Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Fishing Detour

I’d heard about this stretch of the Potomac from two people and an old
magazine article. It was the kind of place that you hear about, but
only in reverent, hushed tones. Twohundredfifty yards of water that
are considered the best stretch of river smallmouth fishing on the
whole Potomac watershed. Layers of slate, interspersed with softer
stone, have been turned on their sides over the millennia. The softer
stone has been washed away, leaving ledges of slate near the surface of
the river, bordered by deep, narrow channels cut perpendicular to the
current. In these channels, the smallies hide, waiting for food to
drop into their laps, safe and secure, but accessible by an angler
wading out on the slate shelves. These shelves are normally no more
than two feet below the surface.
I researched the area and the other clues, it started at a boat
ramp and was probably “near” the home of one of the people that let the
secret slip, Sharpsburg, MD. This boat ramp was called the starting
point of the magic water. This was as close as the clues would get. I
looked at topo maps and, finally, geologic surveys that delineated the
composition of the underlaying rock strata. This research encompassed
geographic information systems and international databases. I found an
area that had to be the place that was mentioned. All that Air Force
training had paid off.
This morning I hopped in the truck at 0500 and headed to the
spot. I figured a 97-mile drive, but the roads aren’t well marked in
this area. The road names change at each little hamlet. I estimated I
could be on the water by 7:15 a.m. At 8:30 I pulled into the boat
ramp. Had some really interesting side trips. I may be able to make a
map, but I can’t always follow one.
There is a line painted down the center of the boat ramp. It
is, as far as I know, yellow and then red. There may be more colors
further down, but I couldn’t see them. The yellow indicates that one
should use “caution” if the high water is within the yellow area. If
the high water makes it to the red area further up the ramp, then the
conditions are “dangerous.” Well this morning, the water was about
three feet into the red zone. The water was pounding through and off-
color, foam catching in the flooded weeds. Cocoa with whipped cream.
The bright spot was that two gentlemen launching their boat confirmed
that I’d hit the right spot. The “not so good thing” was that if I
tried to wade, I’d end up in the Chesapeake as crab bait.
I quickly determined that discretion is the better part of
valor. There was too much brush to cast from shore. I couldn’t wade.
I repacked my gear and headed back to Sharpsburg.
In Sharpsburg, I wandered through town. I found a store that
had been the Sharpsburg Arsenal, selling antique weapons. The
gentleman working there, Tom, was doing so as a favor to the owner. We
got to talking and found that we shared some similar passions for
fishing and the outdoors and we’d both done time in Uncle Sugar’s Air
Tom said that I shouldn’t try to wade the Potomac under any
circumstances. The current on the ledges is difficult when the water
is thigh deep. When the water is chest deep, the whorls that form over
the holes will slide downstream and knock you off the ledges and suck
you down.
He directed me to a bridge in the nearby national park. He
said that if I waded that creek, I would be alone and undisturbed.
There are holdover stockies in there and some bronzebacks.
I followed his directions out of town. Along the road, stone, steel,
bronze, and aluminum tablets and monuments were scattered every fifty
feet. On each highpoint, cannon stood as mute testimonials to a long
ago battle. I turned down a side road and parked in a lot overlooking
the bridge and the creek. The creek’s name is Antietam. The bridge is
Burnside Bridge, formerly known as Lower Bridge or Rohrback Bridge,
scene of the bloodiest fighting in the bloodiest battle in U.S. history.
I kitted up and headed down to the creek. Sycamore and poplar vied
with the monuments as silent guardians to the secrets of this stream.
At the far end of the bridge is a giant sycamore, three feet across,
that was drawn as a sapling in a U.S. Civil War corespondent’s
depiction of the battle at the bridge.
I waded wet and slipped into the water. As I moved upstream in the
blood-warm current, the sound of the Park Service Ranger describing the
battle quickly turned into an anonymous drone, drowned out by the
trees. The water here, like the Potomac, was high. The trees dipped
their fingertips into the cool wetness, forming tunnels along the
banks. The light filtering down through the canopy was that of green
leaded glass. The whole effect was that of a serene natural cathedral.
I waded up the stream and a fog clung to the water like a mother’s
tear on a cheek. Sounds from roads, other park areas and hiking trails
were transformed in this cloak of mist. The mind plays tricks. Voices
are heard, sounds, feelings, wrap your mind as the fog wraps the
Halfheartedly, I cast to the errant fish, a rainbow here, a
bonzeback there. Withing 100 yards of the bridgethe water reached mid
chest and I decided to give the fish a rest. I caught no fish today,
not even a nibble. The sun was high and even the fish felt and
respected, the quiet, monastic nature of the place. I turned
downstream and headed back to the bridge.
Hundreds of men died on that day, September 18, 1862. 500 men from
North Carolina and Georgia stopped the whole of the North's 9th Corps
for just long enough that the attack on Lee's flank that afternoon did
not have the same effects that it would have had in the morning.
I look up from the water, and there, framed in the trees, mirrored
in the water is Lower Bridge. Its abuttment has become the apse in the
cathedral. At my feet, along the way, I find two bullets and a piece
of grape shot. They are mixed in the cobble of the creek bed, they are
a part of the whole. I leave them there.
I’ve had the pleasure of fishing in some pretty spectacular places
around the globe; a pond run by South Korean Special Forces Senior NCOs
filled with trophy sized brown trout, the river Tay in Scotland for
Atlantic salmon, the Kern river drainage in the southern Sierra Nevadas
for golden trout. Today, I fished and came away changed.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Kite

