Thoreau’s Cape Cod

The kids arranged a pleasant cottage rental for us on Cape Cod. The large pitch pines and pin oaks standing by the roadside in the Town of Dennis caught the pre-dawn hooting of a great horned owl and staged the call for exploration of the cape– the second visit for the kids but the first for my wife and me.

horseshoe crabs, Dennis, MA…

October was the perfect time for visiting the Atlantic coast. The sky was bright; the wind was strong, but the summer crowd had thinned considerably, and the ocean had retained its powerful allure. The bared, bent arm of coastal Massachusetts is approximately 65 miles long and roughly five miles wide (on average). Henry David Thoreau had visited the cape on several occasions in the mid-1800s and reported on his walking tours in a fascinating book entitled, appropriately enough, Cape Cod.

The village of Dennis, where we were staying for several nights, was, according to Thoreau, a barren and desolate place resembling “the bottom of the sea made dry” the day before his arrival. It was raining as Thoreau’s stage traveled northward through the sands and scrubby pines, but he found that Dennis was enjoyable, “so novel, and, in that stormy weather, so sublimely dreary.” And as watchers of the shore, ourselves, as beachcombers, we would find the cape, a land of sea and desert combined, to be an evocative stretch of stark beauty.

mushroom sprouting from the dunes near Provincetown…

Thoreau was awe-struck by the cape as he and William Ellery Channing, a close friend and poet from Concord, rambled along the coast that offered its oceanic debris. Thoreau’s Cape Cod opens with a startling chapter called “The Shipwreck” that records a recent storm and tragedy– its Irish emigrant victims being collected from the sand before his eyes.

from a cottage print…

And yet, beyond the sadness and chaos of an unmatched wilderness, the ocean gave up something more: “I saw that the beauty of the shore itself was wrecked for many a lonely walker there, until he could perceive at last, how its beauty was enhanced by wrecks like this, and it acquired thus a rarer and sublime beauty still.”

Thoreau may have sensed our planet’s oceanic monsters on his visits to the cape, but he discovered more freedom here than on any of his other travels. He thrived on the cape’s ceaseless natural activity, its sudden surprises and drama. There was humor, also, which might surprise some readers acquainted only with the writer’s more famous works. Thoreau’s chapter called “The Wellfleet Oysterman” portrays an old Rabelaisian tobacco-spitting fisherman and his family with complete aplomb.

exploring White Cedar Swamp…

We would hike the Nauset saltmarsh, the Wellfleet dunes and the cedar swamps on well-kept trails and boardwalks, and hit the wonderful Cape Cod National Seashore that extends for many miles northward to its terminus near Provincetown– the clenched hand of the great bent arm. On the windswept beach at Nauset, on Thoreau’s “beach of smooth and gently sloping sand,” we were treated to a sudden view of seals that swam easily through an endless series of white breakers near the shore.

And that wasn’t all. While a sand bank, Cape Cod’s shrubby backbone, loomed precariously behind us, my daughter noted something much larger than a seal, about a hundred yards offshore. A whale– first, one dark shape and then another– a pod arcing through the whitecaps in the morning sun. We watched their water in amazement, and would learn from an experienced observer on the beach that they were minke whales– a small baleen species of approximately 23 feet in length and up to 10 tons in weight.

Thoreau saw these social whales in more dire circumstances, at a time when they were hunted and slaughtered unmercifully. He encountered the butchering of about 30 “blackfish” (as they were called) on the sands nearby, another scene of “naked Nature, inhumanly sincere, wasting no thought on man, nibbling at the cliffy shore where gulls wheel amid the spray.”

an inter-dunes trail, Cape Cod Nat’l Seashore…

a cranberry bog…

Near Provincetown we hiked a mile across the most amazing coastal dunes we’ve ever experienced. Sand banks rose a hundred feet or more and dwarfed the bare-footed walker. Between them might be found a cranberry bog with ripened berries. Stunted trees and plants such as bayberry and beach pea held the sand in place against the brutal Cape Cod winds.

beach pea vines…

Provincetown was just a four-planked street and fishing harbor in Thoreau’s day. The writer would likely turn and grumble in his grave to see the place today. Then again, there might be something sure to please him there, as well.

a taste of P’town…

Thoreau had found a “pleasant equality” and good humor reigning among the rural populace, as if it were blessed by those “who had at length learned how to live.” And that feeling of equality might be found today, as well, especially in bustling Provincetown, a safe haven for minority groups and for the artistically inclined.

from Provincetown…

Thoreau wanted to experience the kind of seashore that rebuffed hotels and businesses, that had nothing manmade other than a lone humane hut or two constructed for a shipwrecked sailor or a struggling explorer. He wanted “to put up at the true Atlantic House,” and here he found it.

the occasional dune hut (original use for shipwrecked sailors) …

Far behind this solitude of ocean and desert, we could see the towering monument to the Pilgrims who had landed at Massachusetts Bay near the dawning of westward expansion. From the crest of our hundred-foot dune, we gazed northward on the restless and illimitable ocean.

