This Mountain Stream

This mountain stream; it is rushing, splashing, bouncing, and bubbling. A brook seldom static and nearly always dynamic. Currents move small sediments in low flows and gigantic medicine ball size boulders in large storm events. On lazy summer days it whispers; telling little secrets that tantalizes my imagination. In the spring, the season we hold now, this brook crashes loudly down this steep channel; boulders colliding like a liquid avalanche smothering all other audible sound. The intense volume consumes me and narrows my thoughts to this stream and this stream alone.

I am standing on the edge of a mountain brook that is part of my northern property boundary. It acts as a natural buffer to a dirt road. It separates human from wild. The stream sings to those that will listen; sometimes a sweet melody and at other times it plays like a loud, energetic symphony, perhaps Beethoven’s Fifth.

What flows before me, the water, the channel, the stone-laden banks, is the result of 14,000 years of running water. Since the last glacier receded from this area this stream has been running down the side of this mountain; moving sediment, rolling rocks, transporting clay particles and loam. The stream is steep and so does not meander in the true sense of the word. Rather it quickly zigs and zags, leaving sediment loads on outside bends and cutting into fresh soils on inside corners. It is a work in progress; an unfinished masterpiece; perhaps an undiscovered Monet. It is poetry in motion. There are no real words that can describe its totality. By the time a writer describes it, the stream will have changed.

I bend and reach into the fast moving water and pick up a rock from the toe of the stream bank. The stone that I hold in my hand is nearly round and smooth; the edges worn off from thousands of years of tumbling about in this brook. It could not have traveled for more than two miles, which is where the top of this watershed is located, but it is still worn by the constant motion in an unforgiving stream. The water is always moving forward, from source to eventual sea where it is evaporated by the sun, moved by clouds and redeposited again on this mountain more than 100 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. This rock, edges smoothed off by thousands of years of abrasion, will be moved miles more before it finds its final destination, most likely as a pebble in tens of thousands of years from now.

That this stream rapidly descends some 400 vertical feet within the first two miles of its journey is astounding. Deep pools are formed in straight runs from water falling over a boulder,log, or outcropped piece of bedrock. The plummeting water stabs into the receiving pool carrying oxygen that makes the water frothy and white. These pools occur every fifty feet or so as the stream runs downhill. The stream water cascades with such force each time it transcends over a boulder it introduces volumes of oxygen into the water column. These highly oxygenated waters help to clean the stream of nutrients; oxygen being a primary ingredient in decomposing these materials. This mountain stream water would be perfectly clean if it weren’t for the beaver pond that is located at the very top of the watershed. Giardia is persistent and perfectly capable of withstanding only two miles of travel within this stream corridor. For this reason I will not drink this water. I have had giardia and am perfectly aware as to how sick it can make a human.

Despite the giardia, this water passes the ultimate test for clean water. It holds brook trout. This species is like the proverbial canary in the coal mine. If the brook trout is not present, the water is not clean. Brook trout, one of the few native salmonoids to this part of the planet, is not a trout at all but rather a member of the char family. Like our other native salmonoid, the lake trout, it is kin to the arctic char found in the northern regions of Canada. This beautiful fish is a greenish brown with a whitish marbled pattern across the back. The belly and fins are a reddish orange and the outside edge of the fins have a bright white stripe. It is certainly one our most beautiful fish species and it is held in high esteem by anglers.

Brook trout spawn in the autumn. The males grow a hooked jaw, likely appearing fierce to competitors, and attractive to females. The female creates a nest by putting her head into the current and flagging her tail and waving her fins fashioning a bowl in the gravel by increased water movement. The eggs that are laid, sometimes in the tens of thousands, are fertilized by the male and will hatch in the spring. In the north country the eggs will hatch in about five months. Further south it may be only a few months. The exact time of hatching seems to correlate with water temperature. Brook trout found in large water bodies can reach five pounds but in small brooks may reach their top size at only a few ounces. This sensitive fish is one of the premier species that displays whether or not humans have significantly impacted a particular area. Where the brook trout is found human impacts are minimal.

