Against the Dying Light

I won’t need to rage against the dying of the light, per Dylan Thomas and his fine poetics. I won’t need to rage because I’ve done all that (for now) in private moments, and my purpose here is really very simple. As autumn deepens time and space with its special brand of darkness, I grab for the sun when it floats above and makes a rare appearance. To position myself and gain advantage, I pick myself up and climb for a different view on daily happenings.

It’s been cold the last few days. The daytime temperatures have struggled to rise above the freezing mark. On Saturday, arriving early for a Slate Run Sportsmen meeting in PA, I decided I had time to climb above the Hotel Manor and the trout stream for a walk on the Black Forest Trail.

I hadn’t walked this section of the ridge in many years. Although I once hiked the entire 45 miles of the Black Forest Trail, and would cover only a mile of it today, the ridge felt new and fresh as I inhaled the cold morning air and sunshine on the mountains. It was good to get reacquainted with the forest supporting one of my favorite trout streams.

After the meeting and some lunch at the Hotel Manor, I grabbed the fly rod for an hour of fishing in the gorge, but already the shadows were deepening and ice was forming in the bamboo’s tiptop guide. The trout were smarter than I was, and just weren’t showing up.

The next morning I was headed to Fall Creek in Ithaca, New York. The sun made a tentative appearance, and the air, still chilly, made a welcome bid for a reading in the 40s. The creek was looking good and strong, full of quickened currents and slower pools, a welcome sight compared to what I’d found here in the past few years.

Fall Creek

The big creek has an autumn run of trout, primarily browns, and landlocked salmon from Cayuga Lake. The trout and salmon can attain large sizes and, not surprisingly, the number of anglers on this stream can be substantial too. I thanked the cool air for keeping angler interest on Sunday morning at a minimum. There were men and women on the water, but not so many that I had to wonder why I bothered coming out. Unfortunately, the numbers of fish seemed relatively low, as well.

bridge graffiti, Ithaca

Casting a streamer, I caught a small rainbow trout but then nothing for an hour or two. Sensing that my luck in finding a brown trout or a landlocked salmon was about to expire, I was walking upstream on a high bank overlooking the creek, enjoying a ray of sunshine pouring through the cloudscape over the city, when I saw a large fish several feet from the  water’s edge.

Above Slate Run

The bank was steep and I descended slowly, careful to avoid all movement other than an inch-by-inch progression of my feet. An overhanging branch personified darkness as it stifled my effort to make an adequate roll-cast to the fish. The salmon sensed my presence and disappeared downstream. Disappointed, I stepped well into the stream and waited, hoping that a landlocked salmon, one of my favorite fishes on the fly, would return.

above Slate Run village on Pine

Luck plays an important part in any fisherman’s life, and I got lucky when the fish returned and paused in the same area of the stream where I first saw it. I got lucky when this salmon didn’t laugh so hard at the bedraggled fly that he let it pass. The fish grabbed the hook and tore upriver, leaping several times and shaking his head, before I could lead him to the opposite bank and take a photo.

on Black Forest Trail

This male salmon (note the kype!) measured 27 inches along the rod and had some weight. I worked at reviving him in the flow of water before the send off, a good fish swimming toward the lowering sun, a spirit helping to keep it in the sky.

landlocked Atlantic salmon

Ithaca Falls

w/ kype, adult male

 

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Big Fish Little Fish Swimming Altogether

Entering Pennsylvania during the hunting season, I knew I was on the right track for the weekend when I walked into a general store and heard the voice of the proprietor. She entered from a back room of the ancient building and inquired, “Whatcha huntin’ for?” Slightly amused, I answered, “I’m not hunting really. Gonna do some fly-fishing pretty soon.”

W. Branch Pine Trail

“No hon,” she said, not skipping a beat, “I mean in here. Whatcha huntin’ for?”

“Oh…um… just some water and a bit of snack food for the trail.”

“Cold water’s over there beyond the hats and stuff. We have cookies, crackers, doughnuts and the like behind you. Just go past the antlers…”

W. Branch Pine Creek

Showers and mist lay on the morning hour. I was on the right track, goin’ fishing. Trout Run was flowing strong now from the recent rains, and the steep wooded hills, barren except for coppery oaks and the occasional golden beech, were comforting as I looked up from the stream.

It was all that I was hunting for– a wild place full of solitude and brook trout eager for a fly on burbling water. The fish were on the small side– none would pass the 8-inch mark, but they were colorful and feisty on a 3-weight rod. In appreciation, I avoided the redds, and was careful not to cast for obviously spawning trout.

