Wednesday, December 16, 2015

EVERY DOG HAS HIS DAY

As morning light threatened, we abandoned the house in practiced silence, save for a shrill whistle and the rhythmic clinking of a field collar. Its owner, Tucker, a sprightly, peppery English setter, rode the truck’s back bench-seat well. Curled in a ball of muscular fur and tradition, his position was suggestive of the grit that often characterizes upland hunting and its participants. I diverted my gaze.

    The winter sun was veiled by clouds and fog, presenting the day in a melancholy haze. A half-hour drive landed us on the brushy banks of the James River, at a boat landing in the Hardware River Wildlife Management Area. The lot was empty, and with reason. Migratory woodcock had long since abandoned the tangled successional growth of the riverbottom for the swampy groves of the Old South, squirrel and deer season had withered, and February’s biting personality had fishermen frightened from the banks of the meandering river. For the season, the secrets of the almighty James seemed secure under a thick haze.

An early bird hunt.
    Tucker glided out of the back door tenderly. Dad corralled him to adjust his collar and behold his soft, wispy ears. Few words were uttered before the morning commenced with a locating beep from Tucker’s collar and our shotgun-toting footsteps crunching upon frost-bitten cut corn.

    The weather on such days is enough to draw my thoughts inward and leaden my tongue in meditation, but there was something more spiritual at play in the bottomland. We followed our four-legged guide closely, observing him peruse cover, rather than observing the cover he perused. A cottontail dashed from cover. Tucker ignored it from good training. We took little note, our reflexes jaded by thought.

    The communal element to bird hunting was as clouded as the sun, as Dad looked forward to Tucker for conversation. I understood. More than a decade’s share of memories tied the companions. From cool Minnesotan nights, to fast-paced grouse shooting in the snow-blanketed forests of the upper-Midwest and Virginia highlands, their relationship was one of mutual dependency. Second only to a common love for grouse and woodcock, Tuck’s affinity for crisp northern nights and his habit of filching laps of scotch from his Master’s unattended glass mortared a friendship only strengthened over years working for each other.
Training time, with a harnesses bobwhite quail.
    Of course, the memories I perceived pouring from my father’s pensive eyes were imparted to me only as nostalgia. My relationship with Tucker was different. He was introduced to our household just months before I. It was he who provided much of my transportation in my pre-walking years, dragging me about the wood floors of our Fluvanna County home by the stocking feet of my pajamas, and hauling my saucer-sled over fresh powder by a leash fashioned as a harness. I hunted over him—rather, pointed over him, with my training cap shotgun—as a young boy. Still, most memorable was his good-natured spirit that established him as a childhood friend and shot-gunning companion.

    We entered the fourth in a chain of linked, riparian corn fields when we made the decision to turn back. Our halt lit the flame under the hooves of a 12-point buck bedded on the field’s edge. The morning’s first audible words were spit in reflexive excitement.

    The shadow that loomed over us soon returned, our hunt half over.

    Tucker’s senses roped him from the intricacies of the field to the cover of the tangled riverbank, where, after nosing methodically, he uncovered the magnificently large shell of a river cooter. I dusted it off and found it a place in my pack.

    It was New Year’s Day the last time Tucker yielded me a prize of his own industry—a chukar taken on the wing from a game preserve in Southside Virginia. That was a different hunt—one lively and filled with comradery. He zig-zagged cover unrestrained, ears bouncing loosely in the frosted sun, feet treading deftly, on track to a bedded bird. At dusk, we collected our party and turned back. 

    Tucker plodded exhaustedly in the lead, but caught our immediate attention when he froze mid-step, convulsing briefly.


    As we approached the truck, the oppressive haze seemed to lift. Conversation emerged and colored our unloading and packing as a statement of burdensome acceptance. With the fading light in the riverbottom, yet another Virginia grouse season would be retired to the pages of sporting memories in the mountains—but we were not hunting for grouse. There is no grouse season this far east. We were hunting for a memory. All three hunters recognized that the brain tumor that was steadily revealing itself in our beloved setter with every soulful step would make this season a concluding one, and this hunt, a final chapter—an epilogue worth writing and cherishing, forever.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

PROPOSED WASTEWATER DISCHARGE AT BREMO THREATENS JAMES

On Tuesday, December 1, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ) hosted a public hearing at Central Elementary School in Fluvanna County to permit the “dewatering” of coal ash ponds at the Bremo Bluff Power Plant on the banks of the James River, not far from Fork Union. The proposed permit would allow Dominion to discharge arsenic, hexavalent chromium, selenium, and several other metals into the river with little or no prior treatment.

    Previously Virginia’s oldest coal-fueled power plant, the Bremo Bluff operation was converted to a natural gas-powered facility in June of 2014, which brought an improvement to the Commonwealth’s overall air quality.

    Now, just over a year later, the proposed wastewater treatment practice promises to harm the water quality of our nation’s river.

    The process of “dewatering,” simply, is the process of removing liquid from solid substances in wastewater mixtures. As it stands, Dominion’s draft permit is a reissuance of a previously-existing permit that now proposes to release cooling water and treated industrial wastewater associated with the fallow coal ash ponds from the plant’s coal-burning years into the James River at Bremo Bluff.

    In a press release by the James River Association (JRA) advertising the results of the hearing, a few concerns were voiced.

    First, the draft permit is in violation of the Clean Water Act. JRA brings further attention to the fact that the permitting limits established by the VDEQ are significantly higher than those set in other states, and are inefficient in preserving the aquatic ecosystem and public health. The James River supports nearly a third of Virginia residents living in 39 counties and 19 towns and cities, who depend upon its water for drinking.

