Pepacton: A Summer Voyage
( Originally Published 1881 )
WHEN one summer day I bethought me of a voyage down the east or Pepacton branch of the Delaware, I seemed to want some excuse for the start, some send-off, some preparation, to give the enterprise genesis and head. This I found in building my own boat. It was a happy thought. How else should I have got under way, how else should I have raised the breeze ? The boat-building warmed the blood ; it made the germ take ; it whetted my appetite for the' voyage. There is no-thing like serving an apprenticeship to fortune, like earning the right to your tools. In most enterprises the temptation is always to begin too far along; we want to start where somebody else leaves off. Go back to the stump, and see what an impetus you get. Those fishermen who wind their own flies before they go a-fishing, how they bring in the trout; and those hunters who run their own bullets or make their own cartridges, the game is already mortgaged to them.
When my boat was finished and it was a very simple affair I was as eager as a boy to be off; I feared the river would all run by before I could wet her bottom in it. This enthusiasm begat great expectations of the trip. I should surely surprise Nature and win some new secrets from her. I should glide down noiselessly upon her and see what all those willow screens and baffling curves concealed. As a fisherman and pedestrian I had been able to come at the stream only at certain points : now the most private and secluded retreats of the nymph would be opened to me; every bend and eddy, every cove hedged in by swamps or passage walled in by high alders, would be at the beck of my paddle.
Whom shall one take with him when he goes a-courting Nature ? This is always a vital question. There are persons who will stand between you and that which you seek: they obtrude themselves ; they monopolize your attention ; they blunt your sense of the shy, half-revealed intelligences about you. I want for companion a dog or a boy, or a person who has the virtues of dogs and boys, transparency, good-nature, curiosity, open sense, and a nameless quality that is akin to trees and growths and the inarticulate forces of nature. With him you are alone, and yet have company; you are free; you feel no disturbing element; the influences of nature stream through him and around him; he is a good conductor of the subtle fluid. The quality or qualification I refer to belongs to most persons who spend their lives in the open air, to soldiers, hunters, fishers, laborers, and to artists and poets of the right sort. How full of it, to choose an illustrious example, was such a man as Walter Scott!
But no such person came in answer to my prayer, so I set out alone.
It was fit that I put my boat into the water at Arkville, but it may seem a little incongruous that I should launch her into Dry Brook; yet Dry Brook is here a fine large trout stream, and I soon found its waters were wet enough for all practical purposes. The Delaware is only one mile distant, and I chose this as the easiest road from the station to it. A young farmer helped me carry the boat to the water, but did not stay to see me off ; only some calves feeding alongshore witnessed my embarkation. It would have been a godsend to boys, but there were no boys about. I stuck on a rift before I had gone ten yards, and saw with misgiving the paint transferred from the bottom of my little scow to the tops of the stones thus early in the journey. But I was soon making fair headway, and taking trout for my dinner as I floated along. My first mishap was when I broke the second joint of my rod on a bass, and the first serious impediment to my progress was when I encountered the trunk of a prostrate elm bridging the stream within a few inches of the surface. My rod mended and the elm cleared, I anticipated better sailing when I should reach the Delaware itself; but I found on this day and on subsequent days that the Delaware has a way of dividing up that is very embarrassing to the navigator. It is a stream of many minds : its waters cannot long agree to go all in the same channel, and whichever branch I took I was pretty sure to wish I had taken one of the others. I was constantly sticking on rifts, where I would have to dismount, or running full tilt into willow banks, where I would lose my hat or endanger my fishing-tackle. On the whole, the result of my first day's voyaging was not encouraging. I made barely eight miles, and my ardor was a good deal dampened, to say nothing about my clothing. In mid-afternoon I went to a well-to-do-looking farmhouse and got some milk, which I am certain the thrifty housewife skimmed, for its blueness infected my spirits, and I went into camp that night more than half persuaded to abandon the enterprise in the morning. The loneliness of the river, too, unlike that of the fields and woods, to which I was more accustomed, oppressed me. In the woods, things are' close to you, and you touch them and seem to interchange something with them ; but upon the river, even though it be a narrow and shallow one like this, you are more isolated, farther removed from the soil and its attractions, and an easier prey to the unsocial demons. The long, unpeopled vistas ahead; the still, dark eddies ; the endless monotone and soliloquy of the stream ; the unheeding rocks basking like monsters along the shore, half out of the water, half in ; a solitary heron starting up here and there, as you rounded some point, and flapping disconsolately ahead till lost to view, or standing like a gaunt spectre on the umbrageous side of the mountain, his motionless form revealed against the dark green as you passed ; the trees and willows and alders that hemmed you in on either side, and hid the fields and the farmhouses and the road that ran near by, these things and others aided the skimmed milk to cast a gloom over my spirits that argued ill for the success of my undertaking. Those rubber boots, too, that parboiled my feet and were clogs of lead about them, whose spirits are elastic enough to endure them ? A malediction upon the head of him who invented them! Take your old shoes, that will let the water in and let it out again, rather than stand knee -deep all day in these extinguishers.
