Hiking the Grand Canyon

“This landscape is animate: it moves, transposes, builds, proceeds, shifts, always going on, never coming back, and one can only retain it in vignettes, impressions caught in a flash, flipped through in succession, leaving a richness of images imprinted on a sunburned retina.” From Downcanyon: A Naturalist Explores the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon by Ann Zwinger

I’ve always liked Jules Verne’s writings, and from my first reading, I was captivated by his novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. The fantastic adventure commences in Iceland, or rather under Iceland, for the most part. The movie versions never could compete with the fantastic images that Verne’s words produced in my mind’s eye. And as a child, I became curious about this place called Iceland, and was captivated by the photos of the landscape I found in the library and National Geographic. And amongst the photos that most evoked the sentiments in me that Verne’s book had, were the ones not of volcanos, but of the canyons. It was at that point that I made an emotional connection between canyons and the Journey, and I can’t separate the two very easily to this day. I have not explored Iceland yet, nor attempted my own visit to the center of the earth, but I have found some caverns and more than a few canyons. And in truth, I have not fully abandoned the whimsical dream that the Lidenbrock’s Path that Verne wrote about might exist somewhere at the bottom of a canyon, probably a grand one, at that.

south rim view of the Grand Canyon.When one refers to the Grand Canyon, it is usually the magnificent 277 mile long gorge cut by the Colorado River through Northern Arizona. Usually, but not exclusively as it turns out. There are canyons and gorges in many states that are referred to as “Grand” in some fashion. Kind of like the way iconic people are referred to as the “Babe Ruth of” whatever it is they do. There is Letchworth State Park’s “Grand Canyon of the East” in New York, not to be confused with Maine’s Gulf Hagas or West Virginia’s New River Gorge, both also dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the East”. Alabama’s Walls of Jericho is called the “Grand Canyon of the South”, as is the gorge in Breaks Interstate Park in the Virginia portion. The “Grand Canyon of the North” is an open pit mine in Hibbing. MN, and the Waimea Canyon in Hawaii is known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”.

Wyoming has the “Grand Canyon of Yellowstone”, while the “Grand Canyon of North Carolina” is Linville Gorge, and “Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon” is Pine Creek Gorge. Features called “Grand Canyon Of ” are found in Michigan, Tennessee, Idaho, Oregon and Texas as well. Interestingly, “Little Grand Canyons” also are found in Vermont, Mississippi, Illinois, Utah, Nebraska, Missouri, Georgia, California and Washington. That’s Washington State, not DC, although I’ve scrambled along some pretty steep banks fishing along Rock Creek in the District, our first National Park incidentally. I am sure I’ve missed a few “Grands”, but you get the picture. The park services, chambers of commerce or tourist bureaus are not trying to deceive you, they are merely paying homage to the ultimate one in Arizona. And for the record, Arizona is not immune to a little hype either, their state moniker being “The Grand Canyon State”.

I guess everyone who has been to the Grand Canyon has a memory of their initial reaction to standing on the rim and beholding what was now in front of them. Most people don’t say behold to describe what they see, but it is the only word that fits, and it is not really enough. We all have seen the pictures and film, or read accounts dating from the Spanish explorers to John Wesley Powell to the aforementioned National Geographic. But as cliche as it sounds, all that doesn’t do it justice. First fully explored by Powell after the Civil War, it was dedicated a National Monument by Theodore Roosevelt roughly forty years later. Roosevelt’s words on the plaque with his likeness at Roosevelt Point on the rim pretty much sums it up. “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, and for all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American … should see.” It is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and the superlatives and awe are all warranted.

Hiker on a Grand Canyon TrailMy first visit to the Grand Canyon was in winter, when we took a break from trout fishing along Oak Creek near Sedona, Arizona. Driving north through Flagstaff, we approached the Grand Canyon traveling along a sagebrush plateau dotted with pinyon pine and juniper, and revealing an occasional pronghorn. My first view of the canyon was then of course from the South Rim. The exact spot was at the Bright Angel trailhead. Because of icy conditions there, we did more viewing than hiking. My clamp on ice creepers or a pair of YakTrax would have changed that, but they were 2,600 miles away in my ice fishing bucket. But the viewing was ample and the landscape was like none I’d ever seen. As I stated, I love canyons, so I’ve seen a few, but nothing remotely like this. Not only in terms of scale, but of vantage point as well. And perhaps the single most compelling thing to me from there and several other vistas, was the narrow green ribbon snaking along the bottom of the the gorge as far as you could see.

