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’
June 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.
But 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