I escaped from the river, that first night, and took to the woods, and profited by the change. In the woods I was at home again, and the bed of hemlock boughs salved my spirits. A cold spring run came down off the mountain, and beside it, underneath birches and hemlocks, I improvised my hearthstone. In sleeping on the ground it is a great advantage to have a back-log; it braces and supports you, and it is a bedfellow that will not grumble when, in the middle of the night, you crowd sharply up against it. It serves to keep in the warmth, also. A heavy stone or other point de rιsistance. at your feet is also a help. Or, better still, scoop out a little place in the earth, a few inches deep, so as to admit your body from your hips to your shoulders; you thus get an equal bearing the whole length of you. I am told the Western hunters and guides do this. On the same principle, the sand makes a good bed, and the snow. You make a mould in which you fit nicely. My berth that night was between two logs that the bark-peelers had stripped ten or more years before. As they had left the bark there, and as hemlock bark makes excellent fuel, I had more reasons than one to be grateful to them.
In the morning I felt much refreshed, and as if the night had tided me over the bar that threatened to stay my progress. If I can steer clear of skimmed milk, I said, I shall now finish the voyage of fifty miles to Hancock with increasing pleasure.
When one breaks camp in the morning, he turns back again and again to see what he has left. Surely he feels he has forgotten something ; what is it ? But it is only his own sad thoughts and musings he has left, the fragment of his life he has lived there. Where he hung his coat on the tree, where he slept on the boughs, where he made his coffee or broiled his trout over the coals, where he drank again and again at the little brown pool in the spring run, where he looked long and long up into the whispering branches overhead, he has left what he cannot bring away with him, the flame and the ashes of himself.
Of certain game-birds it is thought that at times they have the power of withholding their scent; no hint or particle of themselves goes out upon the air. I think there are persons whose spiritual pores are always sealed up, and I presume they have the best time of it. Their hearts never radiate into the void; they do not yearn and sympathize without return; they do not leave themselves by the wayside as the sheep leaves her wool upon the brambles and thorns.
This branch of the Delaware, so far as I could learn, had never before been descended by a white man in a boat. Rafts of pine and hemlock timber are run down on the spring and fall freshets, but of pleasure-seekers in boats I appeared to be the first. Hence my advent was a surprise to most creatures in the water and out. I surprised the cattle in the field, and those ruminating leg-deep in the water turned their heads at my approach, swallowed their unfinished cuds, and scampered off as if they had seen a spectre. I surprised the fish on their spawning-beds and feeding-grounds ; they scattered, as my shadow glided down upon them, like chickens when a hawk appears. I surprised an ancient fisherman seated on a spit of gravelly beach, with his back upstream, and leisurely angling in a deep, still eddy, and mumbling to himself. As I slid into the circle of his vision his grip on the pole relaxed, his jaw dropped, and he was too bewildered to reply to my salutation for some moments. As I turned a bend in the river I looked back, and saw him hastening away with great precipitation. I presume he had angled there for forty years without having his privacy thus intruded upon. I surprised hawks and herons and kingfishers. I came suddenly upon muskrats, and raced with them down the rifts, they having no time to take to their holes. At one point, as I rounded an elbow in the stream, a black eagle sprang from the top of a dead tree, and flapped hurriedly away. A kingbird gave chase, and disappeared for some moments in the gulf between the great wings of the eagle, and I imagined him seated upon his back delivering his puny blows upon the royal bird. I interrupted two or three minks fishing and hunting alongshore. They would dart under the bank when they saw me, then presently thrust out their sharp, weasel-like noses, to see if the danger was imminent. At one point, in a little cove behind the willows, I surprised some schoolgirls, with skirts amazingly abbreviated, wading and playing in the water. And as much surprised as any, I am sure, was that hard-worked-looking housewife, when I came up from under the bank in front of her house, and with pail in hand appeared at her door and asked for milk, taking the precaution to intimate that I had no objection to the yellow scum that is supposed to rise on a fresh article of that kind.
" What kind of milk do you want ? "
"The best you have. Give me two quarts of it," I replied.
"What do you want to do with it?" with an anxious tone, as if I might want to blow up some-thing or burn her barns with it.
"Oh, drink it," I answered, as if I frequently put milk to that use.
"Well, I suppose I can get you some ;" and she presently reappeared with swimming pail, with those little yellow flakes floating about upon it that one likes to see.
