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A Good Box of Dirt

September 11th, 2021 2 comments

We met them while we were out walking looking for birds near our rental.

It was January and it was cold – had been in the 30’s since we had arrived. I hadn’t figured this part of Georgia to be this cold even in the dead of winter.  We were on our way to Florida where it was much warmer. Believe me, the sun in Florida is a much deeper yellow – not this tepid light barely yellow that we were seeing here in the lowlands of Georgia.

We stopped for a week to visit with our daughter who lives just up the road a piece. She was coming down for a few days and we were idling a bit, waiting, and taking the opportunity to check out the birds at the two refuges nearby. All in all, it was a good place to stop, a small condo complex in an out-of-the-way place on a salt water marsh just about halfway between Savannah and Brunswick.

On this particular afternoon, it was sunny outside and a bit warmer so we decided to take a walk around the complex so headed up towards the fishing pier just to see if any birds were about that might be fishing in the creek. That’s where we saw them – up by a big pile of dirt over in the back corner of the lot.

She was 87, he was 95.  She was shoveling dirt from the dirt pile into a cardboard box sitting on the back of her golf cart. He was sitting in the cart watching her work.  

We walked on over and Jerry offered to shovel for her.  Without a thought, he reached for the shovel to take over the job for her.  Oh, my goodness, she pulled that shovel away like he was trying to snatch one of her grandbabies right out of her arms.  Jerry stepped back and stammered out an apology of sorts and looked at me like he really didn’t know what to do at this point.

She politely told him, she didn’t need any help, thank you anyway, explaining that this was her exercise and that a person needs projects like this to keep healthy especially as they are getting a bit older.

As we talked, she continued shoveling. We told them what we were doing there, and she told us why she was shoveling dirt into the box on the golf cart.  I had assumed she might be dressing out her flower beds around their condo but that was not it at all.

She also explained that he had a pulled shoulder and couldn’t shovel and that’s why he wasn’t helping. She really seemed to want to make sure that we knew that he was not just some no-account husband who would just sit watching his hard-driving wife do all the grunt work. It hadn’t crossed our minds to question his watching her seeing as she had told us right up front how old they were.

All in all, she was immaculate, all the while shoveling dirt.  She was just about four foot nothing and wearing neatly ironed jeans with knife sharp creases down the front and back. People rarely iron jeans anymore let along crease them like that front and back.

She had on a sweater set like a good Southern woman of her generation would wear (or, maybe any generation for that matter) – a print blouse with a nice pastel tropical print and a color matched sweater. Tropical but tasteful; you know, light yellow hibiscus rather than bright red ones. Her hair was beautiful – naturally white with soft curls framing her very well-made up face. One should always look one’s best when going out to work in the yard, I always say. (Okay, not really. I work outside in torn jeans and stained t-shirts.)

As noted above, I had assumed that she was getting that good dirt for her flower beds or, maybe to fill in a hole or two in the yard. She said no, that wasn’t it and, just to make sure we knew she wasn’t taking the dirt without permission, told us that the HOA folks brought the dirt in here, dumped it, and said that anyone could use it to fill up holes and all in the yard.

He laughed right out loud and said she wasn’t gonna be filling up any holes with that dirt. She was bound and determined to go building a ramp down to the creek from her back yard so she could get down to the creek to go fishing.

‘Need mind that she could ride her golf cart up to the pier – about ¼ mile all told from her doorstep – and go fishing in the creek anytime she felt the urge.

And, ‘need mind that the tide coming and going turned that stretch of water into a mud flat at least twice a day. 

And, ‘need mind that that same tide would wash away all her efforts at building a ramp just about those same times every day. It would explain why the bank was washed out in the first place.

But, never mind all that. She had a project to do. She had set her mind to it. And, she was determined to get it done. Pronto. No need to be messing around and jaw-boning all day about it.

Now, in my world, being who I am, I think I would just have run up to the big box store and bought one of those fancy pre-made concrete steps they make for mobile homes and such. I would have paid them an extra $35 and had them deliver the steps and plop them right down in place up next to the bank.  Project conceived; project done.

The box was about half full of dirt now (or still half empty depending on whether you’re an optimist or pessimist). I wondered how full she would go and who would be lifting that box off the back of the golf cart….being he is 95 and has that hurt shoulder and all. I didn’t dare suggest that we might follow them home and provide some bit of assistance.

