Wild Chemung

1.  Trails.  Chemung– a river in the large Susquehanna watershed of New York State and Pennsylvania. A place of towns and cities, Corning and Elmira, linked to farm communities, even to pockets of wildness, vestiges of pre-colonial America.

Looking back– low mountains wild with “game lands” and a bit of public access. Seven miles of trail for recreation. Two miles into the forest, I recalled a fishing jaunt for smallmouth in the river just below a major bridge near Corning. Stone and concrete rained down from the bridge’s underside, spattering water like a hail of bullets. I got out of there then took a phone call from my wife. An earthquake had rippled northward from Virginia. Our technology and hubris, our shields from the “acts of God,” were not as impenetrable as we’d thought. The Earth, after all, was alive and breathing.

Soon the wild Chemung diffused the traffic sounds, replacing them with water, wind and birds. Rose-breasted grosbeaks perched in a solitary maple functioning as a rest stop on their late migration. Sun reflected from these black-and-white songsters, drawing the eye especially to the rose-red plumage of the males. Eventually I came to a stony outcrop overlooking the river valley. There a timber rattlesnake, large and brown, sunned itself beside a crop of violets, raising the pulse of wildness to the surface of my skin.

Returning to the sadly broken world, I flushed a bald eagle from a field’s edge where it fed on road-killed deer deposited by government workers. It flew toward the river and its promise of a fresher meal. Each pocket of the wild connects us to a universal nature. We can try to harness and control our world, assault it with machinery and logic, but the hope for peace and natural beauty will remain– a feather wafting slowly on the breeze.

2.  The David. We stumbled in, not quite knowing what it was. Yeah, The David’s neon glow, its name, its fine location on a brick road lined with boarded architecture.

Something other than our wisdom told us this was not another biker bar. A line of dour-looking drinkers studied our approach– in ragged jeans and jackets of uncertainty.

With a beer in hand, we walked toward a quiet, nebulous den at the back of the establishment. We could play pool there underneath a low-hung chandelier, an ornament that might have passed review in a grand hotel, but looked ridiculous among the graphic posters nailed to plywood walls. Whoa! … A blast of cruel guitar notes slammed us to an island of complete sobriety. A globe light spun alive and washed us in a sea of colors.

Welcome to The David! Welcome to Michelangelo’s sculpture, rising to perfection out of marble– body so composed, so tense, titanic, anticipatory, and, for local purposes, entirely naked! We were stranded, dazed, until the bartender strode to our rescue and controlled the speaker’s volume.           Image result for Michelangelo's David Scale

In appreciation, we brightened the chandelier for billiard action underneath the watchful eye of public-service posters pushing condom use. One poster showed a modern Adam with a coil of chain where the fig leaf should have been. Afterward, we joined the bar and took stock of our company.

An obese fellow sat alone with his drink. A white youth and an older black man stood together, speaking and occasionally groping at flesh. Two women sat in a booth and whispered face to face. With beers consumed, we dropped our redneck ways and exited The David. The old brick road led outward to the boulevards of revelation.

So, welcome to the corner bars of Earth! To the realms of black and white, of East and West, of Mexico and Canada, of communion and conviviality, of Irish pub and topless bar, of opium saloon and geisha lounge… From The David to The Boar’s Nest to The Lions’ Den, from refuge to refuge, far from the madding crowd… We could tour the great night of Chemung and sculpt new memory– like Michelangelo at his marble– if we did it right. If we toured it artfully, careful not to sculpt a masterpiece of trouble with the blade of stupid drunkenness.

3.  Emily’s Tale. My name is Emily. Last name doesn’t matter. Came from Michigan to Elmira to be closer to my daughter, and farther from my marriage and divorce. When I was little I had blondish pig-tails. Liked to sit with my dad at shows featuring Lenny Bruce. Got theater-trained and played in TV soaps. Later, did stand-up comedy but didn’t really like it. I got lonely. Friends said, try the singles’ bars and make them happen. Huh! All I’d do for their horny studs is brand ’em with my insults. What I’d like to work again is theater, but I’m 40 now, and these crows’ feet ’round the eyes won’t help me much.

I do write poetry. Reams of it. I went to a reading the other night. Afterward, met the featured poet at a neighboring bar. I asked him if he published much. He had. Would he like to read some poems I’d written? Sure. He gave me an address. I would send him work. Oh, the drinks were really good. He got excited. Me? I felt like a goddess turned from Hell to languish in some paradise. Was he married? I didn’t ask. Was it friendship I needed, or just someone who could save my poems?

