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Friday, January 22, 2010

The backcountry

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I wasn’t quite sure what to make of my first look at Hazel Creek. The trail was huge and people sign was everywhere. Remote? I was starting to harbor serious doubts. The first couple campsites up from the lake had “tarp people” in them. Non-backpackers who had also came across the lake on boats and used aluminum carts to wheel vast hordes of gear up the creek.
But way up the creek, near the last campsite, miles from the lake and near the start of real brookie water we found nirvana. The creek, still good sized, with eight inch brookies and foot long rainbows. Dark woods that made early afternoon seem like evening, rhododendron and mountain laurel blooming everywhere.

With a hard rain falling, the next day we trekked up and over the mountain to Eagle Creek. A gradual assent at first followed by a hard climb up and over the pass. The trail followed the course of Pinnacle Creek down to the larger Eagle Creek. Maybe followed is the wrong word, shared might be more descriptive as we forded Pinnacle Creek fifteen times on the way down.
The campsite at the mouth of Eagle Creek was empty except for us. We built a huge bonfire to dry everything out. Frogs in the lake and the rushing noise of Eagle Creek combined to sing us to sleep.

The next morning back up Pinnacle Creek (all 15 fords) to spend the night. The creek, a lovely tunnel thru the rhododendron. Bow and arrow casts, dapping, sneaking, taking advantage of the open fords, fishing was delightful and exasperating. Every really good float brought up an eager rainbow, each probably never having seen a fly or someone crazy enough to fish there before.
That night, rainbows wrapped in tinfoil baked on fireside stones made a feast. In the morning we followed bobcat tracks on the trail out most of the way.

My poor knees. From Clingman’s Dome down Forney Ridge then left to Noland Creek, all downhill, a hard 3000 foot loss. But what a sight awaits you, the creek framed in blooming Rhodos like we’d never seen. Thousands glowing in the last light of evening.

The same of Forney Creek two days later. Forney Creek! Pretty close to heaven for a small stream fisherman like myself. One plunge pool after another stair stepping up the mountain for miles. Dozens upon dozens of head high waterfalls. And the trout, I think the creek must have more twelve or fourteen inch rainbows than anywhere in these mountains. When you catch twenty nice fish on a hot summer day wading wet you can grow quite fond of a place. When later
that evening you’re tending trout on the fire and look up to see a doe twenty feet away you can fall in love. When someone mentions mountain trout I picture Forney Creek and smile inside.

At least in the mountains there is no one to look you right in the face and lie and pretend they are your friend. In the mountains all is honesty, everything else fades. Fades to just the mountain and the trout. The smell of the wet woods. A Canada Warbler feeding its young or the lonely mist blowing in stark beauty thru the azalea’s atop Andrews bald. A high mystery world filled completely with cloud and wind. What captures my imagination most is the idea that here things are exactly as they are supposed to be. From the seeds of Salamanders under seemingly every stone, to the way the size of the trout fit just right the size of each pool.
Each plant in just the right spot. The bee balm in the damp seep at the back of a cove when you haven’t seen any for an hour. In the old woods the feeling is of a puzzle with each piece exactly where it should be, connected to all the other pieces, by virtue of having the time. Not the little time kept by watches but the big time kept by poplars dying of old age and giving way to hemlocks. Time kept by water wearing away at stone, mountain time.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

walking with God

I spent most of two weeks trying to find the biggest tree in my part of the world, measuring giant sycamores that it would take half a dozen men to reach around. Then I visited the biggest sycamore in the world, a giant on the banks of the back fork of the elk in West Virginia. Which of course may or may not still be considered the champ. These things seem to change every year, with passing thunder storms or ice damage, or the whim or skill of who's measuring. What I found was that the numbers, the feet and inches didn't seem to matter. These great trees had withstood hundreds of winters, thousands of storms, and my measuring could not capture the dignity and strength of these great trees. I came away deeply impressed.
I've spent some time in the Albright grove. Deep in the Smokey mountain backcountry where giant oaks and poplars tower, presiding over one of the few places a saw has never reached. The feeling I came away with was of awe. I found myself wanting to whisper like a child in church.Here the woods had power, magic, that you could feel in the air. Here the spells of Indian medicine men seemed plausible. Here a great spirit still lives. If God exists, surely he must take his walks here, among these great trees.

