With the air temp registering 16 degrees F., and with a mountain breeze cutting the day to a chilled clarity, it was too cold to fly-fish, but the prospect of an upriver hike seemed appealing.
An afternoon sun broke sporadically from a crystalline grayness, and I was glad to be walking an abandoned railroad grade along the upper Allegheny River protected from the wind that raked the hilltops. I was also sheltered from the sights and sounds of a hydro-fracking operation where (judging from the parked machinery near the trailhead) the work of mining the Marcellus Shale layers for fossil fuel never ceases.
I had just purchased my 31st consecutive non-resident fishing license from the state of Pennsylvania and, although a sane attempt to fly-fish in this weather would not be possible (please don’t ask me to define a sane attempt at fly-fishing), it was good to celebrate three decades of a love affair with rivertop country by hiking toward the source of the Allegheny-Ohio-Mississippi watershed, one of the longest river systems in the nation.
Just moments after hitting the trail, I could feel the rush of wildness like a cool breeze through the warm layers of January clothing on my back. Coyote tracks were freshly printed in the granular snow, and there, approaching the ice-beds of the freezing Allegheny– the indisputable tracks of a fisher, paw-prints similar to coyote’s, but rounder and clearly punctuated with impressions of five long toes.
I could hike for several miles before nearing the highway to Gold, and I had time to think. I bought my first Pennsylvania angling license in 1987, a year in which Michael Czarnecki and I were busy publishing and promoting the Upriver Poetry Chapbook Series, with works by Graham Duncan, Karen Blomain, Barbara Crooker, and Terry Keenan (FootHills Publishing and Great Elm Press). Shortly thereafter, I published an anthology of outdoor writers called Riveries, appropriately enough.
I may have been leaving the strict realms of poetry at the time in favor of exploring the region’s fly-fishing opportunities and writing of them in prose but, looking back, I don’t think there was real separation as much as a merging of literary and other outdoor opportunities.
I opened Barbara Crooker’s chapbook, Starting From Zero, (1987), to the first poem called “January,” and was stunned by several lines that seem so connected to this recent Allegheny River hike: “…And here we are, poised on the rim of the year,/ this icy globe turning./ We’re caught in suspension,/ our every breath visible./ The silence between us deepens,/ blue as the shadows in snow.”
I seemed to be hiking the rim of the year, listening to the blue silence in the snowy headwaters of a very young river. When I reached one of the uppermost trout pools in the Allegheny, a placid forest scene only a mile or so from the river’s source, I paused and remembered my unfinished poem whose first lines I recited at my mother’s memorial a couple of days before New Year’s:
From “Poem, 2:30 A.M.”: She who brought me/ into this river of life/ brought me to a love/ of flowing waters….
It was time to turn around and head back down to where I started from. I wanted to fish here again, in springtime, when the native trout are eager for a dry fly cast from a short bamboo, but at this point we were all moving out, poised or faltering or otherwise evolving, on the tentative rim of a new year.