The Rough Country

the home waterfall

Whether we enjoy the notion or not, everyone who strives for well-being needs to stay in contact with the wild. Such contact is readily attained in sanctified places like our state and national parks, but we can’t always reach those wild enclaves when we need them. The “rough country,” on the other hand, expands availability and is readily attained nearby. In such books as Gary Paul Nabhan’s Songbirds, Truffles, and Wolves (Pantheon Books, 1993), we’re reminded that the rough country, or the therapeutic contact zones of nature, is as easy to reclaim as stepping into a backyard or a local green place and opening our senses.

on Dryden Hill behind the house

Technically speaking, I live year-around in some pretty rough country– a rural place where humans can live in health among wild plants and animals, among hills and valleys rich with the essential forms of nature. But every now and then I feel the calling to expand, to explore adjacent territory that I haven’t yet managed to map inside my head. And so, on a recent day of heat and great humidity, I finally hiked to Apple Tree Hollow in the highest reaches of the Slate Run watershed in Pennsylvania.

Mr. Bob-O-Link enjoys the open hayfield country

Apple Tree Hollow may sound a bit pastoral, echoing a lost paradise or Eden, but it’s nothing of the sort. It’s actually a heavily forested rivertop, among the wildest tracts of land in Pennsylvania. It’s been on my fishing “bucket list” for years, ever since I overheard a conservation officer extol its wild brook trout population in hushed matter-of-fact tones.

honeybees cover their queen on my lawn

The place is also locally renowned for timber rattlesnakes, a beautiful reptile that can grow quite large. Until recent decades, ignorant people slaughtered these docile creatures or collected them for bounty money. Thankfully, the rattler is protected now, but in places like Apple Tree Hollow where one bushwhacks with a fly rod or a walking stick, it pays to  ramble with an open eye.

Dale heads up Cushman Run

I pulled off the narrow mountain road and prepared for a half hour hike. The early morning air was already heating up, and the blackflies and mosquitoes were on the hunt. The 7-foot cane rod was for brook trout, and the wading staff was for serpents sunning in the high grass and rocks. It wasn’t the best time of year to be invading such haunts, but I figured it was now or never. Life is short, and trout streams are many.

a waterfall on Bear Run

When I reached an old log cabin at the end of the trail, I knew I had arrived. I climbed down to the stream and started fishing. The wild brook trout were obliging, but the black flies and mosquitoes were hellacious despite my bathing in a spray of OFF. Rattlesnakes were the least of my concerns while fishing in these beautiful surroundings and their insect hum. I think the wading staff split more clouds of no-see-ums than it separated jungle growth.

my old Pennsyltucky home…

It was rough country and it wasn’t far from home. I’ll go back some day when the air is clear and the weather more inviting. I felt satisfied for finding a new “contact zone” and for brushing up on outdoor basics. It was yet another portal to the wild, and good practice for the summer road. It won’t be long before the rough country of the Rocky Mountain streams and hiking trails entice an upland rambler.

the mayfly said, “Use the Light Cahill, brother…”

an 18-inch brown took the Hare’s-Ear Nymph..

fishing was good on the Genesee…

I was listening to Beefheart’s “Moonlight on Vermont” on the incomparable Trout Mask Replica…

“smooth country…”




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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22 Responses to The Rough Country

  1. Bob Stanton says:

    On my way home tonight, I thought to myself, “Maybe there’ll be a new RR post” and Shazam! There it was. I was out on little rough country sojourn of my own this evening. Mostly running some trails when I felt up to it, and​ a few casts into the lake yielded a baby largemouth and a pumpkinseed. A pleasant evening all-in-all; I was scolded by ovenbirds, seduced by veeries, a peewee whistled my way and a barred owl rebuffed my attempts at returning his call. Enough good stuff to carry me through a night at work!

  2. Way to rough it, Bob! In addition to fishing small streams lately, I’ve been helping the DEC electro-survey trout streams and through it all, the bird song has been stimulating, hearing, like you, the veeries, wood thrushes, ovenbirds, scarlet tanager, and others that make the early summer days and evenings really pleasant.

  3. Brian says:

    Doc, great piece of writin’, as usual. I was just thinking of your old dog Trout the other day, btw.

    • Hey there Doctor Brian George, it’s always great to hear from you. Thanks, too, for thinking of old Trout. I missed that dog so much I never wanted to replace him though we did have others for many years.

  4. Brent says:

    I’d offer a fluid definition for “rough country,” as you seem to be doing here: the idea that, when the pure stuff isn’t available, anyone can find some relative peace of mind by finding the nearest park and separating from human drama. For you, it might be Apple Tree Hollow or the local hilltops, but I’ve found some great solace in the Huntley Meadows marsh or seeing/hearing the Potomac rapids. Here’s to the Rockies in a few weeks!

    • Yes it could be as close as a backyard if you’re looking for something different than the mundane. In your case, Huntley Meadows or the Potomac are fine examples of the rough country where the wild places shine through. And here’s to the Rocky Mountain Way, real soon!