We descended on a path, or “hollow,” through the dunes. The unending rush of white-capped breakers were like waterfalls, each wavering line, each noisy drop, dispersing toward the sand from distant, unknown places.

Nauset Lighthouse…

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Owl Farm (Redux)

This will be a short post that reflects a busy time here in the shire. I’ve been working feverishly on a new book (Covid-free!), helping with the house improvement projects where I’m able, prepping for a short visit to Cape Cod, getting more acquainted with my “back forty” than I’ve ever been in 40 years, gearing up for a resumption of trout fishing, and attempting to ignore as much as possible the nonsense and mayhem in the realm of politics (though hoping every capable U.S. citizen gets out on Election Day and votes, remembering the good fight for racial justice and environmental health, as well as a host of other critical issues for our day).

All the pics arise from recent walks on Owl Farm, my home acreage for many years. The poem comes from my book called Uplands Haunted by the Sea, published in 1992. It’s an old one but it works for me today.

Owl Farm

We came to this, our homestead,

in an autumn when the screech owl

whinnied out its welcome from the dusk

that wrapped us closely

with the walnut tree it perched in.

We knew the place was old and

broken, knew that it had known

prosperity and neglect. Seven autumns

have arrived and flown

from a house abandoned by

its careless and defeated dwellers,

from a barn that once was house

to horse and cow, a coffin now

to the husks and tools of failure.

We arrived here in our need

and witnessed load on load of

trash hauled through the years

of cleaning and rebuilding,

through the cold and warmth

of seasons spinning out sameness.

Planting, pruning, harvesting–

we sense our labors shed like sweat

from the ground accepting us.

In a pre-dawn blackness we

awaken to the barred owl’s hooting,

to the hen’s nervous squawk,

our bodies aging, drifting

into sleep once more, the dark

changes that absorb us in

the fitting contours of this land.

Sadly, most of my white ash trees (like many in the region) have been hit by the emerald borer…

trying to reestablish the great white pines…

poplars growing from a glacial sandbank…

I’ll miss my woodlands on the Cape, but the fish want to make a fool of me again…

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“Fishing and Eating in Saloons”

[Part 4, the last in my Rocky Mountains series for 2020.]

The sportswriter Red Smith and his small son were fishing in the north woods long ago and would customarily break for lunch in a local tavern. At one point, Red’s son was wolfing down his sandwich and guzzling a Coke when he exclaimed, “Gee, Dad, this is the life, ain’t it? Fishing and eating in saloons!”

In the spirit of that youthful excitement, one well-aged father and his daughter motored from Yellowstone into Montana for some fishing and camping along the Gallatin River. The fishing was satisfactory near the forested campground, but it definitely improved on traveling up or downstream from Big Sky.

Bear activity had been noted at the camps, and warnings had been posted there, but we were pleased to have nailed down the final (and probably the quietest) tenting site available.

I wasn’t sleeping well, however. The night was eerily hushed. I heard a growl nearby, and a crashing sound as if a small tree had dropped across the gravel drive. I bolted upright from the sleeping bag and woke Alyssa from her dreams nearby. All food items had been wisely packed away, but I had foolishly hung a pair of wet fishing socks to dry on small branches just above our doorway.

Normally, the rankness of my footwear would have been a better grizzly deterrent than a can of premium bear spray. But 2020 had been nothing but unusual to this point, so I whispered to Alyssa that I was headed for the car. I’d grab those socks, bury them in a bag, and come back with our can of carnivore repellent.

Slowly, a welcome rest returned to old Montana.

The morning trout fed hungrily on midges and tiny Tricos hatching at the river seams. I found it maddening to miss their rises, but the early sun was pleasant and I stuck with one location till I changed my tactics– finally catching and releasing a hefty rainbow on a standard #12 Adams. We could now head eastward once again, with a couple of important stops in wild Wyoming.

North Fork Shoshone

I had wanted to fish the North Fork Shoshone since the days when I first observed it near the eastern gateway to Yellowstone… We grabbed the last available tenting site (again!) along the Shoshone in the Clearwater National Forest.

The place was semi-arid but mountain bright. The vast glides of quickly flowing water offered numerous wild trout, cutthroats and rainbows, rising to caddis and stonefly imitations. It was pleasant, and we hoped to return someday, if for no other reason than observing the incredible rock formations forged by fire, wind and water.