We stepped out to the open air and locked our lips as one, you know? Man, I was rising from the mud, from dungeon to steeple, from an old self to a woman in revision. But– it couldn’t last. I said, “I’ll send some poems. Be honest with me, and please– no bullshit.” Yeah, that was it. He had miles to go. Then it dawned on me. I’d never told him my last name! Well, it doesn’t matter now. Maybe saying “Emily” was enough.

I won’t ever write him. I have poems that wait for me alone. I’ve got a daughter who I love.

Pine Creek headwaters, 1.12.20…

Spring, Pine Creek headwaters, 1.12.20…

Bootleg Hollow Creek, 1.19.20.

Bonus pic: Tim, w/ Atlantic salmon from our 2nd trip north this month. Unfortunately, photo doesn’t do the kyped salmon much justice…

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On the Road (Once More)

[Sorry, Jack & Willie, for the blog post title… The rivertops are winter quiet now, so I thought I might serve up something different here–  a few memories from my road of life. Also, the accompanying photos are reflections of a recent outing on a Lake Ontario trib. The fishing was difficult but fun. The road to 2020 has been plowed & opened.]

1. It must have been our seventh annual New Year’s jaunt (a few days late in 2020). Once again, anticipation buoyed us on arrival at the Lake Ontario trib. As before, there was no guarantee or recipe for success. The first signs were less than promising: snowfall on a deep muddy river, temperature hovering just above the freezing mark, three anglers leaving– unsuccessful with their early morning work.

I’ve stood in warmer waters than this northern trib…

Familiar lines of river structure had been sunk by heightened flows. It struck me that fishing the inland waters could resemble casting at an ocean’s shore. Still, wintering browns and steelhead might be found here, and we hadn’t made the long drive just to watch the rain turn into snow. Despite long hours of repetitive casting and, despite the idiotic frenzy bound within, each drift of line explored an unknown territory possibly inhabited by a large wild fish (and memories of time gone by).

2. It must have been in 1976. Rumbling homeward in the county truck, I crouched behind old canvas flapping near the spades and picks, the rattling drums of oil, the workers’ faces shorn of hope and care.

Earlier, the morning sun had touched these laughing men on break, their beer-guts rippling near the bridge abutment where they wasted public dollars gathering newborn snakes emerging from rocky dens. Several guys burned the snake eyes with their cigarettes, charred the tongues into filaments and tied small bodies into bloody ribbons.

After play, the fellas worked an hour, broke for lunch then took a nap. By noon I was done with them and quit the job. Rumbling homeward in the county truck, I saw green April slicing through the flaps.

We weren’t the only fly fanatics in the river…

3. It must have been in 1981. I found a pile of horseshit in the yard and a Thank You note in my kitchen. Holly, a college student, and a friend of a friend of mine, had stopped for the night while I was gone. Her horse had just absorbed its first eighteen miles en route to Holly’s home near New York City. Fresh hay had been eaten in the barn while Holly slept in comfort on my living-room floor. Our first meeting would have been a pleasure, surely, over coffee and a sunrise dialogue about the Greenwood hills. Before Holly saddled up to face three-hundred miles of travel on her horse, I would have wished them a safe and happy road.

Sycamores frame a popular spot along the river…

4. It must have been in 1973. Wayne and I had hitched across the country, and in L.A. faced our rides through Hell. The smog lay heavy, and a Hoarder, driver number one, told us that his crankcase hid a load of heroin. A second driver was solicitous, trying to entice us with his porno schemes. A third guy, long-haired like ourselves, proved to be the greatest disappointment, thanks to his sister sitting in the front.

We had hoped for rescue in L.A.– perhaps by Rebellious Angels or Virtuous Pagans– but the long-haired driver and his sister told us to abandon all Hope and ride for sixty speechless miles of coast-road Limbo toward the northern redwoods of Salvation. She said, “Put your hands up on the front seat!” and her brother told us, “She’s not joking.” That’s the way we rode for sixty miles. Like disciples of Charlie Manson in a sleepwalk of obedience.

Walt, we’ve got company!

5. It must have been in 1985. I hitched into work and caught a ride with a local farmer whom I vaguely knew, one of New York’s most respected dairymen. He told me that the marriage of his son (his business partner) had dissolved, and now the son wanted to abandon farming. On the dashboard of the truck were photos– prized Holsteins on the auction block– cows to bring big money when they sold. He said, “I’ve been in farming since I was seventeen. I’m sixty now. You can do the math. I’ll hold on for another year, perhaps. I told my son that he can have the place if he comes home within a year. The farm’s been in the family for generations and I hate to give it up. But this arm needs surgery again… As for the marriage, I don’t know what happened. I don’t know.”

