Washington felt like home.
Maybe it was the two days of driving through 100 degree Idaho and eastern Oregon dry landscapes. Maybe it was insanely good burrito we got at the food truck in Olympia.
Maybe it was finally reaching the end of the swing, sliding into the last stretch of the boomerang arc, heading north along the coast, slowly making steps towards the east, our house.
Mostly I think it was the trees, the blues, the grays, the ocean and its driftwood.
Our first night was spent on the Pacific Ocean. We walked along fields of driftwood laying like fallen totems between the sand and the thick interior forest. There was a ceaseless breeze that kept the ocean in our camper and burned our fire quickly. After dinner sat and watched the sun set on the ocean. The sand skittered towards me and I would close my eyes but not for too long. I didn't want to miss the last bit of sun. I wanted to see the lightness of the dry wood begin to meld into the dark spruce as day left.
I'm still processing this place. It's fingerprints have been tattooed on me. There are only a few places I've been in my life that have completely altered my perspective. Northern Maine in late October. The saddle between the Upper and Lower Devil Peaks in the Siskyous Mountains. Predawn late August on the Susquehanna River. The Hoh Rainforest. It's primordial colors of blue and gray serve as a thick backdrop to the large Sitka Spruce and fields of fern that cover the soft forest floor. I want to go back with my fly rod, a backpack, some food and hike deep into it until I'm lost. 15 elk crossed the river right below our campsite as the sun set.
Our last few days were spent in the Cascades. I found some water full of Westslope Cutthroat trout eager to take a hopper on top. We stayed away from the crowds and camped in forest service land surrounding the National Park. We were reluctant to go, but knew we had to eventually start making it home or else we'd never leave.
After a night of eating take-out Mexican food under the Milky Way while Nebraskan rednecks shot off legit fireworks around a lake a few miles east of the Wyoming border, we scarfed down an amazing breakfast at Luxury Diner before driving down the last hot stretch highway towards the Rockies. We made it to mountains after 2.5 long days of driving.
A strike through the Gros Ventres along the Hoback still swelling with the last snow lead us to Granite Creek. Spring currents under a heavy summer canopy.
From left to right: Yellowstone Cutthroat, Crystal Creek Campground, Our Home in the foothills of the Tetons, Granite Creek Hot Springs, a Mountain Whitefish, and Granite Creek Campground.
Black-eyed Susans marked the quebrada made by Granite Creek as it tore through the Gros Ventres. The hot springs cleaned us after days on the road, the mountain wind swept the dirt through our pores.
We stayed in Wyoming for about a week, camping almost exclusively in Forest Service and BLM campgrounds. We had nothing but wind and sun on the Green River. We were scorched, dry, our skin mottled with the fine scratches of the valley. Mountains bordered us on the north and west. Nothing but flatness and goat prairies to the south and east. We built a fire and watched, sat in the ecotone, the place between, while fireworks still scraped the horizon back towards Nebraska and early July.
After lounging in the Gros Ventres valley and wilderness, we decided to head out to the coast, to big trees, ocean, and rainforest. The Olympic Peninsula was just a day and half drive away. We stopped at the Kelly on the Gros Ventres for coffee and breakfast and kept heading west.
Sun Ra and Rain Dogs tenderly blister the morning.
Instruments and melodies I don’t understand,
sublime abstract cacophony of the unexpected.
dark, with a bit of sugar.
Ice, slush, April air after a December winter storm,
wind keeping the leaves off the ground.
Bull trout in Idaho, the panhandle,
that slender slice of land between Montana and Washington,
campgrounds down winding gravel roads -
Dreams of summer.
Wrapping pheasant tails around #14 hooks,
Peacock hurl, red thread, gold bead head and lead wire.
Unknown melding with known.
These flies work.
They catch fish.
Keep it simple.
They’re all I know.
Big water out west, flies in the vice.
My mind wanders to mountains, a cathedral of pines, cold beer.
The dog barking down the alley, the train tracking its way downstream,
bring me back.
I’ll have to try these flies on some local water, first.
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.