    Second, there is no mention of endangered species considerations in the draft plan. The Endangered Species Act, as it has the power to influence regulations for land- and water-use practices that even slightly impact the vitality of a struggling species, is a major player in many environmental protections cases, and will likely be a popular arguing point for commenters on this issue.

    It is worthy of note that the James River, in the most recent State of theJames report, was given a B- rating for overall ecosystem health, pooling several contributing factors. Furthermore, wastewater pollution control, specifically, was given a rating of over 100 percent, citing facility upgrades and the resulting improvements in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution reductions, which places the James well ahead of schedule for goals set as part of the Chesapeake Bay Cleanup.

    Still, in its most recent State of theBay assessment, the Chesapeake was rated a D+ for overall health, with a slow pattern of improvement.

    Though, according to these popularized reports, the James is a relatively healthy environment from a water quality perspective, as always, it is important that we think progressively. The James River scores higher than the Bay, but far from perfect. There is still work to be done, and setting beneficial, responsible precedents in environmental policy is an important first step.


    The public comment period on this draft permit will remain open until December 14, 2015. Written comments may be submitted to Beverley Carver at Beverley.carver@deq.virginia.gov. Letters may be mailed to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, company of Beverley Caver.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

REDISCOVERING THE HOLIDAYS

The holiday season, among other things, reminds us of the intrinsic values of the finer things in life—friends, family, health, peace. However, alongside that humble tradition, we’ve incorporated a more destructive cultural practice.

    America writes its shopping list in the weeks preceding Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the floodgates are opened the Friday following Turkey Day—Black Friday, a marketing ploy both loved and hated to a high degree.

    The infectious lifeblood of frenzied consumerism that courses through our country’s veins is unleashed, sweeping away Thursday’s reminders of the importance of the simpler pleasures with sale prices and limited time offers. You should take this description with a grain of salt, though. I never was much of a shopper.

    Particularly these days, as a “financially limited” college student who spends the majority of the year a few hundred miles from family, long-time friends, and all the aesthetic features that characterize home, when I am granted an opportunity to revisit and enjoy those things, there is little more on my mind. I have a lot to be thankful for—among them, family, friends, opportunity, and passion—and I believe it essential in recognizing that to control zeal and further material gain.

    Last year, somewhat on accident, my older brother, Phillip (whom I used to write about more frequently), and I established what is becoming a tradition of spending Black Friday on the water together.

    Black Friday, 2014 was an absolutely frigid day. It was easy to question whether or not we were actually behaving in a more sensible manner than the shoppers of O-dark-thirty. Nevertheless, we convened in a frosted parking lot in Charlottesville at dawn and made tracks towards a trout stream over the mountain.

    As the first day in a steep cold snap, the fishing was slow, though I did manage to seal the deal on an 18-inch brown, while Phillip capitalized on a few of the stream’s smaller residents.


    Noon arrived, and the mercury hadn’t evaded the biting 20s, so we called it a day and found comfort a few centimeters in front of the car’s blasting heat vents.

    2015 brought a more temperate day. After a hearty Thanksgiving dinner, I passed out on the couch to rise early the next morning and place a bead on the Highlands. The drive was colored with meaningful, spirited conversation (as we no longer get to spread it out throughout the year) and was far from exhausted when we reached our destination.

    Recent rains had the creek running strong, though not high. Taking turns on pools and pockets, we passed the morning and afternoon casting dry flies and nymphs to native brook trout and telling fish stories from our time apart not yet relayed.

    Though our fingers are numb and our feet frozen from standing in barely-above freezing waters, these days end warmly. It’s a feeling fueled by neither greed nor desire, but by the feeling of progressive nostalgia that comes with practicing classic things, by the idea that family and memories and passions will continue to be perpetuated, year after year, even after the last of the flatscreens have been purchased and the Christmas music fades into the background for another year.


    This is what the holidays are about.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

LEAN FORWARD, PADDLE HARD

Finally relaxed, nose mechanically plugged and eyes squeezed closed, I pushed my hands past my ears and over my head, tracing the rim of the cockpit for a nylon loop attached to my skirt. As quickly as I found it, I formed a fist and ripped it over my head, twisting, pushing free, and bursting from cold river water into a seasonably warm early fall afternoon.
Public Domain photo.
    Knee deep in slack water, the South Fork of the Holston River dripped from my traumatized face. I had just completed my second ever “wet-exit” from a whitewater kayak, as a prerequisite for my first run down one of southwest Virginia’s domineering rivers. I was green, to say the least.

    Whitewater kayaking, on all counts—from the construction and maneuverability of the craft to the safety precautions and nature of the game—, is a different sport entirely from flatwater kayaking or floating a moderate river in a sit-on or sit-in boat. It’s a win-lose battle with hydrologic currents in which every stroke, every tilt, every pressure point, is a decisive action.

    Luckily, there’s one hard-and-fast rule that I was repeatedly offered—lean forward, paddle hard, even if you’re backwards.

    Jim Harrison, Director of the Emory & Henry Outdoor Program, whose boat I followed like a distressed duckling down the first rapid, echoed this advice from ahead.

    The first piece of whitewater I was up against was a choppy rapid I would be tempted to dub a “narrow” as a fisherman. A multitude of large rocks studded the riverbottom as the river’s width halved, resulting in a frothy water slide 200 feet in duration.

