I recently spent a couple afternoons looking for brook trout near the Triple Divide. To fish northern Pennsylvania in mid-winter is a rare event for me, but the weather has been warm and sadly bereft of snow. The triple watershed divide is unique to the eastern half of the U.S. Three rivers have their source on the same hill and flow to widely separate locations in the Atlantic. My February outings on the stream (the source of an important American river) covered more than two miles of water. Getting out was good for the soul, and it led me to a sobering connection.
An abandoned railroad bed follows the stream for several miles to the hilltop and provides easy access to the woods, although much of the land on either side of the bed is posted and requires permission for entry. Wild trout can be fished for in the winter under special regulations that require study. If the weather cooperates and you don’t mind wandering in total solitude, there are brookies to be met and sights to be considered.
A rusted wheel from a train stood beside the trail, suggesting that linear time has a circular dimension as well. A mossy log that I photographed 20 years ago was still lying across the stream, its moss now gone and its back collapsed, the pool beneath it much shallower than before. Again a trout flashed outward from beneath the log and missed the drifting fly, whereas 20 years ago a trout rose from the same location and struck a dry fly I had offered. Today, a mile closer to the river’s source, a grizzly sight reminded me that wounded deer often seek the solace of flowing water in which to die. Skin and marrow made a slow retreat from the skull of an 8-point buck and reinforced the fact that nature is more than pretty pictures and a place for man to escape his rat-race world.
During my first afternoon at the stream, I stopped on the trail and peered up through the trees. A line of light on the north side of the hollow seemed suspicious. I climbed several hundred feet to have a look. I knew of a hydro-fracking operation less than three miles from the Triple Divide, but I hadn’t observed it, other than its lights seen after dark from other hilltops. Here it was. The industry drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale beneath northern Pennsylvania typically works on acreage hidden from public scrutiny, although its trucks and mobile work force are obvious throughout.
Despite attempts to steel myself against sights like this, the view caused my organs to flip and quaver. I recalled my first look at strip-mining operations in the mountains. Here the razed woods and fields were featuring pumps and plumbing of the fracking business, for the horizontal drilling that requires huge amounts of water, sand and chemicals to fracture the deep shale beds and release the gas. I thought about the spills and seepage problems associated with the new gas industry here in Pennsylvania, and I saw no end to the acreage modified on this hillside for the use of high-tech drilling. For 40 years I’ve wrestled with ways to minimize my impact on the earth, short of committing suicide. I was battling my “carbon imprint” long before the term got invented, but through it all I’ve never been the model of a modern eco-friendly man. Sure, I’ve sacrificed on creature comforts– have mostly driven little cars from small Eurasian countries, have never owned a real TV, and only in the last few years have learned to dwell compatibly with a laptop computer. Though my struggles to live sensibly have met with only moderate success, I think I’ve earned the right to be appalled by this approach to industry.
So the green plastic line above the trout stream and the forest marks the new line of industry. Here begins the field of sudden wealth for the few. I hope the work will mean nothing to the wild brookies just below, to those brightly colored “canaries in the coalmine” for the industry that’s creeping into coldwater country. Descending to the trail, I thought, hell, it doesn’t even matter at this point if someone is for or against the fracking business. It just seems that locating such an operation on a native trout stream and on the headwaters of a major eastern river is wrong. To locate it here made no sense to me, and it just felt wrong.