It has been a few years since I had been to St. Mary’s wilderness, and even then, I only walked a few hundred yards upstream--not nearly enough to get a renewed sense of the place. Each time I only needed to reacquaint myself briefly with the map of the river and gorge that had been imprinted on my mind for many, many years. Even the briefest taste would bring the topographic lines, the blue lines of the streams, and the dotted line of the trail into fresh relief in my mind’s eye.
The first lines of this internal map began to take shape upon my first visit to the river. I can’t recall the exact year, but shortly after the St. Mary’s River Gorge was granted wilderness status (probably in the spring of 1985), my father took me hiking there for the first time. I remember waking up on a Sunday morning and my father asking me if I wanted to go hiking instead of going to church. As a 15-year old, this was all the excuse I needed, so we packed up some water and drove the ten or so miles to the head of the St. Mary’s trail.
All in all, the hike was uneventful; we proceeded up the trail noting the flora and fauna--Dad pointing out different varieties of trees mainly. He also took some close up photographs of some of the wildflowers we encountered. Unfortunately, I cannot recall what the species where, though I am sure he told me. Dad is good like that. He points out the unfamiliar, giving it a name, making it that less strange than the maples and elms in our yard. The only wildlife we saw other than the numerous birds was a small copperhead lying in a wet section of the trail that also was an intermittent stream feeding the river during wet seasons.
We proceeded up the trail, skirting the left side of the river mostly. From time to time, the trail would leave the river for a bit, and the temperature would seemingly increase as we left the sound of rushing water off to our right. The humid air of late spring would begin to press about us, making me thankful for the water that my father had thought to bring.
We also had a small map printed by the U.S. Forest Service that we referred to as we went. It provided general mileage marks on the trail and noted points of interest. I remember being excited to find the small walled in spring to the left of the trail that the map mentioned about a half mile up the trail. Eventually, we made the first crossing. Explored a bit of the main trail and made our way to the falls. The only abiding memory of first encountering the falls where I’d eventually spend so much time was the amount of trash that was left by less considerate hikers and campers. My father seemed very sad about it, saying, “A good sportsman leaves nothing but his footsteps.” I agreed wholeheartedly, a rare occurrence perhaps between a teenager and his father.
That’s all I recall about the hike itself. And there it would probably have remained if I hadn’t found myself returning to the river again and again. To hike. To camp. To fish for the native brook trout. Even to hunt grouse. As I covered more and more acreage of the wilderness area, it began to become an emblem to me, a symbol. Because I first encountered this spot that would become so important to me with my father, this effect was only enhanced. It has become a stand-in in my thinking for all the outdoor activities that I have done, both with my father and brother and on my own.
It stands in for all that I love about the natural outdoors, with all the threats that face it as well as all the opportunities for enjoyment and wonder that it provides. And all this I owe to my father, not only for the hiking trip that May 20 years ago, but also the time he spent taking me hunting, from the first time, sitting at his side with a cap gun during a dove hunt, to my first day off from school to hunt deer, when I lost my wallet and hunting license (and $5) to my first trips really hunting, where I was accepted somewhat as a man, despite my age--a coming of age of sort, especially during my trips to hunting camp in Highland County.
For all this and for all the environmental issues that I care about, the St. Mary’s Wilderness Area, threatened as it is by acid rain, has become part and parcel of the whole.
This is why I write about it. Thank you Dad.
Part 1 - Introduction to a Place.