Half way to work, I thanked him for the ride, stepped out from the truck and resumed my quest. A woman and her daughter stopped for me. The driver told me that her husband had left her, that she’s tried to find some meaningful employment, but she wasn’t having any luck. It’s a difficult time, I said. What else could I do? She was working hard to balance the endless pressure from the madhouse with her dream of living on the land.

A 24-inch brown. Took a Black Ghost streamer…

6. It must have been the shout downriver that brought me back. Tim had a fish on the line. I did the tributary shuffle, slow but sure. It was time to put that big net underneath a set of wavering fins.

Nice goin’, Tim!

 

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Reaching Out

1. In spring the surface of an orchard pond is broken into circles as the trout begin to feed. It’s like a fantasy gifted by the kingbird in its flight– away to the pear tree’s pearly blossoms.

a white pine future?

In summer the mother mouse, bulging-eyed, scampers from her newborn in the nest, a morsel for the roving sow. Each season is a teacher with its give and take, but he learns so slowly of what is.

a favorite back-40 pine

In autumn you are driving aimlessly. You pass an Amish man with horse-and-buggy. Blindered eyes, clomping hooves, and billowed breath become a memory… Commitment and direction linger in your mind.

In winter he ascends the snowy hill, looks down to his house and barn and family. Descending slowly through the evergreens, he reads from his bible of the world– growing smaller, stronger, happier, blessed.

culling the invasive, replanting native pine

the home falls, 12/19

the teeth of winter

2. The foresters are marking all the white ash to be cut, removed and sold before the emerald borer robs the great trees’ dollar value. Everywhere, it seems, native species sicken, die and fall. I reach out– not as native as I’d like to be– climbing the winter hill in easy labor, bundling tight the small planted pines in burlap jackets to protect them from the snow-bound deer through the weeks to come.

digging in, fox den, clay & sand

dragged to the den last winter

The new year dawns. I’m hoping for the best while bracing for the worst. The wild voices beckon with a sound suspiciously like my own when wishing for renewal. Lately I have woken in the night to the shrill but pleasant barking of foxes wafting through an opened window from their sand banks in the poplar grove out back. They, too, are keeping house and reaching out. Red fox, white ash, brook trout, white pine, deer. These spirits of the place, these natural energies, call for reasons not quite clear to me, but their reach means every day is new.

reaching out, digging in

Pine Creek, looking south, 1/2/20

Pine Creek, Ansonia, looking north, 1/2/20.

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Whiskey Run

1. The beauty of the stream is a simple gift, a holiday revelation. There’s a wholeness to its many parts where pool and riffle, snowy bank and mossy rock cohere. The solitude, the wooded hills, the winter trout are gathered here like friends and family.

Holiday “whiskey walk” #1…

The stream sounds like a poem. It flows from a place beyond all words. The form and content, the rhythm and meter, spring from eddies of civility and wildness. Water smooths the roughness of time, the hardship of labor, and the sense of wrong within.

Whiskey walk #2…

The stream enters stream; the mind takes wing. I give it eyes, like microscopic orbs of dragonfly, to see every place along the route at once! There’s an arced and sinuous flow defying the bounds of gravity, yet it holds me to its rocky banks. The sea is calling, naturally, but this snowy iridescence is the mountain stream’s alone.

mountain laurel, north of Rt. 6, the farthest north I’ve found it…

2. Whiskey Run, as I call it, enters a feeder stream high up in the Pine Creek drainage. I fished this “feeder” two miles from its source in the Allegheny Foothills, thinking of my friend Joe Bartek’s holiday message, “Happiness is a bent rod.” Indeed. The little six-foot fly rod doubled up twice on this challenging stream.

this bottle supports the proposed American Prairie Nat’l Monument in Montana…

The feeder stream is narrow and often crowded with low-hanging limbs. A late-December fog enclosed my world of fly-fishing, locking my attention on the underhand swings and bow shots aimed at shelving banks and tiny pools. Once known for its native brooks, the six-mile stream now features a fair population of wild browns.

wild brown #1…

wild brown #2…

The trout seemed few and far between, but up in the forest, comfortably distant from the busy highway, I got lucky. Two nice browns were captured and released– a 13-incher from an undercut bank, and a heavy 14-inch specimen that rushed the wet fly from its log-jam in fast water. I was happy for these fish. They were large and unexpected in this tiny stream. The life they gave a bent rod fed an angler’s joy and satisfaction.

