A Peaceful Respite
At the bottom of the steep, rutted trail lay a deep green five-acre pond, lush at its shorelines with cattails, multiflora rose and staghorn sumac, its surface glossy in the early-morning mist. Ridges rose abruptly on three sides, sporting stunted red pine and white spruce near the swampy bottomlands with red oaks, silver maples and other hardwoods towering up the steep hillsides. A large grassy meadow graced the fourth side, the open west end by the old unpainted barn, and country breezes washed in over the waters.
On the far shoreline stood a mowed campsite with five tents fastened to the earth, and it was there I awoke at 5:45 a.m. Saturday to the muffled sounds of Gregg’s paddle and canoe working the pond for panfish.
I crawled out of my tent and stretched in the cool morning air. One glance confirmed it was indeed Gregg who was getting the early-bird jump on the fishing day—he was always the first one out there—and a quick look in the other direction revealed Ben standing over a propane grill and an ancient, steaming percolator, stained from hundreds of prior outdoors weekends.
Ben is the owner of this property and our gracious host for the weekend camping/fishing trip. We were five outdoors writers and photographers—Todd, Brad, Gregg, Ben, and me—attending the 10th annual Fireside Philosophers gathering, but this year with a twist. Instead of meeting at Camp F-Troop, my hideaway cabin up in Warren County, north almost to the New York state line, we traveled down to Greene County—F-Troop South we called the site—for Ben’s special outdoor hospitality. We were there to seek peace in the great outdoors and the comfort of great friends with like minds and similar dedication to the Pennsylvania woods and waters.
We had already hit the pond hard the evening before in canoes and kayaks and caught 30–40 fish, tossing the largemouth bass back in and keeping the best of the black crappies and slab-sided deep-hued bluegills because they’re the better-tasting fish, putting them on ice for a day. We would fish Saturday morning and evening as well and bring in over 100 fish for the weekend, a fourth of them destined for Ben’s blackened frying pan. We took the largemouths mostly on green plastic worms rigged wacky style, and the crappies and bluegills on curly-tailed jigs and beetle spins. It was a fishing bonanza, and we were all friends and aficionados in the outdoors, there to relax and enjoy and appreciate.
And talk. By the campfires at night and under the shade canopies in the afternoon sun, where we lounged and sipped cold beers and read outdoors magazines, we talked and talked and talked. There is no gossip group anywhere that can out-talk us outdoors guys in the wild. Hence the name Fireside Philosophers for our outings.
Our campsite consisted of the five tents, two sunshade canopies, a small firewood bin, a picnic table with a propane grill atop it, a large stone firepit, and canvas chairs gathered all around. We camped way down between two big hillsides, which helped isolate us and make us feel like we were located deep in the wilderness. In fact, though, we were less than a one-hour drive from Downtown Pittsburgh.
Ben and Gregg both have exceptional knowledge of the outdoors, so the rest of us could not help but learn something by spending a weekend listening to them chatter about painted turtles, scarlet tanagers, pale jewelweed, white trilliums, cedar waxwings, the wooly adelgid, the northern water snake, the rose-breasted grosbeak, and 100 other denizens of the Pennsylvania woodlands.
Ben is an earnest and highly principled outdoorsman, a generous host, and a genius with a fly-rod and a fish-fry pan. Brad and Todd are in their 40s, but Gregg, like Ben and me, is over 60. He often displays youthful vigor beyond his years, though, which he demonstrated by riding his mountain bike for miles and miles up and down the hiking trails Saturday afternoon, while the rest of us napped or shot the breeze in the shade.
At mid-afternoon Saturday, Todd tried a fishing venture from shore, ignoring the convenience of the watercraft, and soon we heard a commotion down at the shoreline, where he had hooked a huge largemouth bass while fishing with a Beetle Spin for crappies, and he was fighting the lunker to the bank. We ran over quickly and helped him land the fish, took a quick picture with the pond in the background, and released his prize back into the waters. That motivated all of us to push our kayaks in and try our hands at catching something.
It was our custom to always enjoy a non-fish meal on Friday night, steak or venison or rotisserie chicken with perhaps black beans, salad or corn-on-the-cob as side dishes. Saturday night was reserved for the fish fry, so it was incumbent on all of us to provide plenty of fish for the meal. Rainbow trout were on the menu this year, too. Ben had been able to stock a couple dozen trout in the pond, and we caught some and ate them with the panfish.
On both Friday and Saturday nights, we relaxed at the campfire under the big, black, starry sky and alternately stared into the flames, told jokes and stories, and gazed at the heavens. We identified Vega, the North Star, and The Big Dipper and argued jokingly over whether the faint moving lights at the top of the sky were satellites or jet planes. Brad commented on the blackness of the sky and how the predominance of the thousand stars above was unusual for city-dwellers to witness. Without the dulling effect of light pollution in our cities and towns, the night sky was full of bright stars and brighter constellations on a background of deep, dark black.
Long after darkness arrived, a group of coyotes joined the party and contributed their serenade of yips and howls. There must have been five or six of them, and they howled as loudly as I’ve ever heard coyotes calling. Then they stopped and black silence took over again. A little later Gregg initiated a hooty-hoot repartee with a barred owl in the distance. I assumed she was female and lovelorn deep in her heart, because she continued her lovesick calling long after Gregg had retired to his tent.
Brad noted Saturday afternoon that he had never heard so much birdsong before, and we all agreed that the constant overhead symphony of goldfinches, orioles, cardinals, mourning doves, robins and other birds played remarkably. Ben explained that it was always like that here, spring, summer, and fall, that birds and other wildlife are attracted to border cover and boundaries, and that this Greene County property offered much diversity from steep hills to deep valleys to meadows to thickets to forest to ponds.
We carried on into late Saturday night and snacked and sipped and laughed at the campfire. The stars and the fire and the cool nights in our tents were something to cherish, but what I remember best about the weekend was the fishing. The cast toward the shoreline cattails, the sudden strike, the deep run and acrobatic leap above the surface, and the bringing of the fish to hand, sometimes to keep and other times to release into the cool waters, plus the serenity of the pond and the camaraderie of good friends camping in the woods. We hope to do it again sometime soon.