TIMES PAST: Forgetting life’s ordinary hazards

  • “If the Quabbin occasionally presents hazards, they are new and different. They bring a refreshing element of drama to our hum-drum every days. If the chop builds to the point where we grab gunnels till our knuckles are white, so be it,” said Paul Seamans in today’s Times Past memoir. Recorder file photo

  • Wyatt Myers and David Rainville fish the Quabbin a few years back. Recorder file photo


Friday, October 06, 2017

A Carolina newspaper reported the death of a doryman during a pounding Nor’easter. He was hauling a gill net when his boat capsized. His was the only boat that ventured into the storm on that fatal day. In an editorial comment, a reporter noted that sometimes it didn’t pay to go out in rough weather for a handful of fish.

I have thought about the drowned doryman many times when we launched our boat at the Quabbin reservoir. It’s a long way from the flying salt spray that coats fishermen’s dories off Carolina coasts to the normally placid water of our nearby great lake. Yet, there are times, we find, when the Quabbin can rise up in an angry way and threaten to turn you over.

This potential threat of disaster cannot be minimized. High winds mounting out of the south build 2- and 3-foot swells that toll 10 miles up the reservoir’s open water. When these swells come over shallows, an ordinary feature of this place, they create a chop that has no rhythm or regularity about it. Unwary and unskilled boaters are sometimes unprepared for this. Wiser ones head in under these conditions, hugging shoreline against the possibility for making land rather than having to swim for it.

Boat liveries at the Quabbin, especially at gates 31 and 43, are so far tucked up in the narrows away from the main lake that you have no way of knowing what boating conditions prevail until you put an hour’s worth of water behind you in getting out to the fishing. What may begin as a normal run for favorite water, may end as a duel with the elements to keep an even keel.

From time to time, you hear complaints that Quabbin regulations are too restrictive, that boat and motor combinations allowed there limit the boater in his choice of equipment. Credit Quabbin management for the fact that the only fatalities (two or three) recorded in its 30-year operation were due to boater carelessness, not to boats and motors that didn’t meet the reservoir’s minimum safety standards.

To be sure, people who go fishing at the Quabbin are not preoccupied with worry about getting killed. After all, you can break your neck in the kitchen by falling off the chair you climbed to reach a jar of pickles way back on the top shelf of the cupboard. People go to the Quabbin to forget life’s ordinary hazards and, maybe, catch a few fish. If the Quabbin occasionally presents hazards, they are new and different. They bring a refreshing element of drama to our hum-drum every days. If the chop builds to the point where we grab gunnels till our knuckles are white, so be it.

Chances are good that the broad-beamed tub we rented will stay afloat till we drag ourselves up safe and sound, back where we started our adventure. Then it’s, “Thanks for the memories.”

Once that summer, we made it back just in time to beat an August thunderstorm that blew up black and ominous out of the west over Prescott peninsula. We had hardly slammed our truck’s doors when lightning began to crash and flash around us. Birches and maples bent to the ground as the furies rushed in from the main lake. From time to time, in the course of that half-hour storm, tremendous explosions of lightning strikes sent shock waves up and down the reservoir’s bays and valleys.

A week later, we found a pine tree that must have been blasted in that storm. We found white pitch-covered pieces of it a hundred feet away from it’s stem. It appeared that lightning had picked out that single tree and blown it to smithereens, as though to vent some pent-up meteorological madness. The trunk had been shivered 10 feet above ground. Half the tree above had simply slid straight down beside its principal shaft, sticking in the soft earth at it’s base. We walked around looking at 4- and 5-foot sections of this tree scattered dozens of feet away in a perfect circle. The lightning must have come to ground from exactly overhead, victimizing that one tree — the Lord only knows why.

We speculated that this was no place for a Quabbin fisherman to be responding to Nature’s call at the height of that blow.

In contrast with this violence, we launched a boat in September once, when the mists were so thick on the reservoir that visibility was shut off a hundred feet away. Not a breath of air disturbed the pea-soup character of the medium we floated in. You could not see from bank to bank, and you had the feeling that so dense was the gray dampness in which you operated, you might as well have been a submariner, who needed only to raise his periscope to see full-circle all around him.

We were not submariners and we had no periscope to improve our vision. We stuck as close to shore and shallow water as we dared in making headway to where we wanted to fish. Eventually, we cut this tie with security and risked all in the three-dimensional darkness enveloping us. We shut our motor down to nearly stop, hoping that over the muted explosions, we’d be able to hear any other boat that might threaten to collide with us. We heard nothing, saw nothing, and said nothing as we tried to accommodate ourselves to the unwonted circumstances.

Eventually, the mists began to thin, a yellow disk appeared where the sun ought to be, and under it’s warming influence, the fog rose and was blown away. There, all around us in Quabbin’s first great lake, a dozen boats floated motionless at anchor. How their navigators had managed to pass us and others in that nighttime of damp, will remain a mystery — and one more of Quabbin’s unique experiences.

So, to begin with, I noted the death by drowning of a true man of the sea. We, like him, brought back a few fishes in consequence of our boat-launchings off Quabbin’s shores.

Unlike his, however, our risks are small. It would be a mighty poor Quabbin sailor who, despite the reservoir’s capacity for irregular and unexpected changes of mood, did not make home port every time, safe and sound.