On The Trail: Oxbow summit
It’s a hot, hazy mid-afternoon, storm threatening, me standing atop Mt. Sugarloaf, a Pioneer Valley landmark whose summit view never gets old to an old guy who climbed it often as a kid.
Standing beside me on the lower tier of the observation tower is Dr. Marjorie Holland, a scholar passing through old haunts from her current Ole Miss station, where she teaches biology and, according to her online profile, specializes in: plant ecology and systematics, wetlands ecology, landscape ecology, riparian-systems ecology, biogeochemical cycles, and ecological functioning of constructed wetland systems.
After several phone and email conversations, we had finally met an hour earlier at Pasiecnik’s Creemee Stand, where we studied a couple of topographical maps she brought along before driving the length of Hopewell Plain to Hatfield, where we dropped down to a dusty farm road following the eastern bank of Hatfield Pond, took it to the paved road and crossed to The Bashin, looping back to River Road and Sugarloaf for a bird’s-eye view of what we had just seen from the ground. On the walk from my parked truck to the summit observation tower, I told Dr. Holland that I had spent much time as a boy atop the mountain, dating back to the days before the white, wood-frame summit house burned to the ground on the night of a March 7, 1966 blizzard. Actually, though, I had to admit to her that I preferred North Sugarloaf back in the day, because, well, you know, on that northern secluded ridge there was never adult supervision, something I would rather not climb a mountain for. She chuckled, got the gist.
I had learned from a winter house guest about Ms. Holland’s groundbreaking work, written in collaboration with Dr. John Burk of Smith College, exploring the three western Massachusetts Connecticut River oxbows located in Northampton, Hatfield and Whately — all of them veritable wildlife sanctuaries, not to mention popular, soggy hunting, fishing and trapping habitats dating back perhaps 14,000 years. In fact, the Whately oxbow that Holland and Burk discovered and brought to light in the Seventies was the last local refuge for Indians, who clung to their traditional hunting grounds there until 1763, when the last French and Indian War ended. At that time, these copper-skinned stragglers released their white-knuckle grip, moved to the nearby western hills around the Whately Glen and Mt. Esther, and slowly migrated away.
Because of UMass and family connections in the Pioneer Valley, Ms. Holland returns here in the summer to see old friends and colleagues and reconnect with Burk about ongoing oxbow research. Their fresh new paper on the subject is due out soon, with Burk’s current focus primarily on the oldest part of the Northampton Oxbow off South Street. That site never held water in historic times but certainly did just prior to European contact. Most interesting is that they discovered the Whately Oxbow, tucked into the old Canterbury section of Hatfield, during an impact study focused on a proposed project to divert Connecticut River water into the Quabbin Reservoir. At issue were water quality and river impact, the latter putting the crosshairs on river history dating back to pro-glacial Lake Hitchcock, its drainage and subsequent river evolution.
The focus of our Whately meeting was its oxbow, by far the least known of the three. Never, not even during peak historic flooding in 1936 and 1938, has the boggy channel stretching more than two miles south from the base of Sugarloaf ever filled with water. Yet still my family, the first colonials to farm that land, called a narrow agricultural terrace now holding Jimmy Pasiecnik’s shin-high potato field “The Island,” very likely an Indian name carried on after cultural transition.
“Look!” pointed Holland to a line of three thin elevations, one much longer than the other two, on the topo map she held flattened out on a windy picnic table. “There’s the island, or at least what’s left of it after years of leveling due to farming.” And, yes indeed, there it was displayed on the 1971 map right where the late Winthrop Sanderson told me Dr. Edward Hitchcock mined an old Indian village for artifacts displayed for years in Amherst College’s Gilbert Collection that seems to have gone missing.
Later, as we stood on Sugarloaf looking down on the valley — framed on the south by the Mt. Holyoke and Mt. Tom ranges, with Mt. Warner poking up between, its distinctive apple orchard visible on the western slope — I thought back to how exactly I got to intimately know that foreboding swamp immediately below, where once the ancient Oxbow lay, isolating a two-mile-long island. I first learned the contours of that swamp trailing a Pasiecnik-Farm black-Lab named Smoky to pheasants, grouse and woodcock. Later, impressed by Smoky’s performance after hunting far and wide for a season through wetlands on both sides of the river, I myself purchased a black Lab and got to know that swamp even better behind Sugarloaf Saro Jane (call-name Sara), accompanied by friends such as the late Timmy Dash and Eddie Urkiel, an old pal who still displays that trademark exuberance and youthful spirit despite orthopedic issues brought by a storied career as one rugged union laborer. They don’t make many like Fast Eddie. Trust me.
A young man’s swamp thick with thorns, vines and tangles that produce many berries, we used to give it hell and depart black and sopped to our knees, black splatters literally to the top of our heads. And praise heavens Sara was jet black, because had she been white like my springers, what a mess she would have been. That dog would plow through the mud and tangles, tail wagging furiously on hot scent, and I can still hear Fast Eddie hollering, “Uh-oh, Bags, she means business!” before the sound of a flush and a thundering roar or two. We killed most of the pheasants and some of the woodcock and partridge, all of them retrieved by trusty Sara.
Back then, it was just a swamp to us. Now, after years of investigation, it’s much more. And do you know what? I’m still learning, and find it exciting to be still interpreting a place I’ve walked for almost 50 years. Hopefully the fact-gathering mission won’t stop until the day I drop face first into the black, oily bog and soar off to a loftier place.
I can think of worse departures, few better.
Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a longtime member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.