope of restoring wild trout and salmon to our rivers and streams than there is of ever introducing salmon to the Yemen. It begins with educating people about the past and showing them what is possible in the future. Thankfully, progress is being made with dam removals on the West Coast, and a few dams have been removed from the Kennebec and the Penobscot rivers in Maine. In my home state of Massachusetts, the Mass. Division of Ecological Restoration is busy working to remove old dams and restore connectivity to some of the state’s smaller waterways.

 

But dam removal and the restoration of stream habitat for our native trout and salmon, remains a long way from becoming a government policy. And because we are lacking a clear policy that prioritizes reconnecting and restoring our rivers, funding and permitting remain as significant obstacles to restoring our watersheds and their fisheries.

 

The truth is that we are no longer “colonists” entitled to pilfer the riches of a New World. This has long been our world, the one that we depend on, and due to our abuse of its resources, it is aging quickly. Most of us will never be able to make a trip to Scotland (or Yemen for that matter) to fish for salmon. If future generations of New Englanders are ever going to have an opportunity to fish for Salmo salar, “the Fish of Kings”, we’re going to have to make it happen ourselves; although, it might not hurt to put an ad in the paper:

 

SHEIK WANTED! Sheik with disposable $50 million needed to invest in dam removal and trout and salmon habitat restoration. Only serious responses will be considered.

 

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Why I fish for trout:

Part of our obsession is driven by the mystery of what waits below the surface. Thoreau called water the denser atmosphere, which it is. It is also the dominant atmosphere of our planet, where we all began. And somehow, fish are the most beautiful creatures on the planet. And some, like wild brook trout, seem unreasonably beautiful. When we see them we are forced to ask: Why? When they take insects on the surface, they are betrayed by the rings of their rises. What lies below those ephemeral rings we can only imagine until we convince the trout to take our crude imitation… of an ephemeral insect that has come to seem equally beautiful to us. When they take our imitation, we feel their life throbbing, and when we lift them to remove the hook and return them to the mystery of their atmosphere, we’re humbled by their unreasonable beauty, and we stand there in the river for a moment feeling fortunate to be part of such mysterious doings.

 

A Trout Stream For Christmas

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With the Holiday season finally over, and winter settling in, it’s a time to reflect on our gifts; a time to pause and consider where they came from and what they mean. Christmas gifts can come in unusual shapes and forms – from unexpected sources. Some are as simple as a warm shirt from a favorite aunt. Others are more complicated.

 

One long ago Christmas I received a copy of Ernest Schweibert’s extraordinary fishing memoir, “A River For Christmas.” I’m ashamed to say that I can’t remember now who it was that gave me the book, but whoever it was knew I loved fly-fishing, and the name of the book fit the season. Schweibert’s book provided much needed transportation away from the long winter nights to rivers that even then I knew I’d probably never get to. My reading of “A River For Christmas” consisted in equal parts of a rich man’s memories and a poor boy’s hopeless dreams.

 

But last Christmas we received the gift of a stream that, unlike Schweibert’s Laxa with its 40-pound salmon, is near and accessible. And the source of that gift was unexpected.

 

A few years back (2010), a college student named Nik Tyak sent me an e-mail telling me that he thought that he’d found some brook trout residing in a small stream that empties into a much bigger stream named Third Herring Brook.

 

Beginning as tannic springs flowing from beneath the stunted cedars of a vast wetland known since colonial times as Valley Swamp, Third Herring is fed by, and serves as a main stem for several lesser streams draining the red maple swamps that characterize the coastal plain of the Massachusetts South Shore.

 

And Third Herring Brook, in turn, is just one of a complex spider web of tributaries that feed into a long tidal river that moves the ocean miles inland on the coastal plain. This long, quick flowing estuary is called the North River because, when the tide is running out, its current runs north for much of its length, before abruptly turning east to where it sweeps through a wide opening in a barrier beach at the town of Scituate. Just before it enters the ocean, the North River is joined by two other tidal streams. The stream entering from the north is called First Herring Brook. The larger flow that joins from the south is appropriately named the South River.