Although I knew what is was, I could not reconcile easily the appearance with the physical reality of the flow at first. It was of course the Colorado River, but I’d never seen any water so far below me except while on a plane. The virtual trivialization of this mighty river was stunning. The sight of the Colorado looking more like a varicose vein than a river is one of my most vivid memories of the canyon, right up there with the overall surreal scale of the landscape. We often use the phrase “as far as the eye can see”, and probably use it accurately enough in most cases. But here on the South Rim, glassing the otherworldly aspect that the Canyon evokes, it took on a new dimension. And in that moment when my breath was literally taken away by both the scope and beauty of my surroundings, I was re-filled to bursting with a particular thought, quickly becoming knowledge.I knew beyond a certainty that there were more places lying before me than I could ever explore in a lifetime. And right there, under my moon-eyed gaze, were places no one else had been. Boulders where no one else had warmed themselves in the sun, box canyons as narrow as city alleys that no one had followed to the end, rock faces no one had scaled, tiny gravel beaches no one had stretched their legs on, pools that had never seen a lure, and seepages that had never filled a canteen. It both thrilled and amazed me, and scarcely a day passes that I do not re-visit that feeling, a lasting gift of the Canyon.

But, there were other aspects of our initial exploration of the Grand Canyon that allowed a more measured observation of the landscape. A deserted trailhead access for the Hermit Trail provided a rare solitude that day along the rim. On the way there, we passed many coyotes and mule deer, the larger mammals most frequently encountered in the Grand Canyon National Park. Hiking down into the Canyon pleasantly afforded us a more micro view of the environment, micro of course, only in comparison to the rim views. The Hermit Trail is rough and steep along much of it’s 4600 elevation drop to the river. But the upper third that we trekked along was not unreasonable, and unlike the upper portions of Bright Angel Trail, the Hermit Trail was ice free that February afternoon. Hiking through the rocks, sagebrush and a few Englewood spruce, gave us a chance to bask in the below rim experience. Two golden eagles, several ravens and a peregrine falcon soared overhead on the thermals as we made our way down the trail. At a switchback we chose as the terminus of our hike, we sat and watched the lenticular clouds forming over the rapidly shadowy Canyon.

As the temperature perceptibly began to drop a well, we headed back up the narrow but relatively stable trail, I felt secure in the fact that our packs were weighted not only with an extra fleece and water bottles, but headlamps and flashlights as well. All but the water bottles never left the packs, as despite the fatigue of a long day, our pace was quicker ascending than it had been descending. That was so, partially because there was less to see in the fading light. Reaching the trailhead parking lot just before dusk, the Canyon had one final surprise for us. As we drove around a sharp bend, a small herd of elk crossed the road in front of us. The size of these animals is awe inspiring, especially to one whose home woodlands have only the whitetail deer as ungulate representatives. An enormous bull elk stood in the middle of the road staring at us until the cows and calves had moved well into the trees, before trotting away and disappearing like a ghost into the dusk and brush, but never from our memory.

Photos by the author and Sherry Yates

Valley Forge

The wind bit hard at Valley Forge one Christmas.
Soldiers tied rags on their feet.
Red footprints wrote on the snow.
–Carl Sandburg, ‘Washington Monument by Night’

 the rolling hills of Valley ForgeJune is a beautiful time of the year in southeast Pennsylvania, although I readily acknowledge this region does not hold a patent on that distinction. But by June in these parts, the green flag of spring is fully unfurled, and the May flowers that were brought by the April showers have been here a month, not yet wilted by the heat of the ensuing summer season. The streams are full, life abounds, possibilities seem endless and real. Maybe that is why June is the most popular month for weddings. It was for us, June the first in fact. But most popular choice does not mean the only choice, and as it happens, the month of August is the second most popular for nuptials, obviously not just in Pennsylvania, but nationwide. A mildly interesting factoid at best, but it got me thinking about the seasons. And since I was hiking on a fall morning through Valley Forge National Park, thoughts of the significance of the changing seasons here specifically.

