Tuesday, October 27, 2015


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


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 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.


    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.  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


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