He said she’d never catch any fish in that creek anyway. What fish were there came in with the tide and went out with it…..everyday. But I have to say, we knew there were fish in the creek because we’d seen the Hooded Mergansers and Great Egrets out there fishing. Okay, they were little fish…but they were fish, nonetheless.

She said she would too catch fish – she just knew it. How could anyone doubt her? She’d grown up fishing and I reckon she knew what she was doing.

We asked if she’d eat the fish that she caught. Well, of course, she would. Why would she ever go to all that trouble to catch a fish and then just throw it back? Why, that would be just crazy! Of course, she was gonna eat any fish she caught.

While we watched her work, he gave us the lowdown on other things. He said she’d lived there (at the condos) since her husband died about twelve years ago. She’d moved up from Darien down yonder to the south.  He said she’d had two properties and got tired of mowing and taking care of things at the big house where she’d lived with her husband and raised her babies. So, she was living up here now in a condo that was much smaller and easy to keep up.  

Her daughter lived just up the road – you could see her house from right there where we were standing. Looking out over the marsh to the southeast, he pointed out a blue house on the point where the creek curved its way out to the river.

The box was really getting full now. She was barely getting half a shovel of dirt each time she lifted so I knew she’d never lift that whole box of dirt off the cart. Maybe she would just tip it over dumping it into the yard and then work from there.

We asked how they’d met…they had both mentioned previous spouses that had died. She said – she had started doing most of the talking now – that they met in church. They had gone to the same church for years and had known each other only in passing when their respective spouses were alive. They had continued to sit in different parts of the church after they died and then, just like that, one day they started sitting together on the same side…he’d moved over to her side….and that was that. Make a long story short…. they became a couple.

Well, the box was full of dirt now and that ramp was waiting. They had to go. Nice to meet you fine folks. She plopped the shovel into the back of the golf cart, hopped onto the front seat and, with a last wave back in our direction, drove on off across the field.

Later, we spotted her working at the edge of the yard building her ramp. I wondered how long it would take for her to ramp up the four foot drop down to the water’s edge or how long before the incoming tide would wash it all away. It was a gonna be a crap shoot as to which thing happened first.

But a project is a project and you gotta keep at it or it ain’t ever gonna get done.

I was absolutely 100% sure that this was one woman that was gonna keep at it until she could take her fishing pole and march right down that new ramp to the creek and catch a fine big ole catfish just ready to be battered up and fried in the skillet with some hush puppies and cole slaw on the side. It’d make a fine meal for the two of them.

That was just how it was gonna be. I didn’t doubt it for one minute.

Inside Conowingo

October 14th, 2017 No comments

 

 The Susquehannock natives called the site Conowingo meaning “at the rapids”. Today, we (and quite a few other birders, nature enthusiasts, and photographers) think of it as the place with the dam where all the Bald Eagles come in winter to eat the remains of fish that don’t always make it through the big turbines alive. Well, I suppose fish do make it through…and I suppose also that some of the eagles (and herons and gulls and vultures) actually catch live fish when they are perusing the menu below the dam.

When the Philadelphia Power Company began construction of a new hydroelectric dam “at the rapids” on the Susquehanna River near the small town of Conowingo in 1926, I’m sure the intent wasn’t to provide such a magnificent winter feeding ground for the birds, but, as things happened, that is what developed…..along with a new continual source for about 500 Megawatts (MW) of electricity. (The hydroelectric plant is connected to the eastern portion of the continental electrical “grid” and how much is produced by Conowingo depends on how much is needed by the grid and the price per kilowatt on any given day.)

Building the dam had some negative effects too. And there is a website (www.conowingodam.org) that lists all of them in detail. The dam changed the seasonal water flow (although I have to add, it also stops flooding downstream). It blocks the spawning runs for shad, eel, herring, and a variety of other fish. And it has, of course, changed the aquatic habitat and altered the river’s natural ability to purge itself of the sediment that now remains trapped behind the dam.