Eating? Ah, the pretzels & mustard were great…

Paying our respects to the native cultures of the West, we traveled to the Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark located in the Big Horn Mountains. A gravel road took us to a parking lot near the summit of Medicine Mountain, ten-thousand feet above sea-level, and from there we hiked 1.5 miles to the cliffs and fissures of the sacred site.

The stone circle, 84 feet in diameter and centuries old, is a place for communion with the Great Spirit. As Black Elk said, “Everything the Power of the World does is in a circle.” And here our own summer journey found its round fruition. Vistas carried us back and forth along the paths of self-reflection. A flock of chestnut-collared longspurs (my third life-bird of the trip) lent its wings to my rambling thoughts above the Big Horn Basin.

We were coming home, but made one more significant stop– at Devils Tower (my second visit there, Alyssa’s first). We made a late-day, 2-mile walk around the structure, then obtained a final “last available tenting site” near the shadows of the rock.

Having set up our tent, we traveled to a restaurant/saloon and dined on the patio with its fine view of Devils Tower. I had a massive bourbon-burger and a local brew. Alyssa did the same but substituted a tasty vegan-burger for the meatier selection… Ah yes, “fishing and eating in saloons!” And later we would note what appeared to be a planet beaming on and off at the crest of the darkened Tower.

Devils Tower…

The light blinked slowly, off and on, as if Jupiter got obscured by passing clouds, or an alien ship was docking Hollywood-style at the top. It took us a while to realize that rock climbers had waited, by choice or necessity, for darkness to arrive before descending the mountain wall.

We travelers, though, required no light whatsoever to descend our own cliffs to the pillowed sanctity of sleep.

Alyssa at the far end of the spur…

the Big Horn Basin…

toward the Medicine Wheel…

the “Old City of Jerusalem” rock formation, North Fork Shoshone…

 

 

 

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Yellowstone Getaways

[Part 3 of a 4-part series that reflects a recent Rocky Mountain road trip with my daughter.]

Sandhill cranes fed near the roadway to the geyser basins. We took a morning hike to Fairy Falls, a columnar drop of 197 feet, the highest in the national park. At first it seemed we were alone– the only hikers out beyond the popular and colorful Grand Prismatic Geyser Basin, walking through a stand of uniform pines, without our can of bear spray.

Natural Bridge, at YNP…

Reading the posted warnings– “a high density of bears”– almost stopped us in our tracks, but when a family with noisy kids arrived, we decided we could trail behind them safely while maintaining a reasonable distance. Fairy Falls had us hooked, and we were glad it reeled us in.

the noise from Roaring Mountain was not the roar of bear…

The sheer fantasy of falling water didn’t stop there in the cold depth of its plunge-pool. An uncommon Williamson’s sapsucker, my first life-bird of the trip, clung briefly to the spire of a dead tree and heightened the pleasure of our walk. A crowd of hikers trickled in off the trail, and we felt lucky to have found the peace and quiet when we did.

a big guy near our second camp…

Throughout our six days in Yellowstone, we fished and hiked and found such wonderful places as Roaring Mountain, Artist Paint Pots, and Swan Lake with its pair of summering trumpeters (no relation to campaign politicos). This was not my first visit to the park but I had missed a lot of what Alyssa and I now managed to experience.

at Mammoth Geyser Basin…

Our biggest “getaway,” however, was not one we ever wanted to re-do…

We were moving from our camp at Madison Junction to our second reserved camp at Bay Bridge near Yellowstone Lake. Along the way, we would visit  Mammoth Geyser Basin and have lunch in Gardiner, Montana. While relaxing in Gardiner, a sudden water break on the Norris-Mammoth Road (behind us) closed the link we needed for our drive to Bridge.

Swan Lake, with trumpeters…

Another link,  the Tower-Norris road, was already closed for the season, so we were left with only one option. To get to Bay Bridge we would need to make a long five-hour drive…

A grueling detour: through the Lamar and out the northeast exit of the park, through the splendid Bear Paw Mountains to Cody, Wyoming, and then west once more through Yellowstone’s eastern entrance… We made it, but the mind still reels from the magnitude of that almost endless round-about.

at least the swans didn’t have far to go…

Alyssa and I were fishing the Yellowstone River near Hayden Valley. I had fished there at midday and hadn’t even seen a fish (the cutthroats are reportedly fewer now because of lake trout predation, but some of the survivors grow unusually large). It was late in the day. I finally saw a huge fish rising to emerging caddis flies in the quiet water between two rapids.