I was last here two years ago. We came up to the Catskills mainly to christen our new-to-us pop-up camper and to take our dog, Whitman, on his first camping trip. Fishing was definitely at the top of my list of reasons to check this area out, but it wasn't the only one, therefore, I only got to check out a few of the hundreds of miles of great fishing up that way. This time around, we were just taking a couple of days to get out of the lazy summer routine we find ourselves falling into once school is out. We were also showing the ropes to a friend who recently decided to get back into camping. This is just to say that there is still a ton of stream I want to explore.
The water temperatures got too hot to fish come 8 a.m. each morning, so I only had a couple of hours of fishing each day. Luckily, our campsite was right along the river, which let me wake up, make a quick cup of coffee, let it cool while I put on my boots and rigged up, slam it down, and head out on the stream. The last time I was here, I wasn't tying any flies and was just getting into fly fishing. I went home with a few fish landed and a good memory, happy that I caught trout in the Catskills. This time around, I wanted to fish some of the holes I remembered from last time and see how I could do. Have I progressed at all? What have I learned? How is my approach different? What did I miss last time?
This is where the idea of revisiting water became so important to me. Like a notch on your walking stick that you carve after climbing a peak or venturing into a place that you've always wanted to, catching trout on a stream that you've already fished can act as a mark in time to show your progress as an angler. It's not always about the numbers or the size, seriously. I know that's said a lot, but it really isn't, only when it is. Having already fished this water, I wanted to see if I could catch more trout and hopefully some bigger ones on flies I tied. If I did that, then it would show me that I have grown in my craft of angling and in the art of stream approach.
So, did I? Yeah, I did, and it felt really damn good. I only got to fish a few hours each of the two mornings I was there, but that was enough time to land some really nice looking fish on flies I tied. The dry-dropper rig worked best, with a fat orange stimulator as my dry and a hare's ear or hot spot pheasant tail as my nymph. The brookies tended to really dig the stimulator while the browns scarfed up the nymph.
I was especially stoked when I landed this dude on a hare's ear nymph that I've been tying a lot lately (and catching a ton of fish on). He was sitting in a short, deep pool behind a large boulder sipping bugs as they flew by in the express lane seams created by a series of rocks laid out in the stream like three thumbs up. This brown trout is definitely one of the largest I've landed on a fly I've tied. Based on my net, he's between 17 and 18 inches. He took me up stream hard when I set the hook and I slowly worked him back down towards me and over to shallow water where I could net and quickly release him. This is one of those trout that will be a mark of a moment for me. One that I will go back to and replay in my head when it's cold and rainy outside. I'll venture back to that spot and work through my approach, how I added just a bit of weight to my line right before casting, where I let the fly drop so it would follow the inside of the seam and drop quickly into the pool right behind the boulder, how his take was subtle, but fierce at the same time, and how we played each other until we were released from that moment.
It wasn't just a fly fishing trip, which is a nice change of pace for me. The last few camping trips I've gone on have been focused on the water (something that will never get old for me). This trip took us on a beautiful hike to a mountain pond and meandering around back roads, exploring the mountains. The Catskills are beautiful. Life is good when you can just get in the car and explore with good people.
I spur my horse through the wrecked town,
The wrecked town sinks my spirit.
High, low, old parapet-walls
Big, small, the aging tombs.
I waggle my shadow, all alone;
Not even the crack of a shrinking coffin is heard.
I pity all these ordinary bones,
In the books of the Immortals they are nameless.
- Han Shan
#4, Cold Mountain Poems.
Head for the mountains; my first inclination and instinct when my summer vacation starts. I packed some books, fly rods, good food and brew, and headed up to Potter County to get away from the constant murmur of traffic and work that seems to have taken a strong, subtle hold of life here in Lancaster County.
The winds shot up Route 44, tracing along dark early spring clouds and short bursts of showers as I weaved my way down into the valley. Within a half hour of pulling into my campsite, I was set up and back in the car to pick up some flies from the Kettle Creek Tackle Shop, one of my favorite fly shops. The owner is always eager to share some stories and knowledge and he has over 300 of his own, hand made fly rods for sale. One of these days I'm going to pick up one of his bamboo rods. One of these days. I was on the water soon thereafter and quickly hooked into a mess of rainbows and native brook trout.
I got up early the next day and hiked up into a beautiful wild area. I only scratched the surface of one of the more remote places in Pennsylvania, and am looking forward to taking a full day to fully explore the stream.
