I've always loved fishing in the winter. It may be harder to catch anything, but there are far fewer people and with all the undergrowth dormant, you can really see the riverine landscape you're exploring. I started the year with a pretty beautiful brown trout and then began to fall in love with exploring post-industrial watersheds.
I took advantage of the high water we had throughout the spring and fished smaller streams for large brown trout. I also continued exploring streams throughout the Pennsylvania anthracite region that are in acid-mine recovery. Some of these streams have brookies and browns returning and thriving in their orange waters. I also landed what was probably my personal best wild brown trout while casting a black woolly bugger upstream and stripping it down through a riffle into a deep hole under a sycamore tree.
Summer was fun. I started it off up in Potter County for the annual #POCO trip and ended up finding some beautiful brook trout elders in small streams. Then, we took a few days in the Catskills before I ventured up to the West Branch of the Penobscot in Maine for a week of fishing. Maine was, as always, beautiful and inspiring. But this time the fishing was tough due to their long, wet spring and the black flies were mind-bogglingly torturous. Finally, I ended the summer with a ten day trip out to Yellowstone and the Bighorns with a good friend I hadn't seen in years. I ended up camping 4 out of the 12 weeks I had off. The only downside to this summer was the lack of good bass fishing on the Susquehanna River. Something is up with that waterway.
After my epic summer of traveling and camping, I slowed down quite a bit in the fall. I went back to work and fell into that routine. I didn't catch a ton of fish, but I did manage to land a few really nice ones. I was really hoping to finally get into some bass on the Susquehanna River, but the river never really seemed to wake up. I did manage to get into two of the most beautiful trout I've ever landed.
A former student surprised me with an incredibly gift of two prints for my poem, "How to Live Away from Home," she made for a final project in one of her college classes. I really love her design and the way she interpreted this piece.
I recently wrote two short essays - one on the inspiration and craft behind my poem, "Deer Mountain," and another recommended the great song "Old Strange" by Steve Gunn.
You can find them here:
Down in southern Lancaster County, where the river stutters through a few dams, there are a couple of rocks that have petroglyphs carved onto them.
These carvings are anywhere from 400-1000 years old. There are Thunderbirds, serpents that mark the four equinoxes, swirls, various animals, human figures, and etchings that mark the Pleiades. It's a pretty incredible experience to pour water over dry rock and have these ancient symbols of language appear.
I just got back from ten days of traveling through Yellowstone, the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, and the Big Horns. It was an incredible trip with an old college buddy (the winds of North Dakota nearly swept us up across the border) with too many highlights to discuss. Each place, each alpine lake, each nook below a peak offered some sort of unique beauty that I'll hold till I can't anymore. One day in particular will shape my days for a long time to come.
The day before, we woke at 4 a.m. and took the hour drive to be first in line at Slough Creek Campground. Well worth it as we got the best site, right along the river, with a great view.
We fished a lot of the big waters in the park - Soda, Lamar, Slough. All were really cool in their own way. But it was the freestone creek that required a long hike into the backcountry that provided us with the best memories and fish.
Within about a half mile of the trailhead, the valley keeps opening and Jesus it's beautiful and you forget who you are and why you are there because all you can do is just try to take it all in
Within a mile, there were no other people on the trail. The more dirt we put under our wading boots, the wilder it became. We both had bear spray and were both convinced we'd run into one. Just the night before, two black bears were rummaging about twenty yards from our tent. We kept coming across scorched bones of bison. Had these bones been washed down in the spring run-off? Had they been taken down by something right where we stood? Yellowstone has such interesting and diverse landscapes. The juxtaposition of seemingly foreign elements is jarringly beautiful. Femuroles next to spring creeks with brook trout, bones next to wild sage, high peaks next to deep ravines.
The trail kept descending until, finally, it reached the Yellowstone. It was day 5, we had no showers, and there was this long eddy and beach. What else is there to do but swim for an hour?
Big salmon flies and stone flies were hatching and fluttering in the air. I had some massive cutthroats nudge my flies, landed a few small ones. It was already mid day so we started to work up the stream we hiked down. Soon, we found this pool. Soon, we couldn't stop catching beautiful Yellowstone Cutthroats on big dry flies. The water was so clear, the cutties so bright, that you could see them streak up from the bottom or from the far banks for these flies.
We kept fishing until we got hungry and had a great lunch of peanut butter and bacon sandwiches next to some antler sheds...
We kept fishing and working our way upstream and catching cutthroats in ever pool and riffle Then regular afternoon storm clouds came through and we decided to make the trek back out. It was exactly the day I covet - backcountry exploring for wild trout in wild places. Yellowstone is pretty awesome... especially if you get off the road and away from the popular spots.
"The greatest warriors are those who dangle a human for hours on a string, break sacred water for the profanity of air, then snap fiercely back into pearly molecules that describe fishness" - Joy Harjo
Every few years, I find myself returning to the north Maine woods to exist, even just for a few days, in the shadows of Katahdin and the murmur of the Penobscot. It is this mountain and this river that I seem to owe so much to. They have shaped my life's path more than most anything else.