Soda Butte…

The big native, easily 20 inches, broke the surface with its back but wouldn’t take the various dries that I presented. I applied a large wet caddis tied by a Slate Run pal, Marion Alexander, and the trout found it irresistible.

“Alyssa!” I shouted. “Got him. The big one!” She came stumbling downstream to assist. Meanwhile, a bull bison crossed the road nearby and stopped the traffic. Several cars and trucks had windows down. At least two of them were filled with Yellowstone revelers in a party mood. I fought the fish and heard a great commotion from the highway: “Yay, he got him! Got the big one! Dude! Way to go!” Horns blared. What a noise.

a getaway? on release…

As my audience cheered from the bison block, I carefully steered the cutthroat from the fast water but, ultimately, yes, the 4x-tippet snapped and my heart took a sudden bath. My arms rose in defeat, and the audience, moving now behind a rambling buffalo, shouted a collective, “Ohh… he lost it but… yay! Good job, anyhow!” I bowed to the honking noise and swept an arm out to the real star of this performance– a broad-backed native of supreme energy and delight.

stuck inside an hour-long bison jam, we noticed lots of little things…

And there was one other getaway, of note…

We were fishing and walking the Madison one evening near our campsite. The wind became problematic, as far as casting was concerned.

iconic falls…

A powerful gust ripped open the plastic tag attached to the back of my fishing vest. Four paper licenses blew out to the deep flowing waters of the Madison. I quickly retrieved one of them– my expired Colorado fishing license.

Later, about a thousand-feet downriver, I retrieved another one from the tip of an island– my expired license for Wyoming (exclusive of the Park permit). That left only the New York and Pennsylvania licenses, gone with the wind.

upper Madison River…

Back home again, I would get my New York license re-issued for a $5 fee. The next day I’d receive a letter in the mail, from a kind angler living in Boise, Idaho. Included in the envelope was… my PA license!  And a note saying, “I found this in the Madison River. I hope you caught a big one there.” Reid T. saved me the trouble of buying an out-of-state re-issue!

Yellowstone River angling…

That yellow license was in excellent shape, by the way, aside from my water-blurred signature. After all the wind and river currents, I had an Idaho fisherman to thank for his kindness dished out through this crazy world.

Lamar River Valley…

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Feral Thoughts, Wyoming

[Part 2 in a 4-part series on a Rocky Mountain tour & camp-out with my daughter.]

We immersed ourselves for a much needed bath in the cool waters of the Snake River, near our Station Creek campsite. Our next move was to Alpine village for a patio beer at the renowned Bull Moose Saloon. The following morning we traversed the dusty Greys River Valley for about 25 gravelly miles, stopping to fish and hike as inspiration struck us.

The Greys flowed full and clear but the fishing was slow till late-afternoon. Caddis and mayfly hatches strengthened in the softening light, and the numerous fine-spotted cutthroats found a floating dry fly irresistible.

big paw…

Western tanagers and American dippers flew attractively above the pools and riffles and gave wing to other fine distractions. In the evening we enjoyed a take-out meal at Alpine’s Mexican restaurant, which leads me to the subject of a restless night– our second night on the Snake. The first one had been restful, lulled to sleep with the sound of the rushing river in our ears…

Snake River fine-spotteds on the Greys…

Now the noise from the highway’s logging trucks had disappeared. It seemed reasonable to think about grizzly bears along the Snake, even though a tent encounter was highly unlikely. How would I react at night with only nylon for a barrier? The feral mind quickened, and I could only hope it wasn’t a “feeble mind”– the product of an aging, over-civilized existence.

Feral mind is a natural condition, all too often shunned or buried by society. I was pleased to feel it in the freedom of the moment, understanding that it needn’t be fearless or ideal. The primal impulse was alive, and I felt obligated to give some thought to nature and mortality.

The next day’s visit to the Tetons was a humbling experience, as expected. Adjectives such as “grand” or “majestic” don’t suffice for the reality of wildness there. Such words can’t describe the hope suggested by such beauty, nor can they minimize the hatred for the damage people have done to other splendid scenes across the globe. The feral mind seeks to balance chaos and order.

Alyssa and I stepped off the beaten track and bushwhacked through the sand and sage then reveled at the sights of forested Leigh Lake and the peaks of Grand Teton and Moran. Later I would catch another cutthroat in the big Snake River– prelude to the sighting of a grizzly bear with three hefty cubs that browsed in a copse of aspen trees. Alyssa was especially fired-up by all the wildlife possibilities.

Snake River…

I like to think that feral thoughts are disciplined, though wild. They show respect for the universal aspects of common life and don’t run rough-shod over people or new places. I suspect they’re unlike the drunken biker caught up in the maelstrom of a Sturgis party, and more like an energy drink that brings a shot of fear and freedom to the heart.