Cane and Silk 3-weight

Next morning I was headed north with angling pal, Tim, in search for massive browns. I hadn’t been to Oak Orchard in several years. I was shifting gears. I had given up dealing with the hordes of fishermen there in autumn. At first I thought I might not like revisiting the place, but when Tim suggests a fishing trip together, no matter where it is, I can be sure of an enjoyable experience where I learn a thing or two, of being on the right track for the weekend.

blow-down, Trout Run

In the fall there’s always a circus atmosphere around the Oak’s big dam. But we’d get past the slob behavior at the site, away from much of the littering and snagging of Pacific salmon in their final hours of life.

We’d get downriver and stumble on a stretch or two of deep dark water to call our own. If we worked the river hard, we’d tangle with fresh-run browns from Lake Ontario. We’d find what we were hunting for, even if we had to force ourselves to be peaceful when confronted by chuck-and-duckers. We were on the right track for the weekend.

brookie, Trout Run

Tim had the first good hook-up. I was downstream when I saw him wave. I scrambled from the river and trudged up the muddy trail until I saw him bringing in the trout. Tim extricated his camera and handed it over for a photo but I found that its memory card was full.  I fumbled with my own camera and snapped a couple of pics that didn’t do much for the capture of an excellent seven or eight-pound brown.

on the Oak

A couple hours later I finally felt some weight as a fish grabbed a Woolly Bugger on the swing of a long cast in deep water. The 8-weight line was strained and pulling away; the Echo’s fighting butt pushed into my mid-section; feet stumbled and fought for balance as I wheeled away downriver, saying “Excuse me” here and “Sorry” there, and “Thanks, I’ll go over you with my rod and line!”

Pennsylvania run

The fishing had been slow. A lot of guys saw the big brown chopping through the river, coming down. Tim did a great job for me, borrowing a large net from another angler and helping to eventually guide the fish inside. I handed him my camera but, unfortunately, I had the damned thing on the wrong setting.

I would get several frames of perfect nothingness. White light. Imagined smile. Imagined stance above a net containing one of the biggest browns I’ve ever landed (30 inches long, perhaps, and 10 pounds in weight) blown to smithereens and piscatorial oblivion.

It was my fault completely. The camera setting was dysfunctional or had some other mystifying purpose. But, what was I hunting through it all?

What mattered was the sharing of a fine experience with a fishing pal. And hell, even the supporting cast of neighboring anglers had been a plus.

We were on the right track for a good time. Tim soon found more action, and I managed to deceive another brown. This second fish (about 24 inches) was significantly smaller than my first one, very light in color and with strange blue eyes. I even got a picture of it, as if in compensation for my earlier mishap.

Initially we thought the blue-eyed fish was blind, but I doubt if a blind fish would grab a deeply drifting streamer. It had to have sensed what it was hunting. The fish took the wrong track coming to me, the angler, but then, like the others, this pale trout swam away.

Tim’s brown

blue-eyed brownie, resting in a salmon net

 

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The High Bridge

The high bridge that I have in mind is not some railroad or passageway on a trestle over an impressive gorge or canyon. It’s a simple concrete bridge that takes a forest road in northern Pennsylvania over a favorite trout stream and provides a bit of access for an angler seeking solitude and recreation. Any mountain stream that flows 40 miles or more through a populated region of the country is bound to have a number of bridge crossings and, on this stream, the bridge I’m referring to is the one that’s closest to the uppermost springs or sources of the watershed.

you might have to duck while passing under

The morning sky was bright and the remaining October foliage was golden as I crossed the summit of a hill and began descending into a wooded valley where this well-known watershed begins. The weather forecast promised the appearance of the first big autumn rains that afternoon. The prospect of precipitation in a dry season was exciting in itself, but I was mostly eager for some brook trout fishing with a dry fly while I had the opportunity.

I found a grassy pull-off near the highest bridge and suited up as the first gray clouds appeared above the hilltops. I hadn’t actually fished near the bridge before, but noticing several small pools and riffles modulated by log deflectors covered with moss, I couldn’t resist a start in that location.

Efforts to help Mother Nature by creating habitat through the careful placement of log and stone were obviously successful here. The volume of water was minimal and less than desirable for wild trout in much of the headwaters, but this deeper, well-oxygenated section was home to numerous brook trout eager to investigate a fly dropped on a tapered leader and a 3-weight line. The fish were small but pretty and, upon release, were eager to shoot on home and warn their kin about deception in the world.

From the highest bridge I traveled downstream for a mile or so to fish in Butternut Hollow. Here the stream was a little deeper and, again, partly structured by deflectors. The Butternut Pool, like all the mountain stream sites at low water, required a cautious  predatory approach. Despite my best effort not to spook the residents with Halloween terror, I sent the bigger fish into hiding and landed just a fingerling trout.