I was first taken in by these woods and waters while I was working on the trail crew at Baxter State Park. I didn't do much fishing then; instead, I spent my time relentlessly exploring, expending all that 21-year-old energy into rafting down the class 5 rapids of the Crib Works and reaching every peak I could over our three day weekends after working four-tens building rock staircases up Katahdin and clearing twenty miles of blow-downs in a day. My knees never hurt, my skin grew immune to the hordes of black flies, my eyes were always looking beyond each false peak and around each river bend. I didn't take much time to study what I was rafting or hiking - too much to see up ahead.
Now I make a pilgrimage every couple of years not to push myself into deep unknowns, but to revisit certain trails and pools and to find those tiny mysteries that exist right in front of us. And to hopefully land some beautiful landlocked salmon and brook trout. I found myself this year questioning this idea of "revisiting." Has it just become a pattern that I've fallen into that, in some ways, constricts my experience down to a simple reliving instead of living something "new?" Over the week, as I fished my favorite eddies and runs, I realized that a pilgrimage is a different type of "revisiting."
It isn't a reliving, it's a going-back-to-in-order-to-find-something-new. The salmon here in this water revisit it every year as they spawn, yet they are experiencing something completely new. Some may pool up in the same eddy every year, but they are reaching for different caddis during those last nights of June when they flood the air. I may fish this same run I did last year, but when I look up, the clouds clipping across Katahdin have a notion I've never seen before and the salmon that just attacked my emerger takes me for a ride downstream that I'll never forget, his last jump over my head a fine farewell until I come back. A pilgrimage is about honoring the steps already taken while also experiencing and discovering something new.
A day after school let out, I found myself rambling up hollows of Potter County.
It is here, where rock tightens its grip to water, that everything grows more full.
Color, life, sound, smell, the way deadwood lays across rock - patterns stitched by the quick wind that slices down these drafts.
Patterns of the elders
It is a good way to start the summer - sitting on the tailgate with mountains in the windows, looking at maps, tracing hyphenated courses and blue lines, waiting for the sulfurs to hatch. One night, after we caught brook trout on little bright yellow flies, I made burritos. We sat around the fire and ate them. The thin moon showed us the movement of night. The next morning we sat on the porch and drank coffee for a few hours, watching the valley and the clouds slowly shake by. During the day we bushwhacked through thick brush and found plunge pools. The long thin red marks across my shins, those are good scars, tattoos of exploring.
One of the many great answers -
"The Key That No One Has Lost"
Poetry serves no purpose, I am told
and trees caress one another in the forest
with blue roots and twigs ruffling to the wind,
greeting with birds the Southern Cross
Poetry is the deep murmur of the murdered
the rumors of leaves in the fall, the sorrow
for the boy who preserves the tongue
but has lost the soul
Poetry, poetry, is a gesture, a landscape,
your eyes and my eyes, girl; ears, heart
the same music. And I say no more, because
no one will find the key that no one has lost
And poetry is the chant of my ancestors
a winter day that burns and withers
this melancholy so personal."
- Elicura Chihuailaf
Found in the great anthology Barbaric Vast & Wild
I've had the honor of having poems published by two really great journals over the past month- Hawk & Handsaw Journal of Creative Sustainability and Sky Island Journal.
Four poems, all centered on the relationship between humans, nature, industry, and water were published alongside some really great photographs at Hawk & Handsaw Journal of Creative Sustainability. I love how the photographs work alongside the poems. They do a fantastic job at capturing the rough beauty of Pennsylvania's mining country.
"Life-Cage" was published in Sky Island Journal. I've been reading a lot of Robinson Jeffers over the past few months. I think he has influence my work more than any other poet. I wrote "Life-Cage" after finding the phrase in his poem, "Theory of Truth." His stanza- "Because only / tormented persons want truth. / Man is an animal like other animals, wants food and success and women, / not truth. Only if the mind / Tortured by some interior tension has despaired of happiness: then it hates /its life-cage and seeks further...".
Inevitably, I find myself walking the tracks back home, humming some Charlie Parr song about rivers and cedar. I tend to be drawn towards rivers that run parallel to rail lines. It is here, in these crevasses that wildness and industry collide and, hopefully, coexist, that I find so much beauty. Oftentimes we think of nature and wildness as some idyllic, far-away "thing" or "place" when it's really right in front of us. If we aren't able to find the wildness in the spaces where we live, we'll never truly be able to appreciate any sort of wildness.
Maybe it's because I fall asleep every night to the calls of trains running the Susquehanna River a few hundred yards through the woods. Maybe it's my early love of Stand By Me and the journey of walking the rails and that boyhood bond that shapes life. Maybe it's the music I obsessively listen to that connects me to place and time- Dylan, Parr, Jerry, Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane, Gunn. But there is it, frozen backwater full of sycamore and young maple that holds my attention, that buries itself in the palm of my hand like a pebble I rub with my thumb.
