Jumping the Back Fence

Wild Boy Run was named for Lewis “Wild Boy” Stevens who settled on the Pennsylvania mountain stream in 1842.  Born to alcoholic and abusive parents, Stevens “jumped the back fence” of his home (in New Jersey) at age eleven and escaped, eventually settling in the East Fork Sinnemahoning wilderness. He had learned the tinsmith’s trade, and had built himself a cabin chinked with moss and mud, complete with hemlock boughs for a bed, along with a gun, an axe, a frying pan, a tin cup, and a knife. He lived alone at the stream’s edge, six miles from the nearest neighbor, through the 1840s and the ’50s.

Salmon River, upper fly-fishing-only stretch…

I learned of Mr. Stevens long before my introduction to Wild Boy Run but, admittedly, the poet in me reinforced the link between man and stream just recently. The poet urged the fly-fisher to inspect this new location. I was not trying to romanticize a subject barely known to me, but I do enjoy local history. I figured that it might be interesting to view the stream from vantage points 160 years apart.

modern camp at Wild Boy…

Before the Wild Boy visit, Jim K. and I had fished Ontario tributaries without much luck. Our timing was bad. The Salmon River kings were dead or dying, and the steelhead run was in its infancy. At another Lake Ontario trib, the runs were way behind an average seasonal start. The lateness may have been due to warmer water temperatures. Who knows? We had fun attempting to decipher what the problems were– knowing full well that behind them was a simple fact: there were just too many fishermen on these streams. Judging by the license plates observed in parking lots, there were people casting here from such places as New Jersey, Idaho, Ohio and Ontario– more fishermen than fish, at least in late October.

Jim @ Salmon River, giving it the old college try…

It’s a problem, and the New York DEC is proposing several changes that may help ease the impact that we make on Lake Ontario and its tributaries. The proposals, basically supporting a reduced “creel limit” for brown trout and steelhead (while also increasing the size limit for steelhead), can be viewed at dec.ny.gov/outdoors and commented on until December 16, 2019. I support these proposals (for implementation on April 1, 2020) as a means to benefit Lake Ontario fisheries, a start on the long road to improvement in this realm of trout and angler.

home view #1…

Meanwhile, it was time for us to regroup closer to home. I much prefer the relative solitude, the beauty of the forested mountains with their sparkling streams where small fish rule the undercuts and riffles, where I share my thoughts with a fishing partner or where my singular reveries help me jump the back fence into local lore.

home view #2…

Lewis Stevens grew a garden here, lived on nuts and berries, trout and deer. Wild pigeons thrived near the forest. Stevens’ hair and beard grew long and shaggy. People who encountered him saw a crazy fellow, shy, uncomfortable, one who disliked cats and dogs but who loved the birds and flowers. Regional mothers threatened misbehaving children– saying if the kids didn’t straighten up, bogeyman Stevens would surprise and get them. When the Civil War broke out, Stevens left it all behind, enlisting with Pennsylvania’s 46th Regiment, contributing his own fervent hope that the Union be preserved.

Wild Boy Run…

It was a beautiful afternoon in late October. I climbed the wild run and looked for trout. The state forestland, rich with bronzy foliage and flowing water, seemed to cradle my intent and small stream interests. The farther I got from the valley camps and lodges, the more fish I encountered. They were small, surely. Brookies, bright with spawning color, up to nine inches long, at best. I had jumped the back fence from my 8-weight fly rod tactics on the northern tributaries to my 3-weight strategies for brook trout in the mountains. It was a pleasant leap.

Wild Boy Stevens went to war and found that fighting was unbearable. He didn’t want to kill; he didn’t want to die. He called himself a coward, and deserted his regiment, eventually building a hut in the Indiana swamplands. After the war, Stevens made a gradual return to the Sinnemahoning. He discovered that his old home had been broken into, and his few possessions had been stolen. He eventually built another home for himself in western Pennsylvania but, essentially, Wild Boy Stevens quickly faded into history.

About a century and a half later, near the place where Stevens had lived for many years, I caught a bunch of brook trout and released them from the fly. The Wild Boy would have used live bait or the “fingering” method for his trout. Whereas our goals and methods, our philosophies and beliefs, may have differed due to circumstance, outdoor Pennsylvania brought us into an afternoon of dreams.


home view #3… poplars in the breeze…

red oaks, home view #4…


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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18 Responses to Jumping the Back Fence

  1. tiostib says:

    A fine Fall adventure story, thanks for taking my mind away with you.

  2. Brent says:

    What a fascinating guy! A voluntary outcast who was likely socially awkward and was obviously sensitive to human violence: Had he been a woman in an even earlier time, he might have been smeared as a witch instead of as a mere forest bogeyman.

    • Yes, an interesting fellow in my estimation, also, a life-long outcast, thanks to the wickedness of that society. And lucky not to have been a woman in the Salem districts a century earlier. Thankfully the wilds of Sinnemahoning welcomed him to the fold.

  3. Peter says:

    A lovely story, thank you.

  4. plaidcamper says:

    Thanks for jumping the back fence and taking us into an interesting history. I like the way we can walk some of the same trails traveled by these “outcasts” and get to musing they might have been more right about aspects of life than many would care to admit…
    Good stuff, Walt!

  5. UB says:

    We had a camp a little ways up from the Old Tannery. I remember my Dad and I driving those back roads a lot and the name Wildboy Road. I thought I remember reading somewhere in one of those local books that a couple of fellow’s visited the Wildboy’s cabin and messed him or just his place up. I could be totally wrong though.
    Takes a certain kind to be able to live off on their own. We don’t see that much anymore.
    Looked like it was a great day and Brookies in spawning color, it doesn’t get much better.

    • Sounds like you had a real connection there, UB. Sinnemahoning. Local history says that the cabin was destroyed or messed up somehow as the settlers moved in. But yes, a good colorful day with the brook trout in the wild is hard to beat. Thanks, and glad you got through!

  6. Ross says:

    Walt, thanks for an interesting story on the origins of Wild Boy Run. Back in the day I had backpacked thru that area and wondered about the name. The colors on the brookies are fantastic.

  7. Bob Stanton says:

    I’ve driven up through there and wondered too, exactly how the moniker came to be. It is damn near as remote as one can get in the lower 48, and that is a gift in itself.

  8. loydtruss says:

    A great adventure that many of us would enjoying; your post makes it realistic—thanks for sharing

  9. JZ says:

    A wonderful story about a boy who ran away twice Walt. I’m sure that creek was a bloodline towards his survival and health and a means to wash himself of a troubled past. A sole loner by circumstance, a runner by trade. Its a funny thing, its often though that we fly fishers run away somewhere deep to fish and get away too. Walt, it sure looks like those Wild-Boy brooks know there history..

    • Yeah I’d say, you’re right– the creek was a blood-line to the guy in a way that we can only imagine– we, who see & feel it in a limited way when we go out to fish or to explore it. Those wild streams know a history, and that history can revitalize those of us who care to dip in one way or another… Thanks JZ.

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