At the Lower Green Drake Pool (named for a green fishing camp nearby), I did better, landing several larger natives and seeing a peculiar male– a spawner with a golden back and with sides like dusk on a river. The oddball native chased a fish that I was reeling in and stopped at my feet so suddenly that all I could think of was a human spurned in love.

As the sky darkened slowly with a promise of rains to come, I ventured up a small feeder stream. This tributary has lots of natural structure in the way of fallen trees and undercuts but its multitude of small fish shot away at the slightest motion of a fly rod or an arm. A 24-hour rain was coming and the level of this stream would surely rise. For a little while, at least, the wild trout would be freed from the constrictions of low water.

Flushed by a series of pleasant thoughts, I turned around and descended toward the bridge.

on the Sliders Branch…

another shot from home

coming into focus

Green Drake Pool

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Beerfest/Salmonesque

About 50 local and regional breweries, plus a few wineries and distilleries, were recently represented at the Swain, New York Ski Center, and the tasting was a lot of fun. To enter, you pay the equivalent of five six-packs of “quality” big-name beer for a tasting glass and a wristband, then you’re in for a fast evening of unlimited variety in food and drink, plus music, dance, and frolic. You promote the foundations of hand-crafted brewing while staving off the crush of Lite-Beer culture with a dash of merriment and revolution.

the ski center

Along with wife and daughter, I enjoyed myself despite a bit of pressure to socialize and to pretend that angling didn’t much matter (till the morning when I planned to head north for a joust with salmon and perhaps large browns). The beers were cold and very tasty overall, especially in the first hour of mixing through the vendors, and as long as I didn’t have to over-indulge a share of flavored exotics or the upstart brews with a high ABV.

here’s one that I drank at home

Most of the food was extra, but the games and music, and even the socializing indoors and outside of the ski center, were rewarding and went to some good somewhere in the universe. I’ll have to give my daughter credit for the foresight in reserving our sleeping quarters at a lodge next door. It saved us from having to drive off when the music stopped and the vendors closed shop, and it made our exit safe and happy.

my lovely accomplices

Quick transitions from the human world to the wild and woolly can be challenging, of course, and my overnight shift from brewery student to fisherman was less than smooth, but at least I was pain-free when the dawn spread out its rosy fingers.

Autumn rains had been minimal, so far, but the northern creek had a decent flow and clarity. Although various anglers were out in force, I found some quiet water where arriving chinooks could be noted in their upstream journey or, within the deeper pools, circulating near established redds.

the sun went down like a good stout beer

I don’t know if there’s a parallel between the small-scale brewing of beer and the craft of catching over-sized fish with a fly, but if there is, then it’s a subtle one. To present a fly to a fresh-run adult salmon in a way that you can hook it legally and then land the 15 to 20-pounds of explosive energy isn’t easy, but when it’s done correctly it can be rewarding (and exhausting).

hopping up

My hike led me into water with a lot of solitude, and each of the several fish I landed were initially hooked with just a pass or two of the fly. But for each of the salmon that I landed, there were plenty of fish that had little or no interest in defending their territory with a strike, no matter what fly pattern was presented. As in the best of fishing for an end result, there were no guarantees this day, and the fun of being out there was an equal mix of trying and achieving.

fire in the yard

I met Kevin, a fellow student of the tributaries and the artificial fly, who traveled up from Ithaca, and who volunteered to tail one of my reluctant salmon and then to photograph me with the fish before its ensuing release. It was good to talk with Kevin and to share experiences and hopes with him. I was reminded of the night before at the beerfest when we Franklins shared stories and experiences with three members of the John Bolger Band, from Rochester, New York, who could play BB and Albert King to Cream and Van Morrison with conviction.

the John Bolger Band, minus keyboard

Any fraternal order of the sort quickly finds its counter-force in the wider world that’s out to score no matter what the cost. It’s a base world filled with mediocrity (at best). I found it on the salmon stream when I passed four guys fishing at one of the popular holding spots near the bridge. Six salmon lay sprawled on the bank, with two more in the water strung-up through the gills. Discarded tackle, water bottles, jackets, and empty beer cans (Keystone Light) were strewn near the fish.

illumination

I don’t know if these guys, hunkered in the pool, were fishing legally or not, but my experience told me not to look too closely. I’m not talking about class warfare here. The differences come down to the choices that we make. I could tell from the trucks that these guys drove, they probably had more money to pass around than I could ever dream of dealing with. Thankfully, I could drive away from them all, pleased to have enjoyed a pretty good day of fishing, and the finish to an even better weekend on and off the water.

my backyard like a painting

it was a 2-mile walk to this abandoned graveyard in the woods…

a dead fish that reminded me of Halloween

salmon CAN be taken with a fly

38 inches, 18 pounds, 20?

damn egg-suckin’ leech…

I’m thinking, what’s that John Gierach book where the author describes the East as the place where “all the fish are little.”