Madison River camp, Yellowstone…

strange to think of it as one grand volcano…

When we arrived at Yellowstone National Park for our five nights of camping there, these musings seemed to reinforce our plan to purchase angling permits for the local rivers– and for a can of bear spray that we hoped to never use.

Alyssa casting on the Gibbon River…

Gibbon Falls, Yellowstone…

at Grand Prismatic…

a Teton favorite…

 

 

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Mountain Times, Colorado

[The first in a 4-part series that reflects a recent road trip, camping with my daughter through the mountains of Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. I hope you enjoy the ride.]

Our first Colorado night was spent in Monument at Terry’s house. I unrolled the new sleeping bag and pad beneath the second-story patio with its view of Pike’s Peak to the west. Alyssa had a room inside her grandmother’s lovely home. It was all quite fresh and mountain-scented. In the morning we’d resume our journey with a hike through the Garden of the Gods.

Nature’s red-stone sculptures formed a wonderland inviting us to investigate this famous Rocky Mountain site near Colorado Springs. My new binoculars were busy picking out the feathered spirits of the blue-sky West– the ravens, magpies, pygmy nuthatches, and Stellar jays, to name a few of the front-range species I’d been looking forward to revisiting.

my new custom Sam Lacina hand net (thank you, family!)

fringed gentians…

With an outdoor brewery lunch to sustain us, Alyssa and I headed for the South Platte River, the so-called “Dream Stream” section flowing from a highland reservoir. White  pelicans and fringed gentians complemented our windy attempt at fishing, and it didn’t matter that the trout remained elusive. Later, on the upper Arkansas, the first wild brown trout came to net like a grain of gold from a heavy flush of water that washed away all cares.

my chief navigator & trail prompter…

“Dream Stream”…

Next morning, a Rocky Mountain sheep stood at roadside as we motored slowly toward Mt. Elbert, Colorado’s highest peak, at over 14,000′ above sea-level. The views from Independence Pass (12,000′-plus) helped to keep us humble and sanguine, ready for the unexpected. At a pull-off on the headwaters of the Roaring Fork, I assembled a 3-weight rod for our short descent into an attractive gorge. Five wild rainbows quickly came to hand and then returned to the cold, clear stream before a motley crowd of travelers broke our solitude with aspirations of their own.

at Independence Pass…

Beyond Aspen and Basalt, the Frying Pan River held more fly-fishers than I’ve seen in ages. During a global pandemic with a surge in outdoor recreational pursuits, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find a full house on the streams and in the campgrounds. Nonetheless, we met the challenge in remote locations, and I managed four nice trout (up to 15 inches) that rose to a Pale Morning Dun and a Pheasant-Tail variation.

the Frying Pan sizzled with activity…

That evening we settled in historic Carbondale, enjoying good food and local brews not far from the Crystal River. We would drive upriver to the Red Rocks Campground where, establishing a pattern of lucky breaks in campground siting, we obtained the last available tenting spot. The red-stone cliffs of this alpine valley seemed to tell us life was good. We soon reserved our next night’s stay at nearby Bogan Flats– again, the last site available, where Alyssa’s grandparents had been camp hosts 22 years before.

Red Rock coke ovens…

my 5-weight Chester2 did yeoman’s work…

The national forest campground at the Flats is actually located on a beautiful mountain slope. From there we could fish and inspect the low-water drainage of the wild Crystal River. We explored the tourist town of Red Rocks (interesting coke ovens from the coal-mining era!) and the higher ground at Marble with its artful scattering of rock from the marble mines above the place of human habitation.

Marble art…

Shards of marble glimmered from the pristine river but, unlike my experience back in ’98, encounters with trout seemed few and far between. Had the forage base diminished in these alpine heights, or had the fish suffered an increase in angling pressure during this unusual season? Western tanagers, pine siskins and McGillivray’s warbler gave their accents to the willow shrubs beside the river, but no answers came to an inquiring mind.

from Bogan Flats…

above Marble…

My best fish on the Crystal was a 12-inch rainbow. Fishing would improve in the days to come as we traveled northward. For now, an evening meal with cold drinks at the Barbecue House in Marble would suffice. The restful patio dining gave an almost perfect closure to a splendid mountain day.

at least we can dream…

near Marble…

the marble trout…

on the South Platte…

[Next stop, Alpine, Wyoming]

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The Hemlock Grove

Preparing for a long road trip into western places where I like to believe that a fly-fishing spirit can really soar at times like this, it’s good to remind myself that one needn’t go far in order to find a tranquil center for the heart and mind. For example, I enjoy a midsummer climb into my neighboring hemlock grove.

hemlock w/ walking stick…

As expected, the evening’s hermit thrushes chorused in their chamber of the darkening trees. I leaned on the walking stick, swatted at an irritating deerfly, and took another swill of water from the flask. And there– the piping, whistling and melodic phrasing of that singular species, emanating like no other at this season.

