"A story is like wine. It needs to be aged properly. You've been on Pine Creek for three seasons now. You'll never know this river as I've known it, but you'll know it in a different way. And after three years you should know a good story, too."
Ed McCarthy speaks like that. He can humble a man faster than a rattlesnake, but whereas a rattler leaves a fellow cold, McCarthy radiates warmth and you can't help but pick it up.
McCarthy makes his living outfitting canoeists and rafters and sending them down Pine Creek through the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, a 72-mile gorge boxed in by 700- to 1,000-foot bluffs and steep mountainsides, making it deep enough to crane your neck to see the stars. The canyon is a six-hour drive from Washington. You need at least a long weekend to canoe it. But, the drive is beautiful.
The upper 32 miles of the canyon are without road access. If you put in at Ansonia, three miles above the vortex of the canyon, then you're in for a straight wilderness shot to Blackwell, 28 miles downstream. There a semi-paved road enters, follows the river south and provides the canoeist with many take-out points. The canyon below Blackwell can be run throughout the summer, and the upper stretch during summer is best after a rain.
But I've been caught in the upper stretch in July when the river rose four feet after an all-night downpour, and while I sat stripped in my tent with everything soaked down to the last canned sardine I watched the raging torrent as no one less than Ed McCarthy came paddling down to see if I was all right.
McCarthy, you have to realize, is 70 years old. That's why he can humble a man faster than a rattlesnake, and that's why even a good rain deserves some respect. Always check water conditions with McCarthy.
McCarthy coaches everyone. Fifty years on the river have taught him that no one knows everything and that the best days in life are when you learn something new.
"At the entrance to the canyon is the only rapid you must study. You will hear Owasee before you see it. In the state's way, a bureaucrat has posted a sign on the right that reads 'DANGEROUS RAPIDS AHEAD.' Now hear this: Stay to the left. Though the sign is on the right, stay to the left."
McCarthy lets his eyes pierce yours to see if you're listening.
"Beach your canoe in a little cove you will find above the rapid. Then, you will study the rapid. And when you run it, hug the left bank so you could, were you foolish enough at such a moment, caress the rocks as they slip by." He listens for your silent assent.
"Kneel when you're in the white water," his voice rising, "60 percent of your weight on your knees and 40 percent against your seat." A pause. "Whenever you hit still water, then sit on the seat; otherwise you'll feel like you sat through 19 consecutive requiem high masses." A nice effect that tells you it's OK to laugh.
McCarthy laid out the trip; where to camp, where to get water.
"On your second night you will camp by a pool bigger than three football fields. Look for the railroad pinched between the river and the eastern canyon wall. In the center of the western bank against the hillside is a spring and remember any water that enters from the west you can drink. Farmers keep cattle on the eastern rim; don't drink the eastern water." Damn those piercing eyes; they make you remember.
"And in the pool you will catch trout that you will measure by the pound, not by the inch." I doubted that one. McCarthy is a canoeist, a story-teller and, I believe, not a trout fishermen because he learned from me that day that the trout fly called a "red quill" imitates a female hendrickson mayfly. "You know, I only know half of what I once did," he remarked. "When I hunt next fall I will get you a woodduck skin with which to tie your trout flies." I enjoyed the misconception of feeling his equal for an instant.
We caught no trout in the pool, only chubs and smallmouth bass. Since my partner outfished me, I will not say nothing big lurked in that pool. But the land upstream from the canyon is cleared and farmed, so the river now runs too warm, I believe, to hold a significant population of monster trout.
McCarthy still fishes in 1934, and that's so much the better for me because I will never have that pleasure.
Wildlife in the canyon is still prolific. For nearly a mile our canoes chased a great blue heron until it doubled back displaying a five-foot wingspread. Porcupine and 'coons visited each night. I saw the first Baltimore orioles I'd seen in years; goldfinches, bluebirds, red-winged blackbirds and cliff swallows darted and soared about while a king-fisher left a branch, flapped once, folded back his wings and plummeted into the water to nail a small fish. On a previous trip I had seen osprey.
We finished two towns below Blackwell, took in the Saturday night square dance in Morris at the Morris Inn and then counted 16 dear during the first hour of the drive back to McCarthy's before talk of the canyon ended the count.
The canyon puts a certain glow in your spirit that lasts through small towns like Mount Union, where the cinema is billed "Jesus Is Lord." There is a faint touch of pioneer dignity and simplicity about the canyon, the towns and Ed McCarthy. The glow lasts until the Beltway. GETTING THERE
Take I-270 to Frederick, and U.S. 15 north through Williamsport to Mansfield. Go west on U.S. 6 to Rexford, and look on the right for the Antlers Inn, which McCarthy owns, from which he outfits canoeists and rafters and at which you can camp.