Saturday, February 21, 2015

Camaraderie


                                                    Chapter  Nineteen

                                   CAMARADERIE   

 

A favorite memory of boyhood, of my Dad and two Uncles, at a cabin in the woods of Kinniconick and the discovery of camaraderie.


It was early in the spring or late in the fall of forty or forty-one.
We loaded our gear in Dad’s Chevrolet and headed east,
hugging the northern shore of the great river in Ohio,
then crossed the bridge at Aberdeen as the sun set in the west. 
Perhaps the moon was full that Friday night, I don’t recall,
but the Kentucky mountains surrounding us were black as pitch,
and the rocky road to the cabin was rough as a cob.
We reached the cabin and listened to familiar sounds
of the creek and of an owl and the calls of whippoorwills.
My heart fills with the memory of being one of them back then,
just a kid with his dad and two favorite uncles, all long gone,
and the old cabin along Pine Branch near a riffle on Kinniconick,
with two whole days ahead of us, the roaring fire at night,
the good food and grown-up talk, the precious time on the water.

There were chores for us to do, the gathering of wood,
the kerosene lamps that needed to be filled, and good old Uncle Bill,
a consummate soul, scalded the cottage pots and pans and dishes.
Soon there was a bed of embers in the wood burning stove
and the fireplace was ablaze, and we ate a late, light dinner.
At crack of dawn the cabin was lamp-lit, warm and aromatic,
with the sweet and rustic aroma of beechwood and bacon.
At this very moment I can hear the unforgettable laugh
of Uncle Dup, a gentle giant, hovering near the kitchen stove
and making all of us happy to be alive and in that moment.
Imagine the kind of camaraderie that filled the old cabin
and followed us to the creek, and glorified a day of fishing.  
Imagine an impressionable young boy with men he loved
and how those impressions have lasted for a life time.


Weekend trips to Bathiany’s cabin with Dad, Uncle Bill and Uncle Dup became annual events until I enrolled in college.  Later, when my own cabin was built, Uncle Bill used his skills and helped with finishing projects, and Uncle Dup and his wife, Helen, spent many happy days with my parents after all had retired.





Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Larkin Liles

                                            
                                     
                                              CHAPTER   EIGHTEEN

                     A    KINNICONICK    LEGEND

                              LARKIN   LILES



“Down on His Luck”, an oil painting by Frederick McCubbin

There are many folks in the Kinniconick valley who not only remember the old stories about Larkin Liles but who are also descended from branches of his family tree that began to grow in Kentucky soil two hundred years ago.  There are many, many Liles scattered in the hills and valleys of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee, going back to the earliest days of the Republic.  In or about 1810, however, one William Henry Liles, Sr. trekked into Kentucky from North Carolina with his Cherokee wife and their six children.  They settled on a farm along the Kinniconick and I can only assume that the spot was located on Liles Eddy, a part of middle Kinney.  Their second oldest boy, Larkin, may have been in his twenties when they arrived, but no record exists as to when he married and raised a family.  His father, William Henry, died in 1823.

My memories of Liles Eddy are beautiful ones and I’ve shared some stories in previous chapters, but I have a few more.  I remember the rough road, back then, to Field Stafford’s farm, how it curved around the base of a hill, with big slabs of sandstone hanging close on the left.  Then, emerging from the woods, the spread of the farm came into view, the road paralleling the creek before reaching the old farm house.  Field had given me permission to launch my canoe from a spot on this road, where the bank was not too steep.  The eddy was not big, not nearly as large as Pine Eddy, but it was broken by shallows and holes with lily pads in abundance.  On one trip a friend and I experienced the best bass fishing of all my years on Kinney, and on another trip I caught a muskie at the tail end of the eddy.

Back in those days fifty years ago, the Pileated Woodpecker had just begun to make a come-back from near extinction.  One glorious day a pair of them cavorted over the eddy as we drifted silently in the canoe, and for an hour I was close to those wonderful birds and their distinctive calls.  There were no signs of habitation along the length of Liles Eddy then, and I never encountered another fisherman on any of my visits there.

