Roots ‘n’ Boots

For most citizens living in a modern world, to talk about the “home place” is an unfamiliar exercise. Most of us today are socially mobile and often move from place to place for economic or recreational reasons. Today, we rarely live in one place long enough to establish an emotional bond with our home, or to develop a deeper understanding of how it fits in with the world-at-large.

As one who has been committed to living in a single area now for several decades or more (while appreciating many travels to and from the home), I enjoy such talk occasionally and still attempt to broaden my horizons in that place which I define as “home.”

The mountain trail along Buckseller Run, a minor trout stream, can be found along the northern edge of the 264,000 acre Susquehannock State Forest in north-central Pennsylvania. I consider it a small part of my New York/Pennsylvania home place. I began my latest hike on the Buckseller as a late winter sun began to thaw the slopes after a night of zero degrees (F.), perhaps the coldest night of the year so far.

a cherry tree forest

For years I would drive past the trailhead, not thinking much about it, while travelling to favored streams and hiking paths in Potter and Lycoming counties. One day, a couple of years ago, I finally stopped to fish the lower Buckseller Run for brook trout. On subsequent visits I would hike a short way on the trail and reassure myself that one day I would hike it to the end. The trail is relatively short, but walking might provide a clearer picture of the place, and a better understanding of myself as an inhabitant of this region.

a trail between two seasons

The trail follows the stream, or the run, through a narrow valley of deciduous forest. Today it was interesting to note the steep southern slope and its thin blanket of snow in contrast with the northern slope where the snow had completely melted. The late winter sun hadn’t risen quite high enough to melt the white southern blanket. Total melt-down would arrive soon, but for now I walked a line between snow and mud, between wintertime and spring.

a rail from the logging era, early 1900s

Edging my way up the slope, I sometimes had to step carefully at about a 45-degree angle on the path. I was glad for my old boots and a walking stick for support. I thought about Thoreau’s description of the spring earth thawing along his railroad bank near Walden Pond. Indeed, the sun and the earth were at work here, and it was all about transition.

At about the half way point along this three-mile climb (another trail would link the Buckseller at the summit and descend to Pennsylvania Route 6), the stream simply disappeared for a while. A  spring gushed water, forming the little trout stream, but then above the spring, there was just a trace of moisture and the ghost of Buckseller Run.

Several springs would reissue the flow higher up the ravine, but for now the sound of  water stopped completely. I, too, halted in my tracks and listened hard.

For several moments, for a minute, perhaps, there was nothing to be heard. Not a motor from some distant highway, not a jet in the blue dome overhead. Not a breath of wind, nor bird note, nothing but the beating of a heart.

The perfection of silence is a rare and precious thing. A stranger to civilization, yes, and most often associated with death, but this was life, thank god, and I felt privileged. The silence didn’t last long, but it was so unusual that I met it with a combination of surprise, anxiety, and hope.

The deep silence broke, of course, with little sounds that came from here and there. Melting ice popped high in a tree. A kinglet lisped. A woodpecker tapped. I thought the barking of a coyote might become a howl, but some transitions are the mind’s alone.

I exchanged the sound of one heart beating for the breath of real things in the world. Time resumed its harried pace, and Buckseller Run regained its place within the dark ravine. The forest opened slowly as I gained the summit and the logging track known as Ellis Hollow Road.

Ellis Hollow Road, at summit

This area of the state has some of the finest cherry wood on earth, and this summit has been heavily logged of late. Great cherry trees slumbered in piles along the rutted road. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but one that comes with the cost of being human.

cherry wood slumber

The world is filled with wonderful places both civilized and wild. This place, a part of the Susquehannock State Forest, belongs to my home region, its land and water stirring the senses when I hike and fish for trout. It’s appreciated, for sure, and worth standing up for, and giving voice to, if it’s threatened by environmental deregulation or other nefarious designs placed upon it by corporate greed or government neglect.

lookin’ up

 

 

 

 

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The Ragged Edge

The weather and our wishes for a small retreat from winter seemed to coincide or to conspire neatly for several days. We headed south toward Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, not far from Gettysburg, and settled at the Inn at Ragged Edge where old-timers like my wife and I, plus relative youngsters too, could bask in romantic get-away. And sure, a famous trout stream or two beckoned from around the corner.dscn9754

The old Victorian mansion called Ragged Edge has to be seen to be believed. We breezed right into it, with sunny weather, migrating birds, and temperatures in the high seventies. Our hosts at this “boutique bed & breakfast” were gracious and accommodating.

