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"Fred" - Allan J. Ferguson

     One myth people perpetuate about the North Country claims things never change. Travelers from outside the region see sights and hear sounds they judge as outdated. Things do change in the North Country. Granted, the pace of change is slow. Our slowness to change explains why Hollywood costume departments still find buttoned shoes from 1914 and tie-dye shirts from the 1960’s on the shelves of general stores in this region. Who will blame the store owner? Style lasts a year or two at best. The aforesaid items may return to fashion someday, perhaps within the store owner’s lifetime. North Country change happens in increments of decades rather than months or years. Expatriates from the region recognize the changes quicker because they remember the sights and sounds of their youth, twenty, thirty and forty years earlier. Since the change is a sign of life, even small changes prove the region still lives.

     The North Country economy changed from a mix of farms and factories a generation ago. The tourist economy took over the region by the mid-1970’s. Summer jobs for high school and college students, became tourist-related work rather than the temporary mill jobs and farm work of a generation earlier. Working in the State Parks’ System introduced me to the parks between Robert Moses outside Massena to Southwicks near Henderson, from Higley Flow in the Adirondacks to Wellesley Island in the St. Lawrence River. I noted which parks I liked best and where I wanted to camp some day with my family. The park that won my heart was the park least likely in the Thousand Islands region to win even one star for its comforts and facilities. Burnham Point, a small park on the St. Lawrence near Cape Vincent, is tiny compared with the other state parks in the region. It has no sandy beach or life-guard protected swimming area. Most farms have more acreage than Burnham Point State Park. A postage stamp-sized playground can hold three or four children. It had no showers when I first saw the place in the 1970’s. Showers and the usual “campground amenities” were available at Cedar Point, four miles away. Campers from almost any point in the park could see the traffic drive by on Route 12E. The shortcomings were obvious to any tourist at first glance.

     What Burnham Point did offer was a cool breeze rolling off the St. Lawrence and a view of Carleton Island that says time passes with the current of the river. The Seaway shipping channel follows the far side of the island, so the river seems to flow slower and gentler than at Alexandria Bay and Clayton. Canoes and kayaks paddle across the waterfront, reinforcing the slow pace of time. Motor boats travel easily as fishermen try to hook bass and other fish. Two docks, partly for mooring boats, partly for standing on to cast fishing lines into the river, formed a sheltered area for any boats the campers brought. All things said, this was a place where a family could pitch a tent, relax, and get away from work. It was “wild” enough not to be in a city, yet “civilized” enough not to require ten years of scouting to survive a week in the outdoors. Weekday campers like us had the best experience. Fewer than ten or fifteen campers occupy the park from Monday to Thursday. Weekenders start arriving on Thursday evening, swelling the park to its capacity of forty-five to fifty campsites.

     A place like Burnham Point is an interesting example in North Country change. The commission added showers to the main bathroom building in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s. The wooden dock on the upriver side of the human-made bay shrank progressively. It was the casualty of rain, ice and decaying wood. The concrete dock ten yards down river stands all but immune from the winter, summer, and bird- guano insults coming its way. One must expect these signs of shrinking state budgets that limit care for a public campground. A symbol of the slow North Country rate of change shows itself as one looks across the river (and Canadian border) to Wolfe Island. A windmill farm provides electricity to the island, if not to the Ontario provincial grid. Allowing comparable windmills to the New York shore did not progress beyond discussion and lawn signs.

     Less obvious changes happened over the years. I taught my son to fish from the dock in this park. We landed sunfish and plenty of perch, some rock bass, and the occasional bass. The worms I bought in plastic containers always brought something to the end of our lines. Then came zebra mussels to the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence. The tiny invaders made the water clearer, and the fishing changed. Rarely did we catch a sunfish. Rock bass and perch still took the bait we threw. Bass still visited any child with a Scooby-Doo rod and worm on the hook as well as the adult angler armed with several trays of artificial bait and an array of rods, reels, and other tackle. Then came the round goby, another invasive species. It was a fish that seemed impossible to kill. I once watched one walk on its pectoral fins from the dock back to the water. The fishing catch thinned out after the gobies established themselves around Burnham’s two docks.

