Old Woodenhead

[Old Woodenhead is a likeness of the author, given to him several years ago as a Christmas present from his wife. It was carved by the Coudersport (PA) folk artist, David Castano. O.W. has appeared previously on this blog at holiday time, though never as “Old Woodenhead.”]

old woodenhead

old woodenhead

Old Woodenhead went fishing near the headwaters of the Allegheny River. The afternoon was cold and dark and drizzly. He went looking for his friend, the Sun, but his glowing pal was nowhere in sight. Old Woodenhead waited for his friend…He waited, even as he warmed himself by casting and by catching trout. His friend seemed far away.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPerhaps the Sun was fishing in Argentina. Nothing wrong with that. The trout fishing is good in Argentina, but it was nearly time for Winter Solstice at this river, and the Sun would surely return. Old Woodenhead wasn’t worried.

The Sun’s departure and return was like a backcast over the river– the line would pause behind Old Woodenhead as the fly and leader straightened out… Then the line would drive forward to a chosen spot– like the Sun above a riffle.

Old Woodenhead was happily casting on a miserable day. There was no one else on the DSCN5572river. Even the hunters had given up the chase for football and TV, for their own ideas of worship and religion. He was glad not to be shopping (yet), and please, no more Christmas parties, damnit!  He would never kneel down willingly at the altar of the advertisers. He was fly fishing while he could, thank god.

Old Woodenhead was catching and releasing trout, staying warm with the hand to fin activity… six trout, seven trout, eight… all rainbows, and a small brown…They were hatchery trout, for sure, but trout nonetheless, at a time when the wild ones couldn’t be reached because of the snow and mud and freezing rain. Let the trout be gluttons for an Egg Fly sandwich; they, too, were just acting on their instincts.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOld Woodenhead waited for his pal the Sun. The Sun had never accused him of being a snob. A humbug and curmudgeon and s.o.b., perhaps, but never a fishing snob.

He waited for the Solstice and Christmas celebrations despite himself. Like the subject of a Doors song, he was Waiting for the Sun. Old Woodenhead enjoyed his family and friends, and even wished the planet well, despite believing its orbit might be skewing, headed for some hell inside a wicker basket.

fuggetaboutit, boys. let's find another way to make a living...

fuggetaboutit, boys. let’s find another way to make a living…

But wait a minute… On December 17th, Old Woodenhead, along with many other Americans, got the best news heard in quite some time… New York State, and Governor Cuomo’s administration, had banned hydrofracking within its borders, a decision based on mounting scientific evidence that the industry poses serious risks to human health and the environment…

The long moratorium was over, at least for now. As a pessimist who had dwelled with great concern in a target area of New York, Old Woodenhead never thought he’d live to see the day!DSCN5577

Old Woodenhead felt the rush of blood, of gratefulness to the warriors and academics who had fought against the fracking movement. It all rushed to his heart and cranium, and he felt alive! He thought back to his years of worry, and then to this holiday gift from science and from common sense. He thought of a line from a Dylan song, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now!”

Old Woodenhead pulled in trout after trout and let them go. The action seemed so therapeutic. Like reeling in the Sun. One fin, one solar flare, one song at a time.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


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The Lake District (UK), Part 2

If from the public way you turn your steps/ Up the tumultuous brook of Green-head Gill*,/ You will suppose that with an upright path/ Your feet must struggle; in such bold ascent/ The pastoral mountains front you, face to face./ But, courage! for around that stone bridgeboisterous brook/ The mountains have all opened out themselves,/ And made a hidden valley of their own./ No habitation can be seen; but they/ Who journey thither find themselves alone/ With a few sheep, with rocks and stones and kites**/ That overhead are sailing in the sky….

*Gill– a narrow stream; **kites– small birds of prey

I begin this second part of “The Lake District (UK)” with a quote from William Wordsworth (1770-1850), one of the great Romantics of the English language, for several reasons. Wordsworth lived his life in several homes located in this northern district of England and he knew the place like very few others have. The above lines, quoted from the long poem “Michael,” continue with description of a sheep-fold out of which an intriguing story soon unfolds.