Conowingo Dam from Fisherman’s Park

It took two years (amazing feat all by itself) to build the dam. It is 105 feet high by 4,648 feet long. The reservoir created on the Susquehanna River behind the dam is about 14 miles long and covers 9000 acres. Sadly, there are no more rapids “at the rapids” on this part of the river and the original town of Conowingo lies somewhere at the bottom of the lake. It happens.

We have visited the dam many times. I mean, really, it’s a no-brainer if you love birds and especially Bald Eagles; it is the place to go. And, on top of that, it is just about two hours away and great for a day trip up to see a few eagles, grab lunch somewhere, and head home before dark. Really, it is a perfect local birding spot. Even in summer when the eagles are scarce, there are always Vultures (but take care where you park because the big black birds have a taste for anything rubber that is attached to an automobile) and Cormorants and Gulls….plenty of gulls. I have read that, of the 170 species of birds recorded at or near the Dam, there are at least 11 species of gulls. And then there are the Herons…who doesn’t like to see a beautiful Great Blue Heron fishing along the river?

Lined up to get that perfect photograph….standing room only.

Just a quick note about the photographers: If you want to see thousands of dollars’ worth of “glass”, i.e., binoculars and super-sized zoom camera lens, just head up to Conowingo in December or January. Pick any Saturday – ah, just pick any day of the week – and you’ll see photographers and birders lined up along every inch of the rails and fence line along the river in Fisherman’s Park with their gear set up on expensive tri-pods (and some not so expensive ones) just waiting for that perfect eagle flying, fishing, fighting moment. And, trust me, they get the pictures.  A quick stop by the Visitor Center at the top of the dam and you can see amazing photographs taken right there below the dam.

So, we too have stood on the banks of the Susquehanna below the dam at Fisherman’s Park (did I mention fishermen love the place too….for obvious reasons?) in the chill of winter with me freezing my patookas off watching the eagles scuffle with each other over the fish they’ve caught (or fish parts they’ve retrieved) looking up at that dam and wondering if they ever let anyone go inside and take a look around the place.

Turns out they do. If you call on a specially designated day in August (got this info from the Visitor Center when I stopped in one afternoon for a potty break before heading home), you can sign up for a tour in September when they have the Conowingo Dam festival….which is not to be confused with the Eagle Days Festival they have later (or is it earlier?) in the year. This year, I called in and signed us up. So, one fine hot Saturday in September (the 23rd), we headed up US Route 1 north of Belair to the dam and waited for our turn inside.

View from inside the dam just between Turbine Hall and the gates.

Actually, I was quite excited at the prospect of getting inside the dam. I had always admired its industrial art deco type styling sitting there straddling the Susquehanna River.  You can tell from the outside that it is gonna be pretty cool inside too.

Still looking for a retirement job.

We donned hardhats and were issued ear plugs. There wasn’t any construction going on – we wore the hardhats because the fishermen outside were known to cast their lines out with heavy weights that sometimes broke off and came crashing through the windows in Turbine Hall. Just another hazard of working there, I suppose. The earplugs? Well, it was noisy with the turbines running.

Turbine Hall

Generator #1

Our tour guide led us into a side door and right into Turbine Hall which is pretty much as far in as they let us go. But that was okay although I really wanted to go down into the bowels of the place and see the twenty-seven (27) foot butterfly valves that were originally used to control the water flow through the turbines. Nowadays the water is controlled by something called wicket gates which do not sound nearly as impressive as humongous butterfly valves. But, alas, we did not get to go that far into the dam….guess we would have needed more than hardhats and earplugs for that.

One of the older turbines.

Going down under Turbine #2

We did get to see the big beautiful turbines in the aforementioned Turbine Hall of which there are eleven (11). Although the dam was built to accommodate eleven (11) turbines, only seven (7) were installed when the dam was completed in 1928. The last four (4) higher capacity turbines were added in 1978. Each of the new turbines drives a 65 Megawatt (MW) generator increasing the dam output to about 548 MW. The original seven turbines produced about 252 MW. In total, the plant at Conowingo adds about 1.6 billion Kilowatt (KW) hours to the grid.

East Fish Lift

We also got a look at the two fish lifts that have been added to the dam to attempt to accommodate the spawning of the shad, herring, eels, etc. The east lift is very large and essentially a large elevator. The fish swim into the bottom and then the lift is raised the 100 feet to the top of the dam where the fish are released. This lift was at the top when we visited; I did not climb all the steps up to the top to see if there were fish inside when we visited although it is not the season so I expect the lift was empty.