The image of Valley Forge that first comes to mind for most people, is the harsh winter George Washington and the Continental Army suffered through in 1777-78. A defining moment in our history, and an example of the spirit of America we still draw strength from today. The house that Washington used as his headquarters that bitter winter still at stands a lovely spot at the confluence of Valley Creek and the Schuylkill River. The stark beauty of the snow covered rolling hills and open meadows in winter is both evocative and enduring. As you drive along Route 23, a two lane road that runs through the center of the park today, you often encounter whitetail deer, present today here in far greater numbers than in Colonial times. Washington’s troops were not rationed with venison, but their salvation did come from nature.

As John McPhee explains in his book,The Founding Fish, the spring run of shad from the Atlantic Ocean thru Delaware Bay, and up the Delaware River to the Schuylkill at Valley Forge, was the manna for the Continental Army. Washington himself maintained a shad fishing operation on the Potomac at Mount Vernon in Virginia, and was familiar with the species. And that would have included knowledge of the sometimes cyclical nature of the species, the abundance of any given year’s migration being somewhat a matter of chance. But the shad arrived along the Schuylkill in sufficient quantities in 1778 to literally flesh out his emaciated company of soldiers.

currents of the Schuylkill RiverBut in the late spring and early summer, the rolling hills and fields bisected by the currents of the Schuylkill River are a natural treasure as well as an historical one. This was not unappreciated by our first President, who despite the doubtless grim images he retained from that encampment, returned to Valley Forge during a break from the grueling work of the Continental Congress in 1787. In addition to touring the former sites of his army’s winter encampment, he went fishing. Fishing in the Schuylkill River for perch, and nearby streams for trout. Anglers note here, they were most likely white perch (Morone americana), free to roam upstream from the Delaware estuary and river, unencumbered by the numerous yet to be constructed dams, the same circumstance that allowed the shad to run upstream as well. Point being, it is an enchanting place, which even a bitter wartime winter couldn’t totally obscure.

The Revolutionary War Archives, maintained by the Sons of Liberty, records these notes on Washington’s visit, from the pages of his own diary. In Washington’s own words: “Monday, 30th, July. In company with Mr. Govern’ Morris went into the neighborhood of Valley Forge to Widow Moore’s a fishing at who house we lodged.” This structure (Widow Moore’s), still a private residence just outside of nearby Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, is located a short distance from both French Creek and Valley Creek. Even today these are trout streams, although not the original native brook trout Washington would have caught, but more lately introduced browns and rainbows. And although I have not caught the same trout here as Washington, I probably have caught some in the same places. The house that Washington used as his headquarters that bitter winter still at stands a beautiful spot at the confluence of Valley Creek and the Schuylkill, probably

Washington continues in his journal: “Tuesday, 31st, July. Before Breakfast I rode to Valley Forge and over the whole cantonment & works of the American Army in the winter of 1777-­1778 and on my return to the Widow Moore’s found Mr. & Mrs. Rob’ Morris. Spent the day there fishing & lodged at the same place.” As part of the same trip, he traveled east, and fished a bit in the Delaware River near Trenton. I find this trip to be of particular interest personally, both from my point of view as an historian and an angler. Washington, only ten years after the fact, returned on a short pilgrimage to his old camping grounds. Millions have done so since, including me. And I have frequently fished these same waters, from the Delaware to the Schuylkill Valley, These serene and placid waters I fish here were once troubled waters indeed, and standing thigh deep in these waters you can’t help but feel the pull of both the current, and the past.

The beauty of what is Valley Forge National Park today, is due in large part to the strangeness of the this landscape in this part of the country, where open prairie-like fields have long since been converted to farms, then largely to subdivisions. If there isn’t another “Liberty Mews” or “Freedom Fields” development in planning nearby, I’ll eat my three-cornered hat. But in the park, the vistas and field ecosystems remain, and wildlife thrives. Some like the whitetail deer have flourished to a fault. Their burgeoning population has caused management problems and wreaked uniquely ungulate havoc on the local gardens in the communities bordering the park. Smaller mammals like squirrel, raccoon, porcupine, skunk, and opossum and sundry smaller critters are common. An occasional beaver or river otter is sometimes spotted in the river. And rarely, a black bear makes an appearance, and the media takes note.

It is a warm mid-day, but as I make my way from the fields to the tree covered ridge to seek shade with a view, I see several deer browsing unnaturally on the slope to my left. I wonder at what point they will retreat into the wooded glen on the far side of the ridge, and that does not occur until I am far too close to them. Looking lean, but not unhealthy, they slowly move into the woods, stopping to look back in my direction several times. I sit against an old Sycamore, one of the trees native here from before colonial times. Wild flowers are interspersed in patches amongst the tall grass, and blackbirds and swallowtail butterflies materialize as I relax my gaze into the landscape.

