Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Ice Fishing New Jersey's Hemlock Pond

A few days later, I returned to the Water Gap. This time, I had my mind set on a loftier goal: Hemlock Pond. Hemlock is located two miles north of Blue Mountain Lake, and is accessible via hiking/cross-country skiing trails. After thinking about my options, I decided to hike the two miles, carrying all of my equipment either on my back or in my hands. This is what I did to ease the burden: I emptied out my ski-boots bag, and filled it with my tip-ups, ice strainer, water, food, and extra clothing; I then loaded my bait bucket with bait and placed it in an empty, larger bucket that usually contains the bulk of my equipment; and, finally, I broke down my ice-cutting bar into a smaller 2-foot size piece. I placed the bag on my back, carried the bait in my left hand, and the bar in my right.

The only problem, though, was the 10 inches of snow that had fallen the night before. A two mile hike is simple enough, but when you combine ankle-deep snow with undulating elevation, it becomes slippery, difficult, back-breaking terrain. And yet, I remained undeterred. What awaited me at the end of the journey was the promise of a 13 acre pond, at 1200 feet, all to myself.
As I started my climb, I noticed how alive the woods seemed after the freshly-fallen snow. I saw the woodpeckers I heard the week before, their shiny red heads standing out like tiny beacons amid the white background; I noticed bright red holly berries glowing through the undergrowth; I heard the chirping of nuthatches, juncos, and cardinals; and I saw the yellow-green mountain laurel leaves desperately clinging to the mother-plant, attempting in vain to withstand the 15-mph wind gusts that lashed the top of the ridge-line. When I reached the apex of the ridge, I could see out into Pennsylvania, with the rolling hills of the Delaware Valley giving way to the strange flatness of the Pocono Plateau. In the distance, I noticed a few stray water towers and the lights from a nearby ski area.

Besides those interlopers, the landscape seemed devoid of human touch, covered under whiteness. At moments like this, it’s easy to think about things like peace, purity, virginity, and calm. It’s easy to come up with hollow lines about beauty, about place. It’s even easier to note a feeling of smallness in a massive universe. This is what whiteness does to us; it’s what hundreds of years of cultural symbolism have embedded into our collective consciousnesses. Our brides are bathed in white, our babies swaddled in its protective sheen. It is associated with privilege, and with progress. It is all encompassing, and it completely surrounded me as I stood alone, gazing upon the Keystone State from the top of a mountain.

It was then that I remembered the lessons of Moby-Dick, a foundational text in my graduate education. A victim and a victimizer, Herman Melville knew that whiteness had another side, a meaner side, even a darker side, that few of us ever notice. As he wrote over 150 years ago, “Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows- a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?” At the top of a Kittattiny ridge, I thought of this passage, one I had memorized in college. The all-encompassing whiteness around me suddenly seemed terrifying: what if I broke my leg and I was stranded in the blinding cold, with nothing but the stark white snow to stare at? what does the white snow do to the birds that ostensibly seem so happy? does it cover their food supply up, so that their chirps are nothing more than hunger-shrieks? is it fair that the whiteness can transform an abusive home into a paintable winter landscape so beautiful it brings tears to your eyes? In the end, I thought, does whiteness like this make us all like Melville’s harlot, who paints her face to hide the “charnel-house within”? I wasn’t sure then, and I’m not sure now; but I did become frightened, as the trail extended forever onward, and I could never seem to reach the end of it.

But like all of our strange quests, mine eventually did end. Hemlock Pond was right where the maps said it would be, and I spent the next five hours ice fishing. I didn’t break my leg, get lost, or fall through the ice. I even caught a fish: a solitary yellow perch, about eight inches in length. I emerged from my journey with a sore back, sore feet, and a pound or two lighter. It was a pleasant day, replete with exercise, and I drove back home content with my first attempt at “extreme” ice fishing.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Ice Fishing New Jersey's Lower Blue Mountain Lake

Yesterday, I traveled 150 miles to the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, where I ice fished New Jersey's Lower Blue Mountain Lake. I had been dreaming of hard-water fishing ever since the cold spells of late November, but a recent warming trend in the northeast delayed my first trip until the beginning of January. I chose Lower Blue Mountain Lake because it sits above 1000 feet, and the extra elevation helps create a little more ice underfoot. Lower Blue Mountain, though, is an isolated public lake that requires deft navigation and a bit of hiking. To my surprise, I had the lake to myself. Think about that for a second: in the middle of ice fishing season, I was alone on a body of water in the nation's most densely-populated state.

While I sat on an island-based rock ledge overlooking my equipment, I attempted to come up with encomiums worthy of this place. And I kept failing. I tried to write in my head, which inevitably led me to start thinking about writing itself (such are the pitfalls of my profession). In particular, I thought about the act of writing about nature - perhaps the most basic of any type of writing. Words and concepts like inspiration, hermeneutics, beauty, alienation, and sublime floated through my head, while the birds sang above, and the fish swam below. I concluded that it is remarkably easy to write about the outside world, with its overwhelming combinations (a brightly-colored blue jay in a barren shagbark hickory tree), and otherworldly constructions (wind-swept wisps of snow blowing on the frozen lake like ghost-snakes). Just look at this blog and others like it: I write about nature and my participation within it, and people I've never met read the post, comment on my writing, and email me. In a sense, the moment I put these words on the page, I become united with readers who encounter or seek the same experiences. And no paragraph or sentence, no poem or novel, no blog-post or article, can convey the way I felt yesterday at Blue Mountain Lake. I'm simply not that good of a writer.

At one point, I focused on the silence surrounding me. I knew I was the only human within miles; I had no cell phone reception, and I didn't bring any other media with me. But then, an airplane would fly over-head, and I would hear its powerful engines echoing off the ridges. Or, I would hear the distant rumble of an ATV or the crack of a rifle, as hunters pursued their quarries. Man-made sounds like these pierced the quiet, and these eruptions showed me that the lake wasn't silent at all. In fact, it was a cacophony: roaring wind, singing jays/cardinals/juncos/flickers, hammering woodpeckers searching for food within the bark of wintered trees, and the thickening, expanding, and separating of the ice. And there I was, all alone at the top of the mountain. I may have caught six fish (three yellow perch, two largemouth bass, and one chain pickerel), but I still would have been endlessly happy if I had caught none.