Since it’s summer, my weekly stories will all have a maritime theme. Some will be funny, some deadly serious, and some could be catagorized as “Truth is Stranger than Fiction”.

Seal and Striper- Predator and Prey

By Michael Tougias

In the natural world there are no “bad” or “good” animals, but rather predator and prey, with every species trying to survive by finding food. The search for nourishment is how wildlife spends most of its time and energy, and only after it has fed does it rest for extended periods. In a creature’s quest to find food, it either grazes or hunts, but in all cases it does so with a single minded focus.

I’ve often thought the reason people like to go fishing is because the activity is coded in our DNA from our homo sapiens days as a hunter-gatherer. When I’m fishing I’m so involved in the moment that hours pass at warp speed and few other thoughts– besides where to cast next– enter my consciousness. I wouldn’t say my style of fishing is relaxing, but it does allow me a certain measure of satisfaction when the particular technique I’m using actually catches a fish. In many respects, the simplicity of fishing is like gardening: you can lose yourself in the moment, and when you are successful you can see and touch the results – a far cry from the corporate world where your efforts are blended with other employees toward some distant goal that you can never hold in your hand and say “I caught that,” or “I grew that”.

And so when I’m fishing I consider myself a part of the predator/prey cycle, but every now and then I get a wake up call that I’m not the only creature hunting in a region. My last reminder occurred in late October when I switched my focus from Vermont’s rivers to the ocean off Cape Cod where my friend Adam and I were fishing for striped bass and bluefish. At this time of year those two species of fish are in the middle of their migration south and are feeding heavily for the long journey ahead. Bass and blues often “blitz” the smaller baitfish, gorging themselves as they first coral the baitfish and then drive them to the surface or against a shoreline. Terns and gulls flock above the fray, diving down to snatch a piece of baitfish that floats on the surface.

Adam and I were in his boat in the middle of such a blitz when I hooked into what I thought was a small striped bass.

“Do you think it’s a striper?” asked Adam.

“Well, it hasn’t jumped yet or come to the surface so its probably not a blue. Likely a small striper from the way it feels.”

No sooner had I got this last sentence out of my mouth than the fish started running, stripping line from my reel and making its drag mechanism buzz. I tried reeling some line in, but the fish just kept running.

“That doesn’t sound like a small fish!” said Adam.

“It’s not!” I hollered, “its taken out most of my line and its still running.”

Adam started the boat’s engine. “We better follow it,” he said, “or that fish is going to spool you.”

It was a good idea, because the fish had taken most of the line off my spool and still I hadn’t been able to turn it or slow it down.

Then, about 200 feet behind the boat I saw something large swirl at the surface. If that was my fish, and if it was a striped bass, I was tied into a potential record sized striper.

Adam slowly followed the fish, and as we gained on it I was able to retrieve some of my line. He too had seen the commotion on the surface. “Don’t lose it!,” he shouted, “You’ve got one giant bass on!”

About fifteen minutes went by, and I continued to make progress bringing in my line as Adam followed the fish as best he could. Then I saw my line coming toward the surface.

“He’s coming up!” I shouted, “get ready to help me get him in the boat!”

We watched the spot where we expected the fish to appear. But instead, we saw something so strange, it took me a couple seconds to comprehend what was before me.

Up from the water came a head. Its two black eyes were looking directly back at me. In its mouth was a fish – my fish, I quickly realized.

The head was that of a seal, a harbor seal, and it had caught my the fish I was bringing into the boat and then run with it. The fish was sideways in the seal’s mouth, and I could see my lure still hanging out of the fish’s mouth. Then the seal dove down again, and made another run.

Adam followed in the boat, and I brought more line in. The seal reappeared on the surface, still with my fish in its mouth, and he gave us a quizzical look that seemed to say, why are you following me, and why is this fish so strong?

Adam and I were laughing now. The seal, looking very much like a dog, perhaps a black lab, would not let go of the fish. I’m sure that he thought he’d caught the fish first and could not figure out why it was being pulled from it’s mouth.

I pulled on my line a little harder, and my lure popped free of the fishes mouth. The seal sensed the pressure from the fish was gone and it dove to the depths, taking what I considered my fish with him.

For a brief moment I felt I’d been trumped in the food chain. The baitfish had probably been foraging on tiny squid, the bass had been gorging on baitfish, and I’d been trying to catch the bass. Only problem with this scenario was that the seal’s place in the food chain was the same as mine, and on this day, the seal won the battle. It all goes back to the reality of predator and prey, and while man may have the technology, the seal was on its home turf and wasn’t about to let an easy meal go.

(Ten Hours Until Dawn: The True Story of Heroism and Tragedy Aboard the Can Do, is Michael Tougias’ latest book and recently won the Editors Choice Award from Booklist Magazine as one of the top books of the year. www.michaeltougias.com)

A Commercial Fishermen remembers the Andrea Gail

A friend of mine, Richard “Sarge” Rowell, once worked on the Andrea Gail of Perfect Storm fame.  The boat was owned by Bob Brown who gave Sarge his first commercial fishing job after Sarge had served in the Marines.  Sarge worked for both Bob Brown and his son Peter, who operated the Sea Fever back in the late 1970’s.  The Sea Fever was a fifty foot offshore lobster boat that fished the waters of Georges Bank, located 200 miles southeast of Cape Cod.  Sarge’s trips aboard the Sea Fever usually lasted 5 or 6 days at sea.

After working on the Sea Fever, Sarge moved up to bigger boats owned by Bob Brown the Hannah Boden and the Andrea Gail, both equipped to fish for lobster or swordfish.  Instead of being out for five days on Georges Bank, Sarge found himself at sea for a month fishing for swordfish on the Grand Banks.  Bob Brown rewarded Sarge’s work ethic and loyalty by making him deck boss of the Andrea Gail.

Although Sarge was appreciative of Bob Brown’s support, he wasn’t entirely comfortable with the way Bob had him work the crew.  He remembers one particularly bad storm that Bob barely even acknowledged, telling Sarge to continue working despite the fact that the seas made standing on the deck almost impossible.  Another boat captain, concerned about the storm, called Bob and asked where he was working, saying he’d come over and they would wait out the storm together, in case either boat got in trouble.  Bob responded, “Don’t bother, we’re working here.”

Sarge heard the exchange but didn’t say anything, because he knew Bob wouldn’t listen.  The young deck boss figured that although Bob pushed his men to the limit he compensated for that by having such seaworthy and well-maintained boats.  In fact Brown had totally refitted the Andrea Gail, and Sarge thought it was a superb boat to work on.  He remembers when Bob bought the boat it was in tough shape, sitting idle in Gloucester Harbor.  There were even two men living on board the boat, former deck hands who had nowhere else to go.  In an act of kindness mixed with good business sense, Bob let the men stay on the boat and hired them as crew.  Both men knew the boat inside and out, and when it was re-fitted, their knowledge of the Andrea Gail proved to be helpful on the first few trips out to the Grand Banks.

Sarge remembers that Bob Brown was not afraid to be innovative, and on one trip aboard the Hannah Boden to the Grand Banks Brown decided to test the waters for lobster, figuring that their might be plenty since no other boats were fishing for lobsters that far out.  They dropped traps over a wide range of the sea floor, figuring that in many of those spots they were soon going to be hauling up full loads.  But after a couple weeks of trying, and only catching a few lobster, it was clear the Grand Banks were nowhere near as productive as Georges Bank.  Of course other boats that saw the Hannah Boden dropping traps figured that Brown was lying when he said he wasn’t catching anything, and for a brief time their was a flurry of talk about how the Grand Banks were going to become the next lobster hot spot.  Why else would Bob Brown haul traps all the way out there and then tell everyone he caught nothing?