 

Third Herring Brook enters the North River, over eight winding miles of marsh-rimmed river from the North’s mouth. Here the North River is still a full-bore tidal stream. And twice daily its water moves up into the lower reach of Third Herring Brook drawing with it, in season, rainbow smelts, river herring American eels, and lamprey eels along with a few striped bass and American shad.

 

And on high bank above Third Herring’s wild rice tide marsh, sits the house where Nik Tyak grew up.

 

I knew of Nik from Samantha Woods, the CEO of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association. Samantha had told me of how Nik had raised money for her organization by paddling the length of the Wampanoag Canoe Passage. That Nik had actually paddled and portaged the difficult Canoe Passage that travels across two watersheds, the North River and the Taunton River, was enough of a recommendation, but Nik had also received an E.A. Mellon grant to collect data on Third Herring Brook’s suitability as herring spawning habitat. The data, which included detailed information on water temperature and chemistry along the entire length of Third Herring, was to be compiled in a report that Nik would submit at summers end. Without hesitation, I arranged to meet with Nik at a coffee shop that happened to be located just down the road from Jacob’s Mill Pond and Valley Swamp, the headwater of Third Herring Brook.

 

Dressed in a T-shirt, shorts and sneakers, and with a curly mop of sun-bleached hair, Nik Tyak looked like the typical young surfer that in fact he was. But unlike a cool, laid back stereotypical surf bum, Nik was focused and articulate right from the beginning of our introductions at the trendy little coffee shop in the town of Norwell.

 

It didn’t take much conversation with Nik for it to become clear that I was being reeled in. The brook trout in the Third Herring tributary were the bait, and I had taken that bait. What Nik was angling for was some help from Trout Unlimited with the removal of the Tack Factory Dam, an ancient structure that for centuries had obstructed Third Herring Brook not far upstream from Nik’s home. I assured Nik that I was all for pulling old dams, and that trout weren’t a requirement as far as I was concerned, but the trout, or the promise of restoring trout, were the incentive needed for TU’s involvement.

 

It turned out that I knew of the stream that Nik wanted me to see. MassWildlife’s Southeast District regional fisheries biologist, Steve Hurley, had found numerous brook trout when he had sampled the lower part of Nik’s unnamed creek a few years prior. Steve hadn’t been to the stream’s upper reach however, so I was curious to see what Nik was excited about.

 

We parked on the shoulder of a narrow road where the now tiny headwater stream flowed from dense woods to pass through a culvert. It had been a hot, dry summer, but the little creek was cold to the touch. And we’d only walked a few yards when we saw fish streaking upstream ahead of us. I knew instantly that they were brook trout.

 

There aren’t many freshwater fish that can match the speed of a brook trout bent on finding cover, and I doubt that there are any fish as wary as a wild brook trout in skinny water, and this was skinny water. And that was the other thing that gave them away. Brook trout are the only fish that can occupy such a desolate looking little rill in numbers, their only requirement being that the water – whatever there is of it – be cold.

 

While we never got close enough to clearly see the numerous blue streaks waking through the stream ahead of us, I told Nik that I was confident that they were brook trout. A year later I’d accompany a MassWildlife survey crew as they confirmed my identification. Just as it had been when Nik led me to it, the little spring seep was full of brook trout that ranged from young of the year to fully mature fish.

 

Not long after we had explored the unnamed brook trout stream, Nik paid a visit to Red Brook where we discussed the changes that were taking place at that salter brook trout stream. The removal of four dams obstructing Red Brook had been completed the year prior to Nik’s visit, and I was able to show him pictures of the dams and their impoundments to give him an idea of the changes that were taking place at Red Brook as a result of the removal of the dams. Nik would use Red Brook in his report to illustrate what changes one might expect to see in Third Herring Brook if its dams were to be removed.

