I'm riding down some back road with two sandy-headed girls-- one seven, one four-- in the back seat, bluegrass music turned up loud and the windows down. We're not going anywhere in particular, just driving and jamming. Puffy clouds are drifting in the wild blue skies over hay fields and cow pastures. The girls are watching fence posts and mailboxes flying by, pointing at donkeys and cows and a new house being built in a clearing where a peach orchard used to be. They're laughing and cutting up in the back seat, dancing to the music playing on the radio. They ask if we can stop at the store and get an ice cream, and I tell them we will. Turn here, they say and we cross the river bridge and start around the big curve. They both have their arms hanging out the windows, the wind making their arms flap like the wings of eagles. My girls are having the time of their lives, and so am I. This is about as free as you can get. We pull in the parking lot of the store, and they jump into my arms when I open the back door. Three orange push-up pops and we're back on the road, tires roaring on the asphalt again, headed to wherever they decide to go.
Monday, July 24, 2017
I saw an eagle today. A helmet of white covered its head, and the wingtips like fingers were stretched out to touch the wind. This is not a rare sight in these parts, not anymore. Up until the last few years, though, the only place you could see a bald eagle was in a zoo somewhere, or if you were lucky, maybe you could catch a glimpse of one in the Smokies. My wife saw one twice in the last year, flying over the swamp near our house.
The first time I saw an eagle in the wild, I was bass fishing, just off of a rocky point where giant long-leaf pines stood, casting their reflection on the water. I had just poured my second cup of coffee, and laid my thermos bottle down on the casting deck, when I heard the screech from above. I looked up into the treetops and locked eyes with the biggest winged creature that I had ever seen. I froze. It's eyes were sharp, I could see the talons wrapped around a limb as big around as my leg. It peered down into the water below, leaned forward and dove out of the tree like a missile. For a second there, I thought he was coming after me, but instead, he snatched a bass-- better than the ones that I'd been catching-- and flew back up into the tree.
I sat there and watched until I could tell I had worn out my welcome. I wish that I had had a camera.
There's a small airfield that I pass on my way home everyday. The other evening, one of the small planes had just taken off, heading toward the mountains to the northwest. All I could think about was a bush plane, headed into a northern wilderness, carrying fly fishermen or big game hunters into the back country. Or a float plane, topping a snow-covered mountain top, descending to land on a hidden high country lake full of cutthroat trout.
I've always wanted to go on a trip like that, but that's quite a stretch for a poor boy like myself. I would watch old films of Fred Bear and Glen St. Charles, hunting the interior of Canada, the Northwest Territories and Alaska. At night, I would dream of boarding a plane to parts unknown with my recurve bow and a quiver full of arrows(and a Ruger Red Hawk!).
I made five wooden arrows and fletched them with turkey feathers. The shafts were as straight as I can get them. I glued on five razor-sharp steel broadheads. I spun an arrow in my fingers, simulating its flight. I watched the fletching turn in unison with the arrowhead, thinking about the moment I would release it into the air.
Monday, July 17, 2017
We're driving home after dinner this evening, watching the storm clouds build off in the west. As we crest a hill on the highway, in the distance I can see the purple contours of the Blue Ridge Escarpment under the bruised sky of sunset. This view never fails to make my heart beat slower, and it is oddly comforting, knowing that these hills have always been, and always will be. One can't help but feel protected from whatever lies beyond them. When I was a little boy, I thought that was the top of the world, that nothing existed beyond those hills except more hills.
Most of my family are from the Piedmont, the mill villages, the red soil where cotton grew and the rivers were slow and muddy. My father wanted to move up here, closer to the mountains, but not so close that you can't step back a little and enjoy the view. I have been here most of my life, and this is my landscape just as much as the flat farmland is to the south.
When we arrive home, darkness is gradually beginning to overtake our yard. I put my lab on her leash and take her out, despite her protest due to thunder rumbling off in the distance. The mosquitoes are welcoming me home. They are so glad to see me there in the edge of the yard, that they land on my bare legs in coveys while I wait for my dog to do her business.
The storm is getting close now, and the lightning is getting more and more intense by the minute. My dog drags me into the house, and nearly knocks the back out of her kennel to hide.
My daughters are now playing inside games, their ideas of chasing lightning bugs squashed by the inclimate weather.
In my recliner now, I pick up a book of collected nonfiction by Jim Harrison. Though my wife hopes the storm ends soon, I secretly pray that it lingers, at least long enough for me to read a few essays before bed.
Saturday, July 15, 2017
In my library, I have several books on foraging and survival skills. One of my favorites is Camping and Woodcraft by Horace Kephart. There are many guides of edible and medicinal plants, water purification, and magazine articles on shelter building skills. But having all of this information at my fingertips doesn't do me any good if I don't get my hands dirty from time to time, practicing these skills. Not only does it make me feel more confident in the woods, but it is a lot of fun, too.
I would like to think that if I had to, I could survive and provide for my family from the woods and waters around here. I could probably kill plenty of squirrels or catch enough fish to feed us for a little while, but it would be a full time job, especially with a wife and kids.
On The Fourth of July, though, I witnessed something that gave me a whole new perspective on survival-- actually watching someone having to forage for food on the streets of Greenville. This is what I like to call A Chamber of Commerce Moment. The side of a city that people don't want to see.
A huge crowd was gathering, as Greenville prepared for their annual Red, White and Boom! celebration. Hundreds of people were standing out in front of the Westin Poinsett, awaiting the big fireworks display, and here was this man, a ragged young man, digging through the garbage can, looking for something to eat or drink.
He pulled a styrofoam cup out of the can and removed the lid to check the contents, then he put the straw to his cracked lips and he drank it all.
People with their bottles of water, people standing there sipping their frappes and lattes, people wearing their red, white and blue outfits and Uncle Sam hats, people with their American flag T-shirts and their God Bless America buttons on their clothing, they just looked at him, and looked at him. Some watched in horror, some just looked away.
He put the empty cup back in the can, and stood there, head bobbing to the music playing on the streets. Kids were dancing and playing, eating their ice creams and funnel cakes, adults with wristbands were chatting and drinking their beer and wine in celebration, and there's this guy right there in front of them with a dirty sweatshirt and worn-out jeans and dreadlocks, foraging in the garbage can, right before their very eyes.
The man walked amongst the crowd for a few minutes and then disappeared.
I'm sure that I was not the only one there in that crowd, giving thanks for everything that I had. I couldn't imagine having to survive that way. I know that I would have to be pretty low to drink something I found in the garbage, but I would have to be absolutely on the verge of death to do it in front of people. I guess when it's a matter of life and death, there's no such a thing as pride.
This may sound strange, but in that moment, my hat was off to this guy for being a real survivor. I don't think I could ever be that tough. When you see someone like that, it's human nature to wonder what the person did to end up like that, but I honestly didn't even give that a thought. I just thought about how tough that has to be to live on the streets, or in some back alley, every day, and have to use whatever you can find to stay alive.
I have seen homeless numerous times before, but I think this guy served as a reality check for a lot of us gathered there on that sidewalk that July evening.
Wednesday, July 12, 2017
That's the name of a game we play here at our house at night. It's usually my wife who first hears something, then calls on me to go check it out. Fortunately for me, she puts a flashlight in my hand before she shoves me out the door and into the unknown. If I'm real lucky, she'll bring me my pistol--as if when I do run into something out there in the dark, I'll be able to shoot it and not myself.
