Within/Without, the Wild

This weekend, while managing to get in some hiking on the Buckseller Trail in Pennsylvania and on Dryden Hill behind my house, I also finished reading a new book by Walt McLaughlin called Cultivating the Wildness Within. dscn9649

This 173 page work (offered by Amazon Books and by the publisher, Red Dragonfly Press, 307 Oxford St., Northfield, Minnesota 55057, for $16 postpaid) was thoroughly enjoyable. Although I’ve been a long-time friend of this talented writer and small-press publisher, I say here what I want to say, without having been asked or having been paid (unfortunately) to say it.

As the author, McLaughlin, states it, this book is “a deeply personal collection of interwoven essays that starts in the Alaskan bush then progresses through two decades of wildness found in nature, those close to me, and myself.”dscn9637

In “Wild Encounters,” the first section of the book, we find the author’s conversational narrative reflecting on various subjects ranging from a solo camp-out in the wilds of Alaska to roughing it with his wife and/or grandkids in his home state of Vermont. In between, we get stories from his thru-hikes on the Northville-Placid Trail in the Adirondacks of New York and on the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine. All of it, philosophically and practically, is born from the experience of wilderness and the blissful freedom that arises when the seeker takes a chance with nature.dscn9643

It was fun to contemplate this book as I struck out alone in the Susquehannock State Forest in northern PA this weekend, then did another snowy climb on Dryden Hill behind my home. Near the house, I watched in rapt amazement as a golden eagle soared lazily in circles overhead, allowing me to see the rusty-colored plumage of its fan-shaped tail and its great dark body. Ten minutes into my observation, I watched the fading speck that was an eagle disappear from view at the height of winter clouds.dscn9654

What majesty, I thought, what freedom, as seen from the perspective of a limited human body. Whether experiencing a one-on-one relationship with a special locale, sensing what it must be like to soar with a raptor, or finding a new galaxy in the privacy of a 4.5-inch reflecting telescope, McLaughlin’s book points the way for us to incorporate or to rediscover what’s been there all along– the pulse of wildness and the wonders of this life.

There’s even an essay called “Gone Fishing” whereby the author relates the start of his angling interests as a young kid learning how to toss a worm and bobber. “Mom told me that fishing was all about being patient, but I soon figured out that there was more to it than that. Much more.” He learned that nature wasn’t meant to be objectified but to be embraced.dscn9668

When McLaughlin’s wife gave him a fly rod for his fortieth birthday, his evolution as an angler took an unprecedented step. Learning to become a catch-and-release fly angler took some doing at first. [At this point in my reading of the book, I found myself surprised and humbled to discover the following information…]

McLaughlin, the fly-fishing neophyte, joined yours truly for a camp-out in the wilds of Pine Creek and Slate Run near my home. Read on…

“Franklin and I pitched a tent on a flat piece of ground next to a small stream that emptied into Pine Creek. In the evenings we hunkered over a small campfire, sharing a flask of whiskey while telling each other fishing stories. During the day we plied the waters above and below our camp for trout… I hooked a small brook trout while dragging a stonefly through a pool in a manner not unlike spin fishing…dscn9671

“The ultra sensitive fly rod in my hand seemed like more trouble than it was worth. But then we came upon a quiet pool where tiny, slate blue mayflies were hatching early in the afternoon. The trout rose to our tiny offerings of feather and thread with a vengeance, unlike anything I’d ever seen before. That was my come-to-Jesus moment as a fly fisherman. I haven’t been the same since.”

My influence on McLaughlin’s “cultivation of the wild” is truly minor and beside the point, considering the context of innumerable influences happily related in this book. Although I’ve also written and shared some Walt McLaughlin stories in my book River’s Edge, the great influences of the author’s cultivation are as disparate and diverse as his friends and family, his wrestling with the “madness of civilization,” his ponderings of the “impossible cosmos,” in addition to those incalculably significant wild urges that would come to him on and off the trail.dscn9676

Even the unlikely aspects of walking on the streets of Paris, France contributed to the appreciation and nurturing of the wild.

Our friendship and our business relationships aside, I recommend this book if you’re in need of literary companionship or if you’re simply curious about the possibilities that are offered.

