The Return of Old Woodenhead

[In which we hear an echo from an earlier post or two at Rivertop Rambles, now an excerpt from my book Wings Over Water (available from Amazon, Wood Thrush Books, or myself). That said, Old Woodenhead, my Christmas confidante or alter ego, wishes everyone aboard a very healthy and enjoyable holiday season!]

“Walt Franklin on the Stream” is a wood carving that my wife gave me as a Christmas present years ago. The sculpture, an example of Pennsylvania folk art, was produced by David Castano, a full-time wood carver from Potter County, PA.

that rod has taken quite a beating

Castano’s approach to working with a knife might be construed as an attempt to represent an individual in the context of family and work traditions. According to the artist, his wooden figures reflect the value and diversity of workers in America. He was once commissioned to carve the figures of nine surviving mine workers rescued in 2002 from the Que Creek coal disaster in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Since fly-fishing isn’t usually thought to be a part of America’s work traditions, I was fortunate to be considered a suitable subject for the carver’s time. But wait a minute– can’t fun be part of the work experience, too? Let’s look at this example…

work done, Four Mile reminiscence, Allegheny River

Winter had been present for a while, but on Winter Solstice, the astronomical gun-start for the season, rain was on tap for the region, and the temperature was rising quickly. Since the weather hadn’t registered above the freezing mark in more than two weeks, I wanted to fly-fish if the signs were good, so I packed a couple of rods for the drive to the Kettle Creek Tackle Shop. The plan was to fish, if possible, and to drop off one rod that I’d broken in November.

Phil Baldacchino’s shop near Hammersley Fork is a favorite fly and tackle center in my region, and the owner had agreed to make a replacement tip for a bamboo rod that he had sold. Phil was quick to show some of the latest fly rods he had built, cool fiberglass and bamboo instruments. I stood there in the narrow aisles of the shop as he handed me one rod after another, expertly providing the statistics for each one. In the dim glow of the quiet shop, I was like an old salmon that had found his natal river, like a kid aboard the Polar Express that pushed across the Northern Lights.

Santa Phil? No way…

I was there only to deliver a broken rod and maybe to buy a few small items, but the fun that came from looking over all the new stuff started to reveal the dark side of the sport. It began to feel like work. Putting thumb prints on a gorgeous spacer carved from box elder and testing the “speed” of various rod tapers, for example, wasn’t easy, but I thought, what the hell. It was the Winter Solstice; why not stand back and enjoy?

Returning home in the rain, I slowed the car at numerous bridge crossings and threw a long eye to the widening streams. The waters were rising from a sudden snowmelt. Road slush was accumulating and preventing a safe stop, so I limited my day’s work to the job description of a stream monitor. Difficult labor, maybe, but somebody had to do it.

Winter Solstice, Gemini Moon

At home, I took David Castano’s carving from the shelf. I turned it upside down and read the statue’s title at the bottom. “Walt Franklin on the Stream.” I took it to our creekside by the waterfall and stood the statue at the water’s edge, the way a kid might play with sticks beside a pool. The carving looked right at home there by the creek. I thought about the fishing creel constructed at my side. Although I’d never worn a wicker basket even in the formative years of youth, the notion of it smacked of tradition, so was fine with me. The scene looked almost celebratory in the rain. A gift from the past gave me enjoyment in the present. I even had a fish pulled from the water, lively in the air.

back for more…
Elfie, that was for the Bourbon Balls!

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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13 Responses to The Return of Old Woodenhead

  1. Brent says:

    I like it when Old Woodenhead puts in an appearance on RR; I hope he also enjoys that IPA and Wild Turkey combo. It seems like you’ve been having very different weather over the past few weeks than even in Pittsburgh, where there’s been no snow other than the lightest of flurries on Sunday. Looking forward to hosting you and the critters in a few days: We’ll leave a light on and plenty of beer in the fridge!

  2. Jet Eliot says:

    I am smiling, Walt, at the fun of past, present and future that you crafted for me like a Christmas elf. First off, just looking at this incredible wood carving is inspiring. The detail is truly fine. Then your playing with it, admiring it and putting it in the water, is really fun. Your descriptions of the fly and tackle shop, and Phil, and your experiences left me with a Christmas smile. Thank you. Sending my best wishes to you and your family for happy holidays.

  3. plaidcamper says:

    Great to see Old Woodenhead, and, as a expected, doesn’t he look at home down by the water?! Wishing you a happy holiday season, one that doesn’t seem remotely like work, or at least that any toil brings you joy!

  4. Don T says:

    Nice fish Woodenhead!

  5. loydtruss says:

    Keepsakes bring back such wonderful memories and I’m sure Woodenhead will continue to share memories through your children and theirs as well. Thanks for sharing

  6. Bill,
    You’re right about that. Merry Christmas.

  7. UB says:

    If I remember correctly Phil’s hair hasn’t been THAT white… on any occasion I’ve ever seen him! This is mentioned with a grin about as wide as I can make without laughing out loud. I think I may be catching on, or otherwise learning, to communicate with words instead of the trendy speak of texting (although I’m NOT big into that sort of thing) – but it is a worthy challenge which will hopefully elevate my communicative skills (or lack thereof). It should be obvious, it’s more of a challenge for folks like me than all you literary types. As far as ‘Woodenhead’, it looks like a great carving with much backing story (which you provided) that should spark many a new story in the years to come. I look forward to your future posts/entries/books/fish stories/lies/commiserations (not that you have any of the latter). Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year. UB

    • Old Woodenhead doesn’t think of himself as being overly “literary,” UB, but he clearly reads your intent, for which he most appreciative. No communication deficit, whatsoever, any more than Phil B.’s hair was white! Thank you for the kind words & everlasting support, and good cheer & merriment through Christmas & the New Year!

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