Desert Musings

“The heat was hot and the ground was dry But the air was full of sound” from “A Horse With No Name” by Dewey Bunnell

From the very first time that I visited our Southwest, it became clear that the “barren” deserts were far from barren. Not unlike the areas of the eastern coastal plain that are dubbed “pine barrens”, the label is as inaccurate and misleading as it is evocative. And with a few notable exceptions, the southwestern desert does not resemble the dunescape depicted in old movies about the French Foreign Legion, or Lawrence of Arabia, or even, well, Dune. There is a lot of life, beauty, majesty, and yes, heat, in our deserts.

I recently spent some time camping before monsoon season, under the open skies in the area of the country where three of our four major desert systems, the Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan converge. That geographic and ecological merge takes place in the ”three-corner” area where Nevada, Utah and Arizona come together. This area covers from portions of the north rim of the Grand Canyon, northwest through the Valley of Fire, and northeast towards Zion National Park. Flora and fauna representative of all three eco-systems can overlap here, making it an extremely interesting destination for a desert naturalist. Although daytime temperatures quickly soared into triple digits, once topping out at 127 degrees, it strangely enhanced the experience of spending time in these environments. In this type of heat, there are not herds of critters thundering down most arroyos. However a quiet approach and practiced observation can reveal not only uniquely beautiful landscapes and vegetation, but the birds, animals and insects that inhabit the region. Add a good pair of binoculars, and a cooler (read shady) place to rest and scan, and you can check off even more boxes on your life lists or field guides if so inclined.

Author's son by desert wilderness signThe Colorado River and it’s impoundments, Lakes Mead and Mojave are the best known and most popular recreational water in this region, and with good reason. Lake Mead National Recreation Area offers water-based sports and eco-tourism opportunities surrounded by desert habitat remote enough to be inhabited by the occasional Gila monster. But this is not the only water here, although fishable options require a little more exploration. You can find fish in various parks in or near Las Vegas, like the oasis that is Floyd Lamb State Park near Tule Springs. However, my favorite spots in the region are near St. George in southwest Utah. In the foothills above the town, it was a unique experience to catch a few largemouth bass in 114 degree temperatures on my last trip. Obviously water temperatures were much lower, but the lack of cover and discernible structure left few options for places where fish might congregate. In this case, it was a few floating weed mats that provided secure ambush points for the bass to forage from. Terrestrial creatures similarly seek out protection and cover in their sun baked desert home. And although the sighting of a Gila monster or even a desert tortoise is rare, there are plenty of other critters scurrying about, hiding in the mesquite and creosote or scrambling amongst the crevices in the sandstone rocks.

On this trip, we hiked up to and camped on a high butte in the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Recreation area, administered by the Bureau of Land Management. In the Parashant, dispersed camping (primitive/backpack) is allowed, and we spent our nights in the Mount Bangs/Paiute Wilderness portion. The view on all sides of seemingly endless desert was serene as the light faded, the grub sizzled in the fry pan, and the temperature moderated somewhat. The air would began to stir, and the first of seemingly endless waves of cooling breezes arrived. Aromatic winds of varying velocity and sound would sweep up and onto the butte with us all night. As the desert disappeared beyond our immediate campsite, small creatures like pack rats, whiptail lizards and geckos could be seen in the beam of a lantern at times.

And far away from the light pollution, and unobstructed by an overhead tent roof, the magnificent June night sky presented itself. As we laid back on tarps and accordion sleeping pads, our entire field of vision was consumed by stars. Clusters, constellations, the Milky Way and even three meteors, provided the evening’s entertainment. The display was almost surrealistic, and it seemed as if a giant talking head of Neil DeGrasse Tyson might suddenly materialize to help explain exactly what we were witnessing. But in a way, no explanation was required to savor the experience. The visual art of the southwest night sky in this setting was visceral. Perhaps somewhat like walking into a room in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and confronting a wall size Jackson Pollack painting for the first time. Just seeing and feeling can be enough in both cases.