  5. JZ says:

    Fished Apple Tree close to fifteen years ago Walt. It was dreadfully hot when I fished it too. Caught fish and remember the day rather vividly. I wore the seven layer LL Bean gortex kevlar waders with the built in knee pads, 1st year generation. Loved them waders! I remember rescueing two brook trout in a small puddle separated from the main stem. They were destined to die under skinny water conditions. Water was clear and cold and trout were awful spooky throughout the small watershed. The setting was eerily quite and I always felt like something or someone was watching me. I was spooked to be honest. There was something haunting about that stream. I haven’t returned since. I got the sense that something happened there a long time ago that wasn’t good. A strange vibe that I couldn’t shake. Crazy, I knew I wouldn’t ever be back…

    • That’s an interesting recollection of the Hollow, JZ, and I think I know what you mean. I’m sure there are stories about the place in the minds of old-timers, and I’ve heard and read a couple, I think. I found it to be quiet but in a good sense. What I didn’t like was the heat and humidity and blackflies. I’m thinking I’d like to revisit maybe in October when the colors are on the forest and then see what the vibes are like then. It fits my definition of the “rough country.”

  6. JZ says:

    My dad is buried at Mt Tunnel cemetery in Elizabethtown Pa Walt. Its right off the main drag through the heart of town. I often visit him at night after my gym workout. I am not at the least spooked driving and walking amongst the stones that surround him. A shined iphone light leads the way. I offer prayers and tell him how much he is deeply missed. I am not some spooked crazy fool scared of his shadow. Far from it even.
    However, there are some places and dwellings that can rain down chills within me. I am confident that others feel the same way. They just don’t admit that sense to others and pretend that there spooky feelings don’t exist. Even when they truly do. I remember being in the field in South Korea as a Marine back in the early 80’s. There was a place given a nickname, Nightmare Range. Soldiers fought and died on the very ground I stood on. Sleeping in a big tent for weeks, on cots, always had me spooked during that operation. Its just an odd feeling I get about places. I’ve been this way since my childhood Walt. It is real and it wont change. I feel especially vulnerable when I try and push the envelope and tempt its spirits. Terrible things could happen to me if I deliberately resist its force. Unfortunately my daughter and son have inherited this and sense the same uneasiness that I do in certain cases. Trust me, as a father I know. Apple Tree Hollow can offer splendid fishing, or any other hollow in that neck of woods in fact. But I wont be at Apple Tree. I can only speak of what I felt that sultry summer day..

    • JZ, I do not at all doubt that edgy feeling that you got in the hollow or the apprehension that a certain place can raise within you. I think it’s a good thing that some people respond in unusual ways, good or bad, when in deep contact with a place. It tells me that a person is alive and well when such an interaction occurs. After all, we are not totally separate from the world around us. I believe such interactions are deeply personal, as opposed to being universal. I’m intrigued by your feelings of the place and feel inspired to investigate further on my own. I hope I have some positive vibrations to pass along after my next visit.

  7. plaidcamper says:

    Walt, I really enjoyed reading this account of your excursion into rough country. The words and photographs are vivid – that heavy humidity! – and way too many mosquitos and black flies for my liking, but I admire your commitment to expanding the map!
    Your Rocky Mountain adventure will be a less bug-infested affair if you’re hiking higher ranges and fishing in cooler temperatures.
    Thanks for another great post!

    • Thank you, Plaid, your words are much appreciated. I’m really looking forward to the Rocky Mountains trip, with hikes and fishing ventures high above the biting flies, I hope. We’re planning our excursions into high country from New Mexico to Montana. It should be several weeks of fun and learning. Have a good one, friend!

  8. I always enjoy your adventures Walt but I’m anxious to read about your upcoming trip to my part of the rough country.

    • Thanks Howard, I’m looking forward to it and hope not to get too roughed up in the process. I should be passing through about third week of July as the RMNP lures us in en route from NM to MT. Will keep you posted!

  9. loydtruss says:

    What an adventure, one with a host of interesting sites, my favorite aside from the awesome brown was the old home place. I love old buildings that have weathered the test of time. As for the black flies and mosquitoes; it makes one wonder how the Native Americans dealt with the bugs? Thanks for sharing

  10. I enjoyed reading “The Rough Country” Walt, Thank you!

  11. Ralph says:

    Walt, have you tried a thermacell? I use them in spring gobbler and wear it with the shoulder strap. Keeps everything away without the juice.

    Great pics!

  12. Thanks Ralph! I’m checking into the possibilities of a thermacell. Have never used one. I can see the practicality for spring turkey hunting and am wondering how it works for mountain blackflies.

  13. It’s been a bad year for bugs just about everywhere it seems. I was nearly carried off by a swarm of mosquitoes today (in front of my daughter no less). Is that a grey tree frog in the last picture or some kind of toad? It’s beautiful.

  14. Hi Douglas. With all the rain that the continental corners have been getting this year, the mosquito population is dangerous! As for the critter in the last photo, that’s Skeeter, the ceramic tree frog doing double duty as a bug sentry in my yard. I too have thought him a pretty fellow but my daughter says it really creeps here out. It’s those green glass eyes, I guess.
    Thank you, and watch out for those insect abductors!

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