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.
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.
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.
"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!
Here's the tell - I still get swarmed by mosquitoes when I sit out on my porch at night. It's September.
It's been raining since the end of July. There have only been a few days without rain, even fewer with dry air. It feels as if this area is slowly turning into a tropical floodplain. The Susquehanna has stayed high all summer. No zostera. No hyacinths. Only a handful of bass brought to hand. Wading has been difficult, so I've been floating it with the kayak. Each time there are different eddies and currents. The river changes with every flood. It's bulging. The canopy and water are growing closer.
The one upside to all this rain is that, once the sediment settles, the trout streams around here are fishing well. There's a spring creek a few minutes from my house that normally runs pretty low by this time of year. Developments keep being built and the water table gets sucked dry. I fished it for a few hours this evening and was pleasantly surprised at how high the water was. The recent floods have pushed a ton of sediment downstream, leaving some nice, long deep channels. The water was that perfect chalky limestone color. The trout chased the woolly bugger with abandon.
There's a stretch I love to fish that is lined with quite a few old Osage Orange trees. They aren't too common around this area, especially this size. Their bark is unique - strained, thick, topographic, deep grooves that wind their way up and down the tree. Their canopies are large and filter the light in this shallow ravine. They seemed to survive the last few floods. Still standing. Whereas some gigantic sycamore have fallen. They line the banks and as the dirt is dragged downstream, their cedar red roots create great notches to stand in to cast. These, along with the catalpa that line the river by my house, are my favorite stretches of trees in the county. In the fall when I walk this stretch I'll find dozens of their burled lime-green hedge apples.
Yesterday I drove up switchbacks
through the Tuscarora Mountains
- these that create a a few fertile valleys in central Pennsylvania-
to a small stream with native brook trout and wild brown trout.
Most people wouldn't consider driving
this far just to fish a small stream.
Destinations are different
for those of us who like to spend
their days in large swaths of public forests
on water with wild trout
and no people.
It was still cold in the morning,
April has been a long March,
and a black woolly bugger jigged
through the deep pools
worked until noon.
The sun stretched itself out over the valley
by early afternoon.
Bugs - caddis, midges, a few black stoneflies -
little puffs of bug smoke
in the warm spots.
There was a pool that,
with every cast of my caddis,
a trout would strike it.
This, that little ten foot pool
and those hungry fish,
is always worth the drive.
I love driving down dirt rods. The ones that go through public lands and arch their way around mountains and into ravines. That follow streams up into their headwaters.
The road splits when a tributary enters, where the mountains fold into each other and you have a choice. Right, Left. I'll pull off when there's space and search the water for wild trout. I fill my days with their dirt and their mysterious bends as much as possible.
That plunge pool is at least fifteen feet deep. I was hoping to see some brown trout rising, but the water this far north is still cold, still in its early spring mode. No bugs to be seen, still ice in the north side hollows.
This bend mirrored the roads I drove around this weekend. Long slices of rock curving, cutting deep into the dirt, hiding dark runs still waking up from winter.
You can find a new poem of mine, "Frozen Antlers," in the Fly Fishing Edition of Gray's Sporting Journal.
My poem, "You Laughed when I didn't know what 'Jaded' Meant", is published in the new issue of the San Pedro River Review - "Music", Spring 2018 Volume 10 Number 1. You can purchase a copy here.
I had more time to explore on Sunday, so I decided to check out a new section of a larger limestone creek that I had fished a few times previously. This stream is often overlooked; though there is one particular spot that seems to get the most attention. I didn't see anyone else on the water.
Since this was new water to me and the levels were a bit up, I slowly worked my way out to a long mellow run tight line nymphing. On the set as I was lifting the rod to cast, I felt what I thought was a rock when it rolled over and shot downstream. I kept working him back over closer to the bank, trying to get upstream of him as we coasted down under a bridge. After about 50 yards, I finally, kind of, netted this beautiful rainbow. Though stocked, this dude had definitely been in the water for a few years. Beautiful colors. I've never hit the 20" mark this early in the year. I love the back and forth of a good right. There is a metaphor here that I'm going to keep working on.
After the rainbow and the adrenaline, I realized that my left boot was leaking. I kept fishing, but after another hour or so, my foot was completely numb so I got in the truck and drove upstream to warm up a bit. I fished one last section as rain starting gathering through the valley and landed a handful of wild browns. They all took big tungsten nymphs on the bottom. I'm ok if January freezes up again. I'll be waiting for the next thaw.