    From an upstream position, I did my best to center my weight in the boat, lean forward, and dip short but powerful strokes at the bow, managing to keep a straight course, even when falling into the holes behind larger boulders. The bow would dip, get drawn down by tumbling water, and pulled forward, until the hull met the system and bucked the whole craft upright, and over the bulge, each rapid paddle stroke an anchor point.

    Covered in spray and pumped with adrenaline, I battled through to the tailout upright and oriented, until I hit the tailout, that is. Relaxing, I must have put more weight on the left side of the seat, because the bow swerved to the left while I still had a good amount of speed. Luckily, I remembered to paddle, and saved myself from a coldwater swim.

    A few hundred yards of flat water provided me opportunity to practice. Consistently tracking a straight path remained a difficulty. I couldn’t solve the left-hand spin.

    Regardless, the next obstacle was up, this time, complete with a belligerent name—“The Fist.”

    The others in our party, seven students from the College, took turns shooting the famed rapid, one at a time, each aiming to trace the same “line” through the system.

    When at last it was my turn, I was still skeptical of my sub-novice ability’s suitability for the task at hand, but, determined to give it my all, went forth anyway.

    “The Fist” is a rather tight rapid, the safe and preferred currents of which run tight to the right bank, under several overhanging tree limbs, and finally through a choppy froth near the tail, which quickly meets an outward jut in the bank.

    Leaning forward and paddling hard, I managed to save myself from flipping through to the end. Still, I had built up enough speed to make the approaching jut dangerous. Human instincts being what they are, my eyes were locked on the danger zone (a recommended practice when rowing a driftboat or raft), influencing my balance and keeping me straight on towards collision. Thankfully, I managed to shift my weight and avoid conflict with the trees.

    Light was fading fast from the river valley as we approached takeout. Only one obstacle was left to conquer. “Triple Drop” is a relatively straightforward rapid, save for the three sudden drops of a few feet, and the eddies that accent the current seams. Maintain a straight course, and avoid the back eddies, and you’re golden.

    I was second in line this time, behind a friend of mine. Our line ran at first tight to the left bank, under overhanging limbs, then towards the middle of the river where the drops started. Drop one spat me out disoriented—sideways. A few paddle strokes corrected the issue, just in time to take on the second.


    However, at the last second, an eddy grabbed my bow and swung me backwards. Still straight, although in reverse, I was pushed over the second drop. The third drop came, and the story was the same—backwards, but leaning forward, paddling hard. I landed intact, redirected my course, and found takeout.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A MORNING WITH THE VILLAGERS

Mountains are the world’s best hiding places. They can shield you from what’s immediate and threatening and place you closest to what’s most important in a single breath. This, I am certain, was God’s intention; to move or alter one should be a sacrilege. The communities and cultures that emerge at the end of the roads that navigate the folds and ridgelines, and cross the creeks that animate them, are, by design, strongholds for old-world values and charm. Thus my soul is pulled down secondary roads that lead up and away.
Photo by Matt Reilly.
    For a few hundred miles, as they dive into the southwest corner of Virginia, the Appalachian Mountains find girth. The highlands to the west begin to expand from the narrow crest that mounts in the central part of the state, and continue to do so as they roll into western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee—the Great Smokey Mountains. Ridges and fertile valleys take turns striping the land to the east, giving rise to a number of small mountain towns that once dotted a railroad that wandered the valleys and hollows.

    Taylor’s Valley is one such destination. Nestled in the palm of the southwest Virginia highlands, the village is as far removed as you can get in just a 15-minute drive from Damascus—affectionately dubbed “Trail Town USA.” Fork Mountain, which separates the two populations geographically, pushes the traveler south into Tennessee along a mountain highway before a ramshackle, faded, wooden sign directs him northward along a pot-holed road back into the state from whence he came.

    While I refrain at all costs from writing about secrets, Taylor’s Valley is none such. In fact, visitors—hikers—en route from Springer Mountain, Katahdin-bound on the Appalachian Trail, pass through shortly after making their collective favorite stop in Damascus. Perhaps Virginia’s most popular bike trail, the Virginia Creeper Trail, drives dozens of bikers through town daily. A single-lane bridge spanning Whitetop Laurel Creek—arguably one of the highest quality trout streams in the Southeast—is the town’s welcome mat.

    Gardens are plentiful; gas stations, nonexistent. Churches outnumber restaurants, which are few; and on a pleasant fall morning it would not be a surprise to find the majority of residences vacated for the comfort of nature. The Game Department’s regular stocking of the creek throughout fall and spring makes the retired man sporting hip-waders, creel, and limber spinning rod a common character—canine companions are optional, but largely endorsed.
Photo by Matt Reilly.
    It’s a homey place. That’s the impression I got when I opened my car door in a small gravel shoulder by the creek to find my very own dog waiting for me, like a housewarming present for my sojourn. Perky ears and friendly eyes stared me down, a wet nose implored my hands for attention, as I shouldered waders and strung my fly rod, intent on sampling some of the Valley’s aquatic villagers, but not without satisfying its four-legged one.
Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Golden leaves barreled down the creek pecking at my fly line, catching my fly on occasion. Patience and persistence payed out, though, in the form of four chunky brown trout, flamboyantly adorned with spawning garb.
Photo by Matt Reilly.
    I released the last fish and looked up to notice an elderly man fishing a good way above me. I stepped out of the river to explore upstream and give the man some space to enjoy the morning, but happened upon him leaning by his aged red pickup, retired from fishing.

    “Seems every time I looked you were doubled up with one of them!” he exclaimed.

    “The jury’s still out on the luck part of it,” I returned politely.

    “Any browns,” he inquired?

