As I walked, salty drops ran down my face,
but they were just perspiration.
Sparse Gray Hackle “Fishless Days, Angling Nights”
A spring seems like a miracle every time. Right here in the middle of the woods, no place in particular, clear clean water bubbles gently from the ground. It’s a magic trick. A birth. At once, from nothing, a watercourse exists, one that will not quit until it reaches the sea. Six inches wide and one inch deep, it follows the path of least resistance, flowing north down a gradual slope and across an acre of meadow. Born to move, it has only one direction – down – and one mission –keep going. A fine philosophy. Let’s adopt it and follow along.
It is midmorning in “the Hook” after a cool August night and the meadow has only belatedly come alive. Monarchs, Tiger Swallowtails, Admirals, Fritillaries and Sulphurs choose among the Goldenrod, Joe-Pye Weed, and Queen Anne’s Lace. Dozens of bright butterflies dance, half of them Monarchs, the third generation of the year, now with tickets to Mexico for the winter. There is a constant hum from energetic bees and bugs, the song of the meadow. Grasshoppers bounce away from your old sneakers with every step through waist high grass. As if uncertain, the little rill slows crossing the colorful field, triples in size, and just before it disappears into the trees, it widens enough to include a bunch of cattails thriving in the sun.
Past the open space is a partly shaded pond. This young waterway will discover patience here. The Buttonball (an old name for the Sycamore Tree) housing development abuts the area, although the homes are out of sight. A dirt road once went across this brook into a sandpit, perhaps a place to get extra fill. Though any kind of bridge is now gone, the road’s shoulders have slowed our streamlet even more, thus the shallow pond. Only a third of an acre, it is full of fallen trees. What kid can resist these walkways out into the middle?
Out here the marsh is a foot deep. Shade keeps it from being overwhelmed with sun-loving aquatic weeds and turning into a genuine swamp. The horizontal trees host painted and spotted turtles. Saucer-sized bullfrogs hang in the film, as does one snapper, who rules. Small bass and assorted bream are his hors d’oeuvres. Frogs join the turtles and dive to safety before we even see them, leaving only widening circles. Young explorers must acquire patience here too. The snapper’s head sinks slowly from sight, and a Pileated Woodpecker laughs at us like a monkey.
The sandlot, which doesn’t host a kid’s baseball game today, has a steep uphill bank on the far right. The near side, even with the brook, is hidden in a tangle of brush. Home run balls to left field are usually gone for good. This edge, sun to one side, shade and water to the other, is warbler heaven. Insects abound. Gone now in late summer, the migratory birds have left the repast to the Box Turtles and Wood Turtles. A Worm Snake hides, a whole life spent below the bark of a fallen tree. A Ring-necked Snake, so old that it is pale grey, slips out of sight so swiftly it seems a ghost. Walking out of the sandlot, we enter a hemlock dominated ravine along the spring-fed brook, and the temperature falls a few degrees.
Not just darker and cooler, it is much quieter in here under the conifers; the gentle gurgle seems louder than it is. The stream, lively now, averages two feet wide and has holes a foot deep; cool ground water seeps from the hillsides have added to it. Red-backed and Dusky Salamanders live under every damp rock and log. Rocks break up the faster flow and undercut banks hide Brook Trout. Adult trout are only four or five inches long, their vivid primary colors invisible in the shade. Ripples on the surface, gone at once in the quick water, are all that give away their presence. You can lie on the moss and reach ever so slowly into the brook, under the bank, and move your hand upstream until it touches one, finning alertly there, a miraculous lifeform in another world. I bet you can do it if you try. Go on – be a kid. Yet after a mere hundred yards of this dark sweetness, our equally adolescent creek runs under Glen Road and hesitates momentarily – big changes are imminent.
Tumbling down a loose pyramid of rocks, the little brook releases its identity into a larger version of itself – the Pootatuck River. Let’s wade across here, at the head of a shallow riffle, so we don’t disturb the local residents. Wet sneakers – who cares? Downstream where it widens out into a pool, any trout will be taking advantage of the brook water at this time of year, hanging along the one bank where it is a bit colder. This little river is not stocked – it’s barely a half mile between the deactivated Fabric Fire Hose factory dam upstream and the estuary mudflat below where it opens into a cove on the main river. The short stream distance is vigorous, running down shale ledges most of the way. Up river, above the equally forlorn Plastic Molding Co. dam, lies the sleepy village of Sandy Hook.