I passed several low dams the second day, but had no trouble. I dismounted and stood upon the apron, and the boat, with plenty of line, came over as lightly as a chip, and swung around in the eddy below like a steed that knows its master. In the afternoon, while slowly drifting down a long eddy, the moist southwest wind brought me the welcome odor of strawberries, and running ashore by a meadow, a short distance below, I was soon parting the daisies and filling my cup with the dead-ripe fruit. Berries, be they red, blue, or black, seem like a special providence to the camper-out; they are luxuries he has not counted on, and I prized these accordingly. Later in the day it threatened rain, and I drew up to shore under the shelter of some thick overhanging hemlocks, and proceeded to eat my berries and milk, glad of an excuse not to delay my lunch longer. While tarrying here I heard young voices upstream, and looking in that direction saw two boys coming down the rapids on rude floats. They were racing along at a lively pace, each with a pole in his hand, dexterously avoiding the rocks and the breakers, and schooling themselves thus early in the duties and perils of the raftsmen. As they saw me one observed to the other,
" There is the man we saw go by when we were building our floats. If we had known he was coming so far, maybe we could have got him to give us a ride."
They drew near, guided their crafts to shore beside me, and tied up, their poles answering for hawsers. They proved to be Johnny and Denny Dwire, aged ten and twelve. They were friendly boys, and though not a bit bashful were not a bit impertinent. And Johnny, who did the most of the talking, had such a sweet, musical voice; it was like a bird's. It seems Denny had run away, a day or two before, to his uncle's, five miles above, and Johnny had been after him, and was bringing his prisoner home on a float; and it was hard to tell which was enjoying the fun most, the captor or the captured.
"Why did you run away ? " said I to Denny.
" Oh, 'cause," replied he, with an air which said plainly, " The reasons are too numerous to mention."
"Boys, you know, will do so, sometimes," said Johnny, and he smiled upon his brother in a way that made me think they had a very good under-standing upon the subject.
They could both swim, yet their floats looked very perilous, three pieces of. old plank or slabs, with two cross-pieces and a fragment of a board for a rider, and made without nails or withes.
"In some places," said Johnny, "one plank was here and another off there, but we managed, some-how, to keep atop of them."
"Let's leave our floats here, and ride with him the rest of the way," said one to the other.
" All right; may we, mister ? "
I assented, and we were soon afloat again. How they enjoyed the passage; how smooth it was; how the boat glided along ; how quickly she felt the paddle! They admired her much; they praised my steersmanship ; they praised my fish-pole and all my fixings down to my hateful rubber boots. When we stuck on the rifts, as we did several times, they leaped out quickly, with their bare feet and legs, and pushed us off.
" I think," said Johnny, "if you keep her straight and let her have her own way, she will find the deepest water. Don't you, Denny ? "
" I think she will," replied Denny; and I found the boys were pretty nearly right.
I tried them on a point of natural history. I had observed, coming along, a great many dead eels lying on the bottom of the river, that I supposed had died from spear wounds. "No," said Johnny, "they are lamper eels. They die as soon as they have built their nests and laid their eggs."
"Are you sure ?"
"That's what they all say, and I know they are lampers."
So I fished one up out of the deep water with my paddle-blade and examined it ; and sure enough it was a lamprey. There was the row of holes along its head, and its ugly suction mouth. I had noticed their nests, too, all along, where the water in the pools shallowed to a few feet and began to hurry toward the rifts : they were low mounds of small stones, as if a bushel or more of large pebbles had been dumped upon the river bottom; occasionally they were so near the surface as to make a big ripple. The eel attaches itself to the stones by its mouth, and thus moves them at will. An old fisher-man told me that a strong man could not pull a large lamprey loose from a rock to which it had attached itself. It fastens to its prey in this way, and sucks the life out. A friend of mine says he once saw in the St. Lawrence a pike as long as his arm with a lamprey eel attached to him. The fish was nearly dead and was quite white, the eel had so sucked out his blood and substance. The fish, when seized, darts against rocks and stones, and tries in vain to rub the eel off, then succumbs to the sucker.
" The lampers do not all die," said Denny, " because they do not all spawn;" and I observed that the dead ones were all of one size and doubtless of the same age.
The lamprey is the octopus, the devil-fish, of these waters, and there is, perhaps, no tragedy enacted here that equals that of one of these vampires slowly sucking the life out of a bass or a trout.
My boys went to school part of the time. Did they have a good teacher ?
" Good enough for me," said Johnny.
" Good enough for me," echoed Denny.
Just below Bark-a-boom the name is worth keeping they left me. I was loath to part with them; their musical voices and their thorough good-fellowship had been very acceptable. With a little persuasion, I think they would have left their home and humble fortunes, and gone a-roving with me.