I walk down the stream and reach into the water from the cobbled bank. I roll a boulder over to expose the smooth bottom. Hellgramites, the aquatic larval form of the dobsonfly, scatter as I try to gather one of these insect larvae into my hand. Hellgrammites are voracious predators. They consume other macro invertebrates within the water column to survive their long stay in these fast moving waters. This critters are quite large, sometimes reaching three inches. Their long segmented body squirms, flopping about a right angles, when they are handled. They have two large pinchers that make them look like some sort of primitive predator left over from the dinosaur era. In fact this order (Megoloptera) dates back to the Permian era some 250 million years ago. To have survived in any form for this length of time is way beyond any imagination that I possess. It seems wondrous that I am holding in my hand a creature that dates back to this ancient time period. Although many people would recognize a dobsonfly, few would know a hellgramite unless they spent a great deal of time around fast moving streams. The dobsonfly lays eggs in a rocky section of stream. The eggs hatch and hellgrammites begin their long aquatic stay in the moving water. A hellgrammite may shed its exoskeleton many times before it emerges to a non-aquatic environment. In fact the hellgrammite may stay in the water for four years and turn into a flying insect that survives as an adult for only a handful of days before it perishes after laying eggs and beginning the cycle all over again.

A scant distance of a quarter mile downstream, in a short flat stretch of channel, early settlers built a small dam and grist mill. There are remnants of the foundations constructed of large angular boulders and wedge shaped rocks. It was a short lived enterprise; perhaps destroyed by a massive spring freshet that carried currents stronger than the friction and gravity that held the stone and boulders together; perhaps resulting in broken dreams for those who toiled so long and hard to erect the heavy structure.

The water in the brook is clean, pure, and fresh. On this day there is no reach of the stream where the bottom cannot be seen. Occasionally my foot steps startle a trout as I ramble along the stream bank. They quickly dart from sunning themselves on a gravel shoal to dark cover under a bank or boulder. Only the glimpse of a black silhouette can be seen as they seek shadows where they may lurk undetected.

I knew a local fellow who could catch brook trout with his bare hands. It was a skill of deception more than speed. It took great patience and decisive movements. I was so amazed the first time he did this in my presence that he took immediate legend status in my mind. I also used to have a Newfoundland dog that would stand in knee deep water in this very brook while I stood on the banks with a fishing pole in my hand. She would sometimes stay put for a half hour or more and remained as still as a granite statue. When a trout swam between her legs she would grab it in her jowls and tip her head back. The fish would slide down her throat and into an anxious belly. It was the most efficient angling operation one could ever witness. Who would think that they could be out-angled by a one hundred and fifty pound Newfoundland?

As I reach into the water to extract a piece of trash, probably careless litter thrown from a car on the adjacent dirt road, I notice that the water is ice cold. It takes no time for numbness to set into my knuckle joints and the wrists. Only two weeks ago this stream corridor was still lined with snow. Although the freezing water is a bit shocking I find myself putting my hand into the water again. Like a child wiggling a loose tooth with his or her tongue, I remember that there is only a fine line between pleasure and pain.

For the first time I notice a swarm of black flies around my head. These adults are hatching from larvae attached to the boulders in the stream before me. They are not biting yet. In a few days they will become a major nuisance requiring constant swatting or the cover of mosquito netting. They will remain until the weather reaches into the 80′s for seven days in a row when these blackfly armies will be replaced with legions of mosquitoes. Still there is little question that the beauty found here, the marvels appreciated here, far outbalance these bothersome insects. Life is far too short to focus on the negative. Each day in the natural world brings elegant wonder and discovery. And this mountain stream seems to be no exception.

This mountain stream; it is rushing, splashing, bouncing, and bubbling. After all of these centuries it still carries fresh, clean, water through an ever dynamic channel. It serves as nearly perfect habitat for the sensitive brook trout and elusive hellgrammite. The rapid descent of the water over steep landscape mixes clean air with pure water, perhaps the perfect blend of nature’s finest ingredients. This mountain stream will likely continue to shatter a dream or two in the coming centuries when some human seeks to tame her wild nature and underestimates her raw power. But more importantly this mountain stream will continue to whisper her wise secrets to those who will take the time to listen. Those few will find solace. They will experience the true freedom of a wild setting. But most important they will hear a song that will make them complete.

Written for in April 2011. May our water always be clean and free!