It’s a soft parade of seasonal song, intricate and uplifting, not unlike the sharp-edged wailing of coyotes I would hear as darkness settles over the hollow. These avian songs were wild and beautiful as coyote’s but more enticing and poetic. Their diversity issued from the hemlock trees and seemed to wrap the mind in streams of wonder.

Living on Earth: BirdNote: Exquisite Thrush Song

The ethereal songs accompanied the shards of golden sunlight slanting through the woods. They reminded me, sadly enough, that so few of our kind know about this form of blissful solitude, or care enough to experience such a moment in the wild. Sometimes I imagined that a hermit would follow my slow steps across the hill while singing constantly, but I doubted that my presence mattered at the time.

At any given moment, I could hear several birds calling simultaneously, improvising their positions in the woods while staying hidden in the foliage, temporarily dominant in the game of evolution.

The exquisite caroling put me in a special place. The nesting territories of the hermit, as defined by song, seemed to overlap each other and made it difficult to determine how many were holding court in one location.  I imagined that I could hear five or six thrushes at a time, and later was reminded of John Burroughs’ well-known piece entitled “In the Hemlocks.”

Although Burroughs wrote of many plants and birds encountered in the forest, it was the hermit thrush that possessed “the finest sound in nature.” It’s interesting to note that this nineteenth-century writer was an atheist with pantheistic leanings, yet he heard something in these avian phrasings that suggested a “religious beatitude” unlike any other.

Hermits sang “as if a spirit from some remote height were slowly chanting a divine accompaniment.” The charmed and passionate phrasing seemed “interspersed with the finest trills and the most delicate prelude.” And so it was, I acknowledged again the difficulty of putting such beauty into words, and thanked the spirit of this naturalist for finding a way here in the hemlock grove.

“Listening to this strain… with the full moon just rounded from the horizon, the pomp of your cities and the pride of your civilization seemed trivial and cheap.”

Thus, one needn’t go far to find a center for the soul. I would welcome the hermit as a spirit bird, to roost in memory for the long road to the mountains and to help sustain us as Rivertop Rambles takes a three-week break.

Be safe, be hopeful, everyone, and thank you for reading.

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Strange Fruit and Other Start-Ups

1.  I had a couple of non-related flashbacks to the late 1980s. In the first one I recalled a winter night, trundling off to a movie at Alfred U., in which our four-month-old son experienced his first theater production. Woody Allen’s “Bananas” was good for belly laughs.

kits observing home improvement work outside…

As Woody’s character rose to the presidency of San Marcos, the plotting seemed a little dated but the action was fresh and humorous. Our son’s attention was undivided– even during a milk break taken while sitting on his mother’s lap. “Bananas” must have been a red flag or a jolly admonition about the future.

Image result for Woody Allen Bananas FilmThe second flashback concerned a late-night talk with Mike and Tom in 1987. We were sitting at the National Hotel in Bath, conversing on my work with Great Elm Press and about our various literary goals. We also spoke a bit about our new-found interest in the streams and trails of northern Pennsylvania.

hiking up Dryden Hill…

An old fellow, probably homeless and too drunk to see, wanted us to drop four quarters in the jukebox for a set of “country tunes.” Before I finished a selection for him, we saw two policemen entering the bar who then proceeded to arrest the guy. I approached the cops, saying, “I don’t know this man… but I just put four quarters in the jukebox for him. Can he hang around until his songs are played?”

The cops never cracked a smile .

Pine Creek caddis special…

[My thanks to the Slate Run Sportsmen blog (slaterunsportsmen.com) which first published Part 2 of this post (without pics)]

2.   I first became acquainted with the Slate Run area in the 1980s. Making an occasional run between Virginia and western New York, I would sometimes stop at an alluring place like Pat Reeder’s Tavern on Route 44, locations I’d eventually link to an ancient Chinese drinking song– “In all these details there are secret truths; but when I try to speak of them, everything slips away.”

where I live, from Dryden Hill…

I bought my first PA, out-of-state, fishing license in 1987. I’ve returned to the wonderful trout streams such as those in the Pine Creek Valley ever since. I even published a book of poetry called The Wild Trout in response to the first two seasons of listening to the call of the Pennsylvania wilds.