Usually, it's cats messing around, or deer in the woods causing the dog to bark. That's what I try to tell her, but she doesn't buy it. "Cats don't slam car doors," she tells me. She's got me there.
There were several nights that we'd hear dead limbs snapping and it would sound like something was stripping muscadine vines out of tree tops on the other side of the creek. I'm pretty sure we have a bear hanging around, and whatever something that size wants to do in the dark woods is his or her business. I'll stand out back to listen and shine the light through the woods for a while until she gives me the OK to come back in. Sometimes I'll get spooked and ask her if I can come back in for my own safety. She usually let's me in.
I've found possums and feral cats and a big hornet beating around the back porch light. I've sat out in the driveway to ambush coyotes trying to get to our chickens. I've picked up turned over garbage by flashlight, looking over my shoulder the whole time.
I know that eventually I'll have to deal with something serious. One night I'll venture out to secure the perimeter and run into a bear, or maybe a cougar that SCDNR says does not exist.
I just hope that when I finally do meet Bigfoot face to face that my flashlight is bright enough to blind him temporarily, till I can either chamber a round, or get my wife to unlock the back door.
Monday, June 5, 2017
From the west, dark clouds move across the mountains and valleys bringing with them wind and rain and thunder and lightning. Water, running in rivulets down hillsides, filling ditches and indentations, swelling creeks and gutters. Hard rains pelt tin roofs of old barns and corn cribs and houses. Wind shakes these structures, thunder rattles window panes and lightning illuminates the landscape veiled in darkness by the great grey mass above the valley. The storm grows in both size and intensity, and the wind bends trees in all direction. The wind, though invisible, can be seen in the tops of trees, their leaves showing what the wind looks like. In a strong wind, every branch of a tree moves independently, each is effected differently. They sway and shake, some breaking, some only bending, but all of them effected by the wind. Lightning hits the hillside, runs through the earth tunneling, and splits a great pine to mere splinters as it makes its exit. The smell of fire and pitch along with the scent of warm rain fills the valley where the storm rages, pounding the ground with pellets of ice, tearing leaves and bark from trees, paint and glass from windows, and stalks of corn from the fertile soil. Lightning from cloud to cloud, cloud to ground, ground to cloud. Trees break, fall, split from bolts of electricity. Earth flies up, dirt and rocks fall back to the ground, along with balls of ice the size of large marbles. The bark, the shredded leaves, the splintered trees and ripped-off tin from barn and house litters the ground. The smell of pitch and sap, fire and ice and summer rain is blown around in the valley. Blinding light and great darkness from the sky causes all living things to hide in fear. Waiting out the storm is part of living. Just as sure as the storm overtook the valley, it leaves it, and the sun comes out and the sky is the bluest blue you have ever seen. All that is left of the storm is the evidence, the casualties littering the roads, the hillsides and the fields. In the distance, to the southeast, you hear the thunder, a freight train on the way to its next destination. You know there will be another one soon. There always will be.
Tuesday, May 16, 2017
Right now, a construction crew is working on demolishing the bridge over the South Tyger near my house. My son and I walked past the Bridge Out signs last week, just to take a look at the progress they'd made so far. The guard rails had been torn down partially, and the crew had put up erosion barriers to hold back the little bit of dirt they'd pushed around. The water under the bridge is shallow there, as that portion is being silted in. We talked about how great it would be if they would do a little dredging there, deepening the run like is was years ago, back when the bridge was a killer catfish hole.
About twenty-five years ago, I would stand on the bridge and catch channel cats by the dozen. Chicken liver slime marked the spot on the concrete rail where I'd cut chunks of bait, because that's the only bait I knew to use then. I'd drop my line down beside the pilings and wait to set the hook. With a jerk and a bowed rod, I would play the fish out from under the bridge and haul them up to me, dropping the perfect channels cats in a five-gallon bucket.
I kept every one I caught, and we'd save them up for a fish fry on hot Saturday evenings when all of the family would show up for a (free) meal. I never liked fillets of big catfish, they taste to much like the muddy bottom of a pond. I like smaller whole catfish-- minus the head, of course-- fried with the bone in 'em. Salt and pepper, battered and fried, please.
We'd go down there at dark, and fish for hours. It was nice just sitting down there, listening to the sounds of the river bottom on a warm summer night. What was left of the old, old bridge-- one that had fell in years ago-- was a good place to sit, fishing right off the end of it. The part of the old bridge sticking out over the water was a good place to put a folding chair and fish straight down into a deep hole full of bream and catfish. Now, if you stand in that spot, the nearest water is a trickle, seventy yards away. Another good fishing spot lost to hundred of tons of silt and sand.
This place has changed a lot over the years, some changes by nature, others by man. Just goes to show you how things don't stay the same. When I was a kid, I guess I thought it would always be like that, it would always be a good place to catch a few fish for supper. Now from the bridge, all you can see is the shallow water where the carp roll on hot July evenings. If you bushwhack your way upriver or downriver a ways, you may pick up a bass, or catfish or two, but I guess the days of filling the bucket with channel cats are over. That is, unless, mother nature decides otherwise. At least I have the memories.
Hopefully this new bridge with last for years, and provide safe travel for school buses and big trucks traveling across it. For a while now, buses from the school up the road have been going the long way around to avoid crossing it, according to what I read in the paper. Progress is good, run down bridges are bad, no matter if they're a good fishing spot or not.
Tuesday, May 2, 2017
He got me up early that Saturday, said the corn needed hoeing and weeds had to be pulled. I slid a shirt over my head and found my shoes. The old man was frying sausage and the smoke was thick in the kitchen. Biscuits were browning dark in the oven and I could hear the clock ticking in the hallway. My brother and sister, still laying in their beds, didn't have to wake yet. They would take their breakfast later, an hour or so after I would be hanging my sweat-soaked shirt on a locust post in the edge of the field.
I protested as he laid out the list of what he expected me to get done with before suppertime. But with the threat of the belt around his waist, I just looked down into the little saucer at the black piece of meat, then I split the biscuit in half and folded the hunk of sausage inside.
I kicked the screen door open and stomped down the back steps to the barn. The hoe was leaned up in one corner beside a sack of feed. In the shed on the back of the barn was the old flat- bottomed boat, and laying across the seat was my fishing rods. I picked one out, a Mitchell spinning outfit, and took my tackle box and slipped through the patch of pines behind the barn to the road and headed down to the river.
All the way down there, I kept looking over my shoulder, wondering how long it would be before he'd figure out I'd made a run for it. I cut through the wood just before the bridge and followed the water's edge upstream until I reached the shoal that I considered to be my base camp on the river. He'd never wade through all of the dense brush to get to where I am, I thought.
I dug around under the wet leaves until I found enough worms to fill the rusted soup can I found washed up on the sandbar. Also, there was a small bucket that said Sliced Pickles on the side that was in the weeds where people sometimes dump their trash out at night. Some people dump dogs and cats out at the bridge, and the old man warns about mad dogs wandering round down there, so I've always got an eye out.
