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JOURNEY INTO SPRING
Bil Gilbert
May 08, 1978
With an adventure-loving daughter paddling in the bow, the author canoes a beloved river, the West Branch of the Susquehanna, and assesses its health
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May 08, 1978

Journey Into Spring

With an adventure-loving daughter paddling in the bow, the author canoes a beloved river, the West Branch of the Susquehanna, and assesses its health

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A red fox vixen at the mouth of a den between rhododendron roots, staring intently as we drift under her bank without moving our paddles, or even our eyes.... A clump of azalea bearing perhaps the most brilliant flowers that ever bloomed, so bright that at a distance, illuminated by rays of the early sun burning through the river mist, the blooming bush is mistaken for a flame.... A black bear track along an old corduroy road, which the bear was systematically demolishing as he hunted for grubs, mice and chipmunks.... A bed of shale studded with fossils at the mouth of a big tributary stream.... Two young great horned owls, their heads still fuzzy with infant down, unsteady and clumsy on wing. They are accompanied by an adult on what may be their maiden flight. It probably is not a pleasant one for them. They are picked up by a mob of cursing crows. As we keep pace on the water, the big hunters are harassed and driven half a mile downriver from hemlock to hemlock.

There are a few acres of flattish land gouged out of the canyonside like a terrestrial cove. This land is marked on old maps as Gallows Harbor. It was cleared and occupied by someone. Homesteaders? Loggers? The military? Now all that is left of the settlement is a wild meadow, the crumbling foundations of several cabins and a dug spring, the rock-work of which is smooth with moss, dripping with columbine. We drink at the spring, fill our water bottles and wonder about who lived here, particularly about what the ominous name Gallows Harbor signifies.

We never think about future ghosts. We can speculate about who was here a century ago, but not about who will be here a century from now. Once I was planting walnut trees at home and thinking about who would pick up and shell the nuts. I couldn't see them any more than the men who dug this spring could imagine us drinking from it.

Every canoe tourist I know has firm notions about what constitutes the Perfect Camping Spot. The PCS begins with a flat beach or wide shelving rock to which you can draw directly alongside and unload without wading or slipping in the mud. The natural wharf is also good for sunning upon after you have gone swimming in the deep pool that lies in front of it. Above the beach is a level bench covered either with evergreen needles or a heavy mulch of dry leaves. It is spacious enough for laying out bags, hanging a drying line, pitching a tent and building a fireplace (for which suitable flat rocks are nearby). Within 50 feet there are a pure spring, birch bark for tinder, dead hemlock for kindling and quantities of fallen hardwood that can be broken over the knee for the fire. Finally, on this bench, situated so as to give a scenic, contemplative view of the river, are two or three trees that have been bent backward by floods and whose trunks therefore make comfortable backrests.

Not infrequently on canoe trips I have become involved in semiserious squabbles about when and where to stop for the day and set up camp. There is no disagreement about the nature of the Perfect Camping Spot, only about whether a spot in question is as near to perfect as you are going to find that afternoon. The problem is compounded in the West Branch canyon, where there is an embarrassment of PCSs. There are so many that it is difficult to choose, and they are so perfect that it seems criminal to pass any of them by, even in midmorning. The West Branch canyon would lend itself to a very satisfying project—camping at every PCS in it. A trip for this purpose might take the better part of a spring and summer.

We camped one afternoon in a PCS that had a big spring out of which ran a considerable drain that curled around the campsite through the hemlocks. Leading down from the bench to the run was a well-used game trail. Astutely analyzing the signs, I predicted that this PCS might be a good place for mingling with beasts. I was right.

Pennsylvania has more white-tailed deer than any other state except Texas, and the West Branch basin has more deer than any other area in the state. We saw lots of deer every day in and around the river, and we saw even more at night. This particular evening they were thick. Having brushed away several families of jumping mice and chipmunks, tying the food bags on limbs out of reach of raccoons, bears and whatnot, I retired to a little knoll above the spring drain. As soon as I doused the lantern the deer began to move in out of the brush where they had apparently been waiting.

Deer, especially nighttime deer, do not entirely deserve their reputation for grace and surefootedness. Three or four of them stumbling about in a small campsite, tripping over ranks of firewood and their own hooves, can make a considerable racket. And in their excitement they become very vocal. In a state of mind somewhere between alarm and puzzlement, deer make a peculiar sound. It is quite un-deerlike, and I have heard those familiar with it claim that it was coming from mountain lions, wolves or maybe sasquatches. To me it has always sounded something like a heavy smoker waking up with a cold and a hangover. It is a combination of snort, hiss and bark, which can be described as a very loud "snisk."

The herdlet at this camp was especially noisy, and one animal in particular circled me, snisking so raucously that it seemed he might be working up to a tantrum. To get a little quiet and to avoid becoming a living trampoline, I picked up my sleeping bag and moved inland, lying down beside the tent in which Lyn was sleeping so as to have real protection from mosquitoes and imaginary shelter from bears. Shortly after I had resettled, something else joined the party. From the sound alone it seemed to be a set of asthmatic Venetian blinds. I flicked on a light, directed it toward the grunts and rattles, eventually illuminating a stout porcupine making his way ponderously but surely toward a salty skillet. I called Lyn, and finally she poked her head out of the tent flap. At once, she began to laugh at the porcupine, who deserved it. On being discovered, he turned his back, threw up his flat tail, spread his quills and began to rattle in what he must have thought was a menacing fashion. Every few minutes he would look over his shoulder to see if he had frightened us, and finding he had not, would resume the official scare stance.

"Look at him," said Lyn, giggling. "He looks as if he's thinking, 'Oh bother, now I have to be fierce again.' " Head on, porcupines often look like reform candidates for mayor of Pittsburgh.

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