Sarge thought Bob’s lobster experiment on the Grand Banks was worth the shot, and he was just as surprised as Bob when they only caught a few lobster.  He liked Bob’s innovative ways, and except for the failed lobster trip, both the Andrea Gail and the Hannah Boden were among the successful boats in the fleet, which translated to bigger paydays. But Rowell was still troubled by Brown’s demands on the crew during bad weather.  Rowell figured there was enough danger working the deck even in good conditions.  He had seen more than one close call on the Hannah Boden while lobster fishing on Georges Bank such as the time a huge stack of lobster traps shifted on the boat and broke free of their lashings.  A deckhand was standing under the traps next to the rail when the pile gave way and started to fall.  The fast-thinking deckhand made a split decision that the pots were going to crush him to death, so he jumped over the rail.  The man plunged into the frigid seas, and when he surfaced he was still next to the boat.  When the boat rolled toward him he grabbed onto the bars on the outside of the scupper plates and hung on as the boat rode up from the wave trough.  Sarge and another crewmate ran to the rail and each grabbed an arm of their fallen mate.  They hollered that they had him and for him to let go and they’d pull him back onboard.  But the hanging deckhand had a lock on the bars that was like a vice and he was terrified of letting go and falling back into the seas.  Sarge screamed again and again for him to let go, but precious seconds went by and still the man held the bars.  Finally Sarge shouted, “We’ve got you, God damn it, now let go or we’re going to let you go!”  The man released his grip and he was hauled on deck amongst the shattered traps.

It wasn’t long after this close call, Sarge decided to be his boss, and purchased a lobster boat where he could fish the waters closer to home.

A New Hampshire Hero

(Facing Fears and Rising to the Challenge)

Few people have faced death in their line of work, survived life-threatening injury and recovered, only to put themselves in harm’s way again to try and save another’s life.  Bill Cavanaugh of New Hampshire did just that in two of the worst storms to hit New England in the last 50 years.

Cavanaugh was serving in the Coast Guard in January of 1977 when a Mayday call came in from a 282-foot oil tanker, Chester A. Poling.  Captain Burgess of the Chester Poling had just looked out the rear porthole of the bridge when a giant wave slammed into the vessel.  When the wave retreated he could not believe his eyes: his vessel had split in two.

Captain Burgess immediately called out a mayday message on channel 13, followed by this transmission:

“We are six miles off Cape Ann!  Don’t know how much longer we can stay afloat!”

“Be advised the Cutter Cape George is on the way,” replies Coast Guard Group Boston.

“We split in two!” shouts Burgess, “and don’t know how long we can stay afloat.  Not sinking yet but we might be any minute.”

“Are there any persons on board the other section?”

“We have 5 members aft!”

“Can you see the aft section?”

“No, too much seas coming over!”

The nearest Coast Guard station was Gloucester, where the cutters Cape George and Cape Cross were berthed.  Upon receiving the Mayday, Gloucester Coast Guard asked all nearby vessels to proceed to the scene and dispatched both 95-foot cutters, as well as its 41 and 44-foot patrol boats to the rescue. Onboard the 41-footer was Bill Cavanaugh.

Cavanaugh remembers fighting twenty and thirty foot seas as his small patrol boat raced to the aid of tanker.  “We had just crested the top of a thirty foot wave,” says Cavanaugh, “and I was down below preparing a Stokes Litter (a wire rescue basket) when we plunged off the face of the wave, the same way an elevator would plunge if its cables broke.  I was literally weightless, then was slammed into the deck.  I remember looking at this pair of legs beneath my body wondering whose they were because I couldn’t feel anything.”

Cavanaugh had broken his neck.  The seas, however, were so rough the skipper of the patrol boat couldn’t turn back until he reached the broken tanker and made the turn in the lee of the tanker’s bow.

Cavanaugh survived the ordeal, after a lengthy hospital stay of being in traction and weeks of therapy.  And his fellow Coast Guards men on the larger cutters made it to the crippled tanker and saved six out of the seven men, loosing just one tanker crewmen to drowning in the icy seas.

Rather than leave the Coast Guard, Cavanaugh returned to duty at Station Gloucester.  Almost one year to the date of the Chester Poling rescue, he was again called to the 41-foot patrol boat on a rescue mission.  This time during the Great Blizzard of 1978.

The pilot boat Can Do was somewhere outside of Gloucester Harbor and in a Mayday situation after having the windshield of its pilothouse smashed by a giant wave.  The pilot boat was taking on water and Cavanaugh was sent into the storm to try and find it.  If Cavanaugh was thinking of his prior injury and comparing this storm to the one that broke his neck, he kept his thoughts to himself and set back out to sea.  Fellow Coastie Ralph Stevens– who had been out in a patrol boat earlier in the storm– thought Cavanaugh was being sent on a suicide mission.  Cavanaugh had to answer the call though, and out he went into a pitch black night of blinding snow and 100 mile per hour winds.

Cavanaugh remembered the night like it was yesterday.  “We hoped maybe we could pick up the Can Do on radar, but even in Gloucester Harbor conditions were terrible.  We hadn’t even reached the Breakwater and our radar was out.  The waves were so big that even if we had our radar it wouldn’t have helped much because each time we went down in a trough the radar would have just picked up the seas in the front and back, and above the troughs it was all snow.  I had learned a lot from when I was a rookie on the Chester Poling rescue, and that was to make sure I knew when the waves were going to hit.  Most of us over time develop a built-in sense of timing so you know when to brace yourself so your not airborne.  The 41 wasn’t designed for those kinds of seas, and we couldn’t get beyond the breakwater without being killed.  At that time there was no escape hatch in the 41—those didn’t come until after a 41 capsized off the Columbia River and the entire crew was trapped and perished.”

Cavanaugh spent two hours in the storm searching for the Can Do, but the pilot boat could not be found.  Although his rescue attempt was unsuccessful, he and his crew gave it their best shot.

Imagine if you had broken your neck onboard a small boat in a storm.  Would you go back on that same boat into conditions that were worst than the first time?  Cavanaugh did.  He faced down his fears and did what all good Coast Guard men and women try to do – go to the aid of fellow mariners in distress, putting aside personal safety.

Blackburn: A Gripping Tale About Overcoming Long Odds

Howard Blackburn first came to the attention of the nautical world in 1883 at age 23 when he was trawling for halibut aboard the schooner Grace L. Fears on Burgeo Bank off Newfoundland.  On a cold and blustery January day the captain of Fears steered the ship over this fishing ground and ordered the anchor dropped at his favorite spot.  The crew then lowered six 18-foot dories and Howard Blackburn and Tom Welch climbed down into one, rowing away from the mother ship to their assigned area where they set the trawl line with hundreds of baited hooks dangling toward the ocean’s floor at fifteen foot intervals.

Blackburn and Welch were hauling in the trawl lines when a squall suddenly hit, its snow and driving winds pushing their dory away from the ship.  Within minutes they were in whiteout conditions, and try as they might they could not reach the Fears.  Exhausted, they decided to drop anchor and wait for a break in the storm.  A few hours later at nightfall, the snow stopped and the two men could see the dim light of a torch on the distant mother ship. They hauled up anchor and rowed with every once of strength.  But they were heading into the wind and the seas were so rough they were forced to drop anchor once again, having made little headway.  Spray hitting the dory instantly froze, coating it in a thick sheet of ice while waves crashed up and over the bow, forcing Blackburn and Welch to bail the entire night.  When dawn broke, the Fears was gone, and the two exhausted men were utterly alone, sixty miles from Newfoundland.