 

 

 

 

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Color It Wild

Living in a drab political climate where the powers-that-be continue to hack away at our natural world for all the usual reasons such as money and self-interest, I’m feeling the need to add some color to this life while trying to reinforce a little of the beauty that remains around us.

In a way, we’re living in a frightening black-and-white world. I don’t feel much hope or optimism when I learn of the continuing attacks on our environment, most recently at our national monuments for resource exploitation and at democratic-era programs that facilitate our nation’s fight against the ravages of a warming globe. I need to add some color where this dimming world intersects my place, so I heed the invitation from several trout streams in the area to come along and do some fishing.

Streams are powerful natural forces (even in times of relative drought) and have a way of twisting my arm until I say Uncle (Sam), until I say, Give me three steps to the tackle closet, Streams, three steps to where my rods are kept, and I’ll be gone!

For the lack of adequate color in my waking hours, I’m starting to see raw color in my dreams at night, the color of nightmares that I thought I’d left behind a good long while ago. To paint a better picture for myself, I fished the long weekend of Columbus Day (honoring the blunders of the past as well as the hopes for the future) and visited the upper Allegheny and Genesee rivers, plus a trout stream in the wildest woods of Pennsylvania.

Genesee at Shongo

On Monday, I did my casting in the lovely, much-needed showers of Hurricane Nate that sleepwalked over the Allegheny as it passed north through the mid-Atlantic region. The trout I caught and released there while envisioning three ships sailing on the tranquil ocean were stocked fish but, no matter. Stocked or wild, autumn rainbows in the 15 to 17-inch range are full of stormy weather.

The river was cool, the flow was narrow, and these fish could hit a dry fly and then rocket from the tombs of water to the sheltered undercuts of freedom before you knew what snapped your tippet. They brought color from the stream but not as much of it as the smaller trout, the wild brookies, from the day before.

On Sunday I had ventured into Pennsylvania’s proposed wilderness, a thirty-thousand acre green spot on the map that’s managed as a roadless “wild area” (rather than a fully protected wilderness) because of private leasing in some sections by a gas company. At its lower access point, I drove the jeep trail toward an end-point near a scenic trout stream. Fog enveloped the mountain shoulders, and Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” entered my ears from a satellite of Earth. I was ready for the upstream hike into brook trout country.

“Mystic Run” seems as good a name as any for this mountain stream. I hiked past the final cabin in this area and entered the backcountry. The stream was low and clear but surprisingly strong considering its short length of nine or 10 miles. I had fished and hiked along this waterway a dozen times or more, but on each occasion Mystic Run looked different to me. Its one constant is the wild trout, native brooks mostly, with some brown trout near its lower end.

last camp before the backcountry

I passed the Beech Bottom Natural Area catching small trout after small trout on a dry fly Adams, Humpy, and Rio Grande King, good floaters on the riffles and occasional pool. I felt like I was on a never-ending journey toward an intimate knowledge of a place. I was adding autumn color to an overcast day, the way poetry can add to and enliven a prosaic hour:

We hiked to virgin hemlock trees/ climbing through mountain clarity,/ autumnal quietude repelling/ volume in our speech; subtleties/ of boulder, moss and tree/ preempting expectations…. [from the poem “Beech Bottom” in my book Earthstars, Chanterelles, Destroying Angels from FootHills Publishing, 2016].

The backcountry has a way of eliciting a “Land ho!” exclamation from seekers of color in a place like this. Columbus exclaimed it in his way, and I exclaimed it in mine, but we too readily forget the natives, the first-timers, extirpated by explorers. We too easily forget about the natives still surviving in the form of beings such as hemlock trees and beautiful trout.

Speaking of native life and its historical context, listen to a song by the Canadian artist Buffy Saint-Marie. Her enjoyable and thought-provoking “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” (1992) has the power of poetry and music, plus the color of social and environmental justice. [Scroll down…]

 

 

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Song of the Kettle

I’m growing silent these days. I’m not sure why, although I’m also angered and saddened by political events and tragedies occurring in this crazy world. I’m growing silent at a time when my voice should be loud with protest. I’m so quiet that the stream and the forest call to me as if they were my home.