In the quiet and solitude of the Dryden Hill summit this afternoon, I listened to the hoarse calling of several ravens, and watched them soar and gambol on the wind. I “read them” as I did a golden eagle just an hour before. Together, the birds appeared to me like a page from Walt McLaughlin’s book.dscn9665

golden, greenwood, ny

golden, greenwood, ny


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In the Deep Woods

Pennsylvania has 88 waterways managed as “Wilderness Trout Streams.” Seven of those are located in nearby Potter County, and on Saturday I fished one of them that was on my bucket list to explore while I still had a chance to do so.

PA wild stream

PA wild stream

What passes for a wilderness trout stream in Pennsylvania is one that’s deemed by state officials to be capable of sustaining a wild trout fishery, especially for native brook trout. It also has to be a stream that offers a backcountry experience, an aesthetically pleasant outing for a person who values solitude and a rugged terrain untouched by motorized vehicles.

The forest along my mountain stream was drenched in morning fog, but the air was unbelievably warm for January (into the 50s!) and would soon be cleared by a gentle sun. There are no large boulders, or glacial debris, along this narrow stream that averages only eight to 10-feet wide along its lower mile, but the gravel bed was clearly visible and, no doubt, conducive to the health of native trout.

home to a nice brookie

home to a nice brookie

I was casting a wet fly but, in retrospect, I probably could have done as well, if not better, with a dry. It was that kind of day– a pleasant one, with the prospect of surprises.

I love the deep woods for the way it brings the ego to its knees, and for the way it reconstructs a balance in the seeker of solitude, who needs to see the wild resurface in his or her life. That act of balancing the wild and civil elements within the self may be only short-lived but, as long as the tumbling water sings of rocky passages or the wind strums its route across the hemlock boughs, the balance is real.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I love the deep woods for the magic that’s imparted here, and for the hint of danger, too. I detected or imagined some kind of a motion just behind my back…. A wave from the ghost of “Wild Boy Stevens” (a local hermit from pioneer days)? The subtle fade-out of the last cougar to have lived here in the 1800s? Or was it the insidious creeping of a legendary Squonk (which I’ve written of in an earlier post)?

Most likely it was just the machinations of a mind gone wonderfully crazed and free of civilization. A soul gone roaming with a fly rod in the deep, dark woods near home. There would be no “alternate facts” provided here (as famously announced in Washington, D.C.). Just the low-down served up straight from Mother Nature.

And speaking of fly rods, my old glass Fenwick, a short six-footer (FF60) worked fine for rolling out a five-weight to the brook trout hungry for a fly.

6-ft. Fenwick glass rod

6-ft. Fenwick glass rod

My fish (all of them safely returned) were small ones, with one exception. A thin male native measured 10.5 inches long. This adult fish had probably thrived in its deep undercut pool for several years. And its colors struck me so hard that, later, I would link them to the pink hats worn by thousands of women marching in our nation’s capital this day. Kudos to all participants in cities everywhere, from the wilds of Potter County!

On Sunday I returned to another stream in the state forestlands because the weather was even warmer and more inviting than before. I climbed a little feeder stream, a tributary of the upper Pine and, again, no sign of humankind– no cabin or ATV track, not even another boot print like my own.

a Pine Creek feeder

a Pine Creek feeder

I enjoyed this little stream, and vowed to return with dry flies later in the spring when maybe I could walk it to the source. I captured and let go a couple of small trout and missed one that appeared to be as large as the best one caught the day before.

I returned downstream and waded into upper Pine Creek and its heavier winter flow. It was time to try a favorite dry fly pattern, a Stimulator on a #14 hook.

on a dry fly

on a dry fly

I’ve caught January trout while casting dry flies on a limestone creek, but I’ve never hooked them on the surface of a freestone here in rivertop country. Not in January. Not until this warm day on the upper Pine.

I landed several with the dry fly and admit that casting a floater with a bamboo stick in winter was a hoot. It was soothing to be out in the deep woods in a time of thaw, but the weather felt absolutely daft. I don’t like to complain, but maybe a little snowstorm would make a sweet topping for a seasonal dish like this event…

Well, let’s wait a day or so.. And now what do I see?

upper Pine

upper Pine

A snowstorm, by god. A wet, fluffy present from the deep woods of the earth and sky. Enough to close the schools, and business as usual, this day.