Often I regret that I knew so little in those days about the history of the area and the people who lived there.  It was not until the advent of computers and the wealth of information available about any subject in creation that I began to appreciate the unique character of the region.  If only I could go back to Liles Eddy and sit with Field on his front porch and talk about the lore of Kinniconick and about one famous fellow by the name of Larkin Liles.

In 1837 or 1838, Larkin Liles rode his horse into Vanceburg, a fifteen mile trip through wilderness and mountain passes.  No doubt it was a Saturday afternoon, and he had a few drinks with the boys after buying provisions and taking care of some chores.  Vanceburg was the frontier and it was a rough town in those days.  A fight broke out in the street and Larkin was in the middle of it.  Thus the legend of this mountain man began, but rather than tell the story myself, I have an excerpt from a book written 100 years ago and it is far more eloquent.  Martha Purcell wrote “Stories of Old Kentucky” in 1915, and included this chapter about Larkin Liles.

               A  Lesson  In  Honor

In the early days of Kentucky, when the shrill whistle of the locomotive had not yet reverberated among the hills, there dwelt in Lewis County a man by the name of Larkin Liles.  He was the hardy son of a hardy race.  He hunted and trapped and lived and loved; and while he knew not a letter of the alphabet, had never attended school a day in his life nor heard the golden rule, yet his rugged honesty and high sense of honor can never be surpassed.

On one occasion, when in Vanceburg and while under the influence of whiskey, he became involved in a rough-and-tumble fight with very serious results.  For this offense he was tried, found guilty and sentenced to serve one year in the penitentiary.  As he left the courtroom, Liles addressed the sheriff of the county.  

"Uncle Buck", he said (everyone in the county called the sheriff Uncle Buck) "won't you let me go home and get in my winter wood and fix to gather my corn crop, so's to fatten my hogs, and to keep the young-uns on?  Then I's be ready to go with ye to the penitentiary."

"How long will it take ye, Jaybird?" All of Larkin's friends called him "Jaybird".

"About two weeks," Liles replied.

So well did the sheriff know the pride with which " Jaybird" Liles kept a promise, and so confident of his return at the promised time as was Damon that Pythias would return, that Uncle Buck said, "Go ahead and do it."

The wood was cut, an arrangement was made concerning the crop, the good-bye kisses were given to his weeping wife and helpless babes, and Larkin Liles was ready to make the trip to Frankfort.  But when he got to the sheriff's office, he trembled at the thought of the disgrace, of being taken by Uncle Buck by stage to the penitentiary as a prisoner.  "You go by stage," he said, "but please let me take my gun and walk over the mountains to Frankfort, and I'll meet you on any spot, on the day you appoint."

The sheriff looked Larkin Liles in the eye and said, "All right, Jaybird, when you get to Frankfort go straight to the governor's office and I'll meet you there."

Then this rugged mountaineer, this unlettered, unpolished son of the hills, with honor as his watchword, walked over one hundred miles, over hills and through vales and across streams, to arrive on one early June morning in the town of Frankfort. Ten hours later, the sheriff came by stage and found Jaybird at the governor's office.

Governor Clark listened to Jaybird's story.  In amazement, he asked the sheriff, "Is this man crazy?  Why didn't he escape?"

"No, Jaybird is not simple.  He is honest," Uncle Buck replied.

With a heart heaving with emotion and eyes dim with tears, the governor hastily affixed his name and the seal of the commonwealth to a small piece of paper, handed  to Larkin Lilies and said in a husky voice, "Mr. Liles, go home to your family and kiss the little ones for me.  You shall never enter the penitentiary while Clark is governor of Kentucky."