I have words but they are few. The torn curtain of this modern life is pushed aside. I seek  solace with the wild things of the mountain. I step slowly, carefully, so not to spook the trout of Kettle Creek. I cast a 10-foot tapered leader with a tippet like a spider’s thread. I listen to the cricket songs, the squawk of a jay, coming from the drab October leaves and streamside vegetation. The ancient hills rise up as if to cradle my advance, to paint me with a hint of autumn flame.

with fire in the blood…

There are times when the poet should be quiet, saving his voice for later. The wildness of the mountain streams, the framing sense of place that gives each day new meaning, has no need for talk. Still, I hear a message to be thankful for my years, thankful for the fire in my blood.

low water… normally these logs would be in the flow…

Without a sound, I lay a long cast of an Adams dry fly on the pool where caddis hatch. Another small brookie rises quickly and comes in. I kneel at the water, wet my hands to release the hook and then the fish. The bond is set.

one dry Adams did the trick…

Years ago, I wrote a poem with this headwaters on my mind, the stream that has seen me year after year, that will see me, surely, when my time comes to an end.

Kettle headwaters…

Sononjoh (aka Kettle Creek)

October mountains/ rise above/ Black Kettle’s fishery,/ over “strange/ romantic land”/ of pioneers who/ feared the wild.// The slack line drifts/ repeatedly/ above elusive trout/ past the boulders of glide and pool.// Sononjoh: one/ sunlit riffle sings/ the ancient name.

Sononjoh

I was going to be silent (almost) but instead I’ve fished for words. As a writer, I suppose it’s normal to be filled with contradictions. So I catch a few words, release them on the page. The voice swells slowly as I think about the huge machine called civilization. The machine is glittery and assuring till we learn its ways. Its creature comforts hide the cost. It spits away our children as it eats the earth with war and murder and pollution.

resting…

We can protest but the big machine has room for that. It almost smiles and lets us be. I’ll rage nonetheless (as time allows) and hope for better days. For now, I’ll fish in silence and be well.

caddis rock

 

 

[Playing the album “Marquee Moon” by Television (1977) always helps me when I’m down. Its final cut, Torn Curtain, is an astounding finish to one of rock’s most perfect albums (don’t just take my word for it). From the “painfully elegant” chorus to the guitar coda that feels like “falling off a cliff,” the song has always made me want to “shed the tears I never shed.”]

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Joe Pye’s Invitation

The clouds were building over Cedar Run and its forested gorge. The afternon was looking good for fishing in the low clear water but the trout weren’t having anything to do with the several small flies that I offered them. I paused to take a picture of Joe-Pye-weed flowers blooming at head-level on the banks of Cedar Run. It was then that I saw the first Blue-winged Olives fluttering from the stream. I tied on an imitation of the little mayfly, and watched the brook and brown trout race out from their hiding spots to try their luck.

Joe-Pye-weed blossoms

I was thinking of Joe Pye (Jopi) for whom the plant, Joe-Pye-weed, was named. Ostensibly, Joe was a Native American doctor living in New England during the 1800s. Not too much is known about him, so I had the chance to think creatively about his life as a healer known for applying extracts of Eupatorium purpureum and curing patients suffering from typhus fever and other ailments.

boneset blossoms, Cedar Run

I was looking all around me but seemed to focus on Joe-Pye-weed near the stream. Butterflies cavorted there and also stopped for blooms of boneset, goldenrod and aster. I’d been standing still for minutes when I saw a bulge in the shallow pool. A very large brown trout was cruising slowly by. As the trout shifted downstream toward the far bank of the run, its wake cut cleanly through the riffles, and I uttered something like, “Holy Jopi!”

not a big guy, just a pretty one w/ Ant

I’m not one to call Joe Pye a “weed.” No. I call it a pale pink flower, an herb that grows well along streams and forest edges. The plant can grow taller than a pro-basketball player, and can make itself at home in flower-gardens. It’s said that if you crush the flower (please be kind), the fragrance that it gives resembles light vanilla. Man, I love vanilla.

Retreating from Cedar Run, I took the Joe-Pye essence with me to the hotel restaurant at neighboring Slate Run village. I forgot about it while I ate a tasty meal of salad, hamburger, and Two-Hearted Ale. When I left the bar environment I made a short hike into the Slate Run gorge. By the time I reached a favorite trout pool, I figured I had about an hour of fishing before the night closed in.

I was casting with my favorite fly rod, laying out a looping line across calm water to the faster riffles at the head of the pool, when I had the feeling that I wasn’t alone. Earlier I had seen a fly-fisherman passing from my view upstream but, with a quick glance up and down the run, all I saw now was another splashy rise-form given by a heavy trout.

at Kettle Creek where I fished the day after the runs (another tale forthcoming)

Several fish were feeding on the surface of the pool, but I couldn’t tell what they fed on. There were no obvious hatches occurring. No spinners graced the air above the stream. There might have been small ants or midges touching the water, but even my finest imitation didn’t get more than a quick inspection and a snub.