About fgur o'clock the warm, vapor-laden south-west wind brought forth the expected thunder-shower. I saw the storm rapidly developing behind the mountains in my front. Presently I came in sight of a long covered wooden bridge that spanned the river about a mile ahead, and I put my paddle into the water with all my force to reach this cover before the storm. It was neck and neck most of the way. The storm had the wind, and I had it in my teeth. The bridge was at Shavertown, and it was by a close shave that I got under it before the rain was upon me. How it poured and rattled and whipped in around the abutment of the bridge to reach me! I looked out well satisfied upon the foaming water, upon the wet, unpainted houses and barns of the Shavertowners, and upon the trees, "Caught and cuffed by the gale."
Another traveler the spotted-winged nighthawk was also roughly used by the storm. He faced it bravely, and beat and beat, but was unable to stem it, or even hold his own; gradually he drifted back, till he was lost to sight in the wet obscurity. The water in the river rose an inch while I waited, about three quarters of an hour. Only one man, I reckon, saw me in Shavertown, and he came and gossiped with me from the bank above when the storm had abated.
The second night I stopped at the sign of the elm-tree. The woods were too wet, and 4 concluded to make my boat my bed. A superb elm, on a smooth grassy plain a few feet from the water's edge, looked hospitable in the twilight, and I drew my boat up beneath it. I hung my clothes on the jagged edges of its rough bark, and went to bed with the moon, " in her third quarter," peeping under the branches upon me. I had been reading Stevenson's amusing "Travels with a Donkey," and the lines he pretends to quote from an old play kept running in my head:
'The bed was made, the room was fit, By punctual eve the stars were lit; The air was sweet, the water ran; No need was there for maid or man, When we put up, my ass and I, At God's green caravanserai."
But the stately elm played me a trick: it slyly and at long intervals let great drops of water down upon me, now with a sharp smack upon my rubber coat; then with a heavy thud upon the seat in the bow or stern of my boat; then plump into my upturned ear, or upon my uncovered arm, or with a ring into my tin cup, or with a splash into my coffee-pail that stood at my side full of water from a spring I had just passed. After two hours' trial I found drop-ping off to sleep, under such circumstances, was out of the question; so I sprang up, in no very amiable mood toward my host, and drew my boat clean from under the elm. I had refreshing slumber thenceforth, and the birds were astir in the morning long before I was.
There is one way, at least, in which the denuding the country of its forests has lessened the rain fall: in certain conditions of the atmosphere every tree is a great condenser of moisture, as I had just observed in the case of the old elm; little showers are generated in their branches, and in the aggregate the amount of water precipitated in this way is considerable. Of a foggy summer morning one may see little puddles of water standing on the stones beneath maple-trees, along the street ; and in winter, when there is a sudden change from cold to warm, with fog, the water fairly runs down the trunks of the trees, and streams from their naked branches. The temperature of the tree is so much below that of the atmosphere in such cases that the condensation is very rapid. In lieu of these arboreal rains we have the dew upon the grass, but it is doubtful if the grass ever drips as does a tree.
The birds, I say, were astir in the morning before I was, and some of them were more wakeful through the night, unless they sing in their dreams. At this season one may hear at intervals numerous bird voices during the night. The whip-poor-will was piping when I lay down, and I still heard one when I woke up after midnight. I heard the song spar-row and the kingbird also, like watchers calling the hour, and several times I heard the cuckoo. In-deed, I am convinced that our cuckoo is to a considerable extent a night bird, and that he moves about freely from tree to tree. His peculiar gutturai note, now here, now there, may be heard almost any summer night, in any part of the country, and occasionally his better known cuckoo call. He is a great recluse by day, but seems to wander abroad freely by night.
The birds do indeed begin with the day. The farmer who is in the field at work while he can yet see stars catches their first matin hymns. In the longest June days the robin strikes up about half-past three o'clock, and is quickly followed by the song sparrow, the oriole, the catbird, the wren, the wood thrush, and all the rest of the tuneful choir. Along the Potomac I have heard the Virginia cardinal whistle so loudly and persistently in the tree-tops above, that sleeping after four o'clock was out of the question.. Just before the sun is up, there is a marked lull, during which, I imagine, the birds are at breakfast. While building their nest, it is very early in the morning that they put in their big strokes ; the back of their day's work is broken before you have begun yours.
A lady once asked me if there was any individuality among the birds, or if those of the same kind were as near alike as two peas. I was obliged to answer that to the eye those of the same species were as near alike as two peas, but that in their songs there were often marks of originality. Caged or domesticated birds develop notes and traits of their own, and among the more familiar orchard and garden birds one may notice the same tendency. I observe a great variety of songs, and even qualities of voice, among the orioles and among the song sparrows. On this trip my ear was especially attracted to some striking and original sparrow songs. At one point I was half afraid I had let pass an opportunity to identify a new warbler, but finally concluded it was a song sparrow. On another occasion I used to hear day after day a sparrow that appeared to have some organic defect in its voice: part of its song was scarcely above a whisper, as if the bird was suffering from a very bad cold. I have heard a bobolink and a hermit thrush with similar defects of voice. I have heard a robin with a part of the whistle of the quail in his song. It was out of time and out of tune, but the robin seemed insensible of the incongruity, and sang as loudly and as joyously as any of his mates. A cat-bird will sometimes show a special genius for mimicry, and I have known one to suggest very plainly some notes of the bobolink.