The seas gave them no quarter and threatened to capsize the dory, forcing the men to take turns pulling on the oars to keep the bow pointed into the oncoming waves while the other bailed.  Blackburn took off his mittens and dropped them in the bilge so he could use his fingers to fashioned a sea anchor from a buoy keg.  The improvised sea anchor worked, helping to hold the bow to the wind.  Water still came up and over the dory, and as Welch bailed he inadvertently scooped up Blackburn’s mittens pitching them overboard.  A couple hours later both of Blackburn’s hands had a sickly gray hue, the blood and tissue having frozen to the bone.  Knowing he’d be next to useless without his hands, he wrapped his fingers around the oars and let his hands freeze solid in that grip, like two claws.  In this position he could use his hands for both rowing and bailing.

Sometime during the second night, the cold sapped Welch’s will to live and he stopped bailing, and lay frozen, huddled in the water-soaked bow.  Blackburn grabbed his mate and said, “Tom, this won’t do.  You must do your part.  Your hands are not frozen and beating to pieces like mine.”  But Welch replied, “Howard, what is the use, we can’t live until morning, and might as well go first as last.”  By dawn, Welch was dead.

The following day the seas calmed a bit and Blackburn used the opportunity to begin rowing north, hoping to make Newfoundland before the cold crept closer to his vital organs, killing him as it had his dory-mate.  His frozen hands were disintegrating before his very eyes, and Blackburn later described the grizzly details, “the end of the oar would strike the side of my hand and knock off a piece of flesh as big around as a fifty cent piece, and fully three times as thick.” Late on the fourth day Blackburn’s tenaciousness paid off when he spotted land and forced himself to bend to the oars harder still, directing the boat toward the mouth of a river. He found an abandoned shack and spent a freezing night and the next day finally found an inhabited cabin.  The cabin was owned by the Lishman family.  Mrs. Lishman tried to remedy his frozen feet and hands by placing them in a tub of cold water.  “In a few minutes I was wishing myself in Welch’s place.  I will say no more about the agony…”  Blackburn’s fingers could not be saved and over the next two months dry gangrene set in.  He eventually lost all his fingers, half of each thumb, and five toes.  His flesh, however grew out from the stumps of his hands and feet and covered the wounds with scar tissue.

Most men, after surviving such an experience, would understandably curse the sea and never again set foot in a boat.  But not Blackburn.  At age 42 he made a solo sail in a 25 foot sailboat across the Atlantic. It took him just 39 days to cross the ocean, recording the fastest, single-handed (or in Blackburn’s case no-handed) non-stop voyage across the Atlantic ever sailed.

Cape George

Vern was a seaman apprentice and had just come into the Coast Guard in September of 1977.

We had just been on duty and I was lying down when they said we’re going back out because there’s a tanker aground in Salem.  This was around evening and we knew it was going to be bad because the only thing on the TV and radio were reports about how bad the blizzard was.

Once we were underway, sure enough, it was terrible.  I was puking my guts out.  Even though I was the new guy, I new this was serious shit just by the way the more experienced guys were acting. There were about 12 of us on board and I was one of the guys up on the bridge acting as a look-out.  Of course I couldn’t see a thing, and our radar wasn’t worth anything because their was so much clutter from the snow.  I remember hearing Frank Quirk on the radio having a discussion with Gloucester and making the decision to go out.

Somewhere off Salem I heard our skipper, Glen Snyder, say we were lost.  That scared me, because the seas were getting bigger and bigger.  Myron was studying the charts trying to memorize where hazards were located.  His memory saved our bacon later because all the charts were ruined when we took on water in the bridge through an open lee door.  All our charts turned to mush.  There were several shoals and ledges around Salem, and the Cape George drew 6 feet 4 inches aft and about 4 feet 4 inches forward, so we could have easily hit an unseen shoal.

When Boston Rescue Command Center heard our problems they didn’t want more problems by having us go into Salem Sound.  By that time the 44 had made it safely in and we couldn’t have done anything for the Global Hope.  We could not have turned safely anyways.  They told us to proceed to Gloucester.  (Because Gloucester Harbor entrance is south facing the Cape George could enter without turning.)  I remember getting slammed right outside the breakwater and then a wave hurled us over the breakwater.  Once inside the harbor it was nowhere near as bad as outside and we were safe.

One of the first things I did was call my parents so they wouldn’t worry.  I said we were underway tonight and almost died, but they were on the west coast and knew nothing about the blizzard. I had radio duty the rest of the night and listened to the whole thing.  I knew when the Can Do lost power they were in real trouble and the chance of them making it was a long shot.  Even if the Can Do was driven to shore, the coast north of Boston is all rocky and the men would not have survived.  Maybe if there were sandy beaches like in areas of the west coast they might have survived, but I doubt out, the seas were just incredible.

I’ve thought back about how the Can Do went out, and I think most of us would have done the same thing.

RESCUE OF THE CHESTER POLING

We split in two!  Not sinking yet but we might be any minute!

Captain Charles Burgess of the Chester Poling

It’s not often that the public gets an inside look at what mariners endure when a cargo ship or tanker sinks.  However on January 10, 1977 the Coast Guard tape recorded the words of the Captain Charles Burgess of the 282-foot coastal tanker Chester A. Poling as it encountered enormous seas of the Massachusetts Coast.

Burgess first realized his ship was in trouble when a forty-foot wave slammed the vessel and he heard a sickening crunching sound followed by the grinding reverberation of twisted metal.  He looked aft of the wheelhouse and could not believe his eyes – the ship had broken in two.

The bow and the stern section tilted toward where the break occurred, but each stayed afloat.  With an alarm sounding, the five men on the aft section ran from below up to the sloping deck, and stared in horror as they too saw that the ship had split. A segment of deck plating was the only thing connecting the two sections, preventing them from drifting apart.

In a stroke of good fortune, the VHF-FM radio in the pilothouse still worked because it was battery powered.  Captain Burgess immediately called out a mayday message on channel 13, followed by a desperate plea:

“We are six miles off Cape Ann!  Don’t know how much longer we can stay afloat!”

“Be advised the Cutter Cape George is on the way,” replied Coast Guard Group Boston.

“We split in two!” shouted Burgess, “and don’t know how long we can stay afloat.  Not sinking yet but we might be any minute.”

“Are there any persons on board the other section?”

“We have 5 members aft!”

“Can you see the aft section?”

“No, too much seas coming over!”

The nearest Coast Guard station was Gloucester, where the cutters Cape George and Cape Cross were immediately sent to the crippled tanker. Upon reaching the scene James Loew, commanding officer of the Cape George, attempted to maneuver his cutter alongside the bow section of the tanker.  He quickly abandoned the effort, however, realizing the seas were so violent that his own boat might be crushed or swamped by the stern of the Poling.

Loew radioed Captain Burgess, “Your bow is really swinging around.  Is there any way that your crew could get into a life raft and get away from the boat?  Then we could pick them up?”

Burgess replied this could not be done, and Loew considered floating a raft toward the tanker, but the two sections of the Chester Poling were finally pulling apart the narrow deck plating that connected them.  The bow and stern suddenly separated then pounded upon one another, with the bow listing heavily as seas poured into the wheelhouse portholes.

Meanwhile, Captain Burgess knew the bow wouldn’t stay afloat much longer.  He radioed the Cape George: As soon as she starts to go down we are going to jump.  She’s breaking up now more than ever.  The bow will sink first if anything does happen.  If worst comes to worst we’re going to have to jump I guess.

Loew shouted for the captain to hang on a little longer because his crew was going to try to float a life raft to Burgess and his first mate Harry Selleck and then haul them back.  Again, however, conditions prevented success.  Loew was relaying this latest setback to Gloucester when he suddenly barked, Both men are in the water!  Don’t have time to talk.

Five minutes later Loew shouted: I just picked up one man in the water and have another man in the water!  Stand by.

