Part of the outdoors experience includes the unforeseen encounters out in nature. Coming down the path to see a black bear retreating into the woods. Stumbling upon the ruins of an old moonshine still in the Carolina mountains. Watching an osprey dive from the canopy to take the rising trout you’d been watching. You could plan for days, pouring over research and asking people in the know, and there is the very good chance that you couldn’t coordinate such an experience.
The fear of such experiences actually keeps people away from nature; the unfamiliarity and unpredictability of rivers, woods, and anything off the beaten path is frightening. Sensationalized mountain lion attacks or lost hiker horror stories do a number on a culture’s fragile psyche. Add to that the seemingly increasing chances of encountering an unhinged human, and the mystique that wild places have carried for millennia becomes much more menacing.
For hikers, hunters, and anglers, the moments that surprise in a pleasant manner comingle with a knowledge of the outdoors to easily dissuade any sort of debilitating fear. A healthy fear should be present; fear that breeds an intrepid respect.
That kind of tension was very present for me when I took some of those first solo drives into Appalachia to go fly fishing. Heading into the woods alone there was always the weight of that healthy fear, even as a confident and headstrong teenager. For the first few years of my angling career I was dependent upon my mother, friends’ parents, and then friends to drive me to a place where I could pursue trout. Upon securing my driver’s license and a car, a whole new world opened up for me. More opportunities to get out meant more time on the water. More fish to be caught. More of the outdoors to experience. More moments.
Living in Northern Virginia, the suburban sprawl of Washington, DC limited the surprises of nature. A bald eagle was quite the sight. Deer were novel for a while, then the spreading development of the region emboldened them to eat on grassy highway medians. What trails there were often buzzed with cyclists, joggers, and strollers. I had to go away for trout. Where I had to go increased my chances of seeing something out of the ordinary.
Big Hunting Creek begins as a small mountain stream in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountain National Park. Shortly after entering Cunningham Falls State Park, a dam creates the lake of the same name. From there, it meanders and tumbles down a moderately-graded valley before flattening out in the town of Thurmont. Above the lake brook trout can be found; below the dam wild brown trout flourish. The river has a popular catch-and-release regulated stretch, is only a few hours’ drive from DC and Baltimore, and has a road paralleling nearly its entire length. But catch it on the right day, and it seems so incredibly far from the bustling east coast corridor.
Big Hunting is one of the trout streams that I cut my fly fishing teeth on. I’d make short trips up after school or before church. Friends and I would camp in one of the private or state-run sites for the weekend. Fishing pocket water, while not the most technical style of angling, has to be done right to fish Big Hunting. There, I learned how to fish from the tail of a pool up to the plunge at the head. I honed my casting accuracy to place dry flies in the still water next to the little waterfalls, keeping enough slack in the line to allow the humpy or parachute adams to sit motionless for a good beat. Nymphing, an endeavor that still gives me fits, was essential on the slower, deeper pools.
The dichotomy of the proximity to civilization and the wildness of the Catoctin Mountain and Cunningham Falls parks is part of what makes Big Hunting Creek so special. On one occasion, I was drifting a heavy stonefly nymph through a dark green pool for what must have been an hour when I heard a rustling behind me. I peered over my shoulder and didn’t see anything. After another minute or so, I sensed something in the stillness. I slowly peered over the same shoulder to see a bright red fox on a rock, not ten yards above me. We made eye contact before it bounded up and over the ridge.
One night while camping, two friends and I were eating around the fire and getting ready to turn in. As the flame dwindled to embers, we could hear something moving on the hillside. We shined flashlights up towards the sound and caught a brief flash of eye shine. After it disappeared, we frantically searched for the animal again. The next time our beams hit it, it closed the distance by about half way. It vanished again, and that was that. It could have been a house cat or it may have been something else. Our hearts were beating a little bit faster as we zipped up our tents.
Usually, the further up the river you hike the more solitude you’ll find. The littler water and generally diminutive nature of the fish keeps angling pressure down. I had never fished above the lake before, as the smaller feeder creeks didn’t lend themselves to fishing with a partner. But as I explored more on my own, I was intrigued by going off the beaten path. I hadn’t done much fishing where the road wasn’t more than a few dozen yards away, and walking off into the woods seemed enticing. Even within the confines of a relatively small state park it felt very remote. And the experiences supported that assertion.
