Yesterday I drove up switchbacks
through the Tuscarora Mountains
- these that create a a few fertile valleys in central Pennsylvania-
to a small stream with native brook trout and wild brown trout.
Most people wouldn't consider driving
this far just to fish a small stream.
Destinations are different
for those of us who like to spend
their days in large swaths of public forests
on water with wild trout
and no people.
It was still cold in the morning,
April has been a long March,
and a black woolly bugger jigged
through the deep pools
worked until noon.
The sun stretched itself out over the valley
by early afternoon.
Bugs - caddis, midges, a few black stoneflies -
little puffs of bug smoke
in the warm spots.
There was a pool that,
with every cast of my caddis,
a trout would strike it.
This, that little ten foot pool
and those hungry fish,
is always worth the drive.
I love driving down dirt rods. The ones that go through public lands and arch their way around mountains and into ravines. That follow streams up into their headwaters.
The road splits when a tributary enters, where the mountains fold into each other and you have a choice. Right, Left. I'll pull off when there's space and search the water for wild trout. I fill my days with their dirt and their mysterious bends as much as possible.
That plunge pool is at least fifteen feet deep. I was hoping to see some brown trout rising, but the water this far north is still cold, still in its early spring mode. No bugs to be seen, still ice in the north side hollows.
This bend mirrored the roads I drove around this weekend. Long slices of rock curving, cutting deep into the dirt, hiding dark runs still waking up from winter.
Shade mountain, Jacks Mountain, Penn's Creek.
A Bobcat in the rear view mirror
with still a few gulps of coffee left in the parking lot.
I got pissed at the big water by noon.
A morning of slight takes and spitting flies
ended with two dudes dropping into the middle of the run I was fishing.
I cut up the bank, crossed into the meadow and threw some hoppers.
It was lunch, I was hungry.
I had eaten my last granola bar an hour ago.
I walked back to my truck and drove up the mountain
until I found a pull off
and the stream winding itself out and away
into the rhododendron and mountain laurel.
I took one fly and my 6'10" rod.
Hiked into the woods
following the only path the water cut.
A few deep plunges,
some shallow riffles,
a cut bank that bled
into a hill of ferns,
some small brook trout
and I was fishing.
Eventually I reached the road,
walked back to my truck and off to find lunch.
“No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength” - Kerouac
The saddle between the Lower Devil and Upper Devil peak is a narrow lull filled with old-growth douglas fir that survived the last fire and whirly, hardy Manzanita spread over the scarred landscape in the Siskiyou Mountains of Northern California. At 23 years old, I had finally grown a thick, unwieldy beard that protected me from the cold lashes of the wind as I set my tent up under an ancient fir. It seems I had grown so introspective that I began to forget to shave, or at least didn’t care so much how I looked or smelled anymore deep in the backcountry. Thousands of miles from home, I thought I had become as isolated as possible. Then, the snow began.
It was the fourth morning of our 10 day hitch when I gently woke up to the softness of snow gathering on the blue nylon of my tent. The first three days consisted of wind, cold rain, more wind, and half baked bread for lunch, dinner and breakfast. During the first three months of our trail crew, we had traveled up the spine of the Pacific Crest Trail from the San Jacintos up into the Siskiyous clearing brush, building waterbars, chewing beef jerky, and cutting out fallen trees. Our last hitch of the northern section of the state before heading back to the desert, we knew the weather risks involved in being up this high this late in the season. We were fighting our misery with a Halloween party, 8,000 feet up in the mountains and miles away from the nearest town. Late October is unpredictable, so we held onto the traditions we knew best; Halloween, fires, morning wake-up songs, hot tea. Anything to keep us feeling connected to the valley.