The man the Cape George picked up was Captain Burgess, but they were unable to get Selleck on the first pass.  The freezing water all but paralyzed Selleck, and he was unable to swim toward the cutter.  Instead he managed to kick off his sea boots and roll over on his back, drifting upwind from the submerged bow.  Selleck later told the Coast Guard, “the only thing that kept me alive was that I knew the Cutter Cape George knew they had missed me and that I was still out there.  There were times when I was going to give up.  I was going to take off my life jacket and forget it.”

Incredibly, the Coast Guard saved Selleck and all but one of the other men on the tanker.  The lone death occurred when a seaman, who had forgotten to put on his life jacket, fell overboard and was swept away.

Say Goodbye to Winter Blues

By Michael Tougias

Your pants begin to feel snug from an expanding waistline, the television is on too often, and your “get up and go” went south with the birds.  Sound familiar?  Most of us experience a feeling of lethargy as winter descends upon us, bringing colder temperatures and less sunlight.

Combating the sluggish feelings that arrive with winter, however, is not nearly as difficult as you might think.  Incorporating a few simple activities into your weekly routine can have you energized, and possibly even enjoying winter.

Seek Sunlight

The cold weather months have fewer hours of natural sunlight and this has been identified as one of the root causes of the winter blues.  (Some scientists theorize the lack of sunlight produces unstable and disruptive amounts of both melatonin, the hormone that helps us sleep, and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects mood.)  It is crucial, therefore, that you get outdoors for about thirty minutes a day.

Should you ever feel significant depression with the arrival of winter you may be suffering from the more serious Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), where treatment with a Light Box and counsel from your doctor will be needed in addition to the tips given here.  (SAD affects roughly four times as many women as it does men.)

Outdoor Exercise

We all know the benefits of exercise for the health of our bodies, but recent studies also show exercise increases our sense of well-being and focus, likely from a boost in serotonin.  If both exercise and sunlight are beneficial, why not combine the two?  The easiest of all exercise is brisk walking.  Dress in layers, so that on longer walks you can take off a layer or two as your body generates heat, and remember to stay hydrated.

During weekdays, many people leave for work in the dark and return home in the dark, and “sunshine walking” seems impossible.  One solution is to walk on your lunch break.  Once you get into the walking routine during your work days, try a different outdoor activity on weekends.  Cross-country skiing, down-hill skiing and skating are all good choices, but perhaps the easiest and most convenient of winter sports is snow-shoeing.  Modern snowshoes made with lightweight aluminum frames and nylon decking provide more comfortable walking than the traditional wooden style.  Add crampons, and you can leave the flatlands and head into the mountains without fear of slipping on ice. (Remember to stretch your muscles during a warm-up period prior to snow-shoeing because cold weather tightens muscles.)

Indoor Exercise

There are some winter days when it’s simply too cold or icy, to get outdoors, but you should use those days to get aerobic exercise in an indoor facility.  Swimming, riding a stationary bike, and jogging on a treadmill, are all good choices.  Doing a half hour to an hour of cardio exercise can do wonders for both your mood and your waistline.  When you’re finished you feel a sense of accomplishment, and many people report feeling more energized for two or three hours after the exercise is over. If you prefer not to join a health club, lots of folks join groups that take brisk walks at indoor malls.  And if you want a more social form of exercise, co-ed volleyball is a great choice.  Many town recreation departments offer volleyball, basketball, and other team sports.

Your Home

When you look outside your home in winter, chances are you see shades of gray, brown, white and blue.  Counter these colors inside your home by decorating with colors that invoke a feeling of warmth, such as yellows, oranges, and reds—which all happen to be hues of the sun.  Another color lacking in winter is the vibrant shades of green leaves from plants.  Place indoor potted plants in strategic locations where you spend significant time in the winter, such as in the kitchen, by the computer, or next to your favorite easy chair.

Another simple step to take inside your home is to allow the maximum amount of sunlight to enter your rooms.  Pull back curtains so that none of them are covering any portion of the windows.  You may also want to install a set of windows along a south-facing area of your home, and let the passive solar power of the sun help warm you and your home.

Winter’s Unique Opportunities

Not far from my home is swamp that I always wanted to explore and see if beaver were living at the far end.  It was too choked with brush to canoe and the water was too deep to wade through.  Then one winter we had a month-long deep freeze with significant snow.  That was my opportunity to explore this mysterious place.  The swamp had a thick coat of ice, with snow on top, making for easy snow-shoeing into its interior.  I not only had a chance to discover that their was a beaver lodges deep in the swamp, but I was also rewarded for my efforts by getting a glimpse of two otters sliding and skimming along the ice until they disappeared into a stream.

Winter truly does afford some great wildlife viewing because the leaves are off the deciduous trees, allowing you to see deeper into the woods.

Plan Your Garden

I’ve planted large vegetable gardens for many years, but lately the garden has been more productive because I’ve taken the time during the winter to draw a lay-out of the garden.  This allows me to incorporate crop rotation, and placement of species.  For example, I want larger plants at the “back” of the garden (the northern most end) so that they do not block out the sun from reaching the smaller plants.

The Joys of Fire Wood

There’s nothing as soothing as a crackling fire on a cold winters day or a wood stove radiating heat.  And there’s a wonderful feeling of self-sufficiency when the wood you burn was gathered, split or cut yourself.  The old saying that wood warms you twice, once in the cutting and again in the burning, is certainly true.  And even if you don’t cut your own wood, you can always gather kindling from the forest floor that can be used to get your fire started.  Some people have wood delivered in the form of logs and then they cut the wood to size and split it with a maul.  It’s amazing how you can break the spell of confinement– cabin fever– just by going outside and swinging a maul to split firewood.  After an hour of this activity you will have surely work off enough calories to head back inside for a cup of coffee or a piece of pie.  And there’s nothing like a hot bath after working outside on a cold winters day!

Vitamin D

Sometimes going outdoors in winter in hopes of getting sunshine doesn’t provide enough of the Vitamin D, particularly in periods of overcast days or in far northern latitudes where the angle of the sun is quite low.  Consider a vitamin D supplement during the darkest three months of winter.  Research indicates a vitamin D deficiency can result in diabetes, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, and even depression.

Help Getting Out of Bed

Does it seem like getting out of bed on a winter’s morning is more difficult than during the other seasons?  You’re not alone.  One simple step can go a long way to solving this problem.  Install a timer on your home’s thermostat that increases the temperature about a half hour before your alarm clock goes off in the morning.  It sure is easier crawling out of bed into a warm house rather than a cold one.  This same thermostat can then be programmed to reduce the heat when you leave for work, raise it when you return, and reduce it about an hour before bedtime.

Stay warm, stay active, and try new things!  You might just learn to love winter.

Deadliest Hurricanes

Late summer and fall are beautiful times of year, but they are also period when North America is susceptible to the deadliest natural disasters we face: hurricanes.  We hear weather forecasters talk about the strength of hurricanes according to its category, but sometimes we are not given the full definition of this ranking, particularly the storm surge.  The category guide, known as the Saffir-Simpson scale, ranks the hurricanes from 1 to 5:

Category 1: winds of 74 to 95 mph, storm surge of four to five feet, overall expected damage: minimal.

Category 2: winds of 96 to 110 mph, storm surge of six to eight feet, overall expected damage: moderate

Category 3: winds of 111 to 130 mph, storm surge of nine to twelve feet, overall expected damage: extensive.

Category 4: winds of 131 to 155 mph, storm surge of thirteen to eighteen feet, overall expected damage: extreme.

Category 5: winds greater than 155 mph, storm surge greater than eighteen feet: overall expected damage: catastrophic.