    “All browns,” I replied,

    “Huh,” he returned, hoisting a stringer of four rainbow trout. “They looked pretty good sized. Last year the state did a questionnaire asking people if they’d have lots of small and average fish or fewer bigger fish, and I think they settled on bigger. Works out good for me. I come down here when I can, but I don’t fish any of those other creeks. This one is the prettiest.”

    “There’s something to be said for that,” I said. “They say ‘trout don’t live in ugly places.’ Those are some nice fish.”

    “Tell me, are you a Christian?” he asked.

    “Yes, sir,” I said.

    “I thought I could tell it on your person,” he replied, smiling. “Most folks here are. Some of ‘em opened up their home as a cafĂ© for the bikers. Their chocolate cake won some award in one of them southern magazines.”



    Talk of family and fishing petered out after a snack and a wave. I moved upstream to explore, caught a dozen more trout, exchanged waves with the bikers and hikers, and thought a familiar thought: These hills are home. And everything in them.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

CONGRESS: REAUTHORIZE THE LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION FUND

The George Washington-Jefferson National Forest—covering over 1.8 million acres in Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky, it is one of the largest blocks of public land in the eastern United States, however non-contiguous and geographically tattered.


    In May of 2014, a portion of that map—the Old Dominion’s legacy of public land access—was filled in. Thanks to the land ethic and cooperation of the Campbell family—private landowners from Nelson County—317 acres surrounding Spy Rock were purchased through the National Park Service with funds provided by the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Consequently, a portion of the Appalachian Scenic Trail and the scenic view from the Rock were preserved while providing opportunities to better wildlife management and access for outdoor recreationists.

    Over the course of its 50-year history, the LWCF has effectively leveraged the preservation of over 5 million such acres.

    Unfortunately, in September of 2015, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, the House Natural Resources Committee chairman, allowed the LWCF to expire, representing anti-federal leanings present in parts of the West where the majority of the country’s federal public land is located.

    Conceived in 1964, the LWCF embodies Congress’ bipartisan promise to work to preserve public natural areas, water resources, cultural heritage, and other recreational spaces in the American image—and at no cost to taxpayers. A small fraction of revenue generated from oil and gas companies drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf has historically provided Congress with up to $900 million dollars to be funneled into the Fund annually, though in recent years, about two thirds of that money has been rerouted to fund other, unrelated projects, and is untraceable. 

    The funds that are allocated to the Fund are divvied up into federal and state pools, to benefit an array of different spending projects. On the federal side, funds are utilized to purchase inholdings—swaths of privately-owned land within or adjacent to federally-owned public land. Interested landowners are offered fair market value by a land trust or group like the Nature Conservancy, and the land is then sold to the state or federal agency.

    State-allocated money is utilized more broadly. “State dollars flow to each state to spend on state parks, greenways, county parks, ballfields, trails, etc.,” said Jay Leutze, a trustee of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. “There is also a powerful part of the program called Forest Legacy that purchases conservation easements from working forest owners. They get to stay on the land, own it, timber it—Forever. It’s a great program that helps the local timber industry and families. Land gets protected and the government has no maintenance cost.”


    Now that the LWCF is in limbo, so are the projects scheduled for the 2016 fiscal year. In Virginia alone, over $8 million dollars was on schedule to purchase land within the Washington-Jefferson National Forest. Still another $15 million was set to protect critical resources within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and the New River headwaters. While this money will still flow towards these projects this year, most of these deals will require more than a year’s time, and will likely outlast their monetary resources.

    Likewise, the expiration of the LWCF on September 30, earlier this year, was certainly counted as a loss within the sportsman’s community. However, no time has been lost in launching a campaign to reauthorize it with full funding.

    Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana told Backcountry Hunters and Anglers that reauthorization of the LWCF has “a higher probability if we attach it to another piece of legislation.” Senator Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, a local champion of the LWCF, continues to seek out that vehicle bill. Current candidates include the currently-proposed omnibus spending bill or a highway bill that will fund the Highway Trust Fund. Regardless, LWCF advocates must first convince Congressional leadership to allow the amendment of such a bill with the LWCF reauthorization provision.

    On the morning of November 5, Rep. Bishop presented a bill including his own changes to the LWCF, among them a call to limit federal land and water acquisition at 3.5 percent. He is scheduled to hold a hearing on the bill on November 18—just three Congressional work days following this publication.


    It is critical to the future of public land and conservation that the LWCF be reauthorized (preferably, with full funding). Virginia’s own Rep. Rob Wittman, R-VA, currently sits on the House Natural Resources Committee, and has historically been in favor of the LWCF. As Virginia sportsmen, this is our point of contact. Make your voices heard.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

SOMETHING DIFFERENT

“Just show ‘em something they’ve never seen before.”

    When it comes to traveling and fishing, this is a piece of timeless advice that I increasingly give, am given, and practice. Local knowledge imparted by fly shops and marinas across the country is invaluable, but the very fact that it’s accepted knowledge implies the idea that such patterns are widely and frequently implemented. The same goes for fishing your home waters. Patterns that fish see time and time again eventually lose effectiveness as fish learn. Yamamoto grubs and Wooley Buggers will always take fish, but not like they used to.


    About two years ago, one of my high school teachers who lives on the lower Rivanna River found a fly box full of rusty flies washed up on his island after a substantial rain. As I was the only one he knew in the area that could put the flies to use, he brought them to me one school day.

    Inside was a collection of streamers, foam dry flies, and poppers—all unique. At least I had never seen the likes of them before. Most had rusted hooks, but all found their way into my fly boxes, nevertheless.

