Wild ponies in the Grayson Highlands, southern Virginia.
One hot July afternoon earlier this summer, my husband Nat and I were huffing up the Marlborough Trail on Mount Monadnock in southwestern New Hampshire. I spotted four men above me, heading down. I pulled myself over a boulder and tugged a bandana up from my neck and over my face (pandemic hiking). I caught up to Nat, who said, “One of them asked me if we had a headlamp.”
I was disgusted. “How patronizing. We’re almost to the top.”
Nat said he took it as well-intentioned, even though he was not used to the idea of being an old man. This brought up an ethical question I struggle with. Is it condescending to make a visual judgment and offer free advice?
For decades I used to run into men on mountains who would ask if I knew how steep or cold this mountain was. They’d ask if I had a raincoat. I was loaded with energy and wearing a full backpack. I would just smile.
Today I feel defensive. Strangers can’t tell by looking that what I lack in brute strength I reap in wisdom (I hope). They don’t know I’ve logged thousands of miles. I edit a mountaineering journal, for goodness’ sake, with an accidents report that describes scenarios of injured people who forgot lights. Still, truth is, the man who asked about the headlamp hit a nerve.
We’d actually left it in the car and only had the light on my iPhone. Ha, the joke’s on us. And I do go more slowly now. I can’t spontaneously run up Monadnock in an hour the way I used to. If I were to fall, even four hours before sunset, I might need a headlamp while waiting for help.
All this brought up a memory of strangers helping me in a most respectful way.
On a bright April day many years ago, the second day of an overnight backpacking trip in southwestern Virginia, my daughters Elizabeth and Annie and I rested after lunch in an old corral near Mount Rogers. A ranger drove up in a pickup, crunching gravel. I jogged over to his window. I asked, pointing, “Does that trail connect back to the Appalachian Trail?” I opened my Appalachian Trail Conservancy map.
“There’s a shorter way,” he said. He pointed to a dashed line on his Grayson Highlands State Park map and handed me the map. “That will save you time. A horse trail.”
He is not the helpful stranger of this story.
We strapped on packs and started trudging up the shortcut, picking our way over loose sand and stones between rhododendrons. I chatted, encouraging the girls, who were just 9 and 7.
“See these rhododendrons? I love the way they reach out.” A stream flowed straight through blotches of sun, down the trail. I smelled something bad.
Next I saw a mass of blond hair flattened in the shallow water. I saw teeth and an eye socket. A dead horse.
I remembered that wild horses roam the Grayson Highlands. I must tell my daughters. I turned, woodenly. “Uh—stay to the right, girls. Don’t be scared, but—there’s a dead horse.”
Silently they picked their way over it. I chirped, “It’s natural to die! It’s even normal for a horse like this to stay where it died.” But I felt terrible.
The stream turned away from the path, and we came to a fork the ranger had not explained. I turned us left. We hiked a long way into a sunny meadow with a view of Mount Rogers, the highest point in Virginia. The girls’ hair blew in the wind as they snacked on M&Ms. I took their picture and worried we were behind schedule.
At the clearing’s edge, I sank to my knees with both maps. Oh no. Our route had added three miles to our eight-mile day. I said, “OK, the good news is that I know where we are!”
We slogged on, hardly speaking. We crossed a stream. I needed to pump water, but I wanted us to get out before sunset. Another ridge rose ahead. I wailed inwardly. Where is the parking lot?
I heard rustling. Coming around a wooded bend, here came two strong-looking men with full packs. We all stopped. I asked, “Do you know how far it is to Massie Gap?” My voice wavered.
They paused as if to gauge whether I knew what I was doing. They frowned. One man nodded.
“Go up over that ridge,” he said, businesslike, handing me his water bottle, which I took and poured into my empty one. He pointed to the bush-covered ridge just behind him. “Massie Gap is that way, but you have to go over that mountain first.” I realized that they had decided to help me save face in front of my kids.
Turning with my best late-day field voice, I said, “OK, girls, it’s just a mile over the ridge, and then it’s all downhill!”
Later that night, tucked into beds at our friend’s house, Annie said, “Mama? I’m afraid of the horse.”
“Oh, Annie.” I said, and hesitated.
Through the dark came Elizabeth’s quiet voice. “Think about cupcakes.”
I thought this was excellent advice: hopeful, respectful, gentle. Something that’s hard to get right—especially, perhaps, right now.
About this article:
This appeared in Appalachia 72 no. 1 as the editor’s column, “The Long Way Home: Is it help or is it ‘help’?” For the whole issue, visit the journal’s open-access archive. To subscribe to Appalachia, go here.
On a warm, slightly overcast Sunday afternoon last August 8, boaters near the Salmon River boat launch on the Connecticut River in East Haddam noticed a personal watercraft drifting without a rider.
Less than an hour later, state environmental police recovered a man’s body floating nearby in a no-wake zone. Stephen Fabian, 59, of Moodus, had fallen off the watercraft and drowned. State environmental officials said his life jacket was ill-fitting and had slid up around his head, and the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) reported that his blood-alcohol level was well over the legal intoxication limit.
“The way he died was tragic,” his best friend, Dana Pitts of Westbrook, said. “He brought it on himself.” Fabian, a former licensed practical nurse, had once rescued a boater after a crash on the Connecticut River and performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation until medical personnel arrived, his family reported.
As a boating accident, Fabian’s was as typical as it was sad. The great majority of boating accidents in the United States occur because people fail to pay attention, wear life jackets, or are using substances, said Walt Taylor, recreational boating safety specialist for the U.S. Coast Guard in Boston.
In 2021, the Coast Guard reported 43 boating accidents and seven deaths in Connecticut. In 2020, there were more boating accidents in Connecticut— 54 —but fewer deaths, three, according to the Coast Guard’s annual Recreational Boating Statistics report.
Small though these numbers are, what’s striking about the fatalities is that all of them could have been prevented. Taylor said he avoids calling boating mishaps accidents, preferring the word “incidents,” since they are often the result of choices.
Five of the seven men who died boating in Connecticut waters in 2021 were not wearing life jackets, and a sixth, Fabian, wore an ill-fitting one. Had they been wearing proper life jackets—technically known as personal floatation devices or PFDs—they likely would have survived, Taylor said. The seventh died of blunt force trauma.
As in Connecticut, nationally, boating accidents declined in 2021 to 4,439 from 5,265 in 2020. But unlike in Connecticut, boating fatalities nationwide also declined from 2020 to 2021, from 767 to 658.
An estimated 80% of U.S. boating deaths last year were from drowning after falling overboard, according to the Coast Guard’s report. And of those who drowned, 83% of them were not wearing life jackets. Alcohol use is the leading contributing factor in boating accidents and the primary reason for 16% of accidents nationwide, the report said.
Boaters are legally intoxicated with blood alcohol levels of .08%, or .02% for those under age 21. And Connecticut law requires that people carry life jackets on board and that children under 12 wear one while on a vessel’s deck. Everyone on board a “manually propelled” boat, such as a canoe or kayak, must wear a life jacket between October 1 and May 31.
The problem, Taylor acknowledged, is that once a boat starts capsizing, it’s too late to grab the PFDs and put them on.
“Nobody plans on going out on the boat and, quote, accidentally falling overboard,” Taylor said. “It’s the same rationale as not putting your seatbelt on until the moment you need it. In the event you do find yourself in the water, it’s too late.”
Fabian’s death and most of the other boating fatalities in Connecticut last year are grim proof of that statement. On April 10, a kayak capsized in Long Meadow Pond in Middlebury. The 26-year-old paddler struggled and submerged, drowning despite witnesses’ efforts to find and rescue him. His body was found the next day. Officials said he wore no life jacket and had marijuana in his bloodstream and a blood alcohol content of .012.
On May 8, Michael Lowell, 58, of Putnam, was fishing from a kayak in the Quinebaug River in Pomfret. Two companions in other boats paddled upstream, and when they returned, they could not find Lowell and reported him missing. Later, his overturned boat was found many miles downstream and his body floating 198 yards away from it, DEEP reported. Officials determined he had drowned; he wore no life jacket.
On June 8, Philip Blouin, 50, who had gone fishing in a motorized canoe the previous night, was found dead after his family reported him missing. He wore no life jacket, his blood alcohol was .180 and THC was detected in his bloodstream. In addition, officials said he had no required safe boating certificate, and the trolling motor on the unregistered boat had fishing line wrapped around it.
Two men launched a canoe in Stamford and capsized near the Woodway Beach Club on July 10. Four lifeguards from the club rescued and tried to revive Lorenzo Macua, 63, of Norwalk, but he was pronounced dead at Stamford Hospital. The second canoeist, 50, wasn’t identified, but officials said he swam to shore and was unhurt. Neither of them wore a life jacket.
Akida Edwards, 45, of New York City, ventured out in a kayak at night in Wyassup Lake in North Stonington on September 25. He was reported missing. Divers found his body late the next morning. DEEP said he drowned after falling out of the boat and that alcohol and drugs were found in his system.
The only non-drowning boating accident last year happened on July 27, when 18-year-old Matthew A. Horvath of Shelton and a friend were riding their personal watercrafts off Cedar Beach in Milford when they collided. Horvath, a varsity soccer player who graduated from Shelton High School that spring, died of blunt force trauma. Officials did not identify the other rider, who was not hurt. DEEP officials said neither wore a life jacket and that speed may have contributed to the crash. Alcohol was detected in Horvath’s system, DEEP spokesman Matt Healey said.
“Anyone operating a personal watercraft should understand that it is a motor vehicle, similar to a car but on water,” Healey said. “Before getting on the water, operators should take safe boating courses and obtain their certificate of personal watercraft operation. Lifejackets should be worn at all times, and safe speeds should be maintained. Alcohol should never be consumed when getting in or on the water or when operating any type of vessel.”
Not paying attention is the deadly cause of most boating accidents in the United States, Taylor said. Even when they are sober, distraction is a big factor. He said people pay too much attention to their radar, fish finding, and navigation devices. “A lot of times, people get so fixed on those things that they’re not looking right in front of them.”
Written for the Connecticut Health Investigative Team, July 11, 2022.
Laura Ingalls Wilder was an American farmer and small-town farm journalist who rarely got involved in 20th-century politics. She was not an activist for the vote and only entered in politics in old age, when she ran for a paid local office — and lost.
And yet for decades, conservative Americans have held up her series, the Little House books, which includes Little House on the Prairie, as a Bible of libertarianism: true examples of American self-reliance and independent spirit. The nine children’s books about a hard-working pioneer family warned about the encroaching power of the state, and heralded the rise of the modern Republican party. They are fiction, of course, but based on Wilder’s real childhood.
Published in the throes of the Great Depression, the Little House books were powerful allegories opposing President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programmes, which provided unprecedented financial support to struggling Americans. They also illustrated a major shift in Republican ideology that took place in the Thirties, as the party sought to widen its appeal. It shed its reputation as the party of elite business owners, and instead began to emphasise the power of the individual.
In one of the scenes in The Long Winter, a storekeeper is overcharging starving residents of De Smet, South Dakota, who want to buy the last grain in town. A riot seems imminent until the hero of the books, Charles “Pa” Ingalls, speaks up. “This is a free country, and every man’s got a right to do as he pleases with his own property,” he tells the storekeeper. “Don’t forget that every one of us is free and independent, Loftus. This winter won’t last forever, and maybe you want to go on doing business after it’s over.”’
This impromptu speech is anachronistic: arguing about unregulated markets was a debate rooted in the Thirties, when this book was written, rather than the 1880s, when it was set. It hints at the secret lying at the heart of the Little House books: it was Wilder’s daughter and secret co-author, Rose Wilder Lane, who imbued the books with their political message.
Lane was one of the intellectual architects of the libertarian political movement in America: she was an influential free-market activist, writer, and acquaintance of the philosopher Ayn Rand. Her projection of her radical political views onto her mother’s pioneering childhood means that the series should be read as a double history: folk stories about the 1870s and 1880s woven through the vantage point of the Great Depression and the Second World War.