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Alternative Programming

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.

doing the alternative

doing the alternative

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.dscn9587

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.dscn9586

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.

a Pine Creek mountain that I'd like to climb this winter

a Pine Creek mountain that I’d like to climb this winter

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….dscn9632

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.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.dscn9613

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.

fisher tracks & Ross reel

fisher tracks & Ross reel

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.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It was good to catch small fish, to observe and then release them to the song of tumbling water, to a power not unlike the voice of a great American who fought for the equality and freedom of us all.dscn9619OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


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On the Rim of the Year

With the air temp registering 16 degrees F., and with a mountain breeze cutting the day to a chilled clarity, it was too cold to fly-fish, but the prospect of an upriver hike seemed appealing.

Allegheny-Ohio-Mississippi River top...

Allegheny-Ohio-Mississippi River top…


An afternoon sun broke sporadically from a crystalline grayness, and I was glad to be walking an abandoned railroad grade along the upper Allegheny River protected from the wind that raked the hilltops. I was also sheltered from the sights and sounds of a hydro-fracking operation where (judging from the parked machinery near the trailhead) the work of mining the Marcellus Shale layers for fossil fuel never ceases.

fracking never sleeps...

fracking never sleeps…

I had just purchased my 31st consecutive non-resident fishing license from the state of Pennsylvania and, although a sane attempt to fly-fish in this weather would not be possible (please don’t ask me to define a sane attempt at fly-fishing), it was good to celebrate three decades of a love affair with rivertop country by hiking toward the source of the Allegheny-Ohio-Mississippi watershed, one of the longest river systems in the nation.

rivertop trail...

rivertop trail…

Just moments after hitting the trail, I could feel the rush of wildness like a cool breeze through the warm layers of January clothing on my back. Coyote tracks were freshly printed in the granular snow, and there, approaching the ice-beds of the freezing Allegheny– the indisputable tracks of a fisher, paw-prints similar to coyote’s, but rounder and clearly punctuated with impressions of five long toes.

fisher country... camou-trak?

fisher country… camou-trak?

I could hike for several miles before nearing the highway to Gold, and I had time to think. I bought my first Pennsylvania angling license in 1987, a year in which Michael Czarnecki and I were busy publishing and promoting the Upriver Poetry Chapbook Series, with works by Graham Duncan, Karen Blomain, Barbara Crooker, and Terry Keenan (FootHills Publishing and Great Elm Press). Shortly thereafter, I published an anthology of outdoor writers called Riveries, appropriately enough.

Upriver Chapbook Series plus Riveries anthology...

Upriver Chapbook Series plus Riveries anthology…

I may have been leaving the strict realms of poetry at the time in favor of exploring the region’s fly-fishing opportunities and writing of them in prose but, looking back, I don’t think there was real separation as much as a merging of literary and other outdoor opportunities.

I opened Barbara Crooker’s chapbook, Starting From Zero, (1987), to the first poem called “January,” and was stunned by several lines that seem so connected to this recent Allegheny River hike: “…And here we are, poised on the rim of the year,/ this icy globe turning./ We’re caught in suspension,/ our every breath visible./ The silence between us deepens,/ blue as the shadows in snow.”dscn9560

I seemed to be hiking the rim of the year, listening to the blue silence in the snowy headwaters of a very young river. When I reached one of the uppermost trout pools in the Allegheny, a placid forest scene only a mile or so from the river’s source, I paused and remembered my unfinished poem whose first lines I recited at my mother’s memorial a couple of days before New Year’s:

From “Poem, 2:30 A.M.”: She who brought me/ into this river of life/ brought me to a love/ of flowing waters….

"river of life"

“river of life”

It was time to turn around and head back down to where I started from. I wanted to fish here again, in springtime, when the native trout are eager for a dry fly cast from a short bamboo, but at this point we were all moving out, poised or faltering or otherwise evolving, on the tentative rim of a new year.

if I was one to hibernate...

if I was one to hibernate…

perhaps the highest trout pool in the Allegheny...

perhaps the highest trout pool in the Allegheny…


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Something Out of Nothing

A ray of light shot from the December darkness that surrounded me for a while. My son Brent and Catherine Rothwell, from Warrenton, Virginia, were married on the banks of the Anacostia River in Washington D.C. on December 23rd. The marriage initiated a lot of celebration amongst two small families, and it certainly helped me glimpse the light of hope as the new year opened its door.

L-R: Alyssa,Catherine, Brent, Leighanne, rivertoprambles

L-R: Alyssa,Catherine, Brent, Leighanne, rivertoprambles


It was great to see my daughter again, as well. We hadn’t seen her in person since our visit to St. Croix last year, and it was comforting to know that we’d rejoin her on the islands one more time in April before she moves back to New York. Sometimes, when you keep your eyes wide open, you can see something wonderful or useful just beyond the confines of the ordinary.

