On the Trail: The Vermont Way

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

It’s approaching noon Wednesday and three hen turkeys are peacefully feeding on grasses, flowers and bugs in the hayfield down the road; three barren hens, grey-brown heads, seemingly content without broods to tend. Despite losing their eggs or poults to nasty, snarling Mother Nature, the hens appear no worse for the wear, displaying not a hint of melancholia. No, sadness is for humans, not wild creatures who accept nature’s ways.

Busy, with a wee-hours Boston trip looming to beat the weekday traffic to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the sight of those birds in that field I pass several times daily spins me back a few weeks to an extended visit by my sister-in-law Jan from Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom – home of hippies, rednecks and, well, I guess you’d call them libertarians, some maybe even of a peculiar anarchist ilk, the primitive, uneducated, angry type. Bernie may have carried the hardscrabble polls up there but, trust me, The Donald got plenty of votes as well. Of that, I’m confident. Have you ever spent any time in Island Pond? No? Check it out. You’ll get a good taste of Northeast Kingdom culture. Then, of course, there’s always Glover and its Bread and Puppet Circus, populated by an altogether different breed of cat. So, no, you can never be certain what to expect up there, but more times than not, you’re dealing with rugged individuals, whether they’re wearing peace symbols, wampum pendants, Confederate flags or swastikas. I’ve seen them all.

Anyway, Jan and Tom keep a garden and a couple of ramshackle shacks in a little East Haven Sixties community called “Lost Nation,” nestled high atop a mountain just north of the Burke Mountain Ski Resort. In laid-back conversation one afternoon, we touched upon turkeys and I was quite surprised to learn they’re now common in Lost Nation. Shocking!

“Where do they winter?” I inquired, knowing that 15 feet of snow and 40-below-zero weather is the norm up there. “They must find silage piles down along the river flats, huh?”

“No,” she answered. “They stay right up on top. We see their tracks all winter out around the garden and in the woods. They seem to make it through just fine.”

Interesting. Perhaps just one more clear signal that our planet is indeed warming, no matter what Comrade Trump says; because this much I can say with confidence: wild turkeys were not found in East Haven, Vt., in the days of Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys. When Europeans started settling coastal New England in the 1620s, there were massive flocks of wild turkeys found in southern New England, ranging up as far north as southern Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, but not high in the Green and White Mountains, and not in the Northeast Kingdom, either. Turkeys are a new phenomenon up there.

Now, were you to speculate that historically there were turkeys in the lower Champlain Valley, well, maybe. I could see that. And perhaps there were even some in the northern Champlain Valley, say, up around Shelburne or Middlebury, with fertile plains and lake effects. But the high country of Green Mountains and White Mountains ski country, and the cold country and deep snows of the Northeast Kingdom? Uh-uh. Can’t see it. But now they’re definitely there and, in Northeast Kingdom vernacular you’re apt to hear in the Concord convenience store, “They ain’t going nowhere, neither, ayuh.”

Folks like sister-in-law Jan are happy to have them. She says she’s learned about flock talk and gobbling and roosting trees, and loves to watch the hens and their broods skirting her when working out in the vegetable garden. She’s also learned an awful lot about ruffed grouse that live around her small orchard and are always moving about and uttering interesting sounds along the margins of her clearing.

Then again, not all Lost Nation critters are harmless. Jan raises chickens and has from time to time had problems with fisher cats and weasels and minks and raccoons and black bears … big black bears you wouldn’t want to irritate. A case in point occurred just this week. Having been away for the weekend, Tom and Jan went to their tranquil mountain retreat on Monday to garden and relax. When they broke through the woods into their clearing, they sensed trouble in the air and, sure enough, a telltale henhouse sign: a missing four-light window. Upon closer inspection, the window had been smashed and broken through by a bear that made quick work of their chickens. Bears will do that when hungry, necessitating a little annoying carpentry and a trip to the feed store or a neighbor’s for a fresh flock of chickens.

“Oh well,” says a back-to-the-earth Sixties man like Tom, who fled the Big Apple for the hinterlands 50 years ago, committed to “Living the Good Life” championed by Scott and Helen Nearing. “Just think of the problems I could have brought upon myself by staying in New York.”

Yeah, Dude, I hear you loud and clear. No comparison to a bear in the henhouse. That’s for sure. At least up there in the People’s Republic of Vermont, where they’re still feeling the Bern after getting burned big time, you can inhale without getting ill. And now they’ve even got turkeys to humor them.

How can you beat that?

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.