Pulsing through the books, meanwhile, are principles rooted in the Declaration of Independence. Thanks often to Lane’s revisions, characters occasionally quote that document, noting that they want to be “free and independent”. In Little Town on the Prairie, Pa takes Laura and her sister to the Fourth of July celebration in town. In Lane’s revision, Laura is transfixed by the reading of the Declaration of Independence and the singing of My Country Tis of Thee:
“The crowd was scattering away then, but Laura stood stock still. Suddenly she had a completely new thought. The Declaration and the Song came together in her mind, and she thought: God is America’s king. She thought: Americans won’t obey any king on earth. Americans are free. That means they have to obey their own consciences.”
This is why the books are so beloved by conservatives today: these libertarian views formed the basis of the modern Republican Party.
Yet the books purposefully understate the difficulty of the American pioneer experience. It was in fact a brutally hard life of crop failures, isolation, and disease. Although the Little House books preserved in accurate and lyrical detail many of the skills that small farmers practiced in the 19th century, Lane recast many scenes as optimistic takes on tragedy that did not reflect how the family actually responded. In On the Banks of Plum Creek, Pa announced during a horrible plague of the Rocky Mountain locust that ate crops for two years: “We won’t let a pesky crop of grasshoppers stop us.” The locusts did, in fact, lead to their financial ruin. Two years later, according to Little Town on the Prairie, the family resorted to eating the blackbirds that had destroyed their first corn crop in Dakota Territory. The family sings Sing a Song of Sixpence at the table. And why not show some upbeat pluck in a children’s book?
But Wilder cautioned her daughter that the family was not an optimistic group. The quality they relied on was stoicism, putting up with the bad that came. That’s very different from hope. “I wish I could explain to you about the stoicism of the people,” she wrote to Lane in 1938, when they were halfway through writing the series. “You know a person cannot live at a high pitch of emotion. The feelings become dulled by a natural, unconscious effort at self-preservation.” Wilder insisted that the Ingalls family had never reacted to anything emotionally.
The divergence between Wilder’s real-life story and the Little House narrative was also apparent from what they left out: crime and tragedy. Gone from the books were stories Laura had written in early drafts: the death of a baby brother, a mournful episode running a tavern that ended with the family fleeing late at night to avoid paying its debts. The hardships that did stay in the books shored up tenaciousness as a value, such as sister Mary Ingalls going blind as a teenager. Laura then had to step in to help her and support the family by teaching at several schools.
The books also downplayed the various ways the government helped the family, spinning a myth of self-reliance. Like many pioneer settlers, they were given a free homestead through the federal Homestead Act, which granted tracts the government had taken from American Indians. Then there was sister Mary’s state-paid college for the blind in Iowa. The stories only talk of Laura having to teach to pay for Mary’s college expenses — perhaps her clothes.
The stories continue to exert a kind of power on the American psyche. The books have sold more than 60 million copies and were taught in classrooms for many decades; the series remains part of homeschooling curricula. “Laura Ingalls Wilder is the quintessential American pioneer,” says Wilder expert William Anderson in the PBS American Masters documentary Laura Ingalls Wilder: Prairie to Page.
And Lane’s legacy can still be felt in the Republican party. Lane only wrote political articles after publishing the Little House books and her libertarian treatise The Discovery of Freedom. But she campaigned for limited government in the last years of her life. In the Sixties, she took under her ideological wing a young man in Connecticut; he was Roger Lea MacBride, who became a champion of libertarian thought and ran for president for the new Libertarian Party in 1976. Later, MacBride took the libertarian ideas with him as he migrated back to the Republican party’s Liberty Caucus.
Lane also donated funds to help businessman Robert LeFevre launch an institution for adults in Colorado called the Freedom School, which named a building after Lane. Two of the early students who studied free markets and limited government there were Charles and David Koch, who went on to become members of the Libertarian Party in the Seventies and Eighties. Later, they returned to the conservative branches of the Republican Party and became hugely influential by donating money to Republicans promising to support free-market concerns, including such notions as refuting the science of climate change.
The myth of the pioneers, embodied by Laura Ingalls Wilder, inspired many conservative American values today. They were seen as the kind of independent, self-reliant Americans that the Second Amendment was designed to protect. But even they would have struggled with some aspects of modern Republican policy — gun control in particular.
Certainly, the Ingalls family owned and used guns. In one scene in Little House in the Big Woods, Pa Ingalls trudges with his rifle through the snow of northern Wisconsin, checking animal traps. Rounding a large pine tree, he meets a black bear, standing on its hind legs clutching a dead pig. Pa aims his gun, kills the bear, and immediately runs home for the horses and sled to take the meat home. There, it resides in frozen form in a shed. Pa hacks off pieces with an axe at mealtimes.
Even the mythical Pa Ingalls would not have thought today’s Americans needed guns in most situations, especially the range of weapons available today. He preached to his daughters the necessity of restraint. “You wouldn’t shoot a little baby deer, would you, Pa?” says Laura. “‘No, never!’ he answered. ‘Nor its Ma, nor its Pa. No more hunting, now, till all the little wild animals have grown up. We’ll just have to do without fresh meat till fall.’”
When baby animals were roaming the forest, it was time to put the rifle away.
This article first appeared in unherd,com.
Photo of the ledge by Christopher Zajac for Estuary magazine.
When I go there now, two or three times every week, I walk to the end of one road and trudge up a broken old woods road into the state forest. I step over ruts, where puddles linger long and narrow in dirt bike tracks. All around, rock ledges left from the last glacial retreat rise up. Boulders are my favorite aspect of Connecticut. They have sat there for about 25,000 years. They seem to wait for that time when the rounds of storms and temperature will heave them up again.
As soon as the pandemic quarantine started, and it seemed that half of the population had started walking on the woods trails, I began retreating into this tract of forest near my house, avoiding busier paths.
In rural Deep River and Chester, in the lower Connecticut River Valley, the chances were low I’d run into big crowds. Yet I sought a wilder patch of backcountry. I quelled my anxiety over what social distancing could mean, and what the novel coronavirus could do. In mid-March 2020, scientists were just beginning to study the virus. They weren’t sure all the ways we could catch it or give it to each other. The government’s best advice resembled that of the flu pandemic in 1918: stay away from each other, step back if we encountered anyone, and eventually, cover our faces if we did see anyone.
And so I would slip away—retreating into a magic world I found in that oak and beech forest. This expanse is nestled on a piece of Cockaponset State Forest, west and south of Route 9, crossed by dirt roads. I started going regularly to a certain ledge in there. This ridge is by no means an unknown place to the locals. It’s just not talked about.
I walk in the woods for the reasons people announce that they do, but mostly for something else. Let’s look at the common reasons first. I love peace and quiet of the Connecticut woods. Thousands of miles of marked trails meander through the Connecticut River Valley. I like trees. Their canopies give creatures homes and shelter me from real and imagined storms of my own life. I love glimpsing a wild turkey, or a hawk, or a coyote. They are always running away from me, and that’s humbling. My presence bothers them more than they can scare me. I smile at the ubiquitous chipmunks moving in fast-forward time. And robins start their crazy loopy songs almost every time I go out. If I trudge with human companions, I know that out there we will get to the heart of things faster than on a busy road. We will speak honestly instead of chattering.
I hike for other deep motives. I go to figure things out. On the trail I don’t need words to know anything. I need to watch without any expectation of what will emerge. The great Connecticut walking-trail guru Eugene Keyarts once wrote, “At first one must learn the art of seeing, not just looking.” Keyarts wrote a little handbook, 60 Selected Short Nature Walks in Connecticut, long out of print. Each walk got two cryptic pages and a hand-drawn map. Keyarts described how to get there and what the trail looked like. Then, without a break, he let his mind wander to whatever he wanted to tell readers. He might talk about the mighty oak tree and its protein-rich acorns, or describe a dragonfly scooping up an insect on a pond’s surface—only to be eaten by a frog. Or he’d criticize humans for our natural tendencies to litter and rampage. Keyarts and his humble little green-covered paperback guide gave me my first glimpse at the extensive trail networks in this little state, to which I relocated at age 28.
I hike in the woods because sometimes I don’t know what my priorities are, and there I can think without distraction. I want to grasp how I really felt about something someone said or map out the route I’ll take to fulfill an obligation. Maybe I just feel unspecified monsters stirring up in my mind. I hike because my personal landscape emerges on the dead leaves of last year’s growth.
Hiking out my ledge in 2020 mimicked the transformation the pandemic brought to the wider world. I realized that these hikes were not a diversion, just as the coronavirus would be no temporary visitor. In fact, society changed that spring, and it will continue changing. I’m different now; I’ve changed, and my life from now on will be divided into the time before the pandemic and the time after. That spring I crossed a line into the new reality the way I hiked over the rolling dirt tracks to my ledge. And I realized that I could learn to navigate the post-pandemic world and to help those I love do the same.
I am not the only one who goes out there. I see evidence of climbers who inch their way up the front of it, and partiers who sit at the top. We aren’t that many and we don’t overlap, so this place feels personal. It’s big enough to share and still feel alone. Whenever I climb the last few yards to the top and see the skinny, twisted pitch pine branches hovering over the precipice, I feel as if I’m interrupting a meeting of the sprites. It seems as if this place knows and understands me.
Which comforts me no end. There’s a lot about the world of recreation and exploration that will change. With the pandemic, the meaning and purpose of hiking to a destination in the backcountry altered for me. Hiking is no longer pure recreation, but a balm to a soul on edge. For most of my adult life, I have explored the woods of Connecticut to connect and to recharge. Now I chose a place where the connections were all wild. Where no one would speak in language. My ledge does not feature in published hiking books. It’s not on any list of top destinations.
On my ledge, I sort out all of these feelings. Up here, time passes on a different scale, because the way I experience it falls out of expectation or measure. Getting here, I try not to match ground covered to minutes on a GPS. I try not to mark time on the clock out here, either, but I usually fail at that. Returning to a secret place over and over narrows my vision and focuses understanding into one outdoor universe four stories high, higher than any other ledge or building around here. I think it all through: I’m lucky. I am healthy and still have work, and so does my husband. Our two grown daughters, who live in California and Maryland, are holding on well. I trust that they will be OK. I worry about them the way mothers worry, but I mainly just feel love for them and think of ways to express it from a distance.
From up on the ledge, I heard wind in the trees, and birdsong. The highway less than a mile away normally occupies a piece of the background noise, but for ten weeks, I heard no distant car and truck motors. In that silence, I could understand that hundreds of thousands of people in my region could not go to work. That many had lost their jobs. That they were struggling to pay bills and get food. That children and teenagers could not go to school. And that all the normal channels to help them—therapy, churches, synagogues, mosques—had shut. In that silence a heavy weight hung over Connecticut. A new disease had afflicted many tens of thousands of people and by mid-May killed 3,449 of them.
Pitch pines grow up here. They love dry, sunny places like sand plains, and most of the sand plains in Connecticut have disappeared beneath buildings and malls. They grow slowly on ledges that face the sun in just the right way, waiting patiently for what they need, clinging to rocks and sliding their roots around to get a purchase. These trees make up .04 of 1 percent of the Connecticut forest and less than 1 percent of all the pines in the state. They are a relic of another time, when they grew more abundantly and when people cut them down for their resin-filled knots where limbs meet trunk. They were known as candlewood because those knots would start fires so neatly.
Belden C. Lane, a theology professor and backpacker, wrote in his book about the spiritual side of wilderness hiking* that just “plodding an uphill trail” migrates his mind away from panic and impulsive thoughts or actions. Lane knows that moving through the woods “evokes an intuitive way of knowing.…What the mind hardly fathoms, the body already knows.”
Walking into wild places is an act of faith. I don’t feel afraid in here because I’m used to moving through the backcountry. I know that bobcats might be denning somewhere near this ledge: from up here, they can see hares, turkeys, chipmunks, raccoons. In spring, the green and sometimes reddish buckmoth caterpillars will munch on oaks until they emerge into huge black- and red-winged creatures. Maybe I have stepped on brownish slimy caterpillars for a Gerhard’s underwing as they crunched on roots. I don’t know. The grand theater of nature hides in the wings when a human breezes through. I’m just a visitor for a moment. But none of this scares me. I feel glad I can visit this mysterious world for a while.
