I spent a few days near Thanksgiving being grateful not only for friends, family and supporters but also for our National Park system, which includes Shenandoah, where I caught a break from premature winter in the Northlands.
It was a simple move, a needed change of pace. Virginia’s Rapidan River didn’t fish well for me on the first day but, on day two, a quiet hike on the North Fork Moormans brought me into a deeply forested plenitude of trout. It’s not that the fishing was remarkable. It wasn’t, but I found some brook trout, still feeding despite their cold-water, post-spawn funk. For that, an old catch-and-release angler simply had to tip his hat.
Like my homeground and other areas of the East, Virginia has had more than its share of rain this season. I wasn’t sure if I’d be seeing flood damage, or not. Although the streams were higher than I’d seen them in years, the waters were clear and (mostly) in good shape, reminding me that times of overflow were better than times of drought. It all seemed simple enough.
Wading wasn’t so easy, though. It was difficult at times. For example, I’m not used to crossing the diminutive Staunton River, typically a gentle brook, with a beaver-cut walking stick for support. With cold, boulder-studded waters of the Staunton rushing at my knees, you can bet that I placed my steps with care.
A holiday gathering of family was scheduled for later in the day. With this in mind, I enjoyed Thanksgiving peace and quiet in the mountains. The high-water crossings along the Moormans Trail kept away the folks with only hiking shoes for travel. I saw no one above the third river crossing, where my only company was the brook trout, a Carolina wren or two, a chickadee, a jay. The sun was out; the air was autumn crisp; I liked the day’s simplicity.
As I headed out for Black Friday on the Rapidan, my son said I should take it easy on the hike… “We suspect that if you don’t eventually die in bed beside your wife, we’ll find your body rotting in a creek somewhere, clutching a fly rod, with trout nibbling at your eyeballs.” Yeah, I said. Sounds great. So, with intimations of mortality and feelings of diminishing time, I set off on the trail, more comfortable with the cold gray morning than with combat shopping at the mall. A simpler outing, for sure.
The temperature never peaked at the expected high of 40 degrees. Ice formed periodically in the guides of Chester, the fly rod. I hiked well into the mountains and stepped carefully around the white tongues of the Rapidan. Catching a couple of oversized chubs was not a good sign for trout fishing, but hooking up with a few colorful natives was a fine way of getting back in balance with the watershed.
The weather was cold, but warmer than it was in New York State– a simple fact, a simple face-to-face with nature. Like a good book opened by a woodstove on a winter’s night. A simple game with friends or family. A closing to a complex life.