Wordsworth's summer house where he would sit (w/ a 360 degree view in his day) and "boom out his work over the valley"

Wordsworth’s summer house where he would sit (w/ a 360 degree view in his day) and “boom out his work over the valley”

Many of Wordsworth’s poems (and narrative guides) speak for this wild and historic country in a language unequaled by any other English writer. I’ve been drawn to the poet’s work ever since my days in college, and I like to think that the quoted lines from “Michael” mirror the spirit of one who loves a climb into “rivertop country.”

Again, I’m in debt to Alyssa who thought of me (good daughter!) while visiting the Lake District this fall and who was willing to send reflections and photos not only for her friends and family to muse upon, but also for use on this blog. We hope that you’ve enjoyed Part 1 of the series and continue to see some good here in this little “postcard tour” of an old country in the time of holidays.

Beatrix Potter farm

Beatrix Potter farm

holiday postcard from Alyssa,  Jeremy Fisher's big surprise (Beatrix Potter)

holiday postcard from Alyssa, Jeremy Fisher’s big surprise (Beatrix Potter)

stone circle

stone circle


Dove Cottage, home of poet Wm. Wordsworth

Dove Cottage, home of poet Wm. Wordsworth




Reindeer, in time for Christmas

Reindeer, in time for Christmas

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The Cedar Run Experience, Part 18

I got a break from the weather, frozen days and nights brightening into a Sunday OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAmorning with the temperature rising toward the low 40s. I drove to Cedar Run and steered gently toward the headwaters over the icy lane of mud and gravel. Parking near Half Mile Run, I suited up and walked the road for three-tenths of a mile to the little waterfall where I had finished my upstream fishing on a previous visit.

Pennsylvania doesn’t allow bear hunting on Sundays so I felt a little more at ease– not because I thought I’d be mistaken for a bruin, but because there were fewer hunters in the neighborhood and fewer gun-toting idiots on the prowl. I side-stepped from the roadway to the stream and knew I’d better be careful with the shelf ice and the melting glaze. Obviously it was better not to break something that’s better left unbroken.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf I could fish back to the car and catch a trout or two, I’d be happy with my outing on this dark November morning. I’d be close to my goal of fly-fishing the entire eleven-mile run from the mouth to its sources on Cedar Mountain. I could wrap up the “Experience” for 2014 and fish the balance of the headwaters next spring.

Beaver dams, ice, tall grass and low-hung branches made for challenging conditions along the upper Cedar where the stream itself averaged no more than three to six feet wide. I caught a wild brook and brown trout, and spooked several others, including a couple of fairly large natives. The pool at the Half Mile culvert remained under ice, despite the fact that the sun had come out and the air felt warm at 41 degrees.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI hauled myself out to the car, took a few obligatory casts upstream of the road, and pondered on what the final mile of fishable water would be like when springtime rolled around again. As a pat on the back for covering a good 10 miles of Cedar Run over the previous 15 months, I drove downstream to fish along what’s proven to be a most productive stretch of this fine waterway.

I passed a few locations that had given me my first experiences on Cedar more than twoDSCN5561 decades ago and, convenient for the present-day promotion of my book called River’s Edge, a paragraph that I’d revisit later on…

…Cedar Run has given me a wide array of learning experiences. The first time I rigged up a fly rod near Leetonia at the upper limits of the Trophy Trout section I discovered the deep blue flowerheads of closed gentians blooming along the banks. The late-season warblers fluttered high in the hemlock trees, and a wild brookie nailed my dry fly as it pirouetted down the riffles of the narrow run…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI had 45 minutes to reinvestigate the run with a wet fly but, alas, nothing came of it. I would’ve liked some sort of “grand finale” there, but you can’t win them all. It was good to just win a share. With that, I was set to close down the “Experience” till the coming spring, and hunker down for the holidays.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADSCN5554

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The Lake District (UK), Part 1

No, I haven’t had a chance to visit England’s Lake District yet, but my daughter, who’s revisiting Scotland for a while, made a recent trip to the famous land of fells and lakes and waterfalls and sent some photos and information that I thought might be of interest to the readers of Rivertop Rambles. This post is the first of a two-part series on the Lake District based on reflections and photos from our guide, Alyssa Franklin.