feeder stream above its junction with Whiskey Run…

“Whiskey Run”

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Pilgrimage

Walden, written by Henry David Thoreau, has been a favorite book of mine for nearly 45 years. I’ve long appreciated this record of a life well-spent and, thus, have long resisted the temptation of visiting the book’s post-glacial centerpiece near Concord, MA. “Resisted” is, of course, a fine word from the lexicon of Lexington-Concord life, the place where the American Revolution got its start in 1775.

old tavern on the trail from Lexington to Concord…

Despite my eternal interest, I’ve resisted visiting Walden Pond for what appears to be a silly reason: I didn’t want the images garnered from my readings of Thoreau and other writers to be diminished by the Burger King and Dollar General crowd; I didn’t want my understanding of American freedom to be compromised by the discord of the present moment. But my daughter drove us up to Walden Pond on a chilled but brilliant late-fall day–  and I wasn’t disappointed.

Thoreau statue at Visitors’ Center, Walden Pond State Park…

Thoreau’s cabin site was at far end of this view…

I’d been told that my visit would be reassuring, that Concord village and Walden State Park would be a good experience. Sure enough. We had a fine 1.7 mile walk around the 62-acre pond. Walden is the deepest natural lake in all of Massachusetts. In the 1840s, Thoreau was the first to accurately plumb its greatest depth (102 feet) while wintering in his cabin on the wooded shore. This glacially created pond is well-preserved today despite its popularity and proximity to Concord, an historic city with a small-town feel.

scarlet oak leaf study, Walden Pond…

Alyssa & Leighanne traversing Walden Pond…

I had refrained from looking at photos taken at Walden Pond, preferring to keep in mind the human and natural history described by Henry David. I surprised myself in finding that the pond’s reality is pretty close to what I had imagined. Pilgrimage doesn’t often turn out so happily.  Yeah, there was a small crowd of visitors at Thoreau’s cabin site, with people reverently adding a stone to the cairn or asking a question like, “Where did the cabin go?”

a crowd at Henry’s cabin location…

Walden Pond as seen from Thoreau’s small beach…

The Fitchburg Railroad still cuts across a corner of the pond as it did in Henry’s time, but the pond remains a lovely place. It’s flanked by cliffs of large white pine and hemlock trees. Its scarlet oaks reminded me of the writer’s famous Journal. Glancing at Walden’s sandy beaches, its shallow water dropping quickly into the depths of Concord and the world, one could almost grasp the beauty and complexity recorded by the Concord naturalists and philosophers.

from WALDEN…

part of Emerson’s Concord Hymn…

If that wasn’t enough, we also toured the nearby Concord Museum and the homes of some literary greats, viz., of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson and Louisa May Alcott, and Nathanial Hawthorn. The North Bridge/Concord River battlefield behind the “Old Manse” conjured revolutionary daydreams, and the “Authors’ Ridge” (a burial site for Emerson, Thoreau and other Transcendentalist writers) was an evocative, pine-shaded stop in the expansive Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

“… the rude bridge that arched the flood…”

Emerson home, Concord…

a simple grave….

There wasn’t a Burger King or Dollar General Store in sight. Not in the historic quarters. And I shouldn’t have been surprised to find more than one book store in Concord. It seemed that every block of town, plus each museum and writer’s home, had its own small shop catering to the talk of literature and the selling of books. My god, what was this world coming to? I was grateful, of course, and even bought a massive new biography called Henry David Thoreau, A Life, by Laura Banks. I read this New York Times Notable Book and learned a lot about the brilliant, progressive author that I didn’t know before.

I learned enough to make me want to visit Walden’s shore again, some quiet day, in any season of the year.

a transitional winter oak…

a view toward Owl Farm, Greenwood NY…

Old Woodenhead (a.k.a. rivertoprambles) lands a fish, remembers the Thoreau statue, and wishes everyone a happy Solstice and wonderful holiday season!

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The Wild Boy Campfire, 1891

1/  So, Mr. Goodyear and his men believed they owned the place– the forests of northern Pennsylvania, the mountains good for building railroads over, the sawmills great for gobbling up the white pine first and then the giant hemlocks… Hold a second, and I’ll throw some wood on this fire…

Goodyear was shrewd, ambitious, a real politician and servant of the railroads. Had no time to think about anyone’s future but his own. When the Galeton water stunk, and the folks got sick from typhoid, Goodyear wouldn’t even loan the town clean water from his reservoirs. He just turned the forest into slashings, left it lookin’ like feathers from a plucked chicken. Grabbed his money, packed his men, and moved south– for the coal and iron.