A cottontail races across the path I just ascended, disappearing into the tall grass. The grass stirs in the slight breeze, and before long I become drowsy from it’s rhythmic waving, and from straining to discern more deer, or perhaps a fox on the far ridge, but nothing moves in front of me, save the grass, butterflies and blackbirds. A solitary squirrel chirping at something breaks my reverie and and places my impending nap on hold. I stand and begin to walk again, topping the small spine of earth and following its slope in the direction of the river. A chipmunk with a peanut in his mouth darts in front of me, halting my progress until he scoots away. Chipmunks are indigenous to this place, peanuts are not. I guess that he didn’t seem wild enough to someone to fall under the auspices of the “Do Not Feed the Wildlife” signs.

The point on the river where I am heading is where Valley Creek, a trout stream, empties into the Schuylkill, a coolwater/warmwater fishery. It was at this point very early one June morning thirty some years ago, that this groom and half of my wedding party went fishing. Not for white perch or trout, as did the Father of our Country, but feisty smallmouth bass. Given the aforementioned beauty here at this time of year, a late morning ceremony at the church, and my general disdain for “traditional” bachelor parties, it was tuxedos at ten, but waders at five. And if you’ve never lipped a fresh from the river, two pound smallmouth and held it up against the glow of a rising sun on your wedding day, I heartily recommend it. But less dramatically, if you find yourself near Philadelphia at some point, why not plan to be among the one and a quarter million people who will visit here each year, as Carl Sandburg once did? And if you do, bring your camera and fishing gear. You will make good use of both.

Photos by Kenneth Emmerling and Wayne Heinze

Lake Superior

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called ‘Gitchi Gumee’
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy.
–Gordon Lightfoot from “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald”

White light house on cliff over lakeAfter a week in the north woods, I gazed with unusual interest into the skies above Lake Superior. A couple of military aircraft from the Great Lakes Naval Air Station were on a training mission, maneuvering in the misty morning sky over the inland sea. Normally, such an intrusion would be an unwanted distraction at best, but after not seeing a single aircraft for a week, it was a not unpleasant novelty. As I realized this, I chuckled at this reaction from someone who lives beneath the very active flight paths of an international airport. Amazing really, how a few days among the red and white pines forests of Minnesota can alter your perspective, and cleanse your perceptions.

The last few days of a recent camping / fishing trip across the northern Plains, we found ourselves encamped along the shores of Lake Superior in Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. The park, named for Minnesota’s iconic lighthouse there, offers a few hike-in, paddle-in and cart-in campsites. We chose the latter, a less common opportunity, and hauled our tents and gear to our designated site with a large fiberglass “goat cart” along the hilly, rocky trail some five hundred meters from the access area. Because of the up and down aspect of the trail, it was explained that the cart was equipped with hand brakes, similar to those on a bicycle. The sagacity of this precaution became evident just a few yards along the trail, as the first dip occurred. With the cart under control, it was a short but pleasant hike to our site, serenaded by the pounding of the surf, and vistas of the lake along the trail.

The site itself was the finest spot I’ve ever camped, up a rocky side trail and surrounded by house size boulders that offered ample protection from the winds off Superior. Although the wildlife encountered was primarily the extremely social ground squirrels, and the chirping Least chipmunks, the sturdy bear box on site was a nice touch. Upon return to the site late one afternoon, we immediately realized two things. First, we had left the bear box door open after lunch, and second, there wasn’t a single raccoon in the vicinity. That epiphany occurred simultaneously to the discovery of the open door: the contents were untouched and intact, ergo no raccoons nearby.

The small terrace above the site clearing was perfect ground to pitch our tents on, overlooking the fire ring, table, goat cart, bear box and the comings and goings of the silent ground squirrels and the chirping, whistling, chipmunks. Superior was not visible from the tent site, but was audible to be sure. The huge boulders surrounding us seemed to ring with the dash, splash and crash of the nearby surf, and afforded a relatively accessible elevated perspective of the lakeshore environs. As is the tradition in many backcountry campsites, the previous occupants had left some non perishables in the bear box, and we opted to pay that forward with some additions of our own at trip’s end.

I had spent time around the other Great Lakes, primarily Michigan and Ontario, And while those two water bodies are certainly impressive, and beyond our normal perception of what a lake is, Superior is in a class by itself. In discussing the vastness of Superior with one of the park rangers, it came up that Superior could hold all the water of Lakes Michigan, Huron and Ontario, and almost three Lake Eires.Or put another way, Superior holds enough water to cover an area equal to the lower forty-eight states,to a depth of a foot or so. Nearly 32,000 square miles of surface area, and holding roughly ten percent of the freshwater on our planet on any given day. More a sea than lake in scope, appearance, and sound. Even during the calmest stretches, the waves roll in, gently at times but as a maelstrom during a storm.The waves are said to break some thirty feet up on the cliffs here in really bad weather. In any case, the omnipresent sounds of the waves along the lakeshore had both a type of strangeness but also a familiarity about them.

I say strange, because as someone who has lived much his life along the Atlantic coastal plain, it was quite different hearing waves crash as you were surrounded by forest and boulders, much as it is is some parts of the New England coast or our Pacific coast, but knowing it was a lake raising the pleasant cacophony. And familiar, because I think we hear waves the same, no matter where the surf line may be. The waves pounding on the rocky shore that I fell to sleep with along Lake Superior became the sounds of the Atlantic lulling me to sleep on a Jersey barrier island as a child. But on the strange side of the ledger, there was not a hint of brine obviously, and I think it took me a couple of days until I stopped unconsciously trying to sniff that out. Although the invigorating charge of negative ions was the same as any surf I’ve seen, Superior wore it’s own unique perfume, as does the Atlantic and the Pacific. Blindfolded, a person familiar with all three, could identify each by it’s fragrance alone.

If you look at a map of Lake Superior, you see that the lake is not only huge but of an interesting configuration. Split Rock State Park sits along the shore north of Duluth, and directly across the lake from Wisconsin. Although this arm of the lake is comparatively narrow, the feeling even here of of gazing out to sea.Terns wheel overhead, huge freighters and ore ships cleave the waves offshore, and wrecked hulls of some mark the watery graves of mariners, as in the song excerpt that began this essay. And when I hiked along the Gitchi-Gumee Trail from the campsite to an area called Pebble Beach to do some fishing, it was surf fishing. Not that different from some rocky ocean shores I’d fished in the past, like La Jolla in California, or the rocks along Marginal Way in Ogunquit, Maine. It was like fishing in an ocean, except my quarry was northern pike, smallmouth bass and walleye, not bluefish or surfperch. Offshore sport fishing craft that would have been right at home on most ocean fishing grounds, were trolling with down riggers and cannonball rigs for salmon and lake trout. But there was no tang of salt as I inhaled the refreshing essence wafting across the stony beach. How bizarre, both that I kept expecting it, and that it never manifested itself.

Some of the earliest and most comprehensive writing about Lake Superior came from the pen of Louis Agassiz and J. Elliot Cabot. Their remarkable volume, entitled Lake Superior: its physical character, vegetation, and animals, compared with those of other and similar regions, was first published in 1850. Although the expeditions that produced the work focused mostly on the more northerly parts of the lake, much of what the book contains, especially the cataloging of flora and fauna, is of a more general scope. Among the fauna that they encountered were a wide variety of fish species, some acquired via methods not altogether unfamiliar to 21st century anglers. In describing their fishing for lake trout for example, Agassiz records the following. “The bait is a piece of pork(rind), or better, a trout’s stomach, drawn over the the hook and tied at the shank. A simple plate of brass, with a couple of hooks….is allowed to trail a dozen fathoms astern of the canoe, and kept in constant motion by jerking the line.” By Aggassiz’s own admission their success varied, some days catching five or six fish, some days none. That too would seem familiar enough to those plying Superior’s waters today.

Much of Lake Superior is not wilderness any longer, and in fact, little was even in the 19th century. But today, as it was then, it can still be wild, both in its enormity, personality, and presence. And all any lover of nature can ask for is to have gained enough sight in their outdoor pursuits to see this. And when you do, you get both the forest and the trees, each seen clearly by the shore of the inland sea.

