In case you missed it, our luscious website (estuarymagazine.com) also features a blog—that strange information beast, a contraction between web and log, intended to add value to readers’ lives and to inspire action. In addition to offering back stories behind the magazine’s articles and features, the blog provides links to sources of activities and information, including past, present, and planned articles in the magazine related to the blog’s subject matter.
We identified in the inaugural blog four calls to action:
Several installments later our blog continues to be a learning experience for us, defined as the process by which we increase our capacity for effective action, that is, coaxing our readership’s involvement in the preceding activities. We are still learning in the blog how to facilitate navigation among topics with keywords, to narrate personal stories succinctly, to encourage participation, to provide evergreen (lasting) content, to use images, and to establish thought leadership by communicating influence and authority.
Looking ahead, we anticipate increasing the blog’s effectiveness by making it a greater team effort than it is today. Just as with the magazine itself, we will empanel a select team of competent contributors, with occasional guests, to brainstorm topics and to write, illustrate, and edit our blog’s content. What won’t change is our deep appreciation for your comments and feedback.
Ralph T. Wood
Editor, Estuary Blog
Moose comes from the Algonquin word Mooswa, meaning “the one who strips twigs.” To fulfill its life functions, the North American moose, Alces alces, requires some 10,000 calories per day, equating to between 50 and 100 pounds of food. But the large cow moose I saw deep in the woods of northern Vermont wasn’t feeding. She was running straight at me.
It was a warm November day, unusual for deer season in Vermont. Given the temperature, I was still-hunting even slower than usual, and it seemed like a good time to enjoy my apple and 3-decker peanut butter sandwich. Scaling the Volkswagen-sized granite boulder in front of me led to the perfect lunch seat. Sitting in sight of the 2,766-foot Wheelock Mountain, in awe of my surroundings, made my day whether I saw a deer or not. For those seeking solitude, this is the place to find it, west of the upper reaches of the Connecticut River in the beautiful Northeast Kingdom. Around me were 20,000 acres of unbroken forestland—mixed hardwoods mostly, with scattered red and white spruce and balsam. Hobblebush and striped maple comprise the understory, with the usual glacial debris of big boulders scattered about. The stubborn leaves of a few maples glistened from a recent rain.
The trembling ground was mild but discernable. I probably would have dismissed it except that it continued and seemed out of place. Earthquakes are rare is these parts of the Appalachian chain, and a sonic boom is just as unlikely. Being miles from any villages or roads, I ruled out a backfire or other traffic noise. Over my left shoulder came the sound of branches snapping. Twisting in that direction, I saw the bulky silhouette of an animal running towards me. In my experience, moose come in two sizes—big and bigger. This moose was in the former category—still, the 700-pound cow was twenty-five yards away and closing on me quickly. I didn’t have time to decide by a coin toss between fight or flight. And yet, something in the look of her eyes told me I was in no danger. The cow moose was not running at me but fleeing some other pursuer. Sure enough, maybe ten yards from me, she veered to my left and continued her gallop into the expanse of the forest. Before I could make sense of what happened, a calf, perhaps four months old, on awkward, spindly legs came galloping after its mother. Already this little moose understood the Game of Life. What had impelled the normally slow and deliberate moose to run for her life and that of her calf? Coyote? Black bear? A determined bull moose? I waited, hoping for an answer, but only the stillness of the forest replied.
Moose are the largest member of the deer family (Cervidae). In North America, the family includes the omnipresent white-tail (Odocoileus virginianus), the western mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), elk (Cervus elaphus), and the tundra-dwelling caribou (Rangifer tarandus). Moose, also being circumpolar, are found throughout temperate and boreal forested regions of the northern latitudes of North America, Europe, and Asia. The species has four recognized sub-species in North America.
The Connecticut River watershed is home to Alces alces americanus, the eastern moose. Its habitat is bounded to the north where northern latitudes transition from boreal forest to a treeless landscape. The limits of their southern distribution generally coincide with the northern habitat boundary of white-tail and mule deer. This is mostly due to habitat that favors the smaller deer, but also because of the presence of the tiny parasite, meningeal nematode, the brainworm. After passing through an alternate host such as snails, eggs of the brainworm are ingested by a deer or moose. The parasites hatch in the gut before migrating to the brain and spinal column. For some reason, deer experience no ill effects from the brainworm, but for moose the parasite is always fatal. They become disoriented and lethargic, display a lack of coordination, loss of appetite, and eventually die.
Like deer, moose are ruminants, with a series of four stomachs, allowing them to digest a wide variety of plants that comprise their vegetarian diet. Food selections range from the most succulent spring growth, such as the swamp dwelling false hellebore and pond lily, to their winter diet consisting of the most fibrous woody stems like those of striped maple and balsam fir. In between those extremes, moose eat a variety moist soil plants and the fruits and nuts of deciduous trees.
Locally, moose are common among the forests of the headwaters of the Connecticut River and its northern Vermont and New Hampshire tributaries. Biologists in New Hampshire and Vermont estimate their statewide populations to be 3,500 and 2,200 moose, respectively, the majority concentrated in the northern part of each state. As you travel the river downstream, moose habitat transitions from boreal (like pines) to deciduous along the Vermont–New Hampshire border to the cultivated and developed landscapes of southern New England. Moose populations decrease correspondingly along this gradient to where they become an anomaly. Massachusetts biologists estimate the statewide moose population to be around 1,000 animals, largely in the reach of the Quabbin Reservoir, while Connecticut has around 100 moose, concentrated near the Massachusetts border.
In 1781, then-Minister to France Thomas Jefferson had a complete moose skin, including hooves, sent to him in Paris. He wanted to settle a dispute with the French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, who insisted that American mammals and people (i.e. Indians) were categorically “smaller and weaker” than their European counterparts. Jefferson was incensed. In characteristic American fashion, the future President declared that North American moose were in fact so large that a European reindeer could trot comfortably “under the belly,” which was probably an exaggeration. To settle things, Jefferson wrote to New Hampshire Governor John Sullivan to have a specimen sent to Paris. Upon seeing the moose reassembled in Jefferson’s apartment, Buffon is said to have exclaimed, “I should have consulted you, Monsieur, before I published my book on natural history, and then I should have been sure of my facts.” All this is to say that Sullivan had no trouble fulfilling Jefferson’s request as moose were plentiful in those days. They served as an important food source for the region’s wolf and catamount populations and for the Iroquois, Saint Francis, Pemigewasset, and Abenaki Indian nations. Moose hides were also an important source of clothing material for these peoples.
Moose populations started to decline in part as a result of beaver trapping. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the soft underfur of castor canadensis was prized for hat making, and even Plymouth Pilgrims, who came to America in 1620, developed a profitable trade with local tribes, exchanging shell beads known as wampum for pelts. The fur trade also drew the first English settlers to the Connecticut River Valley in the 1630s. However, the European hat craze led to over-trapping in North America, and by the end of the 17th century, beaver populations in New England had been reduced to a remnant existence. This loss of beaver-based wetlands on which moose depend for forage, along with the clear-cutting of the forest for wood products as well as agriculture, resulted in a steep decline in moose populations, and by the early 1900s, these emblems of wilderness had virtually disappeared from New England. However, with the abandonment of family hillside farms following the Civil War, New England’s forests began to grow back. And with that came many of the extirpated wildlife, including deer, moose, and beaver. As the 20th century progressed, slowly and surely, moose and deer populations grew. First from remnant populations in Maine and Quebec. Then, spreading to northern New Hampshire and Vermont until late the 1990s when moose could be observed, in varying numbers, throughout the Connecticut River watershed.
When I began my career as a wildlife biologist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department in 1980, moose were still so uncommon that the biological staff recorded every moose encountered in the course of our field work. In those days, an annual total for me might be two or three moose. However, in the presence of abundant habitat and the absence of any native predator (e.g. wolves, catamounts, or First People), moose populations in northern New England grew quickly. So much so that the very habitat that fostered such growth was becoming deteriorated by hungry moose. A human impact was being felt too. Foresters complained young trees were being wiped out by the voracious cervids. Maple syrup makers complained that moose in their daily travels were readily walking through their expensive pipeline systems and the grim statistic of highway fatalities resulting from collisions with moose were increasing.
In response to this turning of the tide, wildlife agencies in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont established regulated moose hunting seasons in 1980, 1988, and 1993 respectively. Through diligent data collection and thorough analysis, each state’s biologists carefully honed their respective hunting seasons. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, moose populations had returned to an equilibrium with their habitat. But just as this over-population threat was resolved a new and dangerous threat emerged.
Shorter winters due to climate change may seem like a blessing. What is there to argue about lower home heating costs, less snow to shovel, and a longer growing season? Well, nothing, especially if you are a tick. The longer growing seasons are creating longer spring and fall feeding periods (questing) for the region’s tick populations. This turn of events is not only allowing tick populations to grow in size but also to expand their regional distribution too. As the now infamous and all too common black-legged, or deer tick (Ixodes damini), has wreaked havoc on the human population, the moose tick (Dermacentor albipictus) is seriously impacting New England’s moose population.
Unlike the multiple-host deer tick, dermacentor is a one-host tick. They will undergo all three of their developmental molts (nymph to larva to adult) on a single animal. Gravid (pregnant) females attach to their preferred host during their fall questing period. Once attached to the moose, they remain there for the entire winter nourishing their eggs with the host’s blood. As spring arrives, the females detach themselves and fall to the ground where they begin laying thousands of their fully developed eggs. Like all ticks, notorious for their blood sucking tenacity, the moose tick has been linked to poor over-wintering survival and poor neonatal development.
Moose infested with over-wintering ticks excessively lick themselves seeking relief from the irritation caused by what can be tens of thousands of individual feeding ticks. Persistent licking leads to loss of hair and the important insulating quality it provides. This in turn leads to excessive heat loss and an increase in the consumption of stored energy reserves (fat). Premature fat loss can lead to rapid body weight loss, hypothermia, and starvation. In the case of pregnant moose, calves are born underweight and likely receive poor post-natal nutrition as its mother attempts to recover her own body condition. Adult moose have been reported with having 100,000 winter ticks attached, and calves can host as many as 15,000 ticks at once. Research indicates a moose calf with a high tick load can lose approximately half of its total blood volume over two to four weeks. Poor physical condition also makes moose more susceptible to other debilitating parasites such as lungworms (Varestrongylus) and roundworms (Parelaphostrongylus). Fortunately, research by the states of Vermont and New Hampshire and the Province of Quebec is leading to a better understanding of this complex problem and to hopeful answers.
Despite the fact that moose sightings are down significantly from the late 2000s, there is hope. Data from independent studies reported by the wildlife agencies of Vermont and New Hampshire indicate that lower overall tick counts appear to correlate with current moose population densities. However, as climate change continues to impose shorter winters on the ecosystem, conclusive results will require much more study. Still, one can take a slow drive through the moose country of the northern reaches of the Connecticut River watershed during the low-light hours of dawn and dusk and have a reasonable chance to spot this endearing symbol of the wild northern forest.
About the Photographers
Duane Cross is a photographer living in northern New Hampshire who began photographing local wildlife in 2008. His favorite subjects are black bears and moose. When he can’t find bears and moose, he photographs any wildlife that wanders in front of his lens, usually fox, loons, and other birds. His website is duanecrosspics.com.
Daniel Berna is a wildlife photographer based in Newbury, Vermont. Capturing close-up action shots is his specialty. Daniel worked as an appraiser of conservation lands for over thirty years, which allowed him to explore Vermont’s beautiful farmland, wetlands, and forests. Many of his earliest photos were taken “on the job.” Now retired, he spends hours at a time in his hunter’s blind and kayak waiting for the perfect shot. He isn’t afraid to get cold, wet, or dirty in the pursuit. His photographs have been featured in the Vermont Fish & Wildlife calendar for the past five years. More of his work can be found at danielberna.com or his Instagram account @danielberna5462.
There’s a sailor superstition about changing a boat’s name. State of New York, largest and costliest steamer ever to run on the Connecticut River, was to be called Vermont. Few vessels had worse luck. State’s misfortunes began in 1871, when the 300-foot sidewheeler struck a large stone that had gotten away from workers building the Saybrook breakwater. (The principal run in those days was New York to Hartford through Long Island Sound.) Damage to her hull was minor, but State’s schedule was thrown off by a day. On her very next sailing, the steamer piled up on Pot Rock while negotiating Hell Gate. Over the next nine years, State of New York collided with a Brooklyn pier, a Norwich boat, and Joshua’s Rock just up from the mouth. But her worst accident was August 28, 1881, when the steamboat struck a hidden river snag off Salmon Cove, tearing a six-foot gash in her bottom. Harvey Brooks, the pilot on the steamer, wanted to run the boat onto the flats above Lord’s Island but could not prevail upon Captain Peter Dibble to do so. Dibble beached the big steamer quickly, driving her up on the west bank opposite Goodspeed Landing. This was also opposite the glittering Victorian Opera House, built a few years before by the steamboat magnate William Goodspeed.
The impresario tried to make the best of the situation, offering a twin bill of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and a tour of the wrecked steamer, but it wasn’t enough. In the end, the wreck of the State of New York forced Goodspeed’s Hartford and New York Transportation company into receivership, and the businessman himself died a year later from illness brought on by overwork.