It only took until the 5th day of the new year for the river to freeze. Though the deep channel that curves around the York side is still clear, it's calm and crinkles in the wind. Only a matter of another few hours of these deep chills for it to close up. The banks on this side have a deep ice to them that's beginning to crater outwards with the slow downstream pressure of freezing water. Wind creases itself across the ice like white flies skittering in flits and tantrums.
Walks with Whitman have grown shorter. Today we made it down a game trail and found a piece of shelter someone built in the past few months. A duck blind tucked into a little hill built with driftwood and discarded lumber. If the ground were level it'd be a great spot for a nap. We don't stop too long these days.
The river freezes into streams before going completely still. As the days get progressively colder and the water slows down, you're able to see the currents make their way through limestone. The freeze hits the water along the banks first immediately extending its reach into the eddies and flats. Some of the water, when its shallow over rock falls, will cling to the tops and reach itself over, leaving a current between itself and the rock, insulating it from the cold it seems.
A couple of weeks ago I traced out a blue line into a state forest, took a drive, and fished for brookies and browns. It was nice not to have anyone around; so much so that I almost ignored the No Trespassing signs in order to hit one really deep hole under a hemlock. I reached the downstream border and knew I had to turn around. I did swing a bugger out, across, and down into the water a couple of times before I left. I doubt you could fine a fly caught in a current for trespassing. Especially after a few days of heavy rain.
I went back to the deep pool a bit past the bridge and quickly hooked into a pretty nice sized brown trout super low on a hare's ear. I lost him at the tail end of the pool, never getting the hook set well enough. Upstream, after the downed oak made for an interesting redirection - a plunge pool only about a foot long, seven feet long, into a quick run before hanging left again - a nice long slow pool and a dead raccoon. No fish rising.
I fished the whole afternoon, but only covered about 3/4 of a mile of water. It was one of those beautifully intricate mountain freestone streams - every few feet a new piece of water to be read. The trout were in their late fall colors. The brookies were getting bright and ready to spawn and the browns had the yellows melting off their red spots.
I don't fish for numbers. Once you start down that road the only places you have to go are down or up. I don't get it. Calculating my fishing experience based on how many caught or lost or missed or just didn't see seems archaic and too much like a competition. I'd rather catch one wild trout on a stream without anyone around than 20 stocked fished sharing the water with others. Anyway, I went antiquing with the wife last week and, tucked behind a small counter in a corner of a basement shop was an old fiberglass fly rod in great shape. It's a 7' 5 wt AFTMA (?) with 10 guides. 20 bucks. I figure it'll be a great small stream rod for throwing some streamers and heavier nymphs. I can't wait to take it out, not to see how many trout I can catch on it, but to see how the rod will change my approach, my cast, the flies I use. Maybe it'll help me to see the water in different ways. Maybe it'll teach me something I didn't even think about learning. If I'm always going out to catch the most amount of fish, I'll be less likely to be surprised. I'll just high-stick nymph with the same three comfort flies over and over again. Sure, that's a blast at times, but it's also good to cast a rod you found for 20 bucks with a new fly pattern you tried to tie last night while it rained.
The fire red underbelly of ferns yellowed by
low water and late fall
greet us as we step out of maple and oak
into swept old rolling Appalachian mountains.
The green is leaving the canopy along with us, a trail cut
bank along the slide.
Red blazes on pine.
The dirt roads of Pennsylvania
are a good breakfast for a day in the woods.
I swear, some day I’ll just pull off
to the side of one and rest, watch the suns and moons
of its days and nights turn into each other.
Some clouds. A rain.
Cross Forks to Windfall to Red Ridge.
There’re your directions.
Up this high, the ground is soft.
Not like most of Pennsylvania. Didn’t turn my ankle on a rock once.
The trail curves, gaining a few feet of elevation, slowly as it
wraps itself up into the Hammersley Ravine.
No deer. No bear. Just a few chipmunks.
This morning trout were snatching my woolly bugger
as it dipped and streaked through their water.
From up here I see no water. Just endless wooded crescents and ridgelines
folding into each other
tired from the shift of the plates of years ago.
Tonight we’ll eat fajitas around a fire, but right now
it’s just you, me, our dog
standing in the middle of this old burn - 1964 -
small birch stained yellow by October, groves of ferns,
teaberry, dark streaks on rock nestled among little thorns.