In spring 2020, the world suffered together through its isolation. Millions of people got sick. No vaccine or medicine could help. Populations shut themselves away or went about business tentatively, looking away from each other or crossing the street. For a few weeks, the ordeal felt temporary, but then I began to understand that this threat and our inability to stop it would not retreat quickly. The pandemic will retreat over many months while humanity learns to detect it, treat it, or avoid it.
At some point during any long ordeal, the truth rises up through all the little irritations and challenges of it, and I know that I will emerge on the other side different than before. The coronavirus has changed me, and it will continue changing me.
The first time I learned that lesson of a long difficult time was the year I walked thousands of miles with my stuff from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail, following three companions. We slept on a different floor or ground every night from mid-April through early September. Our feet, backs, knees, and shoulders ached and felt bruised every day. Everything about this trip was just hard. I jumped over and slammed onto rocks, mud, roots, and pavement. My feet bruised, my shoulder blades hurt all the time from 35 to 45 pounds on my back, I smelled bad, and my gear smelled worse. It seemed, then, that we were slogging through hell—and by choice. It would have been funny, except that our feet hurt so much.
In the supermarket, I’d step away from the canned tomatoes, making room for three others who also intended to make spaghetti. “Sorry,” I’d say, adding, “Sorry.”
In the early days of the pandemic of 2020, I felt a little like that. On those rare days when I had to venture out in my car, if one other vehicle showed up in the rearview mirror, my breath would become shallow and my forehead knit into a ball. In the supermarket, I’d step away from the canned tomatoes, making room for three others who also intended to make spaghetti. “Sorry,” I’d say, adding, “Sorry.” They all felt like strangers. I felt strange. I didn’t know where they’ve been, and they didn’t know where I’d been. Just breathing the same air made all of us want to take a number.
But the story didn’t end with that. On the Appalachian Trail journey all those years ago, I knew somewhere around two and a half months in—say, around early July—that I had changed, permanently. I knew what I was doing. I was used to living that way, homeless and with just the basic necessities. Water from a spring and a simple meal were now all that we needed. My companions and I also knew that we would change more over the next two months until we would go back to society. I never looked at a water spigot the same again after that trip.
That’s where I am in spring 2020. My ledge has helped me change. Daily I think about happy and beautiful things, cling to routine, do work I love, feel thankful for health, work, money, food, family, and friends. We are handling it. But when it comes time to get outside, I go most often to the quiet places and especially that big rock.
Christine Woodside is a writer specializing in environmental history and personal adventure narrative. She also edits the Appalachia journal.
* Belden C. Lane, Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice (Oxford University Press, 2015).
This article first appeared in Estuary magazine in September 2020.
My sister Anne Woodside Gribbins and I wrote this article together. Annie (pointebypointe.wordpress.com) is a former ballet dancer and project manager for Tessitura Network. She lives in Titusville, New Jersey with her husband Joe and family.
We are sisters living in Connecticut and New Jersey. We are eight years apart and allies ever since Chris stood two feet taller than Annie while we navigated around our three noisy brothers and our charming, opinionated parents.
Annie has noticed over the years that she can learn a lot about how bad a storm or other emergency is by watching her husband Joe, a professional firefighter and emergency medical technician, as he packs his duffel bags in their living room.
With COVID-19, he wasn’t packing bags. They were headed into this looming crisis with not one duffel bag in their living room. There was no context for dealing with global pandemics.
Many weeks into the new way of life, Chris suggested that we could pack imaginary duffel bags filled not with actual gear but with strategies we would follow to get through the rest of the pandemic. The symbolic duffel bag gives us a comforting barometer by which we can mentally prepare ourselves for how big a hurdle we might be facing.
Annie—a working parent whose 17-year-old high school junior son couldn’t play soccer the entire spring—sometimes feels she’s been practicing three-duffel-bag parenting right along.
We sketched three possible scenarios:
• The one-duffel-bag emergency: lowest level, equivalent to preparing for a tropical storm.
• The two-duffel-bag emergency: significant emergency, will take some mental preparedness, equivalent to a Category 1 hurricane.
• The three-duffel-bag emergency: highest level of preparedness, like a Category 5 hurricane.
Scenerio: One Duffel Bag
This is Chris’s one-duffel-bag scenario: The University of Connecticut, where she will be teaching, goes forward with its reopening plan. She teaches some classes on campus and some online. All of her sources of income from writing and editing continue. She and her husband Nat stay healthy. No testing is available for the asymptomatic. Society reopens and travel bans are eased, but she has to weigh carefully whether she travels, especially to visit their daughters in California and Maryland.
Here’s what goes into Chris’s first duffel bag: Masks. Careful decisions about travel. A plan to check outbreaks and her health before going anywhere. The commitment to getting enough sleep, eating well, praying, and seeking out positive people. Finally, in goes a promise: Don’t overschedule.
Annie’s one-duffel-bag scenario is this: Her son Joseph’s high school opens as currently expected. Varsity soccer practices and games proceed with precautions and a plan. Testing in her state of New Jersey ramps up to mitigate risks. Her college daughter Shannon goes back to school and can reapply to the Disney College Program internship semester in Florida she was supposed to go to this fall but which got canceled. Her husband Joe resumes his teaching commitments outside of his emergency work but does not travel for conferences. She keeps working from home with no travel for several months.
Scenario: Two Duffel Bags
Chris’s two-bag scenario: UConn decides to open later, or to add more campus restrictions. Virus cases rise slightly in the region. What goes into the second bag: Prepare and train for more online teaching and putting more of the journal I edit, Appalachia, online. Keep on top of professional skills with a business plan. Consider selling e-books and being flexible about how to sell articles. No travel the rest of the year. Stay in touch with my daughters by phone, mail, and virtually. Scope out long-term goals. End unnecessary obligations and avoid situations that make her unhappy.
Annie’s two-bag scenario: Joseph’s school operates as a hybrid of online and in-person classes. The soccer season is shortened. Shannon’s semester at college is shortened. Her husband Joe does not end up resuming all of his teaching schedule, and Annie’s travel is canceled until mid-2021.
What goes into Annie’s second bag: Make sure young Joe has the resources to cope with continued distance learning and maybe begin to frame alternate plans for post high school (gap year?). Wine. Meditation. Yoga.
Scenario: Three Duffel Bags
Chris’s three-duffel-bag scenario: UConn closes, or she loses other income sources, or her husband Nat gets a pay cut or furlough. One or both of them gets sick.
What goes into the third bag: Major pulling-in of mental energy. Stock the pantry more in case of illness. Work efficiently and well. Make herself invaluable at work. Make therapy appointments and don’t forget to show up for them.
Annie’s three-bag scenario: Joseph’s high school doesn’t open at all; all classes are online. No fall varsity sports run, so he misses out on his senior year of soccer. For Shannon, college gets put on hold. Annie does not want to contemplate the three-duffel-bag scenario.
What goes into Annie’s third bag: Therapy for all. Maybe some whisky. Definitely ice cream. Netflix suggestions, anyone? A new couch.
And yet Annie has learned serious lessons being married to a first responder:
1) An emergency isn’t always “your emergency.” Go into it confidently, help the person who needs help, be confident with your training, equipment, and each other.
2) Surround yourself with your “team,” good people and friends who support you. (I.e., like your sister.)
3) Have the right gear. Pull out the tools you have developed for coping that can give you the sense of calm and procedure. Firefighters don’t walk into a burning building without their gear on.
And so we aren’t going into the rest of the pandemic without our gear on. We must come out of it, live life again with the virus out there, and figure out how to do it safely. We just need our duffel bags.
On July 30, 2020, Shore Publishing posted this article here.
This group devoted many early mornings in spring and summer as citizen scientists taking water samples to test the quality. Pictured are: Holly Turner, a teacher at the Bridgeport Regional Vocational Aquaculture School; Lyle Given, and Charlotte Hickey, both students. Kevin Blagys, a volunteer, observes their work.
At 6:25 a.m. on the cloudy, humid first day of summer, two teenage aquaculture students huddle at the back of their school boat as it backs away from a dock in Black Rock Harbor in western Bridgeport.
Charlotte Hickey grips a heavy cylindrical metal probe that is about a foot and a half long. The students call this “the beast.” It contains electronics that precisely measure water conditions. Sienna Matregrano holds a clipboard and pen, ready to record depth, temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, fluorescence and turbidity. Both girls are seniors at Bridgeport Regional Vocational Aquaculture School.
They’re up early because they must take water quality readings in Black Rock Harbor when it lies still. Like most residents of the Black Rock area, they’re tired of sewage overflows, smelly water and beaches closed to swimming—mostly caused by overflows at the Bridgeport West Side Water Pollution Control Facility sewer plant.
The students have devoted many early mornings of the spring and summer of 2019 volunteering as citizen scientists in a Long Island Sound-wide study of water quality. Called the Unified Water Study, the initiative is administered by Connecticut Fund for the Environment and its program Save the Sound. The Bridgeport group is one of 22 taking water samples at 36 embayments of Long Island Sound in Connecticut and New York.
The study’s goal is to understand the whole Sound’s water quality, and so the Black Rock citizen scientists follow strict guidelines. They take readings every two weeks in the same six locations from the mouth to the furthest inland stretch of Black Rock Harbor in the same way at the same time of day.
Under the director of teacher Holly Turner, Hickey has worked all of the collections. Matregrano rotates as data recorder with Lyle Given, a senior at the aquaculture high school.
Working with them is Kevin Blagys, who operates a one-man diving and salvage service in these waters. Blagys offered his boat, although often they use the school’s, and he helps check the figures. Blagys also has devoted hours to helping with the logistics of the study, and, using his own boat, collects seaweed and chlorophyll samples.
The last data collection is Oct. 18, so any results now are localized and don’t take into account the context of the greater Long Island Sound, which is how the unified study is designed. But the readings here in Black Rock indicate water with high nitrogen levels (because of the sewage effluent) and diminishing health as the warm season progresses.
Indeed, in their preliminary results the students are finding alarming proof of the poor health of the water. For a snapshot of declining health, one only has to compare readings from the first day the citizen scientists recorded conditions, May 10, with the readings three months later. Hypoxia, or too little oxygen to support most marine life, occurs when oxygen measures below 5 milligrams per liter. In Long Island Sound, high nitrogen levels from sewage treatment—even when plants are operating perfectly—is the cause of hypoxia.
At testing station 3, near Captain’s Cove Seaport, oxygen on the bottom declined from 100% on May 10 to 38% on Aug. 9. At the surface it went from 100% in May to 55% in August.
Farther inland, near Santa Energy and I-95, dissolved oxygen at the bottom went from 67% in May to 25% in August. At the surface it dropped from 99% in May to 30% in August.
At the harbor’s mouth, dissolved oxygen measured 100% on the bottom and at the surface in May. By August that went down to 45% on the bottom and 62% at the surface.
They test also for turbidity, or suspended particles in the water, which remains high.
And they test for chlorophyll, an indicator of plant life. As the season warms up, oxygen in the harbor is depleted, making it more difficult to sustain marine life. “The other staggering reading is the chlorophyll levels,” Blagys said in mid-August. “They greatly increase as we go up the harbor” inland.
Chlorophyll readings Blagys collected told a story too. “I was surprised at our first testing on the 10th [of May]. It was already very green,” Blagys said, although the water temperature was still in the 50s at that time. “The water’s alive.”
Meanwhile, Bill Lucey, the Long Island Soundkeeper for the Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound, started testing Black Rock Harbor near the discharge pipe of the West Side facility in June.
His probe has measured dissolved oxygen at 0 from his first tests. Then sometime in July, what he calls “this big organic mat,” or blobs of black matter floating up from the bottom, began to clog his probe. “In a healthy embayment, the top few centimeters of the bottom sediment should have oxygen,” he said.
“There should be clams and worms making holes,” Lucey said. Deeper down you’d find anaerobic bacteria, which doesn’t need oxygen, he said.
Black Rock Harbor qualifies as an unhealthy embayment. The sediment near the top also lacks oxygen. The result is methane production on the bottom. The boaters docked near the discharge pipe see the bubbles bursting into patterns as they start their engines.