At 410 miles, the Connecticut River is New England’s longest waterway. Yet it is navigable for only 50 miles, from the wide river’s mouth at Saybrook to the now vanished State Street Landing at Hartford where the big side-wheelers used to tie up. For pilots in the heyday of steamboating, the trip upriver was fraught with danger. “It takes experience to pilot up the Connecticut River,” Captain William H. Hills, commander of the steamer Middletown once said. “You have to be alert, every minute. We used to get stuck on sandbars every now and then and there was nothing to do but wait until the tide rose. Fogs are a nuisance and a lot of trouble to a steamer. We were supposed to run on schedule and all the passengers wanting to know what time we’ll get to New York. If the fog grew too dense, we had to stop altogether, but usually we could keep going at a reduced speed. At that time, oil lanterns at the top of a stick were the only signals we had. Now, there are some towers with lights, but there still is improvement in the way of lighting up the river for boats.”
Meandering rivers like the Connecticut cut away their banks on one side and build them up on the other. The channel is constantly shifting. Boatmen had to learn to read the river and remember all the changes. They had to know it in sunlight as well as in starlight, in fog and blackness. They had to know that it appeared one way on the down trip, and another way on the up journey. “The river is deeper today and wider than it used to be, but still there are numerous sandbars and
shoal waters,” Hills said. “The Connecticut is seldom what you call normal. Fog or ice or high water or low water, and the channel keeps changing. Freshets change the channels. And here and there are fish piers that once were built of stone for the use of fishermen and nobody took them away. They’re not used anymore, and some got knocked down by ice, but you have to know where they are.”
The first European to navigate the Connecticut was the Dutchman Adriaen Block, who sailed up the waterway Native Americans called Quinatucquet, or “Long Tidal River,” in the spring of 1614. Block, for whom Block Island is named, had been gathering beaver skins on the Hudson when clashes with a rival Dutch fur company culminated in the burning of his ship Tyger. The resolute skipper built a new ship with timbers salvaged from the Tyger, a 44½-foot sloop he christened Onrust, roughly translated as “Trouble” or “Strife.” Piloting the vessel through the whirlpool currents of Hell Gate, Block sailed eastward along the coast of Long Island Sound, where he came upon the Housatonic River, which he called “River of Red Hills,” from the iron-stained basalt ridges in the distance. The wide Connecticut he named Versche, or Freshwater River, in contrast to the brackish Hudson. Block explored the Connecticut as far up as present-day Hartford, and a little beyond. As if to confirm his success at fur trading, the town of Windsor claims Block established a fur trading post there.
Onrust was a beamy, shallow-draft vessel, and Block slipped easily over the treacherous sandbar at the mouth of the river and the shoals above Middletown—hazards steamboat pilots would later know as Quarry Bar, Pistol Point shoals, Dividend Bar, Log Bar, Wethersfield Bar, the Clay Banks, and Hartford Bar. It was tricky sailing, to be sure, negotiating all the twists and turns against a headwind, but Block made his way as far as Enfield before the falls turned him back. In his log the navigator wrote: “The depth of water varies from eight to twelve feet, is sometimes four and five fathoms [24–30 feet], but mostly eight and nine feet. The river is not navigable with yachts for more than two leagues farther, as it is very shallow and has a rocky bottom.…This river has always a downward current so that no assistance is derived from it in going up, but a favorable wind is necessary."
Not long ago, a 40-foot sloop heading up the river to Portland grounded on a sandbar off Haddam, and a diver in scuba gear was sent down to work her free. In the age of sail, there was kedging—sending out some sturdy young lads out in a longboat with a ship’s anchor, which they ran out as far as they could before dropping it overboard. Then it was back on deck, hauling on the capstan and inching toward the deeper water, the chore relieved somewhat by a hearty capstan chanty:
Windy weather boys, stormy weather, boys
When the wind blows we’re all together, boys
Blow ye winds westerly, blow ye winds, blow
Jolly sou’wester, boys, steady she goes.
Steamboats need a deeper channel than sailboats. In many places above Middletown five and a half feet was the only depth that could be counted on safely. There was talk of improving the channel as early as the 1650s, but nothing much was done until the churning vessels came along in the early 19th century. In 1806, a ten-feet channel was dug between Middletown and Hartford, and a company granted rights to collect tolls for sixty years for this and other improvements.
That was before Robert Fulton, the supposed inventor of the steamboat, chuffed up the Hudson in the Clermont, but Hartford folks had already witnessed Captain Samuel Morey (in 1791 or thereabouts) churn past the wharves in a steamboat of his own devising. Morey piloted his little stern-driven craft all the way to New York, the first long distance trip in a steamboat. However, because of the Fulton-Livingston monopoly, regular steamboat service between Hartford and New York did not begin until 1824 when the 127-foot sidewheeler Oliver Ellsworth, commanded by Daniel Havens of Norwich, “a gentleman of experience in the carrying of passengers and navigating the Sound,” splashed up the River in the spring of that year. A year later a slightly larger vessel was placed on the route, Macdonough, named for a Naval hero of the War of 1812, Commodore Thomas Macdonough, who had died recently and was buried at Middletown. In those days, steamboats also carried sails to help the steam.
From those crude beginnings evolved the Hartford and New York Steamboat Company, which maintained three palatial sidewheelers, City of Hartford, Granite State, and the largest, State of New York. The three boats maintained daily service between Hartford and New York, leaving both ends of the line at four o’clock in the afternoon—the Hartford boat docking at Pier 24 on the East River, Peck’s Slip, at about 5 a.m., and the boat which left New York churning up to the State Street Landing in Hartford at about seven in the morning—provided always the boat was not delayed by fog or grounding. In that case, William Goodspeed, manager of the line, would step out onto a balcony of the Opera House overlooking the river and swear at his captains for arriving at the dock at 8 a.m. instead of 3 a.m. as they should have done normally.
These big sidewheelers were difficult to navigate in the torturous reaches from Saybrook to Hartford. Four men were needed to swing the heavy rudders. Beacons or lights were few and far between in the old days, and a pilot had to know the reaches blindfolded. With the exception of Lynde Point Lighthouse, erected in 1839 to mark the entrance to the Connecticut River, a program of navigational aids was not established until 1856, when three lights were built on the river—one on Calves Island off Lyme, another at Brockway Reach in Joshuatown, and a flashing light on Devil’s Wharf in Deep River. The first leading lights or range lights, which when aligned provide a bearing, was placed at Divided Bar in 1889, and by 1953, there were twenty separate range light installations from Saybrook to Hartford, practically one at every corner.
“Today, you follow the course at night mostly by the government lights,” Captain Hills recalled in 1948, “although on a clear night you can see the banks fairly well and profit by past experience. The greatest difficulty is fog. Of course, there are lights in the towns along the shore. You would think they would help a great deal, but actually they are a hindrance. Brilliant electric lights glare in the pilot’s eyes and obscure his view of the banks. The lights may be some distance back from the shore but it’s still a problem. It’s hard to discover sometimes where the water ends, and the land begins. That’s where the danger lies.”
Snags of the sort that doomed State of New York were a constant threat. In 1870, City of Hartford struck a submerged log on her downward run and stove in her bottom. She began to fill rapidly. Captain Mills rang the engineer for a full head of steam and made for the shallows while the crew worked furiously to pull up carpets, bedding, and furniture and haul them up to the main deck. When her tender Silver Star reached the stricken steamer, City of Hartford presented a pitiful sight, sunk to her guards with her fine Brussels carpets, tapestries, rosewood settees, and marble-topped tables all piled in heap on deck. Six feet of water filled her lower cabins. Passengers, many uncomfortably soaked, were ferried back to Hartford to catch the midnight train for New York.
But City of Hartford’s worst mishap was May 17, 1876, when the 276-foot sidewheeler plowed into the new railroad bridge at Middletown while running at night. The impact of the collision carried away several of the fixed truss spans, draping one across the steamer’s foredeck. A passenger in the ship’s barroom was just lighting a cigar when the crash came. He was hurled several feet in the air and thought he had touched off an exploding cheroot. The pilot was killed.
Steamboat interests had bitterly opposed a crossing at Middletown, thus the railroad was convinced the crash was intentional. But Capt. Russell maintained that the draw span was not lighted as it should have been. Others believe he confused a light on shore with one on the bridge, both of which were white. The case would end in a draw, the judge ordering both sides to split the damages. The positive outcome was that the federal government ordered all drawbridges in the future to be marked with red navigation lights.
Erik Hesselberg has been writing about the Connecticut River for twenty years, first as an environmental reporter for the Middletown Press, and then as executive editor of Shore Line Newspapers in Guilford, where he oversaw twenty weekly newspapers. He lives on the river in Haddam, Connecticut, and is at work on a book about Connecticut River steamboats.
An Indomitable Spirit
Heading up the Connecticut River, just below downtown Hartford, the west bank reveals an incongruous vision. Eyes are pulled to a blue, onion-shaped dome, spangled with golden stars and tipped with a rampant colt finial. It tops a brick building that once housed a crown jewel of the Industrial Age. The colt is the signature icon of Samuel Colt, one of the most significant Americans ever born on the banks of the Connecticut. His enterprises took him all over the world, but he always returned to his hometown. In Hartford, he established his manufacturing empire, and built his mansion. He loaded a lot of living into his forty-seven years.
Sam Colt was born in 1814. His mother died when he was seven. His father remarried, and Sam went to work at a farm just down the river in Glastonbury. He brought with him his two most precious possessions, the flintlock pistol his grandfather carried in the Revolutionary War and “The Compendium of Knowledge.” It was a trove of mechanical and scientific information that stoked his inquisitive nature. He read about David Bushnell who invented the “Turtle,” the hand-powered submarine, which underwent her undersea trials on the Connecticut River. Bushnell’s work had a strong influence on Sam.
When Bushnell was a Yale student, he dabbled in underwater explosions. He successfully detonated a submerged device in a local pond. Fourteen-year-old Sam replicated this feat years later in Massachusetts. He vowed to blow up a raft on a lake as part of the town’s 4th of July festivities. The explosion was mighty, but the raft remained intact. Onlookers wound up soaked and covered with slimy mud. Sam’s penchant for pyrotechnics got him into further trouble at Amherst Academy. He was there to study navigation. His river upbringing had instilled a love of the nautical in the lad. Sam’s prep school career was cut short when he set a school building ablaze with one of his bombs.
His dad decided to ship him out as a common sailor, aboard the Corvo bound for Calcutta. Sam was not popular in the fo’c’s’le. He was flogged for pilfering sweets. But it was there that sixteen-year-old Sam had the revelation that would transform his life. In India, he came across a Collier pistol that could fire more than one shot without being reloaded. Sam considered its deficiencies. He had an epiphany that the Corvo’s steering mechanism and capstan held the key to designing a rotating cylinder that would align a cartridge with a gun’s barrel for successive shots. Sam took out his pocketknife and whittled a piece of wood into the prototype that would change the world.
He returned to the states and fabricated a pistol and a rifle based on his wood model. The pistol exploded, but the rifle functioned well. His dad subsidized these early efforts but refused further funding. Determined to paddle his own canoe, Sam set out with some scientific knowledge to generate start-up scratch. Since he was familiar with nitrous oxide, he put together a show and traveled throughout North America gassing audience members and declaiming erudite aphorisms. He billed himself as “Dr. S. Coult of New York, London, and Calcutta.” He later transformed the act into an interpretation of Dante’s Inferno featuring elaborate wax mannequins, actors, and pyrotechnics. His experience in show business honed Sam’s skills as a raconteur and self-promoter. Self-promotion became an important element of his eventual success.
Sam worked with gunsmiths in Baltimore to improve his designs and manufacture guns. When his products became workable, he travelled to England for patents. Returning to the United States, he secured US patents to manufacture his innovative weapons. The head of the Patent Office was a friend of his family and expedited the process. Sam was ready to produce guns large scale. He attracted venture capital and opened a factory in Paterson, New Jersey. There Sam configured the mass production of interchangeable parts. Output sputtered along, and Sam met with mixed success marketing his inventive firearms. Regulatory red tape prevented sales to state militias. An early order of seventy-five guns was cancelled when Colt could not produce on time. Sam ran into trouble with his backers. They didn’t appreciate his use of company funds for bibulous dinners with potential customers. Sam also felt he should dress well on the company’s dime in order to impress clients. Clients were not sufficiently impressed, and the company folded.
Hoping to stay afloat, Sam, inspired by Connecticut River inventor David Bushnell, looked under water. He worked with telegraph pioneer Samuel Morse to create a submersible mine detonated by electricity to blow up enemy ships. He demolished several vessels, but Navy funding never materialized. The project was abandoned. During this time, Sam’s brother John committed a grisly murder. Sam stood by his sibling throughout his trial, but a guilty verdict was rendered. John was scheduled for execution in New York’s Tombs Prison. On the morning he was to hang, he married his pregnant paramour, Caroline Henshaw. After a conjugal visit in his well-appointed cell, a fire broke out in the jail. When the smoke cleared, John was dead from a self-inflicted stab wound. It was generally acknowledged that Henshaw’s baby was Sam’s.