    The following winter, sometime in late December, my brother and I headed over the mountain to fish a well-known trout stream. We fished hard from late-morning through early afternoon.

    The upper boundary of public water was in sight, when I got into position to fish what would be the last run of the day. Feeling the need to switch up tactics, I was excited to tie on one of the mystery streamers that washed up on the banks of the Rivanna several months earlier.

    It was essentially a Woolley Bugger, tied with a webby hackle, lots of flash, and mottled marabou. In no way was it a revolutionary design or concept, but I would not be able to reproduce the complimentary rusty and dirt matted in the fibers of the fly at the vise, nor could a replacement be found at the fly shop.

    In about twenty minutes, 12 stocky rainbows fell prey to the mass of feather and dirt. The rusty hook posed no issue upon hookup.

    Also in one of the weathered corners of that washed-up fly box was a foam grasshopper pattern, complete with realistic rubber legs, eyes, flash, and wing. Of this fly, however, there was only one copy, and I could not, no matter how much I searched, find a replica for sale.

    Because of its density, and therefore the splat it made on the water when it landed, I am convinced, this fly is extremely effective on larger brook trout during the terrestrial season, which typically runs from mid-summer through early fall.

    On one particular night, while fishing a well-known brook trout stream near my home, I came upon a large pool edged by grass that hinted at the presence of grasshoppers. I lost no time in clipping off my attractor dry fly pattern and swapping it for the meatier foam hopper.

    Splat. On my first cast, a healthy 10-inch native brook trout rose from the depths and hammered the fly. Upon landing and examining it, I discovered the remains of a large ant and a five-inch centipede in the fish’s gullet. An ambitious fish, no doubt about it.

    A few plying casts later, my fly landed at the head of the run leading into the pool and was gulped down and pulled to the bottom by a brute of a fish. A few tense moments later, my biggest brook trout to date was hanging heavy in my net.

    Over the course of its two-year life in my box, this fly has caught several species of fish, and big ones at that. It is a go-to when fish are feeding on the surface, and continues to reproduce, even after losing legs and chunks of foam. I guess some flies are just “fishy.”


    Both of these patterns have often placed me in (in retrospect) dangerous positions I probably shouldn’t have assumed to retrieve them. I have chased the hopper downstream after breaking it off on multiple occasions. And when these patterns are finally gone from my box, they will be just that, never to return. Perhaps that is why they are so effective, because they are irreplaceable, unique. I can only hope I’ve harvested some new good luck charm from the bank of some river or branch of some snag when that time comes.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

ON LIVING DELIBERATELY

A month in paradise eventually comes to an end. As one with an adventurous spirit, this is a fact I knew all too well. It was summer in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom—July, one of the prettiest months—and my only obligations were to my slept-in bed and the half-full woodshed. Winter would be along soon. You could feel it whisper in the night.

Connor Island, common loon nesting ground, NEK, Vermont. Photo by Matt Reilly
    As I had many months to prepare for the sojourn, I was bubbling with a diverse bucket list, though I was without an agenda or timeline of any sort. That’s simply not how I operate. In the afternoons, and sometimes before breakfast, after my duty to the woodshed was filled, I disappeared.

    The tires of my mountain bike repurposed wintertime snowmobile trails, dry and cobbled in the warm season. Hiking and bushwhacking to unnamed ponds, mountainous peaks, mysterious rivulets, and feeder brooks preceded my fishing efforts, and were enjoyed much the same, if not more for the discovery. The larger ponds, Bald Hill and Newark, which gleam crystalline within the folds of the mountain I called home, I plied thoroughly with an aluminum-hull canoe, sometimes late into the night, and rarely without finding finned supper. Minks and otters of the shoreline, fish, vistas, landmarks, and intriguing features alike fell prey to the sharp memory of my digital lens. Blueberries were picked after an afternoon swim in the frigid glacial lakes with the dogs. Little time was lost for thinking.

    There came a time when the day had not yet been exhausted. Dinner had been concluded, and the late sunset of summer in New England was only looming. A short bike ride to aid in metabolism, down an old logging road and around a shallow, boggy pond, landed me at the lower end of Bald Hill Pond.

    I followed a trail of large boulders, extending out into a shallow bay, hopping carefully all the way, and found a relatively flat place on which to sit. My back to the few camps built upon the shoreline, human habitation was undetectable, save for the faint smell of smoke and my own thoughts. The cooling evening pulled air down from Bald Mountain, accented at the peak by a locally recognized fire tower, pooling above the lake’s surface the exquisite smells of spruce, hemlock, and maple.

    Life was evident. The frilly howls of common loons echoed through the hollows as quintessential reminders of the untamed character of the North Woods, as they pinwheeled from one pond to the next.

    The pond’s surface was calm, save for the erratic but delicate dimples of egg-laying mayflies. Because of their small size and constant movement, dimples are often the first indication of their presence from a distance, and they focused my attention on the happenings in the film.

    These insects spend most of their life as aquatic nymphs. Should they be fortunate enough to evade the hungry gaze of a trout during their time underwater, they become particularly vulnerable when they reach maturity and ascend in the water column and attempt to wriggle free of adolescence and into winged adulthood.

    The successful adults I could see, celebrating their victory by completing the circle of life. Upon depositing their embryos upon Bald Hill’s glistening surface, the mayflies took off—up into the air, only to disappear. It was then that an observant pair of finches took their turn in the process of life, darting rapidly from the haven of an adjacent cedar tree into the air to nab one of the unsuspecting parents, and returning to a limb to feed and prepare to do it again.

