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Kevin Cullen

A rampage of rivers

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / August 30, 2011

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QUECHEE, Vt. - Joe Gillam was looking out the window of his third-floor condo on Main Street Sunday afternoon when he noticed something.

The Ottauquechee River was rising, and rising fast.

“I mean, it rained all day,’’ he was saying yesterday, holding a cup of coffee that was the envy of stunned villagers who walked past, surveying what Irene left behind and what she took with her. “But that river came up so fast.’’

It happened all over Vermont, which is synonymous with deep snow in the cold months and verdant beauty in the warm ones but not with hurricanes. Rivers that usually meander lazily like sleepy dogs rose like furious monsters, bursting their banks, sucking trees and picnic tables and anything not chained down into their churning waters.

For all the talk about what Irene would do to the East Coast, it was the backwoods and valleys of Vermont that took a disproportionate hit.

Upriver, near Woodstock, dozens of huge propane tanks used to heat houses went into the Ottauquechee, like depth charges. The tanks bobbed ominously, some of them spitting gas fumes loudly, like a steam locomotive. A bunch of tanks gathered at the bottom of the falls under the Quechee Covered Bridge, at the same spot where generations of kids landed in the eddy pool after jumping from the rope swing that dangles from one of the bridge’s girders.

Hunter Rieseburg, the town manager, said they had to clear the area Sunday afternoon because a thick cloud of gas had enveloped the bridge. They thought it might blow. But it wasn’t the gas that finally got the bridge. It was the water, the relentless, swollen river that pushed up against the bridge until the foundation of the road connecting it to Main Street just gave way.

Yesterday, villagers gathered at the ruined, iconic bridge, whispering, shaking their heads. One woman cried and another rubbed her back. It was like a wake. The real estate office on the corner, next to the bridge, was gutted, its wall lost to the river below.

The waters receded, but town officials are now worried about the adjacent mill that Simon Pearce, a renowned glassblower, renovated in 1981. Water filled the mill’s lower levels and the main retail floor, even as row after row of beautiful glassware sat untouched, unmoving and unmoved by all the drama. The mill’s restaurant hangs dramatically over the Ottauquechee. Now they worry it might fall into it.

The Quechee Green is anything but, its sweeping fields covered by mud. The Lakeland golf course is now more lake than land.

Two Massachusetts men, Aidan Browne, a lawyer from Sudbury, and John Fashjian from Framingham, were supposed to play for the Quechee Club championship on Sunday. Instead, Browne stood on the road above the course, pointing at the white flag on the first hole, barely above the water line.

“I birdied that hole yesterday,’’ Browne said wistfully, knowing it would be a long time before there will be any birdies on that green other than geese.

Joe Gillam is in charge of the golf carts at the Quechee Club, but he’s guessing he won’t have to worry about the carts for some time as he becomes part of the herculean effort to rebuild the course.

Like the rest of the villagers, Gillam was evacuated Sunday evening but was back in his place yesterday. He paid his respects to the late, lamented covered bridge.

Outsiders probably wouldn’t understand. It was like losing a friend.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeCullen.