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Restoring a waterfowl haven ravaged by nature

It began on Saturday, Aug. 8, when two inches of rain fell. Then on Sunday an equal amount came down during the afternoon. That was just a harbinger to the deluge that followed that night and Monday morning. Within a few hours well over six inches of additional rain poured down.

That was the narrative Milt Miner shared with me about the severe weather that beset northern Cattaraugus County and nearly destroyed the village of Gowanda in early August.

But Milt and Rosemary Miner, who have developed Rosemary's avocation into the Gooseneck Hill Waterfowl Farm, live 20 miles east of Gowanda in the Town of Ashford and they don't have Cattaraugus Creek to deal with. Surely they were safe.

Unfortunately, the Miners do have an unnamed tributary of Gooseneck Creek passing through their property. I saw the tiny trickle when I visited them two weeks later. I could easily step across it, but that little creek turned into a major force in response not only to that heavy rain but also to the water that accumulated upstream.

The torrent that resulted early Monday morning was so powerful that it rolled half-ton boulders out of place.

More importantly, the unstoppable wave front swept away a major section of the Miners' waterfowl pens, together with about a hundred of their valuable ducks and geese. How many of those birds were killed will never be known; many of the rest, having been hand-fed for their entire lives, will not be able to survive in the wild.

As soon as he could do so, Milt followed the creek downstream for a mile looking for birds. He found none.

When I first talked with Rosemary Miner shortly after the storm, she was clearly distraught and near tears. But by the time Abby Clement and I visited the sanctuary, things had clearly turned around for the couple.

When I arrived, Milt was trundling a wheelbarrow full of rocks to replace some of those lost. He told me that he had been doing this ever since the disaster happened. It was a wonder his arms hadn't stretched so long that his knuckles scraped ground. The tons of replacement rocks had been provided by Gernatt Stone and Gravel and County Line Stone.

I then met Jim Smolinski and Jim's daughter, Katie. Jim represents the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 17 Training Center. With him, six of his apprentices -- Wayne Risser, Mark Russell, Ray Parker, Kevin Elniski, Milt Pritchard and Kim Durham -- had been contributing their time and energies to the repair project. They brought to their task major earthmoving equipment provided by representatives of the Anderson Equipment Co.

Keith Schillo from Creative Fence is donating fencing and Fred Haier was there from WSPQ to give the project publicity.

After we looked at the work already completed, Smolinski outlined the major project he and his team would undertake next.

They would construct a dam and a 50-yard overflow channel that would prevent any recurrence of this episode. This will clearly be a major undertaking as it involves digging through a rock-strewn hill.

Dozens of others have also volunteered their help. Among them are Native Americans Gloria Warrior, Carmen Seneca, Zack Arnheim and Kyle Brundage of the Cattaraugus Reservation as well as a host of helpers for whom I don't have names. Many have been contributing to the Gowanda clean-up as well.

Fortunately, the main pool was not damaged and the sanctuary is already open to visitors on Sundays from 2 to 5 p.m. There you can see, among other species, nene, red-breasted and bar-headed geese, smews and tundra swans. For more information and directions see: The Miners plan a major celebration on next Sunday.

It is easy today to feel down as this country passes through difficult times. I came away from my visit to Gooseneck Hill encouraged about our future by the resilience, neighborliness and genuine humanitarianism I found there.


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