Larkin Liles died in 1849 and is buried in a small family cemetery near Camp Dix.  One of his descendants was Amos Howard, the game warden for the valley back in the early 1920s when my father and his family first discovered Kinney.  Amos, along with Dr. William Talley and William Dugan marked Larkin’s grave with a commemorative monument.  I had the great pleasure of corresponding with Dr. Talley before his death a few years ago.  He taught at McGill University in Montreal and was a noted historian and genealogist.  There will never be a more brilliant scholar on the subject of Eastern Kentucky, and especially Kinniconick.

The monument to Larkin Liles remembers him as a pioneer and backwoodsman “whose word was his bond”.  



Saturday, December 13, 2014

Lost Silver Mine


                                          CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

                                     A  KINNICONICK  LEGEND
                         
               THE  LOST  SILVER  MINE


One late summer day, not long after acquiring Shabomekaw, I found myself exploring a short distance downstream from the Swirl-hole, and since it was the dry season and the creek was low, I discovered a layer of shale and slate in the bed of the creek.  These metamorphic rocks were laid down before sedimentary sandstone covered them and date back some 450 million years.
 
Before you begin to think that I know something about geology, let me assure you that I’m just as bewildered as the next guy about how the earth’s crust was formed and shaped over the millennia.  I do recall learning in high school, however, that there are three kinds of rock:  sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous.  Igneous rock is molten lava from deep in the earth.  As this lava reached the surface of the crust it formed veins. You can imagine my surprise when I found a vein of rock, perhaps six inches in diameter, running through the slate.  It was an igneous vein.

I raced back to the tool shed and found my sledge hammer, returned to the creek and cracked into the vein.  A piece of it, about six inches in length and four inches thick, was at my feet.  When I looked at the color and the metallic composition I thought …….SILVER !!

Now we go back a lot further in time, all the way back to 1775.  A Frenchman by the name of DeBruttes was a missionary who had traveled down the Ohio River to a Shawnee camp somewhere near the mouth of Kinniconick.  While ministering to the “savages” the cleric supposedly learned about a vein of silver the Indians had discovered, up on Kinney near the mouth of Laurel Creek.  DeBruttes enlisted several French compatriots and opened a mine which contained rich deposits of silver.  No maps or records exist to prove the existence of the mine and the mystery may have ended with the death of DeBruttes.    

The legend of the lost mine persisted however, and then The Portsmouth Times reported a story about one Andrew Beatty who had rediscovered the old French dig and smelter in 1812.  The rumors swirled up and down the valley for years, and then in June of 1841 a backwoods Kentuckian by the name of Josiah Sprinkle was arrested and charged in Lewis County Court.  Mr. Sprinkle was in possession of a great number of counterfeit silver dollars, sacks full, and folks began to wonder if the coins were made from the pure ore of the lost mine.  Years later, in 1895, the New York Times published the following article after several of Sprinkle’s dollars turned up in Grayson, Kentucky.



As late as 1972 a descendant of Henry “Jaybird” Liles claimed to have proof that Sprinkle minted his coins on his great-uncle’s farm, along the banks of Kinniconick.  If you’ve read previous chapters of this blog you may recall my visits to Liles Eddy.  In chapter two, “The Shawnee of Kinniconick”, I described the meadow below Field Stafford’s house where many Indian artifacts were unearthed and where Field believed the Shawnee had spent summers encamped on the creek.  The mouth of Laurel Fork is less than a mile away from that encampment.  If there was a silver mine or smelter near Laurel Fork in 1775, and if the Shawnee led the French to the spot near their camp on the eddy, and if Sprinkle later extracted ore and minted coins on Liles Eddy, then someone, someday, may solve the mystery of The Lost Silver Mine of Kinniconick.


The map below is not a treasure map drawn by “Jaybird” Liles I’m sorry to say.  This is my own sketch of middle Kinney where I canoed and fished a long time ago.

