I hadn't stepped foot in Maine for almost ten years. A lot has changed since then. I no longer bust my back doing trail work, I'm married, I've got a great dog, I fly fish. I've been antsy to get back to the North Woods for awhile now, to check out some places that I used to go, to explore some new ones, and to catch some nice brookies and landlocked salmon. I love the wildness that still exists in Maine. After living out west and visiting most of the lower 48, I feel that Maine is the wildest state down here, Alaska light some might say. I could easily see myself making it my home one day. There's a lot of poetry to be written up along those cedar-lined banks.
After spending a few days on the coast, we took a rainy day and headed up to the West Branch of the Penobscot. The only way to get there is the Golden Road, a rough logging road that, if you get through without a flat tire or getting run down by a logging truck, you should count yourself lucky. It was pouring down rain when we got to camp, so we heated up some hot dogs on our stove and quickly crawled into bed to nap off the weather. It worked. By the time we woke up, the rain had broke. I took that first evening to explore the water right outside of camp.
I began fishing at the top of an eddy where a set of rapids came in, working the edges and the seams. The Penobscot is big water. Rafters use it all the time to send its Class 5 Rapids. I don't have much experience fishing water like this, so I took it small and fished the water right in front of me, trying to pick apart each current and little riffle. I eventually got into some nice wild brookies using a nymphing rig. While doing so, an old timer, Richard, came out to the river about 30 feet below me. He was throwing a big spoon in the rapid, but wasn't having any luck. With each fish I would land, we would just nod his head and give me a grunt. I took it as a good sign, like I was doing something right, something that he approved of. Eventually, I worked myself up to the top of the rapids and began nymphing a small eddy in the middle of two sets of pretty rough water. I landed my first landlocked salmon out of it, a small guy that took for me a wild ride. Landlocks are ferocious fish. They attack your fly and when hooked, will take you for runs up, down, and deep into the water. They'll jump a few feet out of the water, trying to shake that damn hook out. They're a blast. A large (at least for me) landlocked grabbed my hare's ear and took off down stream. I fought him for what seemed to be minutes (it wasn't), and eventually got him close to net. As I reached out to net him, I hear Richard yell, "Watch out for the eagle!" right as I come face to face with a large Bald Eagle swooping down, wings fully outstretched, talons out, trying to poach the salmon I'm about to land. Luckily, he misses by a few inches and flies away, down across the big eddy and perches himself at the top of a big pine, watching us for the rest of the night. It was enough to break the ice between Richard and I. We shared a good few minutes of amazed laughter and "Holy shits" before swapping stories about fishing and life in Maine. It was a great way to end my first night up in the North Woods.
After a few days on the West Branch, we took another rainy morning and headed southwest to Lily Bay State Park, situated on Moosehead Lake. We took the Golden Road all the way to Kokadjo. 38 miles in 2 hours. It got rougher the further out we got, so we went a steady 15 mph. It was a great drive, though a bit stressful at times due to the road conditions. We did see a moose along the way. The road turns to pavement in Kokadjo so we decided to stop in at the general store to get a cup of coffee. As I pulled up, I could smell bacon wafting out of the windows. We got inside and immediately decided to get a second breakfast. It was one of the best breakfasts we've ever head.
The Lower Magalloway is a beautiful tailwater just outside Rangeley, Maine. I only had a morning to fish, so I woke up wicked early and took a long hike to get into some good water. It was worth it. I was taking the skunk until I tied on a bugger with a nymph dropper and started stripping it up the banks of the river. I quickly got into some nice brookies and salmon. I worked my way downstream until I got to a really nice looking pool. I picked up a few more fish stripping the bugger and then, due to the time of the day, decided to throw on a nymph rig and see what I could pick up. I quickly got into some of the nicest, largest wild brook trout I've ever landed. They were all in the 12-14 inch range. The largest and last fish I pulled out of the pool was between 15 and 16 inches. Unfortunately he slipped out of the net before I could take a photo of him, But the old timer in hip boots on the other side of the pool gave me a thumbs up, so just ask him about it. I threw on a big stimulator and worked my way back to the car, picking up a handful of brookies and landlocks along the way. It was a great morning of fishing and I can't wait to go back.