campsite in desertAs dawn approached, the waning wind and the morning calls of the birds worked like an alarm clock, stirring me off my sleeping pad and coaxing me to the east facing edge of the butte. Sitting on my haunches with my arms wrapped around my knees, I sat waiting for the world, as far as I could see, to awaken. Of all the beauty that you can encounter in the desert, this time of day takes a back seat to none. As spectacular as the red rock formations or distant peaks and neighboring mesas and buttes can be bathed in full sunlight, this is something else yet again. The light of false dawn through daybreak offers an opportunity to see this desert world revealed through yet another magical and incremental lens. As the sky begins to glow over the farthest ridge line, you can imagine you feel the warmth rise up the slope towards you. As the sun crests the rocks and begins it’s slow pursuit of the shadows across the valley floor, you no longer need to imagine the heat, increasingly an unmistakeable but pleasant warmth at this hour. The few places that will hold shade during the sunrise are now becoming clearly defined. Picking my way carefully down the rocky slope, I sought to find footfalls that would not disturb the somewhat delicate crust of the desert soil.

On the desert plain surrounding our butte, chuckwallas and banded geckos were present, probably in greater numbers than The few I noted among the brush, small cacti and rocks. Being quick enough and pretty well camouflaged, horned lizards were even more difficult to spot, and unfortunately not a hint of a Gila monster. No tarantulas either, but a few scorpions scouted the terrain much the same as I did. Voles darted in and out of a few sagebrush varieties, and a raven called from a small juniper bush. The birds were wary and distant, but the one phainopepla I identified was the first I’d ever seen. It was feeding on the random buzzing flies that popped up occasionally in the area. That wasn’t really too surprising, but the number of whitish, gray and muted brown colored butterflies was unexpected, considering the relative scarcity of plants in flower. Exploring slowly around the buttes where we camped at night in the relative cool of dawn and early morning, always revealed a varied mix of interesting desert species.

I found it interesting that the yelping and howls of coyotes were not among the sounds we heard in the evenings, although they were certainly present. Our major encounter with a larger mammal came on our final day, when we sought out the relative cool of the mountains in Spring Mountains Recreation Area, part of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in Nevada. I say relative, because although the trail to the summit of Mount Charleston led to snow and ice fields, the trek upwards began at the trailhead lot where the afternoon temperature read 101 degrees. It was nearby in the Willow Creek section of the Spring Mountains that we encountered the megafauna of our trip, a herd of six mustangs. Slowly moving through a sea of scrub some fifty meters in front of us, the largest mare led four of the wild horses on their pre-selected vector. The large roan stallion slowly walked in our direction, positioning himself between us and the the rest of the herd. Calmly, but alertly watching us watching him. When the other horses had made their way deeper into the desert, he turned and followed them down a dry wash, around a hillock, and out of sight. A horse with no name perhaps, but he will always be “Unforgettable”, a fitting enough moniker, my mind.


Photos by the author

Marmot Country

“Human attention on wildlife naturally falls on the glamour species. Nowadays everyone wants to save the whales, but how many people are campaigning to save the krill on which the whales depend for their survival?” E. Donnall Thomas Jr., Montana Peaks, Streams and Prairie, A Natural History


Marmot on granite bouldersThe climb from the visitor center to the top of Pompey’s Pillar along the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana is not a long or strenuous one. And although the contrast of this rocky sandstone formation to the plains surrounding it can be of great interest and of a certain beauty, that is not why most people visit here. Pompey’s Pillar is of historic importance as an area where Meriweather Lewis and William Clark spent significant time during their journey as leaders of the Corps of Discovery at the dawn of the 19th century. The excellent museum at the visitor center there documents this history with displays of their travels and artifacts from the period. And high up in the rocks themselves, behind a frame of plexiglass, is the signature of Clark himself, etched into the stone. Depending on your point of view, this can be understood as an historic relic, a latter day pictograph, or early graffiti. However, the ghosts of these famous explorers are not the only things one finds inhabiting this geographic incongruity.

As you take in the sweep of the prairie and the curve of the Yellowstone River below, you are probably being watched as well. And if the chatter of birds coming from the large cottonwoods in the floodplain along the Yellowstone contain some odd whistles, don’t be surprised. You are in prime territory of the yellow-bellied marmot (Marmota flaviventris), and those inquisitive and watchful balls of fur sunning themselves on the rocks probably have just given you a whistle or two. That sound is the reason that the pudgy marmots are sometimes referred to as “whistle pigs”, and their whistling communications are just as appealing to me as coyote howls. The town of Whistler, British Columbia, now a popular resort, conference center and Olympic ski venue, even got it’s name from the call of a member of this vocal mammal family, the hoary marmot (Marmota caligata).

There are fifteen species of this interesting overgrown squirrel worldwide, six of which are found in North America. That would include the most familiar and widespread member of the family, the groundhog, aka woodchuck (Marmota monax), a prime specimen of which lives under my garden shed. But the habitats of the predominantly western marmot species more often consist of rockier terrain and even alpine environments. But not all members of the species are regularly encountered. The Olympic marmot (Marmota olympus), for example, is confined to the Olympic Peninsula there. But it an iconic enough creature to be designated as Washington’s state animal. A few of the marmot species like the Vancouver Island marmot (Marmota vancouverensis) are endangered over all or some of their range, and that is a problem not only for the herbivorous marmots, but the carnivores and omnivores who consider them prey. Marmots are to varying degrees, food for species including hawks, eagles, wolves, cougars, bobcats and bears. So to the point Don Thomas makes in the introductory quote above, helping the marmots also helps many of the more esteemed western wildlife we so admire.

a yellow bellied marmot in the sierra nevada of california

But beyond that, I think marmots are quite frankly, engaging creatures in their own right. They appeal to me on a visceral level like a Jackson Pollock painting. My first encounter with marmots was at the aforementioned Pompey’s Pillar. Attracted at first by the singular whistling sound, I was pleasantly surprised to find a number of the animals in plain view. The number increased as I began to study the terrain more closely, sometimes noticing some slight movement, but most often just staring long enough to spot a stationary marmot sitting still. And often enough, staring right back at me. I found this behavior quite endearing, even over the span of the thirty or so meters between us. Spotting wildlife is sometimes like spotting a fish while looking down into the water. If you try to see the fish, you probably won’t. But if you look past the fish towards the bottom, you will often find that the fish materializes before your eyes. Once I subconsciously applied this technique to the outcroppings and ledges on the rock formation, I noted even more marmots. Although at the time, I was unsure of exactly what species of animal I was sharing my afternoon with. After spending longer than I had realized watching the creatures, I sought out a park ranger to find out what I had seen. Before I had fully spoken the question, the ranger smiled and said “Yellow-bellied marmot, we’ve got quite a few of them.”

I suppose it was somewhat fitting that my first encounter with a marmot occurred at a site commemorating the journey of Lewis and Clark, since they also encountered the species during their expedition. In various entries in their journals they note the animal as a monax, a name their “boss” Thomas Jefferson previously assigned to the related groundhog in his Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson based his designation of the groundhog found in his native state, on Carl Linnaeus’ nomenclature, which in turn would have been based on the Eurasian species of monax. Both Lewis and Clark took their lead from Jefferson, and dubbed the animal we now know as the yellow-bellied marmot, simply a monax. Their notes recorded observations of both the marmot in the wild, and it’s fur being utilized by the local Native American tribes such as the Shoshone and Mandan. What their field notes did not mention, was any marmot behavior similar to what I stumbled upon more than two centuries later.

I last encountered the marmot a few short months ago, in the pages of a well imagined book by Dan White entitled Under the Stars: How America Fell in Love With Camping. In a chapter about car-camping, he recounts his experience with marmots in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park in California. At the Cold Spring Campground there, his vehicle and those of other campers were set upon immediately upon arrival by marmots. Folks who have camped in areas with raccoons, might very well be familiar with the aggressive and ingenious assaults upon their foodstuffs that those bandits perpetrate. Hardly endearing, but understandable. However, the marmot behavior White writes about is bizarre to the extreme. The Kings Canyon yellow-bellied marmots have developed a taste for automotive fluids and gnaw through lines and hoses to get at the liquids inside. The website for Kings Canyon corroborates White’s report, and has an extensive marmot warning page, complete with photos and instructions of how to wrap your vehicle in plastic tarps to discourage the wily whistle pigs. Other parks such as Yellowstone scarcely issue more cautionary notices about grizzlies, buffalo or mountain lions.

marmot crossing wildlife caution sign on mountain road.