There are numerous long covered bridges spanning the Delaware, and under some of these I saw the cliff swallow at home, the nests being fastened to the under sides of the timbers, as it were, suspended from the ceiling instead of being planted upon the shelving or perpendicular side, as is usual with them. To have laid the foundation, indeed, to have sprung the vault downward and finished it successfully, must have required special engineering skill. I had never before seen or heard of these nests being so placed. But birds are quick to adjust their needs to the exigencies of any case. Not long before, I had seen in a deserted house, on the head of the Rondout, the chimney swallows entering the chamber through a stove-pipe hole in the roof, and gluing their nests to the sides of the rafters, like the barn swallows.
I was now, on the third day, well down in the wilds of Colchester, with a current that made between two and three miles an hour, just a summer idler's pace. The atmosphere of the river had improved much since the first day, was, indeed, without taint, and the water was sweet and good. There were farmhouses at intervals of a mile or so ; but the amount of tillable land in the river valley or on the adjacent mountains was very small. Occasionally there would be forty or fifty acres of flat, usually in grass or corn, with a thrifty-looking farmhouse. One could see how surely the land made the house and its surrounding ; good land bearing good buildings, and poor land poor.
In mid-forenoon I reached the long placid eddy at Downsville, and here again fell in with two boys. They were out paddling about in a boat when I drew near, and they evidently regarded me in the light of a rare prize which fortune had wafted them.
"Ain't you glad we come, Benny?" I heard one of them observe to the other, as they were conducting me to the best place to land. They were bright, good boys, off the same piece as my acquaintances of the day before, and about the same ages, differing only in being village boys. With what curiosity they looked me over! Where had I come from ; where was I going; how long had I been on the way ; who built my boat ; was I a carpenter, to build such a neat craft, etc. ? They never had seen such a traveler before. Had I liad no mishaps ? And then they bethought them of the dangerous passes that awaited me, and in good faith began to warn and advise me. They had heard the tales of raftsmen, and had conceived a vivid idea of the perils of the river below, gauging their notions of it from the spring and fall freshets tossing about the heavy and cumbrous rafts. There was a whirl-pool, a rock eddy, and a binocle within a mile. I might be caught in the binocle, or engulfed in the whirlpool, or smashed up in the eddy. But I felt much reassured when they told me I had already passed several whirlpools and rock eddies; but that terrible binocle, what was that ? I had never heard of such a monster. Oh, it was a still, miry place at the head of a big eddy. The current might carry me up there, but I could easily get out again; the rafts did. But there was another place I must beware of, where two eddies faced each other; rafts-men were sometimes swept off there by the oars and drowned. And when I came to rock eddy, which I would know, because the river divided there (a part of the water being afraid to risk the eddy, I suppose), I must go ashore and survey the pass; but in any ease it would be prudent to keep to the left. I might stick on the rift, but that was nothing to being wrecked upon those rocks. The boys were quite in earnest, and I told them I would walk up to the village and post some letters to my friends before I braved all these dangers. So they marched me up the street, pointing out to their chums what they had found.
" Going way to Phil What place is that near where the river goes into the sea ? "
" Philadelphia ? "
"Yes; thinks he may go way there. Won't he have fun ? "
The boys escorted me about the town, then back to the river, and got in their boat and came down to the bend, where they could see me go through the whirlpool and pass the binocle (I am not sure about the orthography of the word, but I suppose it means a double, or a sort of mock eddy). I looked back as I shot over the rough current beside a gentle vortex, and saw them watching me with great inter-est. Rock eddy, also, was quite harmless, and I passed it without any preliminary survey.
I nooned at Sodom, and found good milk in a humble cottage. In the afternoon I was amused by a great blue heron that kept flying up in advance of me. Every mile or so, as I rounded some point, I would come unexpectedly upon him, till finally he grew disgusted with my silent pursuit, and took a long turn to the left up along the side of the mountain, and passed back up the river, uttering a hoarse, low note.
