Monday, July 14, 2008

Fish story

Let's take into account a few unlikely scenarios.

It's unlikely that anyone would catch a 75-pound carp. Yet Leroy Thorpe is recalling how once a guy he knew did just that. "Really," he insists.

It's unlikely that within the first week of his retirement last year, John Doelman would be diagnosed with cancer. "Yup, that's what happened," he says.

It's unlikely that anyone — ever — would find themselves in charge of packing a live killer whale for air shipment, yet Gene Ford nonchalantly recalls how he did just that, in his former life as a load master for FedEx.

“Boy, they’re just as chatty as can be,” Gene says of killer whales.

Along with Gene's wife Cathy, they're all sitting around the office of the Berkshire National Fish Hatchery in New Marlborough a couple Saturdays ago sharing fish stories. In the background, what sounds like a toilet running is the trickle of cold, cold water from Dry Hill recharging  a series of large fish tanks — several of which hold the promise of a very unlikely scenario.

With each handful of flaky fish food, 16,000 Atlantic Salmon — presently merely an inch long each — are being prepared for an improbable journey. In March 2008, they will be the hatchery’s first class to graduate into the Connecticut and Farmington rivers as part of a combined local, state and federal effort to reintroduce Atlantic Salmon to its most southern range.

Once released, the salmon must swim to the sea then make their way through the gauntlet of predators and trawler nets up to waters off Greenland where they will feed. Then, if still alive, they will return — because they are a miraculous fish — to their natal stream in the Connecticut River basin to reproduce. Oh, and they must muscle their way up the ladders and lifts lovingly installed in recent years upon the very dams responsible for their wholesale disappearance from the Connecticut in the early 1800s.

To put things into perspective, millions of salmon have been raised by hatcheries elsewhere in New England and released into the Connecticut River basin since the program began 40 years ago. Though the count is merely ballpark, this July only 132 salmon returned to spawn.

It's an unlikely scenario. But not impossible. These 16,000 salmon, after all, are the offspring of survivors of the very same journey.

Here at the hatchery, this unlikely hideaway in the hills — this only all-volunteer-run hatchery in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — these salmon serve as endearing symbols of survival against most likely scenarios. This place isn't supposed to be here anymore.

After 80 years in operation, the hatchery was closed in 1994 when the federal government dammed up its funding stream. By the time a group of volunteers made their way up the steep drive in 1999 to see if they could resurrect the hatchery, it was in ruins. They went to work. Now, in addition to the salmon, the hatchery has returned to annually raising thousands of trout.

“When I first started volunteering up here,” says Leroy, a retired mill worker from Monterey. “I did it to help try to preserve something special.”

That is to say, New Marlborough without its hatchery is like the Connecticut without its salmon. Unnatural.

The hatchery is like a second home for volunteers like John Doelman of Hartsdale, who, against all odds, after nearly a year of cancer treatment, is back caring for the fish. In the office, he's talking about his days of salmon fishing in Canada, where the salmon have it comparatively easy, unless they find themselves with a hook in their mouth. "When you get them on the line,” John says, “they’ll run 200 feet. It’s exciting.”

“Not for the fish,” Cathy Ford, Gene’s wife, notes dryly.

Upon Gene’s retirement in January, the couple sold their home in Utah and bought a motor home. They embarked on this unlikely journey back to Cathy's native western Massachusetts, where they have no intention of spawning or even staying. They are here for the summer, for an adventure, volunteering at the hatchery.

The couple has watched as the salmon have turned from orange goo drops the size of shirt buttons, to full-fledged fish. Admittedly, they have grown attached to the fish.

And who could resist? Streamlined, in a silvery flash, salmon are the ancient indicators of a healthy river and the modern indicators of a society struggling to overcome some of its worst scenarios.

“They’re amazing,” Gene says. He's speaking of the salmon. That, coming from a man who used to prepare killer whales, hippos, and even the race horse Secretariat for flight upon FedEx.

“You wouldn’t believe the things flying overhead,” says the man who cannot believe the things swimming down below.