We finished our trip with a few days in the White Mountains. After doing some hiking and checking out some falls, I fished some nice water in the National Forest. Using a 3 wt and a big stimulator, I was able to bring a few native brookies and some wild rainbows to hand. After fishing some really big water in Maine, fishing these wild mountain freestone streams was a nice way to clear the head and keep things simple. A good way to end the trip.
Note: I wrote this about ten years ago while working on the Baxter State Park Trail Crew and recently stumbled across it. I figured I'd throw it up here as an artifact and because it was from a pretty influential part of my life. Eventually it might be part of a longer piece about trail work and the amazing experiences it provided me. The BSP Crew was my first of three trail crews I signed on to after college. Looking back, I think I learned more from those three years of working in the woods, traveling the country, and sleeping in a tent than I had in college. Those experiences helped shape who I am today and I am forever thankful for them.
For eight days in a row I wake up, slide on my steel toe boots, drink two cups of coffee, slam down a heart-attack sandwich (bagel, thick slab of cheddar, double eggs, and as much bacon as possible) and head out the door towards Katahdin Stream Campground. From there, my crew and I hike up the Hunt Trail, also known as the Appalachian Trail, to work on the Stairway to Heaven. This project, a series of rock staircases starting right above Katahdin Stream Falls, ascends Katahdin for another mile or so towards the glorious peak, the finish, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.
Since 1991, the trail crews at Baxter State Park, along with many trail volunteers of all ages, have worked thousands of hours and dedicated buckets of sweat and grit quarrying, hauling, rolling and setting large pieces of granite into the Appalachian Trail. The rock set in the trail becomes an impermeable tread way surface, slowing the erosion of the trail caused by water and usage, creating a beautiful path up the mountain.
There are many steps involved in the process of building the Stairway to Heaven. Our crew splits the work up into different stations, which we rotate through during the week. Because of the size of the project, it works at its most efficient with at least 20 people involved. The Baxter State Park trail crew consists, on average, of 10-15 people, which means that volunteers are an integral part of this project.
The rock is first quarried down in the pit (the “pit” station), which is located in the ravine between Katadhin and Owl Mountains. In the pit, the granite is split into workable, step-size pieces. The larger pieces are drilled with a rock drill, and then split using feathers and wedges. These pieces are then wrapped with chain, hooked onto a snatch-block, which runs on a 500-foot piece of wire rope from one Grip Hoist to another, and lifted 80 feet into the air. Once the load is lifted to its highest point, the crew retrieves the load (the “hand crew” station), pulling it towards the landing zone alongside the Appalachian Trail.
The rigging system our crew uses consists of two grip hoists, one stationed on the side of Katahdin (the “Monster” station), and the other on the side of the Owl (the “Owl” station). These grip hoists, or winches, pull the wire rope tight to lift the load and slowly slacken the wire rope to lower the load. Once all the rock is brought to the work site, individual rocks are rolled down trail to pre-determined areas to be meticulously built into rock staircases.
Some days are long, especially when you’re stuck pulling in the load with your shoulders and arms burning from exhaustion. Some days go quick, wrapping the rock in chain, hooking it up to the system and watching it fly high above and once it’s in the clear, drilling or scoring another large rock. Harvesting and wrapping. Drilling and hammering. Rolling and setting. There is a rhythm, much like hiking, that you can allow yourself to step into.
The entire process, from harvesting rock out of the pit, to moving trail side, to building a staircase out of the material, takes countless hours of hard labor. However, all those hours add up into a beautiful path that, hopefully, will be there for as long as the mountain.
I love how music can take you back to specific moments in your life. Every time I hear this song I slip back into the first time I heard it taking a lonely drive from Millinocket back into Baxter State Park after doing my weekly laundry and making my weekly phone calls on the payphone downtown to friends and family back home or scattered about.
The drive was always bittersweet for I was blessed with a not-so-subtle landscape of Kathadin and its brothers & sisters captivating my eyes while simultaneously feeling subtle pangs of loneliness. Though, that feeling never ventured into disconnect for I worked hard at sending letters and making calls on my weekly visits back into town.
Oddly, whenever I look back at that particular time in my life - living out of my pack, traveling every six or so months to a new place that would most definitely be in the middle of nowhere due to the nature of trail work, finally learning how to cook since no one was going to cook for me - I feel like I was more connected to my family and friends than I've been since. My relationships were more deliberate - laying in my tent at night writing a letter instead of sluggishly scrolling through mindless chatter and meaningless memes, taking a trip to town to find the only pay phone and dialing those 20 numbers on my calling card hoping the entire time someone will actually pick and if not, opening my tattered "address book" to find someone else to call I hadn't talk to in awhile - and therefore kept me more connected to those in my life, even if they were thousands of miles away.
I guess sometimes the further away you are from people the closer you feel.
Random Note About the Song:
This is a quintessential "Maine" song for me. Probably because of the geographical location of the son, but more importantly also the length and cadence.... it's the perfect song to drive down seemingly endless dirt roads in thick forests where you can lose yourself in a beautiful story.
"What a way to ride... ah, what a way to go..."
Two poems that I should read every day, like prayers.
I met Wendell Berry once and was stunned by the sheer magnitude of his self. He read his poems like he was tilling this fields, with rough hands, a deep voice, and a plaid shirt and jeans. He hadn't shaved that morning; he read his poetry like he was working, like they were as much of a part of him as was his daily chores around the farm, like he had just come down from his bedroom and was sipping his coffee, looking out at the day through his kitchen window. He helped me realize that poetry should be a simple extension of your self, of what you do and what you are and how you breathe.
The Peace of Wild Things
BY WENDELL BERRY
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
I first heard this poem on NPR's A Prairie Home Companion on my little wind up radio, sitting in my cook cabin at Kidney Pond in Baxter State Park. I had just finished eating some home made pizza and was sipping a cold beer, staring out at Katahdin. Bly came on and read from his most recent book, Turkish Pears in August, with a violin accompaniment. "Wanting Sumptuous Heavens" has stuck with me ever since. I had been feeling pretty lonesome up there in Maine, wondering what was next, what I was doing, where everyone went. Then this poem came to me and I sat there, transfixed by his voice and the violin, by the pond reaching out to Katahdin, by the loons and the canoes, and was content. At times when I feel overwhelmed by life, when I feel like I'm being pulled into places I don't want to be in, I try to remember to recite this poem, to go back to that moment and to take a few deep breaths. Good prayers, these poems be.
Here is the link to the poems he read that day along with the audio file - http://prairiehome.publicradio.org/programs/2008/03/01/scripts/bly.shtml
Wanting Sumptuous Heavens
BY ROBERT BLY
No one grumbles among the oyster clans,
And lobsters play their bone guitars all summer.
Only we, with our opposable thumbs, want
Heaven to be, and God to come, again.
There is no end to our grumbling; we want
Comfortable earth and sumptuous Heaven.
But the heron standing on one leg in the bog
Drinks his dark rum all day, and is content.
"There was the kind of wind burned happiness that comes from accomplishing not much but a few fish out of good water; no real point to the day just spent beyond the simple fact of its new existence." - Allen Jones, "Big Water, Big Fish" from the Big Sky Reader
The past year or so has been an interesting one for my wife & I. We were set on something that would determine a lot about the next phase of our life. That something isn't so certain anymore (our mistake for thinking that it ever was), which has led us to re-examine what we want out of our lives together and what the future holds.
A few years ago, when we decided to settle in, we were anxious to homestead, to let our roots take hold and to become a part of a place. Our family was close by, our good jobs were within a short commuting distance, and we felt like we could live here for quite some time.
Now, we find ourselves possibly looking at packing up our things, hitching what we can onto our backs, and doing a bit of exploring. This exploring could start within a year, 3 years, or ten. We just don't know anymore, and we are getting OK with that. However, I want to be prepared to leave when/if we decide to.
