On a recent visit to Dryden Hill by car, I saw a couple of hen pheasants feeding at the road edge in the snow and figured that was a good sign to do another hike there while on holiday vacation. Pheasants are seldom seen in this wooded rivertop region, and if noted on the open hilltops, they are usually associated with wildlife stocking efforts.
By Saturday morning the powerful winds that had prevented my hiking for a while had mostly disappeared. As the temperature climbed to about 30 degrees, I set off on a walk along a seasonal road on Dryden Hill made passable by a track laid down by snowmobile. Other than a hunting camp in the summit woods, there are no human structures on this roadway that’s become a favorite walk near home. I was on a watershed divide between the Susquehanna and Genesee rivers, the waters on this edge of the summit edging off to Chesapeake Bay, the waters just westward slipping off to Lake Ontario and the north Atlantic.
I had fishers in mind– not the common flycasting animal that readers often encounter when visiting this blog– but that member of the weasel family that’s become a symbol of northcountry wilderness. References to the fisher and its tracks in the snow play a role in the popularity of two previous “Views From Dryden Hill” posts, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention fishers here or acknowledge my interest in them where this creature has been noted in recent years.
Perusing an old book on trapping published in the mid-1900s (Van Cleve and McCracken), I had learned that for the 1944-’45 trapping season only two fishers were officially recorded as having been taken in the U.S.A. One of those was captured in California and the other was taken in New Hampshire. At the same time, several thousand fishers were said to be trapped in the Canadian provinces. Prior to that, in 1864, some 12,500 fisher were trapped in all of North America. Fisher, one of the most valuable furbearers, have never been plentiful anywhere. In some parts of the country, as in New York State and Pennsylvania, where in recent decades the fisher population had been decimated, this largest member of the weasel family is making a comeback.
Although I saw no fisher track on this particular outing, I pushed out on an open field, abandoned farming territory, and looked eastward down the forested slope where a great ravine suggested fisher country. These rugged, solitary hunters are said to favor big ravines in mixed coniferous and hardwood country, and fisher sign is sometimes found where two ravines converge. I had places in mind that I longed to visit when the deep snow melts and becomes less intimidating to the walker. Also I had to bear in mind that all of this countryside is private property and requires permission from landowners before making any sort of entry.
I hadn’t walked this trail in decades. Other than the presence of a hunting camp that I don’t remember seeing in the 1980s, the winter scenes were familiar looking even though my previous walks here were in springtime. Sugar maple trees that once lined the approach to a farm, long vanished, greeted me like old friends. And Cold Mountain Farm, still extant, spoke for privacy through aging Wildlife Refuge signs along its border.
Cold Mountain. Again I was reminded of my entry into the world of poetry many years ago. I had found the work of Gary Snyder and appreciated his translation of the T’ang dynasty poet, Han-shan. “I settled at Cold Mountain long ago,/ Already it seems like years and years./ Freely drifting, I prowl the woods and streams/ And linger watching things themselves/…”
In the early ’80s I had moved into the shadows of Dryden Hill and resolved to quickly learn as much of this new territory as I could. One way to educate myself was to walk the local streams, often from their lower ends to their sources, and write poems based on my experiences there. One poem came from a hike through the great ravine on Dryden Hill. The following lines are from a poem of this place later published in a small book called Little Water Company:
The “quest” refers to an Iroquois myth in which a young hunter, long a friend to small wild animals, got lost in a winter storm and then was killed by an enemy’s coup. The hunter’s animal friends got together in search of a special medicine that might resurrect his life. That mythical quest is something I still relate to these many years later.
As I walked along the old woods road on a peaceful winter day, I imagined wild creatures, present and otherwise, of the Dryden heights. I noted whitetail deer, white-breasted nuthatch, common raven, ring-necked pheasant, and even the possibility of a fisher– wild spirits giving me a lift, a shot of rejuvenating energy, as I headed for the valley.