  • Find an Outlet

    Does this stream have a name, and it is the same as what the settlers called it? On a hot summer day, can you immerse yourself in one of the deep pools? I wonder if the settlers did, and the Indians before them, and the ancients before them. How I miss that sound, and how fortunate (and deserving!) you are to live in its midst. Thank you for the geology lesson, and for passing on the respect and awe each one of us should feel.

  • Wild_Bill

    Let me begin Debra by telling you that I have truly learned to appreciate, with great respect, your writing. To any of my readers who wants to enjoy raw, funny, down to earth writing please visit Debra’s website by clicking on “Find an Outlet” above.

    The name of the brook, Taylor Brook, is named after the first settler of Heath. He built a small house in the middle of swamp in the latter 1700′s. I’m sure he bathed, fished, and got his water from this stream. For years, while first living in a Tipi, and later in a small cabin with Maureen we bathed and cooled ourselves off in the deep pools of this mountain stream. I often dream I am floating in clear fresh water, an obvious look into my past by my inner conscious.

    There is probably little doubt that occasional Pocumtuck Native Americans, perhaps Mohawks, and even Abenaki’s (my ancestors) used this territory for hunting. But it was not prime hunting territory and it is unlikely they ever settled here. It is more likely that the Native American population utilized the Deerfield River Valley and Connecticut River Valley, both were rich in resources, had fertile land for these agrarian cultures, and easily traveled.

    I really appreciate your comments Debra, and appreciate your following my writing blog. Thank you.

  • Emma Springfield

    I like the way you connect the present with the history of a place. The continuity makes me feel like a part of something so much larger than ” the here and now”.

  • Nature-Drunk

    “But most important they will hear a song that will make them complete,” is one of my favorite sentences. I wrote a poem while I was in Colorado last year and what you say reminds me of how I viewed the Gunnison River one morning as I sat watching the sun rise. If you haven’t read “River,” you might want to go to my blog and check it out. I know you would appreciate its feel. Once again, thank you for an informative and beautifully written piece.

  • Crafty Green Poet

    this sounds like a wonderful river, in some senses like the Water of Leith in Edinburgh (which also has remains of mills) but the Water of Leith is much flatter and more urban too (though it is in parts fairly rural or feels so). I love your description of your Newfoundland dog fishing, how wonderful is that!

  • Wild_Bill

    I will check the poem “River” out! It sounds like just my cup of tea (er, coffee, in my case). Interestingly I changed the last sentence of this piece about five different times. So I’m very happy to hear that you liked it!

  • Wild_Bill

    The history of any given area, both natural and human, are an integral part of its story. From geologic history to biological history, interwoven with human history often gives us a more complete look at any different setting or landscape. In reality, this writing style that I often use accurately reflects how I think. So, you see, I really can’t help myself. Perspective is always an interesting angle when it comes to good writing.

  • Wild_Bill

    Ah, the rivers and streams in Scotland! Now there are some fine memories. Especially those found in the west and north!

    My Dad used to tell me about a Doberman he had that caught trout. Given his great story telling abilities I always wondered if he was pulling my leg. To see our Newfoundland, Ella, do it was a real eye opener. A dog that both picked ripe tomatoes and caught wild trout must be motivated primarily by food!

  • Emily

    I love how you bring in human art (Monet, Bach) into natural art (the dips and splashes of a stream). In so many instances, one informs the other. It certainly does for me.

    I also love how you look so closely here, Bill. Nothing seems beyond your notice, and I think that is a true testament to how much the world inspires YOU. Thanks for this. It was a pleasure to read.

  • Wild_Bill

    To some degree, human art mimics nature, there is good reason to believe that. I am inspired by the natural world. It is a never ending chapter book that brings tears, laughter, discovery, and most of all truth. It humbles me daily, which is a good thing. It is a reminder of all that is pure.

  • sandy

    A question. Did you buy the land because of the brook? I would have for sure. Brooks like yours are one of the reasons I am so taken with the northern part of the country. A creek just doesn’t have the same feel. That Ella was quite a dog, wasn’t she?

