"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.
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 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.