The state plants some trout here and a private club does as well, and some of those fish use spring floods to escape downstream. Here they compete with warmwater species moving up from the cove, and there are no gravel beds to spawn in, to lay eggs beneath. Mixed up biologically, this is not a self-sustaining system, but nevertheless it’s rich.
Raccoons teach their young how to find crayfish. Otter leave tracks while otherwise living invisible lives. Mink, possums, and even the occasional deer can be found by a careful watcher as dusk approaches. When night falls, the clearing across the river from Tuttle’s Glen Lodge lights up with a million blinking fireflies. Just a few baby Pickerel Frogs remain in the grass (and they can now jump quite far) but most have been replaced by new-born American Toads this late in the season. Be careful where you put your feet – they are everywhere, finding bugs and worms to eat. Noise picks up; crickets and katydids fill the field with song.
In the surface film, mayflies and caddis flies are hatching, and every fish contentedly chows down. If a waterway can be described as mature, this one is now. Splashes are constant. So are the mosquitoes – did you bring the bug dope? A pair of Barred Owls hoot to each other. Darkness dominates and the Milky Way stretches across the sky.
A nondescript sand bar borders the little stream as it abruptly broadens into the cove. You can stand on the bar and cast for 180 degrees, but all you’ll catch is a selection of tiny panfish and largemouth bass. As always, the upper end of a cove or estuary is the nursery. The cove, though, is five or six acres, and if you can find the channel as it winds toward the main river, that’s where the game of aquatic life and death takes place.
To the left is an endless stretch of fields and meadows, to the right is the hill we came down, and on that shore sits a ramshackle marina. “River’s on the River” consists of two long docks and a boat launch. Kids lie on the ends of the docks on many a summer day, worms wriggling on the ends of their cannibalized and homemade poles. This water is becalmed. Flat and slow, it has no intention of expending any effort. It is killing time, like most of the kids, who don’t care if they catch anything – as long as the sun is warm and school is out, life is good.
A pair of swans glides around the cove, slurping up bugs from time to time. Don’t go near them in your borrowed rowboat unless you want to get hissed at. Under the placid surface huge brown carp, dinosaur fish, sneak by in water two to three feet deep, which stays remarkably clear unless the sand bottom gets stirred up by a storm or an awkward oar. There are just a couple of stumps scattered along the channel, the remains of trees washed down in long-ago storms. They are your clues to the channel, and by each one sits a bass worth catching. But these guys are not stupid – everybody gives them a shot while passing by. Hula Poppers and Jitterbugs aren’t going to cut it. If you want to catch something with a surface plug, try the upper reaches where weeds hide the pickerel. They’ll come roaring out of cover, making a wake, and smack that lure like Mickey or Ted hits a ball left up in the strike zone.
There is a dropoff where the cove ends and the Housatonic begins. Here again the water is visibly moving, albeit ponderously. It seems to know where it’s going and accept the decision made for it. It’s mature, dignified. This is big water – one hundred yards across – yet it too is usually clear. There’s another little dock right across the bridge and upstream. Because the hill is steep here, the bank drops off quickly to six or eight feet before the water becomes too dark to see through, even with your hands curled around your eyes. Schools of yellow perch come by like commuters. Big bass appear and disappear, eyeing the sunfish, rock bass, and pumpkinseeds that hang near
They call it the “Silver Bridge”, the span that crosses the river here, a little way up from the old railroad trestles. “T-BIRDS” in shocking turquoise, is painted on the cement at the east end. We jump from the road, twelve feet down to the surface, and sink so deep that the cold water is shocking. Bigger kids jump from the second layer of cross braces. Under the bridge, the river is shadowed, mysterious, still holding onto some secrets. Fish all you want. There is something here, but you won’t figure out how to catch it, and perhaps it’s better that way.
One of those secrets – maybe you guessed – is that in here it is 60 years ago. You and I went back in time. We’re still kids in the Hook. All these recollections spin slowly in an eddy far back in your brain, just as they do in mine. Can we touch the past like we once touched the trout in that brook? Only in dreams, I’m afraid.
This water is not the same anymore. It’s now muddy and almost lifeless from that spring all the way to the Silver Bridge, and in the many homes full of new Sandy Hook people there are none who know it as we knew it, feel what we felt. So hold those memories tight – they’re all that remains. Like water, we must keep going.