I was lucky enough to spend my twenties pretty much living out of a pack, working for the Park Service and The SCA, traveling and camping, eating burritos for three meals a day, and changing jobs and locations every six months. It was awesome and probably the best education I've ever received. However, I always have a slight pang of regret when I think back on all the places I lived and worked and, here it is, how much fishing I missed out on. I just wasn't a fly fisherman back then. I had a fly rod, but the only fly I knew how to even slightly use was a wooly bugger. Colorado, California, Maine, brook trout, cutties, big rainbows and wild browns - I missed out on all of them because I was too busy with other things. I don't blame anyone or anything, fly fishing just wasn't in my blood like it is now.
Which brings me to why I've been fishing so much. If/when we decide to pack it up and move on, I want to be able to leave this place knowing I explored every blue squiggly line I found on a map. I want to be able to KNOW this place. By knowing a place, I mean understanding its contours, its folds and schisms, smells and taste, its winter breath and summer sweat.
Looking back over this past year, I can assuredly say that I'm well on my way to truly understanding this small section of Pennsylvania. I've found some beautiful stretches of water, some with well worn paths along them, others still brushed in with thick rhododendrons and deep plunge pools. I'm beginning to become a blue line junky, constantly pouring over maps and tracing the curves of each blue line I see, day dreaming about the trout that may hide below it's surface.
...& some final numbers for 2014.
"...Numbers add up to nothing..." - Neil Young
Estimated # of trout caught & released - 155 - a mixture of Rainbows, Browns, Brookies, Native, Wild, & Stocked.
Streams fished - 24 different streams, 3 different states (Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia)
Days fished - Approximately 50.
Months of the year fished/caught trout - 12
Headspace created - infinite
Here's a nice little ditty that took me fishing the other morning. "Walking' Down the Line" by Sean Hayes.
I first fell in love with trains after watching Stand by Me when I was a kid. It’s a story about a group of boys that decide to take an adventure in search of something. Their way out of town? The train tracks. These tracks lead them on a journey that shapes all their lives in very different ways. At the core of this journey is a sense of freedom that resonated with me. I would daydream about hitching a pack on my back and wandering through the secret crevices of America all the while creating deep bonds with my fellow travelers. From that point forward, trains symbolized the possibility of living a truly unique and inspired life. They symbolized an untaken path, an alternative way of traveling. Something different.
Eventually, the likes of Jack Kerouac, Johnny Cash, and Tom Waits came into my life. Waits’ gravelly, sandpaper scraped voice took my love for trains and created magnificent sculptures of freedom loving train jumpers and other-side-of-the-tracks poets waving poems around like trainmen’s lanterns lighting my way away from my small hometown into big cities and tall mountains. From boyhood dreams to adulthood meandering, the symbolism of trains has always found a way to seep into my world view.
I took all of the weighty connections trains have developed for me in my head and I went traveling on my own journey, searching and experiencing. I filled my backpack with all my camping gear, a few choice books (I’m pretty sure some Gary Snyder made its way in there), a journal, and some clothes and set off. For three years I stretched myself out across this country: Baxter State Park in northern Maine, up and down California, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, and plenty of places in between. It felt good to have everything I needed on my back, a home wherever I laid my head and lit a fire. I learned more in those three years of working in the woods than I did in my four years of college.
That journey eventually led me here, to Marietta, where my wife & I bought a house and settled in. The train comes through every few hours, just a few yards away from our front yard. I hear that train working in my garden, sitting at Shanks weaving tales with friends, eating dinner with my wife in our kitchen, and I can’t help but feel light and free every time I hear that rumble of steel on steel or the low call of the horn. I no longer feel the need to pack a sling and “walk those tracks” away from the place I live, but it’s nice to know that right out my front door somebody could and somebody will. I’ll look forward to hearing their stories.
Sketches & scatterings. Rooted in Pennsylvania along the Susquehanna River.