The night before the snow, like a tattered postcard from some old friend making its way to a post office box on some random route numbered road, an asteroid streaked above our fire, so close that we thought it was a flare. We quickly gathered and hiked to the tip of the saddle to look over the valley to make sure there weren’t any forest fires started. All we saw were the intermittent lights of cars lolling down the back roads whenever they came through a break in the trees – a small reminder of what was still down there. It seemed like we all took a collective deep breath rimmed with gladness for no fire and a yearning for the lost contact with the ball of flame, and slowly made our way back to our tents, in for the night.
I woke up to find a landscape of blinding white where there had been dry browns, deep blood reds, and coniferous greens. Snow fell into my tent when I opened the fly, wetting my already frozen boots. I was mesmerized. Slowly, the rest of my crew started to wake. Most would simply pop their heads out of their tents, take a quick look, and go back into their tents. A few came out to join me: Matt, Tom, Willie, and Prana. We gathered under a douglas fir acting as an umbrella, keeping us out of the snowfall, and quickly came to a consensus.
We decided that if we were to survive this snow, we needed to get back to the basics, back to what we all knew comforted us; we needed heat. We went to work tying a big tarp to four trees. This gave us the cover we were going to need for the fire. It was still snowing as we scattered to try and find any sort of dried wood. Next, we scavenged gasoline out of our chainsaws, slowly pouring it into tin cans as if we were homesteaders pouring bacon grease out of a cast iron skillet, keeping it for next season. We built up all the dried wood we could find around the can and threw a match in. We came to life just as the fire did, whooping and hollering like we had just reached salvation – Hallelujah! We clinked our mugs full of hot tea and did a little dance in the snow, trampling down the few bits of Manzanita left around us.
The four of us stood around the fire all day while the snow blew in from the west, crisscrossing the mountains and covering our saddle. Every once in awhile, we’d make it out to the edge of our camp to have a look across the valley, but we couldn’t tell what was snow and what were clouds. We were socked in.
Having gone through a whole pound of powdered cocoa and two boxes of tea, we resorted to simply sipping hot water. We huddled around each other, shoulder to shoulder, lifting one leg, then another, rubbing our hands together, anything to keep warm. Later in the day, we finally got a call from Bill Roberts, the Forest Service packer that was our only connection to the outside world. He was coming up with a team of mules to start packing us out and to bring up some hot food. Our isolation, unlike the snow, was beginning to melt.
After he arrived and we all had a nice dinner of hot beans and rice, we packed up the gear we didn’t need and I took up with Bill back down the mountain. We’d be up the next morning to get the rest of the crew and the rest of our gear. I rode down from the Devil’s on the back of good old Patsy Cline. As she lumbered from one step to the next and we descended through the snow and the three or four lambent lights that made up Seiad Valley came into view, I felt a warmness seep in through the four cold layers I had on. Maybe it was riding on the back of an old mule, or the thousands of feet of change in elevation, but mostly I think it was a sense of coming into a place where I knew I could get a hot breakfast and make a call or send out a postcard if I wanted – and for the first time in a few months, I decided to trim back some of my beard.
Note: a lot of these photos were taken by my fellow PCT crew members. Apologies for not knowing who specifically since it was so long ago. If you see one of your photos, I'll gladly add credit. Thanks!
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..."
Ah, a week later, and I'm slowly falling back into the "home for the summer" routine - waking up, drinking coffee, riding down the bike path to Shock's Mill Bridge, reading on the porch, and planning my next fishing journey. I've also had a bit of time to reflect back on our Vermont/New Hampshire road trip we just got back from. First off, we absolutely fell in love with Vermont. The greenness, the mountains, the vibe, the water, Everywhere we went, there was water and there were inevitably people enjoying it - fishing, rafting, swimming. It was great to see. We will be going back there, maybe for a long while some day. Montpelier was especially awesome.
