The air is warm and inviting and a pleasant stillness hangs over Washington, DC. It is a nice Saturday in the city, but it is always nicer in the mountains. A casual 3pm departure from the nation’s capitol and I head west. The sun, still high in the sky, begins to lose intensity when I arrive at the Dickie Ridge Visitor Center along the famed Skyline Drive. The ranger and I speak briefly. He asks me about my proposed route, number of nights, and bear preparations before giving me a backcountry permit to attach to my pack. The sun is waning when I finally reach the trailhead. I adjust the straps of my pack and sling it onto my shoulders to begin my descent into the valley wilderness. The first step on to the dirt sends an intense freedom coursing through my body. It is a bizarre mix of adrenaline and peace, leaving man’s world behind to be left alone in the care of nature.
I have seen over a dozen bears in these Blue Ridge Mountains, but the bears have seen many people and pay little attention to our presence. I once turned a corner to find a bear 30 feet away. It looked lazily at me for half a second and went back to grubbing. Still, it is safer to avoid spooking the wildlife so now I make up songs, singing them aloud to nature and to anything that I don’t want to sneak up on. The songs are mostly observational nonsense fixating on tree bark, unravelling ferns, or whatever passes my vision. It is a liberating form of self expression. By most standards I am a terrible singer, but nature doesn’t seem to mind my off key half rhyming gibberish, or at least it can’t vocalize its disapproval. Carefree and singing, I cheerily bounce along the trail doing my best Tom Bombadil. It is just me and the trees and trickling water flowing towards a central point on the valley floor. Time is measured by nothing more than light and shadow.
When the sun finally dips behind the ridge the temperature also drops and the blue evening glow deepens. I hastily set up camp hoping to find hatching insects dancing in pools in the mountain creek before darkness takes away my vision. Camp is nothing more than a sack of food strung high up in a tree and a hammock a safe distance away. The few preparations are made and my focus shifts to the water. It is the native brook trout that lead me to this spot and I am anxious to meet my hosts.
The insects are active but no specific hatch dominates. Large black stoneflies mingle with creme colored mayflies and near transparent midges. A stealthy approach with a #16 Royal Wulff and the welcoming party greets me in the most spectacular way. Wild 4-8” trout launch out of the dark water one after the other. Pools the size of coffee tables yield a dozen strikes. Most of these little trout miss the fly completely and only few stay on the hook long enough to come to hand but it matters not at all. I am completely in the moment, focused on my surroundings, on the fly rod, on the fish. The light is gone so I cast with familiar motion into pools unable to see my fly, listening for the unsubtle rise to set the hook. The evening is black and quiet and it feels like it could be the middle night, but it is only 8pm. I turn in early, drifting off to sleep with the comforting knowledge that the trout will be hungry again tomorrow.