    Life is markedly short for the mayfly.

    To look back on that time, when I had no job, no commitments, from a time of intense study and work, I am thankful for the clarity it provided.


    It’s easy to lose sight of what’s important. Not what’s important to society or our community, but what’s important to us as individuals. That may seem an inherently selfish resolve, but without the time to allow our own minds and souls to be stimulated, it is hard to be outwardly and genuinely individual. We were all endowed with gifts meant to be manifested, and without pausing from time to time to reflect on those, there is waste. A gift is a terrible thing to waste.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

FINDING AUTUMN IN OKEFENOKEE

I get nervous when I lose sight of the mountains. Something about the overgrown, flat, expansive terrain of the Deep South (and something about burning through a tank of gas nervously purchased on the Florida-Georgia line in an hour, too) causes me to lose my bearings and bring my guard up. As I traded blazing maples and conifers for Spanish moss and cypress knees en route to Okefenokee Swamp in south Georgia in early November, the change was evident.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Just days before, snow fell on a turkey hunting effort and spiced up the sex drive of brown trout in northern Pennsylvania.  Clouds hid the sun for days on end.  The hardwoods covering the walls of the Pine Creek Valley were barren; it seemed winter had moved in before fall was through unpacking.  However, almost 1000 miles and six states south, the crisp nights of the season so treasured were just beginning.

    Southwest Florida, and the promiseof snook and tarpon fishing amongst a mangrove maze, was on the menu for the end of the week, but with kayak in tow, I couldn’t, in good conscience, pass up the rich paddling potential of the famed swamp.

    That night, after a short walk, I laid my head upon firm ground, yards from the swamp, resonating with the cuckoos and whistles of swamp creatures. The distinct drone emitted by spiraling mosquitos hung in the background, held at bay by the screen of my tent, while foraging gray squirrels rustled the palmettos above. Small-framed swamp deer wandered close, but kept their distance.

    As the sun set, the temperature dropped. No rain or dew threatened. So, for the first time since I left home in early September, I forsook the tent’s protective fly and soaked in the night. The moon was bright and full; and I drifted off to sleep watching embers from a dying fire drift across its face.

    With no hills or valleys to hush it, the swamp will wake you well before sunrise to share in the majesty of dawn. For a while I dwindled on the edge of consciousness, watching light return to the scrubby understory, the night creatures and goings-on whisked away with the shadows.

    The restlessness of morning grew to a detectable level. My eyes snapped open, my body filled with a sense of urgency.

    I shouldered my kayak and carried it a short distance to a narrow canal and broke water. It was 6 a.m.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Life was all around. Though the sun had not yet poked the majority of its fiery form above the horizon, birds were awake and plentiful. Egrets drew attention to the lily pad and daisy crops on the water’s edge, and waded carefully around cypress knees, heads bobbing in rhythm. Cormorants idled passively by, stealthy boaters yielding to the wake of my kayak.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    When the canal met bigger water, the scene revealed more of the dark divers. The early-to-rise occupied perches in the canopies of magnificent, moss-covered cypress trees, wings spread and hunched, drying out—the avian equivalent to a morning shower. Taller, more awkward blue herons glided overhead, piercing the scene with their raspy squawking.

    Dipping my paddle into the main body of the waterway, I caught a glimpse of the sun as it emerged from behind a cypress forest, casting a deep yellow hue through the sky.

    It was then, in the growing morning, that my attention turned to the shorelines. The swamp is known for its alligator presence, though none had yet shown themselves.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Following a primitive sign, I left the comfort of big water for a tight course towards Minnie’s Lake.

    It was quickly evident that I was, though only slightly, moving upstream. The passageway narrowed to a diameter of mere feet. Cypress trees and fallen logs served as obstacles, as I navigated the cut deeper into the backcountry.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Nine miles of paddling landed me at what I can only assume to be Minnie’s Lake. The forest opened up, and water expanded to fill the void.

    Unprotected from the dense cypress canopy, I could then feel the full strength of the southern sun.

    As I rounded a corner, into the Lake, a magnificently large alligator—of well over 10 feet in length—nearly induced a heart attack as it charged into the swamp from its sunny spot.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    The hidden, cold-blooded inhabitants of the swamp had awoken, and could be spotted dotting the matted fringes. Alligators slid by like submarines, eyes and snout just visible above the surface, surveying the scene. Turtles stumbled about in the grass and popped their heads up in the kayak’s path curiously.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    Foreign is a swamp to a northerner. The creatures I encountered before takeout were well-suited to their home—toothed and armored. Such ecological diversity we have in this country. Such beautiful ecological diversity.

For more photos from Okefenokee, click HERE.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

THE WEIGHT

The world goes cold—not for lack of heat—as I step into the dwelling of a fellow being. The ground is familiar. The air is not.

    My intention changes the atmosphere. My boots tread a familiar course more tenderly than ever before. Solemnity resonates throughout my body.

    A silent tension is latent in the trees, not manifest but when playing by the rules of the arena. Under the lens of the present mood, it forms a viscous weight in the understory.

    It’s a primitive game, worlds removed from the calloused, disconnected existence that modern living affords—one that is best played with primal senses, determination, and pensiveness. And so perhaps it is suiting that such a journey begins solitary, long before the sun awakens and the dissembled world has a chance to impose.

    Thoughts run rampant as the morning progresses, lost in a daydream that becomes more real as the cool, pre-dawn moonlight trades places with the gray of morning. If the dream comes to fruition, I’ll be blessed by a rendezvous with a storied local. Gaze panning nervously, I slide down a shadowy, pine-covered ridge.