On the boat, the students, Turner and Blagys act as a well-oiled team. They’ve been doing this for months. The boat reaches the first test collection spot and hovers as Hickey lowers the beast into the water. Turner reads off the device that records the conditions, calling out figures to Matregrano, who writes them down on the study’s preprinted chart blanks.
As the boat moves to the next stop, Hickey and Turner pull the beast out of the water and go to the back of the boat to hose off blobs of thick, black mud.
Blagys said he “kind of literally jumped into this. After 13 years in business, diving in the harbor and seeing the state of it, and it really becomes in a crisis mode for two months for July and August with the hypoxia and the fish kills,” he said. He wanted to do something.
So did the other residents of Black Rock who attended a summer 2018 meeting organized by City Council member Peter Spain. “We found out about this study,” Blagys said. “It was pretty much Bill Lucey with Save the Sound and Holly Turner. They got together and said, ‘How can we run this thing?’ ”
“We’re sort of all citizen scientists,” Blagys said.
Blagys said he was eager to “give back” to the water where he makes his living, and is delighted that finally the water quality in the Black Rock area would get independent attention. “In the previous studies, the water hasn’t been monitored here in Bridgeport,” he said.
As soon as Turner told the students about the water study, Hickey signed up. She said that over the past three years the water in Black Rock Harbor looks more polluted than it ever has. She’s worked at Captain’s Cove with her family since she was in second grade. She sells her own cleverly painted shells—some look like Santa Claus—and she talks to a lot of tourists. Hickey’s family sells ice cream and runs a few other little stores on the boardwalk at Captains Cove Seaport. The brightly painted shops cluster over the well-kept boat docks. Music plays from the restaurant deck speakers at the northern end. You can smell fried seafood, french fries—and the sewage plant.
Since the West Side facility began operating in the late 1940s, residents have lived with regular flows of effluent (treated sewage).
Since the West Side facility began operating in the late 1940s, residents have lived with regular flows of effluent (treated sewage). The discharge pipe is designed to emit up to 30 million gallons a day, but it regularly sends out more out of its 72-inch mouth directly below Captain Cove’s restaurant deck.
When the study ends in October, residents may understand better the problems in this water. For now, they are noticing that the dissolved oxygen went way down as the summer went on and the water heated up. They see high nitrogen levels and high turbidity (cloudiness) in areas.
Bridgeport is under orders from the state to correct its sewage overflow problem by 2039. Once all the work is done, Lucey said, the harbor would need about 20 more years to recover. So if the city stops overflows by 2039, the harbor will be clean by 2059.
Waterways do recover when sewage outflows are moved. A case in point is Mumford Cove in Groton. The sewage outflow was moved to the Thames River in 1987. Fifteen years later, the cove’s natural eelgrass ecosystem had recovered.
Lucey said that Black Rock Harbor should be dredged so that it has a chance to recover, once the sewage overflows are halted.
The recovery in Black Rock rides, too, on other industry being careful. Over the summer, some spilled gravel caused the water to look as blue as a glacial lake for a day.
Climate change will also affect how the harbor recovers.
Connecticut is getting wetter and warmer, which means more rain will infiltrate sewage and stormwater pipes. Warmer summers increase the interactions of heat, sun and nitrogen that lower water oxygen levels.
The people in Black Rock have decided that whatever the odds against the harbor might seem to be, they want to do something. “We basically got the Unified Water Study started in Black Rock with no federal funding,” Lucey said. “They self-funded.”
Spain, Santa Energy, and Blagys donated time and boat time. The aquaculture high school donated its boat and captains. Ash Creek Conservation Association donated money and acted as the fiscal agent for buying equipment. Captain’s Cove provided free boat slips.
“A half dozen entities donated resources to make that happen,” Lucey said. “People put their money where their mouth is.”
Read the 3-part series on C-HIT.org.
Part 1: A typical rainstorm in Bridgeport overwhelms the West Side sewage treatment plant. Over the past five years, hundreds of millions of gallons of bypassed waste have poured into Black Rock Harbor. Combined sewage overflow pipes have diverted hundreds of thousands of gallons of untreated waste. A murky thick foam filled with objects people flushed down the toilet lingers for days. Residents say that they should not have to live with this.
Part 2: A catalog of West Side plant malfunctions and discharges into Black Rock Harbor; how sewage problems persist in other cities.
Part 3: Black Rock area residents, including high school students, spent the spring and summer cruising the harbor and Long Island Sound gathering water samples for testing. They’re part of the Long Island Sound Unified Water Study, and like many living and working in the area they’re tired of the smelly, brown-slick water and beaches closed to swimming.
This project was supported by a grant from the Society of Environmental Journalists – Fund for Environmental Journalism.
On the west and east sides of narrow Black Rock Harbor in western Bridgeport, industry, school, recreation and sewage treatment converge.
At the most inland tip are Santa Energy’s oil tanks. On the east side stretch asphalt runways at Pratt & Whitney’s test airport and a city landfill. On the west side stand O & G Industries sand and stone yard, an empty industrial building, a city landfill, a trash-to-energy plant, the regional aquaculture high school, a seaport, shops, a restaurant and sailing teams’ docks.
Last on this list is the Bridgeport West Side Water Pollution Control Facility, the city’s largest sewage treatment plant, which began work this year on a 20-year plan to correct chronic overflows.
All those buildings lie at the end of Bostwick Avenue, near the constant hum of I-95, a short distance from Seaside Park and
within view of a historic lighthouse and beautifully restored park called St. Mary’s by the Sea.
Sewage filters and breaks down at the West Side plant. The treated effluent pours through a 72-inch discharge pipe into Black Rock Harbor. Several times a year, stormwater mixed with sewage overwhelms the system of pipes leading to the plant. Then untreated sewage and rain diverts directly into the harbor through combined sewer overflow (CSO) pipes. Although the city has shut down some of its CSO pipes, 30 of them still are active, including the five in the Black Rock area.
Storms also regularly threaten the plant itself. Instead of flooding, the plant will speed that waste through a partial treatment called a plant bypass. Waste also bypasses treatment when equipment fails. Like the CSOs, the bypasses are legal and will remain so for decades.
The Legal Overflows
Every 10 days, on average, a sewage discharge flows into the harbor, according to July 2014-July 2019 data from DEEP. During that time span, CSO pipes in the Black Rock area discharged 99 times, and the West Side plant bypassed waste 85 times. CSO overflows were
estimated between 100,000 gallons and 500,000 gallons. Bypasses ranged from 1 million to 16 million gallons each.
Of the five pipes in Black Rock reported overflows include:
• One at Admiral and Harbor Streets, at Santa Energy, which has overflowed 26 times since 2014.
• A CSO at St. Stephen’s Road and Anthony Street—the location of the Bridgeport Regional Vocational Aquaculture School—which has overflowed 22 times.
• The CSO nearest the neighborhood beach, Seabright Beach, sends untreated waste off Brewster Street and Seabright Street, overflowing four times in late October 2017.
The 85 bypasses of partially treated sewage over the last five years—varying from 1 million gallons to 16 million gallons—discharged from the plaint’s main pipe below the Captain’s Cove Seaport office and next to its restaurant deck.
Reports of bypasses from 2019 include:
• Between April 26 at 4:40 p.m. and April 27 at 3:45 a.m., nearly 12 million gallons
• July 12 between 1:25 and 4:15 a.m., 11 million gallons
• Between July 17 at 5:50 p.m. and July 18 at 2 a.m., 11 million gallons
• Between July 22 at 6:30 p.m. and July 23 at 1:30 a.m., nearly 10 million gallons
Lauren McBennett Mappa has been the city’s water pollution control authority manager since January. She maintains that during heavy rainstorms, CSO pipes can overflow, but that the raw sewage being released is “very diluted,” and that it happens rarely.
The state issued two orders to the city to correct its sewage overflow problems. Those orders cite violations of the federal discharge permit, issued through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES).
Bridgeport’s required long-term control plan is designed to bring its sewage treatment into compliance with federal laws. By Nov. 30, 2020, the city must submit a report to the state detailing a schedule for completing upgrades to the plant. By May 31, 2022, “100% design plans shall be submitted” to the state. Construction on the upgrades must begin 4½ years from the date of the order, or September 2023, and must be finished by September 2026. The city and DEEP spent six years negotiating this plan, which requires new sludge storage tanks, odor control units and dryers. DEEP said chlorination and dichlorination of wastewater should have been automated a decade ago. The project is estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars to complete.
Those who work or relax near the plant’s discharge pipe, and near the five combined sewer overflow pipes that empty into this harbor, describe ugly-looking waste coming from the West Side plant at 205 Bostwick Ave. even on days when it is not raining.
Just ask Gail Robinson, who sells local real estate. Several years ago, she took a potential buyer to visit the open-air restaurant deck of Captain’s Cove Seaport. They stood admiring the view over the harbor. Then Robinson heard a gushing noise, and an ugly brown discharge rushed into the water just below her and her client. “I lost the sale,” said Robinson, who later founded the Ash Creek Conservation Association to advocate for clean water in that tributary of Black Rock Harbor.
Captain’s Cove Seaport manager Bruce Williams’ office overlooks the West Side’s discharge pipe. Often the discharge looks like chocolate mousse, he said. “There’s particle matter in that outflow. It settles and settles and settles, covering the bottom with a brown slurry a foot thick.”
Problems Persist In Other Cities
In Hartford, a $300 million project to store untreated sewage underground during storms is under construction. New Haven’s 80-year-old sewage plant—also serving East Haven, Hamden, and Woodbridge—overflows regularly. A 2009 consent order dictated plant upgrades, separating storm and sewage pipes, and bioswales. The predicted completion date is 2036.
By permit—until they fix the problems over the next few decades—these cities may divert raw sewage mixed with rainwater directly into rivers, inlets and Long Island Sound.
Anyone spending time in Black Rock, smelling the plant and seeing the discharges and overflows, might ask: Why in an age of robots and space travel can’t society treat its own human waste without polluting its beloved waterways in a time frame faster than over 20 years?
Part of the reason is that the work involves undoing a century-old infrastructure in the state’s largest city, costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Perry said Bridgeport had resisted separating sewer from stormwater pipes because it costs so much. But the city has begun separating some of the pipes. For other areas, its plan is to build underground storage tanks that would hold waste during storms.
The city itself admits its sewage treatment plants fail. In a pamphlet Bridgeport distributes, it says its two plants don’t always properly operate, can’t handle flow from common storms and fail to meet the federal standard of “nine minimum controls” that include a ban on discharging waste on days when it isn’t raining.
Perry said she’s not sure people realize what happens in Bridgeport when it rains. “We as an agency talk about it, but I’m not sure many people pay that much attention,” she said. “It happens when it’s raining and no one’s outside.”
Since 2012, by law, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection records sewage outflows on maps. You can view the maps here.
Coming tomorrow Part 3: Black Rock area residents, including high school students, spent the spring and summer cruising the harbor and Long Island Sound gathering water samples for testing. They’re part of the Long Island Sound Unified Water Study, and like many living and working in the area they’re tired of the smelly, brown-slick water and beaches closed to swimming.
This project was supported by a grant from the Society of Environmental Journalists – Fund for Environmental Journalism.
On April 25, 2018, Patrick Clough walked onto a dock at Fayerweather Yacht Club on Black Rock Harbor in western Bridgeport. He looked down. Swirling around the dock was a brown, foamy slick. Women’s sanitary products and other objects floated in it.
He posted a photo of the discharge on two Black Rock neighborhood Facebook pages, writing “This is disgusting.”
A week before Clough captured that photo, equipment malfunctioned at the Bridgeport West Side Water Pollution Control Facility. Fecal matter and other suspended solids spewed at two times the maximum limit allowed under a discharge permit issued through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) ordered the city to make all repairs and upgrades by 2039.
The West Side facility, the larger of two sewage treatment plants in the city, sends its treated waste through a 72-inch discharge pipe into Black Rock Harbor.
When the flow of waste and rainwater overwhelms the system, as it does several times a year, untreated sewage releases out of combined sewer overflow (CSO) pipes into the harbor. It sluggishly works its way to the open water of Long Island Sound. The plant also discharges partially treated waste during storms or equipment failures. Those discharges are called bypasses. Like the CSOs, the bypasses are legal and will remain so for decades.