I bait my hook and cast out, and like a dream the line thrums wildly and I jerk hard to set the hook, only to have the rig fly back at me like a bullet, the hook sinking into the meat on my left forearm all the way to the bend. I couldn't find my knife, so I had to ramble through my box to look for something. But all I had was a pair of catfish skinning pliers.
I chewed through the thick line with the skinning pliers, blood pouring down and dripping from my fingers into the sand and the water. With a hard jerk, I popped the hook out and wiped the blood on my shirt and jeans. The only other time I felt pain like that was when a sixteen penny nail rammed up into my heel when I stepped on the board it was in when we tore down the chicken pen.
After the blood stopped, I fished. I caught a couple of fat bluegills and a channel cat. I put some water in the pickle bucket and put the catfish in it. He'd probably have to be my supper later on, since I am a fugitive now.
If I waded out halfway across, I could see the bridge. Every time I'd hear a vehicle I would look to see what kind of car or truck it was.
Hours passed, and it was afternoon. He knew by now for sure that I had escaped the farm and was on the lamb. If he don't find me here, he'll wait me out. He always did in the past. He knew that I had to come home sometime, at least that's what he thought. But I planned on staying there.
I caught another nice channel cat, and I went to put him in the bucket with the other one, but I jumped back when I saw a snake pop up with my fish in his mouth that he was stealing. Since he had his teeth in it, I just let him keep it, and he disappeared into the brush. I kept my eye on the other fish after that.
The sun began sinking behind the hill across the river, and the sounds of the bottom lands grew louder and louder. I had already quit fishing, and I was sitting on the pickle bucket with the catfish in it, thinking of what to do. I was starting to think hard about whether I wanted to stay the night on the river, with God-knows-what out there in the woods surrounding me, or if I wanted to face the firing squad when I walked into the yard after skipping out on my responsibilities.
The sound had grown so loud at that point that I was having a hard time thinking, and my nerves were on edge. Then a sound broke through the shrill of tree frogs and insects-- the unmistakable sound of the old Ford truck that he drove. I could see the light in the distance as he stopped on the bridge. He was riding the roads to find me. Now I must decide if I should lay low for the night out there in the darkest of dark, or walk out into his headlights and surrender.
Wednesday, April 26, 2017
The lady across the street saw me standing in my driveway with a shotgun in my hand, camo from head to toe, and a full face mask. Now, anybody else would know it is turkey season, hence my choice in clothing and accessories, but not this lady, no, she doesn't know about things like that. I could tell by the look on her face that she was concerned as to what was going on.
Now this is the same woman that thought I had been using her water one month when her bill was more than normal, and then asks me to crawl under her house to check for a leak after I assure her that I hadn't been. After taking one look under her spider-infested crawlspace, I wish I'd told her yea, that I'd been running a hose across the road at night and watering my marijuana patch that she probably thinks I have growing on the creek.
I should've waved and lifted the net off my face just to let her know it was me and not some ISIS combatant about to put the drop on her, but I don't think. I just slipped into the woods as casually as I could, or like the ninja she thought I was. As I eased on, I could hear her talking on the phone, probably to her son, who would've been more afraid than she was.
I sat down under the big hemlock, close to where I saw turkeys feeding up the hillside the day before. The same hemlock that my wife sent me to to trim a few branches from for the Christmas wreath she was making. I remember that I was in my slippers and pajamas that cold December morning.
Easing my shotgun into position, I noticed a yellow rubber ball in the grapevines and running cedar below where I sat. My son punted it down in the woods years ago, and there it sits. It was about this time that I heard the girls squealing and laughing back up the hill at the house, on their swing set. I'm starting to feel like an idiot, hunting just yards away from where my dog takes a dump in the back yard. Some woodsman I am.
Speaking of taking a dump, my stomach started cramping, and I knew it wouldn't be long. I found myself thinking, Now should I just go in the house and use the bathroom, or be a real man and grab hold of two saplings and rare back, and clean myself up with leaves? If I do go in, do I take my mask off, or leave it on? And, what about my shotgun? If I leave it in the woods, will some rouge come by and steal it while I'm gone, or perhaps hold me at gunpoint with it and rob me?
I'm so close to the house that my wife doesn't have to open the door and yell, Supper's Ready! She can say it in a normal voice from the table and I can hear her from where I am sitting. Not exactly the back-of-beyond experience one would be looking for, but I was hunting.
As suburban as this setting seems, and as idiotic as I might be trying not to squawk the box call so loud as to stir the dogs up, I felt proud just to be sitting in the woods. Proud to be outside, just trying to interact with nature again. You know how it is.
You know how it is when you're depressed, and it robs you of everything you once enjoyed; how it makes you feel like there's no hope, no reason to get out of bed some days. Fear takes over and you're not the same person you were before. What was once very important to you seems like such a daunting task that you don't even bother. It's hard to immerse yourself in the woods when you are so deep inside of your own head. It's hard to escape that, but I did.
And gathering up my hunting gear and getting all camoed up was a big step for me. When I walked into the woods for the first time this year, I felt much like that prodigal son you heard about in Sunday school-- I had finally come home. So spending time hunting, no matter where, or by what ever means, is a big deal to me. Real big. For two years I didn't think I'd ever return to it.
As for my neighbor, she may as well get used to seeing a big, scary, gun toting booger walking the edge of the woods across the road from her house. It will just give her something else to be suspicious about.
Wednesday, April 12, 2017
Occasionally, the Earth will give up some of her secrets. If one should be so lucky as to stumble across one of those secrets, it can have a lasting impact on how that individual sees himself, and the world around him. History is not just the past, but our past.
On my way to a hunting stand one morning, my headlamp caught a glint of white, protruding from the red clay on the bank that I was crossing. I laid my recurve bow on the ground and took great care digging the point out of the mud, then wiped it off on my shirt tail. The serrated edge was as sharp as the day it was made, long before Europeans set foot in North America.
Over the years, I have found several points, each unique, bearing the mark of the one who made it. The smaller ones being bird-points, or true arrowheads, the larger were no doubt spear points, used with an atlatl, a device used to hurl the spear at game, or enemy in time of war.
They turn up in field edges after heavy rains, or on old logging roads. Sometimes the plow would bring them to the surface of the ground where we grew our garden. Though I have found a few made of chert or perhaps flint, most of the ones around here were made of quartz like this one. In a clearing just over the hill from here, I found three lying amongst a field of chipped quartz. They looked unfinished, possibly culls, seeing as how they never made it from the place they were knapped.
I tucked the arrowhead deep in my pocket, and continued to my stand.
Once I got situated, I pulled an arrow from my quiver, an Easton aluminum tipped with a Zwicky broadhead, and laid it across the string and rest. Feeling with my fingertips, I nocked the arrow and hung it on a nail I drove into the tree. I reached into my pocket and pulled the point out and studied it. My mind started to drift back to a time long ago, trying to conjure an image of the one who might have crafted the point, and I wondered if he was the one who would use it to hunt with. I pictured the arrowhead attached to a river cane arrow, hafted with sinew from a deer's hind leg and pine pitch, fletched with the feathers of a wild turkey.I also wondered if this man was a Cherokee, or one of the lesser-known tribes that inhabited the area before Columbus.
I felt a connection sitting there in the middle of the same woods, though I am sure it was dramatically different than the woods he roamed so long ago. I wondered if he was a successful hunter, or if he was like me, sort-of a screw up. No doubt that this hunter had a family or clan to feed, and just like my family, they counted on him returning home with a great story, even if he came home empty-handed.