    Much like my own, my target’s early hours are ruled by tradition. Nestled against the sprawling roots of an uprooted oak in a dense creekbottom, his eyes drift open by the light of a late-to-rise moon.

    The mating season is coming; and soon the world will be an even harsher place. The air says so. Carb-loading on freshly fallen starches will be a rule of survival going forward. Gently, he stands from his bed, shaking dirt from dark hair.

    His mood is heavy, too. Seven years of hooves on this ground have instilled a caution for the season. For it’s when the gums and maples ignite and the call to mate courses like electricity through his body that humans set out to fulfill their own ritual. He runs his tongue over a dark nose, whetting a vital sense.

    Nose to the wind, antlers bobbing, the character deserts his bed for the comfort of a well-worn foot trail, weaving through young forest, following the creek downstream.

    At the base of the ridge, I encounter a familiar beaver field—timber flooded and drowned by a beaver pond that jumped its banks four springs before—repurposed as a thicket. Through the haze of morning, I fix my gaze on an opening in the treeline opposite me, where, if all goes to plan, I’ll catch the first glimpse of my quarry.   

    More light filters through the canopy and illuminates his trail. The undergrowth grows sparser nearing an opening facing the base of a tall ridge. Cautiously, he approaches, pauses, nose to the sky.

    An ivory crown, perched stately above a steely gaze, catches my attention and sends my heart rate flying. All else falls into an inaudible background. My grip tightens around the handle of a bow that previously seemed weightless. 

    White-rimmed ears swivel as the crown falls. Satisfied, the veteran resumes, perusing his domain, unaware of the felon in his presence. 

    A few steps further, and the whitetail buck’s tawny form emerges from a tangle of rose and stump, mere feet away. Fear and dread flicker in and out of my body, mixed with feigned composure. The weight thickens. My muscles tremble.

    His crown, a culmination of dominant wit and character, drops to the brushy ground, browsing. He’s blinded.

    Seizing my chance, I drive away fear and draw the nocked arrow back with a deep breath. It’s mechanical, practiced. Exhale.

    The weight increases, ever more.

    Thwack!

    The animal dips, wheels, and sprints, frantically—body low to the ground, hooves falling over hooves. The world comes crashing back—the warmth, the color, the sounds, the smells.

    Elation fills my extremities, as the brown form bounds out of sight, and a mortal crash concludes chaos. Tension rattles my body uncontrollably as it escapes, returning to hide amongst the landscape within another predator, another prey.

     Shallow is my breathing as I lunge through matted tallgrass and drowned tree trunks towards the creek where I know my fellow to rest. My eyes fall on motionless coat and bone.

    The pain of death is a universal sting, felt by all who too know life. A trickle of doubt and self-loathing penetrate my mind. God speaks to me as it brings me to my knees.

    “This is what it means to live,” He says. For it, I am thankful.


    So begins the process of repayment—to the land, and to the spirit of my late companion. The weight I have come to know develops and lingers in a haze of reverence about my mind, but I find comfort in knowing, by some shrouded hint of heritage, that its burden is a manifestation of being truly, and utterly, human.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

THERE'S A FIRE-BREATHING DRAGON IN OUR MOUNTAINS

There’s a fire-breathing dragon in our mountains.  Should you request a photograph, he is invisible, but breathes his torch upon our coldwater flowages, ever more intensely as years progress.

Pine Creek, PA suffers from early autumn low water.  Photo by Matt Reilly.
    You’re skeptical?  Scientific academies the world over confirm his existence; and should you, being biologically inquisitive, wish to know where such a creature was birthed from, I would inform you that those very same scientists are in concurrence that you and I are the culprits at large. 

    A brute of such stature and appetite, you reason, must have some significant impact on his environment.  This is true.  However, I will counteroffer that he is a habitat generalist, omnipresent.  His impact is slow, yet steady—relatively undetectable to the untrained eye.

    Still, this intangible monstrosity of Sagan speciation affects quantifiable damage.  Our very own Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken note (as of last summer) that his very existence on planet Earth results in rising water temperatures and altered streamflow so significant that 62 percent of coldwater fisheries habitat is projected to be compromised without intervention by the year 2100. 

    In layman’s terms, our dragon has the life ambition of forcing our trout and salmon from Appalachia, the continental lowlands and hills, and all but the highest elevation streams of the Rocky Mountain West.  Any individual concerned with ecological diversity, recreational fishing, or economics should consider such an antagonist a cold-blooded murderer.

    Still, he can neither be touched nor seen, and thus we have a decision to make.  Either we intervene, or we refrain, on faith that the dragon is merely a figment of our imagination.
Greg Craven, author of What’s the Worst That Could Happen?, an innovative, rational response to the climate change debate, offers a model that fits our dilemma quite nicely.  In reality, there are four possible actions and outcomes to this question.

    First, our dragon does, in fact, exist, but we decide not to intervene.  As a consequence, 62 percent becomes a very real number, and our trout and salmon are ravaged by a destructive reptile.

    Second, our dragon exists, and we decide to oust him.  As a result, we invest greatly in destroying the invasive fire-breather and save the majority of coldwater fisheries from slow death.

    Third, the dragon is actually make-believe, and we decide not to pursue his execution.  In this case, all is well that ends well.

    Finally, our dragon is, after all, a figment of our imagination, and we do decide to act.  Unnecessary economic downturn is the result, as we invest in dragon-killing measures that are effectively a wild goose chase.