As New Year’s Day rolled around, my friend Tim Didas and I went fly fishing on a New York water, as we’ve done for five consecutive years on January 1st. It’s more of a tradition whereby we catch up on personal news and just have some fun while casting in a typically cold environment that doesn’t offer much hope for landing a trout or a salmon. Out of the five years that we’ve fished together on the 1st, I think we were successful only twice, but in each cold venture, we had fun.

Conhocton River

Conhocton River

This year was a “skunk,” or maybe I should call it a “mink.” More on that momentarily.

Despite the pleasant weather, with a clear sky and an air temperature in the mid-30s Fahrenheit, and despite the presence of a few hatching midges and Blue-winged Olives on the big Conhocton River near Avoca, New York, we couldn’t get anything interested in chasing our nymphs or streamers. We could smell the skunk of angling failure, but on trudging back through the snowy fields and river bank to our vehicle, I found a dead mink.

mink tail

mink tail

The animal had been killed within hours. There were no signs of bodily injury, other than a bite mark on the head. We had seen fresh tracks of a coyote (in addition to fox, grouse, rabbits, and turkey), and I eventually surmised that the mink may have been whacked in a scuffle with coyote.

Tim reminded me that the tail fur of a winter mink is good for tying flies, especially for a silky brown dubbing that is useful in caddis and soft hackle patterns, and for guard hairs that function well as dry fly tails.

angler bambooze (T.&T. 5 wt. left; Orvis 7-wt. right)

angler bambooze (T.&T. 5 wt. left; Orvis 7-wt. right)

I handed him a small knife that I carried, and he carefully removed the mink’s tail. Specifically, he was careful not to puncture the animal’s scent gland near the  base of the tail, which had the potential to rupture and to add some serious insult to the minor injury of a skunking on the river.

I thanked the carcass for the use of its tail, and buried the animal at the base of a nearby tree. We eventually eliminated the tail bone from the fur, and I had myself some mink for the tying of flies.

Conhocton mink caddis

Conhocton mink caddis

Next day, with a forecast of impending rain that would quickly raise the level of the streams, I thought of making a short foray to Chenunda Creek in search of my first trout of the year, but reconsidered as a freezing drizzle changed the landscape. Instead I stayed home and tied some flies. I tied a few Conhocton River caddis, with mink fur playing the role of thorax on an insect body.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

photo by Scott Cornett, from Scott's holiday venture in Allegany State Park, 1/1/17

photo by Scott Cornett, from Scott’s holiday venture in Allegany State Park, 1/1/17



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Winter Rose

Since the sad news I reported on in the last post, I’ve been happily wrapped up in a wide variety of holiday activities. I even got in a couple hours of fly-fishing in Shenandoah National Park.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I spent a week in Washington D.C. and northern Virginia for a reason I’m not quite prepared to elaborate on because my son is at the heart of it, and I want him to disclose the reason for all the family gatherings and felicity on his Bridging the Gap blog before I go running my mouth about it here on Rivertop Rambles. [Ed. note: he beat me to the punch, so yeah, check out his new post about family traditions old and possibly new at Bridging the Gap. I think you’ll like it, and I’ll have more on this subject later on].

at the Rothwell home

at the Rothwell home

Let’s just say that the week of fun included not only hiking and fishing, eating and drinking, giving and taking, dancing and listening, pledging and throwing all caution to the wind, but also enjoying a long visit from my Caribbean daughter before we put her back on a plane one morning long before the hour of dawn.

keep on dancin'!

keep on dancin’!

It’s been a helluva ride, a very good one despite my mother’s passing, but I wouldn’t last long if I had to go through it again.

one of many fine species found along the trail

one of many fine species found along the trail

We still had the memorial for my mother scheduled for an evening in New York on December 29, but the life-affirming action in Virginia and D.C. was like seeing the first new lights of winter edging through the darkness at the end of 2016. Perhaps like seeing the beauty in a freshly-cut winter rose.

winter rose

winter rose

And speaking of roses and winter blooms, I had another opportunity to fly-fish on the headwaters of the Rose River in Shenandoah National Park. Any chance to fly-fish comfortably during the winter season is a bonus in this typically off season for casting, so I scrambled for the opportunity.