The first piece of water I fished was the West River, which ran right next to our campsite in Jamaica State Park (great place to put up a tent, by the way). It's large water and would probably be great in the spring right after a stocking. However, it was more of a Warm Water Fishery during the time I was there. I got a lead on a small brook outside of Jamaica that I got to check out one evening. Big boulders, gravel, black bears. Great stretch of stream that put me on some beautiful Vermont natives. Jess & I also hiked up to Hamilton Falls one afternoon. I decided to take my glass 3 weight and got into a few small brookies right below the falls. This is how we do vacation - find a great little hike that takes us to a good place to sit and I meander down the stream fly fishing while Jess sits and water colors. It's a good life.
Rock Art Along the Trail
Eventually we made our way up to northern Vermont to a cottage we rented along the North Branch of the Lamoille. I got to stop in at Green Mountain Troutfitters for some intel and flies. A perfect fly shop - nice folks, willing to help, and even to laugh when I said LAMWHAA instead of LamOIL (not Frenchy...). We really dug that area - vibrant small towns, beautiful meadows that roll right up into mountains. The streams are different up there than the brooks I was fishing in the southern part of the state. Giant, round boulders giving into really fine gravel. As the gradient increased, so did the amount of random "potholes" formed in the swirling water. I got lucky and landed some wild rainbows on a yellow stimulator and rolled some nice browns with a crazy looking bugger that I picked up at fly shop.
We ended our trip with a few days in the White Mountains. Probably the closest to feeling like I was "out west" anywhere on the east coast - dramatic mountains and alpine lakes strewn throughout. Cool place, but way too touristy for our liking. I'm glad we saw it, glad I fished it and landed some beautiful natives, but it's not on our list to get back to anytime soon. It's a fine line between preservation and exploitation. It's hard for me to enjoy a place of natural beauty when everything is monetized - want to go see this cool flume? gotta fork over 15 bucks. Oh, you'd like to canoe on this lake? 20 bucks an hour. It's great to see these places "preserved", but sometimes I can't help but feel like they are being "loved to death", or in the case of the Whites, bastardized by economics.
One last thing - I think Jess & I are finally figuring out how to vacation. One of the highlights - the first night we got to Vermont it was raining. We set up our tent and canopy and sat in our gravity chairs (the ones Jess made us buy and which are amazing) and just listened to the rain hit the top for hours. That's vacation. We did miss Whitman and his stupid little face, which is why we are on the hunt for a small fiberglass trailer...
And because I've been listening to way too much Dead this summer (sorry Jess), here is a great "Eyes of the World" (gotta love that Lesh bass). Watch out for that dude with the fire.
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.
Whitman & I looking out over the West Virginian mountains from Spruce Knob.
We just got back from our short trip down to West Virginia. Man, what a beautiful place. We stayed in a nice cabin along the Glady Fork. Unfortunately, it didn't really hold any trout, but it was still idyllic. Only 5 hours outside of Marietta and we felt like we were out west or up in the North Woods.
Because of the length of the trip, I didn't get to do as much fishing as I wanted to. The only stream I got to fish was Seneca Creek - a really nice brookie (and wild 'bow) stream. We hiked down from the Witmer Road side. The water was really low so I ended up spooking more fish than I caught (and my dog Whitman kept running into holes). I did manage to land a few, all on little hare's ears nymphs. The hike itself was beautiful. The trail use to be a road, long ago. Over the years, its reverted back into a nice walking path.
A native West Virginian.
Seneca Creek Geology.
We were continually impressed with the shear beauty of the place and the varying ecosystems we encountered. The above photo is of Dolly Sods Wilderness. Right after this photo was taken, clouds started to pour in over the mountain and the trees become dimmer and a dew started to collect on our clothes. I hadn't felt like that since I lived in Maine and I would take naps on the side of Katahdin during our lunch break.
This is the view from the Spruce Knob overlook. Spruce Knob is the highest point in West Virginia sitting at 4863 Ft. It's an easy drive up to the top and affords some great views. On our way there, we stopped to hike around Seneca Lake. Once again, I felt like I was back out west meandering around an alpine lake. Next time we go back we'll be bringing our kayaks along.
Sketches & scatterings. Rooted in Pennsylvania along the Susquehanna River.