Every 10 days, on average, a sewage discharge flows into the harbor, according to July 2014-July 2019 data from DEEP. There were 99 CSOs and the West Side plant bypassed partially treated waste 85 times. Overflows from the CSO pipes range between 100,000 gallons and 500,000 gallons. The legal plant bypasses ranged from 1 million to 16 million gallons.
Most of the overflows rush out during rainstorms, but residents interviewed said that they have seen regular overflow discharges for years on dry days and that they suspect West Side facility equipment malfunctions are the cause.
The city’s sewage plant manager maintains that 99 CSO spills over five years is not a high number. “During a heavy rainstorm, depending on the intensity and duration, [the CSO pipes] can overflow,” said Lauren McBennett Mappa, general manager of the Bridgeport Water Pollution Control Authority. “The overflow is very diluted raw sewage that can overflow for a short period of time. This happens very rarely.”
Residents are unhappy that DEEP, as enforcer of federal clean-water laws, gave the city so many years to fix its overflow problems. Although DEEP’s records show that most overflows are legal, residents say they have witnessed other spills that they believe aren’t documented, such as the scene in Clough’s photo.
“People look in the water, and they’re just shocked,” said resident Bruce Williams, who runs his family’s Captain’s Cove Seaport, a complex of shops, a marina, and restaurant that also leases space to sailing teams. On a recent Sunday, he said, “People from Long Island were staring at it. It looks like a horror movie. They were just stunned.”
The Culprit: The Plant
Part of the problem is the way the West Side facility operates. The Bostwick Avenue plant, built in the 1940s and last upgraded in 1996, is three times larger than the city’s east side plant and handles the majority of the city’s waste. Stormwater and waste together are pumped into the plant, and then travel through treatment by gravity. On a dry day, 18 million gallons enter the plant, which is designed to handle 30 million gallons a day. On a wet day, as much as 90 million gallons can enter the plant’s main raw sewage pumps. Usually one pump operates, but in heavier flows, up to four pumps move the water.
Over a 12-hour period, the waste normally circulates through three screening tanks, where human feces, sanitary napkins, tampons, condoms and other items are screened out. Then the water enters tanks where the remaining solid material is allowed to settle to the bottom. These solids are later trucked to landfills. The water then continues to aeration tanks, where sprayers speed up the breakdown of bacteria. Next chlorine is added, and then bisulphate is added to dechlorinate the water.
But if a flow equal to more than 58 million gallons per day enters the plant, the facility enters “bypass mode,” which speeds up and eliminates some steps in the process. During this mode, the system screens out solids, chlorinates the water, dechlorinates it, and then discharges it. The level of rain that triggers a bypass depends entirely on the accumulated water level in the street. Some official documents list the amount of rain that triggers this as four-tenths of an inch in 24 hours.
Since last year, DEEP has issued two administrative correction orders to the city, including one in 2019 that addressed the April 2018 permit violations. A June 2018 order requires the city to stop all discharges out of its CSO pipes by 2039. Eleven projects separating stormwater pipes from sewage pipes must begin by 2021. Some of this work has begun. An order issued earlier this year sets deadlines for fixing sludge processing and nitrogen removal systems that malfunctioned earlier. Construction on those must begin by the end of 2022.
Captain’s Cove rents the city-owned waterfront across Bostwick Avenue from the West Side sewage plant. Williams’s office overlooks the sewage discharge pipe. “I’m here every day. This happens all the time. I will go down to check that no condoms or sanitary napkins are floating in the shipway.”
So much is unknown about health threats in this water. But human contact with fecal contamination can result in gastrointestinal sickness like norovirus, respiratory illness, ear and eye infections, and rashes, health experts report. Regular water-quality testing is geared to the swimming season at some public beaches.
Bridgeport tests some of its beaches for bacteria that can indicate fecal matter and therefore disease-causing microbes. Swimming beaches like the neighborhood’s Seabright Beach, about 200 yards from one of the CSO pipes and 800 yards from the main discharge pipe, were closed for swimming most of the summer. The nearby Seaside Park, one of the most popular destinations, was rated “D+” for high bacteria by Save the Sound, a program of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment.
For 13 years, Kevin Blagys, who owns KB Dive Services, has been diving in Fairfield County waters. Wearing a wet suit and snorkel gear, and holding a scrub brush in one hand, he cleans the barnacles and particles off boat bottoms. As he swims underwater, he passes through striating sections of brown and clear water. Sometimes the visibility is so bad he can only see a few inches. As the summers progress, the quality of his work zones worsens with floating black mud and the combination of heat, sun and nitrogen that makes hypoxia—oxygen too low to support life. He then hauls out dead horseshoe crabs. In some years, he has steered his small boat through slicks of dead menhaden, fish that typically thrive on Connecticut’s coast.
Blagys, a native of Greenwich, has been frustrated for years by the water quality in Black Rock Harbor, where “we have a discharge pipe at the end of a dead-end harbor.”
Living and working so near the discharge pipe gives people in the area a sense of the water’s condition, Blagys said. “The whole neighborhood knows when it’s gross and when it’s not normal.”
Bill Lucey, the Long Island Soundkeeper, a watchdog scientist for Save the Sound, has docked his research and education boat at Captain’s Cove since spring 2018. This year he tested for dissolved oxygen in the water near the sewage discharge. In mid-August he was recording oxygen saturations of 0, the result of nitrogen from the sewage discharge combined with heat and light. High levels of nitrogen result in harmful algae growth.
The harbor could handle some nitrogen, Lucey said, “but that is only OK if it’s being discharged into a pristine environment,” which Black Rock Harbor is not. “The whole system is overloaded.”Lucey thinks nitrogen levels should be lower than they are, but Mappa said nitrogen tests at the plant’s outflow between July 29 and Aug. 2 were “all very good numbers.”
Everyone agrees Black Rock Harbor is polluted. Residents called Peter Spain, their 130th District City Council member. He organized a public information meeting on the plant’s permit, attended by Save the Sound, DEEP, business owners, and residents, including some students. Residents hoped to share their concerns, but DEEP engineer Ann Straut spoke for much of the reserved time in a local school auditorium. She explained in detail each step required to plan, approve, fix and check plant upgrades. Public questions were cut short. Lucey trimmed his presentation on the health of the water in Long Island Sound to a few minutes.
Residents, business owners and students had already decided to take part in a regional Unified Water Study of Long Island Sound, coordinated by the Connecticut Fund for the Environment. Spain helped fund the study out of his City Council stipend.
Although Blagys never got a chance to address the meeting, he said he would have told those in attendance, “I’ve maintained boats underwater throughout the [Black Rock Harbor] and western Long Island Sound, from Milford to Greenwich. Of all the harbors—like Milford and Norwalk and Southport—Black Rock Harbor stands alone. It is clearly the most stressed environment.”
Visit the Save the Sound, Sound Health Explorer to view bacteria levels and other information here.
This project was written for the Connecticut Health Investigative Team and first appeared there and in media outlets throughout the state in October 2019. The project was supported by a grant from the Society of Environmental Journalists – Fund for Environmental Journalism.
Read Part 2: A catalog of West Side plant malfunctions and sewage discharges into Black Rock Harbor; how sewage problems persist in other cities.
Read Part 3: Black Rock area residents, including high school students, spent the spring and summer cruising the harbor and Long Island Sound gathering water samples for testing. They’re part of the Long Island Sound Unified Water Study, and like many living and working in the area they’re tired of the smelly, brown-slick water and beaches closed to swimming.
Above, from the Yale study: The red line represents the rise and fall of the COVID-19 outbreaks as detected in New Haven sewage. The darker line, seven days later, represents a similar curve of the outbreak as tracked in human testing.
A new study by Yale University of the COVID-19 virus in New Haven’s sewage sludge has found that testing human feces is a quicker and broader way to understand the pandemic in communities—a week faster than human testing and including even cases where people didn’t feel sick.
The study published Friday as a preprint (before peer review) compared sludge results from the settling tank at the East Shore Water Pollution Abatement Facility on New Haven Harbor to human testing and hospitalization rates for the New Haven area between March 19 and May 1. It found that the so-called curve of the epidemic’s rise and fall tracked each other but that the sludge results could be determined more quickly.
Testing continues daily.
Another outbreak going forward could be predicted through sewage testing seven days earlier than human testing and three days ahead of results on hospital admissions, said the lead author, Jordan Peccia, a professor of chemical and environmental engineering at Yale University.
Sewage testing has been used for years to understand drug use, eating habits, genetics, and diseases. Lead author Jordan Peccia’s past research has tested sewage for viruses including herpes, adeno virus, HIV, norovirus, and other coronaviruses like SARS and MERS. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Eric Alm started a study of Cambridge, Mass. sewage in 2015 called Underworlds, and the Somerville, Mass.-based sewage testing company Biobot Analytics is now looking for COVID-19 in samples from sewage plants in 42 states.
The way to test people without symptoms
Sewage doesn’t lie. “When you test people,” he said, “you’re testing only the symptomatic people. You’re missing the asymptomatic fraction, which is significant. Meanwhile, they are giving their samples to the sewage treatment plant: samples from everyone served by the New Haven plant — 200,000 people. “We can do this for about $20 per test.” The East Shore sewage treatment plant serves New Haven, Hamden, East Haven, and parts of Woodbridge.
In the first weeks of the New Haven study, the Yale team froze sludge samples while they perfected methods to detect the virus. People who are infected—whether they show symptoms or not—shed RNA (ribonucleic acid) from the centers of COVID-19 molecules into their feces.
The sludge testing method involves the turning of the virus’s RNA (a single-stranded molecule) into DNA in the lab, which allows them to detect the virus at the molecular level.
In March when the team began, the sludge results weren’t available in real time. “We were figuring out how to do the analysis. We were storing it and checking,” Peccia said.
Peccia’s 11 co-authors are affiliated with Yale’s schools of public health, management, medicine, and nursing; its Institute for Global Health; and the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.
“The city has been really remarkable in allowing us to continue to sample and taking any interest at all in our results,” Peccia said.
He said he hoped that widespread sewage testing could be a valuable nationwide method to understand the pandemic because 250 million people in the United States are served by municipal sewage plants.
“It’s certainly not going to replace (human) COVID testing,” Peccia said. “I want to be really clear: as an individual you know you are positive or negative and you can do contact tracing and quarantine yourself. That’s the gold standard.”
“There are two important things we get out of this testing,” Peccia said. “It’s another thing for cities, public health officials, municipalities, to look at as they’re making a decision about whether they’ve had 14 days of decrease in a row. The second one is it can be earlier than the testing data. It can answer this critical question we have right now: Are things going to go back up?”
Peccia said virus levels in New Haven sewage were so low by late May that “in the next set of analyses we will get some non-detects.”
What about combined sewage overflows and swimming?
It’s not known yet whether coronavirus can live in the diluted combined sewage overflow (CSO) discharges (untreated sewage mixed with rain) that still sometimes pour into water bodies in New Haven and five other cities. Peter A. Raymond, a professor of ecosystem ecology at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, is sampling CSOs in the area. His results are not yet available.
Amy Kirby, a senior service fellow in the Waterborne Disease Prevention Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an April 27 webinar, “We think it is unlikely to present a substantial infection risk in wastewater.”
Jennifer Perry, assistant director of infrastructure management in the water bureau of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said DEEP has no evidence of how long the coronavirus can live in untreated wastewater. “So we recommend not swimming, bathing, drinking, or fishing next to or downstream of a combined sewer overflow for at least 48 hours after any storm.”
Peccia said, “I don’t want to go swimming in a water body that gets a CSO, but if I did, I wouldn’t worry about catching COVID. I’d be much more worried if on my way back from taking a sample, I stopped in the grocery store. It’s a disease that definitely goes from person to person, and the evidence suggests it’s much harder to be transmitted in the environment.”
A lobster from southern New England is offered for sale at the Fulton Fish Market in New York City in 1943. Source: Library of Congress archives
Twenty years ago, Long Island Sound was home to a thriving fishery of the American lobster. Hundreds of lobster boats brought in 3.7 million pounds
worth more than $12 million to the Connecticut side, and almost double that catch arrived in New York ports. In a half-century, Connecticut-landed lobsters had increased twelvefold (from 226,300 pounds in 1950). It was a tiny economy next to the much larger Maine lobster fishery, but it represented the top of a boom for the Sound and a livelihood for hundreds of fishers.