Thursday, April 6, 2017
After a hard day on the job, I was ready to crash in front of the TV and watch a ballgame until it was time to go to bed. The Braves were playing the Padres that evening, and they had the lead, so I reclined my chair and laid the remote beside me on the floor. My very pregnant wife was over on the couch, trying to find a comfortable position to sit in, because her back was hurting. Tom Glavine was on the mound, and he was on fire! The Padres' bats were too slow for his fastball, and way too fast for his change-up.
I noticed my wife kept looking up at this ficus tree we had at the end of the couch, but I didn't think anything of it. Meanwhile, Glavine sat another one down and the Braves had Chipper up to bat. First pitch was low and outside. The next thing I knew, my wife had jumped up and was standing on the couch.
"I'm leaving you!" she cried.
God Almighty, I thought, What now?
"I'm leaving you if you don't get this snake out of our house!" She pointed at the tree, gagging, like she was about to throw up.
I turned to the TV, and sighed. I got up to look in the tree, pulling the fake branches apart. "There's no snake in here," I said, just before it poked his head out at me. The big black snake's tongue about touched my nose when it flicked it out.
I reached up and grabbed hold of the snake's tail and tried to pull it out of the tree, but it was no use. All six feet of it was wrapped around the fake tree trunk and most of the branches. I did manage to pull the tree out of the pot, as well as scatter moss from the base all over our living room floor.
My wife was losing her mind over in the kitchen, near the back door. When I finally got the snake unwrapped, it gave me the slip and slithered behind the couch.
After turning the couch over in the living room floor, the snake ran toward the kitchen, much to my wife's surprise. Luckily, I got a hand on it as it was side-winding across the linoleum.
"How did that thing get in the tree?" she asked.
"Probably in the moss," I said, "He's probably been in there the whole time.
Our entire house smelled like a skunk where the black snake had musked me as I struggled with it. Using my elbow, I opened the storm door and took the intruder outside. I turned it loose in the edge of the field, and as I walked back toward the house, my wife was on the porch, throwing the ficus tree over the rail into the front yard.
I have to hand it to the company that makes those trees; they are realistic. It fooled the snake, anyways.
As for my Braves, they won 11-1.
Friday, March 31, 2017
That morning, I paddled the cove, searching around fallen timber and boat docks for bass. The first one I hung into pulled my kayak around like a bathtub toy, even though he was no more than two pounds. I took a good look at the fish, then flipped him back into the tangled mass of brush that I'd pulled him out of. When I paddled back out away from the bank, I saw a man in a red kayak, working the shoreline toward me, although his only fishing rod was upright in the rod holder, and his hands were prodding the rocks, as if he was searching for something. I just watched him, wondering what he was looking for, and then when he pulled up a wad of mono with a Carolina rig attached to it, I knew he was a treasure hunter.
He looked to be around 70-- slender and tall with a white goatee and ponytail, earrings and tattoos, a stubby pipe puffing smoke as he paddled on around the bend to find another jewel.
When he looked up, I threw up my hand. He took the pipe from his teeth and said, "Morning, captain," and he paddled out toward me.
As he got closer, I could hear the faint sound of John Fogerty's "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" coming from inside his vessel. I wasn't real sure what he had in mind, but I was pretty much stuck when he pulled his boat up to mine and reached over and pulled our two kayaks together.
"Everything going your way this morning?" I asked.
"Ah yea, you know," he said, "just another beautiful day." He just sat there with his arm on the side of my boat, and we both looked out across the lake, taking it all in, I figured.
"You live around here?" I asked. I couldn't think of anything else at the moment.
"Yea, just down the road," he said, "I'm here every Saturday, just about." He put his pipe back in his teeth, "Smoke bother you?"
"No sir," I said, "go right ahead." I didn't want the old hippie to think I wasn't cool.
We talked about random things like the weather, the kayaks, fishing. We introduced ourselves, and we awkwardly shook hands. He showed me his finds from the morning: a Daredeville spoon, a Rat-L-Trap, and a chain fish stringer. I told him about the fish that I had caught, adding both weight and length to it, like all good fishermen do sometimes.
As I listened to the man with the white hair and kind eyes tell yarns, I felt at ease. He didn't know me from Adam, but he acted as if we'd been friends for years.
Soon, we talked about our family life, and even touched on religion a bit. I knew that this was a chance meeting, as if we were put there that morning for a reason.
We said our goodbyes, and he shoved off. As I watched him paddle away, I thought about how I'd like to be that kind of man one day-- a simple man that will take time to get to know a stranger, and share this thing called life with them. I hope to run into him again.
Friday, March 24, 2017
As Wildcat Creek slows and widens, just before it flows into what we call Tyger River Swamp, there is a stretch of water that is deep and full of stumps and fallen trees, as well as cattails and willows, making it nearly impenetrable, that is, unless you happen to be the kind of nut that will do anything or go anywhere to catch a fish. And if it so happens that you are warped enough to weave your way through the thick tangle, and get wet from head to toe, not to mention the possibility of coming face to face with snakes, snapping turtles, or the occasional rabid animal, you'd better be prepared to hang on, because there's no telling what you might catch, and there's no telling how big it will be. Sure it's a challenge to fight a five pound bass in heavy cover from the casting deck of a boat, but try it laying on your belly, half-submerged in mud, with a rod better suited to catch bream or crappies with, knowing all the time that it is an exercise in futility. It's not so much if you will break off the fish of a lifetime, it's when.
I've taken a lot of grief over the years for my lack of good judgement when it comes to waters deemed unsuitable to fish in by normal people. One man remarked that I'd rather wade through a swamp full of leaches to catch a warmouth, than to stand on the front of a brand new boat to catch a record-breaking striper or largemouth bass, but that's just how I am. I've even passed this trait on to my son, who is also a junk fisherman, as some have called it. Truth is, I get a lot of satisfaction sitting on a bucket in the middle of a swamp somewhere, swatting 'skeeters and catching bluegills that fit perfectly in the palm of my hand.
There is just something about fishing in those hard to get to places that intrigues me. I have often found that the rougher it is to bushwhack your way through, the greater the chances there will be a good payoff for your efforts, unless, that is, you get tangled up and can't get back out, or you drown.
My brother and I sliced our way out into the swamp one Saturday and once we reached the water, we had to wade two hundred yards out to get to where we could cast to where fish would be. The weeds were so thick that even a floating worm would snag, and we would pull fifty feet of weeds back on the retrieve. We figured that if we spent a couple of days pulling weeds and hanging them on clusters of bushes all around where we were standing, we'd have a pretty good spot to fish. One good thing, though-- after half an hour or so, the bass began to go nuts, and we couldn't make a cast without them nailing it, if we wanted to. We had a lot of broken lines and lost rigs that day, but we caught more bass that day than either one of us could've imagined.
My son is truly a swamp-rat. He will lay across a dead tree and fish a hole the size of a tractor tire, and catch all kinds of fish. He's an old live bait fisherman to the core, and he won't hesitate to rip off tree bark or dig around under the banks to find just the right bait to use. I wouldn't put it past him to pick maggots off roadkill, if he thought it would produce a fish (you'd never see that on one of those TV fishing shows).He knows that the key to fishing is the ability to adapt to whatever situation you're presented with. Getting wet and nasty, and maybe a little bloody, is just part of the adventure for him.
