Thursday, June 19, 2014

A river will run through it, and night will be no more

I struggled with writing about this for over two months. On April 9th (April 12th "officially"), I lost my little brother Peter at the age of 32 very suddenly, and of natural causes. He was a wonderful husband, a father of two sons, one of which was born just over a month after his passing, he was a son himself, and my only brother. His death has no doubt left all of us in a world of pain and shock.

When I started this blog, I left the door open to not only talk about fly fishing, but also about theological issues. So far every post has been fly fishing related, but in another life, when I'm not fly fishing, I play the role of some sort of armchair theologian. I recently completed my Bachelor of Science in Bible, and am looking towards beginning an MA in Theological Studies. Theology plays a huge role in who I am and how I view the world. So, it is times like this where I am glad that I never intentionally limited this blog to simple musings on fly fishing. For those who read my blog who are not "believers", so to speak, I pray you'll bear with me as I launch into this post.

I shared many things with my brother. Being just two years older than Peter, I can say that my memories begin with him coming into my life. My earliest memory is of my parents bringing home from the hospital. I still remember them laying him on our sofa and bringing me over to see this new life. I didn't understand, as no two year old would, at just how life changing that moment would be.

My childhood was spent fishing and enjoying the outdoors with my dad and brother. While we didn't get into fly fishing until our teen years, the comparisons to our family and Norman Maclean (author of A River Runs Through it) and his family were obvious. Yes, we are a family of devout Presbyterians (and Scots Irish on my mother's side to boot), and while my dad is no Reverend Maclean, as you would not see him casting to a metronome, wearing a leather glove, banging out a four count rhythm and critiquing my English composition papers, he is a hard working man who gave my brother and me a deep seated appreciation for the outdoors, in particular fishing. Imagine a blue collared version of the Macleans living not in the foothills of Montana, but rather in the farmlands of Lancaster County. We didn't live at the junction of two great trout rivers, but rather, a quarter of a mile from a dirty farmland creek infested with carp, yellow bellied catfish, and the prize of Lancaster County-big bronze backed small mouth bass. And while my brother and I would spend our summers walking the creek catching bigger bass than most people believed lived in that stream, our summer vacations were spent on the great trout streams of North Central Pennsylvania, where we discovered fly fishing.

The bond that was forged on these trips runs deep. There were times in my brother's life where his path seemed not so different from Paul Maclean's. Drinking too much, running with rough crowds, taking risks, and I confess, there was a time when I genuinely felt that I would lose Peter tragically just as the Macleans would lose Paul. There were times when I felt much like Norman Maclean when he wrote about not knowing how to help his brother, other than to take him fishing. Fly fishing was something we still had. No matter how different our paths in life were during these times, we could go out on a stream and reconnect. The times in our lives where my dad, brother and I were most far apart were times in our lives where we could still wade the Kettle Creek and put all that distance behind us.

And yet, unlike Paul Maclean, my brother came around. We would contribute this to the workings of God in his life. Being of Presbyterian stock, we fully believe that the Lord never lets His children go too long in rebellion, and my brother would testify to this years later. He once told me that even in the darkest moments of his life, he would lay in his bed at night with the overwhelming sense that God's hand was still on him. It would become clear later on in his life that Peter's feelings were right, and God's hand truly was on him.

I had the privilege of watching Peter come to a strong, vibrant faith in God. As he grew out of his early to mid twenties, he became a man dedicated to his faith, to his young wife and son, and to his church. Peter changed. He abandoned his destructive life, turned to his God, and sought to lead his family in the rich traditions of our Presbyterian heritage. Ironically, it would be in this time that he would most talk about death. I long since stopped worrying that I would lose Peter like Norman lost Paul, and yet my brother would talk about the hope that the Christian has in death. He would talk about the unimaginable reality of being in the presence of Christ. He would talk about the perfected soul that he would become after death. He would ponder the mysteries of the Triune God. He not only developed a rich theology that lived in his head, he developed a theology that would effect his heart. He was a great theologian because of this. He learned to connect orthodoxy with orthopraxy. He learned that to believe right meant that he would live rightly. And so it was that our family saw Peter in his last years on earth living in a way that brought joy and encouragement to us. We saw the reality of God's hand on his life being fleshed out.

And then, suddenly to us, the Lord took him home. Here again, I found myself feeling like Norman Maclean, losing my brother at the age of 32, the very same age that Paul Maclean died. Yet, I praise God that I did not lose my brother like Norman did, to a street fight gone wrong, but rather, I had the opportunity to enjoy sweet Christian fellowship with him in the past several years. It was in these last years that our bond grew ever deeper as we walked similar roads. We would meet our wives, marry, have children, even live next door to one another, and of course we remained fly fishermen together. Our time on the water became all the more sweet. I stopped worrying, as we fished together, about what I could do to help my brother, and instead started spending that time with him talking about the Divine. We would hash out our theology together, all the while sharing a love for the wilderness and the wild trout that lived there. We would talk about our families, the joys and struggles of being young fathers and husbands. But mostly, we would enjoy the fishing and each other's company.

My brother had no fear of death. He was open about this. He saw that "to live is Christ, but to die is gain". Perhaps deep down he had a sense that his time was short on this earth. Perhaps not. Perhaps his "all or nothing" approach to life led him to a place where once he truly and fully grasped Christian theology, he couldn't help but dive head first into the depths of faith in Christ. Either way, he believed that God numbers our days, and that God works all things for the good of those who love Him. For Peter, this is his reality. He now sees the glorious hope of his faith. He has heard his Savior say, "Well done, good and faithful servant." For the rest of us, we struggle.

I find myself often asking this question. How could the best thing to ever happen to my brother feel like the worst thing that could ever happen to us? Our family now has a widow, two fatherless children, grieving parents who had to bury a son, and a brother who has to live my life in a way that I never had to before-without Peter by my side. How do we move forward with this? This is the place where the rubber meets the road. This is the place where our theology is hit in the face by real life. I once fully confessed to my brother that there is a big disconnect between my theology and "real life" sometimes. I told him that there are times when my theology feels insufficient to deal with the world around me. He flat out told me that was a load of bunk. He said that if I truly believed my theology I would never say such a thing.

Much has been said and written about grief. As I move along in the process, I realize one thing. It is easy to focus on the grief itself and strive to deal with it. I think of what might ease the pain. I think of what might make the sorrow a little less bitter. Here, I find very little comfort. I read about Christian suffering and pain. I read about dealing with loss and grief. I'm thankful that I don't walk this road alone, but walk it with many other saints. What I read may help somewhat, but its always temporary, and more like psychiatric treatment than anything else. What truly lifts my spirits is to reflect on the God that my brother served. The God who created this world, the streams, the trout, the mountains, and who gave us these relationships and lives that cross with one another. What lifts my spirits is to reflect on a God who is glorious, good, sovereign, holy, merciful, gracious, patient, perfectly loving, eternally faithful, just and righteous, all powerful, all knowing, fully present with us all the time, is self sufficient and fully sufficient for us, and is perfectly beautiful. This is the God in who my brother believed in faithfully, and now is experiencing perfectly. This is the God who is closer to us than any brother, son, father, or husband. This is the God who, as Saint Augustine said, judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist at all. This is the God who not only brings good out of evil, but also submitted himself to the greatest of all evils so that he could bring forth the greatest good the world has ever known, bearing not only the physical pain of death but also the spiritual pain of making atonement for our sins. This is the God who loves us so deeply that he did not spare himself from the pain and agony of evil. In these reflections, there I find comfort. Reflecting on grief and pain seems to only magnify more my grief and pain. Yet in God, there is true comfort and peace.

What starts out as a reflection of my brother's life turns into a pondering of the character and nature of God, and I think my brother would be pleased with that. He would not want us to romanticize his life, but rather, he would want his life to point to the glory of God himself. Perhaps this is one reason why reflecting on the attributes of God brings me comfort-because I know that my brother would want me to reflect not on his character, but on God's. By reflecting on God's character and nature, it honors both my brother's legacy and God himself.

I've been fly fishing several times now since his death. Each time is a bitter sweet moment. I feel close to him when I'm on the stream, and yet I'm most reminded of his absence. As my father and I fished together for the first time since Peter's death last weekend though, I learned a great truth. It is still possible to enjoy the things we once enjoyed with Peter, even without him by our side. Every moment is bitter sweet, and yet, I find that the bitterness has a way of magnifying the sweetness. I can only attribute this to the grace of God himself.

The last picture of the three of us (from L to R-me, our father, and Peter), taken in October of 2013 in the Hammersley Wilderness Area. This was the last fishing trip the three of us took together.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Long, Hard Winter

Yeah. Everyone on the East Coast has felt it. This winter feels like it'll never end, but we know it will. Usually I'm pretty tough with cold weather. The last few years I've fished right through the winter. Not this year. Above-average snow fall, long stretches of teens, single digits, and even negative wind chills, not to mention a mad rush of school work to finish my under-grad work by May have made this winter a dud for fishing. I got out on New Year's day to fish a spring creek. Later in Feb. I did the same, but both times I took the skunking. This past week things finally started to look up for us. I got out to a new stream last Tuesday, a stream that the PFBC is considering for the natural reproduction list. It definitely has wild brookies in it! Saturday I spent a few hours hiking around looking for another stream being considered for the same list, with no success of locating the stream. Had a beautiful hike though, and it felt good to get outdoors and get some miles on my feet. Later on Saturday I fished my favorite local freestoner where the brook trout were willing to take not only subsurface flies, but also dries. Spring is definitely on its way, and it can't get here soon enough!

PS-I felt the site needed a new layout. I like it.

Monday, December 30, 2013

2013: The Year of the Brookie

I believe I'm done fishing for the year. I can't see myself getting out in 2013 again. Reflecting on this year, I have to say,  it's been a monumental year for native brook trout. I did more small stream brook trout fishing in more areas of PA than I have in prior years.

The interesting thing about the brookies this year is the over all size. The mild summer, good flows, it made for an excellent year for big brookies. I caught more "legal size" natives in 2013 than I ever have before, including several in the 11" range. My largest to date was the beautiful 12" native that I caught not 10 miles from home.

As I look towards 2014, it's time for a new focus. I hope to attempt bigger waters this year. Of course small mountain streams will still be a regular event, but I'd also like to try for bigger browns and bows, and do so more aggressively than I have the past several years. Trips to State College, trips to PA's "Trophy Trout Waters", trying a few more tail waters, the upper branches of the Delaware River, these are definitely on the agenda for the year. We'll see how it plays out. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Trip in Review

This is long overdue, but sometimes I just need some time to digest things. Plus, my school work load is doubled up now, so posting time is limited. Still, here is what I can remember from our trip north.

We were,  no doubt, disappointed that the national park was closed. It would have been my first trip to the Smokies, and I planned this trip for quite a long time. Still, going north into the Pennsylvania wilds was like a trip down memory lane for us. Camping at Ole Bull State Park, stopping in at Kettle Creek Tackle Shop, even a trip to the old "honey hole" on Kettle Creek, it was like the "old days" for my dad, brother, and me. This is where it all began for us. We learned how to fly fish here. So by the time we arrived at Ole Bull, we weren't even thinking about the Smoky Mountains.

The trip started beautifully. A bald eagle was spotted on the way up, and I was glad to buy a camera with a 10x zoom! Day one started on Hammersley Fork. This was less about the fishing and more about seeing a patch of virgin hemlock trees that survived the logging boom of the mid 1800s. We arrived on the Hammersley around 9:30am Thursday, Oct. 10th. The spawn wasn't under way yet, and the water was holding around 50 degrees, despite night time temps into the 40s. The brookies were off at first, but as the sun came out, so did the fish. My dad and brother fish small streams less than I do, so it took them a while to get their chops, but it was a beautifully wild stream. After about a mile or so of fishing upstream, we reached the Forrest Denlinger Natural Area trail head. A hike  up the side of the mountain would land us right in the middle of virgin timbers. The hike up was brutal. I believe it was a climb of about 700ft in altitude in less than a mile. It took some time for us to get up there as we were in our waders (not the best hiking gear!) and were toting our vests, chest packs, and fly rods. About half way up we dumped all our fishing gear. We figured no one as coming up to take it! When we reached the top, we realized how worth it the hike was. The trees were absolutely stunning. It was a sense of the forest as it once was. My dad said that he heard about these timbers for almost 30 years, but never took the time to find them. He was glad to finally see these trees.

We arrived at Ole Bull around 4:00pm, after a hearty lunch at Debs/Cross Fork Inn, set up camp, then headed to the old 'honey hole' on Kettle Creek. Kettle was just stocked, but oddly enough, the only trout that I caught was a 4" wild brownie.

The next day we decided to hit up Cross Fork. This is a stream I've fished in passing, but never spent the time I felt the stream deserved. The stream would become our main focus for the rest of the trip. We fished three sections of the creek. Friday we fished a middle portion of the stream that was just littered with wild brownies. Some of them were quite significant in size. There was so much good water, every run and pool looked trouty, that fishing was slow because you didn't want to overlook one inch of this stream. Saturday we went to the more popular stretch of Cross Fork. As we were entering the stream at the bridge, some bait chuckers tried to hole jump us and get upstream of us.That didn't work out for them, as we fished a lot faster than they did (and with every cast the one guy was caught in trees), and we soon got up stream of them. It didn't matter anyway. This stretch obviously sees more pressure than other stretches, and didn't fish very well. I knew of another stretch that I fished during the Spring, so we got in the truck and drove upstream several miles, well upstream of the two prior sections we fished. Here, it was all native brookies. The stream goes into a series of splits, and the water can get pretty skinny. It's littered with brookies though, and  we all ended up having a double digit day on this stretch.

The weather was great, the scenery was stunning, the fishing was great, and it was a trip that I think the three of us will remember for quite some time. I forgot how much I love this area of my  home state. It was, in a way, like going home for us.

Monday, October 7, 2013

From the South to the North

We are a few days out from what was supposed to be my first trip to the Great Smoky Mountains. The ongoing government shutdown appears to have put the death blow to that plan. Plan B is to head north. The campsite is now booked, and we will be going into the Hammersley Wilds of northern PA. It's an area of wild trout, virgin hemlocks, and great wild life. It ain't the Smokies, but the northern Appalachians will no doubt prove to be as lovely and wild as their southern counterpart.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Smokies in Jeopardy

The government shut down as of midnight last night. As a Libertarian, I rejoice at the bloated dead corpse of the government becoming a little less bloated. The sour point is that the national parks closed, and this of course could have a negative effect on my trip to the Smokies. While I don't understand how the Federal Government can tell citizens to stay off of land that they owe (remember...we the people own those national parks, not the government!), I must respect the laws. We are coming up with a "Plan B" should the park not open within the next 9 days. Most likely, we will be camping at Ole Bull State Park in north-central PA and fly fishing the legendary Hammersly Fork wilderness. It ain't the Smokies, but it's still wild country with bear, elk, and hilljacks.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Prepping for the Smokies

I'm not one to blow money on fly fishing trips. Mostly, because I have no money. A few years ago, however, there was a few threads on PA Fly Fish about fishing in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. As you know from this blog, I'm a small stream fisherman at heart. My imagination started racing with images of back woods small streams inhabited by wild rainbows. I did something unimaginable. I actually started to plan a trip.
A few searches on the internet, and I had a campsite reserved on the North Carolina side of the park, in the Oconaluftee watershed. I emailed my dad to tell him about the trip, and invited him, my brother, and my cousin to come with me. My dad was immediately on board. My cousin confirmed his attendance a few weeks ago. Last night, I got the call from my brother that he'd be able to come along.

This trip is a tribute to the fly fishing trips I took with my dad, brother, and cousin when we were younger. We learned how to fly fish in Northern Pennsylvania, cutting our teeth on streams like the Little Kettle. We'll be leaving around 3am the second Thursday of October, arriving in North Carolina around noon that day. We'll have two and a half days to hike, fish, and enjoy the park before packing up and coming back to PA that Sunday. Apart from fishing the Oconaluftee, we're planning on hiking up Bradley Fork, fishing several of it tribs.

You can expect a large photo dump and post from this trip, and hopefully that photo dump includes lots of fish, black bears, elk, and other "exotic" wild life. If anyone is interested in doing a trip to the GSMNP, it really is quite affordable. Our campsite is around $20 a night, and it's stream side. A 10 day NC non-residential license is around $10, and as long as you're in the national park, no trout stamp is required. The NC license allows you to fish both the TN and NC side, and I would recommend Little River Outfitters in Townsend TN as a great source of information. Their online forum has bee incredibly helpful in planning this trip. It's a month out, but the excitement is unbearable.