Something other than insects and trout food hung in the air. I turned sharply toward the pine and hemlock trees that stood behind me on the bank. There he was– a middle-aged angler sitting silently on a tree stump as he watched me in the run. I felt a little sheepish but gave the guy a wave, and the fellow kindly responded.

when I switched from an Ant to the larger R. G. King, the bigger brooks in Kettle Creek came out of hiding

I remembered Joe Pye. Up to this point in the day, it had seemed like the Joe-Pye-spirit was calling me to the dance. Now I stepped back from the autumn flowers and waited for some words to leave my mouth. I made a few more casts to the head of the pool and watched the drifting fly.

BWO at Cedar Run

I turned quickly toward the fisherman on the stump and said, “How did you do downstream? Any luck?”

“No. I had one fish come up, but I missed it.”

I made another cast, waited a minute, then found a way to ask a final question: “Would you like to fish this pool? The trout are picky as hell, but you’re more than welcome to try.”

“No. No. I just like watching someone who knows what he’s doing.”

the newt knows what it’s doing…

I was speechless. I glanced at the trees across the head of the pool. Was there someone in there unbeknownst to me? Another fly-fisher who this guy was watching? Somebody who knew what these Slate Run browns were dining on, who knew what he was doing?

I just waved and went on fishing, and several minutes later the tree-stump sitter rose and yelled, “Good luck!”

the brooks are getting active but the streams remain quite low

It might have been an incarnation of Joe Pye, someone other than myself, who shouted “Thank you!” in return. I don’t know. September nights come quickly to a trout stream in the gorge.

ch-ch-ch-changes

gotta love those autumn asters

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Double Focus

Someone recently asked if I could do a small post on the Adirondack fishing scene of late because he hadn’t been able to get up into the mountains for a while. I thought it over and decided I could probably do that even though my late-August visit to the West Branch Ausable River didn’t leave me much to write about, other than what you might have seen on my previous post.

white-knuckling on Going-to-the-Sun Road

The Adirondacks form the premier wilderness region of the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic states. It’s an eight-hour drive from my home to the Lake Placid area of the Adirondacks, so I don’t often visit the mountains, although I’ve hiked and fished a fair amount of them over the years… On this occasion I could fish the West Branch only for a few days of early morning and evening hours (plus a non-productive midday venture). photo– Wikipedia

I still had my earlier, western trip in mind, but found that fly-fishing on the West Branch was a good way to help me get refocused on my home ground. There were fires raging throughout the American West and there were major hurricanes brewing near and far, but my thoughts about the Rocky Mountains and the prairie came from a greener time when environmental stressors weren’t as obvious. These meditations balanced comfortably with what I saw while casting for trout in the boulder-studded Ausable.

moose, Colorado River, RMNP

So, I’m serving up a schizophrenic stew. I’m thinking Adirondacks… for which I’m lacking photographs… but sharing more pictures of the West. I’m living in the present, mostly, but still dreaming of the summer road. My god. I hope the stew is palatable.

The Adirondack Park of northern New York is a blend of wilderness and small town civilization, of mountain land and water, both public and private, now celebrating its 125th year of preservation. The park’s six-million acres of wilderness with private inholdings were rescued from the logging and the mineral-extraction industries of the late nineteenth-century.

the Rambler fishing Avalanche Creek, MT

The Adirondacks form the largest state park in America, a land mass larger than Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon, and Great Smoky national parks combined, and nearly half of it belongs to New York residents whose constitution protects it as “forever wild.”

There are no gates or admission fees to the Adirondack Park. The public is always welcome to hike, hunt, camp, fish, or otherwise enjoy the land for free. It doesn’t get much better than that. Many of us who have enjoyed the pristine Adirondacks or have known about them are grateful to those visionaries of the late 1800s who helped establish one of this country’s most storied environmental legacies.

looking down on McDonald Creek, GNP, MT

When I visit the Adirondacks on a fishing trip, I typically head straight for the Saranac/Lake Placid area where I swing out to the West Branch Ausable River. I forego the comforts to be found there, the numerous motels, lodges and cabins, in favor of a simple tenting set-up on a state campground with easy access to the river.

