Archive for July, 2010

Jul 26 2010

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Into the Clouds

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I headed for Smuggler’s Notch before dawn, hoping to hike up the short, steep trail to Sterling Pond and fish it before day hikers swarmed out of the nearby resorts.  Stowe is well known as a ski destination in the winter, but in the summertime it is almost as busy.  And the trails surrounding that resort town get a lot of traffic.

I usually avoid busy trails, but the one to Sterling Pond is an exception.  I hike it once a year, drawn to it by the many brook trout at the other end.  Sterling Pond is one of the few bodies of water in Vermont located above three thousand feet.  Wild and beautiful, it is well worth visiting even without a fishing rod.  That is, if the crowd there isn’t too dense.

At dawn I parked my car in the notch, grabbed my rucksack and charged up the trail.  My dog, Matika, led the way, of course.  A fierce wind blew through the mountains, making me doubt the wisdom of this outing.  But the weather forecast called for sunny skies later on, so I kept going.

Halfway up the trail, I slipped into the clouds.  That’s always a weird feeling.  I broke a sweat in the cool, wet air and kept sweating.  The wind died away.  By the time I reached the pond, the clouds started thinning out.  An unseen morning sun brightened them considerably.  I expected the sky to break open any minute.  But the clouds stayed with me while I fished.

I wasn’t really fishing.  It was more like practice casting.  Not one trout rose to the surface.  And when I switched from dry flies to wet ones, there was still no tug at my line.  Yet standing on the edge of that still pond was no less pleasant.  Even Matika got into it, occasionally looking up from her chewed stick to look around.  We had caught Sterling Pond in one of its better moods.  I stopped casting several times just so that I could groove on its wild silence.

Even as I descended the trail back to the parking lot, I braced myself for the hordes of hikers to suddenly appear.  But no one showed.  For the first time ever, I hiked up to Sterling Pond and back without seeing a soul.  Very strange.  As rare as getting skunked there.  Not that I’m complaining.  No people, no fish.  Not what I expected, but a good trade-off all the same.

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Jul 20 2010

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Close to Home

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A few days ago, I wanted a taste of the woods but didn’t have the time or inclination to drive to the mountains, so I did what I usually do in this situation: I hiked Aldis Hill.  It’s just across town – not more than a mile away.  I live the better part of my life in the shadow of it, often forgetting that the wild is no farther away than that.  Not deep-woods wildness, but wildness enough whenever I get the craving.

I’m always amazed at how good it feels to step off the pavement and into that tiny pocket of woods.  It’s only half a mile square, with no more than two miles of crisscrossing footpaths.  But on a hot, sunny day, its winding, shaded trail system provides welcome relief.  There I can escape my daily routine for an hour or so.  In that regard, Aldis Hill never disappoints.

Halfway up the hill, there’s a lookout cut from the trees.  From it I can see the Adirondacks on the far side of Lake Champlain on a clear day.  But even on an overcast day – or one thick with humidity – the city of Saint Albans sprawls at my feet like a child’s model village.  Sometimes I just sit at that lookout, gazing upon the town below as if seeing my life from afar.  A little elevation, along with the stark difference between town and forest, is all I need to detach myself.

While my dog Matika terrorizes squirrels, I compare whatever I was doing a half hour ago to the surrounding woods.  Sure enough, I gain perspective from this.  In deep woods, I bemoan the fact that the wild can’t be bottled and taken back home.  But a short hike around Aldis Hill is close enough.

None of this is news, of course, to those who live in the country.  But those of us living in urban areas often forget that a taste of the wild is no farther away than the nearest town forest or city park.  Sometimes a taste of wildness is all we need.  Sometimes a taste is all that’s necessary to motivate us to venture farther out.  Many of my grandest outings have germinated in a moment of inspiration on Aldis Hill or someplace like it.  All that’s required is a little exposure.

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Jul 12 2010

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These Summer Days

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Nothing symbolizes these summer days in Vermont better than day lilies.  They are big, bright, cheery flowers, no less beautiful for being commonplace.  They grow all over the place this time of year: in front of humble homes like mine, along roads and lanes, in uncut fields with daisies, black-eyed Susans and other wildflowers, and in carefully cultivated gardens.  This morning, while walking a logging road, I even saw a patch of them in a clearing deep in the woods.  Yeah, this time of year, they seem to be everywhere.

Wild or domestic, good soil or poor, they are herbal phalanxes that shout vitality.  They are equal to any insult or injury, as anyone who has dug up their complex network of roots and rhizomes will attest.  So bring on the heat waves, bugs, droughts, torrential downpours, or anything else that summer can throw at them.  They are ready.  They are strong.

But day lilies do not last forever.  While this tight knot of plants may bloom a month or more, each individual flower lasts only a day.  Hence the name.  The bud opens in early morning, shouts floral joy into world all day long, then withers at dusk.  Surely some of them must bloom two days or longer, but I haven’t seen it.  I don’t despair, though.  There are still plenty more buds to open.  There are still plenty more days.

Yeah, day lilies are physical manifestations of the summer season that launch themselves into the world around the Summer Solstice, and then gradually fade with the gradual shortening of daylight.  Like summer heat, they seem relentless, overbearing, unending. . . but their days pass much sooner than we expect.  So if you’ll excuse me, I’ll sign off now.  The day lilies are marking time, and there is still so much I want to do this summer.

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Jul 05 2010

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Pagan Fishing

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This is more hunting than fishing, really.  The trick isn’t trying to hook the trout, but sneaking into position without spooking it.  The water in the pool is crystal clear and the bigger fish in it are wary – especially this time of year.  Oh sure, you can walk along the edge of a pool, casually cast your fly onto it, and most likely get a fingerling to rise.  But if you want the big guy in there, you’ll have to try harder than that.  You’ll have to sneak up on the pool on your hands and knees.

While you move into position, mosquitoes and other biting insects have their way with you.  Sweat drips from your brow.  Negotiating the jumble of rocks that define the brook is harder than you think – especially if you’re trying to keep a low profile.  If you’ve been at this more than an hour, your boots are wet and your pants are muddy.  Not that you care.  You’re immersed in the wildness all around you now, so being wet, dirty, bug-bitten and sweaty feels right.

Yeah, the boundary between self and other began to blur the moment you set foot on this brook.  The forest embraced you, the rushing water sang its Siren song, and you forgot about that other life back in the lowlands – if only for a few hours.

At first you stood tall and proud next to the brook, casting your line with benign indifference.  But now you are hungry for it.  Now you are down on your hands and knees, creeping forward like a predator.  The one you lost a few minutes ago awakened your senses.  The unexpected splash that soaked your floating fly stirred something deep within you.  So now you are creeping forward, praying to the gods of moss-covered rocks and fast-moving water for one more chance to match your reflexes against those of that aquatic phantom.

When a torpedo-like shadow darts across the pool then disappears, you know you’ve missed another one.    But there’s another pool just above this one where you can try again.  So you get up and move forward as slowly as possible, slipping into position once again, studying the intricate details of yet another beautiful pool.  Then you launch your line into the air, sidecasting back and forth beneath overhanging branches, finding your mark before dropping a fly on it with all the hope that exists.  And for a split second you are that fly, gently floating with the current until wham! a toothy mouth breaks the surface and clamps down.  Then the fight begins.

It’s more religion than sport, really.  You call it recreation but deep down you know it’s more than that.  Much more.  You don’t just ply the water for trout, you worship it.  Every cast is a leap of faith.  Every new pool is fraught with possibility.  And as long as you keep moving forward, everything is right with the world.

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