This remarkable aspect of marmot behavior triggered a bit of research on my part. I followed up with the NPS about why this might have occurred, and their consensus was that it was the combination of people feeding the marmots and “socializing” them with human presence. They think it is likely this allowed them to eventually find that the salts found on vehicle engine areas, were a substitute for salt that they lacked in their diet during drought conditions in the Mineral King area. These conditions continued over a long enough period to inculcate the behavior in this population. The extremely aggressive marmot activity common to Kings Canyon seems to be the outlier, as many locales across the west have no mention of this automotive predation, and some others have noted it to varying degrees. Sue Griffen who conducts marmot research in Olympic National Park in Washington, shared the following when I asked her if she had noted this behavior. “Yes, marmots do chew on car engine parts. I have seen them myself and heard many stories. As we had radio tagged marmots that lived near a parking lot, we were able to determine that an occasional individual would develop the habit. Other animals were never seen under cars. It was enough of a problem that I have seen hikers encase their car in chicken wire.”

On the other hand, when I contacted the Marmot Recovery Foundation on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, neither wildlife veterinarian Malcolm McAdie, who has worked with Vancouver Island marmots for past 20 years, or Executive Director Adam Taylor have ever seen Vancouver Island Marmots show any interest in vehicles. However Adam did add the following. “We’ve had cases where yellow-bellied marmots have stowed away in the underside of vehicles and chew wires, and even accidentally arrive on the Island when the vehicle next gets used. However, we’ve never seen one of our Island marmots do the same.” Interestingly, Dan White also recorded instances in his book of marmots “hitch-hiking” under the hood of vehicles, making it all the way to San Francisco on one occasion. Why were they under the hood? Maybe to warm themselves on a cold night, or more weirdly perhaps, just looking for a midnight snack.

Don Thomas, physician, naturalist, wilderness guide and author of the quote at the beginning of this essay, had a slightly different view. He told me that he has heard of such behavior in both Montana and Alaska where he has resided, but never prevalent enough to require preventative measures. And biologist Rebecca Flynn, who studied marmots on the National Bison Range in Montana asserted she had never observed such behavior there. To be certain, I have by no means conducted a scientific study. But in addition to the people I spoke with or corresponded with, I have utilized some University of Pennsylvania databases in my research. And many of the papers and articles about marmot behavior I reviewed deal with how we effect marmot behavior. This is usually recorded by the researchers and scientists in terms of metrics like population, breeding and distribution. The absence of references to the anomalous behavior I was looking for, suggests to me that in some instances the vehicle feasting marmots are actually influencing our behavior in a most singular fashion. I mean, what would it take for you to wrap your car in a plastic tarp or chicken wire every time you parked it?

Here on the east coast, I have heard reports of groundhogs chewing through underground electrical cables, but as a burrowing animal, that can possibly be dismissed as incidental gnawing. Groundhogs, including the one under my neighbor’s shed, can be destructive of gardens and even crops to some extent. But that is normal foraging, far removed from guzzling transmission fluids. So a creature that I originally found intrinsically engaging, has now become a fascinating mystery. Additionally there are conflicting reports about the effect on the marmots, if any, of the chemical fluids they slurp under the hood. The same goes for their resistance to certain sedatives. Some wildlife biologists have experienced nothing unusual in laboratory settings, while some reported marmots showing immunity to dosages effective on bears. Nature is full of surprises, especially if you look long and often enough. So the next time I see a marmot, I will regard it with new interest, as an animal no less appealing, but far more complex than first impressions indicated.

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.