Allegheny River brown (“18”), 11/23/19.

2/ You know how the fires started… We had the worst spring drought in years. Just right for a lightnin’ strike or a tossed cinder…  Off they rushed– those flames– across the northern counties. Forest slashings, tinder dry, fed the fire for miles and miles. Smoke blotted out the sun. Hindered fire-fighters who came from everywhere. When the flames got close, man and animal plunged into the creeks. The brook trout boiled. A horse galloped down-valley, its tail on fire. A farmer’s hog was found– upright, totally roasted. And that poor fellow down at Kettle Creek… they stumbled on him. Had a bullet hole in his head, a pistol in his charred hand…

What did I do this fall?  I’ll tell you. First, let me push these embers ’round… I climbed ridges, thankful for what remains. The wild, unsullied pulse of things, you know? Searching for birds and sleeping flowers. Looked at shagbark hickory trees. Tall sentient beings, rough-barked havens for squirrel and owl. Listened to crickets chirring. Counted feathers of a stricken grouse, stuff like that…

2 landlocked salmon came to the rambler’s hand, 11/24/19. He can’t complain.

3/ What? Huh? You hear something? Probably just the fire snapping. Or maybe a Hide-Behind… You never heard of the Hide-Behind? Well, it follows you through the forest. Wants to shadow what you do when you’re alone and make you turn around.  Problem is, it moves too damn fast to see. You hear something, whirl around to check what’s happening– it’s already hidden by a rock or a tree. Or maybe it’s swallowed by the darkness.

We came to “Witch House,” Salem, MA on 11/27/19. This is not the “Seven Gables” but rather a home of the judge presiding over the Witch Trials.

You’ve got to stay focused on your job or on your destination. Just keep going. If you start turning round to look, it only gets worse, and you might go crazy. Here, just keep watching this fire and you’ll be okay. Them Hide-Behinds don’t bother me much anymore.

Daughter Alyssa haunts the Salem “Burial Point,” looking for gravestones of Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower…

There’s one… from the Mayflower… at dusk.

The “witch trials,” held not far from the Salem wharf, marked an unfortunate but interesting period in colonial history.

Nathaniel Hawthorn wrote extensively about Salem in The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, rich with dangerous incarnations of the Hide-Behind….

Have I told you ’bout the witch-hazel blooms? Yellow spidery things. Got pods, and if you touch one, seeds spring out. They can shoot thirty feet to the wet ground. And ginseng… I’ve been looking, of course. Love to get my knotted fingers at the roots. If I find the red berries, they’ll get scattered good.  It’s my hope for green renewal.

Yeah, plants and animals comfort me now. They don’t consume the priceless moments. Don’t encourage getting and possessing. Yes sir, I like to climb these hills. I’m almost 70, but I still like to walk the streams and rivers. If the moon appears, it might be veiled with smoke and ashes. Fire residue. But I’ll watch it like a cooling thought. A candle flame frozen in my skull.

The House of Seven Gables coming into view…

A small wooden model of The House…

Water urns marked by an Algonquin word for “good fishing.”

after climbing through a narrow, winding “secret stairway,” one enters the ancient, famous attic in the multi-gabled house…

Happy holidays to everyone from inside the “seven gabled house.”

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The Wild Boy Cycle, 1870

Winter: Klukey died in a bear trap he had set near Kettle Creek. Klukey died three miles from his cabin, wandering in the deep snow till his feet accidently struck the pan. Those jaws sprang up– held him through the pain, the cold, the nights and days, the hunger. Held him as the eyes of wolf and bear drew near. Hunters found old Klukey’s bones– clean and scattered, with bits of skull and hair and beard. Those iron jaws gnawed at his feet and lower legs, held him like society had held him till, at last, he came to the Kettle to hunt and trap for 40 years, alone. They found my old friend’s bones. Near the hatchet that he loved, near the pocket watch that never stopped its ticking.

Spring: Wish that I could fish like Henry Glassmire. Henry’s got only one arm. Left his other on the battlefield, but he fishes like a madman. Baits his hook by holding it to a stone with his boot. If no rock’s available, he holds the hook between his teeth and threads the worm. A strong taste of garden worm? So what. He’s good. He fought for the Yanks, and really, it’s nobody’s business but his own.