We stop and stand before leaving,
eyes closed, a wind comes up out of the deep
sweeps across our mouths, chilling the sweat, the hair at the edge
of our ears.
The taste of this settles in my tonsils.
Shade mountain, Jacks Mountain, Penn's Creek.
A Bobcat in the rear view mirror
with still a few gulps of coffee left in the parking lot.
I got pissed at the big water by noon.
A morning of slight takes and spitting flies
ended with two dudes dropping into the middle of the run I was fishing.
I cut up the bank, crossed into the meadow and threw some hoppers.
It was lunch, I was hungry.
I had eaten my last granola bar an hour ago.
I walked back to my truck and drove up the mountain
until I found a pull off
and the stream winding itself out and away
into the rhododendron and mountain laurel.
I took one fly and my 6'10" rod.
Hiked into the woods
following the only path the water cut.
A few deep plunges,
some shallow riffles,
a cut bank that bled
into a hill of ferns,
some small brook trout
and I was fishing.
Eventually I reached the road,
walked back to my truck and off to find lunch.
We're leaving for Wyoming on Friday.
That means I won't see the river for a few weeks.
By the time we get back, it'll be in its Summer space.
Low, warm water. High grasses. Maybe some hibiscus.
I wanted to get out in it one last morning before we left.
The water's still high and muddy.
The bass seem to be settled below rapids or along the shallow water along the banks.
This one inhaled my slider and immediately took flight.
He was in only a foot of water, right along the bank.
He fought hard down stream.
Jumped a few more times and after a long fight, I finally landed him.
My personal best smallmouth bass - 21",
I was lucky enough to have a good friend along to snap some photos.
This river has some beautiful water and some beautiful fish.
Get out and enjoy it.
Check out the newest issue of The Drake Magazine (Summer, 2017), for my latest essay on fly fishing, Shank's Tavern, the Susquehanna River, and my close friend Steve.
"freely drifting, I prowl the woods and streams
Summer is here.
Nettles are in full throttle.
I walk through them when I'm looking up, paying no mind to my steps,
tramping towards the next fence or bend in the stream, trying to avoid another groundhog hole.
It's never intentional. Sometimes necessary.
Cold water soothes the sting, but long after my legs are still mottled with the red scratches of their thin hairs.
Though, just the other day, I thought I was in the middle of a field of nettles,
mixed in with high grass, but soon realized it was mint. The breeze filled with the cracked leaves
and I rubbed some on my fingertips and on the fly I was casting.
Another day, last week, I found myself walking
the banks of Penns, watching for the air
to fill with bugs.
It was morning, which I tend to enjoy fishing
more than the evening. There's an anticipation
that can last an entire day in the morning.
The evening offers a quick spike
in the denouement of the day. It's subtle and reassuring
but there's always a solemnity in it for me.
Looking up, I realize my shoulder just passed through a cobweb full of Green Drakes.
They got caught as they were leaving their branches to drop eggs into the water late last night.
Some of their wings still twitched.
I promised Whitman a long walk today.
We explored a couple of ponds
set back from the trail
between a copse of trees and a cornfield.
There, he could bark at the ducks
and I could throw a popper for bass.
Check out the latest issue of Susquehanna Life Magazine for my essay on the Susquehanna River, "Bringing a River into Focus".
We set off around 8:30 a.m.
The clouds were coming in from the west over Brunner Island.
The kayaks, smooth.
The water, muddy.
The sun couldn't make it out of the east,
let alone onto our shoulders.
"You're gonna have wet asses"
Steve's uncle politely mentioned as we pushed off.
"Eh," we shrugged. We've been getting advice from his uncles for years
and they're usually right and we usually ignore them.
Just a few weeks ago, they had to tow Steve's boat back upstream
after the engine died,
after they carved a wooden plug so we wouldn't sink.
Luckily, we were able to paddle hard enough to run into some trees
leaning out into the river and tie off so we didn't get washed downstream.
Just a few minutes later and a about a hundred yards downstream, just past the first bend,
it started to rain.
There was a break in the clouds down past Shocks Mill Bridge
so we paddled. Didn't fish much.
Past the Conoy
Past the White Cliffs,
Through the Haldeman Riffles
skirting Ely and Pole Islands aiming for a big slow eddy where we pulled ashore.
There, under a thick grove of river birch and maple,
we had a morning snack and shot the shit for an hour
until the rain passed through.
We watched the water.
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.