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Sunday, January 17, 2010

That old bag, a story from last spring

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It's just an old canvas knapsack, a glorified bookbag really. Nothing at all like the nylon and aluminum monstrosity I carry on backpacking trips. The left strap I sewed back on last year when it started to tear away, more out of sentimentality than for practical reasons. I'm sure I could get a better newer one for less than thirty bucks, though nowdays you can spend literally as much as you need to feel sufficiently outdoorsey enough. The last time I checked them out at Bass Pro you could get a gortex model with a built in "hydration unit" and "multifunctional comfort suspension" for just a bit more than you might spend buying a functional 22 rifle.
Anyways the reason I started writing all this was just this morning as I was stuffing it with a lunch and a waterbottle I found a rock. This rock was a fossil really, some sort of shell from when my part of the world was under some ancient sea. I remember originally finding the rock because a large ginseng plant had grown atop it and i had to pry the root and fossil apart last fall.
Now it was finally spring and the old pack was going back to the same woods today. Not for ginseng but for another treasure, ramps. Ramps or wild leeks for you non-hillbilly types are one of the earliest plants to pop up in spring. Fried potatoes and ramps are a delicacy well known only in the hills and hollers of appalachia.
During early spring the old pack is kept out in the shed because you can smell the strong oniony smell of ramps from ten feet away and I risk the boss lady throwing it away if I tried to keep it in the house.
Lunch is a peanut butter sandwich and a tangerine. Those along with a raincoat, camera, waterbottle and a small digging trowel go in the big main compartment. In the small pocket on the back go a compass, knife, and my cell phone and car keys. The cell phone is inside a ziplock bag and turned off. Cell phones have no place in the woods, just like radios in a campground. I sort of have a place in mind for lunch, a small indian mound hidden back in the woods that I think of as somehow being mine.
If fate, or whatever Gods watch over hillbillys like me, smiles on this little adventure maybe I'll also bring home a sack of morel mushrooms. It's a little early but not intirely out of the question. Dipped in milk and rolled in half flour and half cornmeal and fried, they would turn the potatoes and ramps into a feast fit for the gods.
I guess the biggest advantage of having a beat op old knapsack over the latest hi- teck version is you really don't mind if it ends up smelling like fresh ramps and springtime woods.

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playing hookie

From last May:

When I awoke today and looked outside, it reminded me of those bad movies on the sci-fi channel. You know the ones where you can never tell wether it's day or night, just a general gloom hanging over everything. Not raining though it smelled like rain, humid and heavy with possible severe weather towards evening. So I did what any right thinking person would have done and took the day off to go wading a river fishing for smallmouth bass.
I packed a light raincoat and a water bottle in the huge pocket in the back of my fishing vest and was out the door in minutes. It's about a ten minute drive to the river and on the way I settled on the where to go. I pulled in a muddy pulloff just downstream of where a country road crosses the river. The bridge is old, very old with the abutments made out of stone instead of poured concrete. Under the bridge I paused to watch swallows go in and out of their nests in holes in the closest bridge abutment. From there they shot gracefully up and down the river looking like tiny fighter planes. The river has thrown a small rock bar upstream from the closest column and a small stream of water makes a right hand turn between the bar and the stone column carving out a chest deep hole surrounded on one side by a weed bed and the other by the mossy old stonework as it swirls around to connect with the mainstream in a deep eddy. I cast along the old stones a small spinner reeling slowly letting it sink just overtop the stone rubble of the bottom. There was a thump and a smallmouth cleared the water in a somersaulting leap. A nice start to the day.
Every good riffle it seemed held a few smallmouth and the weedbeds and eddies were full of willing pumpkinseeds and fiesty rock bass. If you have never seen a pumpkinseed its hard to describe, no saltwater fish even comes close to the wild and bright colors. It seems shocking really when all the other fish around here wear tastefull camo and this little warrior comes looking like a vegas showgirl. Wikipedia describes them thus..."The coloration includes orange, green, yellow, or blue speckles on an olive back, yellow sides and a yellow to orange belly and breast". In other words they don't know quite how to decribe them either, you just have to see one for yourself.
I fished about a mile and a half upstream scaring into flight a pair of wood ducks and four mallards. About halfway I could hear something or rather several somethings raising hell across the river. It didn't take long to spot the great blue heron rookery in the tops of some giant sycamores. They weren't there the last time i'd fished here, maybe two years ago and now there were a couple dozen of the giant stick nests in the tops of the big trees. The young herons were loud in the heavy still air as they called to mom and dad for more food. Just upstream a bittern flew out of a weed bed as i approached and I also got a glimpse of an eagle so it was a fine day to birdwatch as well as fish.
I ended up stopping in the nearest small town for lunch and fishing the river the whole day, a short but fierce storm hit about two hours before dark slowing the fishing a bit but by then i'd caught more than enough anyway. I'd watched carp and turtles in the shallows, watched smallmouth bass catapult into the sky when hooked, saw dozens of species of birds, looked at beaver and deer sign and had let a whole day just slide downriver in the current. It was a very good day to play hookie....

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The Beavers

I live in town but at the end of my street the railroad tracks head out of town and
go about seven miles to the next town. They follow the path of turtle creek for
most of the way crossing it or small streams running into it numerous times.Five
minutes of walking and I'm out of town in a mix of fields and thickets.


beavers have made a slow stretch of the stream their home. There is allready a
deep hole and some high banks and they haven't made a dam. Im assuming
their home is up under the roots of one of the big sycamores that overhang the
creek
When I was young there were allmost no beavers in the state and none within
driving distance much less walking distance from my house. Its a huge victory for
conservation. Twenty years ago a walk down these tracks would have had me
looking for a groundhog at most and probably just a rabbit or two.Now there is the chance of beavers,coyote,deer, turkey and even otter. When I
was young I didn't have a prayer of seeing any of those.
I left the tracks and was skirting a field edge a
little further along and spotted several halfgrown turkeys following their mother
along a path thru the high weeds,ironweed and goldenrod. ..

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After shooting these hurried photos of the turkeys I walked on down to the
creek. I walked out onto a flat rock bar where the creek ran thru a shallow
stretch between holes. Standing there quietly for a few moments, the weeds
began to shake downstream and a large beaver appeared and swam towards
me. I was dressed in a flannel shirt and dark pants and the beaver seemed
oblivious to me passing by at about ten feet!..


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all within a mile walk of my house . There are of course many grave reasons to
be concerned over the fate of things wild in our ever changing world, but amid
all the gloom and doom it's nice to see the results of some of the good news.