The Lake District is a mountainous region of northwestern England, a place of scenic beauty and significant human history. For many years I’ve found the district fascinating for its literary contributions, especially from William Wordsworth and the “Lake Poets.” Much of the area lies within the Lake District National Park, containing the county of Cambria and all of England’s territory rising above 3,000 feet in altitude.

Renowned for its impressive natural features and historical value, the Lake District National Park is roughly 32 miles east-west and 40 miles north-south. Whereas rocky fells (mountains) dominate the northern most areas, moors and bogs are found at lower altitudes in the central and southerly portions of the district. Orrest Head

The complex geology and the varied ecological aspects of the Lake District have been modified by many centuries of human use. Whereas only a handful of major settlements will be found in the National Park, the touch of human history and modern-day living is never far from view.

Dippers, peregrine falcons, ravens, and even a golden eagle may be seen flying over the lake country. The iconic red squirrel lives among the forest edges. Arctic char inhabit the coldest lakes.

Windermere from a hilltop at dawn

Windermere from a hilltop at dawn

The district has been the home of famous writers such as William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Beatrix Potter, and Norman Nicholson. Renowned villages such as Keswick, Ambleside, Windermere, and Grasmere dot the region and lure the tourist tide interested in fine restaurants, microbreweries, castles, and museums.

Small roads and hiking trails connect the many points of fascination in this region where dreams and everyday pursuits stroll hand in hand.

valley fog

valley fog



heath and falls

heath and falls

Honister Pass

Honister Pass

falls with bridge

falls with bridge

gingerbread house

gingerbread house

field and mountains

Castlerigg Stone Circle

Castlerigg Stone Circle

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Southern Mountains, Growing Fins

I recently had an opportunity to spend five days near the Blue Ridge Mountains of OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAVirginia and in Shenandoah National Park. With snow covering the mountains above the North Fork and with the sun on my back, I took Thanksgiving morning to appreciate and give thanks for a lot of things in this crazy life of mine–for wandering freely on a mountain path beside a beautiful stream, for my friends and family and readers of this blog, and for the bounties of our small stressed planet.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn those rare occasions when I manage to catch a trout on my first cast of the day, I’m usually screwed for luck when it comes to catching number two. On my initial outing with the fly rod here, I did better– not only reeling in and letting go a brook trout on the first cast but then, at a second pool, catching a significant number two of the same wild species.

Not to put a price on sweet occasions such as this, I’d say that every good experience OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAoutdoors has its cost in energy consumption and reality checks. After releasing the second trout, I decided to explore the rapids at the head of the pool by edging along a steep bank with sloping rock. There was ice on the logs and stones but I’d be careful. Several inches of water covered a descending shelf but my wading shoes were studded…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWell, my feet went out from under me, and the six to seven-foot depths of flowing water called my name. I was on my knees and slipping, growing fins as if I were a trout and really belonged down in the frigid but inviting run. One hand instinctively grabbed a root extended over the rocks and, still on my knees, I gave thanks to these old muscles… I would swim with the trout on a warmer day.

The next morning, Black Friday, was cold enough to build ice in the rod guides. So be it…OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA At least I wasn’t out compulsively buying stuff I didn’t need, like a puppet for the advertisers. I might have been displaying OCD with my trouting interests (as my wife suggests) but, for now, I chose to see myself as more of a producer than consumer.

The North Fork is a classic mountain stream recovering from floods and landslides that occurred some 20 years ago. There are stocked trout in the lower end, and miles of wild trout higher up. Although I limited my profile and its shadow on the stream, I didn’t catch a lot of fish. I did, however, catch enough to keep things interesting.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe water was icy cold but the native trout were pretty, and a couple of the wild ones measured close to a foot in length. One of the males, returned to the water and resting on the gravel near my feet, had attractive fins and made me wish my own appendages were as fine and useful.

My final day on the Fork was, for the most part, a pleasant coda to the previous outings. I had an opportunity to hike a little with my son and also caught another brook trout. While Brent hiked to a waterfall that I had nearly reached the day before, IOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA experimented with flies at a favorite pool, and complained to myself about a problem developing with my foot.