With the devastation of Hurricane Katrina fresh in our minds, let’s take a look at the ten deadliest hurricanes.  These storms hold a few facts that might surprise readers, as well as lessons that might protect us in future years.

10) Two hurricanes tied for the number 10 spot: Camille, 1969 (Category 3, Death Toll 256)  and  The “Great New England Hurricane” of 1938  (Category 3, Death Toll 256)

Hurricane Camille:

Camille turned from a tropical storm into a hurricane south of Cuba and strengthened as moved northwestward, striking Mississippi as a category 5 hurricane.  Wind gusts exceeded 200 mph and the ocean surged 24 feet above the usual high tide. Approximately 143 people were killed in coastal areas from Louisiana to Alabama, and an additional 113 died as its rains produced flash floods inland into the Appalachian Mountains.

“Great New England Hurricane”

In 1938, an unnamed hurricane rode on unusual air currents, carrying it farther north than any other hurricane since 1815.  Later called the “Great New England Hurricane” and also “The Long Island Express”, the U.S. Weather Bureau did not anticipate the storm curving toward land, and the maelstrom hit Long Island before warnings could be issued.  After ripping through Long Island it tore into New England as a category 3 hurricane, sending extreme storm surges into Narragansett Bay and Buzzards Bay.  As the hurricane headed inland, its heavy rains produced torrential flooding, especially along the Connecticut River. Deaths were estimated to be approximately 250, with some reports putting the number killed as high as 580.  A contributing factor to the death toll, was due to the fact that a powerful hurricane had not hit New England in almost a century, and when warnings were finally issued few people realized just how vulnerable they were.

9) Northeastern Texas, 1915 (unnamed) and New Orleans, 1915 (unnamed)  (Both hurricanes were Category 4, and each had a Death Toll of 275)

The year 1915 was an especially devastating one for hurricanes, with five separate hurricanes recorded off the United States.  The two worst hit Texas and Louisiana. Northeastern Texas was struck by a hurricane on August 17th, causing approximately 275 deaths, many of which were in Galveston which was still reeling from the 1900 hurricane.  New Orleans had its own disaster in 1915 when, on September 29th, it was clobbered by a hurricane causing casualties equal to the storm that hit Eastern Texas just a few weeks earlier.

Florida Keys and Texas Hurricane, 1919 (unnamed)  (Category 4, Death Toll 287)

The path of this particular unnamed hurricane was almost due west, first bringing misery to the Florida Keys, then continuing through the Gulf of Mexico and smacking Corpus Christi, Texas.  Many of the deaths from the storm were the result of several ships being sunk.  Bob Simpson, who later helped devise the Saffir-Simpson Scale and became head of the National Hurricane Center, was one of the people who had to flee from Corpus Christi in advance of the storm.

7) Grand Isle, LA, 1909 (unnamed) (Category 3, Death Toll 350)

With a fifteen-foot storm surge, this hurricane inundated much of southern Louisiana, killing at least 350 people.  Although its wind speed (80 mph) was less than many of the other hurricanes in the top ten, this storm proved that storm surge in a low-lying area can be more deadly than a more powerful hurricane in an area with greater elevation.

6) Miami, Pensacola, FL, MS, AL 1926 (unnamed) (Category 4, Death Toll 372)

In the early morning hours of September 18th, 1926 this category 4 hurricane hit Miami, crossed Florida heading to the northwest and entered the Gulf of Mexico before finally slamming into Alabama and Mississippi.  In its wake lay 372 victims.  Many of the dead died needlessly in the Miami area, thinking that as the eye of the hurricane passed overhead, the storm was finished.  Richard Gray, the local weather chief wrote, “the lull lasted 35 minutes, and during that time the streets of the city became crowded with people.  As a result, many lives were lost during the second phase of the storm.”  Over 25,000 people were left homeless in the Miami area, and the storm quickly became known as the Great Miami Hurricane.  If the same storm hit Miami today it is estimated the property damage would be 100 billion dollars.

5) Audrey, 1957 (Category 4, Death Toll 419)

Hurricane Audrey slammed into the eastern Texas and western Louisiana as a Category 4 storm, causing over a billion dollars in damage and 419 fatalities.  Tornadoes were spawned as a result of the storm, adding to the devastation from the storm surge and winds.  Water from the storm surge extended an incredible 25 miles inland.  Audrey hit quite early for a hurricane, making landfall on June 26th, 1957, and this storm was the first named hurricane.

4) Florida Keys, 1935  (Category 5, Death Toll 408)

Striking the Florida Keys first, this unnamed storm (later dubbed the “Labor Day Hurricane”) continued north along Florida’s west coast all the way past Tampa, eventually making a second landfall at Cedar Key, Florida.  This particular storm’s impact will always be remembered for what happened on the rail line linking the Florida Keys to mainland Florida.  A ten-car evacuation train was sent to the Keys from Homestead, Florida to rescue a large group of World War I veterans who were employed building a new road bridge in the upper Keys.  Before the train could reach the men it was washed off the tracks and the veterans faced the full fury of the storm unprotected.  Of the 408 people killed during the hurricane, more than half of them were veterans working on the road project.  Ernest Hemmingway toured the devastation immediately after the storm, and felt that government ineptitude led the deaths of the veterans, penning his reasoning (primarily poor planning and negligence) in an article titled “Who Murdered the Vets?”  And in the movie Key Largo with Bogart and Bacall, the hurricane is described by the character played by Lionel Barrymore.

3) Katrina, 2005 (Category 3, Death Toll 1,800)

On August 29th, 2005 Hurricane Katrina made landfall near the Louisiana/Mississippi border, causing death and destruction on a historic scale. A category 3 storm, Katrina’s rain and storm surge caused almost every levee in metropolitan New Orleans to fail.  At least 1,800 people died.  A study of the victims found that most had survived the height of the storm only to die in the flooding that followed the breaching of the levee’s.  Federal, state and local governmental agencies were widely criticized for their slow response to aid the people of New Orleans.

2) Lake Okeechobee, FL 1928  (Category 4, Death Toll 2,500 – 3,000)

In 1928, the area around massive Lake Okeechobee supported mostly farmers who felt safe from any storm surge originating from the lake because of a series of man-made dikes. The hurricane, now known as the Okeechobee Hurricane, made the dikes seem no stronger than paper.  Killing hundreds as the storm first roared through the Caribbean, the hurricane then crossed over Puerto Rico and slammed into Florida near West Palm Beach heading north over Lake Okeechobee.  Residents near the lake had been warned of the storms approach but when it did not arrive on schedule many thought the storm was over and returned to their homes from higher ground.  When the hurricane later hit with its full force of 140 mile per hour fury, the south-blowing wind created a storm surge on the lake that send a wall of water barreling through the dikes at the south end of the lake.  People and their homes were swept away by the rampaging water, many dumped into the Everglades never to be found.

1) Galveston, TX 1900 (Category 4, Death Toll 8,000 – 12,000)

This was the big one in terms of casualties.  It is estimated that between 8,000 and 12,000 people died, largely due to the 20-foot storm surge that took citizens by surprise on September 8, 1900. Late warnings were issued by the U.S. Weather Bureau but many people stayed put, preferring to watch the building surf.  When the category 4 storm made a direct hit on Galveston, a barrier island, half the town’s homes were swept away, many with the occupants still inside.

When the storm passed, bodies were found high up in trees and in walls of debris three stories high.  Many victims were simply never found, either having been washed out to sea or buried under tons of sand.  Disposing of the bodies that were found proved to be a major and horrific undertaking. “Dead Gangs” were formed to collect the dead, which were burned, and the squeamish workers were plied with whisky to keep them at their task.  Other bodies, approximately 700, were loaded onto barges and deposited 18 miles out at sea, only to later wash up on Galveston beaches as if to remind the living not to forget what happened.