And then, in 1999, something went terribly wrong. More than half of lobsters commercial fishers pulled up were dead in the traps or died before they could get to market. In the years since, 99 percent of the lobstermen in the once lobster-abundant waters of the western Sound have gone out of business. What caused this? Scientists have spent the years since then gathering data with the help of lobster trappers and
coming up with an answer.
Three potential causes have been identified and studied, but the evidence points strongly to one factor in particular. It’s temperature. The Sound today is too warm too often for this cold adapted species. Despite some years of slight increases in their numbers, Long Island Sound lobsters have failed to recover from the 1999 die-off, when the warm conditions persisted for more than 60 days.
There is no better public example of climate change in Long Island Sound than the lobster. Its demise connects directly to warmer temperatures. Perhaps the most poignant detail in this tragedy is that these lobsters eventually die out in situ, wired by instinct not to relocate. They are not migratory animals. The remnant population remains here. Every instinct tells these lobsters not to move.
Scientists from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the University of Connecticut and other institutions have tracked three stressors that hit the ecosystem at once in that dramatic year of 1999.
First came pesticides. West Nile virus, a bird-carried pathogen from Africa whose presence was confirmed for the first time that year in birds and mosquitoes in the New York-Connecticut region, was the spark. The potentially fatal virus soon would spread to horses and people, and in response to what
seemed a potentially dangerous threat, several cities and towns began floating solid cakes of the chemical methoprene in storm drains. New York and Connecticut officials also sprayed other mosquito-killing chemicals from airplanes.
Although some of the pesticides do hurt lobsters in laboratories, several studies failed to find a link between pesticide use and the lobsters’ demise, according to Penny Howell, a retired DEEP fisheries biologist who spent the last part of her career studying what happened to the lobsters. The worst of the pesticides used to kill mosquitoes, malathion, could have hurt lobsters in the extreme western Sound, scientists from DEEP, Connecticut and New York Sea Grant and the University of Connecticut found.
“We really thought that was just too minimal to be a real cause,” Howell said. “It was not a wide enough an area and long enough in duration to really be the principal cause.” Hypoxia, or low levels of dissolved oxygen in the water, does not kill lobsters either unless the levels are very low, 2 milligrams per liter of dissolved oxygen, she said.
Diseases were a second major stressor. Epizootic shell disease, an infection causing lesions, hit lobsters badly in eastern Long Island Sound in 1999. They looked mottled and weak when pulled out of the water. This was the focus of a study published this fall in the American Naturalist by scientists from Millstone Nuclear Power Station in Waterford and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary. It looked at market data over 34 years and concluded that warmer water causes lobsters to molt quickly in the spring, making them more vulnerable to shell disease. First warmth, then comes vulnerability to shell disease. These conditions may also have accelerated the growth of a strain of parasitic amoeba that actually killed many of the lobsters that year. More than 90 percent of lobsters examined that year were infected.
This leads to the last and most significant stressor that killed lobsters in 1999. For about two months that year, the Sound warmed to temperatures higher than lobsters can tolerate.At the high point, the temperature measured nearly 72 degrees F (about 22 degrees C), about 3 degrees warmer than the hottest temperature Homarus americanus can stand. The previous winter was also warmer than normal. Warmer water in the Sound has become the norm. The American Naturalist study noted what many scientists now agree is the reality: The American lobster “is declining at its southern geographic limit.”
The temperature in the Sound is increasing at about 0.8o F (about 0.47o C) per decade, that study reported. James O’Donnell, professor of marine sciences at UConn, reported that the warming over the last 100 years is about 1.8 degrees F (about 1 degree C).
“This trend is resulting in profound impacts on biological communities such as fish and shellfish,” the University of Connecticut and Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection reported in their joint Long Island Sound Resource Center climate change monitoring report. This trend is having profound impacts on biological communities such as fish and shellfish.
Since the 1990s, lobster landings from Long Island Sound have decreased sharply. Basically, just a remnant commercial fishery still exists. Howell now gives public talks summarizing the surveys and studies she coordinated on the lobster demise. The 1990s were “a big boom,” she said. “The lobster really is a cold-water animal that can’t tolerate [warm water].”
Landings of lobsters for sale in markets hovered around 2 million to 3 million in Connecticut in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, the numbers of lobsters landed have dropped so significantly that they don’t show on the state’s graphs of lobster landings over time. This crash cannot be blamed on the lobster trappers. It’s not the fishery’s fault, Howell said.
A short economic history
The commercial lobster industry in the Connecticut waters of Long Island Sound peaked and then began to decline over a relatively short period. Although lobsters have served as food ever since civilizations here devised ways to trap them, selling them on a large scale grew only after World War II. The number pulled out of the Sound for sale grew steadily from 1950, peaked 48 years later, and by 2016 had dipped back to about the 1950 number. Even as they begin what could be a final decline, lobsters remain a valuable delicacy.
New York landings from the Sound trend higher in more recent years, possibly because the figures are estimates, but for the most part the New York landings match Connecticut’s.
The rate of harvesting was “pretty high when the population went high,” Howell said. “We saw a brief increase in abundance which the fishery took advantage of in 2005. It’s no great demise in harvest rate through 2013, but it’s hard to say that overharvesting caused the problem, because we should have seen some kind of an increase in 2002, 2003 and 2004, and we didn’t. It’s getting the fishery off the hook. It’s not their fault.”
Lobsters become sluggish in warmer water. One 2006 study found that lobsters in too-warm waters become sick. The animals can adjust to a warmer average temperature, but the result then is that they suffer heart problems during cold spells, the study concluded. They become less resilient.
Beyond the Sound and north of Cape Cod, lobsters are doing well. In Maine the population seems to be enjoying an incredible boom. But that boom is feared to end at some point. Scientists are watching the water temperature trends in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank. More and more researchers and resource managers are starting to investigate the effects of environmental changes on American lobsters in northern New England waters.
Could lobsters from the Sound simply crawl their way to colder waters? Probably not. Lobsters are not migratory animals. Studies have shown consistently that the lobsters in the Sound tend not to move much.
But they would move if they could find a food source in colder water, Howell explained. The trouble is the way the Sound is set up. With cooler water coming in from the East River at the western end and the Atlantic Ocean at the eastern end, a whole lot of warmer water gets sandwiched in the center, and the lobsters don’t realize there’s anywhere else to go.
When the Sound warms up, she said, it warms up in the middle first and then at both ends, because cold water comes in from either end. Those lobsters on the mud bottom of the western Sound can’t get out to the open ocean unless they migrate east through the warmer central Sound and toward the Race, the narrow opening to the Atlantic Ocean at the eastern end. But lobsters will never go toward warm water if given a choice.
“What we realized was that when the Sound warms up, it warms up from the middle and then the edges,” she said. “That means that these animals here would have to go from warm water to warmer water and we do have published laboratory behaviorial experiments that show that if you put a lobster in a setup where
the animals choose between very small changes of temperature, two streams of water coming at it, it will always go to colder water. It will never
go to warmer water.”
She added, “They would have to be very good navigators in order to get out. They only will go if there’s no food. And they only will go if there’s a way for them to get out.”
Marine scientist J. Evan Ward checks on oysters he and his colleagues cultivate at the University of Connecticut. They examine them for the presence of microplastics. Photo by Christine Woodside
J. Evan Ward knelt on a dock jutting into Eastern Point Bay at the eastern end of Long Island Sound and hauled up a floating cage containing oysters.
These oysters came here from nearby Mason’s Cove and serve as the resident population for lab studies that Ward, a professor of marine sciences, conducts at the University of Connecticut Avery Point. He studies these and other oysters and sediment gathered on boats operated by Norm Bloom and Sons of Norwalk.
Oysters are master water filterers. A single oyster can filter up to 1.3 gallons of water per hour. They process much of what ends up in Long Island Sound. That includes the ever-increasing load of tiny pieces of waste plastic. Some of this ends up in their bodies.
New England’s great oyster markets appear so far to have escaped large plastic contamination. Oysters collected by Ward’s team contain fewer plastic pieces than one might expect—8 to 10 pieces per oyster, he said.
Oysters likely encounter more plastic than that but will spit out pieces larger than 1 millimeter, Ward said. Although oysters today contain few plastics, their bodies will encounter, and probably accumulate, much more than this because people are discarding more and more plastic every year.
Our throwaway society has created much of the microplastics problem. Around the world broken-up pieces of plastic waste, pieces from a few millimeters in size to so small that they can’t be seen, wash into waterways and oceans.
They enter water supplies, food, the guts of marine animals, fish, and shellfish and humans. Scientists don’t know all the ways they enter the water, or how they harm the environment or people. Early results show that these fragments are everywhere.
“We’re really behind in the United States,” Ward said. “We are very much behind. The Europeans have much more money to study this.”
The effect of microplastics on human health remains largely unknown. King’s College London scientist Stephanie L. Wright wrote in a study published this year in the journal Environmental Science & Technology: “Chronic exposure is anticipated to be of greater concern due to the accumulative effect that could occur. This is expected to be dose-dependent, and a robust evidence-base of exposure levels is currently lacking.” In other words, the more plastics in the environment, the higher the threat.
Plastic particles travel and accumulate in the human body, especially in lymph nodes and around joint replacements. They can carry harmful chemicals that attach to them in the ocean. They can cause immune system problems. Airborne particles like nylon can lodge in the lungs, causing breathing disorders.
Plastic pieces lodge in the intestinal tracts and tissues of oysters, clams, mussels and scallops, which humans eat whole. In studies of sand and gravel and mussels collected at Avery Point in Groton, Ward and three other scientists found microplastics in 73 percent of the sand and gravel samples and in all of the mussels they collected. These findings were published in Environmental Science & Technology in August.
Scientists know that plastic pieces find their way into drinking water, sea salt and even beer. University of Minnesota public health scientist Mary Kosuth and her colleagues documented small plastic particles in all three in the Great Lakes region.
“The microplastics just keep on getting smaller and smaller and smaller,” Kosuth said. “They don’t biodegrade.”
Plastic that breaks into pieces includes synthetic clothing fibers, water bottles, cups and cup lids, straws, plastic bags and microbeads—the tiny bits of plastic mainly used in exfoliating body washes and facial scrubs. The federal Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 halted the manufacturing of microbeads in cosmetics in 2017 and over-the-counter medicine last year, but the microbeads in medicine can still be sold until next year.
“There are a lot of them out there still,” Ward said.
For several years now, people have heard about the “great Pacific garbage patch” (https://marinedebris.noaa.gov/info/patch.html). Despite how we might envision it, the “patch” consists of swirling wastelands of very tiny pieces, said Marcus Eriksen, a scientist, activist and author of Junk Raft, who saw some of the plastic gyres while floating with Joel Paschel across the Pacific Ocean in a raft made of old plastic bottles. Eriksen said plastics’ effect on human health represents a new frontier for science. “It’s really everywhere, but does it cause harm? We don’t know for sure.”
Most of the plastics in the ocean come from single-use objects and containers, and the rest from fishing gear. The tiny particles are easy for marine life to take in, and scientists worry about polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), the insecticide dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) and other chemicals plastics absorb. Eriksen said eventually plastics will be found sunken to the ocean floor, washed ashore, or “excreted and deposited as sediment.”
China is the No. 1 contributor of plastic washing into waterways, and the United States is 20th, according to a study published three years ago in the journal Science. That study estimated that 192 coastal countries contribute between 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic to the oceans every year. Without some way to stop the waste, it will greatly increase by 2025, the authors wrote. Eriksen said the plastic waste amounts to 5.25 trillion pieces. “Ninety-two percent are smaller than a grain of rice,” he said in an email interview.
Plastic is so ubiquitous in daily life, Ward said, that “you’re also eating a lot of microplastics every morning when you take off your fuzzy synthetic sweater over your coffee and it’s raining into your coffee.”