 

Meanwhile, my curiosity about the history of Third Herring Brook had been piqued. Reading Samuel Deane’s “History of Scituate”, published in 1829, I learned that colonists had described smelt as running the length of the stream to its headwater where a large spring bubbled up in Valley Swamp. During August of the summer following my meeting with Nik, with the smelt in mind, I put my canoe in at Jacobs Pond and paddled across the pond and as far as I could into Valley Swamp by following the old stream channel that was now a weed choked, slack water creek backed up by the millpond that it flows into.

 

My intention had been to see if there were any of Third Herring’s indigenous brook trout clinging to existence in the wilds of Valley Swamp. But after pushing the canoe up the flooded channel as far as I could, I gave up on finding brook trout. At that point I put my thermometer in the water and was surprised to see that it read a cold 58 degrees on a sultry 85-degree August day. After paddling back to Jacobs Pond, I dropped the thermometer in at the north end of the pond. The water was 80-degrees. These findings further confirmed what the temperature data in Nik’s study illustrated – until the dams, and later the well fields had been placed along Third Herring Brook, it had been a coldwater stream. Brook trout had retreated to the stream’s tributaries as dams had fragmented their habitat and heated the water beyond their tolerance during summer.

 

And unfortunately, the uppermost millpond on the system inundates the cold springs that give birth to Third Herring Brook.

 

One Dam Down

Mill Pond Dam, what remained of it, was removed with help from Mass. Div. of Ecological Restoration, Hanover YMCA, NOAA, American Rivers and others. This was a project that North and South Rivers had first attempted 10 years earlier, only to be stymied by the Town of Norwell’s refusal to issue a permit. This time, the permits were issued for the purpose of creating a new stream channel through a breach in the dam that had opened during a flood.

With Mill Pond gone, NSRWA now focused on the first dam on Third Herring, Tack Factory Dam, also known as the Tiffany Pond Dam. The owners of the dam, Cardinal Cushing Center, wanted the dam removed, but being a nonprofit school serving children with special needs, they lacked the funds to pay for the dam’s removal. Abutters of the pond, meanwhile, argued that the dam should stay, but none of them wanted to pay for the repairs and upkeep that the dam needed.

 

As resistance to removing Tack Factory Dam was cresting, Trout Unlimited threw its support behind the North and South Rivers Watershed Association and its effort to remove Tack Factory Dam. TU members attended public hearings in support of removal, and also advocated for the dam’s removal at town conservation commission hearings. Significant early funding for design came from TU’s partnership with NOAA. Other funds came from Greater Boston Trout Unlimited, and more came from the Sea Run Brook Trout Coalition. Facing overwhelming support for the dam’s removal, the pro dam resistance eventually dissipated.

 

The summer after I’d first met him, Nik got a temporary job working at NOAA’s office on the North Shore of Massachusetts, and not surprisingly, it would be a $100,000 grant from NOAA that would fill out the funding needed to complete the removal of Tack Factory Dam. By the time work began on Tack Factory, $450,000 had been raised for dam removal.

 

In June of that year, Nik took time off from work to paddle the Wampanoag Canoe Passage and once again raise money for NSRWA. The journey began at The Spit, a massive sand bar at the mouth of the North River. A large crowd of mostly young people joined Nik for the first leg of the Passage. This first day would be a short paddle up river to Third Herring Brook. The paddlers would enter Third Herring Brook and disembark at Nik’s house, where his family had prepared a celebration with cold beer and grilled burgers. A thunderstorm broke out over the marsh just as canoes and kayaks entered Third Herring. On the hill above the stream, Nik’s dad grilled burgers amidst claps of thunder, while wet paddlers drank beer and mingled in the house.

 

Environmentalist and river advocate, Tim Watts would join Nik to do the most arduous part of the Passage, that section that crosses the height of land between the North River watershed, and the Taunton River. Here the headwater streams are broken by numerous dams and cranberry bogs, and there are carries and drags over roads, dams, and between the cluster of ponds that give birth to both of the rivers.