The west lift is much smaller and apparently used by scientists to monitor the shad, count them during spawning season, and sometimes to collect the fish and transport them to creeks and tributaries up river which could be a daunting task considering the Susquehanna runs for 464 miles from Cooperstown, New York (yep, the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame) to the Chesapeake Bay at Havre de Grace, Maryland.

Our guide did tell us a bit of a tall tale about the fish coming through the turbines and then swimming over to the lift so that they could go shooting down through the turbine again….swirling around like on a roller coaster….but I think he was pulling my leg….I really do.

Susquehanna comes from a Len’api word – Sisa’we’hak’hanna – which means Oyster River or “river with the oyster beds” which probably works better for the end of the river at the Chesapeake Bay rather than the beginning up at Cooperstown. There are some who say the river still runs under the Bay and all the way to the Atlantic Ocean at Virginia Beach, Virginia. That makes sense as the Chesapeake is basically a relatively shallow estuary with the deep parts running right through the middle, i.e., the river.  The Susquehanna is the longest river on the east coast of the US draining just about 27,000 square miles….so that accounts for quite a few tributaries to transport those shad to during spawning season.

Dam with several gates open.

With all that water, you’re gonna need quite a dam. Conowingo Dam includes fifty (50) crest gates to control water flow from the reservoir. Less than ten (10) are open to the lower river at any given time – generally. But the dam is also used for flood control so that, as the water level rises in the upper river and reservoir, more gates are opened to the lower river and the Chesapeake Bay. The flood control gates are operated by overhead cranes that basically are hooked up to a gate at the top and then the gates are raised and lowered to allow water to escape the reservoir.

Crane used for lifting and lowering flood gates. It would be operated from above the gates.

Overhead cranes.

All fifty (50) gates have rarely been needed. The last time all the gates were opened was June 19-24, 1972 after Hurricane Agnes. The water levels were so high and the water pressure so great on the dam that explosive charges were laid on the eastern side of the dam as a precautionary measure. Fortunately, with all gates open, the water levels receded to a safer level and they did not have to destroy the dam. On the other hand, with all the gates open, Port Deposit just down river was totally flooded out…all that sediment and mud just washed right into the little town and pretty much buried it in muck. But the people who lived there had been evacuated in time so came back home and went to work. The town did recover.  After all, in the past couple hundred years, Port Deposit had seen quite a few floods and, worse, ice flows being located so close to the Susquehanna. Nowadays, anytime the gates are opened, the operators at Conowingo have to give due notice to the officials at Port Deposit to allow time for evacuation if necessary.

Today the dam is owned and operated by Exelon Power Corporation and is one of the largest non-Federally owned dams in the United States.  Just shy of ninety (90) years old, it is not certain what the future holds for the dam. There are some who say the power being generated is not needed so much and the river should be returned to its original state allowing nature once again to take its course. Part of me agrees – take it down and let the river flow again “at the rapids”; but another part of me thinks it would be a shame to destroy the beautiful old dam. In the meantime, the eagles and cormorants and gulls and vultures and herons will come in winter to hunt and fish and fight. And, as long as they do, the birders and photographers will also show up to stand in the cold and watch the spectacle unfold.

Sources for Factual Information:

  1. Wikipedia Conowingo Dam – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conowingo_
  2. Conowingo Dam – http://www.conowingodam.org/issues/river-dam/
  3. Wildlife South Conowingo – http://wildlifesouth.com/Locations/Maryland/Conowingo_Dam.html
  4. Exelon Conowingo Dam – http://www.exeloncorp.com/locations/power-plants/conowingo-hydroelectric-generating-station
  5. Harford County Bird Club – Conowingo Dam – http://www.harfordbirdclub.org/conowingo.html
  6. Conowingo, Maryland – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conowingo,_Maryland
  7. Susquehanna River – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susquehanna_River
  8. For great information on visiting Conowingo, Emily Mitchell‘s blog/visitor guide: https://bellaremyphotography.com/2012/12/09/a-visitors-guide-to-the-bald-eagles-at-conowingo-dam/
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