                        

 Now, back to my discovery of an igneous vein of rock in the creek-bed at Shabomekaw.  At that time I knew nothing about the legend of the lost mine, but the color of the ore was certainly silver.  Back home, I contacted the Geology Department at the University of Cincinnati and asked for help, and soon I learned that my specimen was made up of zinc, mica and iron pyrites.  When iron pyrites are yellow they’re called “Fool’sGold”.  My strike was “Fool’s Silver” because the pyrites looked like grains of silver and are called arsenopyrites.    It is a geologic fact that real silver and gold do occur in igneous veins containing zinc and pyrites, so it is not unreasonable to believe that silver may someday be discovered in Kentucky, but current experts agree that it is unlikely. 

The Sprinkle story, however, is supported by fact.  The man had some source of silver and minted his coins for many years.  If there is not a lost mine up at Laurel Fork, could there be a cave where the Shawnee hid a hoard of silver?  After all, one derivation of the name Shawnee is “those who have silver”, and one of their chiefs referred to a “great cave” up in the mountains, a cave that may look like the one pictured above.  (Incidentally, I found that photo on the internet and cannot identify the source or location.)  The Shawnee may have traded their loyalty to the French, back in 1775, for stacks of silver bars; or the French may have built a smelter on land that would become the Liles farm, in order to melt down some bars and create artifacts for the Indians.

My vein of igneous ore emerged from a hillside below the cabin, so Shabomekaw may be sitting atop a mother lode of silver.  But what is more precious?  A place of natural beauty, with big trees and a meandering stream, or an ugly hole in the earth’s crust?  An unknown and anonymous poet said it best: 

   Silver will not buy happiness,
   Wealth lies within your soul.
   Reach down and grab it,
   Live a life that’s full.
  













Friday, December 5, 2014

Kinniconick: A Land of Trees


                           CHAPTER    SIXTEEN

               A    LAND   OF   TREES

                  “Give me a land of boughs and leaf,
                    A land of trees that stand;
                    Where trees are fallen there is grief;
                     I love no leafless land.”
                          A. E. Housman


When I arrived at Shabomekaw in 1957, cattle had grazed for a number of years on a tract of pasture within its boundaries.  This treeless area comprised about ten of the sixty acres in the retreat, and somehow it broke the spell of entering a mystical corner of the world, otherwise surrounded by trees and mountains.  In the spring of 1961  I began to put those ten acres back into forest.

In that year, the State of Kentucky had offered white pine seedlings to property owners at a cost of seven dollars per thousand.  I ordered three thousand !   Yeah, I was young and foolish:  two friends and I managed to plant just about 300 on that first weekend, using planting bars.  Leon and Hobart Zornes came to my rescue with the family tractor, plowed furrows parallel to both sides of the road, and with several other helpers managed to stick those little seedlings into the rocky soil.  There were two pine fields, each about two or three acres in size, and I watched them grow into magnificent trees.    

One of the pine fields was harvested after I sold the place in 1977.  Fortunately, Sharmon and Todd, the current owners, have preserved the other field and the trees are immense.


                                Photo by Sharmon Davidson / 
                               A big white pine at Shabomekaw  

A year or two later I began planting Scotch and Austrian pine seedlings in the pasture, but always kept an acre or two mowed, nearest the creek, and because the soil was rich a beautiful meadow was created.  I tried growing tomato plants in the meadow but critters always chewed them down.  And one year, a business associate in California sent a dozen sequoia seedlings in the hope that they might grow in Kentucky.  Those little trees survived the first winter in the meadow but were killed off the following year.

I was more successful with a unique planting in 1958, in the clearing, not far from the cabin.  A chemist at Procter and Gamble circulated a memo throughout the Company, and at that time I was working in the Buying department in Cincinnati.  The memo described the discovery of an ancient redwood in China, thought to be extinct.  This was the metasequoia that became known as the Dawn Redwood.  The first plants had been grown from seed out on the Pacific coast and a few were available.

Of course I ordered a seedling.  It cost ten dollars and was not more than ten inches tall.  Instructions were included and I was told to dig a hole three feet in diameter and three feet deep, to fill the hole with good soil and peat, and to keep it watered for the first year.  I believe that this little redwood was the first one ever grown in the state of Kentucky, and it lives today in the clearing at Shabomekaw.