Rose River

Rose River

We were staying in Warrenton, Virginia,  where the air temperature was in the mid-40s the day after Christmas, so the drive to the Rose was pleasant and easy. A bald eagle greeted my son and me on our approach to the Blue Ridge along the Rappahannock River Valley. We drove to a dead-end near the hamlet of Syria and prepared for a short hike and fishing jaunt into the wilds of Shenandoah.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Just inside the boundary of the park, the Rose is a boulder-chocked stream with a steep gradient, a lovely mountain water where you can fish for wild brook trout on a catch-and-release basis with artificial flies or lures. The winter stream was low and clear, the footing a bit treacherous along the rocky banks, and the fish seemed few and far between.

Based on my experience on the nearby Moormans and Rapidan rivers about a month ago, this venture on the Rose seemed to reinforce suspicions that a lot of trout had moved upstream during the hot and dry summer season in search of cooler water, and that the fish had yet to return to the lower section of the mountains.

wild side

wild side

I could be wrong about it, but that’s my take on the current wild trout picture in the Blue Ridge of Virginia. Right or wrong, the fishing was what I needed. Just a couple of winter hours in the wild, with a couple of beautiful brook trout on the line, with a nymph or Glo-Bug at the lip, in late December, like a red rose in a soul bouquet.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


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Old Woodenhead’s Appointment

Old Woodenhead is a carving of an image of yours truly made by artist David Castano, by request of a special woman I know. Old Woodenhead, the fly-fisher, replete with a fishing creel that I have never used, has appeared on my December blog posts over the past few years, and this year the tradition continues.dscn9504

Winter has come again to the rivertops, with plenty of snow for a change, and Old Woodenhead, holding to the spirit of Winter Solstice (his favorite “holiday” in this very long season of holidays) made an early appearance on his home water looking for a fish. Yes, indeed, he caught another trout and pulled it out briefly, as if it was the sun, our local star, ready for a slow return to the northern hemisphere.dscn9481

It was nearly the Winter Solstice, and the bare-bones scenery of the flowing landscape was alive with universal spirit. There was no white steeple of a church in sight, no flag blowing in the wind, only a deer stepping carefully down a steep, snowy slope, and Old Woodenhead waiting for his appointment on the hill.

Unfortunately, the appointment had to be cancelled only hours after making his appearance at the stream.dscn9483

Over the years, the purpose of the appointment was to enjoy and fulfill a family holiday tradition.

Through no fault of his own, my son, Brent, could not be here with us this year to participate in the tradition of a Christmas Eve hike to the summit of a hill nearby. The hike had always been designed to meet my brother by an old car in the woods. Brother Pete lives in the original farmhouse that my parents bought in 1972. My parents moved on, building a new home just downhill of the old place. Anyway, we’d meet on the blustery hilltop, get slaphappy and then continue on to my mother’s house for celebration (or in more recent years, to the neighboring farmhouse of my brother).dscn9485

My son had been a part of this tradition for 20 years or so, but it’ll be 2017 before the old ways are installed again. Meanwhile, we’ll be visiting him in Virginia over Christmas, and I’ll have more on that event in an upcoming post.

I was glad that my daughter, Alyssa, had been able to make her holiday visit from the Virgin Islands, and that she was ready to fill in for my son on the hill climb through the snow and rain to meet my brother for a small family reunion. We were ready for indulging in the taste of winter spirits when the word came that my mother died after suffering a short illness in the nursing home.

Christmas Eve, 1991, w/ my parents Ilse and Walter D. Franklin, and my son Brent, age 6.

Christmas Eve, 1991, w/ my parents Ilse and Walter D. Franklin, and my son Brent, age 6.

Understandably, Old Woodenhead’s appointment on the wild and woolly hill was cancelled for this year. With heavy hearts, the family raised a glass to the long and wonderful life of the matriarch who had hosted friends and family with love through many Christmas Eves and other bright occasions.

Ilse Franklin (1926-2016) @ age 81, with 2007 H.S. grad, Alyssa Franklin.

Ilse Franklin (1926-2016) @ age 81, with 2007 H.S. grad, Alyssa Franklin.