  • Wild_Bill

    I was only 23 years old when I bought this land. I had no money. My grandmother who also had little money lent me the $ for the down payment. Primarily I bought this land because it was inexpensive. In the end I had to make a choice between this piece in Heath, MA, or a piece in the next town north in Whitingham, VT. As it turns out the area around the piece in Whitingham eventually surrounded by small parcels and houses, so this was, by far, the best choice.

    That it had wonderful woods and this glorious brook was very fortunate. I could not have been more lucky!

  • Lbiederstadt

    Thank you for this, Bill. I needed this today.

  • Wild_Bill

    You are welcome. I hope this brought you pleasure, knowledge, and a smile.

  • Teresaevangeline

    I love the image of Ella fishing. What a sight that must have been.This entire post, besides being very informative, is wonderful nature writing, but your last paragraph is as fresh, clear, and inspiring as a drink of spring water. “The true freedom of a wild setting,” is what I would wish for everyone. Thank you, Bill, for another great post.

  • Ratty

    This makes me think of the creek I lived near when I was a child. We once found its source bubbling up from the ground, and then traveled to where it turned into a pretty large river. In the summer it was good spot for us kids to play.

  • Wild_Bill

    Thank you Teresa! Too few people have experienced the true freedom of a wild setting, it is much different and more primordial than political freedom. It is the key to finding the wonder of what Earth has to offer. And it unlocks the secrets of getting by human greed.

  • Wild_Bill

    I think we all need a childhood stream, river, brook. Mine was a lazy meandering stream that ran through a large swamp. It held a lot of mystery and was a place that fostered many adventures. I learned to fish, observe, reflect, and think creatively in that environment. My first encounters with real freedom.

  • Annie

    I have been thinking about this article for a couple of days now. The sentences “The stone that I hold in my hand is nearly round and smooth; the edges worn off from thousands of years of tumbling about in this brook. It could not have traveled for more than two miles, which is where the top of this watershed is located, but it is still worn by the constant motion in an unforgiving stream.” have really stuck with me. To me they ring true as the perfect metaphor for my life. I can see myself as a young girl with hard-edges stumbling through life, smoothing and wearing with each life experience. I can even see myself as a beautiful worn stone lying in a quiet pond satisfied with my journey and happy to have finally found my home.

    Thank you for your beautiful writing and sharing your knowledge of nature. I always look forward to your posts.

  • Wild_Bill

    And thank you for noticing the metaphor. They often go unnoticed which is fine, but I do like it when people can relate to them.

    I’ve been worn smooth to the point that I’m getting jagged again. Just part of the ongoing process I suppose. Nature and human life, two parallel universes at times, and the same entity at others.

  • Hudson Howl

    Many view a mountain stream in awe of its beauty -it’s lacy waterfalls, swirling foaming pools, the sound of water over rocks, the bordering forest. Viewing is not the same as understanding. Now I understand a mountain stream a little better, now I understand your mountain stream. When I see another or travel the banks of one I will think of your stream and your words. I’ll look past the ‘pretty picture’ seeing it as more of a vein with a pulse. Thank you for this.

    ‘Fine line between pleasure and pain’ reminds me of a trip along a mountain river, on the backside of Mount Robson in British Columbia. Starting in heavy forest, hot and moist with a strong wind ripping down the valley; the river was wide an fast. Transitioning into sub alpine the river became a rushing stream. In alpine immersed by thin crisp air, it was more like a jet stream of liquid ice. I remember standing on a rock in the middle a two meter stream of oxygen enriched crystal clear glacial melt water. 45km’s below me, the valley and the river of our starting point. Behind me, not more than 100m’s away, that same river being birthed from a 1m hole at the base of a crevice glacier. The sun was high and bright, It was windless, the only noise was from boots and water on rocks. Sweat streamed down my forehead. I did as you, bent down and plunged my hands in. I almost fell of the rock by the shock of what I felt. From pleasure to pain, an yet it makes one feel more alive.

    Oh, an if can, I also would like to second your motion…..Find an Outlet is a great source of Vitamin ‘D’ as her words and thoughts shine as bright as the Sun in Arizona.

  • lindabruce234

    I was transfixed following the journey of your stream. I keep thinking of how long it has been flowing, ever since the last ice retreated.

  • Wild_Bill

    Thank you for your wonderful comments and your luscious descriptions. There really is nothing quite like a mountain stream. It really does have many obvious parallels with the life and yet is still so unique.

