Last weekend, I returned to St. Mary's for the first time in years. Sure, I had been there in that time, but I hadn't stayed very long, just lurking around the parking lot and walking up only a couple of hundred yards into the gorge. So, last weekend was the first time that I had spent any real time there in about five years. My father and I hiked the trail for about two and a half hours, and it was pretty close to the twentieth anniversary of my first trip. There were a few others lurking about (four other cars), but we didn't encounter them until we were on our way out of the gorge and heading home for a lunch of fresh peas and new potatoes.
Once there, it didn't take me very long to notice that my mental map of the gorge didn't match the current conditions. The trail was different, and less passable in many ways. From time to time, my mental image and what I saw matched, but it was more rare than had been the case every other time I've been there.
This is one of the few places that matched what I expected. About 500 yards up the trail, the river zig-zags around some rock harder than the sandstone that comprises the riverbed. Here, I once saw a snake trying to devour a trout. The trout was struggling much as it would on a fly line, only the snake, a copperhead I think, had it by the tail and was hanging on for dear life as the trout swam downstream, surely a sign of distress on its part.
Most of the trail, however, was much changed. My father told me that Isabel had caused quite a flood last summer, seriously altering the lay of the land. This became very clear a bit further up the trail. Where once the trail had followed an intermittent stream, now the path was shoved up against the wall of Cellar Mountain and the old stream bed had become the main course of the river.
Unfortuntely, the walled in spring feeding the intermittent stream, the one that I was once so happy to find on my first trip here, no longer exists. A bit further up, we saw why the new course was necessary.
The photo doesn't really do justice to the sheer amount of river rock that had been deposited during last summer's flood. There's no way a river could find its way through this--short of another flood of course. Where the river did remain, the damage was still very noticeable: many trees, some of them very large, we torn out, their roots undercut by the raging current.
The further we progressed upstream, the more familiar things became. As the gorge narrowed, most of the damage seemed to be limited to the actual stream bed, rather than seriously altering the rest of the gorge. The first crossing still looked much as it had (only my father is a little older now than he was 20 years ago and probably in better shape).
I suppose that this kind of thing happens more often than not. I just hadn't witnessed it. The last time the gorge was altered in this way was probably in 1969 when Camille tore through the area (I was only a month old, so I have no recollection or frame of reference for it). Before then, apparently you could drive almost to the falls. In retrospect, that flood probably led directly to St. Mary's being declared a wilderness area, since the flood destroyed most of the roads in the area, leaving them barely trails in some places.
So, as time goes on, the Wilderness Act does its work. There's really no need to mourn the loss of what I had held onto for so long. It was only a mental image, a map learned by many, many trips. Now I know how my father felt on our first hike there. Everything was familiar, but a bit different. The air still smelled the same. The same trees and flowers and present. And always in the background, you could hear the rushing of the river. It just wasn't rushing exactly where you had expected it to be.
While the path is now a little harder to traverse, isn't that the case with anything that really matters. I don't want the hike to be easy. I don't want St. Mary's as a museum piece.
I want it as a living, breathing, vibrant parcel of what's left of wildness on the eastern seaboard.
Let the floods rage from time to time. Let the trees sprout, grow, and die without chainsaws. Let the trout prosper. Let wildness be.
View full photo set.
Part I - Introduction to a Place
Part II - The Beginning
NP: "Hickory Wind" - Bob Mould and Vic Chestnutt