Ghost Water

Most of the smaller streams in this rivertop region once had native brook trout in them. Relatively few of those streams that held trout are a home for them today. Bootleg Hollow Creek, the stream that flows by my house and whose watershed I live upon, is one of those former brook trout waters. When I walk the lengths of this three-mile creek, whether it be near its waterfall dominated lower end or near its headwaters on the summit of King Hill, I sometimes think of the fish conspicuous by not being there.

When I moved here in the 1980s I heard stories about brook trout fishing in the creek that lasted till a few years before I arrived. Shortly after moving in, I was called to walk the stream and to have a look at what was in it. I wrote and published a poem about that first excursion on the creek whose watershed was now a life-line… “I call it Bootleg Hollow for/ An unofficial 1920’s name./ Its small silver cataract splashes/ To an olive pool, its song heard/ From our greening doorway…” I imagined trout and mink and springtime warblers as I worked my way upstream.

Several days ago I again walked past the old Collins’ farm, the abandoned farmhouse with its caved-in roof and shattered windows, with its opened doors and rotting couch. Long before my time in the hollow, the farm had been a beautiful establishment. Ruined, the house became my symbol for a time when people had an opportunity of living well with nature, when, instead, the opportunity went sour. The land and waters were abused; some human lives were wasted or abused; abandonment occurred.

Turning westward into the headwaters near the summit I found myself walking as I’d walked before: “Through birdsong in deserted fields,/ Through a kingdom of exploding woodcock/ And upthrust lance of skunk cabbage./ Here the flow becomes a woodland trickle/ Birthing in a pool beneath a beech,/ In aura of a drumming grouse/ And blossom of the first spring beauty.”

I didn’t find any trout here in the early days, and I didn’t find any on my recent visit. I wasn’t surprised. The old farms, long abandoned, had a major impact, a negative impact, on the health of the stream, as did several waves of heavy timbering. More recently, the highway department has thrown big punches at the stream, allowing run-off to enter its waters, actually rerouting sections of the creek from one side of the road to the other, installing culverts that impede migration, etcetera. I didn’t have any hope of finding trout in Bootleg Hollow, but as I edged along its upper waters where the stream has recovered nicely from abuse, where the spirit of wild things still remains, I couldn’t help but feel the loss.

When I reached the highest pool in the headwaters, a place of stillness before the stream becomes an intermittent flow, I paused at the source. Unlike the mouth of the stream (three miles below at Bennett Creek), where all the history of the flow is focused at one point, the source of Bootleg Hollow Creek seemed calm, transparent, timeless. At the first pool on the stream, it seemed like anything was possible from here on out, at least for the moment. I imagined I saw a brook trout, smaller than my little finger, a ghost of the native, almost real.

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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