The food was delicious; our third-floor suite was clean and very comfortable; the furnishings and artistic appointments were extraordinary. Everything, from split-level patios and wrap-around porch to winding staircase and Steinway grand piano quietly boasted of contemporary and historical correctness. The fly-fishing was only fair but it was fun (I’m getting to that…).dscn9736

This “summer cottage” of the railroad magnate, Colonel Moorhead Kennedy, was built around 1900, and to walk its nature trail along a lazy wooded stream (visible from the intricate windows in the house) and to browse among the quaint old chambers in the mansion is to meditate on southern history and cultural diversity. Leighanne and I relaxed and, of course, the nearby Falling Spring Branch beckoned every last fiber in the fly rod that I brought along.dscn9756

Colonel Moorhead Kennedy had been active in World War I and eventually functioned as a VP and President of more Pennsylvania railroads than I can wrap my head around, and he threw big parties at Ragged Edge. Early twentieth-century celebrities, bankers, presidents, Supreme Court justices, and generals attended his annual gatherings. The horse-and-carriage deliveries, the private railroad spur, the swimming pool, and the elaborate gardens and orchards were some highlights for this grandest home in Franklin County.dscn9763

It wasn’t easy for a trout bum like myself to take in all this high-brow stuff but the recreational aspect of our stay helped to keep things in perspective. In addition to some fishing adventures, Leighanne and I visited a Peruvian restaurant, a brewery and a winery and other hotspots, so the weather was indeed a February treat.dscn9746

Falling Spring Branch is a small limestone run, nearly as renowned as its sister streams the Big Spring and Letort Run, one of the few Pennsylvania waters capable of sustaining a wild rainbow trout population. It’s reported that some of the rainbows grow to outlandish sizes but I didn’t see many fish in my days of exploration here. It’s a difficult stream to fly-fish but I certainly enjoyed the challenge of casting on a small run filled with cress and silt and wild trout hiding from the sun.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Falling Spring has environmental issues but is benefitting from a lot of stream improvement projects headed by cooperative efforts of Trout Unlimited, local businesses and landowners. At my first stop here I walked toward a small bridge and a young guy with a fly rod working the water. There are catch-and-release/fly-fishing-only signs posted all over this stretch of water and at the bridge, but it was obvious that the angler was slinging a fat night-crawler to the edges of the watercress.

looking down from the back of Ragged Edge

looking down from the back of Ragged Edge

 

The guy knew I was watching him and, in a minute of uncharacteristic behavior, I said nothing at all. I didn’t feel like starting a war this early in the game, and I watched him slink away downstream, hoping that he thought about his contrary actions though he probably wasn’t very capable. Luckily, I would encounter several others along the stream in the next couple of days who were different– friendly, ethical and stimulating conversationalists– like a ray of sunshine on a snowy day.dscn9766

To fish this little stream is to walk along the ragged edge of lavish yards and gardens of cooperative residences in gentlemanly fashion– never mind those sudden (thankfully uncommon) moments when you sink to your knees in “quicksand” like some floundering idiot in quest of the Holy Grail.dscn9744

I knew that fish do not come easily from Falling Spring Branch. I tried casting with scuds, streamer, dry fly #20 on 6x tippet, etc., and finally settled for just a small rainbow taken on an olive emerger. No great shakes, but I did better the next morning when, en route home, we stopped at Big Spring Run and I managed a couple of wild rainbows near the source of this well-known stream.dscn9741

Although the sky was overcast and promising another quick change of weather, the songbirds were vocal along this clear, attractive waterway a few hundred yards below its major source. Even here, this limestone run has a greater volume of water than the 2.4 mile special regulations stretch along Falling Spring Branch. I quickly caught and released a couple of wild rainbows. I tried to hold up a pretty 13 or 14-inch trout for Leighanne to photograph but all she managed was a mediocre head shot of the fish.dscn9742

My wife is a better romantic get-away partner than she is a fish photographer, but hell, we all know what these trout look like, and no one said it was going to be easy fishing on the pleasant banks of life’s ragged edge.

another little one

another little one

rain & snow will return

rain & snow will return

black stonefly on reel

black stonefly on reel

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Brook Land Tonic

A long fine weekend with the family set things moving in the right direction.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We made our annual visit to the Maple Tree Inn (unlimited pancakes with maple syrup manufactured on the premises), hit the summit of Alma Hill (the highest point in western NY), refreshed ourselves at Four Mile Brewery in Olean (good food and craft beers), and hiked at nearby Pfeiffer Nature Center where our outlook from the crest of the Allegheny Plateau was witnessed by a bald eagle sailing over our heads.

I was ready for two days of dry fly fishing (yes!) in the warming forests of northern Pennsylvania. A couple of years ago when we were fighting frozen pipes and bitter winds at this time of year, I never would have imagined setting forth like this, to cast my way toward the source of a mountain brook in February.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe world may be changing faster than I’m able to make sense of it, but one thing is certain: I love a four-mile brook that’s totally removed from human presence, that has no trail or road or camp or house along its banks, whose savior is a vast state forest land and, not inconsequentially, is close to home.

To keep me humble while casting toward the 2500-foot summits, I did find one piece of human debris. No matter where you go, to the moon or to an ice-shelf in Antarctica, you’ll find at least a shard or two of evidence, a souvenir from man’s polluting ways. In this case what I found was yet another sample of ethereal plastic, a balloon that had drifted down from the blissful skies of a birthday party many miles away.

the wild stream litter

the wild stream litter

It looked like a battered brook trout in the tumbling waters of this stream. A trout that had bloated to the size of a basketball and had a long synthetic tail. I could still read the HAPPY BIRTHDAY message scrawled across its ugly back. I thanked it for the sentiment, even though I still had months to go before another birthday took its toll. These wayward balloons are found on all too many wild outings.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The good news is that my two long fishing hikes produced a lot of brook trout taken on a barbless dry fly then released. To fish this mountain stream confirmed my earlier suspicion that to cast a floating artificial might bring faster action than fishing with a wet fly. In fact, three-fourths of the numerous brook trout that I caught while experimenting were fooled by the dry fly.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Again I reminded myself that, despite the pleasant weather, this was still winter fishing. The trout (bless their wild little hearts) were rising when the water temperature never exceeded 42 or 43 Fahrenheit degrees.

The brook changed its character several times before I finally reached a point where summit alders and swamp terrain put stamps of approval on my forehead. As far as I could tell, this forestland had never been farmed, although the stream’s  first half mile above Pine Creek had several locations that reminded me of aging meadow going wild. Vines and high grasses hugged the banks, inviting ruffed grouse to leave the woods and check things out.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Upstream, the deciduous slopes closed in tightly on the stream and presented casting challenges with fallen trees and overhanging branches. At about the one-mile mark, the forest really opened up and treated me with more traditional casting opportunities. Cliffs and mossy boulders (glacial debris or the fruits of hard erosion) were encountered. Pocket water tempted the floating Stimulator.

Although the rocky stream was in excellent form as snow melted from the slopes above, I knew that its presence would be different later on. No doubt the spring wildflowers would allure me, and the summer brook, while still sheltering little trout, would seem a mere trickle compared to this pleasant water.

a mossy chair at lunch time

a mossy chair at lunch time

In closing, I’d like to add a few words about one of my favorite predators. Once again, I was privileged to encounter a golden eagle, a species still uncommon in eastern portions of America.

On the morning of my second visit to this stream, I saw the great bird hunched in a small tree above a roadkill near the spot where I would park my vehicle. I slowed to a stop and rolled down my window.

as high as I could go before the alders stopped me

as high as I could go before the alders stopped me

The dark bird prepared to launch, the rust-colored sheen of its nape reflecting the first hints of morning sunshine. Disgruntled by my interruption at its dining table, the golden uttered a few low kee-er notes and lifted its wings.

Ready to resume my fishing hike, I thought, “God, what a way to fly.”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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The News from Fisher Brook

There’s an old fellow coming down from the forest trail this afternoon to fish for an hour or two. He claims to be suffering from a serious cold, but to cast here for brook trout won’t be detrimental since the air temperature is a mild 43 degrees F., and he really needs to get out on the water. Yes, it feels like it could rain here at any minute, but the snow-lined stream looks and sounds inviting, and he’s ready to give it a shot.

club moss & reel

club moss & reel

Our February angler wields a 7-foot fly rod, and he starts off by casting an Egg fly but he’ll soon switch to a bead-head nymph. Time passes and, oddly enough, nothing seems to work as well as expected.

Ah, but here’s some consolation– fisher tracks on a snowy log across the brook. The angler has seen these tracks on several visits here, and he fondly remembers a brief encounter in the area when, about a year ago, he crossed paths with the dark-furred predator hunting its way upstream.

fisher tracks on log

fisher tracks on log

He’s not feeling very well today, but he’s happy to find some time to freely work the stream. He checks the water temperature and notes a cool 42 degrees, almost identical with that of the air. Recalling a recent outing on upper Pine when brook trout rose to take a surface-floating Stimulator, he wonders about the dry fly possibility and then decides, no, it’s just too cold to expect a trout to rise and take a floater.