It was by the Connecticut River where Sam’s dreams came true. Sam moved back to his hometown and established Colt’s Patent Manufacturing Company in Hartford’s flood prone South Meadows. He hired men of genius and vision who developed the machinery to create some of the most iconic firearms in history. An order from the Texas Rangers for 1,000 pistols provided the springboard Sam needed to rise to the highest echelons of the Gilded Age. With a proven product, eminently affordable and extremely useful in the mid-19th century world, Colt was the right man in the right place and time. He began construction on a massive industrial complex capped with his signature blue dome. But the river had other plans. The Great Flood of 1854 coupled spring snowmelt with sixty-six hours of driving rain and devastated much of Hartford, including Sam’s building site. His detractors guffawed. Served him right to build in a swamp.
Undeterred, Sam vowed, “I will bind myself to exclude the river from the South Meadows.” Exclude it he did. He built an extended dike to protect his property and construction recommenced. The following year’s freshet was no match for Colt’s embankment. The River was held at bay, and Sam’s factory came to fruition. It included Vrendendale Dock from which ships could carry his wares around the globe and receive loads of natural resources. The dock also accommodated his private ferry. He used his political clout to charter a service to carry his workers across the River from East Hartford. Some of his captains went on to skipper the grand steamboats that ran between Hartford and New York.
Sam became a world traveler; he hobnobbed with kings, czars, and caliphs. He used his personality to sell guns worldwide. His demonstration at the Crystal Palace Exhibition resulted in international celebrity endorsements and made Colt a household name. Today, in France, a pistol is still called “le colt.” Sam was also a pioneer in product placement. He commissioned famed artist George Catlin to paint scenes featuring Colt firearms. Colt was known to play two sides against each other as he ginned up arms races. He would sell to opposing countries, and supplied both the North and South with weapons in the run up to the Civil War.
Colt expanded his holdings and built his personal fiefdom, Coltsville. It included Armsmear, his vast mansion, with its many gardens, lagoons, lakes, fountains, and pathways. He also built housing for his workers. These included the Swiss Village designed to attract German workers to weave willow into wicker products. Sam had planted willow to anchor his dike and realized that its shoots could turn a profit. Coltsville had its own brass band, school, militia, and beer hall. Colt’s recruitment of European workers drastically changed the ethnic makeup of Hartford. He was a pioneer of diversity in Connecticut.
On June, 5, 1856, the steamboat Washington Irving left Vrendendale Dock bound downriver to Middletown. Aboard were Colt, his bride to be—Elizabeth Hart Jarvis, and their wedding entourage. They were married at the Episcopal Church. After an extended grand tour honeymoon, they took up residence at Armsmear. Elizabeth and Sam set about gathering world art. Their collection would later grace Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum. They had four offspring, but only one, Caldwell, survived childhood. Six years into their marriage, Sam Colt died of gout. Elizabeth became the caretaker of his industrial empire and carefully curated his legacy. Through shrewd hirings, and a sharp eye on the bottom line, she steered the company into the 20th century. She was active in charitable and cultural organizations and was called “The First Lady of Connecticut.”
In Sam’s memory, she commissioned the Church of the Good Shepherd in Coltsville. It’s architecture is infused with images of pistols and rifles. She was a doting mother to Caldwell (Collie). She hoped that he would take the helm of Colt’s enterprises. At twenty-one, he designed a double-barreled repeating rifle, now among the rarest of Colt collectibles. But Collie trod the libertine path favored by second generation sons of Gilded Age magnates. He devoted his life to sailing, hunting, fishing, fine wine, and other hedonistic pursuits. He raced his schooner Dauntless across the Atlantic and brought her to the Connecticut River every autumn to hunt rails and carouse. He died under mysterious circumstances in Florida at age thirty-five. His mother promptly built a memorial Coltsville parish house with maritime motifs throughout. She installed the Dauntless in Essex as a shrine to her son and would visit it every fall. It eventually sank, but Essex still has the Dauntless Club and Dauntless Shipyard.
Today, Coltsville is on its way to National Park status. Visitors to the Wadsworth Atheneum marvel at the art in the Colt art collection. In this time of cultural reflection, Sam’s legacy, especially as it relates to the subjugation of indigenous people and issues surrounding the Civil War, is under re-examination. He was certainly no saint, but his legend lives on. Firearms are still produced under the Colt name. The guns he created are among the world’s most sought after collectibles. Biographies of Sam are churned out regularly. Elizabeth’s beloved Armsmear is now a residence for “senior women of limited income,” the result of her generosity and foresightedness. The Connecticut River still reflects Sam’s blue onion dome as the River he loved flows past his heritage.
Qwannitucket, the Long Tidal River land known as the Connecticut River Valley, is the living pulse of this region currently known as New England. This article, which focuses on the lower valley of the Connecticut River, is intended to raise awareness in modern society about the beautiful resource that connects north to south, mountains to ocean, the swimmers, winged, four-legged, two-legged, and all the living beings known and unknown that dwell here. I say life known and unknown because there is so much about the river that is unknown, misunderstood, and/or ignored by modern society.
My knowledge of the River began as a child camping out and traveling the river with my family (my father modified speed boats among other things and in 1961 had the unofficial fastest outboard-powered boat in the Hartford area…a 14-foot Penn Yan reinforced and modified by him to hold a 75 horsepower Evinrude that exceeded 50 mph). While my dad grew up paddling canoes, I grew up swimming and traveling in speed boats, then later on canoes, kayaks, and finally building trimarans and other hybrid canoes.
To better understand the river and how humans have interacted with “Her” for the past 12,000-plus years, here is a quick overview of Indigenous lifestyle and society on this river before colonial times.
Indigenous people from this area are often referred to using names that evolved during colonization like “Woodlands Indians,” and while this is true of many inland groups, Natives along the lower River Valley would more accurately be described as River and Coastal dwellers.
All Native American communities throughout the valley speak variants of the Algonquin language.
Names that came into use during colonial times include the Pequots, who trace back to the Mohicans (or Maheekanew, the original name). The Mohegan of Uncasville were Pequot before they broke away and called themselves Mohegan. Natives throughout the lower Connecticut River Valley and Narragansett, Montauk, and Wampanoag were connected by way of Long Island Sound and the Atlantic. Qwannitucket was the ideal central artery with its fertile plains and abundant water. The River and its tributaries connected all these communities, which were primarily inhabited by coastal and river dwellers, not woodland dwellers.
The area described above was the immediate neighborhood in which all communities could reach each other within a day or two (and often much faster) by use of tides and widespread maritime skill.
In pre-colonial days, the typical family had two homes, one for summer and another for winter. The wigwam or wetu (forerunner of Buckminster Fuller’s Geodesic Dome) was the summer home, usually constructed of cedar saplings and covered with woven cattail mats, the circular structure being 12–14 feet in diameter with one fire pit in the middle. The cattails provided a natural “air conditioning,” letting fresh air circulate through. They were also waterproof and kept the rain out.
The summer home was intended for the immediate family near the river in the meadows or flood plain. It was here the people planted and grew beans, squash, pumpkin, and of course, corn, which made its way up from Central America around 1,000–1,200 years ago.
Native people here cultivated crops, gathered wild plants, and fished for their primary diet. The popular myth that hunting was the primary food source developed during and after colonization when most Natives were removed, or fled, from their traditional locations to less fertile lands and reservations where people were forced to hunt far more than they did before colonization. Hunting was in fact mainly done during the winter to supplement the food that had been dried and stored earlier in the year for the winter home.
The winter home was larger and was made for the extended family, again with a sapling frame in an oval shape (the so-called Quonset Hut, another invention based on Indigenous technology) called Nuswetu, a Wampanoag word meaning “house of three fires,” which were placed in a row running down the middle. (The Wampanoag language is one dialect of Algonquin, which everyone spoke in this whole region.)
The Nuswetu was located on a higher more protected area, usually not too far from the wetu. The Nuswetu was covered with large sections of tree bark (usually elm) which provided good insulation and protection against the elements. It was here that the people would spend the winter making and repairing tools, nets, whatever they needed. During the winter there was music, games were played, and stories would be told, retold, and new ones added, the fires being the screen that illuminated the narrative.
The large corn fields in the meadows of Rocky Hill, Connecticut, where the fields give way to the wooded hills a short distance from the River, is a typical setting from the past. There, archaeologists have uncovered various sites from hundreds to thousands of years old. These sites are often referred to as Native American when, at the time, there were no “Americans” native or otherwise. Besides arrowheads and tools, large shell heaps have been uncovered. The shells are from present-day Long Island, New York, further confirmation that Indigenous people had long and deep connections to the regional waterways with the means to travel them in a timely fashion.
The primary vehicle for transportation in those times was the canoe, or misoon. The misoon, commonly known as a “dugout,” was a large tree trunk that was not dug out at all. It was burned out over days by controlled and carefully tended small fires along the length of the trunk. Misoon ranged in size from 10 feet to 50 feet or longer, depending on its function. Every family had access to one just as cars are used today, with water being the road. There was even a form of public transportation because in places where sections of the river or stream were low and rocky, misoon were placed there so people could travel into less accessible areas with relative ease. This enabled trading, visiting relatives, and giving— generosity is an attribute Native people admire and strive to attain. Misoon also facilitated traveling with the tides and seasons throughout the long tidal river network that connected the lower valley populated by numerous Algonquin-speaking communities. These communities maintained connections throughout the valley and into Nipmuc and Abenaki territory (both of whom are actually Woodland people) in the northern interior.
As you can see, Qwannitucket is an ancient stronghold of the Algonquin civilization that stretches far beyond the valley, and has been a point of departure for countless journeys across time and throughout this hemisphere (which, by the way, was known as Turtle Island, but that’s a story for another day).
I saw my first common loon in January of 1958, at the mouth of the Connecticut River. In those days, Griswold Point was connected to the mainland. As a twelve year old, on my own, I could hike dry-shod to the point’s end and survey the River’s mouth. This was an exotic (albeit chilly) destination; an exploration quite separate from my cozy daily family life. But for the loons, it was entirely normal: they wintered there on the cold waters of the Sound, not far offshore, diving and pursuing the small fish of the estuary. Thirty years were to pass before I had a chance to study the little-known migration and winter biology of this “very unbirdlike bird.” I began in 1988 on Maryland’s lower Choptank River, where migrating loons made a long autumn stop to flock-feed on juvenile “peanut” menhaden. Over the next thirty years, at various sites, I gradually came to realize what extraordinary creatures loons are. Loon study is a constant lesson in applied physics and chemistry!
Loons are among the most aquatic of all birds. After they leave the nest, the only time most healthy loons return to land is for nesting, several years later. And that nest site is at the watery edge of land, sometimes boggy, usually inaccessible, enabling a quick discreet escape to the water. Loons’ obligate waterborne life requires frequent oiling of plumage, which traps an air layer that maintains insulation from cold water and assists floatation. Within loons’ skin are oil (sebaceous) glands that constantly secrete the feathers’ waterproofing. There is also a large oil or uropygial gland that lies in body tissue just above the base of their stub tail. It is drained by a wick of specialized feathers, which they run through their bill, or rub with the back of their head. Both bill and head are then used to spread oil all over the plumage. In calm waters, their white belly shows when they roll onto their back to anoint themselves. Studies estimate that about 10 percent of the day, thus six minutes of every hour, are devoted to this plumage maintenance. To us it may seem like living in a leaky boat, but for loons it quickly becomes second nature. In underwater pictures, loons become slimmer, streamlined creatures, as water pressure compresses the air layer underneath their body feathers. Alas, this marvelous arrangement also means extreme vulnerability to oil spills, which collapse their close-feathered “wetsuit.” Oiled loons can then die of exposure.
Loons’ many physical specializations give them comfortable access to a range of winter habitats unequaled in our bird world, from interior freshwater lakes out to continental shelf waters sixty miles offshore. The latter implies storm hardiness. Breathing between wave crests is doubtless second nature. Dr. Kevin Kenow of USGS (United States Geological Survey) has attached pressure sensors that demonstrate optional diving capacity to 150 feet, when Great Lakes feeding makes that necessary. Add to this the diverse freshwater lake stopovers that loons make on migration, and the huge northern range of lakes and ponds they use for breeding, and loons can fairly be called “Water Masters.” The British name “Great Northern Diver” gets at it—loons are goose-sized; they breed only in northern habitats; and yes, they can dive deep.
The loon’s life history—salt water, fresh water, underwater, aerial, and migratory—challenges our landbound imaginations. I am reminded of Henry Beston’s famous cautionary quote: “…the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.…They are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”
For many reasons, I consider loons triumphs of evolution—but they have paid a price for these specializations. Their paddle feet, their sole means of underwater propulsion, are the size of a small human hand. Unlike ducks and geese, these feet are very far back on the body, so loons cannot stand or walk. Thus they have extremely limited “push-along” mobility on land. They require a watery landing strip, which must be quite long to enable their subsequent labored takeoff—an extended taxi to get that weighty body back into the air. Their flight is powerful, three wingstrokes per second, but not buoyant. Their wings are slender compared to those of a wild goose, which has a similar weight. With such heavy wing-loading, they must fly fast, or fall. And yet large numbers of loons traverse the continent’s interior twice a year. They have a broad North American distribution, limited by winter ice on the northern end and heat on the southern end. This loon nation succeeds by using water sites and seasons where man’s presence is either limited or respectful. They are long-lived, potentially healthy into their twenties, slow to mature (given the challenges of learning to be a loon), and when they achieve breeding, they produce at most one or two young each season. To succeed in this beautifully specialized body requires loon intelligence—which might sound like an oxymoron, but clearly is not. Part of my thirty-year fascination has been a quest to learn the nature of that powerfully adaptive non-human intelligence.
Common loons’ biology in Connecticut is an incomplete story: an invitation for the curious coastal naturalist. For example, in a recent year, I visited Griswold Point on the first of November and observed several newly arrived migrant loons feeding together close to shore, in the surf. Such wave action tosses little prey fish around, leaving them less aware of the diving loon, and vulnerable as prey. This poses the question of whether autumn loons on Long Island Sound may flock-feed on locally produced schooling “peanut” menhaden—as I have found them to do very commonly on Chesapeake Bay.
In winter and spring, two different forms of the Common Loon occur in Connecticut, and they offer a lesson of “Physics in Nature.” The loons wintering on the Connecticut coast are big-bodied, heavy loons that can take the cold. They breed locally in northern New England, and probably maritime Canada. Their heavy wing-loading works because they are short-haul migrants. In contrast, the loons that migrate through in spring come from a separate population of lighter, smaller birds, fledged in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and interior Canada. Research has found they are non-breeding subadults, headed for summer on northern salt waters from New Hampshire to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Thus, they are long-haul migrants, which have migrated south across the continent to winter on the Gulf of Mexico and the southern Atlantic coast. Being smaller and lighter, they are adapted to winter on those warmer waters—and they have the lighter wing-loading that is essential for their long overland cross-continent flights. But for their first few nonbreeding years, they migrate north in spring up the Atlantic coast, thus avoiding the extreme aggression of territorial adults breeding on interior northern freshwater lakes.
Here again, there is more for Connecticut watchers to learn. On May mornings in Lyme and Salem, I have seen and heard some of these loons headed east-northeast—presumably taking a short cut to the Atlantic north of Boston. But the extent of this flyway is unknown. Sometimes there are hundred-loon “fallouts” at the large, strategically located Wachusett Reservoir in eastern Massachusetts. However, other northbound loons continue due east along the coast, some until they reach Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts. On the morning of May 6, 2017, I was again at Griswold Point, leading the first outing of the Connecticut Audubon Roger Tory Peterson Center’s new “ecological exploration” field program. The previous day, gale-force winds whipped Long Island Sound to a froth. Then on our two-hour morning watch we saw sixty plus loons headed east-southeast from the Connecticut River, apparently returning to their eastern coastal migration path after taking refuge from the storm somewhere upriver. So in late April and May, keep an eye and ear out for these migrating loons. When airborne, they may make their famous “tremolo” (laugh) call to stay in contact. In forested Connecticut, you might only hear their laughing overland passage.
Paul Spitzer lived in the Connecticut River Valley during his formative years as a naturalist and ecologist. He was a protégé of Roger and Barbara Peterson. He began his Osprey–DDT research as a senior at Wesleyan University. He continued his doctoral research on northeastern osprey population biology at Cornell. He pursued conservation biology projects on endangered Siberian cranes wintering in India; monarch butterflies in Mexico; endangered kakapo parrots in New Zealand; and raptors in India, with the Bombay Natural History Society. He returned to the Connecticut River Valley to document the successful osprey colony’s dependence on migratory Atlantic Menhaden, thus completing 50 years of intermittent osprey conservation biology. Along the way and over a 30-year period, he also studied the migration and winter ecology of the Common Loon on all three North American coasts. “Over a lifetime, certain species and study areas have become my ‘field laboratories.’” Spitzer says it was a privilege to be engaged in such long, detailed study of ospreys and common loons—“two fabulous creatures that are easy to share with the public.” He is currently seeking a publisher and editor for his loon book.
On the west shore of the Connecticut River, the town of Hartford bustled in the morning light. People gathered at the market on the town green, in taverns, and in coffeehouses, where a few years earlier the local secret society might have planned a revolution, spurred on by the demon caffeine. Now, in the 1780s, you might find a group of recent college graduates in their place, sitting in ladder-back chairs at a long table talking about literature, about how to build a new nation with words.
On a good day, you might see John Trumbull, the cousin to the governor, talking with firebrand Joel Barlow and Timothy Dwight visiting from Fairfield. Nearby is Trumbull’s young roommate, Noah Webster, chatting with Richard Alsop and Lemuel Hopkins about replacing the old English spelling book with a new American version. They are joined by others, sharing a plate of chestnuts, a pot of coffee, and vigorous opinions. This is how a literary movement is born.
The most prominent member of this literary crew, John Trumbull, was born in 1750 in Watertown, Connecticut, and passed a college entrance exam at age seven. By thirteen he had learned Greek and was off to Yale College, where he squeezed into Old College Hall with rowdies from other towns and colonies. Two years later in 1765, he made a good friend in Timothy Dwight, the grandson of preacher Jonathan Edwards. Dwight was studious and healthy, with a voice like melting honey and a mind that could memorize long poems with little effort. He rigorously controlled every piece of food that went into his body, tried vegetarianism, and eventually had to recover from an eating disorder. His extensive reading led him to need large horn-rimmed glasses.
They were diligent students but active against the Stamp Acts and the oppressive administration at Yale. They also had to learn poetry on their own since college students in those days had no literature (or science) classes. They raided the Yale Library and bought books at Benedict Arnold’s nearby bookstore. Soon they were joined by David Humphreys of Derby, who entered school in 1767 at the old age of fifteen. He joined a secret literary society with Dwight and Trumbull, who gave the commencement oration that year. Humphreys and Dwight stayed at Yale as tutors, instructing younger students like Nathan Hale and Benjamin Tallmadge.
Trumbull had the first major publication from these “Wits,” called “Progress of Dulness,” a send-up of college life that followed the adventures of “Tom Brainless” and “Harriet Simper” through a mind-numbing educational process. “Four years of college dozed away/In sleep, in slothfulness and play,/Too dull for vice, with clearest conscience/Charged with no fault but that of nonsense.” Soon afterwards, Trumbull got a job in the Boston offices of a lawyer named John Adams, but the chaos surrounding the Tea Party drove him back to Connecticut.
Another younger boy named Joel Barlow transferred from Dartmouth to join them at Yale. Originally from Redding, Connecticut, he was tall and handsome, easily making friends with the older literary crowd and his classmate Noah Webster. Barlow wrote to Webster, saying, “let us show the world a few more examples of men standing upon their own merit, and rising in spite of opposition.” It was not just literature they were interested in but progress and revolution.
That next year, students took part in revolutionary protests, and the Battles of Lexington and Concord threw the spring semester into chaos. Humphreys and Barlow both joined the Continental Army, and Dwight became an army chaplain. Their friend Nathan Hale soon found himself at the end of a hangman’s noose, paraphrasing a play he had learned in their literary society, Addison’s Cato: “I only regret I have but one life to lose for my country.”
Trumbull turned his pen to the war effort, writing M’Fingal, a mock epic that brought the war down to the size of a New England town meeting and an argument between loyalist Squire M’Fingal and the revolutionaries. It was not just propaganda, though, and the patriots themselves did not escape his satire. That balance would make this poem the only one by the Wits to survive in schoolbooks and public imagination well into the 19th century.
The rest continued to write but focused on their service to the army, and to the new country. Humphreys became a colonel and presented the surrendered British banner to the Congress. Barlow briefly became a minister, as well as an editor, storekeeper, and lawyer in Hartford, partly to be near to Trumbull. Barlow also finished The Vision of Columbus, the first work of poetry to connect the Anglo-American experience with the Italian explorer. Another friend, Dr. Lemuel Hopkins, joined them, and the three friends revised the Christian Psalm book, removing mentions of both “King” and “England.” Timothy Dwight’s nephew-in-law, Richard Alsop, moved upriver from Middletown and opened a bookstore where they often gathered. Trumbull and Barlow were elected to the Hartford Common Council, David Humphreys was elected to the state legislature, and now everyone but Dwight lived on the banks of the Connecticut River.
Dwight had accepted the pastorate of Greenfield, Connecticut, and wrote The Conquest of Canaan, an epic in heroic couplets that connected the Old Testament to the founding of America. He may have missed the creation of a mock epic written collectively by the others, The Anarchiad, though he may have simply kept his name out due to his position as minister. It was a plea for a stronger central government to balance the chaos that sometimes comes from unfettered democracy, or “mob rule.” The cause of these “Hartford Wits” had shifted from revolution to the unification of the states.
That project was helped immeasurably by the young, red-haired Noah Webster, who had grown up in West Hartford, gone to Yale with Barlow, and lived with Trumbull in Hartford twice during the 1780s. He was the first and only Wit to become a best-selling writer, though not for poetry. He created a spelling textbook that would be used by every child in America for the next 75 years. Many decades later, he would also finish the first comprehensive American dictionary, part of his lifelong project to culturally unite America.
The rest joined him, for a while. Humphreys wrote the classic hagiography, Life of Israel Putnam, attempting to define national character. Dwight published Greenfield Hill, a long poem dedicated to the simple values of rural America. In addition to preaching, Dwight taught at Greenfield Academy, and one of his students, Elihu Hubbard Smith, moved to Wethersfield and joined the Hartford Wits. He edited American Poems, Selected and Original, published in 1793, which included poems by Trumbull, Humphreys, Dwight, Barlow, Alsop, Hopkins, and others. It was the first general collection of poetry ever attempted in America.
And yet, a century later, the Wits would be largely forgotten, thought to be “unreadable,” and embarrassing examples of “epic pomp.” This is fairly common for literary movements, and the second one in American history, the Knickerbocker Group from New York, has not fared much better. Not until the Concord Group of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Alcott does “American Literature” begin for most readers, teachers, and anthologies.
Part of this is the fault of critics, who too often focus on their own aesthetic tastes and not on historicity. But part is due to the Wits themselves, who refused to “live in a musty attic” for the sake of literature alone. Dwight found time to write here and there, but mostly spent his time as president of Yale and professor of theology. Trumbull served as a Connecticut Superior Court judge, stopping all his verse due to his belief that “the character of a partisan and political writer was inconsistent with the station.” Humphreys brought merino wool sheep to the country and served as ambassador and “secret agent” for Washington and Adams. Barlow tried to found a national university and served as ambassador under Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, dying while trying to meet with Napoleon on his retreat from Russia.
Though they remain footnotes in the great pageant of American literary history, Joel Barlow, John Trumbull, Timothy Dwight, David Humphreys, and their friends helped define the national mythology that often leaves them out. Their work reflected the most important theme of their age: the potential and risk of our democratic experiment. Often, they failed to reach the heights of their contemporaries in Europe, and often they failed to find readers in their own country. Being the first to do something, and also being the best at it, is a difficult thing to accomplish.
That task was made more difficult by the Wits’ true loyalty—to improving the community, to what we might call the best part of politics. Their belief that the Revolution would usher in a golden age, and that they could play a part in it, seems too idealistic for more cynical times. And yet, we still hang on to that naiveté, continuing generation after generation in that most American of traditions—hope.
From Top: Timothy Dwight, Painting by John Trumbull 1817, Yale University Art Gallery
Joel Barlow, Painting by Robert Fulton 1805, Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields
Lemuel Hopkins, Painting by John Trumbull 1793, Yale University Art Gallery
John Trumbull, Painting by John Trumbull 1793, Detroit Institute of Arts Collection
David Humphreys, Painting by Gilbert Stuart ca. 1808, Yale University Art Gallery
Noah Webster, Painting by James Herring 1833, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Believe it or not, there are more than 3,000 dams on the mighty Connecticut River and its myriad tributaries.
Sixty-five of these are “major dams” that produce measurable “hydrologic alteration” of the river basin, according to the US Army Corps of Engineers.
In layman’s terms, these sixty-five imposing barriers affect the water’s flow, elevation, and temperature—measurably impacting the riverine environment and many of the species that depend on it, including our own. According to The Nature Conservancy, the Connecticut River is one of the most heavily dammed waterways in North America.
Sixteen dams span the river’s 410-mile-long main stem. Some dams were designed to stop the natural flooding that once devastated—and also nurtured—the watershed. Others collect drinking water for nearly five million people. Of course, what is good for our species is quite often not good for other living things.
By early 2021, two power companies that operate four large hydroelectric dams and one associated pumping station on the Connecticut River are expected to submit final relicensing applications to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). These five facilities, which account for more than 40 percent of the hydropower capacity in New England, were last certified half a century ago, when far less was known about how they impaired fish passage and habitat for species such as Atlantic salmon, freshwater mussels, shorebirds, sea lamprey, and blueback herring.
The journeys up and down the River of thirteen species of migratory fish are significantly affected by this cohort of dams. American shad is the object of a longtime but declining fishery on the lower Connecticut River. The annual harvest has been dwindling for years, and there are now only six people licensed to take shad commercially in Connecticut. An anadromous species, shad return from salt waters to their home rivers to spawn where they historically traveled unimpeded as far north as Bellows Falls, Vermont.
It turns out that what happens at the Turners Falls Dam in Massachusetts, some ninety miles upriver from Long Island Sound, affects what goes on in Old Lyme, Connecticut, at the river’s mouth. Amazingly, this dam has presented a formidable obstacle to shad and other migratory species since 1798.
Shortnose sturgeon was another lucrative catch a century ago, but it has been listed as an endangered species since 1967. “It took about thirty years to basically wipe that fishery out,” said Andrew Fisk, executive director of the nonprofit Connecticut River Conservancy, an advocacy organization that is closely following the relicensing process.
How shad, sturgeon, and their fellow travelers will fare in the decades to come will depend in large measure on the relicensing of five large hydro projects on the Connecticut River: Turners Falls Dam and Northfield Mountain Pumping Station in Massachusetts and three dams in Vermont: Vernon, Bellows Falls, and Wilder. In 2021, the applications from the two power companies that operate these facilities will be under scrutiny by federal agencies as well as state officials from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont—and from the public.
By law, surface waters belong to the people. Great River Hydro of North Walpole, New Hampshire, and FirstLight Power of Burlington, Massachusetts, are asking for permission to continue manipulating those waters to turn turbines and to turn a profit.
Great River Hydro is seeking approval to run its three hydro plants in Vermont: Vernon, Bellows Falls, and Wilder. The last is the northernmost of the three dams, more than 200 miles upriver from Long Island Sound. FirstLight’s application is for the Turners Falls Dam in northern Massachusetts and its companion facility, the Northfield Mountain Pumping Station. A pumping station allows for the diversion of water from the river so that it can be released later to generate power to meet demand, usually when the kilowatt price is higher.
Monitoring or participating in the relicensing process for hydropower facilities is not for the faint of heart. In addition to federal and state agencies, myriad consultants, researchers, and nonprofits like The Connecticut River Conservancy and The Nature Conservancy are involved. The relicensing process began in 2013. More than seventy scientific studies and thousands of pages of information, testimony, and comments are already in the public record. Great River Hydro alone authored thirty-three of the studies and was still working on some of them in mid-September 2020, according to spokesman John Ragonese, the company’s federal license manager. He declined to comment on contents of the final application.
FirstLight has conducted forty studies and as of August 2020 was still working on its final application after receiving a request for more information from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. A spokesman from FirstLight also declined to comment on specifics, including the submittal date of its final application. It will be a public document once it is filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
There are, however, publicly available statistics that shed light on areas where environmental stewardship could be improved—for example, by comparing the fish passage numbers for the Holyoke Dam (which is not part of this relicensing process) with FirstLight’s Turners Falls Dam (which is). The US Fish and Wildlife Service reported in July 2020 that this spring 314,361 American shad, swimming upriver to spawn, safely passed Holyoke and headed north for the next obstacle: the Turners Falls Dam, which allowed just 41,252 of the fish to pass. Some 760 blueback herring successfully ascended Holyoke, but only 3 got by Turners, whose passage number for American eels was zero, compared with 2,645 at Holyoke.
This discrepancy, which has been known for decades, is largely due to the fact that Holyoke has a fish lift, or elevator, that boosts the fish up and over the dam, while species arriving at Turners have to climb fish ladders, which are essentially man-made waterfalls. The ladders were mandated to help Atlantic salmon ascend but are less well suited for species like shad.
“Right now they have poor fish passage at Turners Falls that is out of compliance with federal goals, but those goals are not in their current license,” said Andrew Fisk, executive director of the Connecticut River Conservancy. “We’d been in discussions with them from the late 1990s up to 2010 on how to fix this, but the company took no action, pointing to the license application process that would begin in 2013, saying they would do it then. They were able to get another 10 years without having to make infrastructure improvements.”
“We want 75 percent of the fish that reach a dam to pass upstream,” said Ken Sprankle, US Fish and Wildlife Service project leader for the Connecticut River Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office. He added that Turners Falls passes only about 10 to 15 percent of the fish that reach it.
In addition to improved upstream passage, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has set a target of 95 percent survival rate for fish heading downstream. The mortality rate of fish that pass through the turbines at Turner’s Falls, for example, is greater than 20 percent, according to Sprankle. “The mortality rate of fish going through the turbines is unacceptable,” he said, adding that the dam also has a safer bypass route that is taken by some 40 percent of descending fish. The ultimate goal of improved fish passage, according to Sprankle, is to have shad and other species make use of underutilized river habitat upstream of Turners Falls and the other three dams in the relicensing process.
Len Greene, director of government affairs and communications for FirstLight, which owns Turners Falls, would not comment on the specifics of what the company will include in its application. “When we do file, the amended final license application will address all of the pertinent issues that we need to address according to what the federal government and the state [of Massachusetts] are looking to require,” he said. “I will say that whatever is required under the current license will be vastly improved; the environmental impact of the resources that we own will be substantially improved. That’s a guarantee.”
In addition to improving fish passage, governmental and private stakeholders in the relicensing process are concerned about how dams alter the natural flow of the River, holding back or releasing water based on economic considerations alone. This process, called peaking, can change not just the level and pace of the water, but its temperature and the amount of sediment it deposits as well. Species affected by such activity include not just fish and freshwater mussels but also plants, birds, and animals in the River’s floodplain.
Regarding the artificial and regular raising and lowering of river levels, Kathryn Kennedy, a scientist with The Nature Conservancy, said, “Species don’t do well typically in systems like that.” She led a recently completed report, The Connecticut River Flow Restoration Study, which was conducted by The Nature Conservancy in collaboration with the US Army Corps of Engineers and other partners. “There are ways to manage the river to provide the energy that’s needed while mitigating and minimizing some of those effects,” she said. The study identifies the environmental impact of various flow patterns and provides “the basis for potential improvements in dam management.”
The ultimate goal would be to get the River to flow more naturally while still meeting the needs of the power grid, satisfying the bottom lines of the hydro companies, and providing for the safety of human populations downstream. It’s a tall order. One rapidly advancing technology that has the potential to help achieve steady-flow generation is lithium-ion storage batteries. The New York Power Authority has joined with Cadenza Innovation, a Connecticut firm, to test its advanced batteries by establishing a demonstration facility this year.
“The economics of battery storage are changing dramatically,” Andrew Fisk said. “It would be a great solution to stop peaking power and allow companies to harvest waterpower and sell it at a better price while not damaging the river as much.”
Kathryn Kennedy said, “We’re very interested in storage batteries, and the technology is almost there, but not quite; I think there is a lot of potential there, and it will probably be a solution at some point.”
When the two applications are received by FERC, the agency will determine if the companies need to provide additional information. At some point soon the applications will be final—public and citizens can weigh in. When FERC accepts the documents as complete, the states where the dams are located have a year to certify whether the two applicants have met their water quality standards.
One thing in this complex and highly technical process is certain—the hydroelectric dams will keep operating. No one expects them to be taken offline. FERC reports that waterpower accounts for 8 percent of total electric generating capacity in the United States and 48 percent of the renewable power nationwide. In a world beset with increasingly alarming impacts of climate change, hydropower can be a key part of the solution.
But that doesn’t mean the water has to flow like it’s 1970, according to Andrew Fisk. “The way you would make a typical hydropower facility to have a much smaller ecological impact would be run-of-river flow, so the water is always moving through the turbines,” he said. “And therefore, the river would fluctuate more or less naturally; you would have up and down stream passage—safe, effective, and timely, those are key words—for all migratory fish.”
Ken Sprankle of the US Fish and Wildlife Service put it this way: “The companies did what they were obligated to do under their current license. But we’re not where we need to be; this is our next bite at the apple. We have to redo this.”
In 1776, at the dawn of the American Revolution, Venture Smith stood on the banks of the Connecticut River a free man. He had his own farm, his wife and child lived with him, and he had a prosperous 130-acre farm in the village of East Haddam. It had taken him a long time to get there, and the journey was not of his own choosing.
Born in Dukandarra, West Africa, in 1729, Broteer Furro was taken as a prisoner of war at age six. He described the experience six decades later with disturbing precision:
They then came to us in the reeds, and the very first salute I had from them was a violent blow on the head with the fore part of a gun, and at the same time a grasp round the neck. I then had a
rope put about my neck, as had all the women in the thicket with me, and were immediately led to my father, who was likewise pinioned and haltered for leading.
Eventually sold to a European slave ship in Ghana, Broteer survived a smallpox outbreak on board and was bought by an American colonist named Robert Mumford “for four gallons of rum, and a piece of calico.” This man gave him the new name “Venture” for the “business venture” he was embarking on.
In 1737, Venture was enslaved on Fisher’s Island off the New London coast. At the time, one in five people at the eastern end of Long Island Sound were of African descent, and slavery was legal in both Connecticut and New York. For nearly two decades, Mumford used Venture’s labor to help run the 3,000-acre sheep and dairy farm on the island. He was trustworthy and faithful to Mumford, but the man’s son tormented him, tying him up and whipping him.
While on the island, Venture married a fellow slave named Meg and, in 1754, attempted to escape his bondage. Convinced by an Irish indentured servant named Heddy, three slaves including Smith made it to Montauk Point on Long Island before discovering that the man’s true intention was to steal their belongings. Smith and the other two slaves hunted Heddy down and brought him back to Fisher’s Island. The servant was put in jail, and the slaves were put back to work.
That same year, Venture and Meg had a daughter named Hannah. But the family was separated when he was sold to Thomas Stanton of Stonington, Connecticut. They were reunited the following year when Stanton bought Meg and Hannah, but this near disaster demonstrated how tenuous family life was under slavery. Despite these obstacles, Venture and Meg had two more sons while living in Connecticut.
Stanton was a brutal master who beat Venture with a boat oar and stole the money he and Meg had been saving to purchase their freedom. The situation became untenable when Stanton and his brother tried to beat him up again, and Venture fought them off. In this colony, at least, they couldn’t simply kill him outright, and so they sold him again.
His final owner, a Stonington merchant named Oliver Smith, allowed him to work extra to earn his freedom. Later, this practice would become less common, but in 18th century New England, it was possible, though dependent on the whims of the owner. In 1765, Venture bought his way out at the high price of 71 pounds and 2 shillings. As he said, though, “My freedom is a privilege which nothing else can equal.” He took his surname from Smith, in gratitude for what he saw as the man’s “generosity.”
Venture then set out to buy Meg and their two sons from Thomas Stanton, and their daughter from Mumford. Now a free man, he worked on a whaling ship, cut cordwood in vast quantities, and invested in land. In 1770, he bought 26 acres near what is today the Barn Island Wildlife Management Area (in Pawcatuck, CT) and five years later sold that land at a profit, using the money to buy land on Haddam Neck. He bought more and more land, eventually gathering 130 acres along the Connecticut River. He never bought new clothes, never attended gatherings with his “mates,” and never spent excessive money on “spirits.” Though he was often cheated in transactions, he was also treated with respect by other members of the local community. He eventually bought his sons’ freedom for 200 dollars each.
In one incident, Venture was prosecuted for losing a cargo of molasses overboard in Saybrook, even though he was not even present at the time. “Captain Hart was a white gentleman and I a poor African,” he wrote later wryly. “Therefore, it was all right, and good enough for the black dog.” Complicating the story was the fact that Smith himself purchased a number of his own slaves to work the land in East Haddam. At least three ran away, one after stealing forty pounds. Another preferred to work for his former master, and Venture had to let him return, losing 400 dollars in the process. The embedded inequality of a society part slave and part free made for an ethically compromised world, and Venture was just as affected by this system as anyone else.
Sorrows continued to beset his life. His eldest son, Solomon, went on a whaling expedition and never returned. His daughter died of a strange illness after being neglected by her husband. Nevertheless, he kept working, retaining good habits and “good character.” What gave him the most joy in his difficult life was his reputation for “truth and integrity,” and no matter how many times he was cheated, he refused to do the same to others.
At age 69, going blind, “bowed down with age and hardship,” he wrote one of only a dozen first-hand accounts of American slaves taken directly from Africa, A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture Smith. He died a few years later in 1805, a rich landowner who had worked his entire life for the freedom of himself and his family. He was buried just uphill from the River at East Haddam’s First Church of Christ, today an essential stop on the Connecticut Freedom Trail.
His farm site on Haddam Neck was occupied in the 20th century by the Connecticut Yankee Nuclear Power Plant. Recent archaeological excavations unearthed the remains of house, barn, blacksmith shop, and dry dock on the property. Someday, perhaps, all those who treasure freedom will be able to walk along the River on that old farm, and think about how far we have come, and how far we still have to go. Venture Smith did it all in one lifetime.
About the Artist
Maggie Arnold has lived and painted in Maine for over 40 years. She spent seven years living in coastal Connecticut where she met the archaeologist who was working at the Venture Smith Homestead site. Venture’s story inspired Maggie to donate her time and talent to create a depiction of a day in the life of Venture and his family. Maggie earned a BFA degree in Art Education from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA. She taught art in public schools in Westerly, RI, and Monmouth, ME. Her paintings are often inspired by the hard-edge pop art style of the 1960s.
No one would, or possibly could, build a hydro dam in the Connecticut River valley today…and that seems even less likely to happen at any time in the future. Many of those dams that were built a hundred years ago, however, for whatever purpose at the time, based on whatever economics, and independent of modern-day environmental considerations, are still functioning productively, providing renewable energy with zero carbon emissions.
There are sixteen large dams along the main stem of the Connecticut River, most of them with hydropower plants. If one takes into account the entire watershed with tributaries, there are more than a hundred small hydropower plants. Those plants that produce electricity have the capacity to generate a combined maximum of 470 megawatts.
And so, you ask, “How much is that?” Well, it’s either a lot or a little, depending upon your frame of reference. And, what’s a megawatt? We realize that not everyone is interested in such comparisons, calculations, and equivalencies; if that’s you, simply skip the following three paragraphs.
Start with something we can all relate to: our monthly electric bill. The average household in the Connecticut River Valley pays about $120 per month for electricity. The electric meter on the average home reads 700 kilowatts consumed during the month, and is charged at the rate of about $.17 per kilowatt hour (700 x .17 = $120). In one year, therefore, the average home in the watershed consumes about 8400 kilowatt-hours (700 x 12). Since one megawatt is simply 1,000 kilowatts, all of the hydropower in the Connecticut River watershed can provide, at maximum, (bear with me on this): 470 megawatts times 8760 (24 hours per day times 365 days per year) hours per year divided by 8400 kilowatt-hours per home per year equals the electricity needs of 490,000 homes.
One more assumption: the total hydro system does not operate at maximum; a more likely number is half the maximum. This means the system can serve about 245,000 homes in the River valley. With an estimated 700,000 homes in the River valley, the River itself accounts for about one-third of the electricity needs of those living there.
In terms of fossil fuels, 470 megawatts translates into the equivalent carbon-based energy of a modest 6,000 barrel per day oil refinery. Again, since the system operates at effectively half maximum capacity, the estimated savings are some one million barrels of oil per year (6000 x 365 / 2) that needn’t be pumped from the ground. This, in turn, translates to a savings, through use of hydropower, of a half million tons of carbon dioxide per year (yes, air has weight just like we do). Okay, that’s it for the heavy calculations.
The potential power of a hydro plant is determined by the amount of water involved, and how far it falls. (One of the best explanations of hydropower can be found at the Granite State Hydropower Association website; click on “How hydro works.”) The map on the previous page shows the location of the dams along the Connecticut River and their height; the dams upriver (note the heights of the Moore and Comerford dams versus the much lower Holyoke dam) are generally higher, but there is less water going over them.
According to Holyoke Gas & Electric (HG&E), the hydroelectric generating utilities of the Holyoke Dam and the Holyoke Canal System have a capacity of 50 megawatts, providing approximately 55% of Holyoke’s retail electrical load annually. HG&E is a municipal utility, so those benefits are offered directly to their customers in Holyoke.
More than a savings to the environment, hydropower offers important advantages to the power industry, such as flexibility for emergencies, and even storage of power for a period of time. This is the case, for example, with the Northfield Mountain pumped hydro system in Northfield, Massachusetts. Built in 1964 as a companion to the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant, the Northfield pumped hydro system still has value even though the atomic plant has since been shut down. Pumped hydro is a process whereby water is pumped uphill and stored in a reservoir when electricity is plentiful and cheap (say, during the lower-demand daylight hours), and then allowed to flow back down and drive the turbines when electricity is in high demand, and the price is correspondingly high (say, at night when people turn on the lights). The Northfield pumped hydro facility, with a generating capacity of 1,143 megawatts, was, when new, the largest such facility in the world. This plant can only generate electricity while the water in the reservoir lasts, which is only for a few hours per day; so it is “turned on” when the price during the day is right. Actual production is a modest fraction of its maximum capacity.
Oddly, this facility actually consumes more energy than it creates. It is still operating because it makes money when the cost of electricity to pump water uphill is less than the value of electricity that is sold when that same volume of water runs downhill, powering the turbines. A purely hypothetical case: Let’s say it cost $10,000 to run the turbines backwards and pump water uphill into a reservoir all morning long (the buying cycle) when the cost of buying electricity from the grid is, say, 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. Then, in the afternoon and evening (the selling cycle), that same volume of water is allowed to run back downhill to drive the turbines and send electricity back into the grid at, say, a price of 20 cents per kilowatt-hour, with total revenue of $20,000. The gross profit for this particular day is therefore $10,000. However, since no part of this system can work at 100% efficiency, this profit was derived by the plant consuming more energy during the buying cycle (energy in the form of kilowatts, not dollars) than it generated (again, as measured in kilowatts) during the selling cycle.
Wind and solar power are, of course, at their peaks when weather and time of day dictate, which rarely corresponds to when consumer demand for electricity rises and falls. Thus, when wind and solar are producing at their maximums, the power company may be able to purchase electricity from the grid at less-than-maximum prices to pump water uphill, and when the wind dies down, and the sun goes down or behind cloud cover, the company may be able to reverse the flow through the turbines and sell electricity back into the grid at a profit. In this way, a pumped hydro facility can help justify investments in solar and wind by “storing” the electricity generated or bought during the cycle of maximum generation or supply, and then releasing or selling it during the next cycle of maximum demand.
About the grid. This mysterious entity, like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, is, in the case of New England, operated by a non-profit called ISO New England. Authorized by the federal government, ISO operates the high voltage system throughout the region and runs and regulates three markets for buying and selling electricity at the market price at any given instant.
Unfortunately, and this is doubtless a problem that was downplayed or little recognized at the time they were constructed, the dams are an impediment to fish trying to get upstream to their historic spawning grounds. The dams also impact (generally adversely) the habitat for other important animal species such as eels and lamprey. The impact of the dams on fish and other wildlife is a highly relevant topic for five of the major dams; the owners are currently applying to the US government to relicense their operations for the next forty years.
In addition to the dams and power stations, the hydropower companies also own vast tracts of property that include forests, farms, and flood plains, and reservoirs that extend behind the dams for many miles. In varying degrees, the hydropower companies make these properties accessible to the public in the form of campgrounds, hiking trails, and boating areas. Such sites below the dams may be subject to sudden changes in the water levels as the plants open and close the gates, which, where possible, is done in coordination with recreational interests.
Each spring, HG&E welcomes 10,000 visitors to its Robert Barrett Fishway and Visitor Center. The center is designed to show HG&E’s commitment to local, renewable energy generation and the steps taken over the years to protect the environment.
From the standpoint of the public good, hydropower in the Connecticut River Valley is clearly complex. What is clear, however, is that the more the general public understands about hydropower, the more attention will be paid to the multitude of stakeholder interests.
“Maybe better that we die because then we won’t be embarrassed.” So muttered I to my duck hunting partner as the outgoing tide took our eight-foot pram and us, shivering and soaked to the skin, out from the mouth of the Connecticut River towards the grim waves of Long Island Sound on a freezing winter day many years ago.
We were both allegedly able to handle ourselves outdoors. I had had wilderness experience in many parts of the world while my friend was a former Air Commando and veteran of cold weather survival school. On a day when the temperature was nearing zero degrees Fahrenheit our pram was too small and rowing was of questionable use against the torrent churning through the narrow channel between the Smith’s Neck boat launch and Great Island, now the Roger Tory Peterson Wildlife Area in Old Lyme, Connecticut. We were desperate to get back to the launch area because both of us had fallen over our waders into tidal creeks on the island, so we were thoroughly drenched, and felt as if flash frozen.
We had emptied our waders and wrung out our trousers and socks before donning them again, then headed for the pram. It should have taken only a couple of minutes to cross, but the tide was racing seaward and, shaking and weak, we almost lost the battle. As soon as we hit shore, we ran to my truck, stripped to our long johns, and turned on the heater full blast.
Undeniably, we were both in the early stages of hypothermia, an insidious response to cold, even worse when coupled with moisture, that occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can be generated. It can occur over a broad range of ambient temperatures, not only in bone-killing cold, and is the number one killer of outdoor recreationists.
Hypothermia lurks whether one is on the seemingly subarctic reaches of the Connecticut Lakes in New Hampshire or, as noted above, in the comparatively balmy south where the River meets the Sound. Ambient temperatures do not have to be below freezing for it to creep up on a victim. Most cases occur in air temperatures between 30 degrees and 50 degrees F. It claims victims even in summer, especially boaters. Water steals heat much faster than air, so falling overboard and remaining in water can be dangerous even if the water temperature is in the seventies.
Obviously falling over the side becomes much more dangerous as winter approaches. It is one reason why, for example, Connecticut boating regulations mandate that a life jacket must be worn by anyone who is in a manually propelled boat after the start of October.
Even working up a sweat within waders can build up enough moisture to give hypothermia a foothold. Fly-fishers are particularly vulnerable to hypothermia because, after all, they stand in water, which can steal heat even through insulated waders.
Ice fishers as well should be extremely conscious of hypothermia and the speed at which it can occur in cold water. As the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department says in its ice-fishing safety advice, “Thick ice does not always mean safe ice.” Weak ice is formed when warming trends break down ice, then the slushy surface refreezes. Snowmobilers should heed that advice as well.
A loss of just a few degrees below the normal body temperature of 98.6 degrees F can start hypothermia’s ball rolling. At first, the victim is unaware until, out of the blue, the shivers begin edging towards uncontrollable. If the process is not stopped then—as we did by getting into a warm truck—things go downhill fast. Below 95 degrees, the victim starts to weaken and muscle coordination lapses as brain’s oxygen supply drops. At this point, one literally cannot think straight and, if the process is not abated, collapse and even death follow.
Wind, like water, ups the ante when it comes to cold. In a 20-mile-per-hour wind, the body loses heat at the same rate as it would if the air temperature were minus 30 degrees with no wind. Wind chill values near minus 25 degrees mean that frostbite is possible within 15 minutes.
It’s pretty easy to guard against hypothermia. Clothing that insulates while allowing moisture to escape is a must. If rain is a threat, you need water-repellent outerwear, ready to don before—that’s important—the rain starts. Areas of the body that really require protective clothing are those from which heat escapes easily—the top of the head and thoracic cavity. Preventing heat loss from extremities helps the entire body stay warm.
Image Credit: Getty Images/Swillklitch.
Introducing a Regular Column
About Migratory Fish in the Watershed
The Connecticut River hosts many spectacular migrations. You can witness the fall spectacle of swallows, the comings and goings of osprey and eagles, the annual invasion of warblers, and even the southward passage of monarch butterflies. However, some of the most historical and ecologically-significant migrations of the Connecticut River are missed by most. These are the annual migrations of fish—specifically diadromous fish. These are a handful of specialized species that move between freshwater and saltwater for the purpose of spawning. Our River has been well-known for such migratory runs of fish from prehistoric times to the present time. Their presence has made an impact on the history of the region, indeed, the nation, and has been a factor for the many designations the River has had bestowed upon it including as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention. If you were on the river in a boat during the springtime, nothing would alert you to the fact that there were hundreds of thousands of migratory fish of more than a dozen species passing underneath you.
The 410-mile long Connecticut River once supported the largest Atlantic Salmon run in the US and the longest migration of the species in North America. Samuel Peters wrote in the 18th century: “The salmon, large and small, are exported both pickled and dried,” attesting to the abundance being significant enough to allow export. The American Shad, the state fish of Connecticut, helped sustain George Washington’s troops at Valley Forge. River herring were salted by the barrels and sent to the Caribbean in exchange for molasses and rum. At one time in the young life of the Colonies, sturgeon shipped out of Middletown was the leading colonial export. The River still may support the largest documented run of Sea Lamprey on the East Coast, and—perhaps more surprising—that is a good thing!
To be clear, we will not be writing a fishing column on how and where to catch fish. Our goal is to introduce readers to the marvelous and often overlooked world of our River’s migratory fish. Each species has its own story, which is woven around its biology and life history. The runs of the various species of fish combine to create a river almanac, generally predictable in the annual sequence of the fishes’ comings and goings but always with the potential for a few surprises each year. In the spring, as you bundle up against the early March snows, we’ll explore together the first run of glass eels arriving from the Sargasso Sea and, as the days grow longer, talk about the expected returns of osprey and Alewives. We’ll share news of the first arrival of Alewife to the Connecticut River at the Mary Steube Fishway in Old Lyme. We’ll write about the shadblows blooming and the American Shad running up the lower river, dodging the last few nets of a dwindling historical fishery, and we’ll bring you underwater where we witness the spectacle of spawning Blueback Herring, a species of Special Concern in Connecticut. We’ll follow the runs upriver, to fishways in Massachusetts and Vermont and go behind the scenes where biologists count the shad and other fish moving north, while downstream, the netters put away their nets for the season.
We’ll also investigate the amazing elver run to inland dams and waterfalls. The same little eels that arrived at the mouth of the river in March are larger in June and scaling barriers to continue their upstream journey. We’ll be back underwater documenting that feat. We’ll invite you to accompany us on the annual Sea Lamprey Nest Survey when government biologists join forces with volunteers to count the nests of this fascinating fish species to help track its recovery in tributaries in all four states. While we count nests in Connecticut, biologists with the Green Mountain National Forest watch lampreys spawn in the White River in Vermont, over 260 miles from the ocean. We will explain to you why Vermont Fish and Wildlife can promote the restoration of Sea Lamprey to the Connecticut River drainage on the east side of the state while joining the effort to eradicate the same species from the Lake Champlain drainage on the west side of the state.
During the summer, we’ll be out on boats looking for leaping sturgeon—the Shortnose Sturgeon and the Atlantic Sturgeon, both of which are on the federal endangered species list. While some frolic in the tidal area, many are being lifted over the Holyoke Dam to make their way up to the Turners Falls spawning grounds. In the fall, oh, there is just too much to even mention it all here! But the fun just keeps coming.
The history of migratory fish is always intertwined with human history, both that of Native Americans and the European settlers that came later. As we slog upstream, we’ll show you waterfalls that stopped the runs naturally and dams that stopped the runs artificially, along with ruins of mills that made paper, ivory for keyboards, drill bits, cloth, and electricity. More than pollution or nets, it was these dams that reduced the runs of fish to a fraction of their former size. There are over 4,000 dams in the state of Connecticut alone, 477 of which are in the Connecticut River watershed. The watershed is estimated to have a total of 1,422 dams, distributed through all four states. We want to introduce to you the efforts being made by many to make the Connecticut River a better place for migratory fish and increase the numbers. From Old Lyme and Old Saybrook in Connecticut to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, dams are coming out. We’ll bring you along throughout the watershed to see some of these projects that are reconnecting habitat. Plan on joining us with each new issue of Estuary, won’t you?
There are countless fish stories to be told about the river. Stories about the fish, themselves, how the fish migrations synchronize with other migrations, the efforts to restore lost runs, and the people doing the work. It is those stories that we will be telling you in this recurring column in Estuary magazine. We are Steve Gephard and Sally Harold.
Steve has been working with migratory fish and fish habitat as a fisheries biologist for over 40 years and grew up on the river as a true river rat. He has recently retired from a long career with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) where he supervised the Fisheries Division’s Diadromous Fish program and its Habitat Conservation and Enhancement program. He was in charge of the salmon restoration program for years and was the Department’s expert on fish passage (getting fish around dams). While he is now doing independent work as a consultant, he still holds a position with the DEEP, focusing on special projects.
Sally spent 18 years in the conservation trenches with the Connecticut Chapter of The Nature Conservancy and was its Director of River Restoration and Fish Passage. She was the project manager for many fish passage projects, including leading the charge on Connecticut River tributaries where she removed dams in the watersheds of the Salmon and Eightmile rivers and built three fishways on the Falls River and another on the Mattabesset River. Since childhood, she spent a lot of time on a Vermont tributary of the Connecticut River. Currently, she is an independent consultant working on fish passage projects. The two of us worked together on many projects and are excited to be collaborating on these quarterly articles for Estuary.
In March 2019, a flock of 20 tundra swans made an unexpected overnight visit to a historic canal at Turners Falls, Massachusetts, one of the Connecticut River watershed’s finest winter birding destinations. The swans, which breed in the Arctic and overwinter on the mid-Atlantic coast and other regions, delighted fortunate observers before departing the next morning.
Sightings of rare species are commonplace at Turners Falls, an industrial village in the town of Montague with a variety of attractions and features centered around the Connecticut River. In precolonial times, Native American tribes used the area as a gathering place and trade center, with bountiful harvests of salmon and shad at the rocky rapids of Great Falls. In the late 19th century, proprietors established a dam and canal network to facilitate passage by boats. After the canal closed, the infrastructure was rebuilt in 1869 to provide power for mills in one of the nation’s first industrial centers. Today the Turners Falls Dam, enlarged in 1970, is one of the hydroelectric facilities managed by First Light Power.
Picturesque Barton Cove, a broad still-water outflow above the dam, is renowned for diverse bird life and scenic views. Bald eagles established a nest on diminutive Barton Island in 1989, when the species was just beginning to recover after being extirpated from most of New England during the 20th century. This was largely due to widespread use of pesticides such as DDT. In Massachusetts, eagles were successfully restored at Quabbin Reservoir during the 1980s, and nearly 80 nesting pairs have been documented statewide as of 2020. Eagles are regularly seen stalking potential prey and soaring over downtown Turners Falls. Roughly 35 waterfowl species have been recorded at the cove, including uncommon winter visitors such as American wigeons, green-winged teal, lesser scaups, and greater white-fronted geese. A variety of gulls, including rare Iceland (or Kumlien’s), glaucous, and lesser black-backed gulls, also frequent the area. Viewing is especially productive when water is partially frozen and birds congregate in open water and along ice edges.
The cove’s south shore, off Route 2 in Gill, is a finger-like peninsula of basalt bedrock where many dinosaur tracks were discovered in the 19th century. This land is also owned by First Light Power, which manages a nature trail and seasonal campground there. From the day-use entrance, where there are fine views, the trail leads to an observation platform atop a ledge before winding along outcroppings to the peninsula’s western tip. Here it meets the campground access road, which passes several partial views of the Connecticut River, where flocks of ring-necked ducks, mergansers, and common loons may be spotted. The round-trip hike is 1.7 miles with approximately 300 feet elevation gain.
On the west shores near downtown Turners Falls, Unity Park offers more open views and access to the north end of the Canalside Rail Trail, a 3.6-mile paved path linking the various historical sites and attractions. From parking areas on First Street, the trail follows the cove’s edge to the Turners Falls Dam, where short detours lead to views of rushing water and the nearby Great Falls Discovery Center, an educational visitor center with well-crafted exhibits featuring the Connecticut River watershed.
Downstream from the dam, the canal extends for about two miles, passing by old brick factories and iron bridges. At its southern end is another birding hot spot, a wide reservoir near a power station. The warm, sheltered water serves as a haven for waterfowl and gulls, especially when nearby areas are frozen. Notable single-day winter observations include 4,100 Canada geese, 1,900 mallards, 800 herring gulls, and 400 common goldeneyes. Goose flocks often depart the canal around sunset, making for a striking spectacle. Snow geese, and even rarer Ross’ geese, periodically join the masses during migrations to and from Arctic breeding grounds. Scan the waterfowl flocks carefully for uncommon species such as Barrow’s goldeneyes, which are rarely seen inland.
This section of the canal can be explored by foot or vehicle. Migratory Way, an access road for the USGS Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Research Laboratory, parallels the west side. The Canalside Trail follows the east side from an iron bridge on 11th Avenue to a trailhead off Montague City Road. Snow and ice conditions vary throughout winter, but walking is usually easy. The lighting on the birds is generally best from the east side in the morning, and from Migratory Way in the afternoon.
At the nearby confluence of the Connecticut and Deerfield rivers, a long historical railroad trestle bridge, originally built in 1880 and now part of the Canalside Trail, spans the broad crossing. The fine open views afford opportunities to see flocks of goldeneyes, mergansers, and other ducks navigating the flowing water. The bridge is easily reached from a pullout at the trail crossing on Greenfield Road, or via an easy half-mile walk from the trail’s southern trailhead on McLellan Road in Deerfield (opposite the East Deerfield Railroad Yard).
On the west bank of the Connecticut River in Greenfield, Rocky Mountain, part of the Pocumtuck Range (a long, wooded ridge that stretches south to Mount Sugarloaf in Deerfield), offers habitat diversity and opportunities to see a variety of forest species such as great horned and barred owls, and dark-eyed juncos. During winter finch irruption years, watch for flocks of pine siskins and white and red-winged crossbills in hemlock groves. The town of Greenfield manages a network of trails, including a segment of the long-distance Pocumtuck Ridge Trail, which traverses the crest of the range. Poet Seat Tower at the top of Rocky Mountain offers fine scenic views.
HOW TO GET THERE
To reach Turners Falls, take Interstate 91 to exit 27 in Greenfield and follow Route 2 east for 2.9 miles to the traffic light at the Turners Falls Bridge. Turn right and cross the bridge to enter downtown Turners Falls.
Canalside Rail Trail, Unity Park, Connecticut River
The northern end of the trail and shoreline of the Connecticut River west of Barton Cove are easily accessed from the public parking lot at Unity Park on 1st Street in Turners Falls.
There is also public parking at Great Falls Discovery Center lot on 2nd Street in Turners Falls.
On the southern end of the trail, there is a small public parking lot at the southern end of the trail off McClelland Farm Road in Deerfield, MA.
Barton Cove Campground
Located on Route 2A at 82 French King Highway in Gill, MA. This recreation area on a peninsula in the Connecticut River forms the southern short of Barton Cove. It is run by FirstLight Power with day use parking, campsites, and canoe and kayak rentals available seasonally.
USGS Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center
The research center is located at 1 Migratory Way, Turners Falls, MA. Parking is available at the entrance gate at the end of G Street and at a pullout that also provides access to the adjacent Cabot Woods and a natural rock dam on the Connecticut River.
Rocky Mountain Park
Parking and access to Rocky Mountain Park is located at 70 Mountain Road in Greenfield, MA.
By now, knowledge that invasive plants are bad news is pretty widespread. Numerous articles and agencies cite “billions of dollars” in damages annually to agriculture and fisheries; they are the “leading cause” of population decline and extinction in animals. Once established, invasive plants can seriously disrupt the natural communities and ecological processes that define the places we love—like the Connecticut River Estuary.
The arrival of the aquatic plant Hydrilla verticillata (also known as waterthyme) to the estuary was without fanfare. In fact, it has established itself so quickly and to such an alarming extent that it has taken those familiar with local coves and tributaries—and the conservation community—by surprise.
Hydrilla was first found in the state of Connecticut in 1989 in a pond in Mystic; it was the first authenticated record of this plant, and the most northern locality known in eastern North America. When it arrived in the Connecticut River watershed is less clear, although the Connecticut River Conservancy sounded the alarm in 2018 with the observation of mats of Hydrilla in the Middletown area.
The concern over Hydrilla is well founded—there’s a reason why it takes its name from the nine-headed serpent from Greek mythology, Hydra. Once established, this perennial plant is known to completely displace native submerged plant communities. Hydrilla can alter fish populations, cause shifts in plankton communities, and affect water chemistry. Perhaps most insidious, Hydrilla, although generally growing from fleshy roots called tubors, is also capable of existing as a free-floating mat at the surface, and because the stems are easily broken off, they will float and establish downstream (and come back in with the tide). As if this were not enough, Hydrilla also produces reproductive buds at the base of branching stems, called turions. Both turions and tubors can remain dormant in undisturbed sediment for over four years—and can even survive “ingestion and regurgitation by waterfowl” according to one account. Stems of Hydrilla have been known to grow up to thirty feet long; they require very little light to succeed. It’s not difficult to see why the first discovery of this plant in the state raised concern.
Hydrilla grows completely submerged in the water. It has small, bright green pointed leaves that circle the stem in groups of five (generally) with serrated edges and one or more sharp “tooth-like” points under the center of the leaf. Hydrilla also tends to be stiffer than the native lookalike American Waterweed (Elodea Canadensis) and capable of maintaining its shape out of water.
How did it get here?
Hydrilla originated in Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Korea); today it is found on every continent except Antarctica. It was first discovered in the United States in the 1960s from two separate locations in Florida; it is documented in thirty states now, many in the southeast, but also four western states. It is likely that Hydrilla was intentionally brought to the states as an aquarium plant. Its introduction to natural waterways was assured once the goldfish died and the aquarium contents were emptied into a local waterway. Today this plant has many vectors for movement: attached to boats, trailers, recreational gear, in the treads of vehicles and machinery, and even on pet fur.
We Should be Worried
Knowing how robust this plant is, and that the Army Corp of Engineers has called it “the almost perfect weed,” it’s a good idea to sit up and take notice. The US Fish and Wildlife Service refers to it as “the world’s worst invasive aquatic plant.”
The Connecticut River Estuary region has received multiple environmental designations—state, federal, even global—that acknowledge its remarkably intact coves and embayments and system of healthy salt, brackish, and freshwater tidal marshes. The estuary is home to an extraordinary diversity of plants and animals. One of the lesser known drivers of this healthy aquatic ecosystem is the diversity of native submerged aquatic vegetation that provides food, refuge, and an oxygenated water column for many species—insects, fish, shellfish among them, that feed a multitude of other, more familiar species such as the iconic osprey and great egret.
Loss and replacement of these diverse underwater habitats not only threatens the myriad life in the estuary—it stands to threaten livelihoods and property values. Greg Bugbee, Associate Scientist with the Invasive Aquatic Plant Program at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (CAES) in New Haven, has worked with colleague Summer Stebbins on a two-year survey of the southern portion of the Connecticut River, mapping Hydrilla and other invasive aquatic plants. He has begun to field calls from marina owners who are worried about the impact on their businesses and the recreational value of the River. At least one of the local marinas has already lost business because of Hydrilla concentrations. As scenic coves and inlets begin to show signs of dense floating mats, homeowners of expensive (and tax generating) shoreline real estate may also sound the alarm.
What Can and is Being Done
In 2018 the Connecticut River Watershed Hydrilla Task Force was formed through the Northeast Aquatic Nuisance Species program (NEANS). This initiative corralled state and federal agencies and non-profits from five states—no small task, despite the relatively small geographic size of New England. A draft management plan has been generated, and a computer-driven dialogue has informed field work and helped zero in on where Hydrilla is prevalent in the watershed, namely in southern Massachusetts and Connecticut. Momentum has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the roots of collaboration have been established.
The CAES survey in the lower River was initiated in 2019 through the efforts and funding of the Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Governments (RiverCOG), the Connecticut River Gateway Commission, and Connecticut Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D). Plant samples collected in 2019 were sent to the University of Wisconsin for DNA analysis, which identified the Connecticut River plants as being genetically more similar to Hydrilla from Japan and Korea than what has previously been collected in the US, suggesting that the plants in the Connecticut River “might represent a significant new genotype for the USA.” While interesting, it’s not clear at this point what this means for any effort to control Hydrilla in the estuary. During the 2019 survey, it was noted that of the Hydrilla plants recovered, none appeared to have the characteristic tubor rooted in the sediment—perhaps good from the perspective of possessing one less means to reproduce?
The quest for a solution to the growing Hydrilla challenge in the estuary will be informed by actions taken elsewhere in the nation, and brought to light, in part, through the Hydrilla Task Force and the effort to survey the lower River. Tools include hand pulling, dredging, suction harvesting, use of floating booms and benthic mats, and biological control that includes snails, leaf-mining flies, and tuber-feeding weevils. None of these tools is without risk, and most can be expensive.
As discouraging as this may seem, it is not the first time (nor will it be the last) that the estuary has been under siege. That this place has persisted through time, halfway between the urban centers of New York and Boston, is remarkable. We want to keep it that way.
Admittedly, Hydrilla—the nine-headed serpent—appears to be a formidable foe. But already, local individuals and organizations are rallying, and we’ve never had as much access to information and technology as we have today. If you want to help, remember that it only takes a one-inch fragment of Hydrilla to begin a new infestation: clean your boat—and your clothing, and your pet—before leaving the River. And tell others. The estuary is counting on us.
Like a caged animal relegated to a spectacle,
the falls churn as tourists gawk, knowing the rumble
and spray are for their amusement. Painters
daub at easels beside the granite block dam
and photographers focus on the roiling white foam.
Fishers cast their luck into bouldery, turbulent riffles.
Once the muscular water spun wheels and turbines,
turned gears and drive shafts that drove slapping
leather belts, powering machines and jobs energizing
a village with cash. It whirled dynamos, sending
streams of electrons along wires that lit a brick
factory, homes, the bank, grocery and barber shop.
The river ground grain, sawed lumber, forged steel,
stamped machetes, and sharpened axes.
In deeper time, natives came with spears to where
the swift water slowed the salmon, blueback herring
and shad. They feasted, celebrated, and fed families
in this place of abundance.
The river’s business is now entertainment, drawing
trade to the village like a free lunch. Sightseers stop
for fuel and a quick bite, bait, a newspaper
or bottle of beer. But as sure as the river runs, it holds
us in thrall, mesmerizing with falling water reflecting
every face as it slides over the precipice.
David Leff is an award-winning essayist, poet, and former deputy commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. His website: www.davidkleff.com
“Sunset Over the Connecticut River”
Photo by Susanne Hall
This dramatic photo was taken by Frank Dinardi, an amateur wildlife photographer from Connecticut. If you have a passion for nature and the art of photography, you can help Estuary magazine document the variety of birds and animals in their natural habitat along the Connecticut River and its tributaries. We would also like to see action sports and landscapes. Share your work with us and our readers. We will select and present the best we see in our future quarterly issues and on our website. You’ll be compensated beyond bragging rights.
(not Peking Duck)
Pekin Duck and Peking Duck are wildly different! Peking Duck is the cooking preparation and presentation of a duck dish originated in Peking (Beijing), China, during the Imperial era and is still popular today.
The flightless, white feathered Pekin Duck is an American breed of domestic duck raised for meat and egg production. It was thought to have been brought from China to the US through San Francisco and then on to New York in the late 19th century and sold primarily to immigrants. Now, Pekin duck, most commonly referred to as Long Island Duck, is enjoyed worldwide. Annual production in the US is 31 million.
The Pekin Duck has gained other fame as perhaps the model for Donald Duck and the mascot of a certain insurance company. These white feathered friends have been domesticated and are often kept as pets with a lifespan of 9–12 years.
That being said…if you’d rather eat them than feed them…here are some surprisingly simple recipes!
Duck Breast…2 Ways!
First the duck breast. Plan on one per person with leftovers, of Long Island Duck (less gamy than others and more widely available), boneless with skin on, 8oz each.
♦ Trim off any excess skin.
♦ Create a cross hatch pattern on the skin side by slashing through the skin and fat on the diagonal every ½", creating a diamond pattern, being careful not to cut the meat.
♦ Salt and pepper both sides and let it warm up to room temp…about 30 minutes.
♦ Pat off any moisture and resalt.
♦ Place, skin side down, in a cold skillet with a dash of olive oil to get things started.
♦ Cook on medium heat for 6–10 minutes. The idea is to slowly render off the fat which you will remove from the pan as it accumulates and save for future use.
♦ When skin is crispy, turn over and cook for 2 minutes.
♦ Place in 350° oven and bake for 4 minutes, until interior temperature is 130° for medium rare.
♦ Let rest at least 10 minutes before slicing. Slice at 90-degree angle across the grain about ¼” thick. Parfait!
Sauce #1…a L’orange
♦ Julienne the rind of 1 orange. Squeeze out the juice and set aside.
♦ Drop julienned pieces into boiling water for 2 minutes…to soften and take the edge off the pith. Drain.
♦ Heat ½ cup of sugar in a saucepan over medium heat without stirring until it begins to melt.
♦ Swirl the pan to redistribute sugar and evenly caramelize to create a uniform amber color, for about 5 minutes.
♦ Add ¼ cup of apple cider vinegar, being careful of the steam and splash back, and stir with a wooden spoon for another 5 minutes or until slightly reduced.
♦ Add the orange juice and zest and continue to simmer until foam forms on the top, about 5 minutes longer.
♦ Add 1 T of butter and season with salt and pepper.
♦ Fan out duck slices on a bed of wild rice and haricots verts or sides of your choosing and drizzle with sauce.
Sauce #2…avec Rutabagas and Pear Jus
♦ Using the empty skillet you roasted the duck in, retain 2 T of duck fat and add ½ lb. large chunks of rutabagas with salt and pepper, toss and roast in a 400° oven until browned on the bottom and beginning to get tender…15–20 minutes.
♦ Stir in 4 fresh sage leaves, 1 bay leaf, and 1 smashed garlic clove.
♦ Continue to roast for another 15 minutes or until tender.
♦ Transfer the rutabagas to a platter.
♦ To the pan, over medium high heat, add 2 diced pears, ½ C chicken stock, and 1/4 cup brandy…bring to a boil.
♦ Cook, stirring to loosen browned bits remaining in pan, until pears are soft and juice is slightly thickened, 5–10 minutes. Remove bay leaf.
♦ To plate, fan out slices of duck on top of a mound of turnips and spoon pear sauce over the top. Garnish with parsley. Serve with a frisée salad perhaps!
The Elusive Bobcat
By Bill Hobbs
Photos by Paul Fusco
Meet the bobcat, an elusive, captivating animal that is prevalent in the Connecticut River Valley, yet one that many of us—myself included—have rarely seen in the wild. Maybe this comment explains why: “They have a behavior where if something is coming toward them (like you or me), and they don’t have time to walk out of the way, bobcats just lay down and stay still and let whatever it is walk right by them,” said Patrick Tate, a veteran wildlife biologist, who serves as furbearer project leader for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.
“Their camouflage works extremely well, even when they’re out in the open,” said Tate, adding, “If you put a bobcat in the woods, with the shadows and the weeds and the brush, they disappear immediately.”
Tate is talking about an animal almost double the size of a domestic cat, cloaked in hard-to-see brown to brownish red fur, with a white underbelly, pointed ears, and a black-tipped, short, “bobbed” tail. Most measure only 26–41 inches long, weigh 13–30 pounds, and stand 21 inches high.
According to Tate, bobcats have powerful, long claws and strong jaws, enabling male bobcats, who are bigger than females, to bring down adult deer. Bobcats are also fast, maneuverable, and can change directions on a dime when pursuing preferred prey, like mice, voles, squirrels, and rabbits, Tate said.
For me, that begged the question: Are bobcats considered apex predators?
“That’s a very difficult question to answer,” Tate said, “because if you look at the definition of an apex predator, it can affect all wildlife. And the bobcat is certainly not affecting our moose or eastern coyote population.” Instead, Tate prefers to call bobcats “meso carnivores,” or medium-sized predators who eat strictly meat.
Despite their agility and hunting prowess, bobcats lead a surprisingly brief and challenging life. They live an average of 5–6 years in the wild but can live longer. “The oldest that I can recall was 13 years old,” Tate said.
Broken teeth, infections from fighting with other bobcats, and blindness, often caused by scratches or punctures sustained in these fights, take their toll on bobcats, Tate said. Road crossings are another hazard. For example, last year, 50–60 bobcats were killed by cars in New Hampshire.
“What about coyotes. Would they kill a bobcat?” I asked Tate.
“I don’t have any evidence of eastern coyotes preying upon bobcats, and I don’t think they’d be dumb enough to do it because a bobcat has four paws with very sharp claws and a strong jaw, whereas an Eastern coyote simply has a very strong jaw. It’s not going to win that fight,” Tate said.
Currently, there are 2,400–2,800 bobcats in New Hampshire, Tate said, and the population is increasing at a whopping 15 percent. I could not verify bobcat populations in neighboring states, but an internet search revealed the following comparisons: Vermont has an estimated population of 2,500–3,000 bobcats; Massachusetts, 3,500; and Connecticut, 1500.
“Given the success we have had trapping and the good number of photos we’ve gotten in our camera detections, bobcats are more common than I had anticipated,” added Tracy Rittenhouse, associate professor at UCONN’s Department of Natural Resources and the Environment.
Finally, I asked Tate what do you do if you encounter a bobcat in your backyard or out on the trail? Here is his advice: “Give the animal space. Know that they will display what people consider ‘brazen behavior,’ simply because the bobcat thinks they are hidden. They don’t realize they’re so visible,” Tate said.
If a bobcat approaches you, which would be extremely rare, Tate said a loud, deep-based voice, sounding gruff, will help move the bobcat out of the area. “But know that they are animals that will go into the brush and slink away at a slow rate of speed because they take advantage of their camouflage.”
Tate said bobcats are attracted to people’s backyards for two reasons: first, birdfeeders, which attract chipmunks and squirrels which are favorite food items for bobcats, and second, range-free chickens may be present. “Once the bobcat finds those range-free chickens, they’ll come in and take one per day, unless the chickens are cooped,” Tate said.
Tate admits, “The number one call I receive regarding what landowners consider a nuisance is the bobcat.” But he adds, “As a biologist, I don’t want to see a very charismatic, beautiful animal become regarded as a problem animal.”
“Bobcats matter,” Tate said. “They’re a wonderful predator, helping to control small mammal numbers.”
Bill Hobbs is a nature columnist for The Day in New London, CT. For comments, he can be reached at email@example.com.
Paul Fusco has been photographing wildlife for over 30 years in the habitats of Connecticut and beyond. His background in art, design, and natural history all come together in his photographic expression of our natural world.
This issue of Estuary contains our first article by a descendant of Indigenous people. These people inhabited North and South America for thousands of years, maybe 12,000 years, long before the word “America” existed. The “colonizers” from Europe, by contrast, have inhabited the Connecticut River valley for fewer than 400 years. The coexistence was rocky almost from the outset. The history has been told mainly from the standpoint of the so-called colonizers. At Estuary, we intend to alter that by working with storytellers who can represent the rich history of Indigenous people…with authenticity.
Speaking of that coexistence, the Connecticut River watershed has its own intense history since 1614 when the Dutch explorer, Adrean Block, navigated the River for some sixty miles from what is now Old Saybrook almost to the Massachusetts–Connecticut border. It is a story of friendship, cooperation, distrust, chicanery, treachery, and despicable conduct on both sides. It has been, in effect, a poignant clash of civilizations of great magnitude and intensity.
Indigenous communities had a quality of life that is enviable in many respects even today. They generally coexisted peacefully with one another. They knew how to get along. As we learn in this issue, many had two homes…a summer house and a winter house. They had an abundance of healthy food that they grew or caught. They traded extensively. They had a form of currency. They had private and public transport. They had a tradition of philanthropy. When they had to fight with one another, there were traditions of honor and respect. Women in certain tribes had veto power over decisions to go to war; after all, it was their brave sons who were going to risk their lives.
Today, Indigenous people have to lobby for many rights in a world that swamped them with its foreign laws, constitutions, cultures, weapons, military strategies, and overwhelming numbers. Reservations were created whereby Indigenous communities could exist and prosper…but only to a point. For example, they had to work hard to extract rights over minerals under their ground, or to exercise dominion over the forests and rivers on what was once their land.
To compensate for vast wealth taken from them, the western-style governments have authorized tax exemptions on products such as cigarettes and liquor. They are compensated with royalties on gas and oil produced on their reservations. They can build casinos.
Fairness has always been ill-defined and out of reach as so-called western traditions and culture have dominated.
Nonetheless, within the United States, the past two hundred years have marked a period of sincere, and arguably successful, effort to reconcile grievances. At the opening ceremonies of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, in 2004, many Native people who were veterans of the US military paraded proudly with flags of their tribal nation as well as the US flag. Native Americans have fought on the side of the US in every war since and including the Revolutionary War.
Much controversy and lack of understanding surrounds virtually every facet of the history of the United States and its relations with Native communities. We will not take sides at Estuary. We do plan to help tell the stories from the standpoint of Indigenous people who lived in the Connecticut River valley. This side has been too often overlooked, or biased toward the colonizers, in our history books. We will help set the record straight.
Publisher & Editor