It’s been a long cold winter, and it isn’t over yet. Many rivertop streams are blanketed with ice and snow, and the trout are coping with the change. To get outdoors, away from societal noise and the yapping for attention, has been difficult this season, but I’m not complaining (much).
Armed with an updated angling license and a pleasant fly-fishing memory from late December, I returned to the headwaters of a local river to see how it was faring in the aftermath of some of the coldest weather here in decades.
I probably should have left the rods and tackle at home. I found, to no one’s astonishment, that the feeder streams were mostly covered with a wintry coat. I decided to walk upriver on an abandoned railroad spur. The track parallels the headwaters and offers good views of the stream that winds through hemlock, pine and hardwood forest.
Often when I’m fishing or walking the Allegheny River I think about the pristine upper section and the way the water grows dramatically below Coudersport and, later, the Kinzua Dam in Pennsylvania. The stream eventually becomes one of the longest river systems in the U.S.– the Allegheny-Ohio-Mississippi. I’m always grateful for the quiet solitude along the upper stream although, admittedly, the peace today was broken several times by chaotic motor groans from racing snowmobiles.
As I dreamed away the passing miles with reveries of wild trout rising to the fly or attacking a passing streamer, I kept to the present moment, too, with help from the numerous animal tracks I found. Coyote, turkey, fox, mice, squirrels, and deer made use of the path and frozen stream. The railroad bed and stream form excellent hunting lanes for animals day and night.
At one point I paused to consider a historic and secluded camp that’s visible from the path. The private camp, with ponds and surrounding forest, got its start at the turn of the 20th-century as an ice factory for a downstream village. Ice cut from the ponds was loaded onto train cars for the ten-mile run into town. Later it became a Boy Scout camp and a resort for recreational activities. Today it offered the stillness and quietude of winter hills.
The stream is the fundamental feature here. Like many that I fish and wander along, this stream is both familiar and mysterious. I never tire of exploring it. Years ago, my wife and I were shown what was, ostensibly, the source of the river at a spring near an old farmhouse. More recently I’ve discovered that the river has sources even farther up the ridge than the spring that we were shown. Our streams and rivers seldom offer pinpoint origins or definite answers to our questions. Their sources are often multiple, and hidden from our prying eyes.
Running water is at the heart of all religious and political world views. It flows at the heart of every living thing, including human beings (in the form of blood). It helps to erode the man-made barriers that separate us from the earth and the cosmos beyond. When we drink pure water, when we fish, or when we walk attentively along brooks and rivers, we acknowledge our connection to this great element of life.
I followed fox tracks to the stream and pondered on a stopping point. The animal had dug for a mouse at the bank and urinated on a clump of weeds before turning downstream over the ice and snow. Standing there, I noticed that the noise of the world was silenced. Among the birch and conifers, I heard the flow of water down below the ice. The riffles ran over shallows and deeper holes, and murmured loudly from an opened patch of ice.
The air was warming slightly and began to fill with snow and rain. The stream’s murmur was a language worth deciphering. It suggested the promise of the moment and of days to come. There would be no tidy answers to the questions in my head, but in listening to the water I was calmed.