Soon--maybe this weekend-- I'll find myself knee-deep in mud and weeds, trying to coax a bream to bite. No, I won't catch a wall hanger or fill the freezer with fish, but I will have a good time. And as the sun dips behind the trees, and the frogs begin to sing, I'll look out through the flooded timber and be content.
Tuesday, March 21, 2017
I thought it was a good idea to begin with, but I had my first doubts when it became obvious that my brother-in-law had never been in a canoe before, seeing as how he tried to step into it, like he was boarding a pontoon boat. Not only that, but he was also the one with the shotgun, loaded to the gills with buckshot, and I knew from experience that he was more careless with one than my five year old son would've been. Piss poor judgment on my part.
We had a major beaver problem on our hands, or actually, in the creek that forms the boundary of our property. The beavers had built a series of dams and backed up water, creating stagnant ponds that would later serve as a giant mosquito hatchery. I'm not sure why we felt it was up to us to "put a stop" to this activity, but I'm pretty sure that it was mostly because we were bored. My brother-in-law had borrowed some beaver traps a couple of months before, and after a few setbacks-- like having to figure out how to remove his injured foot from one of said traps, after he accidently stuck the toe of his rubber boot through enough to trip it off-- we caught one. We even busted two of the dams enough to let some water out, but the beavers repaired them in a couple of days. So I suppose that's where the shotgun came in.
I'd bought my canoe the summer before, without any preconceived notions that I would use it in a swollen creek at night to launch a full-on assault on a colony of beavers. When I bought it, I had something a little more sane in mind, like say, fishing.
We used our Wheat lights to guide us to the ambush point, about thirty yards upstream from the big dam. I served as navigator, with my brother-in-law on point in front of the canoe. We got close, and I held on to an overhanging limb to steady us. I slipped the yellow nylon rope around it and tied us off. We turned out our lights and waited. And waited.
After sitting for two hours in a canoe, your legs hurt. Mine had went to sleep and woke back up thirty times, and he said that he believed that he was paralyzed from the waist down. Now, keep in mind I'm a big boy, and he was bigger than me at that time. I think the weight limit was 350, so we were about 300lbs overweight.
As we were about to abort the mission, a big ripple moved across the surface the water, and the block head of a big beaver was swimming right towards us. My big brother-in-law didn't give any warning, or give me a chance to steady the boat. He raised the gun and then shifted his weight suddenly to twist his body so he could make the shot, which threw us off balance. The last thing I remembered before going over backwards into the cold water was the shotgun going off. The next thing I knew, my comrade was fishing around for the shotgun which was down in the bottom of the creek. After going under completely, he came up with it. "I got it!" he said. Great.
There was no beaver to show for our efforts, in fact, I'm positive by that time it was back in its cozy lodge. We had a time getting my canoe out of the creek and I'm pretty sure I had stagnant water in my lungs that would eventually turn into pneumonia. When we got back to his house that night, he asked if we were going to try again sometime. I just said goodnight and went on home to dry out.
Friday, March 17, 2017
In the distance, just over the hill, I can hear the incessant caw-caws of crows, evidently upset about something. I leave the old gravel road-bed and follow a deer path through scrub-pines and eventually find my way to the clearing where thick woods gives way to an overgrown pasture. I can hear the fabric of my shirt-tail ripping as I pull free of briars that are waist-high around the field's edge. The crows continue to voice their concern, and as I reach the top of a terrace, I see them, ten or more. I stand still for a moment so as not to alert them of my presence, but I figure that whatever it is they're bothered by is more concerning to them than an out of shape, bushy bearded, lug of a man like myself. I sidle up the hill toward the tree line, and that's when I see the object of their grievances.
About thirty feet up in an oak limb, sits a hawk. He is as still as a statue, and he appears unconcerned about the verbal abuse and continuous dive-bombing from the gang of crows. The only movement he makes is adjusting his grip on the limb with his claws. He stares out at the field as if he's trying to think of something else, and his passivity seems to be pissing off the crows more by the minute.
The crows are not the only ones surprised by the sudden change of plans, and I stand there with my jaw hanging as he takes flight out over the field and then circles back right into the angry mob as if he's stirring the pot. The hawk turns and rolls and flies towards me, and two of the crows go with him. It's the oldest trick in the book. I want to tell the crows that this is a trap, that he wants you to follow him, but I snap out of it and remember who I am pulling for here.
Now, I've seen hawks being attacked by crows before, and I know that if a crow screws up and gets under the hawk, he's a goner. The dog-fight continues high above the overgrown pasture and then the hawk leads them into the tree tops again, like he's trying to lose them. When they come out of the woods they fly directly overhead, and I turn to watch the battle before they go out of sight again. But when I turn, I see the most incredible move on the hawks part, as he rolls up and snatches the lead crow with his talons like picking an apple from a tree, and after flying a little further, opens his claws and drops the lifeless bird like a pair of dirty socks rolled together.
Without his comrade, the other crow pretends that he is running out of gas and cruises behind the hawk like an honorary escort before falling back and returning to where he came from. I can hear crows cawing through the woods, and I imagine soon they'll gather for a funeral whenever the coast is clear.
The hawk has landed somewhere on the treeline down in the creek bottom, not far from the old gravel road-bed, where I'll soon be walking, on my way back to the house.
Monday, March 13, 2017
Yesterday, as we traveled the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway near Gowensville, we were amazed by the contrast of seasons on display in the landscape before us. In the foreground was the magnificent pink blossoms of peach trees in full bloom, with the ancient hills of The Dark Corner, covered in a dusting of March snow, as a backdrop. The mountains were shrouded in gray clouds near their peaks, making them look higher than they actually are. We didn't have a good camera with us, just the ones from our cell phones. I did manage to slow enough for Melissa to take a quick, off-handed shot with her phone. As usual, we were in a rush to get from one engagement to another, and didn't have time to stop for a while and take it all in.
Friday, March 10, 2017
From the back porch, where I sit with a cup of coffee on the rail and a notebook on my lap, I can see the dog-hobble covered bank of Wildcat Creek. As mundane as this place might seem to some people, it is a place where I draw a great deal of inspiration from. Mornings seem to be the most productive time for me, as I straddle the line between conscience and unconscious-- with one foot still in the dream world, I suppose. I've written pages upon pages here (mostly crap) just trying to figure out exactly what it is that I think.
It is in the evenings, though, that my mind begins to wander, and I find myself distracted with any sound or smell that reminds me of the past. This is usually when I catch a glimpse of him.
Laying cross-ways on a Persimmon tree that leans across a deep pool is a boy, no more than seven years old. His tattered jeans rolled up to his knees and his T-shirt covered in silt and mud. He is looking for minnows or crawfish, and when he sees one, he stabs at the water like one of the herons that he saw, stalking the edge for fish or frogs.
He slides back down the tree to the bank, where he wades through the vegetation and jumps down onto a sandbar. He picks up a stick and throws it into the pool, and after the splash, he makes the sound of a stick of dynamite going off. The boy reaches down and takes a handful of sand and pebbles, looking for gold nuggets or some sort of gemstone.
He has a minnow trap that he baits with tiny balls of Sunbeam bread or broken pieces of chunk dog food. He checks the trap and discovers that a crawfish has been captured. Reaching in carefully, he squeezes the critter behind the head and claws and brings it out of the basket. The crawfish somehow reaches around and pinches the side of his thumb, and the boy squeals and drops it into the water, where it disappears in a cloud of mud.
The boy wishes he knew the names of all the plants and songbirds he sees as he explores the creek bottom. He wants to know because he loves this place, and he loves everything in it, even the spiders and the snakes and the crawfish that usually get the best of him.
The creatures here expect nothing of him, and he always feels accepted. This is the only place that he can find peace. He can use his imagination to make up stories and pretend he's somebody else: an explorer or a soldier or an Indian. None of the worries or fears that he has exist out here.
I've put my notebook aside and now I'm walking the path along the creek bank, with just enough light to find my way. I push through the saplings and laurel and stand on the bank above a deep pool where a tree once leaned across. The last reflections of trees overhead are still on the water's surface.
As for the boy, he still haunts this place. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of him as I walk these woods.
Tuesday, March 7, 2017
I've sat among the hardwoods for many mornings, watching the sun rise and feeling its rays on my face as the first light filters through the trees. The woods slowly wakes and begins to come alive all around me. The birds rehearse their songs and the squirrels leave their warm nests to venture out and get an early start on their busy day. Sometimes, if you pay attention, you can hear a turkey gobble, or the sound of a pileated woodpecker off in the next holler. It's a scene that has been played out since creation. No matter what the circumstances are in our modern society, life in the natural world continues on.
Standing knee-deep in the cold water of a mountain stream, I am taken captive by my surroundings, feeling as if somehow I am becoming part of this place by merely standing still and allowing it to consume me. The sound of the rushing waters is soothing because after a while it begins to drown out all of the thoughts that I normally dwell on. Rivers have a calming effect on people, and it is said that in some cultures a troubled person would be taken there and left overnight to ease their minds and soothe their spirits. The Cherokees would walk into the river every morning in the ritual of "Going to Water", and they saw the river as a gift from the Creator.
Making my way through thick brush along the edge of an old hay field, I am startled by the sudden chaos of a covey of quail taking flight right in front of me. Though my heart has jumped into my throat, the exhilaration floods my soul with joy. This, to me, is a gift from God. Even the things that take me by surprise, like jumping a deer, or seeing a coyote heading toward me while sitting on the ground, with my back against a tree, is at last, a gift.
Archibald Rutledge called these things, "Life's Extras", and I fully agree with that. These are the type of things that stay with you, long after the adventure is over.
Saturday, March 4, 2017
We descended the steep slope down to Green Creek and followed the trail that runs beside it, stopping along the way to let the dogs drink where the sandbars were, or to gather large stones or small pebbles to add to rock cairns erected by past travelers in random places along the hiking trail.
That late September afternoon, the skies were cloudless, and ever so often, a slight breeze would drift through the hemlocks, making it the perfect day for a walk in the woods. We crossed Green Creek twice on foot-bridges, and began the gradual incline that carried us deeper into the forest and closer to our end point, the South Pacolet River.
My wife and I held hands and talked about both past and future adventures in this mountain cove, and I recounted for her the details of hunting trips, just over the mountain.
Two miles in and a half mile to go, my wife's hands started to tremble. Soon, her arms felt so heavy that she could not lift them to brace herself on a oak tree. She told me how dizzy and sick to her stomach she was, and I told her we'd turn back, but she said that she'd never make it. I tried not to show signs of fear or panic, but the fact of the matter was that it would be nearly impossible for me to carry her back to the car, even though she is a small woman. She felt it was best that she sat down, and she did.
Sometimes she gets that way if she hasn't eaten, and that morning she skipped breakfast. We were foolish, in that we didn't bring a single thing to eat, only two bottles of water. I mentioned walking back myself and rifling through our car to find anything-- a few spilt peanuts, a Lance cracker between the seats, a single piece of peppermint candy.
She wouldn't let me; she didn't want to be left alone there, and I couldn't blame her.
Now, it was up to me to find something out there that would help her, but for a few moments, I just froze. I racked my brain, trying to think of some plant that I could give her for her condition, but I could think of nothing. Then my nose gave me an idea. The sweet aroma of rotting muscadines led me to a vine, high up in a pine bough. I tried to shake the vine, but no luck. All I could come up with was a small handful of black, wrinkled fruit.
I gave her one to chew up and swallow, then another. Soon, she was able to stand, and with another in her cheek, she was able to slowly make the trek back to our car.
We learned a valuable lesson that day. We learned to never leave home without something to eat in an emergency, even if it's just a Snickers or granola bar. The other thing we learned was that sometimes the things we take for granted can save your life and help you make it back home.
Wednesday, March 1, 2017
It was the first day of spring, and I was taking Chase bream fishing. The weather had been warm for several weeks, but the water was still nice and chilly. "It might be too early for them to bite," I told him, just in case they didn't. It's hard enough to keep a six-year old's attention, especially if there's not much action.
Bream are temperamental little creatures, and if for some reason they don't want to bite, you can hang it up. You can, however, aggregate them enough that they will go into a feeding frenzy, but it takes a great deal of begging on certain days. This particular day they were in one of those moods. I started working the deep under-cut bank of the creek we were on, and they just weren't getting the idea. My son was losing confidence in me, and fast.
Unexpectedly, something took my offering and nearly jerked my spinning rod right out of my hand. I saw a silver flash under the surface as I lifted the rod to pull in the fish. I was thinking bass or a monster chain pickerel, until I saw the silvery sides with a pinkish tinge-- it was a rainbow trout.
First of all, this warm water creek in the foothills of Greenville County was not somewhere you'd expect to find a trout. The water is too slow moving with massive amounts of silt and debris for a trout to survive for long. The only explanation I could think of was that someone must've caught a trout up in the Saluda and didn't want to clean it, so they threw it in at the bridge above us.
The fish was a nice one, 14 inches. I threw him in the bucket, his mistake. On the next cast, same thing-- 14 inch rainbow. My son and I both had trout at the same time, both of those, near 14 inches. I had to be dreaming. We stopped and took the bucket of trout to show my dad, who said we were liars. My brother-in-law went back with us, and caught a few, as well.
We were starting to feel guilty for the luck we were having, (not really) so we quit while they were still biting and made a pact in blood that we wouldn't tell anybody else about our honey hole.
The next day, same thing. I talked my dad into going with me after work. After all the junk he talked, he wanted to catch a few, too. We walked down the bank together, and I showed him where to drop his baited hook in. A trout grabbed it and he fought the fish out from under the bank. When he went to lift the fish, he stepped in a stump-hole up to his thigh and fell backwards, and the fish landed on his chest and flopped around until I could stop laughing long enough to help him up.
We caught trout there until the water became to hot in mid-summer. Nobody believed us.
A few years later, a man that lives up the creek from us said he'd heard we caught a ton of trout on our end of the creek. He said another neighbor had mentioned this to him and this was the first time he had the opportunity to ask me about it. He thought it was a joke, until I confirmed it.