The wind still boded rain, and about four o'clock, announced by deep-toned thunder and portentous clouds, it began to charge down the mountain-side in front of me. I ran ashore, covered my traps, and took my way up through an orchard to a quaint little farmhouse. But there was not a soul about, outside or in, that I could find, though the door was unfastened; so I went into an open shed with the hens, and lounged upon some straw, while the unloosed floods came down. It was better than boating or fishing. Indeed, there are few summer pleasures to be placed before that of reclining at ease directly under a sloping roof, after toil or travel in the hot sun, and looking out into the rain-drenched air and fields. It is such a vital yet soothing spectacle. We sympathize with the earth. We know how good a bath is, and the unspeakable deliciousness of water to a parched tongue. The office of the sunshine is slow, subtle, occult, unsuspected ; but when the clouds do their work, the benefaction is so palpable and copious, so direct and wholesale, that all creatures take note of it, and for the most part rejoice in it. It is a completion, a con-summation, a paying of a debt with a royal hand; the measure is heaped and overflowing. It was the simple vapor of water that the clouds borrowed of the earth; now they pay back more than water: the drops are charged with electricity and with the gases of the air, and have new solvent powers. Then, how the slate is sponged off, and left all clean and new again !
In the shed where I was sheltered were many relics and odds and ends of the farm. In juxtaposition with two of the most stalwart wagon or truck wheels I ever looked upon was a cradle of ancient and peculiar make, an aristocratic cradle, with high-turned posts and an elaborately carved and moulded body, that was suspended upon rods and swung from the top. How I should have liked to hear its history and the story of the lives it had rocked, as the rain sang and the boughs tossed without! Above it was the cradle of a phoebe-bird saddled upon a stick that ran behind the rafter; its occupants had not flown, and its story was easy to read.
Soon after the first shock of the storm was over, and before I could see breaking sky, the birds tuned up with new ardor, the robin, the indigo-bird, the purple finch, the song sparrow, and in the meadow below the bobolink. The cockerel near me followed suit, and repeated his refrain till my meditations were so disturbed that I was compelled to eject him from the cover, albeit he had the best right there. But he crowed his defiance with drooping tail from the yard in front. I, too, had mentally crowed over the good fortune of the shower; but before I closed my eyes that night my crest was a good deal fallen, and I could have wished the friendly elements had not squared their accounts quite so readily and uproariously.
The one shower did not exhaust the supply a bit; Nature's hand was full of trumps yet, yea, and her sleeve too. I stopped at a trout brook, which came down out of the mountains on the right, and took a few trout for my supper; but its current was too roily from the shower for fly-fishing. Another farmhouse attracted me, but there was no one at home ; so I picked a quart of strawberries in the meadow in front, not minding the wet grass, and about six o'clock, thinking another storm that had been threatening on my right had miscarried, I pushed off, and went floating down into the deepening gloom of the river valley. The mountains, densely wooded from base to summit, shut in the view on every hand. They cut in from the right and from the left, one ahead of the other, matching like the teeth of an enormous trap ; the river was caught and bent, but not long detained, by them. Presently I saw the rain creeping slowly over them in my rear, for the wind had changed; but I apprehended nothing but a moderate sundown drizzle, such as we often get from the tail end of a shower, and drew up in the eddy of a big rock under an overhanging tree till it should have passed. But it did not pass ; it thickened and deepened, and reached a steady pour by the time I had calculated the sun would be gilding the mountain-tops. I had wrapped my rubber coat about my blankets and groceries, and bared my back to the storm. In sullen silence I saw the night settling down and the rain increasing; my roof-tree gave way, and every leaf poured its accumulated drops upon me. There were streams and splashes where before there had been little more than a mist. I was getting well soaked and uncomplimentary in my remarks on the weather. A saucy catbird, near by, flirted and squealed very plainly, " There! there! What did I tell you ! what did I tell you ! Pretty pickle! pretty pickle! pretty pickle to be in!" But I had been in worse pickles, though if the water had been salt, my pickling had been pretty thorough. Seeing the wind was in the northeast, and that the weather had fairly stolen a march on me, I let go my hold of the tree, and paddled rapidly to the opposite shore, which was low and pebbly, drew my boat up on a little peninsula, turned her over upon a spot which I cleared of its coarser stone, propped up one' end with the seat, and crept beneath. I would now test the virtues of my craft as a roof, and I found she was without flaw, though she was pretty narrow. The tension of her timber was such that the rain upon her bottom made a low, musical hum.
Crouched on my blankets and boughs, for I had gathered, a good supply of the latter before the rain overtook me, and dry only about my middle, I placidly took life as it came. A great blue heron flew by, and let off something like ironical horse laughter. Before it became dark I proceeded to eat my supper, my berries, but not my trout. What a fuss we make about the "hulls" upon strawberries! We are hypercritical ; we may yet be glad to dine off the hulls alone. Some people see some-thing to pick and carp at in every good that comes to them; I was thankful that I had the berries, and resolutely ignored their little scalloped ruffles, which I found pleased the eye and did not disturb the palate.
