Letter from the President

In the fall 2006, Colin McCaffrey was elected President of the Friends. He shares his journey from observer to watershed advocate.

As I write this letter, snow is falling outside my home office window, nearly obscuring my view down the ravine into the valley of the Kingsbury branch. The evergreens are weighted down with clumps of white, but when the sun comes out tomorrow, the snow will be gone in an hour. With the impending thaw, I might have another week or less of snowshoeing on the river ice before it gets too shifty and treacherous. But in spite of the danger, I find far more animal tracks atop the ice than in the steep ravines on either side. The foxes, coyotes and wild turkeys all use the river as a major highway through the winter.

I have lived on this stretch of river since fall of 1994 when my wife and I moved to Cate Farm. One day that first winter I strapped on her grandfather’s old snowshoes and headed north into the Kingsbury valley. I kept along the river for the most part, though at times I had to traverse up deer paths that cut into the steep banks and wound through tall hemlocks and yellow birches. Each trail inevitably brought me back down the to the alder-thicketed edges of the Kingsbury. I came to a spot where every few hundred yards a ravine dives down from the east. I chose to ascend the third big ravine I came to, in part lured by the beautifully stepped ice floe that welled out at its base. In summer I discovered that this waterfall is some of the only bedrock to be found at the bottom of this glacial clay lakebed. I followed the ice floe up the ravine and then a hillside of tall red and sugar maples. I crested the hill, and - for the first time - I was standing at this very spot where I am now sitting. I remember very clearly thinking: “What a great place for a house!” Little did I know that 15 years later I’d be writing about that moment from the comfort of my new home.

Nearly every day for the past 15 years I have been on the river. When living at the Cate Farm my daughters learned how to swim and fish in the broad pool just south of the barn. We have caught, released, and eaten many beautiful trout. I’ve had the wits scared out of me by several enormous trout nearly taking a fly where I least expected any.

One day while wading upstream and casting dry flies at little rainbow trout, I discovered a freshwater mussel with my bare foot. It was the first live specimen I had ever seen. I pulled it out of the streambed to marvel at the pink “foot” slowly receding into a beautiful brown shell. As I placed the mussel with the slit of the shell facing upstream, I noticed a smaller one right next to it, and then another. Suddenly my visual cortex had grabbed onto the image of “mussel” and by the end of the afternoon I had discovered several large mollusk beds. These mussels seemed to like the rockier parts of the riverbed near the tail end of large pools. There the current was gentle but steady, and the streambed was more stable than at sandier stretches.

In a large river loop just south of the barn these mollusks seemed to flourish in three or four spots. These same spots were also my three favorite trout pools. I rarely found the mussels in silty or muddy parts of the river, though that didn’t mean they weren’t there. Once I learned to recognize them and their preferred habitat I became very protective of them.

Then one March day I woke to find the river had cut a new channel not more than 150 yards away from our swimming hole. This massive river shift removed overnight at least 10,000 cubic feet of earth and everything on it: trees, reeds, driftwood, and fern beds. It was humbling and scary to stand by the river and see a completely different channel. Sadly, the oxbow created by that shift contained those beds of mussels and beautiful trout pools. Although that loop has become an equally valuable habitat as it slowly transitions to a marshy wetland, I miss those pools and their denizens.

That year seemed to be a turning point for the river, or at least my perception of it. In the few miles of the river that I knew well, habitat for aquatic life had changed drastically, not just because of the channel jump either. Upstream for a good half-mile things had steadily deteriorated. Good trout habitat was disappearing. Huge stretches of riverbank collapsed into the channel every week. The pools grew shallower, the water warmer, and silt was everywhere. I worried for slightly selfish reasons: I love my trout. I started to look for information on riparian buffers, geomorphology, and general history of the river and its conditions. I knew I needed to understand the forces at work – even in the simplest terms - before I could begin to help change the situation.

I found the name “Friends of the Winooski” popped up more and more -like those freshwater mussels - in my searches for resources and information about the river. I finally contacted them, and eventually I was welcomed onto the board of directors. I was excited to become part of an active group whose main effort was to protect and restore our river. I admit to originally having grand visions of massively successful tree plantings, virtual Edens sprouting up along the river bank; me being carried on the shoulders of a host of pretty volunteers and lots of daisies and stuff; the reality was a little different. We were a small group and our resources were limited. Things take a long time to change, in the river’s case: decades or more. But as I slowly started to learn the acronyms, and got to know the people and other organizations involved, I grew far more invested and active. Little did I know then that I’d eventually be writing a letter as President of the Board.

Tremendous changes have taken place at Friends: I have seen the board nearly double in size, gaining expertise and resources. With the hiring of our new director Ann Smith, the organization has clarified its focus, strengthened its infrastructure and established a solid plan for growth and development. After years of successful partnership in river clean-up and celebratory events, Celebrate The Winooski! and Friends Of the Winooski have joined forces. With all the changes and improvements in the works, we have a good year ahead of us. Let’s hope the spring thaw comes gently, the mussels continue to find their footing, and that the river gains a few more friends.

Colin McCaffrey, Board President