 

A few days later I’d join Nik and his sister to paddle through a section of the Satucket River, the Matfield River, and then into the Taunton. It was a cold, rain swept day, and Nik and I spent much of the Satucket part of the paddle in the water as we lined the canoe through the open flume of the Cotton Gin Dam and then hauled it over the numerous downed trees in that river. We pulled the canoe out as night descended, where Nik had parked a car on the shoulder of a road that crosses the Taunton. Nik cranked the heat of the SUV to high as he drove me back to where my car was parked at a friend’s house in East Bridgewater. From our pull out point, Nik would have an easy day of paddling down the Taunton to tidewater and the end of the Passage.

 

A Trout Stream for Christmas

It’s a few days before Christmas and more than 7 years after my meeting with Nik at the trendy coffee shop in Norwell – and it’s also one year after Third Herring Brook was finally relieved of Tack Factory Dam, ending 300 years of obstruction of its flow. I’m carrying a solar panel while following Geof Day in the growing darkness at the end of the short December day. Geof is going to swap out a smaller panel for the larger one that I’m carrying.  The panel will charge the deep cycle batteries that power a PIT tag receiver operating where Tack Factory Dam once held back the water of Third Herring Brook. Geof heads the Sea Run Brook Trout Coalition and he is helping Sara Grady, a marine biologist who works with NSRWA, with a brook trout tagging project.

 

At the end of the summer, Southeast District fisheries biologist, Steve Hurley, placed PIT tags in 30 trout that were captured in Nik’s tributary. Actually, one of the brook trout that Hurley tagged that day was captured while finning in Third Herring Brook in front of where the tributary enters, and where a year before there was a shallow, summer heated Tack Factory Pond. During the fall, Geof had helped Sara build 3 PIT (passive integrated transponder) receivers along Third Herring Brook. The plan is to track the movements of the tagged brook trout. They hope to discover whether or not these, long isolated, brook trout will begin to use the new habitat now opened for them. Before the dams were built, it is very likely that the ancestors of the tagged trout moved down to the food rich North River during part of the year. Recently, Marine Fisheries found the brook trout of a small tributary of the South River using the tidal section of that river during the cooler months of the year.  There’s good reason to believe that Third Herring’s brook trout will adopt the same behavior.

 

As Geof attaches the solar panel to its brackets, I watch the night’s shadows descend on the stream flowing past us and think about the events that brought us to this place. We have a long winter ahead of us, but as the stream fades into the winter night, my thoughts turn to mayflies and rising trout, and Nik Tyak, who  the last that I heard is somewhere in Europe.

 

 

 

 

 

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WHAT THE CORMORANT TOLD ME

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With spring only a couple of months away, I think it might be time to revisit this post from 2 years ago – What the Cormorant Told Me.

rageagainstthedams

The cormorant swims upstream past the canoe launch on the Indian Head River, occasionally poking his head beneath the river’s slick surface as he paddles by me. Upon reaching the bend some fifty yards up current, he turns and allows the flow to carry him back past where I’m standing at the ramp. Then he turns and repeats his upstream search. We’re here, the cormorant and I, for the same reason. We’re looking for trout. To be more precise, we’re waiting for trout. The hatchery truck hasn’t arrived yet, but we remember that at this time last year the river was full of trout.

The annual trout migration, via state owned tank trucks, has been delayed by a long winter and a late spring. The cormorant and I have been conditioned to arrive at the river at about this time every year with the expectation of finding a stream full…

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In The Manamooskegin – The Return of a Native

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IN THE MANAMOOSKEGIN – THE RETURN OF A NATIVE

The wild requires that we learn the terrain, nod to all of the plants and animals and birds, ford the streams and tell a good story when we get back home,
Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild

“How am I theirs/If they cannot hold me/But I hold them?”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Earth-Song from Hamatreya

At Listening Point

At Listening Point

The ice is no longer safe to travel on, so I’ve taken the snow covered trail to the back end of the pond. One of my destinations is a small point of land jutting into the blue gray ice, a point distinguished by the tall and graceful white pines that sough in the winds there and catch the gold of sunsets on their rough bark. This is the place where my childhood fishing buddy, Donny Loud, taught me how to gut and scale yellow perch, roll them in flour and then fry them in butter in a skillet over a fire of dead pine limbs until they were golden brown.

