"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.
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...".
I rest easy when I'm in the north woods. The deepness of the green and the water and the night are a comfort for me. We spent the last week camping in northern New Hampshire and western Maine.
I spent a lot of time exploring water - the Rapid River, the Magalloway, the Upper Connecticut. Many wild fish were caught, some big ones lost. A thunderstorm came in over two hours one night. We sat by the fire and listened as it worked its way south out of Canada and finally fell asleep as torrential rain rolled its fingers across the roof of our camper. It was a good, hard sleep that night.
The humidity hit later in the week, slowing us a down a bit. Another storm came early Friday morning - 4 a.m. - and pushed in a cold front. The breeze stuck with us for a few days. We woke up late, ate a hearty breakfast at the local diner, hiked Magalloway Mountain, and in the evening caught landlocked salmon, brook trout, brown trout, and rainbow trout on a high floating caddis.
I hadn't stepped foot in Maine for almost ten years. A lot has changed since then. I no longer bust my back doing trail work, I'm married, I've got a great dog, I fly fish. I've been antsy to get back to the North Woods for awhile now, to check out some places that I used to go, to explore some new ones, and to catch some nice brookies and landlocked salmon. I love the wildness that still exists in Maine. After living out west and visiting most of the lower 48, I feel that Maine is the wildest state down here, Alaska light some might say. I could easily see myself making it my home one day. There's a lot of poetry to be written up along those cedar-lined banks.
After spending a few days on the coast, we took a rainy day and headed up to the West Branch of the Penobscot. The only way to get there is the Golden Road, a rough logging road that, if you get through without a flat tire or getting run down by a logging truck, you should count yourself lucky. It was pouring down rain when we got to camp, so we heated up some hot dogs on our stove and quickly crawled into bed to nap off the weather. It worked. By the time we woke up, the rain had broke. I took that first evening to explore the water right outside of camp.
I began fishing at the top of an eddy where a set of rapids came in, working the edges and the seams. The Penobscot is big water. Rafters use it all the time to send its Class 5 Rapids. I don't have much experience fishing water like this, so I took it small and fished the water right in front of me, trying to pick apart each current and little riffle. I eventually got into some nice wild brookies using a nymphing rig. While doing so, an old timer, Richard, came out to the river about 30 feet below me. He was throwing a big spoon in the rapid, but wasn't having any luck. With each fish I would land, we would just nod his head and give me a grunt. I took it as a good sign, like I was doing something right, something that he approved of. Eventually, I worked myself up to the top of the rapids and began nymphing a small eddy in the middle of two sets of pretty rough water. I landed my first landlocked salmon out of it, a small guy that took for me a wild ride. Landlocks are ferocious fish. They attack your fly and when hooked, will take you for runs up, down, and deep into the water. They'll jump a few feet out of the water, trying to shake that damn hook out. They're a blast. A large (at least for me) landlocked grabbed my hare's ear and took off down stream. I fought him for what seemed to be minutes (it wasn't), and eventually got him close to net. As I reached out to net him, I hear Richard yell, "Watch out for the eagle!" right as I come face to face with a large Bald Eagle swooping down, wings fully outstretched, talons out, trying to poach the salmon I'm about to land. Luckily, he misses by a few inches and flies away, down across the big eddy and perches himself at the top of a big pine, watching us for the rest of the night. It was enough to break the ice between Richard and I. We shared a good few minutes of amazed laughter and "Holy shits" before swapping stories about fishing and life in Maine. It was a great way to end my first night up in the North Woods.
After a few days on the West Branch, we took another rainy morning and headed southwest to Lily Bay State Park, situated on Moosehead Lake. We took the Golden Road all the way to Kokadjo. 38 miles in 2 hours. It got rougher the further out we got, so we went a steady 15 mph. It was a great drive, though a bit stressful at times due to the road conditions. We did see a moose along the way. The road turns to pavement in Kokadjo so we decided to stop in at the general store to get a cup of coffee. As I pulled up, I could smell bacon wafting out of the windows. We got inside and immediately decided to get a second breakfast. It was one of the best breakfasts we've ever head.