Wish I had the good sense of the Jordans. John and Maryanne, up in Jemison Hollow, my East Fork “neighbors.” John once poled a year’s supply of goods from the Susquehanna. A keg of whiskey and a half-barrel of flour had a fine ride on his boat. Why the hell did you haul so much flour? quipped Maryanne. They know the value of a well-aged drink. For raising a barn, collecting logs, and purifying the blood.

Summer: A few summers back, the East Fork had a dam right here, the flood-trash forcing water through the branches and around its ends. It formed a beautiful pool, a home for a large trout that several people wanted. Trees and brush overhung the pool, so there was no way to fish for that trout except from the tricky dam, itself.

The fish was in plain sight but he was smart. Ignored my “stone fish” and the worms that floated toward his nose. I’d cast a fly–  the trout would dart off to the side. I tried to catch him for about two hours till I saw the light and changed my ways. A cricket chirped and grasshoppers leapt along the bank. I walked to the meadow and collected hoppers.

Stepping back on the dam, I waited, then flipped a hopper to catch his eye. Another and another, till at last the great trout rose and splashed and gobbled one. I baited my hook, slowly and carefully, and gave him time to think about the taste. I tossed the hook and… whoosh! He rose. I lost my balance, slid off into waist-deep water and lumbered away– toward the far end so he wouldn’t tangle in the roots or flood debris. I worked him slowly to a gravel bar. Pulled him out and held him in my shaking hands. So handsome, this fruit of my labors. The only fish I caught that day.

Fall: I venture to my homestead boundary, to the fence-line edge of useful things. I find some Vinland vines, fox grapes, hanging in tight blue clusters.

Juice breaks out of dusty skins; the globules are eaten from hand, their taste as colorful as autumn’s palette, waving on the tongue like Viking spirits.

Here the waxwings feed by day, and the red fox passes at night. I venture toward the limits of knowledge, tasting the wild grapes, late summer fruit. I’ll jump the back fence of experience– before the frosts of autumn come, before the winter bones start creaking.

************************************************************************************

Too late for the run of autumn browns on Naples Creek (11/18/19), I caught only bunches of these little streambred ‘bows…

An 80-year-old South Bend 359 at rest… A “rescue rod,” I bought it 20 years ago from an “abusive owner”– note the hook marks in the cork handle…

No wild boy or modern super-hero is gonna harness the energy of this waterfall…

Jim caught the only fish on our recent afternoon outing, a fine landlocked salmon.

 

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Autumn Letter

The day begins like a sheet of paper waiting for words. Its composition won’t go digital until later, when darkness comes again. Two bald eagles sit together on a carcass near the road as I go speeding by, wishing I could stop and view them on my route to Slate Run for a visit. The day begins like an exercise in writing.

My Slate Run pal, Dale H., told Jim K. to watch out because I’ll probably try to slip a photo of him into my next post. Smart guy, that Dale.

Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile…” beams in from a satellite and fills the car with song. A hunter, face behind a woolen mask, stands with shotgun in the middle of the Blackwell Road in front of me as Bob sings of an uncontrolled “Grandpa” (just before he died) who builds a fire on Main Street and then shoots it full of holes. Yeah Mama, I’m glad to be driving on, along the curves and through the holes of surrealistic day, the end not yet in sight.

Apropos of next to nothing, this small rainbow came from the Allegheny on 11/10/19 after losing a couple of big fish there…

I’m late to a meeting of the Slate Run Sportsman group. Someone there says, “You weren’t supposed to go fishing yet,” and I reply, “What month is this, November?” Just because the days are shorter doesn’t mean my brain has to stay on track. Soon, Marion presents me with a gift of artificial flies, their beauty hooked inside my day, a promise of fair seasons yet to come.

Marion’s gift came with a letter signed with a special flourish…

I’ll meet Jim at the Hotel Manor, pull out from the Penn State/Minnesota football game displayed above the bar, and hit the water. Word follows word; sentence follows sentence; no one follows anyone (thankfully) through the chilly hours (34 degrees F.!) of the Slate Run Gorge.

one of Marion Alexander’s fine emergers…

The stream flows like a fullback on a Saturday mission, ready to be downstream and away. We cast our players carefully– yes, Green Weenie, Prince Nymph (formerly known as Isonychia), Pheasant-Tail, and Egg– Jim laughs at the notion of an artificial egg rolling over bedrock like a football or a song, but it’s the only pattern of the day to lure wild brook and brown trout to their table.

Slate Run brookie. The larger browns didn’t want to be photographed.