After Brent’s return, I limped back to the car and winced from the pressure of rocks on the bottom of my problematic toe. I listened to half-serious ideas of how, in not so many years, the kids would have to roll me in a wheelchair to a handicapped accessible ramp in order to go fishing. Yeah right, I thought…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd then I imagined swimming in the stream–with a set of trout fins, orange and white or otherwise, and thought how the fins might be a nice replacement for these feet. I thought of the Beefheart song, “Grow Fins.” No doubt I was too old to “take up with a mermaid,”  but to wear a coat of brook trout colors and to grow a set of fins was a pleasant thought at any age.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA



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Squonk Season

It’s Squonk season in northern Pennsylvania, in the great forests near Cedar Run where I’ve been fishing of late. The Squonk was first discovered in the hemlock woods of the region in the late 1800s when exhausted lumberjacks would sit around the fire on cold winter nights, drinking what ever made them feel good, and then conjuring the likes of a Squonk for their own pleasure.

It’s Squonk season in the northwoods where this shape-shifter is known to have various forms and personalities, from monstrous and pathetic to silly or downright frightening.

The Squonk has certain character traits no matter what it looks like. It’s said to be

a dam builder at the "pool of tears"

a dam builder at the “pool of tears”

secretive and shy, so ugly that it often weeps endlessly about its own appearance. It’s been known to resemble a small bird with a long bill. It’s been depicted as a clumsy warthog* with blemished skin, and Squonk devotees describe it as an insecure spirit, a loser, if you will, ashamed to show its ugly face and to snivel through the long nights of fall and winter. *[Listen to folk hero Michael Hurley’s “Hog of the Forsaken,” below– He is the pork of crime].

There’s a hunting season for it in the woods of Pennsylvania running from October 1st to the start of the firearms season for deer and bear. A hunter is allowed one Squonk per year, and the creature must be tagged and reported to the state game commission.

a white-tailed squonk... see the horns?

a white-tailed squonk… see the horns?

I have never hunted for Lacrimcorpus dissolvens, but according to reports I’ve read, the Squonk, in any of its hideous or ridiculous forms, is an easy prey for hunters. One brochure issued by the game commission states that, for success, a hunter simply has to follow a tear-stained trail along a stream or through the forest.

Apparently the greatest challenge for a hunter is to bag the creature before it’s cornered and the tears start to flow… A failure to do so may result in the Squonk’s dissolution in a pool of tears.

J.P. Wentling, an early 20th-century lumberman, captured a live Squonk at Cedar Run and stuffed it in a bag. Hiking toward his camp near Leetonia, Wentling felt the bag go suddenly weightless. Untying the rope that enclosed the bag, he peeked inside… Imagine his shock, discovering that the Squonk had dissolved into briny fluid.

Before I divulge my recent experience with this thing, I should mention its renown beyond the boundaries of the former lumber camps…

I never trusted Squonks...

I never trusted Squonks…

The Squonk first appeared in print with Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods… (1910), by William T. Cox. The great contemporary novelist, Jorge Luis Borges, featured the Squonk in his Book of Imaginary Beings (1969?). The rock band, Steely Dan, included a Squonk reference in one of its songs, and the band Genesis actually sang about the creature in “Squonk,” an album cut appearing in 1976.

The Squonk really gets around, like the feeling of a nation that collectively sighs and bellows the morning after Election Day. Like, “What the #@%! did we just do?”

I encountered the Squonk on a cold October morning along Cedar Run, in a moment when (naturally enough) I least expected it… I was casting, wading gingerly through a riffle, when I heard a sobbing noise that I first mistook for the babbling of water over stone.

I saw a fat gray bird, the size of a chicken, stumble into the streamside grasses, crying uncontrollably and disappearing from view.

a video of this undulating image is convincing, but I couldn't load it

a video of this undulating image is convincing, but I couldn’t load it

Curious as hell, I approached the point of disappearance. Before I got there, however, the crying stopped, and a long brown serpent appeared on the surface of the run.

When I say “long,” I mean 20 to 25 feet in length. The huge snake slithered toward me with a tail-first, serpentine motion that took me a couple of seconds to recognize as one of the best hallucinations I have had in years.

What had likely been my first genuine sighting of a Squonk was now a long vine tethered to the alders. The Squonk had done more than simply dissolve into a pool of tears. It had morphed into a great rope of tightly bound leaves and grasses swaying like an anaconda

a squonk, u say?

a squonk, u say?

on a tropical stream.