He had a friend from a hatchery stock rainbow trout in two beaver ponds behind his house, not realizing they wouldn't stay put. He said he thought the raccoons were eating them, because he wasn't seeing any trout, and they weren't eating the trout chow he was throwing out for them. What had happened, evidently, was they washed over or through the dams in one of the heavy rains we had, right down the creek.
He was a good sport about it as I described our fishing adventures at his expense. He said it made a good story, at least. I told him to give me a call the next time he decided to stock his beaver ponds so I could get the grease in my fish-fryer hot.
Monday, February 27, 2017
There are places that I have come across while exploring wooded areas that are beyond explanation. Whenever I find myself in such a place, I often wonder what it is that causes me to feel uneasy, as if there is some sort of unrest due to something that had occurred there in the past. Could it be that it's all in my head, that I've watched too much TV and have let my imagination run wild? Or is it something else?
A bit of a disclaimer here: I don't particularly believe in ghosts or anything of the sort. But I would entertain the possibility of a traumatic event having an impact on a place. I've heard stories about battlefields, such as Gettysburg and Chickamauga, or even the Alamo. My wife gave an account of the overwhelming sense of sadness she felt at Arlington National Cemetery. These are all places where great tragedy and loss has been a part of the history, and the ghosts, real or imagined, have remained.
There is a certain spot up on a mountain between Glassy and Hogback in the Dark Corner that I found while hunting one late November evening. Half-way up a trail that crosses the top of this ridge, I entered a clearing where most of the trees had died and we're lying on the ground like gray skeletons. There was nothing growing there, except moss that carpeted the ground in places, and the fungi that was feeding on the dead timber. But the dead trees and mushrooms wasn't what bothered me.
Just up the hill from where I stood was a overhang, a rock shelter. I knew from the stories that I'd heard that bootleggers once used these shelters to house their materials like sacks of sugar and yeast. There was a hollow oak tree, possibly the biggest one that I have ever seen, in the flat where I was standing. It looked dead too, but it seemed to be standing guard over this place. I stood there and marveled at its height and girth, and then this strange sensation came over me that I couldn't explain.
It wasn't like I was being watched, it was just that I felt that I shouldn't be looking around up there. I found myself looking at the ground more than anything. I couldn't bring myself to go on up the hill toward the shelter like I had originally planned. It was like I was trespassing in a place that was off-limits to the living. Though the hair on the back of my neck was standing up, I wasn't really afraid. I just knew that something was not right.
I felt that something had taken place there, something besides making corn whiskey. On that particular piece of land, there are many remnants of old still sites, as there are all over the Dark Corner. That's not unusual for that area.
Perhaps someone like myself had once wandered up there and didn't make it off of that mountain. Or it could've been some sacred spot for the Cherokee that at one time inhabited the area. Possibly their was some tragedy that took place there many years ago. Whatever it was, I felt that something was letting me know that it would be best left in the past.
Friday, February 24, 2017
There came a point where all of the things that I was once passionate about didn't matter anymore. My mind was filled with negative thoughts, and I could not bring myself to be happy. I didn't want to fish , because all the quiet time gave my mind the freedom to ruminate on things, and I would sink even deeper into despair. I no longer wanted to hunt because, truthfully, I didn't know if I could trust myself in the woods with a loaded gun. I hated myself, and everything about me.
My dear wife took the weight of my infirmity on her shoulders. She kept me from completely giving up when I really wanted to. At her request, I finally sought help, and within a few weeks, I started to feel some better. Although I was making progress, I was still hesitant to do things that had brought me so much pleasure before. The strangest feeling of fear and dread would come over me when I would think about my life and what was waiting for me up around the next bend. I know all of this sounds crazy, but if you've ever been there, you know what I'm talking about.
Then, one August afternoon, the fog lifted for a few moments, and I knew exactly what I had to do. I told my wife I would help her pack our things, and I made a phone call to the KOA above Travelers Rest and reserved a tent site. I opened up my storage shed and pulled out our tent and air-mattresses. I found our Coleman lantern and an extra bottle of propane and loaded it all in the back of our car. For the first time in months, I had a sense of purpose.
We unpacked the car and went to work, setting up the tent and getting a fire going for supper. After we ate, my wife and kids and I sat by the fire and watched the flames dance as they consumed the hickory and oak pieces, sending up sparks and a plume of smoke into the canopy of giant hardwoods.
The flame had lulled me into some sort of a trance, and I could feel the smoke washing over me. I felt the smoke begin to draw out of me all of my suffering and sorrow and carry it away, up into the clear night sky. I felt my heart slow and everything within me grew still.
After the fire was out, we crawled into the tent and I unzipped the fly overhead so that I could see the stars through an open spot in the treetops above. I could still smell the woodsmoke and felt the soft breeze drifting in through the open sash. That night, I slept better than I had in months. I had finally found some peace.
Wednesday, February 22, 2017
Once upon a time, I became the father of a healthy and happy baby boy. I watched him grow, and saw that same curiosity in him that I had as a boy. This pleased me. He wanted to know about everything that crawled of flew or swam. He was cut from the same slab of bedrock that I was.
When I felt the boy was mature enough, I told his mother that it was due time I teach him the ways of a fisherman. She gave in, and I made preparation for this rite-of-passage, as old as man himself.
To commemorate this occasion, I purchased the best equipment I could afford, which turned out to be a Spiderman rod and reel combo, complete with tackle box and that little thingy that comes tied to the end of the line, so that one can scare all of the fish away on the first cast. The boy was a quick learner, and within a few tries, had managed to break a glass figurine on the entertainment center, and made a perfect cast into the blades of turning ceiling fan. I was quite impressed with the durability of the rod as it bounced off objects at twenty mph and at the strength of the line, which must've been equal to seventy pound test, due to the deep cuts on my hand from trying to jerk it loose once I managed to catch the rod.
Finally the day arrived, and the boy and I made our first trip to a farm pond in Blue Ridge. A lot of rocks were thrown, and both fish and birds were put on high-alert by the boys energetic antics. But when a fish let it's guard down enough to feed again, it mistakenly took the worm I had threaded onto the boys line, and the fight was on. From the moment he laid eyes on that first bream, he was obsessed.
Over time, I taught the boy everything I knew about how to catch fish. That was a big mistake on my part. Had I known then that he would bypass the whole taking the pebble from my hand thing and going straight to showing me up, I would've kept it all to myself. Before I realized what I had done, the boy said something akin to The student has become the teacher, or some crap like that. From that day on, he made it a point to out-fish me, and didn't mind telling everyone we met, either. I couldn't talk about fishing with my friends while he was around. It was, and continues to be, embarrassing.
A couple of years back, we were fishing for trout in the South Saluda; me with my fly rod and the boy with his ultralight and bucket of worms. He'd caught five fish to my one, and was making a point to remind me that my spinning rod was in the car if I needed it. I think the final slap in the face was when I was explaining the finer points of fly fishing for trout. He side-armed his worm into a pool upstream from us while I was still babbling on like a used car salesman, and hooked a big rainbow. I had to move out of the way so he could reel it in.
So if you are a fisherman that has a young son or daughter or niece or nephew, and you're considering teaching them to fish, my advice is don't do it. And if you find yourself in a situation where you have to let them tag along, tell them nothing. A simple yes or no answer will suffice if they ask any questions.
Monday, February 20, 2017
As you read the entries in this blog, you will notice that a recurring theme in my writing is water-- particularly rivers.