    Mere days following the release of the EPA’s dramatic statement, I was having lunch with a handful of coldwater fisheries conservation professionals, employed by Trout Unlimited, delivering the comprehensive State of theTrout report—a critical look at the risks posed against coldwater fisheries, and the proposed solutions to those problems.  Many of those problems are related to climate change.

    In that setting, the aforementioned model would have served useful, as an aged gentleman sitting in on the discussion dug his heels into the dirt. 

    “Why are we focusing on climate change when the real problem is the health of our coldwater fisheries?” he questioned.

    “Because their decline is tied to climate change,” it was countered.

    The conversation hit a wall.

    What failed to be recognized is that failure to act, based on the claim that climate change is not occurring, gambles with the viability of the ecosystems in question.

    Within our four real options, two require action and two don’t.  Of the two that don’t, the only positive outcome relies on the premise that our dragon doesn’t exist (an idea which is strongly and collectively opposed by the international scientific community), while the worst results in the loss of over half of our coldwater fisheries.  Of the two that do require action, the positive result is a country of relatively healthy salmonids, while the worst reality is an unnecessary investment.


    Thus, it is irresponsible to get hung up on the question of whether or not a scaled beast inhabits our hills.  The question that should be asked is whether or not we should act; and the steward’s answer is “yes.”


    And so we are called to make an assumption:  there is a fire-breathing dragon in our mountains.  For should at last his unhindered wreckage be permitted to culminate, skeptics will see and believe, and all will mourn the loss of our finned protagonists, begging to trade a blinding societal ego recognized for an irreplaceable ecosystem so ignorantly sacrificed.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

Monday, October 5, 2015

EARLY ARCHERY DEER SEASON IS HERE

As I write this, on the first official day of fall, the change of seasons is evident.  The morning suggests a sweater, the flaming embers of maples’ limbs lie lightly atop shoots of green summer grass, and the air smells of a few mornings I’ve experienced from a treestand.  With sunrise this Saturday will come a familiar fall tradition, what is probably the most anxiously awaited on the sportsman’s calendar—the opening of the early archery deer season, the first in a series of new beginnings to come.

The Facts


    Saturday, October 3 marks the beginning of the early archery season that will run through November 13 statewide.  The entire six-week period is designated “either-sex,” during which hunters are permitted to take either a buck or a doe.

    Midway through the season, a window opens for the gun-toting variety of big game hunters.  The early muzzleloader season extends from October 31 right through the heralded general firearms season opener, November 14.  Hunters are permitted to take a deer of either sex throughout the length of the muzzleloading season as well, unless specially noted in the VDGIF deer hunting regulations for the 2015-16 season, which can be accessed at www.dgif.virginia.gov.

    East of the Blue Ridge Mountains, except on National Forest Lands in Amherst, Bedford, and Nelson Counties, the daily bag limit rests at the historical number of two.  Hunters are permitted to take six deer per license year, provided at least three are “antlerless,” which is defined as a deer with no antlers protruding above the hair line.  Bucks with small “buttons,” or pedicels, that don’t break the skin or hair line are considered antlerless.

Four Eyes


    The falling leaves and half-bear trees that come to mind when one visualizes bowhunting in the autumn woods are often not reality during the front end of the early archery season in Virginia.  Such was my dilemma one early October evening in a familiar creekbottom.

    Evidence of a relentless summer was slipping away as dusk and the coolness of an October night settled in, when the growing sound of footsteps materialized from the peeping of birds and the trickle of a small stream in the background of my thoughts.  Still-green leaves blocked any chance of a long-distance ID.  From my position in a ground blind facing a hollow dominated by a small tributary, the noise was diffused, irregular, and hardly audible. 

    However, as the noise grew, I came to understand why.  There were two sources.  One seemed to originate from my right; the other, from my left.  Each bore different characteristics.  One was steady, soft, deliberate; the other, erratic, quick, and careless.

    The first source materialized first, on my right.  A mature doe browsed methodically down the slope of a ridge that ended at the creek’s confluence in front of me.

    My hand tightened around the handle of my compound bow as my heart rate quickened.  The deer moseyed behind the veil of a wide hickory tree.   I saw my chance.

    As I raised my bow, ready to draw, the second source strutted into view—a jake, a young turkey, seemingly with the intention of meeting my white-tailed quarry at the confluence.  Their paths ran into each other.

    But as the bird strutted into view, he froze and cocked his head at the foreign camouflage box in his turf.  Turkey have exceptional eyesight, so the fact that he didn’t bolt and send my chances of taking anything home to the table over the next ridge surprised me.  Nevertheless, I remained frozen, though my muscles were strained in the beginning stages of drawing. 

    Nervously, the bird sidestepped, still cocking his head inquisitively. 

    “If he just makes it a few more feet, that small beech might give me a window,” I breathed nervously. 

    My wish came true after several sweaty moments.  Naturally, at that time, the doe’s head had popped out from behind the hickory, still apparently oblivious to the tense moment at hand.  I saw my second of opportunity, and drew. 

    As subtle as I could be wasn’t subtle enough.  The doe swung her head up, her body still shielded by the hickory.  I had a fresh opponent in the staring game, and now I was at full draw. 

    Meanwhile, the jake continued his nervous dance, edging ever closer to the blind.  The doe twitched her ears, though her body remained solidly in place, teasing me.


    After what seemed an hour, I began to shake under the weight of the bow.  The jake had finally had enough, wheeled around, and trotted out of the scene.  The doe shot out a wheeze and bolted.  I relaxed, exhausted from the tension of a close encounter.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian