by Robert Barossi
While I’m working on self-publishing my book, which shares the name of this blog, I’ve decided to post the book’s chapters here as well. This will, I hope, give an even greater audience to these fantastic stories I got to hear firsthand from some wonderful people who do amazing volunteer work. Without further ado, here’s the first chapter: Rivers Run Deep.
Rivers Run Deep: Bill Wilkinson
Someday, while canoeing down the Nashua River in southern New Hampshire, you may see a man standing in the water, casting his fly and waiting for the trout to bite. Or that same man may be riding in a canoe, with a friend, slowly paddling down the river as they partake in “jump shooting,” a form of duck hunting. If you’re anywhere along the Nashua or its tributaries, you’ll have a good chance of running into this man, Bill Wilkinson, as he fishes, hunts and enjoys any time he gets to spend in the great outdoors. A lifelong connection to nature has taken this retired widower all over the world, to great fishing destinations stretching from New Brunswick, Canada to the Yucatan. But it’s here, along the Nashua, where Bill gives his time to organizations such as Trout Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited and the Nashua River Watershed Association (NRWA). Bill is passionate about being a steward of the land, a passion he traces back to his childhood in Concord, Massachusetts, where at an early age he was inspired by Concord’s famous former residents, especially Henry David Thoreau. Sitting with Bill at the Barnes and Noble Cafe, it’s impossible not to absorb some of his infections energy and enthusiasm as he speaks about his love for fishing. The twinkle in his eye, behind his wire rimmed glasses, along with his big smile and laughter, add to his jovial nature. Bill is instantly someone you’d like to share a beer with while floating down the river in your canoe.
“I was fortunate to grow up in an area that had a fairly large tract of swamp and woodland in back of the house and I spent a lot of time down there. That’s where I first started to learn trees and plants and frogs and turtles and other items and soon became interested in exploring some of the other natural areas in town,” Bill says, specifically mentioning Sam Hoar Forest and the Walden Pond reservation.
While there are plenty of opportunities in Concord to take in as much of Thoreau, Emerson, Alcott and others as one chooses, Bill says he was most interested in the writings of Thoreau and the outdoorsman and author Corey Ford. Speaking about Ford, Bill says, “He wrote a column called “The Lower 40” for Field and Stream. I was subscribing to that and he was familiar with the sportsmen’s club that my family belonged to and he just spun some wonderful stories about hunting and fishing and camping and I just found it delightful.”
A fascination with Thoreau, Bill says, began when he was “just barely old enough to understand something about it,” when his parents took him to Walden. Bill considers the writer “a guy who I thought if I could ever hope to emulate someone’s life, it would be him,” adding that people today can still learn important life lessons from Thoreau. “The overriding impression that I had of him is self-sufficiency and living with nature, and being a part of it. There was the opportunity to explore the Concord River, the Assabet River as well as Walden and I was intrigued by his travels to Maine and I just thought here’s a guy who knows how to live and appreciate all that’s around him but not leave a big footprint.”
When he was a young boy, an uncle taught Bill how to fly fish, something that has provided him numerous opportunities to connect to nature and the outdoors. “I like the areas that you go when you’re trout fishing or salmon fishing, they are beautiful areas, they’re wild areas. And it may sound a little corny but I feel like I’m in a natural cathedral, I feel closer to god in a river than anywhere else. I’ve been so fortunate to travel to places to fish that I never would have gone to otherwise. Been to Iceland several times, been down to Patagonia, to some beautiful places in the states, Wyoming, Colorado. I also love the ocean, every year I go down for a week of fly fishing in the salt water flats in the Yucatan-Belize border. We fish in a preserve down in the Yucatan that is just spectacular; you can see birds and plants down there that you’d never see anywhere else.”
Five years ago, Bill was introduced to the Nashua River Watershed Association, when staff members of that organization visited his Trout Unlimited chapter. Bill says that as soon as he heard what the NRWA was all about, he instantly wanted to be involved. In fact, he went to the organization’s headquarters and started volunteering the very next week. I ask him what caused such a strong and immediate reaction. “It was the connection between supporting cold water fisheries, what they do in monitoring the water conditions, and my love of trout fishing, it just clicked.”
While Bill’s enthusiasm for trout fishing in general is undeniable, a passion for his local rivers runs the deepest. “There are really two great rivers, the Squannacook runs through Townsend and eventually into the Nashua River and the Nissitisset River, it runs through Pepperell and into the Nashua, they are both wonderful trout streams and they have some tributaries of their own that are great cold water fisheries as well. I would love to think that the water sampling that my good friend Art and I do for NRWA on a monthly basis will help contribute to an understanding of the Squannacook and also the Nissitisset and help to maintain them as trout streams for generations to come.”
Monthly water sampling excursions have increased his own understanding of the ecology of these rivers and what threatens them, Bill says. “There are some environmental influences that have been particularly apparent, last summer and this summer, with low water conditions and warm water…I’ve been able to see firsthand the impact of losing dissolved oxygen in the water. There are some wonderful reports that are published by NRWA over quite a long period of time, you can see variations in the dissolved oxygen level, in the water temperature, how it’s affected by rainfall, and there’s a very close correlation between rainfall and ambient temperatures and what the river conditions are.”
“It’s not just a local effect,” he adds. “I’ve been fortunate enough to go Atlantic salmon fishing up on the Miramichi River in New Brunswick. Been fishing there every year since 1972 and for the very first time in my memory, the Miramichi, due to higher water temperatures and low water conditions, has been closed to fishing entirely. There are salmon in the estuary, waiting to come upriver, but until the water level rises and the temperature drops, they’re not going to come up. It’s such a precious natural resource, wild Atlantic salmon. The sport fishermen, although disappointed that they’re not fishing, would rather see the resource preserved.”
In his home town, Bill believes that the Nashua River Watershed Association is having a significant impact on the area’s rivers and streams. Specifically, he says, is an enormous impact on the quality of the Nashua’s water. According to Bill, effluent from a local paper plant has in the past caused the river to run different colors over the course of the week, from red to blue to yellow or green. He credits the NRWA with getting that source of pollution cleaned up, saying, “The river has responded beautifully, there’s fabulous populations of largemouth bass, perch, a lot of water fowl in the river now, there’s osprey and eagles. It’s nice to be a part of that. I’d like to think that their efforts in monitoring these rivers will have a long term positive effect on maintaining those rivers as cold water resources.”
Bill’s efforts, along with his partner, Art, take place once a month when they go to the same precise spot along the river. He calls himself the “water boy,” the one who actually goes in the river, while Art fills out the standard forms. They execute a variety of tests which check for e. coli, water temperature, conductivity and dissolved oxygen. They arrive at the river in West Townsend at seven in the morning, after which they move to a second spot along the river close to Townsend center. After testing is completed, they take note of animal tracks, interesting vegetation, as well as the speed and clarity of the water.
Bill also remains involved with Trout Unlimited and Ducks Unlimited. He describes Trout Unlimited as a national organization with significant political influence working very effectively for the preservation and restoration of cold water streams. He says, “All of the local chapters are volunteers. One of the things that our local chapter, the Squannatisset, did was to build an access platform on the banks of the Squannacook for handicapped people who wanted to go fishing. We put in a ramp that is wheelchair accessible so people who are disabled can get down to the river and fish there if they choose to. Members of the chapter will also help to stock the river; state hatcheries will provide us with fish which we take in a canoe to the river in different spots, so they are not all just dumped in by a bridge.”
“Trout Unlimited and Ducks Unlimited, I’m not as actively involved with them as I have been in the past, particularly with Ducks Unlimited,” Bill adds. “I was very deeply involved in fundraising activities for them, sponsoring days for kids. We always had a weekend that we put on for kids to learn about water fowl and safe gun handling and have a chance to shoot some clay targets. With Trout Unlimited, I’ve done some fly tying instruction for youth groups and so forth. Just trying to see if there’s some interest in the kids that are in that age group, young kids, if they do have some interest in nature. I’ve been gratified that there really is an awareness of nature, at least in the very small sample that I’ve had a chance to work with.”
One aspect of these organizations that weighs heavily with Bill is that he has a personal connection to what they’re trying to achieve. “I have a fly rod that my wife’s grandfather had and he fished the Miramichi in New Brunswick. I had that fly rod restored and I caught a salmon on that fly rod and my son has caught a salmon on that fly rod in the Miramichi. It’s retired now until my grandsons are old enough to handle that rod and then perhaps there’ll be five generations that will have caught salmon on the Miramichi with that same fly rod. So I like to think that what these organizations are doing is helping to make available to future generations the same opportunities to experience nature that I have had and that my uncle and father and grandfather had as well.”
“I almost feel guilty about feeling so good about doing these things,” Bill says. “Kind of makes you wonder if there truly is something called altruism. Certainly you don’t get compensated for things like this financially, but I take such good feelings from it.” He adds that he is gratified by how many people in his circle of friends and acquaintances “truly appreciate being able to go for a hike through the woods, to go fishing, to have a stream or a pond that’s a natural water system that you can go swimming in…they appreciate the wildlife, and one of the interesting things that has happened over time is the changes that I’ve noticed in wildlife, and I really think it has a lot to do with environmental changes.”
Specifically, Bill mentions seeing many more ticks than when he was a kid as well as noticeable changes in the presence of wildlife. “Robins, bluebirds, always used to go south in the winter, now we have bluebirds and robins that are year-round residents, we have cardinals that are here year round. I never saw a cardinal as a kid growing up. If we were going to see a bear, you’d have to go to a zoo, now I have bears up in my back deck, there are probably more wildlife now than there has been in quite some time, so I’m encouraged at the way nature is so resilient despite all of the affronts that it’s had to endure over the years. It comes back.”
Volunteering has given Bill the opportunity to experience firsthand some of these environmental changes as well as how they impact the quality of water in streams and rivers. “One of the interesting things that I’ve seen as a water monitor over the years is that there was a dairy farm in Townsend that was upstream of where we do our monitoring and they used to spread the cow manure on the fields and fertilize them and so forth and whenever there was a rain and there was runoff into the river you’d see a big spike in e. coli. Since the farm has been gone, we don’t get those big spikes any longer.”
While he’s been observing those kinds of changes, he’s also become keenly aware of the direct impacts volunteer water quality monitors can have. “In towns such as Fitchburg, where there’s water monitoring done on the Nashua there, if they see there’s been an unusual impact, they’ll notify the water department and the department will investigate. It’s more than just building a baseline…it’s an early warning system.”