On The Trail: Tempting fate

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Like menacing swords of Damocles, they’ve leaned out over my daily path for years — three, then two, now one; same species, same size, same ominous presence. With the help of an aluminum, 24-foot extension ladder last Dec. 1, a friend and I harvested five pounds of late oyster mushrooms from what is now the last man standing.

What I’m speaking of are three mature poplar trees with deeply furrowed bark, all of them once standing in solemn, simultaneous silence along the perimeter of a familiar Green River floodplain, all of them girdled around the base by beavers and condemned to slow, tedious death. I knew from the beginning they were doomed to tumble, and have indeed entertained daily caution in my approach. Obviously, if any of those trees twisted and fell as I passed, I would likely be erased from this planet. But why, I ponder daily while accelerating out of harm’s way, would such a tree fall on me? What have I done to deserve such a cruel, random fate? Plus, I guess, I’ve always tempted the fates and lived to tell about it.

I am reminded of those three threatening amigos when traveling to Montague’s Bookmill or taking the back way to Sunderland and Amherst. On my way down the hill from Poet’s Seat Tower to the Montague City bridge, I pass the flowered, white-cross memorial at the big roadside maple down by the old Kells Farm. There, many moons ago, for reasons beyond human comprehension, that tree decided to shed a muscular overhanging limb onto a passing car, instantly killing the unfortunate, unsuspecting young lady driver. The site to me symbolizes that random tragedy can strike you down from the heavens at any moment. What did that young woman ever do to deserve such a sudden exit? Not a thing. Purely a wrong-place, wrong-time phenomenon. The kind no one chooses or even suspects.

But, let us not digress. Back to my personal conundrum, one that flicks my cranial wheels a whirl daily, and has done so for some 10 years. It all started with a burgeoning beaver colony that eventually passed and left the three ominous, outward-leaning, softwood threats. Two of them, about 10 feet apart at the base and more than a foot wide, leaned out of a marshy backwater over my perimeter path as it neared the lower, southwest corner of a Christmas-tree farm. The other, girdled more recently, was along the riverbank in the opposite northeast corner. I knew that sooner or later, all three would fall out into the tree farm. The question was when and by what force of nature?

Then, maybe five years ago, during a windy, overnight, summer rainstorm, down came one of the big twins in the southwest corner. The deadfall destroyed Christmas trees and necessitated clean-up chores by a hired hand with whom I often spoke. That tree’s partner, girdled shallower, still stands, bark and limbs dropping to the turf now and again. Sooner or later, it too will fall, hopefully when I’m away.

Noontime Tuesday, I’m running a little late because of interesting phone calls and emails related to an interesting Northampton Meadows archaeological dig I visited Friday. I’m making the first leg of my daily walk with the dogs under cloudy skies through a lush, shin-high hayfield, dogs’ heads held high as they rollick and loop out in front.

Approaching a manure pile and farm equipment behind a roadside greenhouse, I notice a young woman sauntering out greet us. I stop to chat, introduce her to Lily and Chub-Chub, and exchange pleasantries before wading into a political discussion about the sad state of national affairs. Her youth, long black hair, tattooed shoulder, warm brown eyes and Vermont smile told me she was cool. Why not engage in a brief political/philosophical conversation before parting ways? I am quite familiar with and friendly to Vermonters’ refreshing state of mind. You gotta love it. Why couldn’t Hillary have just stepped aside for Bernie? He would have won.

Our meandering conversation over, and I walk away, take a short path into the upper Christmas trees, circle them and take a deer run through a thin slice of woods between fields, stepping over three strands of grounded barbed-wire. I break into the open and follow the tree-lined upper escarpment edge a couple hundred yards before dropping down into the lower river meadow where poplar danger looms.

I get to the big, girdled poplar in the southwest corner and pass it without incident before swinging east to the riverbank and following a small, rectangular, riverside woodlot, the floor colored green with a deep ostrich-fern shag carpet. About halfway to the northeast corner, near a Christmas tree stripped of its branches last fall by an antlered buck, I notice something out of sorts. The beaver-girdled poplar there has fallen to the ground among Christmas trees, blocking a farm road hugging the edge.

No lie, just the previous day I had stopped and looked into the woods at that familiar tree, examining the trunk all the way to the crown before moving on. Next day, there it is on the ground, broken and battered. I thought it would be the last to go. Not so. Two down. One to go. I do hope that lone wolf soon crashes down to eliminate potential danger.

In fact, I wouldn’t mind being there to see, hear and hopefully not feel the crash.

With the Connecticut River running high and turbulent, the shad run continues to move slowly through Holyoke, with the Barrett Fishway lifting 1,107 Sunday and 1,767 Monday to bring the total there to 47,391. The total river run was 48,170 through Monday, including counts on Connecticut’s Salmon, Mattabesset and Farmington rivers and the Westfield River in Hampden County. The peak and prime fishing won’t arrive until the river settles down and warms up into the 60s. Last year was a good one, with a total run of 392,057. Could we match it this year? Your guess is as good as mine, but it wouldn’t be stunning. … As for Atlantic salmon, thus far one has passed Holyoke, where it was streamer-tagged and released into the upper river. Maybe a whitewater enthusiast will catch a flash of the streamer shooting through Rock Dam.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a senior-active member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: gsand53@outlook.com.