Monday, February 27, 2017

A Place of Unrest

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

Watching The Smoke Rise

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

On Teaching A Boy To Fish

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

Home Waters: South Tyger River

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

Hemlock Cathedral

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.

"Yessir."

"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

That Night on the Ridge

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

A Matter of the Heart

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

Welcome to Wildcat Creek Journal

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.