I started as always in the state parking area and after sighing in, used GPS data to short cut my way along a beeline to the river. As always the trails in this hiking area were inviting and easy walking. The mixed weather had not done much if any trail damage leaving it an easy stress free walk so I could hike with my classical guitar music playing low in my earphones.
All along the way, I was reminded that spring was in full bloom. The forest had that sweet growing scent that hangs in the air and buds were splitting open everywhere.
Young things making a showing
Evidence of life was everywhere, and evidence of the struggle for life as well.
The Neversink River Gorge is a special place full of untouched beauty and life. Eagles, Owls, Deer, Woodpeckers by the ton and seemingly a high concentration of Black Bear.
Apparently the rumors about Bears are true.
The waterfall was only the reason for my hike, you might call it the Grail of the quest. The really special treat came after I arrived and had made my third cast. A pause and a pull came from my modified Woolybugger (my own mix of ideas any purist would have scoffed at) a wonderful Trout took my offering as it fell through an island of foam in the pool beneath the falls.
Well will the surprises and gifts never end??? as if the fates had lined up to do old RJ a favor, two figures appeared like apparitions from the mountain laurel and stood atop the falls. From my vantage point I could only tell they were also after Neversink Trout and by the looks of their kit and rods I qualified them as serious Trout hunters.
I turned my back on the pool and an ever stiffening breeze to give them a shot at the hole and hopefully the same feeling of solitude I had enjoyed. The casting was getting challenging due to the thermals changing with the sun's movement over the gorge, so I took a moment to rest my back and snack on some Girl Scout cookies (thin mints) my Daughter had gifted me. I sat against a leaning bank side tree and watched as the two new comers "played through" the hole. Both of us politely nodded to each other but otherwise kept a respectful distance. They were a man and woman, one seemed to be acting the part of a guide as the other stepped up to work the seam.
You can (at least I can) always tell the expert from the novice just by the way a "Sportsman" moves. An accomplished and seasoned Hunter will walk confidently without undue sound and seldom looks at his feet knowing the ground before him has been carefully scrutinized even if only by a glance. A veteran Fly Fisher does the same thing. They enter the water as if hiding from fish, stalking them. They keep to the shadows if possible approaching at angles that don't favor the fish as it lays in wait. They hunt the hunter. They dress to match the foliage, ware hats with dark visors to aide in shading the eye. They take small cautious steps and don't drag their feet on the pebble bottom. Most are not even aware of this habit but that's the point. One only becomes a Master when they have converted the science into an art and the art to a way of life. Such were this mans movements.
Intrigued, I watched a bit as his hand gestures guided the woman's efforts. He stood stoically watching the flow of the foam line and the subtle reflections on the water's surface for any disturbance that would indicate feeding Trout. He looked in all directions taking in the same natural beauty I gazed on and with an obvious similar appreciation for the place but while he watched his companion and mentored from just beneath the back cast, I could tell his eye was on the wind in the trees and shifting cloud cover. I am a practiced observer of people, that's what I do and I know of what I speak.
At some point I got close enough to confirm my suspicions. I, like so many others in my home town indeed this part of New York knew him. Phil Chase was one of my High School Teachers. I remember our first interaction. When he discovered I had something of a monopoly on the Tri-State area's dairy farm Woodchuck hunting, he asked me for any Black Woodchuck hair I could supply. What the heck for? I asked. For flies of course. Stupid me, I should have guessed that. He never got any, at least not from me. It wasn't for lack of trying, I just never shot one.
Phil is one of the two celebrities I've known and shared an interest/sport with. He is nationally renowned for his efforts in the name of conservation and preserving the environment with particular interest on rivers, the Delaware, Mongaup and Neversink being his "home" waters.
His contributions don't begin or end there, Phil is or has been a writer and has authored many articles on his beloved sport (life style) an accomplished fly tyer/fisher, his noble face has smeared more then a few pages of books and magazines and the list goes on and on. To me he has always been Mr. Chase and thankfully later in life just Phil (more due to my advancing age then anything else). Always honest and generous with advice and free with a smile and moment of his valuable time. He has rubbed elbows with the who's who of the angling community and is considered a contemporary by many famous writers/fishers across the country. He is all that and more to me, he is a local hero of sorts. I'm a fan and I like to think a friend.
I've been to Phil's house and waited in the living room for a copy of the tying instructions for Phil's famous "Catskill Clipper" fly. His home is a comfortable, earth toned, a warm and inviting place full of reminders of whats important to Phil. Photos of Family and Friends and the Outdoors abound. Evidence of Hunting and of course Fishing surround you as do windows overlooking an expanse of local farm land or the greenery of his own property at the end of a long private drive. I sat and waited, watching as Phil juggled two hundred things all at the same time. A smartly but casually dressed businessman sat at Phil's table going over some business concern while discussing football (Phil loves football) the phone rang at least twice, Phil brought out his latest homemade knife (Phil makes knives too) a knock on the door brought yet another person stopping by to handle some other issue only Phil could address, Phil brought me a soda before taking another phone call, we exchanged thoughts on hellgrammite imitations, admired an old rifle before he stepped back to the table to sign papers, I think the phone rang again. he just always seems to be doing something with or for somebody.
Today was no different, Phil exited the water with a grin (customary for Phil) and shook my hand. He introduced me to his friend Joanne, a very nice woman with smiling eyes and a fevered desire to connect with one of the gorge's spotted inhabitants. We exchanged pleasantries and took turns with each others cameras and of course traded a favorite fly or two. Phil complemented my casting technique, saying he liked the way I handled the rod (I think he was being very generous). Phil can be a great story teller, after all he is a writer. This time he was flat out lying!
The area is legally accessible from the other side of the river but the land I was casting from was out of bounds. Phil was so much the gentleman he found a polite way of breaking the bad news to me, I would never again fish this particular side of the falls. I have a reputation of my own to uphold based on trust and trespass does not fit easily into it, never has. Phil has rights to walk these lands, alas I do not.
The wind Phil was watching stiffened and I had miles to walk to get back to trusty rusty so I began to pack up my toys when Phil offered me a ride back out to my car. Point of fact, Joanne was parked there too so it killed two birds. I accepted and thanked him.
On the walk back to Phil's 4x4 we met the land owner. Ben Wechsler stepped from his vehicle with an all business stone face and announced sarcastically that we were all trespassing! That was shortly followed by a knowing smile, Phil's polite introduction and a warm handshake. He seemed to be an amiable individual of quick intelligent humor, genuinely happy to run into us but I got the distinct feeling that had I not had Phil's protection, he would have shot me stone dead and left me for the Bears. Ben is understandably proud and protective of this land and it's gifts. After a time he gave us a bit of a tour, I felt privileged and followed.
On a rocky and forested hillside, seemingly in the middle of nowhere we visited the site of a plague memorializing a friend and fellow Writer/Sportsman. This private and out of the way place was as sacred as any cemetery and by my thinking even more beautiful and suitable to the man they described. This simple gesture tells much about the type of character these men possess and the respect they have for each other.
Moving and inspiring to the Pantheist within me.
I hope to meet him again soon. Thanks Ben.
When we arrived at the state parking area, I gave Phil a set of custom maps I had made of the area complete with aerial photos and satellite imaging...very cool stuff but with "no property lines". I hope he finds some use for them. I signed out at the trail register and bid my friends farewell.
It had been a very special day for me, The wild river gorge, the Trout, Phil and Joanne not to forget Ben Wechsler. Very special indeed. This is what I call a productive Saturday's walk in the woods. I wont soon forget it.