When I was younger, I really enjoyed flying my kites on the beach at Seaside in California. I had a big kite called a Hawaiian that was a huge dual-control delta wing, 1.5 meters tall and 3 meters across the bottom. It had so much surface that I could launch it in a 5 mph wind and, with an offshore breeze, put a wingtip in the water kick up a rooster tail. At one time, one of these was radar clocked over 90 mph.

One day, I went down to the beach and found it empty save my kite-flying mentor Corey. The wind was coming onshore at about 35-45 mph. Corey was sitting on top of a dune in his tuxedo jacket and tails and hot pink shorts, his long blond, trending to grey pony tail flapping in the wind.

Cool, I've got the whole beach to myself. I lay the kite down on the dune, pushing the bottom slightly into the sand. I rolled out the twin lines, hooked up the kite on one end and the wrist straps on the other. Slid my hands through the straps, squatted slightly and pulled the lines, bringing the kite upright. Then, elbows at my side, I gave just a quick tug, launching the kite.

The kite went straight up, I glanced over at Corey. Corey wrapped his arms around his knees and leaned forward in anticipation. Of what, I didn't know. He had taught me to fly kites, so knew that with my mentor there, all was well.

As I said, the kite went straight up. Normally, it will get to the top, reduce the angle of attack and then you start steering it from there. That's normally. Normally is flying a Hawaiian in a 7-15 mph wind. If you're especially daring and have a bunch of mass (i.e. over 200 lbs), you might fly it in an 18 to 20 mph wind. Weighing 125 lbs and flying a Hawaiian in a 35 mph wind is contraindicated in the instructions that hit the garbage, unread and unloved, along with the plastic wrap from the Kevlar lines.

The black, red and gold kite continued to rise. 60, 70 then 80 feet off the ground... I had only 100' feet of line. The kite is now at 90 feet and climbing. The straps have tightened around my wrists like a Chinese finger trap. My feet have left the ground. I'm flying.

I'm now the weight in a perverted human pendulum. The kite climbs higher and I'm 20, 30 now 40 feet off the ground and swinging forward. I now see that things are going from bad to worse. If I don't release soon, I'll either fly too high and drop to my death or, if I don't get that high, I'll be dragged across Hwy 101. My scream is torn from my throat.

I'm directly under the kite, the kite's angle of attack is neutralized, I drop quickly and I slam into the sand like the Great American Hero on his first day in the Super Suit. I'm down, the wind knocked out of me, but down. Oh shit, I'm still moving.

I've become a human sled. Acrross dunelets and flotsam, rotting seaweed and chunks of wood. My wrists are still locked in the straps, the kite is pulling ever forward. There is no fence between me and the highway and the Saturday morning tourist traffic. I'm actually going faster.

I realize that my struggles to release from the wrist straps have turned the kite. It's now going parallel to the ground, increasing its pull and speed.

There's a log in the sand about 40 feet ahead of me. I angle the kite so it will drag me to the log. Maybe I can grab it. 35, 30, 25.. The sand is abrading my stomach, filling my shorts. My eyes are mere slits and I'm spitting sand castles. I look at the log for a place to grab.. Oh shit!

Its not a log. Its the rotting carcass of a sea lion. A cloud of flies fills the air and the stench fights its way up my nose, against the wind. I pull in my right arm and rub the wrist strap off against my shoulder, my elbows digging twin furrows in the sand. Wham, the right strap releases and the kite tries to dislocate my left. Without the balanced control lines, the kite spins its death spiral into the ground somewhere near the Pacific Coast Highway.

The roar of a passing truck is in my ears. I'm not that close to the road, but I only realize it afterwards. I thought I was gonna be road pizza. I've stopped two feet from the corpse of the sea lion. Flies buzz around my head sensing fresh meat.

I take off the other wrist strap and stand up. Corey is standing there on the sand dune, laughing like a hyena. I pick up my kite and follow the trail my body has created in the sand back to where it all began. There's almost 150 feet of drag marks and I've gone more than 250 feet from where I started.

I ask Corey why he didn't stop me. He knew what was going to happen. The wind was too strong for that size kite.

"Man, sometimes you have to learn from the experience. You have to experience to have a life. 'Sides, it was a hell of a show."