    The fine line between pain and pleasure; one of life’s greatest mysteries, and yet so common. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. It goes way beyond the physical into the emotional in humans (and likely other animals).

  • Wild_Bill

    Yes, and perhaps before the last glaciation. Some of our landforms, especially areas cut deep in mountains were reshaped rather than obliterated by the last glaciation. Fourteen thousand years sounds like a long time until we think about the age of this planet. Thank you for reading. I truly appreciate your participation.

  • Barbara

    As I’ve begun to do with your wonderful writing now Bill and all the fabulous comments from your friends and fans, I waited until I had time to savour your words, to “see” the images, and in this case feel the chill water as in my imagination I dipped them into your beautiful brook.

    Once again, you’ve shared your world with exceptional grace and attention to detail. I laughed at the image of Ella standing stalwart in the stream. Marveled along with you at the round stone, the “brookies,” the hellgrammites, the sounds, the history… and appreciated all the comments, especially those on your use of metaphor throughout.

    A beautiful way to begin my Sunday morning and a new month. Thanks Wild_Bill

  • Wild_Bill

    Thank you Barbara. I’m so happy that you found it a nice way to begin the new month. May is pretty special, so I feel honored. As I get older I find myself paying more attention to detail. I’m not quite sure why that is. But it’s true. Perhaps my mind doesn’t skip from one thought to another so quickly as it did years ago, allowing me to savor all that is around me. Of course, the real beauty comes from the natural world. I simply report it.

  • T_glase

    I enjoyed every bit of this piece, Bill! I love these small streams too. There are many like it in the area in which I live and I enjoy seeing them in all of their seasonal cycles and rejoice that they are still there, still clear and clean. I have many catalogued in memory that run free for miles from their source then disappear before they reach the valley, I would assume to replenish the water table.

  • Wild_Bill

    In areas where there are deep stratified drift deposits, from glaciers and ancient riverine sediments, it is not uncommon for some of these mountain streams, particularly the ones that run primarily in the spring, to disappear into these deep sand and gravel deposits. And yes, they do replenish and resupply the ground water that is so necessary for all that lives. That you live in an area that is has so many of these nearly perfect systems is wonderful. You are a lucky individual.

  • Jack Matthews

    I so much wish I could experience that mountain stream. I like your statement that hearing the stream is a kind of song that makes a person complete. Well said, Bill. I think you ecologists can do more with the whole and parts of the whole than any other discipline in looking deeply into nature as illustrated here. To set the stream in chronology and see and write the affect of time is so grand. Down here in central Texas we have quieter streams. Rough Creek and Cherokee Creek were the ones I grew up with and “in.” We had — don’t know if we still have it — a Blue catfish. Not yellow, blue. I liked to catch perch more than any other fish. They were great to eat. Ella was quite a dog, wasn’t she? I miss my companions of yesterday like you do yours. When I go to New Mexico one of the great things I like to do in camping out is to pitch the tent and set up camp beside mountain streams. We have a favorite stream in northern New Mexico in the Carson National Forest called Santa Barbara. Been going there since 1968. Brenda and I will go again this summer and we will think about this post you have written and when we pick up rounded stones we will have a greater appreciation for the forces of a mountain stream.

  • Wild_Bill

    I have seen some of the mountain streams in New Mexico, perhaps some of them are a little more ephemeral, but very similar indeed during the spring freshet. Catfish are magnificent, especially the blue cat! We have channel cats in the larger rivers up here and bullheads (horned put) in the smaller ponds.

    Check out the bisected grain when you examine a round rock. It’s really cool to see!

  • Out Walking the Dog

    Fantastic, Bill. I can hear, see and feel the cold of the mountain stream. (I was going to say “taste” but the giardia kinda brought me up short.) I am fascinated by friends, human and canine, who can catch trout without tools. 

  • Wild_Bill

     Ella had many talents when we she came into our lives.  It’s hard to imagine how she had garnered so many different skills by age 3.  Truly a wonderfully intelligent dog she never ceased to amaze us.

  • Petefirmalino

    i use to campe on a creek like jn the late 40 when i was kid up in catskille mounteins  called roaingkille

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