I was driving east on Rte 2 this morning, and the steam rising from Miller's River had glazed the trees on either bank in glistening sheaths of ice. They call it sea smoke in the Gulf of Maine, when water that is cold enough to kill an unprotected swimmer in mere minutes is still warm by comparison to the arctic air of January. The cold streams and rivers of the Berkshires look like the Valley of 10,000 Smokes when the air plunges to sub zero as it has this week. They are kin to the urban vapors that rise steaming from sidewalk grates when it's Christmastime in the City, and cousins to the midsummer wisps of fog that settle in the cool fens and seepage wetlands of the Housatonic watershed.
The Housatonic itself was smoking in the frigid air as I drove through Lee this morning, past the paper mills on my way to the Turnpike. Not so many years ago, you could tell what hue of paper they were making on any given day by the stain of the water below the discharge from the mill. Massachusetts has some of the most progressive wetlands and river protection laws in the Northeast, but for most of our association with rivers in New England we have treated them as sewers for the excretions of industry and convenient dumping grounds for the effluvia of human enterprise.
The Housatonic rises in several branches above Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and by the time it passes through this small city of less than 50,000 souls it has become so contaminated that the rest of the river through Berkshire and Litchfield Counties and down to Long Island Sound is unfit for drinking, swimming, or fish consumption, and will not likely return to fit condition in our lifetimes. The main culprit is General Electric, which discharged untold thousands of tons on PCB-saturated sediment into the River for decades, and has resisted cleaning more than a couple of miles of river in Pittsfield as its obligations to redress its contamination of the main stem. The Housatonic Watershed has the dubious distinction of being home to the most PCB-laden duck ever sampled in America, with grim implications for consumers of migratory waterfowl all along the Atlantic flyway.
For all the insults it has endured, the Housatonic has a rich heritage; in fact, the Upper Housatonic Valley has been proposed as a National Heritage Area. The first naval vessel sunk by a submarine was the sloop of war "USS Housatonic", rammed with a torpedo-tipped spar by the CSS Hunley during the Civil War. Crane Paper on the East Branch of the Housatonic in Dalton is the sole purveyor of currency-grade paper to the United States Department of the Treasury, making Sacajawea dollars even scarcer in Berkshire County than elsewhere in the nation. The oxbows of the Housatonic in Sheffield support remnants of major river floodplain forest, a natural community that has been virtually eliminated from the rest of its historic range. The Great Falls of the Housatonic in Falls Village Connecticut are a regional treasure and historically represented the limit of upstream migration for eels and anadromous fish. Since the power generators went to run of river rather than pond and release along the Connecticut stretch of the Housatonic, a more natural flow regime offers hope for better survival of cool season species in summer and a more diverse aquatic environment.
How the Housatonic came to be so devalued and degraded, and how citizen activism may yet turn the tide in its favor, will be the subject of subsequent postings.