It was almost Winter Solstice, and Old Woodenhead was ready for the sun’s acknowledgement of continuity and hope. The sun would return, and life would go on. He was looking forward to some fishing on Virginia’s Rose River between Christmas Day and New Year’s. There was fun and celebration slated for the near future and, as I said, you’ll hear more of that quite soon.dscn9495

Till then, Old Woodenhead and I wish you all the best for the peace and joy to be cast for in this season.dscn9505

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Three Days in Shenandoah

On the eve of Thanksgiving Day, my son gave my wife and me a walking tour of Theodore Roosevelt Island on the tidal flats of the Potomac River in Washington, D. C.  That morning walk on the circuit trail culminating at the Teddy Roosevelt Memorial set the tone for the upcoming holiday and my three days of hiking and fly-fishing in Shenandoah National Park.

photo by Brent "Bridging the Gap" Franklin

photo by Brent “Bridging the Gap” Franklin

Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th President of the U.S., greatly altered the foreign and domestic policies for America. He improved the terrible labor conditions in this country and he helped preserve a significant portion of the American landscape. Roosevelt was a renaissance politician who wore many hats, including those of scientist, conservationist, historian, author, and naturalist.

"Big Syc"

“Big Syc”

President Roosevelt doubled the number of sites within the National Park System and established the Antiquities Act of 1906 that led to the establishment of many National Monuments. He was a multi-faceted individual who enjoyed rugged outdoor adventures and nature studies, and who viewed himself as “a guardian of the natural world.”

a straight line thru a spiral kingdom

a straight line thru a spiral kingdom

As my wife and son and I enjoyed a peaceful ramble along the boardwalk of the Potomac with its cypress swamp and high densities of migrating songbirds and raptors (including the American robin, white-throated sparrow, red-winged blackbird, and red-shouldered hawk) we basked in the crisp bright air of late November and the legacy of the 26th U.S. President.



Roosevelt might be criticized as one who tried to “conquer the natural world” by leading massive hunting expeditions into Africa to benefit American museums but, according to Darrin Lunde, of the Smithsonian Institute and author of  The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt, A Lifetime of Exploration, and the Triumph of American Natural History, Roosevelt “never lost sight of his insignificance when compared to nature and its awesome vastness.”



After walking Roosevelt Island in Washington, D.C. on a fine late-autumn day, I couldn’t help dismissing the idea that if a guy like Teddy Roosevelt was gearing up to take the highest office in the land this coming January, then this nation, and the world, would probably be in better shape right now.

Sometimes I like to understate the obvious…



Soon, I was traveling south from D.C. to Charlottesville, Virginia where the next few days would be spent in the pleasant company of extended family members and where I’d also be thankful for the chance to revisit Shenandoah National Park for another round of hiking with a fly rod and a box of feathered hooks.

On Thanksgiving morning, I hiked into the park with my wife and son and brother-in-law, and I also got to fish for a couple of hours, catching and releasing a handful of native trout. The fish seemed absent from many of the lower North Fork Moormans River pools where I’d come to know them on previous visits. I was reminded of the past summer heat and drought conditions, and I wasn’t feeling very good about the implications.

understating the obvious

understating the obvious

The next day, after being fortified by tasty holiday cuisine and locally brewed ales, I hit the trail for the headwaters in the park, happily singing Steely Dan’s “Black Friday” to myself and leaving behind the world of crass commercialism. While other companions traveled to historical sites and mountain breweries, I was content to hike three miles into the Blue Ridge Mountains in search of pretty brook trout.



When the hordes of holiday shoppers have dollar signs for eyeballs, I prefer to fish– and yeah, sometimes I like to understate the obvious.

Like many eastern streams, the beautiful waterways of Shenandoah National Park were running low and clear. The fishing was challenging, to say the least. As I crept along with Chester (the fly rod built in Middlebrook, Virginia) I didn’t find many trout until I finally reached the upper stretches of the river.

Second Crossing

Second Crossing

But I found them– lots of little brook trout eager to chase a dry fly or a nymph, if I made a delicate cast beyond the sight of the trail and the occasional hiker.

On the third day out, the weather turned sharply cooler and windier. I worked the lower mile of so of the Rapidan River within the boundaries of Shenandoah National Park. Again, the no-kill regulations were in effect, for casting with artificial lures only.

I reinforced my theory that the summer heat and drought conditions had taken a toll, and that many wild trout had moved upstream to find sustainable temperatures and stream conditions. I fished a lot of the Rapidan pools that had been productive for me in the past, but I didn’t see or catch a lot of trout.

the boss

the boss

I think most of the fish had swum upstream in search of former-President Hoover’s camp or, sensing their doom from climate change (or from changes in the forthcoming political climate), they adapted because… they’re a hardy breed and (anthropomorphically speaking) are smarter than we think.