And it’s not just microplastics that affect marine life. It’s estimated that over 1 billion plastic bags are used annually, and more than 100,000 end up in Long Island Sound each year. Three Connecticut towns have banned plastic bags in their stores: Westport’s ban took effect in 2009, Greenwich’s ban started in September and Stamford’s ban takes effect in April 2019. Other communities are considering similar bans on plastic and some are looking at banning plastic straws too.
Denise Savageau, Greenwich’s retired conservation director who has been active in the plastic-reducing movement, said many residents worry that using plastics along the coast harms the environment. “There’s so much plastic on the bed in Long Island Sound, it’s just incredible,” she said.
Savageau said people are confused when they see plastics labeled “biodegradable” or “degradable.” These plastics don’t actually break down, she said, but instead fragment into tiny pieces. With the exception of a few cornstarch-based materials labeled “compostable,” plastic doesn’t degrade, she said.
Richard Harris, a marine scientist for Norm Bloom and Sons, said they are not hearing any concerns so far from the public about plastic. But he said the company is relieved that microbeads are being phased out this year. “There are no alarm bells going off, but if we continue on our present course, I’m sure we will be.”
For now, Ward said, he continues to enjoy the mollusks he studies so closely.
“Do I eat mussels and oysters? Yes. Am I concerned about the number of plastics in mussels and oysters? No, in 2018,” he said.
But about the future, he’s unsure. “Will our kids be able to eat them?” he asked.
This story was reported under a partnership with the Connecticut Health I-Team, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to health reporting. (c-hit.org)
Biologist Tom Tyning scrambles up a ledge in Massachusetts, looking for rattlesnakes he will study in his lab and then return to the wild. The snakes are rare because poachers steal them and sell them illegally. (Photo by Christine Woodside)
From Appalachia Winter/Spring 2019, published originally by the mountaineering and conservation journal of the Appalachian Mountain Club.
The rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus, is not cute. Poachers and scared people have nearly wiped them off the New England landscape in the last century or two. A few hundred years ago New England’s only venomous snake thrived. Streets, hills, and valleys are named after them. In my hometown of Deep River, Connecticut, Rattling Valley Road rambles down past outcroppings of ledge rock where, long ago, rattlesnakes lay on the cliffs. Back then you watched where you put your feet. Now cars ramble down that valley looking for a back way. A few dozen miles north of here, Rattlesnake Mountain houses television and cell antennae. Another Rattlesnake Mountain, free of snakes, overlooks Squam Lake in central New Hampshire; no snakes there, either. Rattlesnakes are so rare that biologists who study them won’t reveal the last few spots where they live lest they encourage poachers who usually know where they are, anyway.
For some years now, I’ve been on the trail of an underground rattlesnake poaching operation in New England. Snakes sell for hundreds of dollars on the internet, although harvesting and selling them in the Northeast is illegal. I set out to visit where they do thrive so that I could understand what drives small-time criminals to collect them in sacks and what fascinates those people who would buy a wild snake and keep it in a cage. And so I followed the only people who could legally show me: snake biologists.
Tom Tyning, a rattlesnake biologist from Berkshire Community College, panted as he trudged slowly up the steep side of a traprock ridge somewhere in southern Massachusetts—location to remain secret.
Tying has spent his life following snakes. As a kid he caught and kept snakes as if called by God. He told me that if he hadn’t picked the scientist route, he could have grown up to be a snake hunter—except that in the Northeast if you collect rattlesnakes without a scientist’s permit, you’re a poacher. Poachers have worked long careers with limited penalties. The most notorious of them was the late Rudy Komarek, who poached and killed 9,000 rattlesnakes in three states over 30 years. Komarek singlehandedly caused what researchers have called “the shocking demise” of rattlesnakes in Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts. Tyning told me that after authorities caught and imprisoned Komarek, he remained unrepentant. From prison, as a protest, he mailed other illegal snake catchers maps marked in detail with places the rattlesnakes lived. Apparently it’s easy to help poachers from jail.
Komarek did the damage of several people. Today the secret Rudys are still at it. Tyning said, “There are always people getting arrested at airports who get caught with snakes in their pockets, tied to their legs. It’s become a really weird international ring of poaching. And it’s a huge smuggling operation. After birds and even before monkeys, reptiles, especially snakes, and turtles and lizards are among the biggest entities in international smuggling. They’re fascinating; they’re beautiful. I understand all that stuff.”
I had promised I would not say where I now trudged behind Tyning up a steep hill. The sun shone, which was vital to our quest. Sun brings out the snakes. As he panted up the ridge, Tyning joked that he was getting too old to chase his research subject. He was slightly overweight but very strong, and he pushed energetically toward the cliff where he knew a community of timber rattlesnakes lived. I would help him collect a few for his research. We were using all the same techniques poachers use. First, we would hike right to where he knew they would be basking. Then he would reach out with his snake tongs just as a snake went by. He would grab them with his snake tongs and drop them into a bag I would hold open. The bag looked like a pillowcase.
Late spring’s vegetal soil filled my nostrils. I heard a raspy hiss. A creature looking more like a black snake glided from under a rock. “Why does it look so dark?” I asked. Tyning said that sometimes their tan and black patterns seem to recede under grayish tones. “It’s about to shed its skin,” he told me. “Are you ready? I’m going to grab it, and you’re going to hold open the bag just when I tell you.”
“I’m ready,” I said, as if saying so would make it true. I had come out here out of respect and awe for an endangered reptile that could kill me with its bite. If it felt threatened, it could sink its fangs into my hovering arm. My skin would swell up and eventually turn black as the venom kills tissue so that it might be more easily digested were the snake to later make a meal of me. That would never happen. Snakes eat mice and other small rodents. They only bite humans if we threaten them. Which of course we were doing right then. Still, humans almost never die of rattlesnake bites, and antivenom available at nearby hospitals would reverse any bite’s damage quickly. I thought of none of that as I stood with the pillowcase, but Tyning’s calm demeanor washed over me.
“The fear of snakes,” a Minnesota snake information site explains, “is a learned behavior, which has been exacerbated by such things as myths and media misrepresentation.”
I would not fail Tyning; I would help him without causing new problems.
Road noise could not drown out the molting snake’s loud hissing. Tying leaned in, ready to strike with his grabber. I leaned in. He expertly affixed the two sides of the grabber around the snake. The rattling got louder.
The snake didn’t like what it knew was coming. It rattled and rattled; I felt rattled. Tyning reached out with his grabber—and the thing wouldn’t shut down. It was stuck open. The snake slid down and away and underneath another rock. That had never happened to this biologist in his entire career, and I was a witness. Something about the escape told me more than if we’d gotten the snake. I’d gotten very close and could see the beautiful shingles of its skin.
Dennis Quinn, an independent herpetologist, wore tan cargo pants and a green striped polo shirt. He might have been out for a ramble in the woods. Except he looked pretty odd. He was carrying a long snake grabber and he asked if I would take one side of a large plastic cooler. He joked that he dressed like a poacher—and that they tend to use the same collecting tactics. Quinn’s job that day was collecting snakes for a study of fungal disease. In a lab, scientists would take blood samples and make observations.
We trudged up and around a set of rock outcroppings covered by young tree growth. They were in there. We peered down. He gently poked a pole under the rock, just to rustle them up a bit. They slithered out like a slow, downhill seep. I stood by, thinking I ought to apologize. One short one I peered at from a crouch, watching his eyes, which looked like vertical slits. “Sorry, guy,” I murmured. Quinn turned to me, reassuringly, and said, “I’ll return these in a few days. Your job now is to open the cooler when I say.”
He grabbed first one, then another, then another snake with his tool and quickly placed them into giant pillowcases. These are the tools of the poacher. He said, without irony, that he guessed scientists gathering snakes for lab studies could easily become snake hunters if they didn’t have their work. The hissing went on and on as I held open the green plastic lid.
A few days later, as he promised, Quinn returned alone with the cooler and set his research subjects free. I imagined them sighing (or the serpentine equivalent of sighing) and making fast time back to their big ledge rock. I felt awe by now. I cared. Many people do care about rattlesnakes now. Connecticut’s wildlife biologist Jenny Dickson told me later that the days of hysteria and fear have passed. “The public is more understanding,” she said. “You’re going to get the occasional intentional killing of the snakes. But they’re probably going to think twice before they pick up the shovel and just randomly whack something.”
A few years ago I thought I might see what else I could learn about the poacher Rudy Komarek, so I sent an email to the office that had secretly investigated his crimes in New York State:
“Dear office of environmental crime,” my letter started awkwardly. “I am working on a story about rattlesnakes and their incredibly low numbers due to poaching. I would like to interview someone who can talk about the problem of poaching timber rattlesnakes and who was involved with Operation Shell Shock a few years ago. Please let me hear from you.”
I did not hear from them. I will venture a guess why. The battle goes on. Any publicity might expose the last of the dens. I know well that reticence to tell a writer about endangered snakes. Poaching continues by quiet, strong criminals wearing hiking shoes and carrying pillowcases. They know where the snakes live, and they sneak in, take them, sell them illegally, and go back for more.
Stealthy small-time poaching in southern New England and New York State threatens a species that has retreated in the parade of civilization. This tragedy continues silently. People have crushed their land and them, losing important predators of rodents and disease-carrying ticks. If I got my wish, and it were no longer rarer than a lightning strike to see one, I could then fear them, and even hate them. To save the timber rattlesnake, we must preserve or recreate the conditions that led to our fear and hate. And we must learn not to act upon that fear.
Hurricane Sandy destroyed this cottage, and many other houses, in Fairfield, Connecticut. Courtesy of the Fairfield Fire Department.
A day after Hurricane Sandy hit, Nancy Arnold waded down her basement stairs and saw five feet of storm surge partially submerging her furnace and hot water heater.
After the water eventually retreated, and the local fire department pumped out the rest, Arnold had another worry: mold. A husband and wife who had done painting for the Arnolds showed up and offered to wash the home’s lower level with bleach.
“Where would I have been without that,” Arnold wondered this summer, “because they knew about the mold, and they Cloroxed the whole basement. If there’s another storm, I don’t know if they’re up to do that again.”
Arnold has lived in her house near the end of Whitfield Street in Guilford since 1962. She and her family evacuated to a local community center for six hours during the worst of Sandy’s tempest. Evacuations have become commonplace in her neighborhood, she said. A year prior, during Hurricane Irene, the family also packed their bags and spent the night at the center. After the Sandy cleanup, Arnold hired a contractor to install a new furnace that hangs from the ceiling, about 5 feet above the floor. “That’s as high as they could make it,” she said. “If it needs to be higher than that, Guilford’s in trouble.
But the way the world is today, who’s to say, you know, what could happen?” For the past several decades, Arnold has watched the tide creep deeper into the marshes that ripple outside her living-room window. Guilford’s coastal neighborhoods, like most of the shoreline, saw the future arrive with Hurricane Irene in 2011. In a century, climate change and a rising sea level on Connecticut’s coast have brought more frequent and devastating flooding during storms.
The flooding destroys property, something people hear about immediately. But it also harms people’s health. After flooding, mold quickly multiplies into fuzzy blobs on walls and furniture. When people try to clean up, they breathe in airborne microbes that can trigger breathing problems, skin rashes and infections, mucous membrane illnesses, and problems in internal organs, according to fungal scientist Eckardt Johanning and his colleagues, writing in an article in Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine.
Health researchers say that residents should view floods as hazardous to their health and doctors need to beef up their training to recognize flood-related illnesses. Mold itself can make people sick, but mold also signals the presence of other bacteria and disease, said Paula Schenck, director of the Center for Indoor Environments and Health at UConn Health. She said doctors “can advise their patients to have the appropriate protective gear on hand before the flood, and then avoid exposures that would cause illness, so I’m sort of on a disease-prevention soapbox here.”
“If you live in an environment that is likely to see severe wet weather, it’s good for your doctor to consider if you might have health concerns from exposures after a storm, or from being in a chronically wet environment, when you go in for your yearly exam,” Schenck said. This little-discussed public health threat—exposure to mold—is rising slowly into the public consciousness. Nuisance flooding has increased on the United States coasts, and it will increase dramatically after 2050, or about the time that today’s babies will be young adults.