In May of ’87 I participated in the first of many long hikes taken near Slate Run. To connect with my hiking pals, I had to drive my brother’s rusting and dilapidated car, stopping in Germania for directions on how to take a short-cut out to Pine. Late for my appointment at the trail-head, I drove frantically down Germania Branch then up and over the ridges, fearing that the car would die, choking on dust that mushroomed through the floor boards, in one of the most adventurous 24-mile drives I’d ever taken.

fossilized cellar stones reinforced with underlain cement & blocks…

Difficulty aside, I found that the mountains were inviting. The Francis Branch looked good for fly-fishing; the Golden Eagle and Black Forest trails could lead me away; and the Slate Run general store, hotel and tackle shop would be there to sell me anything else required for salvation.

There I was. And it’s been upstream and down, ever since.

3.   Lyman Run is one of the closest Class A trout streams to my home. I began my relationship with its four-mile stretch of special regulations water in May of 1987. I turned south from Pennsylvania’s Route 6 onto Thompson Road and found a scenic forestland of spruce, hemlock and deciduous trees. Before I suited up to fish, I was greeted by a wood turtle, a raven, and a black squirrel scurrying through the fog that lay upon the forested valley.

old square-cut barn nails…

Fly-fishing for a mile or so, I saw only two or three other anglers. Overhanging branches competed with numerous brook trout for the nymph and dry flies I presented. Lyman Run was tight with alders and hemlock boughs but the sight of brilliant native fish brought smiles of satisfaction.

Back home, I learned about an accident that had just occurred. Elsie B. had lost control of her car and crashed into a big maple tree in my yard. The car was totaled. Leighanne had called authorities and had helped Elsie from her vehicle.  Curiosity seekers drove by for the next few hours.

The driver hadn’t been seriously hurt but was ushered to the hospital. Her car had sheered off four feet of bark on the tree. An inspector came and suggested that we cover the wound with tar and black plastic. We needn’t worry about the tree’s appearance: “It looks better now than it did before.” So, no serious injuries, and we had a new “improved” version of a maple tree!

hand-hewn logs exposed at base of 19th-century house…

I spent an hour cleaning up crushed glass and litter. Elsie’s husband, Reggie, arrived and said, “If I’d known this was gonna happen, I wouldn’t of sunk so much money into the car.”  A minute later, Ed Dickerson pulled up, feigning to lose control of his truck and shouting from a window, “Oh no! I’m gonna hit a tree!”

From here on out, we were extra careful when we had our pets and children near the road.  “Bananas” was set to re-play in our heads.

a favorite hill barn…

a Slate Run brown (2019)…

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Transitions

Anticipating an August road trip out West, I recalled several earlier trips taken with my wife and kids– one trip just two years ago, and others, oh, way back… Perhaps the highlight of one westward transition occurred as we stopped for breakfast in a family-style restaurant near LaSalle, Illinois.

prairie dog, a westward look…

We sat at a table near a few old “regulars” slouched at widely separated stools along the U-shaped counter. Waiting for our orders to arrive, we enjoyed listening to some droll midwestern dialogue…

Patron A: “So, how’s work been going?”

Patron B: “Okay.”

Patron A: “I’ll bet I work more in one day than you’ll ever work in a month.”

Patron B: “That ain’t likely.”

Patron A: “I heard they sent a recliner over to your place for what you do.”

The banter continued, sometimes pausing sullenly for a minute or two, as we sat with our coffees, listening, and admitting, afterward, that the blueberry pancakes were pretty darn good, as well.

larger than I could tie or transport…

[What follows are two excerpts from “Western River Cycle” in my book called Sand & Sage (2010). I see them as reflections from Yellowstone, one of many wild locations that my daughter & I are hoping to revisit soon while maintaining our social distance from the crowds.]

The Firehole

The Nez Perce is a major tributary of the Firehole River. It was flowing low and warm as I passed a handful of frustrated anglers. No one was seeing trout in this hot weather, so I opted to explore the Firehole instead. After promising wife and kids that I would go with them on their second visit to Old Faithful geyser later in the day, I was dropped off at the Firehole Canyon.

my wife zeroes in…

The Firehole was flowing full and deep and cool, a fly-caster’s dream where I could lay down my terrestrial patterns on the grassy channels or beside an undercut bank. I caught several good rainbows that were feeding on grasshoppers and ants blown into the water.

Later, following a tasty Montana meal in West Yellowstone, I sampled a bit of the Madison River inside the park. The wind swept layers of storm cloud over the valley as I gave casting lessons to the kids. Releasing a small trout, I thought I heard the river gods intone, “Thanks for trying.” I thought I saw graffiti scrawled on an incoming wave: “I was here for a moment. It was fun.” I definitely heard shouting from the van, “Dad, don’t forget Old Faithful!”