When bedtime arrived, I found undressing a little awkward, my berth was so low; there was plenty of room in the aisle, and the other passengers were nowhere to be seen, but I did not venture out. It rained nearly all night, but the train made good speed, and reached the land of daybreak nearly on time. The water in the river had crept up during the night to within a few inches of my boat, but I rolled over and took another nap, all the same. Then I arose, had a delicious bath in the sweet, swift-running current, and turned my thoughts toward breakfast. The making of the coffee was the only serious problem. With everything soaked and a fine rain still falling, how shall one build a fire ? I made my way to a little island above in quest of driftwood. Before I had found the wood I chanced upon another patch of delicious wild strawberries, and took an appetizer of them out of hand. Presently I picked up a yellow birch stick the size of my arm. The wood was decayed, but the bark was perfect. I broke it in two, punched out the rotten wood, and had the bark intact. The fatty or resinous substance in this bark preserves it, and makes it excellent kindling. With some seasoned twigs and a scrap of paper I soon had a fire going that answered my every purpose. More berries were picked while the coffee was brewing, and the breakfast was a success.
The camper-out often finds himself in what seems a distressing predicament to people seated in their snug, well-ordered houses; but there is often a real satisfaction when things come to their worst, a satisfaction in seeing what a small matter it is, after all ; that one is really neither sugar nor salt, to be afraid of the wet; and that life is just as well worth living beneath a scow or a dug-out as beneath the highest and broadest roof in Christendom.
By ten o'clock it became necessary to move, on account of the rise of the water, and as the rain had abated, I picked up and continued my journey. Before long, however, the rain increased again, and I took refuge in a barn. The snug, tree-embowered farmhouse looked very inviting, just across the road from the barn; but as no one was about, and no faces appeared at the window that I might judge of the inmates, I contented myself with the hospitality the barn offered, filling my pockets with some dry birch shavings I found there where the farmer had made an ox-yoke, against the needs of the next kindling.
After an hour's detention I was off again. I stopped at Baxter's Brook, which flows hard by the classic hamlet of Harvard, and tried for trout, but with poor success, as I did not think it worth while to go far upstream.
At several points I saw rafts of hemlock lumber tied to the shore, ready to take advantage of the first freshet. Rafting is an important industry for a hundred miles or more along the Delaware. The lumbermen sometimes take their families or friends, and have a jollification all the way to Trenton or to Philadelphia. In some places the speed is very great, almost equaling that of an express train. The passage of such places as Cochecton Falls and "Foul Rift " is attended with no little danger. The raft is guided by two immense oars, one before and one behind. I frequently saw these huge implements in the driftwood alongshore, suggesting some colossal race of men. The raftsmen have names of their own. From the upper Delaware, where I had set in, small rafts are run down which they call " colts." They come frisking down at a lively pace. At Hancock they usually couple two rafts together, when I suppose they have a span of colts ; or do two colts make one horse ? Some parts of the framework of the raft they call "grubs;" much depends upon these grubs. The lumbermen were and are a hardy, virile race. The Hon. Charles Knapp, of Deposit, now eighty-three years of age, but with the look and step of a man of sixty, told me he had stood nearly all one December day in the water to his waist, reconstructing his raft, which had 'gone to pieces on the head of an island. Mr. Knapp had passed the first half of his life in Colchester and Hancock, and, although no sportsman, had once taken part in a great bear hunt there. The bear was an enormous one, and was hard pressed by a gang of men and dogs. Their muskets and assaults upon the beast with clubs had made no impression. Mr. Knapp saw where the bear was coming, and he thought he would show them how easy it was to dispatch a bear with a club, if you only knew where to strike. He had seen how quickly the largest hog would wilt beneath a slight blow across the " small of the back." So, armed with an immense hand-spike, he took up a position by a large rock that the bear must pass. On she came, panting and nearly exhausted, and at the right moment down came the club with great force upon the small of her back. "If a fly had alighted upon her," said Mr. Knapp, "I think she would have paid just as much attention to it as she did to me."
Early in the afternoon I encountered another boy, Henry Ingersoll, who was so surprised by my sudden and unwonted appearance that he did not know east from west. "Which way is west ? " I inquired, to see if my own head was straight on the subject.
"That way," he said, indicating east within a few degrees.
"You are wrong," I replied. "Where does the sun rise?"
"There," he said, pointing almost in the direction he had pointed before.
"But does not the sun rise in the east here as well as elsewhere ? " I rejoined.
"Well, they call that west, anyhow."