The Lower Magalloway is a beautiful tailwater just outside Rangeley, Maine. I only had a morning to fish, so I woke up wicked early and took a long hike to get into some good water. It was worth it. I was taking the skunk until I tied on a bugger with a nymph dropper and started stripping it up the banks of the river. I quickly got into some nice brookies and salmon. I worked my way downstream until I got to a really nice looking pool. I picked up a few more fish stripping the bugger and then, due to the time of the day, decided to throw on a nymph rig and see what I could pick up. I quickly got into some of the nicest, largest wild brook trout I've ever landed. They were all in the 12-14 inch range. The largest and last fish I pulled out of the pool was between 15 and 16 inches. Unfortunately he slipped out of the net before I could take a photo of him, But the old timer in hip boots on the other side of the pool gave me a thumbs up, so just ask him about it. I threw on a big stimulator and worked my way back to the car, picking up a handful of brookies and landlocks along the way. It was a great morning of fishing and I can't wait to go back.
We finished our trip with a few days in the White Mountains. After doing some hiking and checking out some falls, I fished some nice water in the National Forest. Using a 3 wt and a big stimulator, I was able to bring a few native brookies and some wild rainbows to hand. After fishing some really big water in Maine, fishing these wild mountain freestone streams was a nice way to clear the head and keep things simple. A good way to end the trip.
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 love how music can take you back to specific moments in your life. Every time I hear this song I slip back into the first time I heard it taking a lonely drive from Millinocket back into Baxter State Park after doing my weekly laundry and making my weekly phone calls on the payphone downtown to friends and family back home or scattered about.
The drive was always bittersweet for I was blessed with a not-so-subtle landscape of Kathadin and its brothers & sisters captivating my eyes while simultaneously feeling subtle pangs of loneliness. Though, that feeling never ventured into disconnect for I worked hard at sending letters and making calls on my weekly visits back into town.
Oddly, whenever I look back at that particular time in my life - living out of my pack, traveling every six or so months to a new place that would most definitely be in the middle of nowhere due to the nature of trail work, finally learning how to cook since no one was going to cook for me - I feel like I was more connected to my family and friends than I've been since. My relationships were more deliberate - laying in my tent at night writing a letter instead of sluggishly scrolling through mindless chatter and meaningless memes, taking a trip to town to find the only pay phone and dialing those 20 numbers on my calling card hoping the entire time someone will actually pick and if not, opening my tattered "address book" to find someone else to call I hadn't talk to in awhile - and therefore kept me more connected to those in my life, even if they were thousands of miles away.
I guess sometimes the further away you are from people the closer you feel.
Random Note About the Song:
This is a quintessential "Maine" song for me. Probably because of the geographical location of the son, but more importantly also the length and cadence.... it's the perfect song to drive down seemingly endless dirt roads in thick forests where you can lose yourself in a beautiful story.
"What a way to ride... ah, what a way to go..."
I first fell in love with trains after watching Stand by Me when I was a kid. It’s a story about a group of boys that decide to take an adventure in search of something. Their way out of town? The train tracks. These tracks lead them on a journey that shapes all their lives in very different ways. At the core of this journey is a sense of freedom that resonated with me. I would daydream about hitching a pack on my back and wandering through the secret crevices of America all the while creating deep bonds with my fellow travelers. From that point forward, trains symbolized the possibility of living a truly unique and inspired life. They symbolized an untaken path, an alternative way of traveling. Something different.
Eventually, the likes of Jack Kerouac, Johnny Cash, and Tom Waits came into my life. Waits’ gravelly, sandpaper scraped voice took my love for trains and created magnificent sculptures of freedom loving train jumpers and other-side-of-the-tracks poets waving poems around like trainmen’s lanterns lighting my way away from my small hometown into big cities and tall mountains. From boyhood dreams to adulthood meandering, the symbolism of trains has always found a way to seep into my world view.
I took all of the weighty connections trains have developed for me in my head and I went traveling on my own journey, searching and experiencing. I filled my backpack with all my camping gear, a few choice books (I’m pretty sure some Gary Snyder made its way in there), a journal, and some clothes and set off. For three years I stretched myself out across this country: Baxter State Park in northern Maine, up and down California, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, and plenty of places in between. It felt good to have everything I needed on my back, a home wherever I laid my head and lit a fire. I learned more in those three years of working in the woods than I did in my four years of college.
That journey eventually led me here, to Marietta, where my wife & I bought a house and settled in. The train comes through every few hours, just a few yards away from our front yard. I hear that train working in my garden, sitting at Shanks weaving tales with friends, eating dinner with my wife in our kitchen, and I can’t help but feel light and free every time I hear that rumble of steel on steel or the low call of the horn. I no longer feel the need to pack a sling and “walk those tracks” away from the place I live, but it’s nice to know that right out my front door somebody could and somebody will. I’ll look forward to hearing their stories.
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.