Sheltering During the Bison Stampede

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – It was Sunday afternoon of a three-day weekend thanks to the recognition, at last, of the North American indigenous, who’re taking over the place of honor once accorded an intrepid Italian sea captain who for centuries has been credited with “discovering” them. The weather was showery, drizzly, and chilly, but the urge had been growing since breakfast to get out and “do something.”

The obvious thing to do was drive around and look at leaves. The discussions and excitement of “peak foliage” had for several days been dominating the various media from Facebook to network news.

The excitement obviously had spread to half of the motorized world, which was here in force. We hadn’t yet forgotten last year’s optimistic plan to motor over Smugglers Notch during peeping season. Instead, we found traffic backed up onto the interstate for half a mile at the Stowe exit, and drove meekly home along the Winooski River on Route 2. Even a prairie dog knows enough to keep his head inside his hole during a bison stampede. So do we. We’d likely stay put.

But then came a note from my younger daughter: She and her husband were burning a pile of brush at their camp on Sabin Pond. Now, watching brush burn – or even pushing it around to make it burn better – is somewhere short of bullfighting for excitement. Plus, afterward you and your duds smell like smoked sausage. But it beats sitting around the house. And Route 14, the way to Sabin Pond, probably was not overcrowded with leaf-peepers. Off we went, with the windshield wipers set on Intermittent, up the stream that’s the north branch of the Winooski River.

The rain had indeed dampened the colors of the foliage on both sides of the highway, as well as the number of folks seeking the road less traveled by. Instead of the gaudy Picasso hues of, say, the cliffy sides of Lake Willoughby, these had the depth and darkness of old masters, enhanced by the incipient fog lurking in the treetops, waiting for the temperature to drop a few degrees so it could come out and play in the meadows and over the road. We drove at our own pace, with nobody to adjust to. It was all very pleasant and relaxing.

There’s something else about the North Branch valley that I suspect not many people see or interpret: sand banks on the hillside some fifty feet above the valley floor. Not only is the present river far too small to carve such a large valley; there’s no way it could have left those deposits so far up the hill. But ten to twenty thousand years ago, as the continental ice sheets were either retreating or rotting in place, this was a far different scene. Large lakes and connecting rivers filled these valleys, eventually disappearing as the earthen or ice dams that created them eroded or gave way, leaving the stranded sand deposits high and dry.

It was a land of Arctic creatures moving slowly north as their forage advanced. What a squawking of geese, swans, and ducks it must have been! I’d love to have been there to see it. No traffic, either; no leaves to peep at.

We stopped to visit with the kids, who were pushing one last pile of brush together. The thick gray smoke slowly thinned as the flames took hold. The building itself, thanks to a couple of years of hard work and imagination, is being transformed into a hillside palazzo on a pond.

It started to rain a bit harder. We left the brushfire and on a whim turned north toward Hardwick. We’d had a late breakfast and no lunch. A cup of coffee and a piece of pie sounded pretty nice. In a stroke of luck, there was an open handicapped parking spot almost right across from a very inviting and busy little restaurant with a beautiful neon “OPEN” sign in the window.

The Lamoille River flowed past below our table. The coffee was like a blood transfusion. But whimsy seemed the order of the afternoon. Instead of pumpkin pie with ice cream or whipped cream, I ordered Key Lime – in Hardwick, in October! My friend ordered onion rings, which I kind of scoffed at, till I was promised a share. The waitress was a senior at Hazen Union who’d just scored a full scholarship to UVM. Her happiness was infectious, which added a lot to ours as, back in the car, we made the big U-turn below the former Gazette office and headed home in the rain.