In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at www.maplecornermedia.com/inthisstate. Andrew Nemethy is a veteran journalist and writer from Calais. He can be reached at [email protected]
Jeremy Whalen saw 70,000 of his babies vanish last year in the span of a few hours.
Tom Wiggins saw an unexpected and unpleasant ending to 27 years of work for the state.
The two men are human bookends to one of Tropical Storm Irene’s more unusual chapters: the day when Irene turned the cold nurturing source of tiny Flint Brook into a broad rumbling beast of muddy water, gravel and boulders.
It devoured the sweetly manicured lawns and five ponds at the Roxbury Fish Hatchery, a historic site that had stood for 121 years as Vermont’s first to rear fish. It swept aside and heaved up massive concrete spillways that had withstood decades of storms.
And it swept downstream most of the state’s 2012 crop of iconic native brook trout, whose spotted sides, lovely pale orange flesh and cold-water habitat typify the best of Vermont angling.
It was a fish story that bested the wildest tall tale.
Last week, in a moment of hope and some closure for two men who keenly feel their responsibilities in Vermont’s fisheries, the state asked for bids to rebuild the Roxbury Hatchery, which is located in a narrow valley along Route 12A about 17 miles south of Montpelier. If all goes according to plan, a restructured and redesigned, flood-protected and handicapped-accessible hatchery with sophisticated new water-treatment equipment will be ready on the seven-acre site by December of 2013.
For Whalen and Wiggins, the day Irene struck, Aug. 28, won’t soon be forgotten.
Wiggin, Vermont’s fish culture operations chief, remembers the day because in just hours he experienced a huge setback to his life’s work of building and maintaining the state’s five fisheries and upgrading their science and technology. Planning to retire this May, he has now found his last act is a fevered effort to set in motion a restoration of the Roxbury site and its scenic fish-rearing ponds.
Whalen, the Roxbury supervisor and a fish culture specialist, will long recall that day as a narrow escape. He was paying close attention to the thrumming rain because of a past history of minor floods. With water rising, he decided wisely to close up shop, getting out just before tumbling Flint Brook, swollen by 3.5 inches of intense rain, overshot a dam and cut a new channel that roared past houses, hit railroad tracks and turned south to rush right through the lush green lawns and meandering pools swarming with trout.
“I was expecting it to be wiped out,” says Whalen, recalling how he returned by a circuitous ridge road the next day to see what had happened. “But it was beyond what I imagined.”
The white clapboard main structure housing the fish fry was barely damaged, thanks to the lay of the land and a sturdy concrete foundation. But the grounds, the rearing ponds and a long concrete raceway that housed up to 85,000 brook and rainbow trout, remain today as the storm had left them, looking like a barren bouldered stream bed. A planting of plastic flowers has been incongruously sunk in the gravel, serving up some levity to brighten the devastation, Whalen says.
To this day, eight months after Irene, he is still pained talking about it.
“You put your heart and soul into doing this,” he says lowering his head, topped by a green Fish and Wildlife Department ball cap. “It does hurt,” he says.
At another point, walking around the grounds, he says, ”For me, it’s tough to see it like this every day.”
He can also joke, however, about the fact that those 70,000 fish, which were up to seven inches long, may make for some good fishing downstream this spring where Flint Brook drains into the Third Branch of the White River. He also suspects there are some fat and happy heron, otter and other creatures out there who got a dietary windfall.
“The Third Branch got pretty well stocked last year,” he jokes.
About 10,000 of his fish kids were salvaged after Irene and re-stocked around the state last fall because there was no place in Roxbury to house them.
Both Whalen and Wiggin point out that Roxbury faced floods in 1998 and 2006, but they were nothing like last summer’s.
“Our buildings took the flood pretty well,” says Wiggin, but the total devastation of the outside rearing units and grounds made it clear that the state needs to come up with a new design.
“It breaks your heart to see what happened to the old facility, but it’s like having an antique car and having to depend on it,” says Wiggin.
On a day in early April, Flint Brook is a lovely cascade of clear water that seems impossibly small to pose much threat. But the brook, which funnels down off the 2,500 hundred-foot ridgeline of the Northfield Range, drains a large watershed high up as it provides cold water for the trout, Whalen explains. An intake pipe at a small dam brings water to the hatchery, supplemented by well water, but the dam channels the rest of the brook off at a problematic sharp right angle. When rain is torrential, the dam simply isn’t up to the task of diverting the water and gets overtopped.
Irene went a step further, and the water just plain wiped out the dam.
“It just came down that mountain, and nothing was going to stop it,” Wiggin says. A temporary stone embankment has replaced the dam, restoring the direction of the flow until a solution is devised.
While Wiggin says the damage was disheartening, he calls it an “opportunity” to bring Roxbury into the 21st century. The technology and science of fish rearing has changed substantially, he says, from the feed that the fish eat to the need to treat the water they live in (not unlike how sewage effluent is treated) and to upgrade efforts to prevent diseases from infecting hatchery-raised fish.
“There’s a lot to it,” he explains.
Some of the repair costs, which he estimates will be $1 million or more, will be picked up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and will include improvements to make the site handicapped-accessible with walkways and viewing platforms. The new outdoor complex will include netting to reduce predation, which can gobble up 15 percent to 20 percent of the fish.
For now, Whalen and his staff of two are working on a tall stack of shallow trays where water cascades through as they raise tiny salmon fry still with egg sacks, stocking some brookies raised at the federal hatchery in Pittsford, and tending to the small rainbow and brook trout that they are rearing inside in long concrete troughs. The air smells slightly fishy in the cool, rectangular one-story building, but it’s an environment Whalen appreciates.
“I love it,” he says of his job. And he still misses all the piscine children he raised who vanished in one sweep of nature’s violent hand.
“You feel part of it; you consider it like a farm where you’re raising livestock,” he says. “Then they’re gone.”