all the way up there to come down the river?" said the lady. "How fast
do you go? Would you like some ice cubes in your jugs?"
"About 20 or
25 miles a day. Thanks, but the ice would just melt. All we need is something
have been in some wild country. Where did you get your water?"
"Up until now
mostly from springs. Right out of the mountain. Just like old times."
Though we had
feared the worst, Williamsport, to its credit, does not foul the river. The
water remains clear and the acid has been all but dissipated. In fact, this
lower section is the most vital in terms of aquatic life. One morning, from her
vantage point in the bow, Lyn counted 103 of what she classified as "really
big fish." Most of them were suckers and bass, perhaps 14 inches long.
Williamsport the major highways bypass the flood plain. Some country roads
meander along the north bank, connecting villages that were built in the 18th
century, prospered in the 19th and have long since become stable in size and
expectations. The scene on that side is pastoral and antique. On the other bank
it is still wild as the river beats against the last of the big Appalachian
ridges—Bald Eagle Mountain. Surprisingly, the lower river still has some
respectable white water. It is not created by pitch and speed as in the
highlands, but by sheer power. As the current is forced through narrow
interisland channels, some heavy standing waves are created. There is no need
for maneuvering since these are straight, deep shots. It is a matter of getting
set, more or less like riding a bucking horse.
All along the
lower river are convincing signs of how strong and savage it is: the remains of
a railroad bridge crumpled casually like a cheap toy, gaping cuts in the bank,
the front quarters of a Chevrolet wedged high in a tangle of current-blasted
oak. There are very good reasons for Williamsport and other communities to have
stepped gingerly away from this river, and for fortifying themselves against
it. Yet, at least for the visitor, if not for permanent residents, there is
something grand about its power and latent savagery.
The West Branch
is truly a wild river, though not of the picture-postcard variety. It has never
been pampered, protected by legislative acts, or guarded by park rangers. We
have had at it ferociously for the better part of two centuries. We have taken
our best shots. We have used and abused it as we have few big rivers. It has
been scarred and tainted by what we call civilization, but it has not
succumbed. It has survived because of its great powers of resistance. It has
held us at bay, defended its own wildness. To personify, perhaps outrageously,
the West Branch is a river of great integrity, and that is why I have always
admired it so much.
Bald Eagle Mountain, still demanding that people and their works keep a
respectful distance, it powers down to Northumberland and joins the
Susquehanna, a more sluggish river, for the final run to the sea.
By chance we
finished our trip on the eve of the stern paddler's 50th birthday.