It was a pleasant January weekend. Although the air temperature on Sunday rose no higher than the freezing point, the Morning Star lent a blue dome overhead and even managed to push some brightness into the Pine Creek Gorge where my wife and I enjoyed a leisurely four-mile walk.
Although we saw no creatures more exotic than a rough-legged hawk and a belted kingfisher, we kept our eyes peeled for river otter, especially along the brushy edges of the high-flowing Pine, places not unlike the site where I watched an otter a couple of winters back.
Our chances for encountering another river otter were pretty slim given the presence of crusted snow and ice along the trail. Last week’s flood conditions followed by freeze up and then the breaking of ice by trail officials left patches of ground where it was like walking on ice cubes. The result was worse than ambient tourist noise. It’s not that there was anyone else around, but an otter in the Pine Creek Gorge could have heard us in stereo and hunkered down while we were still a quarter mile away.
After the hike we ate a meal in The Burnin’ Barrel near Ansonia, a hamlet at the upper end of the canyon. I hadn’t been in the establishment since the 1980s when the classic old structure was called the Twin Pine Tavern.
It was a place for good stories and for decent food and drink. I recalled my poem, “Twin Pine Tavern,” that was soon collected for a first fly-fishing book, The Wild Trout (1989). Its four stanzas are in the voice of a drinker who I met while sitting at the bar. Here’s how the poem begins:
There’s at least two ways of seein’ things./ Pine Creek’s Indian name was Tiadaghton,/ ‘River of Pines.’ Used to run clear and deep/ and cold all summer long. A century back/ it earned its name by floating logs. The Turkey/ Path was railroad track. A three-mile loop/ to drop 800 feet. 1910, the forest slashing/ clear to Gaines caught fire,/ cooked up every brook trout in the county….
While my wife and I enjoyed our lunch in The Burnin’ Barrel (yeah, I like the original name better than this, but the spirit of the place seemed familiar), we met a friendly old guy from Galeton who appreciated the fact that we, too, were hikers and lovers of the big outdoors as witnessed in north-central Pennsylvania. The guy reminded me a little of the storyteller in the Twin Pines long ago who taught me a thing or two about this wonderful region.
On Monday, the weather, sunny and in the 30s, simply invited a return. This time, though, I was out to build on my Martin Luther King Day tradition of hiking and/or fishing. I could have been really traditional and “progressive” by doing some community service but, as a teacher, I do a bit of that already. On this occasion all I did was sign a couple of political petitions and collect some roadside garbage prior to hitting a favorite trout stream.
Sometimes all that we can do to make the world a better place for everyone is to get some nature in us and some peace inside the head. As Thoreau might have said, we can’t get enough of that great commodity, nature, an alternative program to the status quo.
There was still some snow in the mountain forest, enough to reveal the tracks of fisher (yes, again) hunting slowly along the rocky run or sometimes bounding upstream, with three-foot spaces between each set of paws. On this date a year ago, I surprised a wild fisher near the trail at this location, but for now the fresh tracks were good enough.
Casting in the solitude of this scenic mountain stream was what I needed to go forward with another week of public work, and to help me step aside briefly from the nonsense and bad vibrations emanating from the world outside. It felt safe inside this mountain where the brook trout dwelled among the rock-formed pools and eddies, where the gravel beds and clear cold waters sang of promise and good will.