This August I arrived there in the evening, pitched my tent, and bought some coffee at nearby Wilmington for an early start next morning. Then I hit the river, hoping to catch the “evening rise.”

the Denver wilderness, downtown, looking from hotel window

The Ausable was typical for this time of year– low but rapid in the special regulations water found between the Flume and the access to the Whiteface Mountain ski area. Even with low water in this stretch, the Ausable has lots of rocks and boulders of assorted sizes making it fast and furious at times. Is there an American trout stream anywhere that’s more difficult to safely wade? Not in my experience (although the upper East Fork Bitterroot comes to mind…)

writer fishing Rio Santa Barbara, NM

As long as you’re stepping carefully (think, wading staff), the West Branch is a friendly river, especially in late season. The Slate Drake mayfly (Isonychia bicolor) is hatching profusely in the evenings now and often carrying over through the morning hours. The fishing may be slower than in May and June with that season’s great variety of  hatches, but it’s often a lively occasion.

I had help from my friend, Walt McLaughlin, who came out from his home in northern Vermont. We enjoyed some interesting hours on and off the river. Though our catch was rather modest, there were browns and rainbows reaching the 15 and 16-inch mark. It was fun to watch these trout leap from the white-capped flow to grab a dry fly drifting past. It was good to release these fish (as required) to the tannic water in the early morning fog or in the last light of day.

rivertoprambler in the fog, Glacier Nat’l Park

in Glacier, MT

Lake McDonald, near our campsite, GNP

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Coda: the Dakotas and East

With the weight of Glacier National Park and its surroundings sitting feather-like in our thoughts and on our shoulders, we drove eastward through Montana and on to North Dakota. The immense plateaus of eastern Montana were especially dry, and recent fires had blackened thousands of acres of cattle country populated with mule deer, pronghorn and coyote.

apparently the yellow columbine, found high in Glacier Nat’l Park, is quite uncommon there.

We stopped at North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park and not surprisingly found it much quieter than all the other parks we visited (less tourism). We enjoyed a 36-mile loop road through the modestly beautiful and arid region of “badlands,” or eroded buttes. Bison greeted us at several locations and, anthropomorphically speaking, the busy prairie dog towns seemed friendly and accommodating as long as you were not a ferret or a falcon.

Glacier still on our minds

We ended a long drive into South Dakota at a pleasant camp-site in the West Whitlock Recreation Area on the Missouri River. I would add two more life-birds near this comfortable camping ground. One of them was a group of chicken-like birds identified as sharp-tailed grouse (seen on three occasions), and the other was a family of burrowing owls that huddled together in the doorway of their house inside a prairie dog town.

the tree hugger, w/ western cedar, Glacier

Another first for me was the sighting of a badger. This short-legged omnivore was seen at the roadside scrambling into an open area, perhaps stalking for a ground squirrel or a prairie dog. Even though I once lived in eastern South Dakota and western Wisconsin, I had never once encountered this elusive creature.

at T. Roosevelt Nat’l Park,ND

Speaking of eastern South Dakota, we drove through the city of Brookings where I lived for a short period of time in the late 1960s and where I spent a year attending South Dakota State University (before I switched to Alfred U. in New York State). The city has almost doubled in size since that less than pleasant occasion, but the house where we lived still looks good, and the university grounds seem more attractive than they did in those turbulent days when this country was at war in Vietnam.

in a prairie dog town…

All in all, our journey that began with a stop in Arlington, Virginia and then proceeded to nearly the Mexican border before turning northward through the Rocky Mountains almost to Alberta, Canada was a great success. We visited four national parks plus Dinosaur National Monument. I had the privilege of fly-fishing in six beautiful western states, caught four species of trout, including four sub-species of wild cutthroat. The people we met and the places we encountered form a wonderful bank of memories.

local residents, TRNP

I could not have done it half as well without the managerial skills of my lovely wife with whom I have now shared 35 years of marriage (anniversary, September 4th– hey I remembered!).

looking down on the Little Missouri, TRNP

I would do it again, of course.

West Branch, Ausable (Adirondacks)

Meanwhile, the fishing has been pretty darned fair at home, considering the time of year. I even got to fish the West Branch Ausable River for a while, along with other fine streams.

More on this, the next time.

lots of brown trout in the early morn & evening hours (Adirondacks)

Ausable brown w/ Slate Drake

Dyke Creek brookie

 

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We-Who-Went-to-the-Sun (and-Weren’t-Eclipsed!)

“A national park highway should have not only fine natural scenery, but exhibitions of ingenious engineering skill. It should have at least a few tunnels, galleries, terraces, bridges, hairpin turns, and all that sort of thing– to produce the surprises, thrills and joys that tourists seek.”  –Professor Lyman Sperry, explorer, in a 1915 letter to the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce and the Kalispell Bee, from the book Going-to-the-Sun Road by C.W. Guthrie (2006).

going-to-the-Sunflower!