The skulking creek branches towards sunrise with orange
creamsicle stained rock, covered in the spittle
of mine spill striking through the Appalachian mountains
that have folded into ridges and valleys,
Worn thin from the erosion of age.
There's beauty in its coarse recovery
into a watershed that holds
thriving wild brown trout.
This stream was killed, years ago, by acid mine drainage. Now, thanks to remediation, brown trout have found a niche among stained rock and rhododendron. It's a wildness of recovery, of the melding of steel and water.
We decided to take a long weekend up in the Finger Lakes since work has been pretty consuming for both of us over the past few months. It was time to disengage from the routines of home life, to shake off a bit of the dust from all the sawing and shaping we've been doing. We left early Saturday morning and took a straight shot up 11/15 into New York. We got to camp around 1 and by the time we were set up, a torrential rain came through. We stayed dry in the camper - this seems to be a "thing" that happens to us - getting to camp right before a rain sets in (Rock Creek in Montana, Big Eddy in Maine...). It's good, though. It forces us to settle into a place.
After the rain tapered off a bit we went for a hike up a ravine and found some waterfalls. It rained again on our way back, but we stayed dry under a thick canopy of fir and pine. By dusk, the rain turned into sleet. Temps dropped. No chance for a fire, so we ate dinner and hung out in a warm camper. A pretty great Saturday night. There was frost the next morning. We had one of our camping staples for breakfast - Heuvos rancheros. Insanely great, one of the best foods to start the day.
The sleet and snow finally stopped around lunch, so I decided to sneak out for a few hours to explore some water. I found a blue line on a map - a tributary to the lake - and decided to take a look. It had a cool name and it looked like a decent place to possibly find lake run brown trout and landlocked salmon. I found a public parking spot near the mouth - no cars. Possibly a great sign, possibly a sign that the run hadn't started yet. I hadn't be able to find any information online about fishing conditions which I kind of loved. The locals here don't advertise their water. I respect that.
I worked my way upstream, hitting the deeper runs. I was hoping for more water in the stream, but there were still some deep troughs that looked like great holding water. I didn't see any fish until I moved a really big lake run brown trout on a black woolly bugger. He sniffed at it, then turned away. I reached a really long, deep pool with a maple tree that had fallen in about halfway through. It was there, under those branches, that laid the darkest water. I drifted an egg through it once, twice, three times. On that last drift my line went tight and my Winston 6 weight bent down in praise of some holy idol lurking deep in the bottom of the pool. It knelt like that for a solid ten minutes as I fought this fish. At first I thought it was a sturgeon as it stayed hovered along the bottom. It fought like a catfish as it kept trying to get lower and lower in the water. I couldn't coax it up at all. The only other landlockeds I've landed were in Maine and they'd leap out of the water every chance they got. This one was different. She wanted to stay low.
It ran upstream a bit, then settled back down in its original spot. Finally, she started making runs downstream. With each run I tried to nose her down into the shallow part of the pool. On the fourth run, I finally got her to oblige as I literally ran downstream with her. I netted her with my little trout net and luckily a dude showed up right then who had a bigger net. I slid her over to it and removed the egg pattern and the big black conehead bugger that she had ripped off someone else's line. He took a few quick pictures and she swam away.
This is by far one of the best wild fish I've ever landed. The entire experience was the culmination of a on a ton of hours put on the water and on exploring. There's nothing quite like finding water and wild fish on your own.
"I know no good way
to live and I can't
stop getting lost in my
thoughts, my ancient forests...
You ask - how does a man rise or fall in this life?
The fisherman's song flows deep under the river."
- Wang Wei
I work my way downstream
stripping a black woolly bugger
through riffles and pools.
Leaves release from their
branches. Water swirls cold.
Clouds pile onto each other.
Trout chase flash through pebble
and sand. Sediment settles
in the first low water of the season.
I have nowhere to be
except to make pizza for dinner
in a few hours.
"Ask me how it is I've come to perch in these
and I'll smile with no answer; I'm happiest with
heart-and-mind just so, may be...
Peach blossoms float by here, gone into the
quite definite shadows.
There is another world, other than this one we
choose to live in."
- Li Po
I have a new poem, "Dead Bodies of the Susquehanna," in the latest issue of The Wayfarer. You can order your copy here - The Wayfarer, Autumn/Winter 2018
Thanks for reading!
I stumbled upon the name "Raftman's Path" walking the river trail that traverses through the little town I live in. It was named during the days when lumber was a huge commodity in this area. The Susquehanna River was an industrial thoroughfare - bearing down loads of lumber from the northern reaches of Pennsylvania towards the Chesapeake. Marietta was a stopping point, a place for the lumber either to go to the mills lining its banks or shoot further downstream through pig iron smoke. Raftmen would guide the lumber down to the mouth of the Susquehanna into the Chesapeake - an estuary of salt, water, lumber, ore, eel and shad. When their job was done, they would walk the raftman's path back through the Susquehanna Riverlands of Lancaster County towards their homes. The path is now wooded and meanders through some of the only "wild" places left in the county.