Oldmans Creek

In South Jersey, Oldmans Creek provides part of the border between Salem and Gloucester Counties, as it meanders it’s way through farms and forest and brackish marsh on its way to the Delaware River. This is old colonial country, Swedish, Dutch and English colonists buried beneath crumbling headstones in church cemeteries. Often beneath the boughs of old growth forest, pre-dating our Independence. My wife and I had been hiking along the creek banks here and doing a little fishing one September evening some thirty years ago. Upon arriving home, we learned my father had suffered a stroke, one that would take his life before Christmas, and before the birth of his grandson. That could have been the end of the story of Kag-Kikwizachens-sippus as the First People, the Lenape, called Oldmans Creek. But it was not.

fisherman in boatMy father and I are anglers (death does not alter that) and know the things that those of our clan know. The cup is not only always half full while out fishing, but the stuff in it tastes pretty darn good as well. Life itself tastes better, both the earthly realm in which we pursue our sport, and the spiritual one in which among other things we consider our sport. Dad knew this and so do I. And it is not all exotic locations that are the key, it is the ability of an angler/naturalist to easily perceive the beauty wherever fish exist. More often than not, it is not exotic and far. I can show you things like drainage ditches, outflow pipes and swamps that have beauty, fecundity and joy far beyond their initial comprehension. One can ask for no more than to have gained the sight to see this. These places of beauty are where our passion for fishing and the outdoors created an enduring bond between my father and I. They includes a place called Oldmans Creek, where one evening a part of our lives changed, but not our shared angling passion.

The stretch of Oldmans Creek I am writing about is a part of the Harrisonville Lake Wildlife Management Area. It is a small piece of public land, at 213 acres, comprised largely of its namesake Harrisonville Lake. But the potential for some good fishing and an enriching nature experience is great. Although I do catch bass and pickerel in the lake, my affection for this area lies along the banks of Oldmans Creek. The section that I usually fish and hike lies below the dam spillway on the lake, through the main pool and into the hardwood forest downstream. The dam has been rebuilt in recent years, and the pool below the spillway has a different look these days, but it still offers fine fishing. When we fish here, it is most often for the abundant panfish population. Bluegills and crappies dominate the main pool, along with catfish, perch and carp, as well as bass and some early season trout. And beyond the tail of the pool, the redbreast sunfish thrives, along with smaller populations the other species.

Redbreast fill a niche for me in this region, where rock bass and smallmouth bass are absent, and this combined with my general fondness for the species make it the main target in Oldmans Creek. The downstream pursuit of the redbreast here usually involves hip boot wading over the gravel bottomed creek, alternating with bankside hikes along stretches where the bottom is mostly composed of detritus or mud. Eventually, the WMA ends, and private property signals the reversal of the fishing, as you work your way back to the main pool.The lush canopy of trees overhead make it an especially nice place to fish in bright, hot weather, but it is a productive stream year round.

This is an intimate and personal place for me, which has provided much beyond the fishing over the years. For example, on my most recent trip there, I spent time observing a “fellow angler” ply his craft. Along the edges of the riprap in the main pool, a large Fishing Spider (Dolomedes tenebrosus) chased some water striders and a then a pod of miniature bullheads in pursuit of a meal it eventually obtained. The spider scurried out of the water onto a large flat rock and commenced feasting. It was a unique experience to witness the hunt, kill and meal of this creekside companion.

The creek has been a classroom in the food chain on other occasions as well. There is a large bluff on the south side of the creek as you exit the tail end of the pool. One warm October afternoon as I brought a hefty redbreast to hand, I heard a loud rustling sound. A sound not unlike the sounds kids would make demolishing the leaf piles I had raked earlier on my lawn. Glancing upwards and to my left towards the source of the sound, I beheld the largest Great Horned Owl I have ever seen. And it saw me as well, it’s stare locked into mine. The wings were extended, and it beat them once and again, producing the sound that had first attracted my attention. I lowered myself down onto a log, and fixed my gaze, determined to see how this encounter would play out. The owl’s head swiveled to the left, but it seemed to keep looking at me, looking out of the corner of it’s eye perhaps. With a final more measured flap, the owl bent down and picked up a muskrat in it’s beak, and resumed it’s perusal of my position. Apparently sensing I posed no danger from my position on the log some forty feet below, the owl commenced to consume the muskrat. it paused a moment to fix gazes with me again before noisily sweeping off the bluff and soaring downstream out of site, but not out of mind.

Two pools downstream from the main pool, the water is deepest and blow down filled, an almost pond like portion of the stream. It is your best bet to hook up with the creek’s alpha fish, the largemouth bass. While casting from the bank crouched behind an old hemlock, the water mid pool suddenly exploded and a nice size stream bass of perhaps fifteen inches arched into the air. What made this a rather singular occurrence, was that protruding from the bass’s maw was about a foot of Northern watersnake. Now this is not a large pool, and I was immediately creekside, and have seen more snakes and eels than most. I am fully confident in my identification of the snake. What happened next was unique in my experience, as the bass breached twice more, each time with more of the snake inside the bass’ mouth. Finally the commotion ceased, and the rings on the surface of the pool subsided. No bass from the honey hole this evening, but a sweet memory of the encounter I witnessed.

I guess it was at that point when the thought first occurred that Oldmans Creek was the type of place that Dad would have enjoyed spending time on. The intervening years since his death have convinced me of this fact, and it remains one of my most frequently fished waters, season to season. When I talk out loud to my father while reveling in both the fishing and natural rhythms along the creek, he replies in words only I can hear, and the sound is a good one. In those moments, we are both speaking from the best possible place we can be in.

Swimming and Running: Ways Into Nature

“We were born to run; we were born because we run.” Christopher McDougall, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World

“Perhaps swimming was dancing under the water, he thought. To swim under lily pads seeing their green slender stalks wavering as you passed, to swim under upraised logs past schools of sunfish and bluegills. . .” Jim Harrison, The Man Who Gave Up His Name

Two men celebrate running to Mt Elbert PeakOne may argue, and I will, that the two purest forms of sport are swimming and running. I guess they are the oldest too. Neanderthals must have run, or they couldn’t catch game to eat, or get away from game trying to eat them. They’d run of course until they got to water, and got in over their heads. Then they had to swim, or drown. I have written this and you are reading it, ergo the Neanderthals survived. And they did it by running and swimming among other things, and so it continues. As to the purity, well that’s pretty simple: no accoutrements, just who gets from point A to point B the fastest, by stroke or stride. No scoring, judging, balls or pucks, just speed, which translates to time. And that singularity of the two sports allows any runner or swimmer, at any level or skill, to compete against or compare themselves to, anyone who has ever run or swam the same distance that they are attempting. Compete against the greatest of all time. Just you and Bolt or Phelps, and a hundred meters of track or pool. Pretty cool when you actually stop to think about it.

I have always gone fishing, so have always been around water. Wading in rivers or ocean surf, paddling canoes, rowing boats, scrambling along seawalls and jetties, and bracing against the gunnels offshore in a gale. Fact is, you can end up in the water, so if you want to fish for a long time, it is a good idea to learn to swim. Your motivation being more akin to a Neanderthal (survival) than to an Olympian (medals) in this scenario. Being able to swim is helpful for the fisherman in another important way too. By entering the watery element voluntarily, you can get to places you might not be able to otherwise access.

There was a small stream in the Pequannock Watershed that I would wet wade during the warmer months, It was a delightfully varied watercourse, no more than waist deep in the rocky area where I would first enter, abounding in rock bass, chubs, smallmouth bass and trout. As I worked further down the current, the character of the stream began to change to a slower and deeper flow, with high mud banks on either side. The only way to continue downstream through the deeper pools and glides, where I was literally in over my head, was to do as the Neanderthals did and swim. So with rod gripped firmly between my teeth I would doggy paddle downstream until I hit bottom, then begin to fish again, now catching largemouth bass, bluegills and catfish more commonly. If you fished far enough downstream, the river narrowed and flowed under a small bridge. Exiting the water here, you could jog back on a Forest Service road, if you didn’t mind the squishing sound your tennis shoes made.

Similarly, my cousin and I would swim out to the concrete bridge footers in the Navesink River near Red Bank (Monmouth County) at high water to set up a chum slick as the tide ran out. We had to swim out at high tide, because you could only climb up onto the footers when the water was nearly to the top. You simply dove off the footer when you left after the tide fell. As the flow of the river reversed itself, we would toss handfuls of bunker chum into the water, which slid down to join the Shrewsbury before emptying into the bay near Sandy Hook. Our bait was spearing or grass shrimp we had seined earlier in the day, We would impale a whole spearing or a few (depending on the size) grass shrimp on a simple Aberdeen hook, and suspend it under a torpedo shaped cork float. As the tide carried the odiferous bunker chum down current, we would begin to see silver flashes as bluefish and weakfish would follow the scent towards its source. We’d toss our rigs into the flow and wait for the float to be yanked under by the strike of a snapper blue or pan sized weakfish. In a tide, we could usually catch a couple of fish for supper if we needed them, although most of what we caught was released. Fishing finished for the day, we’d tie our minimal gear in plastic bags, and along with any fish on the stringer, jump off the footer and swim the fifty or so yards back to the bank, rods, gear and fish (sometimes) stowed in old canvas Army surplus rucksacks..There were variations on this theme in other waters, but you get the idea.

Just as swimming can expand your interaction with fish, running can do the same in terms of your wildlife viewing. Especially if the type of running you do or have done is some form of cross country, trail or mountain running. Hiking obviously does this too, but will either cover less ground in the same amount of time or the same amount of ground in much more time. We’ll stick to the running in this narrative though, because we all love to hike, but far fewer feet fly through the forest faster. Say that five times, fast. And besides I’m promoting pure sport here, previously identified in the first few sentences to include running, so let’s lace ‘em up, keep your eyes open, and run. The beggars in our National Parks and the geese in our neighborhood pond notwithstanding, most critters are shy of people. It’s almost like they know what words like Thanksgiving or venison, or field dressing mean. So they avoid us, but by running we can find them both sooner, and more frequently.

There is a life in the desert that you are unaware of unless you’ve spent considerable time there. Say like working ten day hitches every two weeks under the auspices of the Desert Restoration Corps or the Bureau of Land Management, and sleeping nights with only the stars above and a tarp beneath. Day trippers out of San Diego, or even residents in desert towns like El Centro or Brawley, don’t often encounter the wildlife to be seen while doing trail maintenance on the East Mesa of the Yuha in California. Sidewinders, kit fox, pack rats, tarantulas and coyotes are among the many interesting life forms who share the neighborhood of those engaged in such field work. So too are Border Patrol agents, illegals, and yahoos shouting threats from speeding OHV’s in the middle of the night, but that’s a story for another time. Point is, if you spend a lot of time out in that dusty, starry wonderland, you can see a lot of neat stuff. Especially if you run towards it, and away from the roads.

A young man who did just that, once described a couple of his encounters. I actually have photographic evidence of one. He is crouched down on a gravely side road, gently shooing an absolutely huge tarantula from the middle of the road with his cowboy hat. He had to move the arachnid down into an arroyo to allow the work truck to pass without squashing it. Sidewinders were encountered frequently, and along with scorpions were a concern to the crew members when they bedded down. Cowboys used to sleep while encircled by their lariats, snakes not seeming to want to pass over the rough hemp. The young man told me they skipped that step, finding the rattlers, and the scorpions, similarly avoided the plastic tarps they slept on. Not so the kit foxes who would snatch and run off with unlikely items such as socks, and urinate on shoes and notebooks. Nor the kangaroo rats, who would help themselves to any insufficiently secured food, and steal various objects as well. Like stop watches. Why would you need a stopwatch in the desert? Pure sport is the answer, it had nothing to do with the work being done, just the pure sport.

After the work day concluded, and either before or after the camp meal, the young man would run. Not just random jogs, as it turns out he was training for the Catalina Marathon, and the stopwatch was for timing his workouts, at least until the rats found it. He ran alone through the arroyos and ravines, often guided only by starlight and moonglow. And as he came to realize, not always alone. He would hear the sidewinders rattling on the side of the trail, sensitive to the vibrations of his footfalls, even in the most sandy stretches. And after his eyes became adjusted over time on these night runs, he became aware of the fact that he was not the only one running. Most nights a coyote would pick him up somewhere beyond the first mile out of camp, running abreast and parallel for the most part, sometimes disappearing briefly ahead, sometimes running directly behind. He could track the creature’s movements easiest on bright, clear nights, when it would become silhouetted while cresting a small dune. Sometimes the dim light would reflect from its eyes.

His fellow SCA crew members doubted the tale at first, but as they watched him return one following night, they greeted him by turning on the headlights of the truck. Caught in the beam of light was our marathoner, and the coyote twenty meters behind him. The thought process of that coyote remains a mystery, but then again the thought process of a person who runs fifteen miles at night in the desert after digging with MacLeods and Pulaskis in the Southwest heat for ten hours, is similarly unfathomable to most. So, if your running isn’t restricted to a track or your swimming to a pool, the exercise you get may have an unintended benefit, in a new way to connect with nature.

Photo of runners on top of Mt Elbert, Colorado, USA, by the author