The afternoon brought more rainbows. So many that I started trying new flies and different techniques, just to see what would happen. I was hoping for more wild fish, but I'll still take a 30-40 fish day over getting skunked every time. Every time a few bugs started coming off the water, a burst of wind would tumble down the mountains and put them back down. A hare's ear variation that I tied up before the trip landed most of my fish. In fact, most of the fish I landed the entire trip were on flies I tied. A big improvement over the last time I was up here a year ago where I didn't even know how to dub a hook.
That evening, after a killer supper of rotisserie chicken soft tacos, I ventured upstream and soon found myself in a thick haze of bugs - mayflies, some sulphurs, and even some slate drakes. This part of the stream held a lot more wild fish and browns. They were keyed in on Light Cahills and the evening quickly became one I'll remember for a long time, a memory that I'll go back to and re-fish when I'm lost in a daze of work and habit. One after the other, these trout would swoop up from their deep lies and hit my fly. Eventually, I realized that I didn't need to count fish anymore and instead fell into the upstream moment, looking for the next seam to throw my dry. I fished until dark and took a nice long stroll back to camp under a beautiful summer night sky.
I settled at Cold Mountain long ago,
Already it seems like years and years.
Freely drifting, I prowl the woods and streams
And linger watching things themselves.
Men don't get this far into the mountains,
White clouds gather and billow.
Thin grass does for a mattress,
The blue sky makes a good quilt.
Happy with a stone underhead
Let heaven and earth go about their changes.
- Han Shan
#7, Cold Mountain Poems
My buddy Scot came up to meet me early the next morning. We had a quick chat about the state of the world over some coffee and oatmeal, then headed out to a nice size trib teaming with wild browns and native brookies. Within the first run I fished, I hooked a double on a GW emerger and hare's ear. My first time ever catching two fish on both flies I was fishing. This was definitely one of my favorite streams I fished the entire trip. It's a classic mountain freestone with deep pools, fertile riffles, and plenty of room to make a back cast. When I head back up there later in the summer, I'm already planning on spending more time fishing it.
To get over to Scot's camp, we weaved our way through the mountains bordering a Wild Area and down into the next valley over. I love these long dirt roads that traverse the mountains. It reminds me of being out west and driving through National Forest lands. You could spend a day just getting lost on them, stopping where it seems right, fishing for native brook trout. There's a freedom you only get where there are no stop signs or pavement and if you break down, your walking miles to get to a camp with a phone.
That last few days of my trip were spent at Scot's camp with Kurt and Andy, helping them christen their new-to-them old-school-trailer that they rented (appropriately named Wild Boy Hops & Trout Camp). I am blessed to have good people in my life willing to share their places, their knowledge, their jokes (Kurt is the best joke teller I have ever met, a master of the lost oral tradition of making people laugh with great timing and a good pun), and cured meats (not a euphemism). We explored the valley, caught a ton of fish, sat by the fire while an old white skunk skulked around us, and ate great charcuterie. It was an awesome trip and just what I was looking for to start my summer. I explored a bunch of new water, landed over 100 fish (most on flies I tied), embraced some magnificent solitude, hung out with good friends, and had beautifully deep sleep each night. I can't wait to head back up there.
Merle Haggard just died. He was responsible for my first and only time getting kicked out of a bar, back in 2006. Our trail crew just finished a couple month stint up in the Siskiyou Mountains just south of the Oregon border. It was late October and the snow had finally pushed us south.
We were headed to the desert, Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms, where it’s always warm and sunny. On our way down the long state of California, we stopped for a night in San Francisco. One of our crew members had gone to Stanford, so we rolled up in our van and spilled out into a swanky co-living space stories high. Haggard, hairy, and hungry for civilization, we set down our sleeping bags in a heap in their entry way and took the train into San Francisco.
After a day of sightseeing, we ended up at a joint on Haight-Ashbury. Reveling in the sounds of other people and hypnotized by the bright TVs broadcasting some football game, we embellished deep into the night. Eventually we found the jukebox. Willie & I packed it full of country tunes. Classic ones that we knew all the words to and had been singing in our heads for months out on the trail, keeping us company far from home. Finally, “Okie from Muskogee” came on and by the third verse, we were pushed out the street, our lungs still filled with those classic lines about hippies, into the gloriously blurry darkness of San Francisco in the deep morning.
Thank you Merle. You will be missed.
“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..."
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.