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.


Passinthru Outdoors said...

Greeat post and you desrve huge kudos for making that trip in 10 inches of fresh snow. Even without any fish I'm sure the trip was worth it.

Beautiful place for sure. the DWG is my favorite area.

Passinthru Outdoors Blog - Sharing the Passion

Bruce Edward Litton said...

The first post of yours I came upon back in March was your Blue Mountain Lake adventure, and I was amazed at your hiking in to ice fish. If all goes as planned, my son and I fish Blue Mountain Lake first or second of September. I may be too old now for the sort of adventure you detail to fish Hemlock. Back in the day I did my first zero degree backpacking in the DWGNRA--then followed up by backpacking in snowshoes Mt. Washington and the Presidentials beginning March 1st, 1985. My son wants me to backpack Mt. Washington with him, warm weather of course. I don't altogether reject the idea...