Our mountain angler, you see, has been stuck in a rut for years. When considering what a trout will feed upon, he relies too heavily on his past experience which, believe it or not, has been rather limited when it comes to mountain streams in February. Maybe he’ll desire some reader input on personal experiences from casting dries on winter creeks.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This fisherman’s been casting 90 minutes or so, with only one brief hook-up on the nymph. He’s about to quit the effort but decides to sample a dry fly. Doing so, he’ll be able to drive home thinking that at least he tried it. No regrets.

He ties on a small Stimulator, a pattern that resembles a light-colored stonefly, and he lays it on a tiny pool where a drifting nymph had not prevailed.

You got it… Err, I should say… HE got it!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A bit of color on this otherwise drab, cold afternoon. A small trout but, nonetheless, a fish that makes him a believer, someone who can see new possibilities in winter fishing on chilly mountain creeks.

He’d been hearing and reading accounts of dry fly success on streams like this, but he always worked on the assumption that dries have been productive where water temperatures are warmer than these Fahrenheit readings in the high 30s or low 40s.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Leaving Fisher Brook, our angler friend decides that it can work… Small, high floating dries can be effective on cold water brooks, even when temperatures seem too low for this approach. It can work on little streams where trout mobility isn’t as great as previously imagined.

It can work on Fisher Brook, he thinks, but not so well on medium-sized streams or rivers where trout would have to move substantially farther to the surface.

He’s a believer, and he breaks into an old Monkees song, but much prefers a tongue-in-cheek version by the idiosyncratic master of British songwriting, Mr. Robert Wyatt. Like a Valentine from trout.

What do YOU think?OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

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Winter Hike, Mt. Tom

Like many of us these days, I was feeling the tension that resulted from a sense that our country was bursting at the seams. I didn’t feel above the moral degradation that seemed to be plaguing the land, but I felt entrapped within a culture leaning toward right-wing extremism, one that looked to be devaluing science and intellect, that kicked at public education and environmental law, and one that put blinders on the view of recent history. dscn9706

I needed to climb a mountain, and I found a good one near my place of residence. I had nothing to prove; Mt. Tom was there; it would help me vent; it would help me get a better look at the place where I lived and, hopefully, I’d gain more insight into the ground that I called “home.”

It was an overcast Sunday, with winds and snow flurries, with a temperature expected to peak around the freezing mark. I parked along the banks of Pine Creek near Ansonia, PA and proceeded on my climb.dscn9712

I was looking at a modest 2.15 mile climb to the summit of a mountain overlooking Pine Creek, a mountain relatively small even by Pennsylvania standards (ranking #135 in the state), but one that promised a work-out through the several inches of crusted snow, and one whose final push to the top would put old Winter Knees to the test on its critically acclaimed “1100 vertical feet” of rock.dscn9687

The trail’s first half mile of trail above the valley was a pleasurable walk above a small stream through enchanting stands of white pine and Eastern hemlock. After that, it crossed the stream and took an S-shaped turn into more open deciduous woods. Where the trail took on the character of an old timber road, it forked, with a sign to Mt. Tom summit indicating that a hiker could choose one of two ways to proceed. The long route would be 1.5 miles of moderate climbing, and the short route would be a “Steep” .6 of a mile.dscn9688

I figured that the short route wouldn’t kill me, despite the literature claiming “vertical” ground, and I hoped I wasn’t wrong.

I heard myself huff and puff and felt the sweat begin to form beneath my layers of clothing. I heard myself say, Be Gone. Be gone you noises in my head. Be gone you killers of freedom who would drown the voices of mystery past and present. Be gone, you demons of divisiveness and habit. Be Gone, dammit! Let me huff, and puff, put one foot in front of the other. There– a nice view!dscn9709

I was getting somewhere. The small brown creeper on a cherry tree, the common raven tearing through the wind above, helped me on my way.

Wildness was an urge that spurred me through the “1100 vertical feet” near the summit. It told me I belonged here for a minute or an hour, that the views would be worth the effort of climbing, that I’d come to know the buffer grown between myself and the world below.dscn9690

Whoever described the final push to the top as a “vertical” climb was prone to hyperbole but I know what he or she was getting at. I’ve had easier times trying to convince my wife that I was innocent and didn’t drink (that much of) her favorite liqueurs.

It wasn’t easy but old Winter Knees made it to the summit cairn, and the views, though tossed by wind and snow, were healing, like a craft beer savored in a bar (or a pull of European spirit pilfered from a shelf), the palate and the soul refreshed.

near the summit

near the summit

the view from Mt. Tom

the view from Mt. Tom

the palate and the soul refreshed

the palate and the soul refreshed

looking down on Rt. 6, west toward Galeton

looking down on Rt. 6, west toward Galeton

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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.

It’s time to grab a shovel.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

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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.

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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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