The Gardner

Since the Gardner River below Mammoth Springs is influenced by very hot effusions from within the earth, I figured that any trout in this particular section had to be either suicidal or already cooked. Following some mandatory footwork on the paths of the Mammoth Springs site, we drove upriver toward the isolated Indian Creek Campground. At Sheep-eaters Cliff, named for the ancients who ostensibly hunted and consumed the area’s mountain sheep, my daughter and I strung up the fly rods.

It was the first occasion on this journey for my daughter to try some dry fly casting. She and I enjoyed the fast-flowing stream, but as dusk began to settle on this grizzly bear terrain, we found ourselves edging toward the parking lot. Fellow carnivores had to be respected, of course, and we seemed to be the only human carnivores around.

We were fortunate to have caught and released a lot of little brook trout in the Gardner, each as beautiful in its own way as any of the moose or elk or bison we had seen. The brookies, native to eastern North America, were a splendid fish even though they had usurped the native cutthroat trout in all too many western streams. Cutthroats remained the dominant sports fish on the upper Yellowstone River, and I looked forward to meeting them soon.

Man and machine have brought many changes to cold-water habitats around the world, and one needn’t look farther than Yellowstone Lake for a sobering example. The lake had been home to a stable population of cutthroat trout for millennia. In recent years, someone illegally dumped a number of lake trout into the water and now the non-native species has become a major predatory problem threatening to displace the cutthroat.

The cutthroat struggles for survival in many parts of the West, and the brook trout struggles for survival in the East. At the root of the problem are the transplants, plus the hand that perpetuates transplanting all around the planet. Even on a balmy summer evening, transplants are a theme at the Gardner River. Where once there were native Sheep-eaters struggling to survive, there were at least two eastern fly-fishers, a father and a daughter, trying to live their lives as fully as they could.

[Don’t hesitate to check my 56-second Greys River video below, replete with motorbike sounds & dust, about 20 miles above the nearest village.]

Snake River fine-spotted…

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Narragansett

My quest for saltwater species taken with a fly rod continued to elude me, defying all odds, on coastal Rhode Island. There were no fish seen or caught in my pleasant trials along Quonnie Pond, at the sand bar on Conimicut, or from a levee in Narragansett Bay. A perfect skunk!

Who else could boast a zero grade for casting feathers at a dozen mid-Atlantic and Caribbean sites? Not many, I’m sure. And even though a teetering sector of my rational mind still offers that old “You were in the right place at the wrong time” argument, the remaining mental chambers will have none of it. They insist that Salty Walt defer to the “Rivertop Rambler” in all future outings with a fly… I’m listening.

at Quonnie Pond…

So, the real catch was elsewhere, right? Sure, from the family ties, from the fresh coastal air and brush of brackish water, from the sight of swans and ospreys, and even from the sweep of all too many holiday celebrants. Spring had been prison-like for people everywhere, thanks to the pandemic, but summer was proclaiming independence.

Atlantic slippersnails, or common slipper shells, edible either way, had attached themselves & stained a clamshell…

excused from the fast lane…

Celebrants kept their social distance from each other or displayed their ignorance head to head, aligned with the spirit of exploding cherry bombs or with a full moon that competed with the rain of fireworks on the changing tides of the Atlantic.

the American political scene…

for which this helps…

One of our interesting hikes occurred at Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge, an 800-acre tract described as “the only undeveloped salt pond in Rhode Island.” This former sheep farm is lined with great stone walls enclosing native grasslands, shrubland, forest, marshes, and sandy beaches with observation platforms and pedestrian benches.

Birding was alive with sights and sounds of mute swans, egrets, ospreys, hooded warblers, and white-eyed vireos, to name a few of the many species we observed in their bay and ocean habitats.

And speaking of the bay, I’ll remind anyone interested in poetics (the last time, I promise) that my latest– a 71-page handbound volume– is available now from FootHills Publishing, Amazon, and Wood Thrush Books, as well as from the old rambler at his high hills abode.

From the High Hills to the Bay

“New poetry by the naturalist and writer Walt Franklin, set in upstate New York. Appalachian Dawn, The Waterthrush, In Jewelweed, Eastern Coyote Poem, Swamp Magic… straightforward, well-crafted, nature-related verse from one of the region’s passionate stewards.” — W. McLaughlin, reviewer.

Another sample:

          Red-Tail

     Soaring circles

around the Sun

     drawing the Moon

thru his embered tail

               Hawk

plays and hunts

     creation in his eye

the Earth at his claw

*        *        *        *

Thanks everyone. And a couple more photos…

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