* Source: National Hurricane Center (Death figures are the best estimates.  Casualties from storms in the first half of the 20th century vary widely in various reports.)

Overboard!

Chris Ferrer of Sterling, MA is a lucky man.  But not all of the five person crew aboard the Almeisan shared in his good fortune.

Chris Ferrer has been seasick for two days, and still the seas are building.  The 34-year-old molecular biologist from Sterling, Massachusetts is on his first extended offshore voyage, sailing from the Connecticut to Bermuda.  He signed on as a crewmember aboard the 45-foot Almeisan, captained by Tom Tighe, who has made the crossing 48 times, and welcomes new comers like Chris who want to learn more about bluewater sailing.  Also onboard is first mate Lochlin Reidy from Connecticut and two other new crewmembers; Kathy Gilchrist from New York, and Ron Burd from New Hampshire.like Chris, both of whom want to increase their knowledge about offshore sailing.

The trip however, is not going as planned.  The first two days had no wind and the crew didn’t even get a sail up, while the second two days brought too much wind, making the ride uncomfortable.  Now, Saturday night, May 7, 2005 – the fifth day of voyage— the storm they have been trying to steer clear of has caught up with them.  The wind shrieks to 80 knots, the rain pours in torrents, and the seas, averaging twenty-five feet in height, are becoming so steep they cannot support themselves and break on the beleaguered Almeisan.

Chris is beginning to recover from his seasickness, and he and Ron stand watch, then carefully make their way below deck to try and get a little rest.  Deciding that the center of the boat will be the most stable place, Chris lays down on the cushioned benches around the L-shaped table directly below a large window.  He watches the waves wash over the window and has the feeling he is stuck inside a carwash.  His head keeps banging against the port side, and he soon switches position so that his head is aft of the window and his feet are now where his head had been.  This switching of position will save his life.

Chris begins to doze when he is awaken by a tremendous bang and then hurled from the bench. When he opens his eyes he realizes he’s under water. He is not sure which way is up, and he’s thrashing with his feet and arms, trying to clear away a blanket still wrapped around his body.  He knows the boat has rolled completely over, and he feels a sense of rising panic, thinking he’ll never find his way out of the belly of the Almeisan. Then he remembers that as a child he was taught to blow bubbles if he’s ever trapped under water and doesn’t know which way is up.  And so he spits out some air, then orients himself by following his bubbles.  As his head clears the water he feels the boat righting itself.  The first thing he notices is that the large window above the bench he had been lying on has been blown to bits.  Had he not moved his position the shattered window and the thousands of gallons of water would have made a direct hit on his head.

He hears shouts from above, and Chris staggers to the companionway ladder and climbs into the cockpit.  Waves are breaking all around the boat, and foaming white water is being hurled through the air. In the dim glow from a mast light he sees Loch and Tom leaning over the side of the boat, and hears a voice shouting, “Help! Help!”  Chris crawls over to his crewmates and that’s when he sees Kathy in the water.  When the rogue wave rolled the Almeisan, Kathy was swept overboard.  Only her safety harness saved her from being completely swallowed by the sea.

Tom and Loch each have a hand on her life jacket, but are unable to pull her onboard, and so Chris adds his strength, and together the three men make a mighty heave and drag Kathy back into the cockpit where she slumps to the deck.

Ron has climbed up to the deck, nursing a large contusion on his forehead and a nasty gash on his ankle.  For a moment all five crewmembers sit in shock, trying to catch their breath and process what has happened.  Not only did the boat capsize, but the monster wave pivoted the vessel, bow to stern, and knocked out its engine power.

The blare of the bilge alarm stirs Tom into action, and he shouts, “We’ve got to get the engine started!”  He heads down the companionway, the rest of the crew following him.

Loch’s first thought upon seeing the cabin is that it looks like a bomb has gone off inside it.  Debris is everywhere and two feet of water are sloshing around.  Each time a wave sweeps over the vessel, more water pours through the opening where the window once was.  He’s got a claustrophobic feeling, afraid that if he stays in the cabin another big wave will roll the boat, trapping him inside for good.

Tom has got the engine started, but the bilge pump keeps clogging, and is next to useless.  The captain is certain the water is rising, and like Loch, he’s worried that one more big wave will put the boat over and it won’t come back up.  Tom grabs the radio microphone.  “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, this is the sailing vessel Almeisan!”  Then he picks up the EPIRB and sets off the electronic emergency beacon, knowing that the Coast Guard will be alerted to their distress even if his Mayday isn’t heard by any nearby ships.  But he is also aware that any help from the Coast Guard will be hours away.  The Almeisan is over 300 nautical miles out to sea, approximately halfway between the United States and Bermuda.

Assessing the broken window, and the rising water, Tom motions for his first mate to follow him back up into the cockpit.  “Loch!” shouts Tom, “I think it’s time to prepare the life raft!  Do you agree!”

Loch hollers back, “Yes, we’ve got to get off!”

Loch then staggers down the companionway stairs and shouts to the others, “We’ve got to go!  We’re leaving the boat.”

The whole situation seems surreal to Chris, as if everything is happening so fast that there’s no time to think through decisions.  He hears Ron shout to Loch that they should stay with the boat while it’s still afloat.  But Loch has made up his mind.  Chris isn’t sure what the right course of action is, but he trusts the captain’s experience, and he thinks to himself, I’m going wherever that EPIRB goes.

Tom has already freed the life raft from its canister and as it self-inflates he kicks it over the side of boat, first making sure the tether from the raft is fixed securely to the Almeisan.  The wind immediately hurls the raft away from the boat where it strains on the tether.  Tom has trouble pulling it back toward the boat – the tether is a narrow strap and cut’s into his hand.  Loch and Ron lend their muscle to the job, but they can only get the raft to within five feet of the Almeisan.

While Tom heads aft to see if the tether is fouled, Loch thinks the life raft may break free at any moment.  He decides to act. First he detaches his safety harness and then suddenly dives headfirst into the life raft.  He pivots around and shouts to Ron. “Throw me a heavier line!”

Then disaster strikes.

An avalanching wave breaks on the port side of the vessel, sending the Almeisan careening down the face of the wave and into the life raft.  Loch is thrown out of the life raft and into the angry sea.  Tom is hurled off the deck so violently the railing where he secured the tether from his safety harness is ripped from the stanchion, leaving the captain floating far behind his boat.  Ron too is swept overboard but somehow manages to keep an arm wrapped around a stanchion of the boat.

Chris and Kathy are still onboard, but are momentarily stunned by the blow.  Chris gets to his feet first and briefly sees Tom behind the vessel, then hears shouts from a forward position.  In the faint glow from the spreader light he can see an arm extending up from the ocean wrapped around a stanchion, and he moves toward it.  Then he sees that it’s Ron, completely outside the vessel struggling to lift one of his legs over the gunwale.  Chris grabs Ron by his safety harness and with every ounce of strength pulls him on board where they both collapse on the deck and then crab-walk into the cockpit.

Ron looks around, and shouts, “Where’s Loch and Tom?”

“They’re gone,” says Chris, “both swept away!”

* * *

In the early morning hours the three survivors still on the boat do everything in their power to increase their odds of staying alive.  They bail, they jury-rig a small pump, and they send out Mayday after Mayday.  When dawn allows enough light to get a good look at the waves, they are awed by the sight of towering walls of gray-green water surrounding them.

Then from the radio they hear a faint voice: “Sailing vessel Almeisan, this is the Coast Guard aircraft 1503…”

Euphoria spreads over the three sailors: the Coast Guard at least knows they are in trouble and an air plane is nearby.

