John Harrigan: A lesson about salmon, and a word about dogs

JOHN HARRIGAN January 12. 2013 9:06PM

Some readers of this column don't see the other piece that I write each week, "North Country Notebook," for Colebrook's News and Sentinel and the 11 newspapers in the Meredith-based Salmon Press group that cover roughly the northern two-thirds of the state. Normally, the two columns are completely different, but once in a while one spawns the other, which is a pathetic, unintentional (yet craven) pun, because the subject is salmon.

Most schoolchildren learn at least a little bit about the huge numbers of salmon and shad that once ran up our two major rivers, the Connecticut and the Merrimack, during the spring freshet to seek out their ancestral waters and begin a new generation. Anyone who reads history can take this a whole lot further and delve into a long list of literature on facts and speculation about what life was like back when these great fish could run from the high country to the sea and back, unimpeded by the dams that eventually spelled their doom.

Members of the various tribes of the Abenaki gathered at narrow, fast-water places in the rivers to fish for salmon and shad during their spring run. Amoskeag falls in Manchester is the best known of these sites, although there are several others. Today's students, and their parents, can enjoy a wonderful learning experience on this, which we didn't have in my day, which is a visit to the fish ladder constructed around the falls as a cooperative venture between Public Service of New Hampshire and Fish and Game. Visitors can look through a glass wall to see fish using the water-filled stairway around the falls, which once in a while - not nearly as often as everyone first hoped - includes Atlantic salmon.

Anyway, while refreshing my research on this, I came upon a paper I hadn't seen, which seemed to throw cold water on the assumption that salmon and shad were all that big a part of the Indians' lives, or whether they even belonged here. This is "The (in)Significance of Atlantic Salmon," by Catherine Carlson, a professor of archaeology at University College of the Cariboo at Kamloops, British Columbia. And the key point she raises is that in no middens (essentially, Abenaki dumps) have any salmon bones been found. This flies in the face of accounts that the salmon runs were so huge at the advent of Colonial times that indentured servants had it written into their contracts that they could be fed salmon no more than once or twice a week, and indicates that salmon got here only as recently as the Little Ice Age (1550-1800), and began disappearing not because of dams, but global re-warming. The Penobscot in Maine, she writes, is a good example of a watershed where there were plenty of dams and pollution, but the salmon hung on because it's colder there, and still do.

Now, this made me sit up and take notice, and I've been mulling it over ever since. Indians and settlers both caught anadromous fish as one means of subsistence, as is well documented. But why the paucity of bones? Right from the start I thought about the region's highly acidic soils, often cited as the reason why so few of the Indians' implements, mainly "soft" items like baskets and spears, have survived the ages. Fish bones are pretty soft as bones go, and, I'd think, would be faster to decay.

Then, too, let's think about what the people were doing with these fish. For the most part, they were splitting and laying them out, bones-in, on wooden racks to dry, the easiest way a huge surge of protein could be processed and packaged for the trail. The bones eventually hit the ground, for sure, but all over the confederation.

And here we get into the subject of dogs, a topic little visited when it comes to Indians. Based on unscientific but rich experience, I'd give a fish bone hitting the deck a half-life of a nanosecond.

This makes me think (again) about another thing concerning dogs, which is that they bark. I think about this every time I see a scene in a movie in which the good guys (I guess that would be us) are sneaking up on a sleeping Indian village, ready to attack to either (a) avenge some sort of depredation, or (b) break another treaty so they can steal more land. You might hear crickets in the silence of the stalk, but where are the dogs in all this? My dogs have always barked at even the distant rumble of a snowplow, to let me know in that fond fog that lulls us into thinking that dogs are all about us instead of food, that there's some kind of monster out there. Dogs can hear 10 times better than we can, and their noses are fine enough to track down criminals and, for all I know, space aliens.

This is where I get to digress to the subject of Rogers' Rangers. Which brings me (readers have been wondering about this) to the point.

Here we have, back in 1759, Robert Rogers and his Rangers - tough, highly trained, expert woodsmen all, the forerunners of today's Green Berets (this part is true, and they are still using Rogers' orders of march) - belly-crawling up to a whole passel of sleeping Indians on the south side of the St. Lawrence for a predawn strike.

Fat chance, I always think whenever I see or envision this scene. Every dog in the village would have been on high alert, barking and bellowing the alarm. Anyone knows you can't sneak up on a dog, so where were the dogs when the St. Francis Indians needed them?

Unless, of course, they'd eaten them.

John Harrigan's column appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. His address is Box 39, Colebrook 03576. Email him at

John Harrigan

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