And this 50 mile-long highway through Montana’s Glacier National Park has it all, my friends. It’s got to be seen to be truly believed, especially for what it opens to the senses in all its jaw-dropping, mind-blowing magnificence. As author C.W. Guthrie states, “That this road exists and somehow seems to belong is a marvel of engineering and gritty determination to do it right.”

For the dedication of the road in July 1933, Horace Albright, the director of the National Park Service, wrote that Going-to-the-Sun should be the singular highway in the park for the motorist and the biker and that it should stand “supreme and alone,” as it does today.

Constructed over a 20-year period by engineers, landscape architects and innumerable laborers, Going-to-the-Sun Road blends in admirably with Glacier’s rushing streams, lakes, and towering alpine mountains. We who drove it (several times!), in the company of all too many other tourists, reveled in the wonders of this place and sadly said farewell to the remnant glaciers now receding into the embrace of climate change.

It’s been said that Glacier National Park (adjoining Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada) contains the most stunning scenery in America, and who am I to argue such opinion. Its narrow highway was the first national park road built to complement and harmonize with the beauties of a place while minimizing damage to the country it traverses.

on the rainbow road w/L.

The only times the road didn’t feel artfully constructed over a tortuous but seamless route (thought by some to be impossible when first designed) was when the traffic choked because some driver saw a bear or a mountain goat and couldn’t reach a pull-over spot.

At such a time you might be hanging over a thousand-foot drop-off while staring at the face of Bird Woman Falls or Heaven’s Peak and wondering who was crazier, the original designer or yourself for wanting to drive up here. It’s no place to be if the Earth suddenly quakes.

The significant architectural features of the 50-mile route from West Glacier to St. Mary, Montana are too many to list in detail but, for starters, I’ll note that the road’s 22-foot width narrows significantly along 10 miles of the “Garden Wall.” There’s a six percent road-grade from “The Loop” to Logan Pass, two tunnels, eight bridges plus culverts for the numerous streams, and 40,000 feet of native-stone guard walls to hold the tourists at the mountainsides (especially appealing in sites like the Triple Arches at the Garden Wall).

the road’s Triple Arches

Each year, the upkeep of the highway for its snow and rock removal and support systems is a monumental affair that almost staggers the imagination.

Well, the impossible takes a little longer, but the difficult we do immediately.”–Going-to-the-Sun Road engineer, 1925.

But darn it all, we didn’t come up here just to marvel at a man-made wonder. We came for an honest look at this “crown of the continent,” this place of rivertops whose waters flow to the Pacific, Gulf of Mexico and Hudson Bay. We scratched only the surface of this 16,000 square-mile wonderland that contains parts of two mountain ranges and over 130 named lakes. It’s a vast and pristine ecosystem that I’d love to see again.

We pitched our tent for several days at the Apgar Campground near the crystalline waters of Lake McDonald following a night spent at an interesting place called Tully Lake. Tully is a forested campground situated about 25 miles from Whitefish, MT and is one of the few locations in the state where common loons are nesting.

Middle Fork Flathead, outside of Glacier

We were lucky to get our Apgar site by arriving early on a Monday morning. Although Glacier is a hiking and a backcountry camping paradise, we found that a designated campground was our best bet for the limited amount of time we had available. From there our short hikes and fishing forays would help us get some insight into the park.

Most of the streams and rivers in the park are glacially fed and thus too clean and sterile, lacking in sufficient nutrients, for good trout fishing, but they certainly are attractive to a die-hard like myself. McDonald Creek was incredibly clear and cold and flowing over colorful stones and gravel. It didn’t matter that its insect life was nil and that its trout are few and far between. It just felt great to cast beneath the awesome peaks of Glacier.

chasm on Avalanche Creek

Avalanche Creek was a different story. There Leighanne and I walked a mile-long boardwalk, a circuit trail, that wound through a forest of magnificent trees (such as western cedar and black poplar). Grizzly bears are a major presence in the park but here are probably too well fed to sniff around for hikers. Anyway, I carried a small bamboo rod, wet-wading on this creek while catching and releasing lots of cutthroats up to nine or 10 inches long and apparently doing okay on a meager diet.

St. Mary’s Lake w/ Isle of Pines

To round out our discoveries in northwestern Montana, we left Glacier National Park occasionally for a quick visit to a brewery or a family-style restaurant or a fishing hole along the South Branch and (especially) the Middle Branch Flathead River where I could make a long cast and successfully land a west-slope cutthroat. It was fun.

[Thus ends my six-piece series called “Top of the Rockies” though a coda from the Dakotas (and eastern Montana) is forthcoming as a final piece to sum things up. Thanks and please stay tuned!]

Middle Fork Flathead, outside of Glacier

 

 

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