Their feeling of joy and relief, however, soon turns to concern, when every rescue effort fails.  Life rafts and pumps dropped by the Coast Guard C-130 plan are swept away by hurricane force winds.  Later in the day an oil tanker arrives on scene and throws down a rope in hopes that the Almeisan crew can pull their vessel alongside the tanker and then be lifted out by basket.  The effort ends in near disaster with the sailboat crashing into the massive hull of the tanker further damaging the Almeisan.  Later in the day a navy transport ship tries a similar rescue, and this time the Almeisan is dragged under the fantail of the ship and nearly crushed.

Evening is approaching, and Chris knows the sailboat is now so badly damaged that the next large wave will mean the end.  He and his two crewmates now have their lives in the hands of a Coast Guard helicopter that is on the way.  The helicopter does not have the fuel capacity to make it to the accident scene and back again, so it must engage in a complicated flight where it first lands on the deck of a Navy ship at sea to refuel, and then launch into the storm, which has still not abated.

When the helicopter reaches the Almeisan, the pilot radios the sinking vessel and says that their fuel situation dictates that they only have twenty minutes to airlift all three survivors.  It is too dangerous to lower a basket to the wildly swinging sailboat, and the pilot explains that a rescue swimmer will be lowered and he will drag each person away from the boat and into the waiting basket.

Rescue swimmer A.J. Thompson descends by cable into the crashing seas.  He unclips and swims toward the Almeisan, but the vessel is drifting so fast he simply cannot reach it.  Precious minutes go by.  He is hoisted back up again and lowered just five feet from the stern of the sailboat.

Thompson shouts for one of the crew to jump off the boat, and Ron and Chris insist Kathy go first.  She jumps into the boiling water and Thompson has her in the basket in two minutes.  He signals for the hoist operator to bring her up.  Nothing happens.  Waves sweep over the basket, burying both Kathy, who is inside, and Thompson, who is holding tight on the outside.

In the cabin of the helicopter, hoist operator James Geramita, can’t believe his eyes.  The wind has blown the cable so far back of the aircraft it has snagged between the helicopter’s door and an extra fuel tank.  He’s leaning as far as he can out the open doorway tugging on the cable but it stays in its wedged position.

The pilot knows something is seriously wrong, and thinks that if the cable cannot be freed by the set “bingo time” (when the fuel situation simply won’t allow them to stay on scene any longer) they may have to try and drag the basket back toward the Almeisan and hope the rescue swimmer and Kathy can get back onboard.  He can see the sailboat is pitching wildly and knows that it likely will not stay afloat much longer. But if the cable isn’t freed within the next five minutes he will have no other option.  If they don’t leave the scene at the set bingo time the helicopter won’t have the fuel to make it back to land and it will drop like a stone into the black seas.

Geramita’s arms are aching, and he lets go of the cable and grabs the cabin door handle.  With a mighty heave he yanks on the door.  The cable pops free.  He hoists Kathy safely onboard and then retrieves rescue swimmer Thompson.  The Almeisan has almost drifted out of view.

Thompson shout’s “Forget the basket!  We don’t have time, we have to do this by the sling!”

Geramita nods while unhooking the basket and attaching the sling, which looks like a large horse collar.  Thompson is lowered back down into the maelstrom.  First Chris jumps into the sea and is brought safely to chopper, and then Ron.

The pilots don’t wait another minute, and immediately start on their long journey north, to the nearest land mass, Nantucket.  They make it, but only after the fuel emergency light blinks for the last five minutes of the flight.

As the plane touches down at the Nantucket airport Chris feels both joy and sadness.  He, Kathy, and Ron are alive, but there is no word about the fate of Loch and Tom.

Chris has no way of knowing that one of the two men is no longer alive, and that the other is close to expiring.

(This true story is told in its entirety in Michael Tougias’ book Overboard! A True Bluewater Odyssey of Disaster and Survival, published by Scribner, March 2010.  www.michaeltougias.com)

Quabbin’s Forgotten Grave

When Quabbin Reservoir was being constructed in the late 1920’s through the 1930’s every grave that fell within the massive reservoir and the surrounding reservation had to be moved prior to the flooding of the Swift River Valley.  Approximately 7,500 dead were excavated and reinterred outside the reservation, most in the newly built Quabbin Park Cemetery.  Although some families wanted their loved ones gravesites to remain where they were, no exceptions were allowed by the Metropolitan District Water Supply Commission which supervised the process.

While researching the Quabbin for a book I was writing, I repeatedly came across references that every grave and tombstone within the reservation was moved and each was carefully catalogued.   Imagine my surprise when a hiker casually told me they missed one.  “How do you know?” I asked.  The hiker replied, “The tombstone is still standing in the woods.  It’s for a young boy that apparently was buried on his parent’s land rather than in a cemetery.”

I was a bit skeptical, since none of the officials I interviewed mentioned this forgotten grave, but nevertheless I asked the hiker for directions to the site.  One week later, on a cold and blustery day in mid-March, I walked two miles into the forests of Quabbin from the closest access gate.  I had a hand drawn map based on the hiker’s directions, but once at the general location he described I realized trying to pick out a two foot high gray colored tombstone in the forest was going to take some time.  The tree trunks were mostly gray so using color as an identifier didn’t help.  Nor did scanning the woods for two-foot high objects.  Granite boulders littered the woods and many looked like gravestones when seen from a distance.  The only way to locate the grave, I reasoned, was to walk slowly, and divide the area into sections where I would search.  After about an hour of hunting, I was about to give up, thinking maybe I misunderstood the hiker’s directions.  I decided to take one last look farther up a ridge.

Then I saw it, set high up on the lonely ridge, its profile illuminated by the sun sinking in the west.  I rushed to the stone as if I had found buried treasure, and in a sense I had; the treasure of forgotten boy buried here over a hundred and fifty years ago.  The inscription on the gravestone read:

Wendell,

son of

John H. & Sarah E.

Farnsworth.

Died April 3, 1851

Aged 6 years & 8 months

As I sat in the woods, many questions went through my mind.  How did the authorities at Quabbin overlook this grave when every other one was moved?  Who was Wendell Farnsworth and how did he die?  Why was the grave half-way up the ridge with the inscription on the tombstone facing up hill rather than down toward the road where the family farm would likely have been?

These questions prompted a new search, this one through historical records to learn more about Wendell.  The research proved more difficult than finding the grave.  Elizabeth Peirce, President of the Swift River Valley Historical Society, assisted me.  After combing the records of the lost town where Wendell was buried, she reported that the town’s vital records made no mention of the Farnsworths in the mid-1800’s.

I also discussed Wendell with the hiker who found the grave.  This man, who prefers to remain anonymous, has spent years studying the Quabbin and he surmised that the reason the grave was overlooked was because it was not in a cemetery.  “If no one bothered to tell the Commission,” said the hiker, “about Wendell’s grave, they would have no way of knowing it was there.  Perhaps, when the Quabbin was being built there was no immediate family of Wendell’s still alive in the area.”

The Metropolitan District Commission also keeps historical records about the lost towns, but again there were no documents helpful in my search to understand more about Wendell.  And so I used my imagination, picturing Wendell running along the hill behind his farm with wonder in his eyes for this beautiful countryside.  At least, I tell myself that after almost a hundred and fifty years of Wendell being forgotten, he is remembered once again.

(Quabbin: A History and Explorer’s Guide, written by Michael Tougias is available at bookstores or direct through the author.  For an autographed copy send $18.95 plus $2.00 for shipping to M. Tougias, PO Box 72, Norfolk, MA 02056.)