The day ends quickly for the anglers’ page. The sun, like a warm fire high above the wooded gorge, banks itself prematurely, fills with dark holes of the universe as we head homeward, breaking down our gear, thankful for yet another opportunity to fish.

Chester2 on the stump (despite his apolitical convictions)…

Later, I’m reminded of a phrase from the writer, Henry James, who said, “Letters mingle souls.” That ideal, a letter from an ordinary day, is cast for you, my readers. And like so many others now in cyberspace, it welcomes a response– in words or in a thought.

Slate Run as a football field? Nah, the Sportsmen would never allow it.

I really like Marion’s dark-winged olive dry flies….

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A Thin Man Fishing

Physically, the thin man isn’t really thin but, looking at a thread-bare autumn day, he felt that way– just basic flesh and bone, reduced to seasonal elements. His summer garments had been stripped away, replaced by heavy clothing to ward off the chill. Sure, he wore the usual fishing gear and entertained a stray thought or two, but if anyone else was haunting the hills nearby, he might have been seen, or not.

Expected to find only thin little brookies like this…

Two inches of rain, followed by powerful winds, had punched the region on Halloween, presenting a quick and frightening rise of water levels. Now the sky was blue, but the streams were still pushing heavy water. His fishing options? Well, those blue lines on the topo maps were always calling, but which one should he choose? He decided on a favorite tributary on the far side of Pine, but the larger water stopped him cold–  it was high and turbulent, unfriendly to a wader.

He returned to the car and chose a small brook exiting the forestland nearby. The little stream isn’t noted for being much of a fishery, but at least it gave him an excuse for walking in fair weather. He hadn’t tried the stream in years, but he quickly saw a difference– even this flow had a white crest thick with run-off, and a scarcity of holding spots for trout.

the brook usually has a lot less water than this…

He hiked for a quarter-mile then noticed an anomaly… One half of the stream was now quieter than the other half, consisting of a back-flow that accentuated a log-jam where he stood along the bank. Several large fish wove around the back-flow, probably spawning and, by all appearances, not the little natives typical of the stream.

This group of brown trout caught his interest fully. Years ago, Pennsylvania had a closed season on trout in autumn, even for places like this mountain stream. The spawning trout were not to be messed with. Today, the state-wide season remains closed for most of fall and winter, but special regulation streams and smaller tributaries managed as wild trout fisheries do stay open on a strictly catch-and-release basis. Out before him were some eye-popping brown trout in a brook where he did not expect them.

the log-jam where it happened…

The biggest fish ignored his careful casting with a wet fly but got fooled, or totally irritated, by a Woolly Bugger. He stepped along the bank with his little 6-foot Fenwick arched and pumping as he tried to keep the large brown from the log-jam. Net-less, he attempted to hold and lift the richly colored male (with prominent kype) from rushing water in the log debris.

The event proceeded farther than he thought it might, especially since he got a good grip on the massive tail. Naturally, it all went south from there. The fish, perhaps close to 20 inches long, gave a head twist and a dive beneath the logs, returning the Woolly Bugger on its tippet, as if to say, “Wow, that was close, but I won’t get fooled again.”

Narragansett’s Moby Dick became Moby Trutta of the Pine…

The thin man stuttered, “Y’ you win,” amazed at the size and colors of the catch, at how it would have been a photo for the folks back home– a wild fish, probably, or, if not, then a long-time resident of the watershed, perhaps having traveled five miles upstream from the nearest stocking point on Pine. He thought about the catch and felt his ego bloating, adding unwanted weight above his shoulders, settling then into his waders. He imagined himself a fat man casting egg-sacs into a crowded Salmon River, gloating over his catches hooked up to a chain.

WNY Fly Fishing’s Jim Guida gave me this “Brown Star” (a jig-type streamer) to try on the streams this winter…

It was too much for a black-and-white day like this. The fish was gone. Its mate, a smaller female scooping gravel from the streambed, remained as before. He would leave her in peace, working to increase the number and range of her progeny. He had mixed feelings on discovering brown trout (even beautiful fish like this) in what used to be native brook trout water. Native fish across the continent are facing many problems today, with habitat loss, invasive species, and climate change. Nonetheless, an animal tango of this sort was special.

small wild browns can now be found in the brook trout stream…

So, the thin man took himself out of the picture. He was slim again, standing on an edge between wildness and civility, unseen by anyone or anything that he knows, other than a big fish hiding in the jams. Its memory could be stored, of course, reserved for a special place inside his heart and brain. A sweet meat for the winter.

last weekend, even the smallest brooks ran high…

speaking of winter, winter comes home to roost, 11/7/19. photo is from last year, but today there’s an inch so far, and more snow falling….

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Jumping the Back Fence

Wild Boy Run was named for Lewis “Wild Boy” Stevens who settled on the Pennsylvania mountain stream in 1842.  Born to alcoholic and abusive parents, Stevens “jumped the back fence” of his home (in New Jersey) at age eleven and escaped, eventually settling in the East Fork Sinnemahoning wilderness. He had learned the tinsmith’s trade, and had built himself a cabin chinked with moss and mud, complete with hemlock boughs for a bed, along with a gun, an axe, a frying pan, a tin cup, and a knife. He lived alone at the stream’s edge, six miles from the nearest neighbor, through the 1840s and the ’50s.

Salmon River, upper fly-fishing-only stretch…

I learned of Mr. Stevens long before my introduction to Wild Boy Run but, admittedly, the poet in me reinforced the link between man and stream just recently. The poet urged the fly-fisher to inspect this new location. I was not trying to romanticize a subject barely known to me, but I do enjoy local history. I figured that it might be interesting to view the stream from vantage points 160 years apart.

modern camp at Wild Boy…

Before the Wild Boy visit, Jim K. and I had fished Ontario tributaries without much luck. Our timing was bad. The Salmon River kings were dead or dying, and the steelhead run was in its infancy. At another Lake Ontario trib, the runs were way behind an average seasonal start. The lateness may have been due to warmer water temperatures. Who knows? We had fun attempting to decipher what the problems were– knowing full well that behind them was a simple fact: there were just too many fishermen on these streams. Judging by the license plates observed in parking lots, there were people casting here from such places as New Jersey, Idaho, Ohio and Ontario– more fishermen than fish, at least in late October.

Jim @ Salmon River, giving it the old college try…

It’s a problem, and the New York DEC is proposing several changes that may help ease the impact that we make on Lake Ontario and its tributaries. The proposals, basically supporting a reduced “creel limit” for brown trout and steelhead (while also increasing the size limit for steelhead), can be viewed at dec.ny.gov/outdoors and commented on until December 16, 2019. I support these proposals (for implementation on April 1, 2020) as a means to benefit Lake Ontario fisheries, a start on the long road to improvement in this realm of trout and angler.

home view #1…

Meanwhile, it was time for us to regroup closer to home. I much prefer the relative solitude, the beauty of the forested mountains with their sparkling streams where small fish rule the undercuts and riffles, where I share my thoughts with a fishing partner or where my singular reveries help me jump the back fence into local lore.

home view #2…

Lewis Stevens grew a garden here, lived on nuts and berries, trout and deer. Wild pigeons thrived near the forest. Stevens’ hair and beard grew long and shaggy. People who encountered him saw a crazy fellow, shy, uncomfortable, one who disliked cats and dogs but who loved the birds and flowers. Regional mothers threatened misbehaving children– saying if the kids didn’t straighten up, bogeyman Stevens would surprise and get them. When the Civil War broke out, Stevens left it all behind, enlisting with Pennsylvania’s 46th Regiment, contributing his own fervent hope that the Union be preserved.

Wild Boy Run…

It was a beautiful afternoon in late October. I climbed the wild run and looked for trout. The state forestland, rich with bronzy foliage and flowing water, seemed to cradle my intent and small stream interests. The farther I got from the valley camps and lodges, the more fish I encountered. They were small, surely. Brookies, bright with spawning color, up to nine inches long, at best. I had jumped the back fence from my 8-weight fly rod tactics on the northern tributaries to my 3-weight strategies for brook trout in the mountains. It was a pleasant leap.

Wild Boy Stevens went to war and found that fighting was unbearable. He didn’t want to kill; he didn’t want to die. He called himself a coward, and deserted his regiment, eventually building a hut in the Indiana swamplands. After the war, Stevens made a gradual return to the Sinnemahoning. He discovered that his old home had been broken into, and his few possessions had been stolen. He eventually built another home for himself in western Pennsylvania but, essentially, Wild Boy Stevens quickly faded into history.

About a century and a half later, near the place where Stevens had lived for many years, I caught a bunch of brook trout and released them from the fly. The Wild Boy would have used live bait or the “fingering” method for his trout. Whereas our goals and methods, our philosophies and beliefs, may have differed due to circumstance, outdoor Pennsylvania brought us into an afternoon of dreams.

headwaters…

home view #3… poplars in the breeze…

red oaks, home view #4…

 

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