But Henry's needle was subjected to a disturbing influence just then. His house was near the river, and he was its sole guardian and keeper for the time; his father had gone up to the next neighbor's (it was Sunday), and his sister had gone with the schoolmistress down the road to get black birch. He came out in the road, with wide eyes, to view me as I passed, when I drew rein, and demanded the points of the compass, as above. Then I shook my sooty pail at him and asked for milk. Yes, I could have some milk, but I would have to wait till his sister came back; after he had recovered a little, he concluded he could get it. He came for my pail, and then his boyish curiosity appeared. My story interested him immensely. He had seen twelve summers, but he had been only four miles from home up and down the river : he had been down to the East Branch, and he had been up to Trout Brook. He took a pecuniary interest in me. What did my pole cost ? What my rubber coat, and what my revolver? The latter he must take in his hand; he had never seen such a thing to shoot with before in his life, etc. He thought I might make the trip cheaper and easier by stage and by the cars. He went to school: there were six scholars in summer, one or two more in winter. The population is not crowded in the town of Hancock, certainly, and never will be. The people live close to the bone, as Thoreau would say, or rather close to the stump. Many years ago the young men there resolved upon having a ball. They concluded not to go to a hotel, on account of the expense, and so chose a private house. There was a man in the neighborhood who could play the fife; he offered to furnish the music for seventy-five cents. But this was deemed too much, so one of the party agreed to whistle. History does not tell how many beaux there were bent upon this reckless enterprise, but there were three girls. For refreshments they bought a couple of gallons of whiskey and a few pounds of sugar. When the spree was over, and the expenses were reckoned up, there was a shilling a York shilling apiece to pay. Some of the revelers were dissatisfied with this charge, and intimated that the managers had not counted them-selves in, but taxed the whole expense upon the rest of the party.
As I moved on, I saw Henry's sister and the schoolmistress picking their way along the muddy road near the river's bank. One of them saw me, and, dropping her skirts, said to the other (I could read the motions), "See that man!" The other lowered her flounces, and looked up and down the road, then glanced over into the field, and lastly out upon the river. They paused and had a good look at me, though I could see that their impulse to run away, like that of a frightened deer, was strong.
At the East Branch the Big Beaver Kill joins the Delaware, almost doubling its volume. Here I struck the railroad, the forlorn Midland, and here another set of men and manners cropped out, what may be called the railroad conglomerate over-lying this mountain freestone.
"Where did you steal that boat ? " and "What you running away for?" greeted me from a hand-car that went by.
I paused for some time and watched the fish hawks, or ospreys, of which there were nearly a dozen sailing about above the junction of the two streams, squealing and diving, and occasionally striking a fish on the rifts. I am convinced that the fish hawk sometimes feeds on the wing. I saw him do it on this and on another occasion. He raises himself by a peculiar motion, and brings his head and his talons together, and apparently takes a bite of a fish. While doing this his flight presents a sharply undulating line; at the crest of each rise the morsel is taken.
In a long, deep eddy under the west shore I came upon a brood of wild ducks, the hooded merganser.
The young were about half grown, but of course entirely destitute of plumage. They started off at great speed, kicking the water into foam behind them, the mother duck keeping upon their flank and rear. Near the outlet of the pool I saw them go ashore, and I expected they would conceal themselves in the woods ; but as I drew near the place they came out, and I saw by their motions they were going to make a rush by me upstream.
At a signal from the old one, on they came, and passed within a few feet of me. It was almost incredible, the speed they made. Their pink feet were like swiftly revolving wheels placed a little to the rear ; their breasts just skimmed the surface, and the water was beaten into spray behind them. They had no need of wings ; even the mother bird did not use hers; a steamboat could hardly have kept up with them. I dropped my paddle and cheered. They kept the race up for a long distance, and I saw them making a fresh spirt as I entered upon the rift and dropped quickly out of sight. I next disturbed an eagle in his meditations upon a dead treetop, and a cat sprang out of some weeds near the foot of the tree. Was he watching for puss, while she was watching for some smaller prey ?
I passed Partridge Island which is or used to be the name of a post-office unwittingly, and encamped for the night on an island near Hawk's Point. I slept in my boat on the beach, and in the morning my locks were literally wet with the dews of the night, and my blankets too; so I waited for the sun to dry them. As I was gathering driftwood for a fire, a voice came over from the shadows of the east shore: "Seems to me you lay abed pretty late!"
"I call this early," I rejoined, glancing at the sun.
"Wall, it may be airly in the forenoon, but it ain't very airly in the mornin' ;" a distinction I was forced to admit. Before I had reλmbarked some cows came down to the shore, and I watched them ford the river to the island. They did it with great ease and precision. I was told they will some-times, during high water, swim over to the islands, striking in well upstream, and swimming diagonally across. At one point some cattle had crossed the river, and evidently got into mischief, for a large dog rushed them down the bank into the cur-rent, and worried them all the way over, part of the time swimming and part of the time leaping very high, as a dog will in deep snow, coming down with a great splash. The cattle were shrouded with spray as they ran, and altogether it was a novel picture.
My voyage ended that forenoon at Hancock, and was crowned by a few idyllic days with some friends in their cottage in the woods by Lake Oquaga, a body of crystal water on the hills near Deposit, and a haven as peaceful and perfect as voyager ever came to port in.
Writings of John Burroughs:
Pepacton: A Summer Voyage
An Idyl Of The Honeybee
Nature And The Poets
Notes By The Way
A Bunch Of Herbs