For the purpose of this story, I’ll call the place “Listening Point”, in part because, in its small way, the place reminds me of Sigurd Olson’s description of the point where his cabin was situated at the edge of the Quetico-Superior – and because it is a place that I have been retreating to for most of my life for the purpose of listening and watching.

On this evening in late March, Listening Point is different than it has been in the past at this time of year. One difference is that there are no spring peepers – at least not yet. In a more normal year I’d be hearing their first tentative peeps at this time of the evening. And then, with the sun slipping lower, more peepers would begin taking up the song. At last, with the red sun dropping below the cedars on the far shore, the song would arrive at a crescendo of high celebratory trilling from the thousands of impossibly tiny frogs that are all raucously bent on reproduction. This strident announcement of the amphibian’s triumph over winter always marks the true start of spring for me. But this year, at the end of March, ice and snow still prevail. At Listening Point, true spring has yet to arrive.

There are, however, hopeful signs that winter is at its end. The pond is open where the current of Beaver Brook flows in; and narrow leads of open water extend down the pond between where I stand on the point and the long, oak and pine forested island that casts its shadows across the rotting ice.

Motion at the edge of the ice draws my attention, and for a moment I assume that it is a muskrat exploring the extent of open water, until I see the shape of the animal’s head. Long and wedge shaped, the head belongs to a beaver.

Beaver are common enough in southeastern Massachusetts these days that people should not be surprised to come across one. But this beaver happens to be the first one that I’ve ever seen in the Beaver Brook watershed, and I’ve been tromping around this brook for over 60 years.

Watching this beaver, as it cautiously works its way up the narrow open channel in the ice, it seems ironic to me that it has taken beaver so long to return to this place that was named for them. This prodigal beaver, testing the ice, is a late comer. With much fanfare from Fish and Game, deer and turkey were “restored” decades ago. Beaver are another matter. Like our “bush wolf”, the Eastern coyote, the beaver is deemed a nuisance, and has had to find its own way back.

The Wampanoags had called this granite ledged divide of land where rivers are born, Manamooskegin, which was translated by the English as meaning “land of many beavers.” The English name for the stream, Beaver Brook, is likely to have been based more on the Wampanoag’s naming than any first hand knowledge. The beaver had been trapped out of the Manamooskegin by the Wampanoags and the Massachusetts before the mid 17th Century, traded to the English in exchange for guns, iron kettles and a dependence on English technology that ultimately proved to be disastrous for the Native People of the region. The English settlers, in turn, used the beaver pelts from the Manamooskegin, and elsewhere, to pay off their debt to the Merchant Adventurers; that motley group of 17th Century venture capitalists who financed the English settlement in Plymouth.

The Manamooskegin is a height that, in many places, is too subtle to detect unless you happen to be one of the type who watches running water. Here the water runs in tannic rills out of the cedar swamps that collect rain in the shaded bowls between the ledges. These swamps and bogs feed the streams that flow into the two great river systems, the Taunton and the North, that define this bio-region of Massachusetts.

Today the Manamooskegin is, in one respect, similar to when the beaver lent their name to it. It is a watershed of dams and ponds. But unlike the beaver and their dams that once came and went across the landscape as fluidly as the waters of their streams, the Manamooskegin that I live in today, is a place long ponded and sediment choked by the centuries old rock walled mill dams that now stand as useless monuments to a failed civilization.The mill dams, the endless miles of stone walls that wind through the woods, along with the grown in cellar holes and old rock wells, are relics left by a people that gave up on trying to eke a living from this hard land.

As the sun drops, the beaver slowly makes its way back toward the brook, sometimes putting its weight on the ice, as if it is trying to break it and hasten the widening of the narrow channel. In the dimming light, he slips beneath the slick pewter surface of the water. The spell it had cast is broken, and I remember that I’ve walked the mile or so of woods road that tracks north along the pond for a reason other than visiting the point.

Where a thin trail rises to higher ground out of a dark grove of cedars, I stop at a massive beech with gray bark the color of elephant skin. This was the trail that, as children, we would take on our way to fish at Listening Point. Where the brook flows in, sunlight reflects off of the open water of the pond sending ripples of amber light across the broad trunk of the beech.

Across a small stream on the far side of the cedars there is a field growing up in buckthorn and juniper where an ancient slate headstone marks the resting place of the farmer who labored to contain his hard won fields within stone walls. We would pass the stone in the early light of April mornings, shouldering rucksacks, carrying our fishing rods like lances, our thoughts full of fish. If my little sister was with us, I’d carry her piggy back across the stream and through the puddles between the cedars. On one morning we stopped, and as kids will, carved our names and the date into the beech tree where the trail begins to rise.

The names are gone, reduced to scabs decades ago. The beech grew and healed like the forest that has reclaimed the farmer’s fields. I’m at the beech to check on a more recent carving, one that I dug into the bark of the tree last February. And, as I knew they would, the cuts are beginning to fade. The carving reads: D. Loud 1946 – 2014. In the fading light I stand by the tree wishing that I could tell Donny about the beaver… so I do.

“Donny – man you would not believe what I just saw.”

GHOST TROUT

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THE GHOST TROUT OF FRESH BROOK
A race to save the remnants of America’s 1st Sport Fishery

Farmhouse Log, April 2, 1893 – Frank W. Benson – The Sporting Art of Frank Benson
“All drove to Fresh Brook, South Wellfleet to try for Trout. Tied the horse and fished downstream to the Railroad [bridge]. In the pool above the track F. W. B. [Frank W. Benson] caught a half pounder, then another half pounder then a one pounder. The others arrived and we caught from the pool 13 more fine Trout… The 15 fish weighed 17 pounds after they were brought home and washed.”
“The idea of shifting baselines is this: Every generation has its own, specific expectations of what “normal” is for nature, a baseline. One generation has one baseline for abundance while the next has a reduced version and the next reduced even more, and so on and so on until expectations of abundance are pathetically low.”
From Paul Greenburg’s book Four Fish: His explanation of David Pauley’s concept of “shifting baselines” as it applies to fish abundance.

Wellfleet, Massachusetts, June 2007: We are chasing salters.
The green pick up truck is bouncing down a sandy power line road in the town of Wellfleet on lower Cape Cod. Southeast District Fisheries Biologist, Steve Hurley, is at the wheel. Michael Hopper and I are seat-belted in beside him. Stashed in the back of the pick up are the Division’s back pack electro-fishing equipment, measuring board, rubber gloves, five gallon buckets, a cooler and three sets of waders. We are looking for Fresh Brook; a spring fed coastal stream that according to MDFW records, provided good fishing for native, salter brook trout as recently as 1955. Of one thing we are certain – this will not be a déjà vu of Frank Benson’s experience. Instead, we’re hoping that we can locate a few surviving descendents of the brook trout that Benson and his friends caught in 1893. As we bounce toward Fresh Brook, each of us is mulling the question: Are we are chasing salters, or ghosts?

A couple of months prior to this survey, Michael Hopper had convinced Steve Hurley that Fresh Brook might still have brook trout in its headwaters. Mike had grown up in Wellfleet during the 1970’s and 80’s and had first heard about the trout in Fresh Brook from an elderly fisherman from whom he had bought a shellfish grant. This past winter, a friend of Michael’s reported seeing fish darting about in the impounded upper section of the brook. Hurley had sampled the brook in 1991 and hadn’t found any trout, but he admitted that he could have missed them. Steve has a small list of streams where he has found trout on his second search. In each instance, these are very small populations of brook trout barely clinging to survival.

Through a series of e mails we had agreed to meet at the Cape Cod National Sea-Shore parking lot where we would leave our cars and join Steve in the four wheel drive state truck. From the lot we’d head out over some woods roads and a power line right of way in search of Fresh Brook.

And so this is how it happens that, on this perfectly clear bluebird June morning, we are bouncing through the pitch pine forest of the Cape Cod National Seashore in pursuit of salter brook trout.

After driving along a power line for some distance, Steve parks the state truck at the top of the stream’s valley and we unload the battery powered back pack electro-fisher along with a measuring board, rubber gloves and nets. From where we unloaded the truck, we can see that the bicycle trail is somehow backing up the brook, creating a long impoundment that seems to fill the narrow valley. Upon closer examination, we discover that, at what had been the site of Benson’s railroad bridge, the culvert carrying the brook under the bike trail has a raised lip built into it. The culvert serves as a dam. Fresh Brook has been deliberately turned into a pond.

What has led us to this tragic little pond is Michael’s interest in the history of salter brook trout. To say that Michael is interested in salters is an understatement; actually, he’s obsessed. And, he’s far from being alone with his obsession. Because of their beauty and their unique life history, salter brook trout have been the obsession of a long line of anglers, many of them famous. When we summon up the names of the obsessed, Daniel Webster comes to mind first, followed closely by Theodore Lyman, Grover Cleveland, Robert B. Roosevelt and John Phillips.

Like many of those who today share a passion for salters, Michael is an avid angler and an amateur historian. He has spent long hours in libraries and on-line searching for historical references to salters, the sea-going members of the brook trout tribe. Moreover, as a long time supporter of Trout Unlimited, and a founder of the Sea-Run Brook Trout Coalition, Michael is committed to conserving and restoring the eastern brook trout.

What Michael and a small group of researchers have uncovered is the largely untold story of America’s first sport fishery. The scope and fecundity of the Massachusetts sea-run brook trout fishery in the 18th and 19th centuries is mind boggling when viewed from the present day. Old journals and news clippings report brook trout weighing up to five pounds. Catches were measured by the bushel basket. On Cape Cod and in coastal southeastern Massachusetts, it appears that streams that did not support brook trout were in the minority. Well into the 19th century wealthy anglers and famous political figures journeyed to Massachusetts to catch salter brook trout in much the same way that one might travel to fish for trout in Montana today.

How the Massachusetts salter fishery was lost is best left for another blog or even a book. Obviously, the industrial age and the dams that it required for power played a role, as did agriculture, and the well intended but mistaken belief that trout hatcheries could somehow replace lost habitat and natural reproduction.

As we hike along the pitch pine and scrub oak shaded rim of the valley where Fresh Brook once flowed, we are haunted by Benson’s description of catching brook trout. From the top of the valley wall we can see that the entire headwater of the stream – from the old rail line to where the first feeder springs seep out of a hillside to give birth to Fresh Brook – is a silt choked deadwater.

By bushwhacking down from an ancient earthen path named The Kings Highway, we arrive sweating and thorn lashed at the first flowing water. But the water doesn’t flow for long before it is swallowed by the impoundment. Steve Hurley’s electro-fishing only serves to sound the death knell that we sensed was coming when we viewed the flooded valley from its rim. In places, we can feel what had been the hard bottom of the stream channel that had become buried beneath two feet of silt. A few elvers and a small largemouth bass are stunned by the electric current passing through the water, but no trout. Looking at his thermometer, Michael tersely comments that the short flowage entering the dead water is 62 degrees – trout water.

But the trout are finished. Their spawning gravel is smothered. Their access to and from the sea has been blocked. The singing, sun dappled riffles and pools where they once finned – the gold vermiculations of their backs matching the pale gravel of the stream bed – are flooded, still and drowned in sediment. We have arrived too late. There are only the ghosts of these trout now, and they weigh heavily on us as we wend our way out of the valley of Fresh Brook.

On a Winter Evening – Life Comes Full Circle

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LIFE COMES FULL CIRCLE
I’m walking south across the frozen pond at dusk, the tracks of my snowshoes trailing behind me on the wind carved snow like some meandering and fading allegory for my life. The moon is rising in the east, and beside it there is a star, or planet, one that I have been told is not Venus. Too bad, because Venus is a fine idea to contemplate on a cold winter night, as the moonlight takes over from the sun now lost behind the stark tree line of the pond’s western shore.

It occurs to me that I was in almost this same spot at almost the same time last year, except that last year I was on skis.

On this night I’m walking on my 40 year old ash, Michigan style snowshoes made by Snocraft of Norway, Maine. The webbing of the old shoes is rawhide that I have to protect with a coating of spar varnish from time to time. The snowshoes are 4 feet from tail to tip and 14” wide. The white ash is bent into graceful curves that flow back to the narrow tails. They are slightly upturned at the fronts, just enough to keep the shoes riding over the snow with each forward step. The bindings are leather. One can see why the French Canadians called them racquets. These old ash racquets are made for travel in trail-less country, unlike the narrow aluminum and plastic shoes that many people hike with today. Their broad surface will carry you and a heavy winter backpack across several feet of fresh powder. I know this from experience, having used them to break trails into wild country in the dead of winter.

Until the blizzard came earlier in the week, the winter had been a long, monochromatic state of depression. The ice fishermen were happy because it had been cold. But cold without snow is visually dreary, and as hard as the shoveling is getting for me as I get older, I found myself actually looking forward to the storm. One problem that any big winter storm presents is the possible loss of power, and the best way to cope with this, other than a generator, is to have a wood stove and a supply of dry firewood. I had the stove, but not the fire wood. Buying firewood has become outrageously expensive where I live, enough so that it is no longer competitive with oil. I did have some wood, much of it old lumber left over from past carpentry jobs. The day before the storm I began cutting it into stove lengths. Then, as the storm approached, I cut up deadwood lying around my property and drove over to the log cabin of my friends, Randy and Mary. The first snow was bleaching the forest around Randy’s cabin in a haze of white flakes when I pulled into his yard. We loaded the saw and gas into the back of Randy’s truck and he brought me to some wind downed oaks where his land fronts a small river. Later, with darkness descending into the snowy woods, Randy brought the lengths of oak that I had cut, up from the river in his pick up, and helped load them into the capacious trunk of my old Buick. With some help from my friends, I now had enough dry red oak to last a couple of weeks if need be.

The blizzard of 2015 howled for more than a day and left over two feet of snow drifted around the house and barn. I had spent much of the storm resting and reading Jim Harrison’s novellas, “The Land of Unlikeness,” and, “The River Swimmer,” both a welcome diversion because the stories are set in the summer season.

I never did lose power, but burned some of Randy’s oak anyway to beat back the sub zero wind chill that crept into the old house as the storm rattled the storm windows and turned the air outside into a horizontal river of snow flowing out of the north.

The Sunday before the storm I received an e mail from John Kokoszka informing me that he’d been to Red Brook and had seen the year’s first trout fry nonchalantly feeding on micro-organisms as they hovered above a submerged log. Last year we had seen several brook trout fry during a visit to Red Brook on February first. And just as I had done last year at about this time, I marveled that brook trout fry would leave the safety of the stream’s gravel womb to range the brook in the midst of the frigid winter. Last winter I worried about the tiny fry, less than a quarter inch in length, wondering how such seemingly small and frail creatures could survive the winter’s cold storms and tide surges. When it finally became time to survey the brook’s trout population in late June, I was amazed at the number of young of the year brook trout that were found in Red Brook’s lower reach. The spawn of the year before had been a success, and the brook trout fry that had emerged, in the storm blasted midst of a very cold winter, had defied my concern and had survived the cold very nicely. I suppose that I should have expected this brook trout tolerance of cold beginnings. They are after all cold water creatures, charr, an ancient salmonid race that has thrived for far longer than we have in the shadows of glaciers.

I’ve been told that in a past life I must have been a trout, and while I don’t believe in reincarnation, I do feel that it may be in some ways an apt metaphor. We ignore the life that we share with all other creatures at our peril. We are all made of the sun, and the soil, water and the wind of our planet. And call it what you will, we all share the same origin.

Trudging down the length of the frozen pond beneath the winter moon, I’m beginning to understand why I need the snow. It brings with it a resurrection of wildness, if not actual wilderness. The pond beneath my snowshoes groans with the cracking growth of its ice, while above the pond the universe arches across this winter sky, a mysterious and glorious wilderness of fire and infinite cold. It feels good to be humbled – to be loose in this vast beauty.