There are times in our lives when the best thing we can do for ourselves is to fill our backpacks with some food, a sleeping bag, maybe a tent, and take a nice long, solo walk in the woods. I feel this urge quite frequently, but rarely follow through with it anymore, always finding some sort of excuse or distraction to keep me from doing it - work, mowing the grass, dinner plans, stairs needing swept, dogs needing walks, my old knees. In the end, I usually take day trips which, under a microscope with the right lens, feel like a backpacking trip - at least that’s how I try to see it. It’s on these trips into the backcountry where we are able to clear out the build up of muck, much like sediment settling behind a dam, between our ears, in order to create some headspace and hopefully figure a few things out with the fly rod and some open water.
Back in my early 20’s, when it came to catching trout on a fly, I had no idea what I was doing. However, I did know how to hike, how to camp, and how to be alone. So, with a three day weekend and a box of wooly buggers, I hitched up my pack and set off for a backcountry lake. I had been working in Rocky Mountain National Park on their trail crew for a couple of months and at that point I hiked what seemed like hundreds miles of the west side trails with a chainsaw on my shoulder, seeing a ton of the park and rolling my ankles and busting my knees in the process. I was barely a fly fisherman, using a wooly bugger exclusively, but I still walked to the Colorado River every Saturday morning to try and catch something. Eventually, I began to hear mythical stories about a lake full of cutties who would eat anything. This sounded like my kind of place since I still didn’t really know what a dragless drift was or how to match a hatch. Plus, the muck had been building up for quite some time, even though I lived and worked in the woods. I needed to get out of my shared living space and into the wilderness. I needed to pound the ground for something other the work - to explore and get lost.
The lake sits in a little basin at 10,700 feet between two peaks on the west side of the park. The first 7 miles up the trail to the junction of the lake trail meanders through a dense valley along a quintessential mountain creek. Once you reach the junction and get onto the connector trail, you hit switchbacks and quickly gain elevation. At this point, your legs begin to burn and you lower your head, hitch your pack up so it doesn’t sit so low, and, in your mind’s eye, begin fishing.
I reached the lake and the little breath I had left was taken from me. The clarity of the lake stared back at me, reflecting off my eyes and blinding all of my sub-conscious into finally believing that I was alone. I threw down my pack and jostled out my fly rod and tied on a black wooly bugger. I figured I’d set up camp later; the water was calling me.
I found a rock to stand on protruding from the clear alpine water. My feet sank into my sandals as my weight molded them to the rock while I cast into the lake from mid day sun to sunset. Clouds reflected in the water and I swear I could see the pink and red of the cutties in the swirls of the lake. The clear lake, the burning sun of peaks outlining this alpine alcove, my black wooly bugger slinging through the air. Even 10 years later I can feel my feet in my sandals wrapped around that rock, holding my weight as I cast, strip, set the hook, play the fish in, release. Cast, strip, hook, play, release. Over and over again for what now seems like an eternity. Water dripped off my line as I reeled in after my last catch and I laughed out loud to myself; I was finally catching trout on a fly. All it took was ten miles, a few thousand feet in elevation, and a wild lake that still burns in my mind.
The twilight came over the peaks as the sun set behind my mind. With rod in hand, I stood on a lone rock, watching the water settle under the moonlight. I finally felt like a fly fisherman. I flipped on my headlamp and headed back to make camp. I added some hot water to a pouch and had a quick dinner before I nestled into my sleeping bag between the peaks, lulling me to a deep sleep. Before heading home the next morning, I flicked my bugger out a few times and gently released a few more cutties. I don’t really remember walking the 10 miles back out to the car; my mind was still on that lake and those fish.
Every fisherman needs a lake like this at some point; a place where they can chuck what they know, like a black wooly bugger, and catch trout after trout (or even just a few). It’s good for the confidence and on days in the future where they are struggling to catch anything, they can venture into the backcountry of their minds and relive that moment. We need that body of water that lets us catch fish and the backcountry that whispers sweet nothings of confidence to us. We need it to clear our head and lift our lines.
Note: I wrote this about ten years ago while working on the Baxter State Park Trail Crew and recently stumbled across it. I figured I'd throw it up here as an artifact and because it was from a pretty influential part of my life. Eventually it might be part of a longer piece about trail work and the amazing experiences it provided me. The BSP Crew was my first of three trail crews I signed on to after college. Looking back, I think I learned more from those three years of working in the woods, traveling the country, and sleeping in a tent than I had in college. Those experiences helped shape who I am today and I am forever thankful for them.
For eight days in a row I wake up, slide on my steel toe boots, drink two cups of coffee, slam down a heart-attack sandwich (bagel, thick slab of cheddar, double eggs, and as much bacon as possible) and head out the door towards Katahdin Stream Campground. From there, my crew and I hike up the Hunt Trail, also known as the Appalachian Trail, to work on the Stairway to Heaven. This project, a series of rock staircases starting right above Katahdin Stream Falls, ascends Katahdin for another mile or so towards the glorious peak, the finish, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.
Since 1991, the trail crews at Baxter State Park, along with many trail volunteers of all ages, have worked thousands of hours and dedicated buckets of sweat and grit quarrying, hauling, rolling and setting large pieces of granite into the Appalachian Trail. The rock set in the trail becomes an impermeable tread way surface, slowing the erosion of the trail caused by water and usage, creating a beautiful path up the mountain.
There are many steps involved in the process of building the Stairway to Heaven. Our crew splits the work up into different stations, which we rotate through during the week. Because of the size of the project, it works at its most efficient with at least 20 people involved. The Baxter State Park trail crew consists, on average, of 10-15 people, which means that volunteers are an integral part of this project.
The rock is first quarried down in the pit (the “pit” station), which is located in the ravine between Katadhin and Owl Mountains. In the pit, the granite is split into workable, step-size pieces. The larger pieces are drilled with a rock drill, and then split using feathers and wedges. These pieces are then wrapped with chain, hooked onto a snatch-block, which runs on a 500-foot piece of wire rope from one Grip Hoist to another, and lifted 80 feet into the air. Once the load is lifted to its highest point, the crew retrieves the load (the “hand crew” station), pulling it towards the landing zone alongside the Appalachian Trail.
The rigging system our crew uses consists of two grip hoists, one stationed on the side of Katahdin (the “Monster” station), and the other on the side of the Owl (the “Owl” station). These grip hoists, or winches, pull the wire rope tight to lift the load and slowly slacken the wire rope to lower the load. Once all the rock is brought to the work site, individual rocks are rolled down trail to pre-determined areas to be meticulously built into rock staircases.
Some days are long, especially when you’re stuck pulling in the load with your shoulders and arms burning from exhaustion. Some days go quick, wrapping the rock in chain, hooking it up to the system and watching it fly high above and once it’s in the clear, drilling or scoring another large rock. Harvesting and wrapping. Drilling and hammering. Rolling and setting. There is a rhythm, much like hiking, that you can allow yourself to step into.
The entire process, from harvesting rock out of the pit, to moving trail side, to building a staircase out of the material, takes countless hours of hard labor. However, all those hours add up into a beautiful path that, hopefully, will be there for as long as the mountain.
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.