An Eskimo in New Hampshire

Indian Stream snakes southward through a lush green valley fringed by pointed firs and spruce before its waters join with that of the Connecticut River.  Along its bank on Tabor Road is small cemetery with graves of the Civil War Veterans, hardscrabble farmers, and  founding founders of the township of Pittsburg, New Hampshire. Although the cemetery is in the far northern tip of the state and just a stone’s throw from Canada, it isn’t exactly Eskimo country.  So why is there a grave of an Eskimo here?  To answer that question we need to go back to the year 1897, and follow the tortured life of Minik, a young Eskimo boy from northwestern Greenland.

Minik’s voyage from the obscurity of living the normal life of a polar Eskimo to becoming a New York sensation began when he came in contact with famed explorer Robert Perry.  During one of Perry’s missions to Greenland he met Minik, his father and four other Eskimos, all of which he brought back with him to New York.  The Eskimos were presented as specimens to the American Museum of Natural History, and put on display to a paying public.  Unfortunately, like Native Americans, the Eskimos had little resistance to strains of influenza, and Minik’s father and three others became sick and died.  Another was quickly returned to Greenland.  That left Minik alone in New York, where he was adopted by the well-to-do Wallace family, and remained a public oddity and “specimen”  (while also being studied by anthropologists) for twelve years.

Minik’s story becomes even more bizarre when, while visiting the American Museum of Natural History, he discovers the skeleton of his father on display.  As one can imagine Minik was outraged and sickened, but the museum considered his fathers remains their property and they were not returned to Greenland.  To make matters worse, Minik’s adoptive family fell on hard times and Minik subsequently tried several times to gain passage on a ship and return to his native Greenland.  He was finally successful in 1909, but after twelve years away from home, he felt as out of place there as he did in New York.

Caught between two cultures, Minik decided to return to America in 1916, and it is here that we learn how he came to live in northern New Hampshire.  Minik sought employment as a logger and took a train to North Stratford and then proceeded by open wagon to Pittsburg where he joined a mix of French Canadiens, Finns, Poles and local Yankees at the lumber company bunkhouse.  He worked through the winter chopping trees, clearing brush for slick roads, and generally enjoying life in the woods.  For the first time in many years, Minik felt at peace.

When the lumber camps closed in spring, Minik decided to stay on New Hampshire, having become good friends with a local farmer named Afton Hall.  Afton invited Minik to live with his family at their small farm high on a hillside just west of Pittsburg Center in Clarksville.

Minik enjoyed the farm work, and fit right in with the Hall family.  During his free time he explored the rugged hills and swift-flowing Connecticut River.  His life began to settle into a pattern and when autumn came Minik was back at the lumber camp bunkhouse with Afton, ready for another season.

Minik’s happiness however did not last long.  When the flu swept through the logging camp, Minik was one of the loggers that fell ill.  Afton Hall took Minik to his Clarksville home and tried to nurse him back to help, but Minik died, and that is how the Eskimo from Greenland came to be buried in this beautiful spot at the top of New Hampshire.

****

(Quabbin: A History and Explorer’s Guide is Michael Tougias’ latest book.  To receive an autographed copy send $18.95 plus $2.00 shipping to M. Tougias, PO Box 72, Norfolk, MA 02056.)

SIDE BAR

A fascinating and in-depth look into Minik’s life and times can be found in the book, Give Me My Father’s Body, by Kenn Harper published by Steerforth Press.

The Indian Stream Cemetery can be found just off Route 3 in Pittsburg along the banks of Indian Stream on Tabor Road.  Minik’s grave is at the rear of the cemetery about half way between either end. (The grave uses, Minik’s adopted last name of Wallace.)  His friend Afton Hall is buried nearby, but toward the side of the cemetery near Tabor Road.

The Hall farmstead was located on a hill overlooking Pittsburg Center and Lake Francis.  To reach the site turn off Route 3 onto Route 145 and cross the Connecticut River.  Take your first left and then your first right, climbing Crawford Road.  The restored white-colored farmhouse is now privately owned and is on your left near the crest of the hill.

For lodging, try The Glen on First Connecticut Lake in Pittsburg. (1-800-445-GLEN)

 

 

 

The Odd Sea

(Strange Sightings off Chatham)

I’ve had some pretty strange days out on the ocean, but my last trip took the cake.  I was with two friends aboard Captain Matt Swenson’s boat, who runs Chatham Charters.  We had just cleared Stage Harbor in Chatham when we heard an excited voice with a French accent hailing the Coast Guard.

“Coast Guard, Coast Guard!   I’ve seen something terrible.”

“This is the Coast Guard.”

“There is a great white shark following my boat.  I am in an 18 foot boat and the shark is almost as big.  It is at least 14 feet.  It has hit my boat and now it is circling.  It is huge—I kid you not.”

“What is your position?”

“I am at the red buoy at Chatham.  The shark is coming toward the boat again.  I repeat it is coming at the boat.  It is great white.”

“Can you describe the shark?”

“I cannot believe my eyes.  It is right next to the boat.  It must be 14 of 15 feet.  It is right next to the boat!  I must….”

The radio goes silent and I don’t move a muscle.  We can see the red buoy in the distance and see the boat the man is in.  I glance from the radio to the water, half expecting a dark shadow to appear next to our boat.

The radio crackles to life again and the man with the French accent is back, out of breath.

“Holy XXXX!  It hit my boat.  The whole boat shook.  Then it went right under me. It is awful.”

I look at Matt and he is smiling.  “What, is he seeing?” I ask.  “Why doesn’t he get the hell out of there.”

Matt shakes his head.  “It’s a basking shark.  The guy is terrified but it’s a basking shark.  I saw one out here yesterday.”

That calms me down, and I’m sure Matt is right.  But, I think to myself, what if it is a great white shark?  They have been seen here in the past.  Matt reads my mind.  “It’s a basking shark, they’re harmless. They eat tiny marine life and plants.  The guy is fascinated by what he’s seeing but he’s also paralyzed by fear, that’s why he doesn’t move his boat I guess.

The Coast Guard comes back on the air.

“Can you describe the shark?  Does it have it’s mouth open?”

“It is a great white,” says the man.  “I cannot see it’s mouth—I think it is under the boat.”

“We suggest you start your engine and move away immediately.”

After he moved his boat we heard no more from our fellow boater, and I forgot all about the incident as we spotted terns in the distance, hovering just above the ocean’s surface and occasionally darting down the water.  The concentration of terns could only mean one thing: big fish were tearing into baitfish, and the terns were picking up pieces of the dead baitfish.

Sure enough when we got on seen we could see big bluefish making swirls at the surface, chopping through the baitfish with their razor sharp teeth. I cast into the commotion and immediately hooked into a good size fish.  After a five minutes of fighting the fish surfaced near the boat, and Matt said “looks like you got a big striper.”  Then I saw the fish and it made my heart race: a beautiful striped bass about 35 inches in length.

We landed the fish and I went back to casting, and proceeded to hook something that did not fight like the normal fish.  Then my line lifted from the water—what’s this I thought, a flying fish?  Almost, I had hooked a seagull.  Not exactly the kind of quarry I was angling for.  We reeled it in, unhooked the lure from it’s wing and the bird flew off.

As I was getting ready for my next cast, a dark object appeared just two feet from the boat.  A giant fin emerged, extending about a foot and half above the water’s surface, and I thought I was going to die.  Then more of the creature appeared.  It was about the size of a refrigerator.  I kept waiting to see the tapered back and tail but the creature had none.

“An Ocean Sunfish,” said Matt.  “Isn’t it odd?”

It was beyond odd, it was grotesque.  It just lolled on the surface and then it turned and one of its giant eyes broke the waters surface, seemingly looking right through me.

“They’re harmless,” said Matt. “They come up and bask in the sun, sharks don’t bother them because they have toxins in their skin.”

I watched this creature as if watching an alien life form from another galaxy.  Then I turned to Matt and shouted, “Coast Guard, Coast Guard, I have seen something terrible!”

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