People who live near water now live more and more in water. Adam Whelchel, director of science for the Connecticut Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, has worked on coastal resilience planning with dozens of municipalities. “There’s a whole lot of emotional stress that goes along with living along the coast,” he said. Around New England, most coastal areas have been inundated several inches over the past century. Bridgeport’s sea level has risen nearly 1 foot, and New London’s slightly less, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) calculations.
The yearly increase is almost 3 millimeters. In March, the Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation at the University of Connecticut released a report predicting increases of another 20 inches by 2050. Major areas of the coast will flood regularly in the future. High-tide flooding along the nation’s coastline has increased 300 percent to 900 percent in the last half-century. NOAA’s map of projected high-tide flooding can be zoomed to street-level detail for any town in Connecticut. A perusal of the state shows that inundation by floods will cover large swaths of Guilford south of I-95, and large areas of Madison, Bridgeport, Middletown, Old Saybrook, Haddam, Hartford and Stamford in the future. Buildings in the floodwaters’ path will be prone to mold and all that mold signifies.
All molds are part of the kingdom of fungi. Scientists haven’t yet identified most fungi that exist—90 percent or so, said De-Wei Li, a research mycologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station’s Valley Laboratory in Windsor. Scientists who study fungi spend much of their time simply identifying species. The hundreds of molds scientists have identified in this part of the world can trigger allergies like asthma and skin reactions, and some of them contain mycotoxins or volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in their spores. Mycotoxins and VOCs can cause serious diseases or reactions when ingested, when they come in contact with skin, or when someone breathes them in. The microscopic spores penetrate deep into the lungs.
A month after Sandy hit in the Northeast, scientists collected samples of mold from houses in Brielle and Manasquan, New Jersey. They found 36 types of mold, including six that killed flies in the lab. Molds found included Aspergillus niger, which the CDC reports can cause lung infections and allergic reactions; Aspergilloma (fungus ball); and the most common found in damp or water-damaged structures, Penicillium chrysogenum.
The presence of mold also indicates a whole soup of biological materials, including bacteria. If someone sees mold growing inside, they are witnessing a risk to respiratory health, Schenck said. She added that flood waters can be dangerously contaminated. Certain medical conditions make one vulnerable to airborne mold.
“Many materials—wallboard, fabrics themselves (clothes, curtains) and those that trap dust (carpet) are a grand meal for mold,” Schenck has written. “Even some well-constructed buildings that haven’t had moisture concerns in the past become wet from wind-driven rain and flood waters in severe storms.”
Schenck wants people to know that any time they see mold, they should consider it an indicator that “moisture is available for biological growth.” The wetter it is, the greater the chances of severe respiratory illnesses. An increase in floods will cause wood and drywall and other building materials to become saturated more often, causing an increase in people’s exposure to airborne mold spores, since that is how they reproduce.
This means that people whose immune systems have been weakened by disease are more vulnerable to health effects from mold. The most urgent advice about a flooded living space is to get out until the standing water has subsided. “Once it’s flooded, don’t go wading unprotected in that environment,” Schenck said.
Lepus americanus. Photo by Walter Siegmund.
Past midnight I awakened and crept behind the mountain shelter, over dry leaves behind the back wall. Wind rustled from the open ridge of Vermont’s Mount Tom toward the spruces. I wore my improvised headlamp, a flashlight on a nylon cord tied around my head. The light wagged back and forth over dead leaves. I teetered unsteadily on my left hand while peeing. I always felt calm and safe doing my business in the woods, but why?
Something off to the left rustled. I turned my head. My flashlight on its cord swung out, then crashed into my forehead. I grabbed the flashlight and pointed it at the largest rabbit I’d ever seen. It stood like a post in my obnoxious light and seemed to stare at me. How could it do that? Rabbits can’t look forward. Yet I stared back. My companions slept. I felt alone with the creature. I did not smile, something I might do with a person nearby. All pretension vanished. I saw that this creature and I did not understand each other. The creature, the edge of the flashlight’s beam, each individual moldering leaf near my squatting spot brightened into sharp focus.
I moved my light back and gathered up my long johns. I stood and trained the light back out into the dark. The rabbit had gone.
For years I remembered this moment but did not know what I’d seen. It was a snowshoe hare, Lepus americanus. It lives in dense forests, mostly in far-northern woods. It favors thickets. Its fur grows brown until the winter, then turns white. It has no interest in meeting me. It does not need me. The hare’s babies stop nursing and hop off to their own lives within one month of birth. Hares spend most of their time avoiding danger. Because it had come close, my encounter left me in awe.
Years later I saw my second one. I’m certain that many dozens of hares have watched me walk by without showing themselves. Now I walked alone down off the forgotten side of Carter Dome in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I descended off a trodden route onto a path few walkers go. I crossed into the federal wilderness area and saw moose droppings every few feet. I sensed that animals hid just off my trail, waiting for me to move on.
I walked three miles down into a desolate campsite. Perkins Notch, once bustling, had gone back in time and become a ghostly opening in the woods, really just a signpost. The Wilderness Act specified that humans must interact as little as possible in this area now called the Wild River Wilderness. A year or so before I got there, U.S. Forest Service employees had dismantled a shelter but piled the lumber by the trail. Graded areas for tents now resembled rutted gravel squares. I seemed to be the only human for miles. Forecasters had predicted rain. I wandered about looking for a good tentsite—not the abandoned gravel tent pads; they’d funnel moisture toward my sleeping pad. I settled on a flat spot below a stand of saplings. But here, I felt uneasy. Something 50 yards away caught my glance: Someone had built (out of the pieces of the old shelter) a crude A-frame shack. I shuddered. “I’m not going in there,” I said to no one.
The stream ran back by the way I’d come in, so at dusk I returned there with my cooking pot and water bottle. There sat the pile of lumber from the old shelter. There leaned a rotting signpost. It pointed to lonely, little traveled trails deeper in the wilds.
The stream rushed, interrupting my loneliness. And then I saw the first animal of my evening. A snowshoe hare, in summer brown fur, stood. Posed. Stared. I stared back. I thought for a second that I had made eye contact—one eye. This animal barely noticed me. Or didn’t see me. I didn’t fear it. I feared what it knew that I didn’t know. A natural cycle in which I have absolutely no part was playing out in Perkins Notch. The hare had emerged at dusk looking for plants it could eat in safety. An owl could swoop in and grab it. Most hares die violently, actually. That’s why they breed like rabbits.
At times New England wildlife managers have transported snowshoe hares from Maine to states where too many had been hunted. Moving hares also saves Canada lynxes because the only thing a lynx will eat is a hare. I did not realize at that moment I met the hare that a much larger animal might be lurking. I thought the hare looked wise and that it somehow embraced nature’s cycles—find food, live a while, then die—with more grace than I accept those cycles. This hare, of course, thought nothing of life’s stages. It lived in a constant state of fear. I have never known such fear.
Martin Laird writes in Into the Silent Land (Darton, 2009), a short book about Christian contemplation: “Fear itself becomes a vehicle of deeper silence,” and, “Be still in the midst of fear.” He tells us that the Eskimo word for polar bear is tornarvsuk, “the one who gives power.” Eskimos confront the bear to grapple with their fear of it. In doing this, they “receive the gift from the bear.”
I had come seeking something like peace. Instead I confronted the gift from the snowshoe hare. I had run right into a creature that didn’t know enough to fear me.
I knelt clumsily at the stream with my pot, water pump, and bottle. I could find no level ground or rock on which to prop the pump, so I lugged the pot of stream water and the rest of the stuff back to the campsite. Dusk had moved in. I could see very little. Was that movement over by the A-frame shanty? No. What was that crackling? The whirr, the whish? I was out of place and would always return to such spots trying not to be.
From Appalachia journal, “The Long Way Home,” summer/fall 2018 issue. Subscribe to Appalachia at outdoors.org/appalachia
Heading up the Undermountain Trail with Talley. Photo by Julie Bidwell
Yankee Magazine, March 2017
One bright Monday afternoon, I step onto the Undermountain Trail below Bear Mountain, in northwest Connecticut. I climb east. The trail rolls mostly straight up, but because this is an old hill it feels smooth, with only one fast jog north, up steeper rocks. Traveling on a dirt and boulder track widened by many boots, I push upward through mountain laurels. I have come out today because I needed that periodic reconnection with the Appalachian Trail, the 2,190-mile forest highway that links Georgia to Maine. Once I reach the ridge, I will intersect the AT—which pulls me, like a force, back into the pilgrimage of my past.
At age 28, I walked the entire AT with my husband and our friends Phil and Cay. After about a month, our other hiker pals called us the Eight-Legged Thing; that is, it didn’t matter what our names were. I let the other six legs, so to speak, drag me along, and they and this trail gradually taught me that I could press on through all weather, pain, and exhaustion. I grew up here.
It’s been decades since my “thru-hike,” but I am still a changed person, one who pauses with surprise at water coming out of a tap. One who doesn’t care about rain or stale bread, who doesn’t wish for new carpeting, shiny cars, or cruises. Any point along the AT delivers that power. It pulls people back to simplicity. That makes the AT different from any other trail in the East. I don’t have time for more than a three-hour round trip today, yet I know that is enough for the AT to reconnect me.
At Riga Junction, I stare up at a giant signboard of faded and chipped light-green paint with routed yellow letters. A million people have gaped up at this sign:
If I turn right and walk for two months or so, I will reach the placid rumble of Maine landscape and the giant massif Katahdin, where the trail ends. If I point my scuffed leather boots in the other direction for, oh, three months, I will stumble into former gold-mining country and onto the treed top of Springer Mountain in northwestern Georgia.
I turn right. I jig from rock to mud. As soon as I start, I have no name, send no texts, make no lists; I’m just leaping across a jumble of sediments that 450 million years ago tumbled this rock onto older marble and other material. Riga Mountain, as the locals call it, is Connecticut’s only example of this geologic drama. The first blackfly of the year heads for my eye.
Sitting quietly on a mount of rock that once was a fire tower foundation, a grizzled man in a red sweatshirt, hood up, stares out over the green fields and the Twin Lakes of Salisbury, called Washinee and Washining. We get to talking. His name is Joel Blumert, he’s a guitarist and singer, and he’s been climbing the Undermountain Trail onto the AT and to the top of Bear Mountain for decades. Two years ago, he promised himself he’d climb it once a week for a year. At the end of the year, he bumped it to twice a week, indefinitely.
He’s met long-distance hikers up here a lot. I’m not surprised by how easily we talk. That’s the way it is on the AT. Pretension vanishes.
I meet again, in memory, all sorts of pilgrims I’ve encountered on trips up here.
Once I took a radio reporter up onto this ridge. She’d read that fewer hikers were carrying gear and sleeping out anymore, so I decided I would prove this theory wrong. Of course I chose this rocky, open ridge up here near the Connecticut-Massachusetts border. But on the way in, I scared her: We’d left late, dark came, she wanted to stop, and I said no, we had to reach a certain campsite with a locking metal box that bears could not break into. That quieted her. It also cemented our friendship.
The next morning, we encountered a soft-spoken man followed by his Welsh corgi. “I find God out here,” he said.
We met a man and a woman from New Zealand thru-hiking the AT in honor of her 60th birthday. She asked why she wasn’t seeing more animals. I considered assuring her that hawks and fisher-cats and coyotes and newts and black snakes and the rest were hiding from the procession of hikers, perhaps only a few feet back from the trodden dirt. But I didn’t have to explain anything to anyone.
I repaired a relationship up here. I followed him, watching his strong legs in baggy blue gaiters fade in and out of fog, sliding over wet rocks. He picked me blueberries on the ridge. That night we camped near a group of boys who were part of a state program for juvenile delinquents. As their mentors stirred a vat of stew, the boys asked if they could meet our poodle, Talley. I could see that they were nervous out here, and they could see that I wasn’t.
I’ve been hiking on the AT for so many years that these memory companions make a crowd. But it doesn’t feel crowded. And I always forget what I have to do after I go back down the mountain. The sun begins to sink. I must go down. I jump from rock to rock.
The Undermountain Trail leaves Route 41 north of Salisbury, CT, and intersects the Appalachian Trail roughly 2 miles up; almost another mile on the AT leads to the summit of Bear Mountain.