We can thank Teddy Roosevelt and like-minded conservationists for what they did to preserve the national monuments and parks like Shenandoah.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We’ve got to keep working to ensure that these better known and lesser-known places that are special and open to the public remain pristine and ecologically viable.

They keep us sane and healthy…

Just to understate the obvious.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


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Monster Blues and Salmon, Too

The blues I’m referring to are not a giant saltwater fish. They’re a form of musical expression that I find quite useful for moving beyond a disappointing and even frightful political season this November. In a moment or two I’ll tell you more about my recent reentry to the blues… OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Earlier in the week, my daughter reminded me of trying to catch the rise of the “Super Moon” as she was headed toward the easternmost point of U.S. territory at Point Udall on the island of St. Croix. I don’t know if she was able to enjoy that moonrise or not, but given the standard weather picture in the Caribbean, I suspect she had a good time with it.

I climbed the local ridge in the hope of seeing the “Super Moon” or some variation of it, but found only another fabulous cloud blanket in the east. Undefeated, I turned my attention 180 degrees westward and found sweet consolation in the sun that melted down brilliantly through this bluesy life on earth…dscn94311

My wife emailed me at work to say that on Friday night she was taking me on a date to a secret location whether I wanted to go or not. This sounded pretty good to a guy who’s been happily chained to marriage for more than three whole decades. We went out to dinner in Corning and I still didn’t know where we were headed, but soon enough we found ourselves at an unlikely rock ‘n’ roll/blues venue called the Clemens Center in Elmira, New York.

I’d heard of Big Head Todd and the Monsters but had never listened to their music before. Here was the rock band along with special guests, the blues great, Mud Morganfield (the eldest son of legendary Muddy Waters), plus Billy Branch, who played with the Willie Dixon band, plus Ronnie Baker Brooks (phenomenal guitarist and son of Chicago blues master, Lonnie Brooks), and Erica Brown (“Denver’s Queen of the Blues”) on vocals and dance. It was a shake-out performance of the Big Head Blues Club in “Way Down Inside: the Songs of Willie Dixon.”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I’ve long been a fan of Dixon, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, from the days of “Spoonful” Cream and Led Zeppelin on back to the glorious mid-century hits created by Willie, the “poet laureate of the blues.”

And the beautiful Clemons Center, with its gold-leaf details and reconstructed opera boxes, rocked.Image result for clemens center, elmira ny, photos

And even this stoic old rambler twitched and shook “way down inside,” as well as through his blue extremities. His wife deserved more than a kiss for hauling him to Elmira at the end of a bloody long week.

The next day I rebounded with a fly rod, seeking asylum as the gun season for deer in New York and bear in Pennsylvania exploded into action. I knew I could find safety on Fall Creek, the brown trout and landlocked salmon water flowing through the heart of Ithaca, New York.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It was a gorgeous Saturday morning but the creek was low and exceptionally clear, and the fish were simply uninterested in flies, no matter what I offered. Four hours of fruitless casting transpired before the western sky darkened to the color of an ugly bruise, and before the fish finally turned on.

Then the waters rocked like the fiery guitar play and soulful singing of Ronnie Baker Brooks at the Clemens Center. I thought of Brooks’ January 2013 gig, playing with Buddy Guy, Keb Mo, and Lonnie Brooks at a Presidential Inaugural event honoring President Obama. I made a long 50-foot cast of the Woolly Bugger at a group of fish, rather than the short precise casting I’d been doing all morning, and a landlocked salmon snapped it up as if it represented the last bit of grub on Earth.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

An onlooker standing on the bridge above my head was asking excited questions and distracting me from getting a good picture, but that was okay. We’ve all seen nice pictures of fish before. The pace was changing and I would soon land several more landlockeds, a version of Atlantic salmon averaging 20-inches long in Fall Creek and known for its head-shaking and airborne fighting demeanor.

So, the storm blew in, a cold front emerged full-tilt boogie. The wind became ferocious. The air was filled with leaves and falling branches; the creek was a flowing carpet of leafy debris. I humped for the vehicle as the rain cranked into hail and snow, and as the air temperature plummeted.

It was time to be thankful for getting back, for the good in life, for each moonrise and sunset, for our friends and family, for making peace…

with the blues gone golden down inside.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAdscn94301



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