     Something not related to the species of fish in the water spoke of a change I had not anticipated. The generally quiet atmosphere of Burnham Point, or the presence of fish in the St. Lawrence, started to attract more birds to share the docks with the people fishing the river. One expects seagulls to flock near a state park. Mallard ducks and Canada geese are no surprise along the St. Lawrence River. The surprise at Burnham Point was a bird who is both majestic and prehistoric. The great blue heron stands about four feet tall on spindly tawny-orange legs. Its beak, described as “dagger-like,” can reach well into the water to bring up a fish, crayfish or other food. One great blue made the fishing docks at Burnham Point his place to hang out.

     The Burnham Point heron has returned the last three of four seasons. He has become relatively open to human companionship. Fred, as the campers named this bird, usually stands ten or twelve feet away from people casting their lines into the river. To watch Fred is to see nature’s glacially slower rate of change. The river breezes that make the park a pleasant retreat from city and village ruffle the wispy feathers on the bird’s head and breast like curls of fine crepe paper. It makes one ask if the archeopteryx, the ancient feathered dinosaur, had such plumage. The wispy feathers do nothing to make the bird more flight-worthy. If the eye is the window to the soul, a heron’s eye is the window to ages when dinosaurs did sprout feathers and glided from tree to ground. It does not blink and projects disdain for human accomplishment. Then there is the fact the heron is a bird. A heron’s takeoff to flight is slow, clumsy, the struggle of wing muscles and feathers laboring to raise a large body against the pull of gravity. The great blue heron is not an endangered species, but it is an inspiring creature to watch while fishing from a public dock. Fred’s arrival at Burnham Point may speak to a broadening of the bird’s habitat—or encroachment of its native habitat. If nothing else, it says this park must share wild and human activities.

     The secret to Fred’s sociability is symbiosis—the work of two unrelated creatures helping one another thrive. The heron revealed his strategy as he surveyed my skills during an hour of poor fishing. A rock bass finally bit my hook. I reeled it up to the dock. Rock bass in the St. Lawrence are as common as high school boys forming a garage band with the dream of being the next Beatles or Pearl Jam. It is totally natural. The fish was a good catch as far as rock bass go—about six or seven inches in diameter. Rock bass, like its relative the sunfish, is almost circular. On a whim I tossed the fish toward the heron. Fred lowered his beak to the dock, scooped up the fish, and swallowed it in one gulp. I saw a circular lump in Fred’s long neck. “Oh my God,” I thought, “the bird is going to choke on the fish! It was too big a fish for its throat.” The heron leaned over the dock, dipped its beak in the water, and swallowed a healthy volume of water. The lump in the bird’s throat moved down to its torso. I relaxed.

     Then Fred leaned over the dock again and dipped its long beak in the water. It raised its head. A ten-inch long fish was caught crosswise in its beak. The bird pointed its beak to the sky, opened wide, and swallowed the fish as if to say: “You spent an hour on this dock and all you had to show for it was a middling rock bass. I fish in ways you will never understand. Take that, human!”

     I looked at the heron and marveled. Part of me wanted to laugh. The other part of me reflected on this long-legged, wispy-feathered, ungainly bird. He is a finely-tuned creation that deserves respect and wonder. I never imagined Fred’s presence in the state park I first visited more than thirty years ago. Then again, I hope his appetite for fish will help restore the river to its proper balance. Fred eats round goby as well as rock bass and perch. I did not ask him if he also ate zebra mussels, but if he eats his share of one invasive species, perhaps the St. Lawrence will regain the variety of fish that once ruled the river. And if that is not the great blue heron’s place in life, he is still the silent conversation partner that reminds those who fish Burnham Point they are guests in a creation far older than the record of human activity on the upper waters of the St. Lawrence.