Thursday, February 26, 2009

Bowman's Creek

Across the narrow, barely paved road from the house where I grew up, a bank ran down to Bowman's Creek. The sounds of the creek were a childhood constant. As I played in the yard or worked in the garden, the water giggling over the rocks beaconed me to abandon my responsibilities and come play over there. At night, the creek never failed to sing me off to sleep. In my sadness, the creek seemed to speak to me in sympathetic tones and when I felt happy, it shared my joy with it's laughter.
So many great memories flowed in that water.
When my sister and I were growing up, each season had it's simple joys. Fall was crisp mornings, bright leaves, fresh brown mushrooms, and Thanksgiving. Winter was snowmen and Christmas. But spring was almost magical in that little pocket of the mountains where I grew up. It was the best time of the year, because it meant Summer was almost here and no school!
Spring led slowly into Summer. That was good, because it gave us time to savor the enchantment of everything. Each day there was something new growing. I remember scurrying to put my socks and shoes on so I could run across the road and slide on my fanny down the bank to the creek. Once there, I'd stare down into it's recesses. As my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, I studied the bottom through the shallow clear flow, picking out the shapes of small, new trout lying near the bottom. Their bodies barely moved, the fins swaying ever so gently back and forth to keep them upright.
There was lots to do down there, within reach of my fingers. Violets, their stems still short and close to the warm earth, grew abundantly through the grass clear down to the water's edge. I only needed to walk a few hundred yards into the woods to find a handful of tiny yellow violets to add to the purple ones.
But I knew what I'd take home. A rock. Every time I took a walk, I brought back a rock for Gramma's rock garden. She'd chosen a special spot on the relatively warm side of the house, near the chimney. There, she'd planted a number of wild flowers brought down through the woods that surrounded our home. It was there that each treasured rock I brought home was placed. Dozens were scattered in that garden. Each time I brought home another one, she moved the others closer together and made room for the new one. Each rock was a trip to the creek, a gift for Gramma. And each time I handed her one, she never failed to exclaim how different from the others it was and what a beautiful addition it would make to the garden.
As it got warmer, my sister and I watched the various flowers very closely. We weren't allowed to put our feet into the creek water until a certain plant was in bloom, and it seemed it was a different plant each year. One year, we were to watch the Dogwood. Not until it was in bloom could we "paddle our feet" in Bowman's Creek. Another year it was the Lilac bush out back. Still another year, we were to keep a sharp eye on the apple blossoms. It wasn't until I got older that I realized Gramma had been careful to watch the plants herself and each year she quietly determined which plant would bloom last, putting our "paddling" as far into the spring as possible.
The creek followed the road, for the most part, and this made swimming easy for most people as they had a place to park when they chose a swimming "hole." The various holes for swimming were named by number, the "1st" being the hole closest to town and the "5th" being a great spot quite a bit up the road from my house. The holes were actually wide areas of the creek where the water ran swift and deep. Everyone loved the 5th because it had a outcropping of rock from where you could jump and a sandy spot on the other side, much like a beach.
But if you lived on my road, you knew about great spots the town folks didn't. Barely discernable paths led through the woods to wonderful places where hemlocks bent way over water so deep and dark you could barely see the bottom. The water barely moved in the depths where the catfish lay, almost immobile. I loved to wade out to where the deep water just began, lay down on my back in the shallows, and let the water float me down under the trees until I bumped into the rapids and had to stand up.
Some summers were so dry that the creek level would go very shallow. Those were hard summers, as the reservoir level for the house would drop as well. But we never seemed to worry too much about it. Grampa would bring in buckets of water and Gramma would boil it for cooking, and if we wanted to clean up, she'd send us to the creek with a small bar of homemade soap. Of course, going to the creek to swim---for whatever purpose---was never a hardship for us girls!
I remember my grampa teaching me how to fish from Bowman's. He taught me the process, but he also taught me the ethics of fishing. Bowman's Creek was stocked with trout annually or semi-annually. A truck would drive slowly up our road and dump hundreds of trout into the creek at a given spot miles upstream. Grampa would stand in the driveway as he watched the trout stocking truck go by the house. I remember him shaking his head in disgust as he watched the steady parade of dozens of cars following the truck up the road. They were there to drop their lines into the water the moment the first fish hit the surface of the creek. They'd park behind the parked stock truck, get their poles ready, spread themselves out along the creekbank downstream from the truck and shout companionably at one another as they waited for their dinner to "jump into their hands."
Grampa knew what those new fish were like. "Soft-bellied, yellow, and corn-fed," he called them. Not fit for catching. He felt a trout worth catching had been living in the creek for at least a year, placed a challenge on the fisherman, and had been feeding on natural stuff for a long while. He also felt that a fisherman who followed a stock truck and caught fish as soon as they dropped from it was not a fisherman at all. Where was the challenge in catching a fish that was so used to being fed daily that it would hit on the first thing that went into the water in front of it? Where was the sportsmanship?
Grampa took me fishing every chance he got. And he taught me how to fish with sportsmanship. Find a spot where you don't cast a shadow across the water...a fish worth catching knew when he was being hunted. Noises...don't make any. A fish worth catching knew when it was being hunted. Need to wade out into the creek? Do so slowly, with the water. Plant your feet slowly between the rock. Don't disturb the rocks in the water or on the shore. A fish worth catching knew when it was being hunted. Did the average trout care whether you held a bamboo stick or a brand new, state-of-the-art pole? Nope. All it cared about was what was on the business end of your line. Did it care if that enticing morcel was the latest spinning, girating, snuffling, glinting, attraction or a big juicy night crawler? What do you think?
Thanks to my grampa, I learned alot about fishing. But along with the fishing lessons, he taught me about people too. "Fish don't care how fancy your pole is," he'd tell me. "They're going to take a good look at the bait. And that doesn't have to be fancy either. Same with people. Fancy clothes, flashy car...what difference does it make when the soul behind the wheel with the fancy duds is as shallow as the creek in a dry summer?"
And he taught me about myself too. "Don't be a corn-fed, trout, honey." He'd say barely above a whisper. "Don't swallow whatever's dangled under your nose. Stay out in the deep water a good long while and eye life's challenges real good, then grab onto a good one and don't let go."
When I was a young girl, Bowman's Creek was known mostly to local sportsmen, but over the years it's gained national attention as a prime fishing area. I don't care. The degree of attention the creek gets may change, but the creek doesn't. The fish don't, nor the violets or rocks. And the lessons I learned from my grampa about life and fishing will never change. And that's good, because some things shouldn't change.