I have fished for trout in the most pristine waters of the Blue Ridge, and fished for striped bass and largemouth in some of the best known impoundments in the southeast. I have paddled the black water swamps and fished tidal creeks along the coast. But no matter where I go, no matter what body of water I find myself on, in my subconscious mind, I'm somewhere in the South Tyger watershed. The namesake of this blog, Wildcat Creek, flows into it. It was on these waters that I found my place in the outdoors.
A river is often used as a metaphor for life, and I understand why. It is hard for me to be in or around moving water and not wax poetic. In fact, I have written poems about rivers, and when I dream, it is often about rivers. I had a man tell me one time that if for some reason he can't get out on the river and paddle his kayak, he'll just sit on the toilet and flush it, so that he can feel the water moving underneath him.
In A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean says, "I am haunted by waters." I personally find that statement to be true in my life. Waters haunt me. Rivers haunt me. As the waters flow, so does the passage of time.
The South Tyger is no Blackfoot, but my memory takes me back there time and time again. Memories of my Dad taking me fishing on the river there. My brother and I bushwhacking our way through the swamp and wading out waist deep to fish for bass that nobody else on earth was crazy enough to go after. My son's first bass, a five pounder he caught on a Spiderman rod and reel in Lake Robinson.
I have watched the water rise and fall, open water turn into land. I have seen houses spring up all around Lake Robinson and Cunningham, turning it into a suburbia. The photo with this post was taken from J. Verne Smith Park, at Lake Robinson dam, and today when I took it, the place was crawling with people from all walks of life. There was more boats than I thought I would ever see on that lake. But amidst all of that, there was the waters, and beyond it, the Blue Ridge Mountains.
This is my home water.
Saturday, February 18, 2017
The morning fog was lifting in the mountains and the sunlight had began to filter through the trees. I turned off the asphalt highway onto the gravel road. The only other vehicle in the parking area was an old International Scout, so I took a few minutes to check it out as I slung my pack over my shoulders and grabbed my hiking staff, and then started walking.
I walked for a few minutes, and up ahead, I saw an old man and a dog. The man was sitting on a big rock, and his dog was just standing there beside him. The old man looked to be in his seventies, he had a wild grey beard and a floppy hat and glasses as thick as Coke bottles. His shirt was unbuttoned to his navel, and had white chest hair and a gold rope chain hanging out.
"Beautiful day, ain't it?" he said.
"Looks like you're headed to the top," gesturing at my pack.
"Guess so," I said, "You too?"
"Nah, this is enough for me. But I can't think of a holier place to be on a Sunday morning than up here in these mountains."
I was relieved that he wasn't going any further. I didn't want anyone finding out where I was going.
"Nice talking to you," I said as we parted, then I pushed on.
A while later, I cut off the foot trail and made my way through the laurel hell to the creek. I tried my best not to leave any clues as to how to find the place that I was headed to.
When I got down there, I unpacked my six-piece flyrod and box of flies. The smallest Adams I had was a size 18, so I tied it on. I tried not to cast any shadows on the water and keep myself concealed as I approached the water.
Thick hemlocks and rhododendrons shaded the branch, keeping the water dark and cool. I gently dappled the fly on the water's surface and gave it enough line to drift down into a small pool. Just the slight twitch it made when I touched the line with my fingertips was enough to get one of the native Brook, or speckled trout, as we call 'em here, to pop my fly, and pulled the fiesty little devil in by merely lifting the rod tip. I held him in my hand just long enough to admire his greenish back and mottled red and yellow specks on his sides.
He fled back to the shadows, and I just sat there a spell, looking up into the trees all around, and listening to the water gurgling over the rocks. The old man was right, I thought, there is no holier place.
Thursday, February 16, 2017
As I fought my way through the thick brush down in the creek bottom, I could hear Al, my Walker coonhound, treeing hard up on top of the ridge. I found a good place to cross the creek, and began my climb up the steep hillside to get to where he was. I had to grab onto saplings to help myself up in places. Losing traction and falling backwards down the long slope would be deadly, so it was important to stay low to the ground and hold on when possible.
My dog had treed in an ancient white oak, so big it would've taken three grown men to reach around the trunk. When I finally got to him, he was still dead after it, taking runs at the tree, biting anything hanging down, shaking the massive vines that ran down the trunk. He knew the coon was up there, and he was doing anything he could think of to get it to come down. Pieces of shredded bark incircled the base of the tree and Al had blood and slobber all over his mouth.
I got back from the tree with my Wheat light and shined every limb, looking for the coon. Al's voice was almost gone, and I could see how exhausted he was, but he wouldn't quit. And even though I was starting to doubt that there was a coon, I kept searching. I owed him that.
Finally, as I shined the tree once more, I caught something out of the corner of my eye. In the fork of a big limb was the coon, looking at me like he'd been there all the time. I slid a bullet in the chamber of the .22 I had slung over my shoulder and took aim. The report of the rifle made Al stand still, and when the coon hit the ground, he worked it over.
We rested on top of the ridge afterwards. I rubbed Al's head and looked up into the night. I had never seen the stars so clear and bright before. I never would've dreamed that this would be the last time we'd do this together.
The next morning, I went outside to feed him, but he didn't come out to greet me like usual. I reached in and rubbed his head one last time and thanked him for all of the nights we roamed the hills together.
Tuesday, February 14, 2017
As my son and I were ascending the steep and rutted trail leading up to Chestnut Ridge one particularly raw December morning, I felt my heart muscle quivering in my chest, and I became sick at my stomach. I thought I was about to pass out. I wasn't aware of it at the time, but what I was experiencing was actually an episode of a-fib ( atrial fibrillation), something that I wouldn't be diagnosed with until two years later, lying flat on my back in a hospital bed, scared out of my mind.
Chase and I were headed to a spot that I had found while roaming around up there the week before. I thought it would be the perfect place to take him deer hunting, and I'd be able to keep my eyes on him at all times.
When I stopped in my tracks and placed my hand on my chest, he asked me what was wrong. I didn't dare tell him. I figured that the last thing I needed was for my twelve year- old son to start freaking out on me up there in the mountains.
I was joking with my wife the night before our big trip that if something happened to me up there, he'd have to quarter me up and pack me out, one piece at a time. Standing up there on that mountain with my heart beating erratically, it didn't seem quite as funny. I didn't have cell phone service, and we were two miles from the truck.
We went on around the bend and I found a place for us to sit, looking down into a small gorge. We leaned our backs against two oak trees, using the thick laurel as cover. After about ten minutes, my heart began to beat normal again. We stayed there for about two hours after that and didn't see any deer moving, which I could've cared less anyway. I talked him in to calling it a day, and we eased back down the mountain and headed home.
Sunday, February 12, 2017
This is a blog about life in the outdoors of Upcountry South Carolina.
Come along with me as I fish a cold mountain stream for trout, or hike into the rugged back-country and set up camp, far away from the lights of town. We'll find a good spot in the woods and get ourselves into position to call up a gobbler, or raise our bows to take a shot at a whitetail deer. Or, we could just take a seat around the campfire and talk for a while.
My goal here is not to give technical advice on things, or endorse any product. Simply put, my goal is to entertain you. I want to make you laugh, make you cry, maybe teach you a little something along the way, but most of all, I want to tell you a story.