I saw my first porcupine. I came across bear tracks for the first time. Fly fishing was different, too. The little creeks weren’t as steeply graded as the tiny waters in the Shenandoah in which I’d chased brook trout before. So the adjustment to longer, more delicate casts in tight quarters honed skills that I would use later in life as I spent days upon days fishing spring creeks. It wasn’t long before these headwaters received as much of my attention as the larger, more popular creek below.
One spring day, I made the early morning drive up route 15 to fish Big Hunting Creek by myself. I’d usually drive west on state route 77, searching for cars parked along the stream. If there were no signs of fly fisher activity on a favorite stretch, I’d pull off and fish. I honestly can’t remember much of that morning. But I can almost guarantee which holes I would have fished on the lower portion of the creek if I had first crack at them that day. As noontime approached, I headed up above the lake to fish the smaller creeks for a few hours before I had to get back. Maybe I caught a few brook trout. I probably did: not because I’m some expert angler, but because they were usually quick to take dry flies.
I distinctly recall fishing downstream that day. I never do that on a stream like that. To remain undetected to the upstream-facing trout it requires walking out and away from the stream, down a way, and then coming back towards it to enter the bottom of a pool or run. I must have been closing in on the mouth of the creek, where it enters Cunningham Falls Lake, as the riparian vegetation was reminiscent of wetter environs. The banks themselves became wider. The gravel was finer and almost the consistency of a coarse mud with larger stones mixed in.
What I saw around a bend took me off guard. It wasn’t intrinsically jarring, but it had an unanticipated impact that I can still remember all these years later. Laid out on the northern streambank was a large semicircle of fist-sized stones. In the center was a large stick, the diameter of a broom handle, sunk into the mud and gravel. At first glance it appeared to be a pile of trash; but the neatness and order somewhat contradicted the mentality of leaving garbage in the woods. Drawing closer, it became evident that this wasn’t debris at all.
Immediately surrounding the stick were dried out flower stems. They must have been placed months ago, as they were weathered and brown. There were a few other trinkets, most of which were obscured by two large, deflated mylar balloons. The sun-bleached balloons had printing that was still decipherable: “Dad.” Sticking out from under the pile was a small, plastic sleeve. After a brief hesitation, and an almost involuntary check of my surroundings, I picked it up.
Moisture had gotten into the thin laminate sleeve. The water had smeared a photo, leaving the subjects practically indistinguishable. It was a family. They looked to be outdoors, but that was about all I could make out. On the other side of the cover was an index card. All it said was, “We miss you and we love you.”
Unforeseen encounters occur every day. Mundane activities such as the morning commute or looking out the sliding glass door out into the back yard can provide them. But there is something very different about being taken off guard out in nature. I can’t imagine being such a seasoned outdoorsman that nothing surprises me.
I know that at that moment, I wasn’t sure why I was getting choked up. There I was in the middle of the forest in a pair of waders, wiping my nose and stifling tears. Even today, over a decade later, I don’t think I can fully appreciate what triggered that response. My father was, and is, still alive. No one I knew had recently lost a parent, nor was I contemplating mortality.
I do remember wondering if he fished this little tributary. Or was he a hiker? A hunter? Did he love the park and the creeks so much that his family knew that a small memorial just had to be constructed on this streambank? I thought about them hiking through the dense underbrush the year before, or maybe the loud fall forest floor months back to place these items and say a few words.
Or was this the place that he actually died?
It seemed like a natural stopping point for the day, so I hiked back to the main road and walked up to my car. I can honestly say that it wasn’t the makeshift monument or the death itself that impacted me. I tend to think that it was the juxtaposition of being in a place that I perceived to be so remote while at the same time suddenly being reminded that I wasn’t really alone. Not alone in the woods. Not alone as a fly fisherman. Not alone in any of this.
The unfamiliarity and unpredictability of rivers, woods, and anything off the beaten path is what drives so many of us to those places. The chance of such experiences actually pulls people out into nature. But there isn’t anything that stipulates that these moments can’t include other people. Human encroachment is often seen as detrimental to natural places, with a few exceptions. An old stone fence or fish weir doesn’t offend like a broken beer bottle or the sound of thumping bass notes. Some of my most treasured times in the wilderness have been with my wife, my boys, and my friends.
We were created to be in a world of plants, animals, hills, rivers, and trout. And we were created to be in relationships. We were created, I believe, to be in both together.