Said and Done: Can a woodchuck swim? Sure!
According to notes we have here on the building of the Quabbin Reservoir, the main dam was plugged in the summer of 1939 with an immediate effect on the trapped waters of the Swift River.
People in the four towns lost to that Boston drinking-water project had moved out — bag and baggage, pets and other portable property — before the river began to back up. Not every living thing quit the Swift Valley at the same time with these displaced people.
J.R. Greene, in his excellent book “The Creation of Quabbin Reservoir,” tells us that flooding in the Quabbin basin was considerably sped up by heavy fall rain in 1939. Left behind after the exodus of farm folks were two woodchucks not exactly pets of the valley farmers, but creatures nonetheless adjusted to a way of life entirely dependent upon the farmers now gone forever from that place. These woodchucks were confused in the desolation around them and seemed reluctant to leave what remained of their home site, an island growing ever smaller as the swelling tide took over.
Someone, some unnamed rescuer, got out to their island, captured them and released them later on high ground safe from the flood. As far as anyone knows, they were the last of the living creatures to be moved by force of arms out of the valley. They had stayed as long as possible, got the price of a boat ride in recompense for the dens they’d lost to MDC’s seizure by eminent domain.
With a little imagination you can see these woodchucks kicking and complaining in their burlap bag as they were moved to safety. For them, however, there was no torment in this displacement, no heartbreak. If you stop for 10 minutes on Quabbin’s beach and walk inland any distance, you are sure to come upon a woodchuck hole built where the old farms used to be. This rescued pair wasted little time, you can be sure, in philosophical regret. They set up housekeeping to produce a bath of new Swift River Valley residents, all unaware of the tragedies that smashed their human counterparts when that valley was made to drown.
There’s something amusing about the fact that someone thought he had to rescue those woodchucks. They swim capably and are quite used to crossing water when it is in the way of where they want to go.
On Captain Kidd’s Island there was a woodchuck hole that stayed active for years. I used to paddle down from time to time just to watch for the ’chuck that had made his home in that island sanctuary.
This woodchuck followed the same routine that patterns the lives of all woodchucks. Around 3 in the afternoon he’d come out to eat, moving about confidently ’til he had filled his belly, then lying up on the mound he’d built facing west to Eddy’s property on the Gill side of the river. By the time I was ready to get home for supper, sundown and the day’s warming gone, the ’chuck went to bed.
That animal stayed on Kidd’s Island until a group of scouts built a permanent encampment right on his grounds. That was too much for him. I have no doubt that he swam 100 yards to Eddy’s field, falling in with the resident population easily and naturally as if his displacement from private island living was little more than a passing hardship.
Anyone who has ever been up in an airplane has seen how much water there is around us. Ponds and lakes, streams and brooks and rivers, dot and cut the land everywhere. It would be a poor creature, indeed, that hadn’t come by the ability to take all this water in stride.
At Munn’s Ferry, we have seen at all times of year non-aquatic creatures intent on getting either east or west, never mind the cost of a wet back.
Deer choose the worst times. We have sweated out the sight of them crossing in zero weather. They plunge in, labor against the current, scramble out and disappear into the woods as though the crossing had been not more than dip on a balmy day.
Squirrels cross making a wake as big as a beaver’s. Every one we have seen had his tail puffed up and laid back flat on the water. They breast the stream with manly thrusts of their hind feet, making what for you and me would be a mile-wide swim.
Once many years ago when we were clearing brush on the river’s bank, we did our work as river ice groaned and pounded its way south after breakup. Great trees knocked down in bank-side cave ins got sucked into the maelstrom of this March flood.
We looked up from time to time and were surprised at one point to see a small creature hanging on for dear life to the topmost branches of a huge elm. Field glasses reached for hurriedly identified the animal as a woodchuck.
We watched as the little beast was carried along pell-mell and out of sight. Nothing we could do. Unlike the story of the Quabbin woodchucks, rescued when they themselves would sooner or later, have swum safely to high ground, this Connecticut River story probably had a tragic ending.
Paul Seamans is a permanent resident of the Charlene Manor nursing home. A picture window on his room’s west side gives a full view of Shelburne Mountain, a continuing inspiration for “Said & Done.” Some of his columns will have been previously published.