I don’t know why it would do such a thing. Did it think that I would shoot it? All I carried was an innocent bamboo rod.

The damned vine danced away as I resumed my fishing, but it would always be a link to the whiskey minds and to the long cold evenings in a lumber camp of long ago.

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The Weekend/ 5 Classical Elements

Earth: It all started Friday night as I drove home from my mother’s house. A fisher DSCN5513 crossed the bottom of the gravel road– a dark super-cat-sized animal with a long bushy tail, a creature I’ve long suspected of living in the area (as long-time readers of this blog may recall) but for which there’d been no hard evidence till now. Ah, the wild fisher of the rivertops– at last.

The next morning was the opener for the state gunning season for deer. My neighbors had called, once again, to ask permission to hunt the acreage behind my house. Since the deer are overcrowded on this property, I again granted permission to hunt.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI heard a singular rifle shot in the crisp air. Eventually, Conrad showed up on my porch and asked for help in hoisting the gutted buck to his pickup.

“I just turned around in your pines and saw him there, lookin’ at me. The sun was shining right behind him and I couldn’t say no.” He’d put a .270 bullet through the neck and assured himself of a freezer full of venison. “Like a gift,” I said, and he agreed.

Air: On Saturday afternoon I was returning from a cold outing on the upper Allegheny. The clear sky of morning had long clouded over and become a steel-grey shaker of snow. I slowed down near the aging fields and streamside with its white pine housing the massive nest. There they were again– a pair of snowy-headed eagles perched in the nest-tree where another brood had been raised with apparent success this year.DSCN5517

Would they stay for another winter season as the streams and marshes froze solid? God knows there would be enough roadkill to sustain them but, in any case, the bald eagles seemed to carry my thoughts skyward through the snow and clouds and the sun beyond a coming season.

Fire: We learned that the Eagle Crest Winery, near Conesus, New York and overlooking the pristine waters of Hemlock Lake had created several new labels for their red and white and blush wines called “No Frackin’ Way.” A percentage of sales from these new labels goes toward fighting the establishment of gas storage caverns and the hydro-fracking industry in the Finger Lakes district and the state of New York. Learning this, we made our first visit to the winery, one of 112 such businesses in the Finger Lakes region.

DSCN5515 - CopyIt was Sunday afternoon and we felt the fire element in the dry and sweeter wines, a masculine energy perhaps, a guy thing possibly, although my wife enjoyed the wines even more than I.

An icon for the winery is the bald eagle. In 1965 the one active eagle nest left in New York State was situated on the west shore of Hemlock Lake just downhill from the winery. Studied by Thomas Rauber and then supported by numerous environmental folk in the days just after DDT was outlawed in this country, these eagles survived and were supplemented by others until, today, close to 175 active bald eagle nests can be found throughout the state. That, my friends, is fire….

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWater: In the classical sense, water is the great purifier, and on Saturday the upper Allegheny River seemed to play the role perfectly for me, healing the fiery mix of elements in my head and body as I fought off the cold weather and the sporadic collection of ice in the rod guides of the small bamboo.

I had just released a colorful 16-inch rainbow trout and was approaching a fairly deep riffle overhung with autumn grasses. The spot looked “fishy,” to say the least, and on the first drift of the fly beneath those grasses the line tightened. A wild brown handed me a surprising tussle in the cold, shallow waters of this rivertop and I slowly guided the fish to a pull-out for a quick photo opportunity. The trout had enflamed my expectations and the sense of satisfaction that ensued. Like the earlier fish, the brown measured a full 16 inches in length.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The 5th Element: Many of the various cultures of antiquity have described a mysterious fifth element of basic nature and experience. It’s commonly referred to as “aether,” an unchangeable heavenly substance different from the basic four elements, probably something that transcends the power of description. I’ll call it a high that’s produced when someone encounters the mystery of experience in wild nature.

That works for me and hopefully it makes some sense to you. It’s like catching an excellent trout in the headwaters, or like lifting from a pine bough on powerful wings, or drinking wine on a winter hill above a beautiful lake.DSCN5519DSCN5512OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADSCN5509

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