Photo by Sharmon Davidson / The Dawn Redwood at Shabomekaw

The tree is called a “living fossil” because proof of its existence has been found dating back millions of years.  It is a deciduous tree, with fern-like foliage.  This photo was taken at Shabomekaw almost 40 years ago (and yes, a tree frog happened to be sitting on one of the tree’s branches):

                     Photo by Bob Wilson / circa 1975


Kinniconick country is truly a land of trees.  A great variety  of tree species may be found there, and I will tell you about some of my favorites.  Hemlock and beech always come to mind when I remember Shabomekaw.  The wonderful evergreen spires of hemlock make the valley exotic in every season, providing visual contrast and forest aroma.  Trunks of beech trees add tones of silver and gray and their distinctive leaves are the color of copper.  

Photo by Sharmon Davidson / Branches of Hemlock Decorate a Big Beech

White oak was predominant in the cabin clearing, and I spared a number of perfect specimens while removing several black oak that crowded the site.  Nearby was a soaring tulip poplar, and on the slope toward the creek a sweet birch grew, a relative of the cherry.  Its bark had a powerful wintergreen aroma when shaved from the trunk.  Overhanging the water down there was a serviceberry, called “sarvis” by the local folks, and it bloomed profusely in the spring and made lots of fruit.  Mountain magnolia with its huge leaves were numerous in the woods, and on the island sycamore and sweet gum prevailed.

Giant river birch, also known as yellow birch, grew all along the banks of Kinniconick, and two of them hung over the Swirl-hole during my years there, almost parallel to the water’s surface.  A few adventurous friends dove from the trunks of those trees into the depths of the Swirl.  Incidentally, in those days the depth of the Swirl-hole was about twenty feet.

My final and most sad tree story concerns the shoot that grew for a number of years from the rotted trunk of an American Chestnut, just off the clearing.  Blight had destroyed all of the chestnut trees in North America by the 1930”s, but hope was alive that some blight-resistant shoots would provid seeds of restoration.  My shoot didn’t make it.

Here is a paragraph from Wikipedia about the chestnut:

It is estimated that in some places, such as the Appalachian Mountains, one in every four hardwoods was an American Chestnut.  Mature trees often grew straight and branch-free for 50 feet and could grow up to 100 feet tall with a trunk diameter of 14 feet at a few feet above ground level.  For three centuries many barns and homes in the Appalachians were made from chestnut.

Virgin chestnut trees in Appalachia, over a hundred years ago.

The Kinniconick valley will always be a land of trees.  My hope is that future generations will heed the words of an unknown author who wrote these words many years ago:

                                             Let’s take our hearts
                                          For a walk in the woods
                                   And listen to the magic whispers
                                                   Of old trees


Monday, December 1, 2014



                                 CHAPTER   FIFTEEN
                          

                   LISTENING   POINT



This chapter is a tribute to Sigurd Olson, one of the most celebrated American naturalists since Thoreau.  In the 1950’s he wrote two wonderful books, The Singing Wilderness and Listening Point, and I read and re-read his poetic prose at the Kinniconick cabin for twenty years.   Olson named his retreat up in the Quetico-Superior country, “Listening Point”.  That perfect name ranks second only to “Shabomekaw” in my book.

Francis Lee Jaques illustrated Olson’s books and the sketch above is a rendering of the author’s cabin at Listening Point.

The following paragraphs comprise the opening lines in his book, Listening Point.  For all of us who have experienced the call of the wilderness and the enchantment of cabins in the woods, his words say it all.

“Listening Point is a bare glaciated spit of rock in the Quetico-Superior country.  Each time I have gone there I have found something new which has opened up great realms of thought and interest.  For me it has been a point of discovery and, like all such places of departure, has assumed meaning far beyond the ordinary.

“From it I have seen the immensity of space and glimpsed at times the grandeur of creation.  There I have sensed the span of uncounted centuries and looked down the path all life has come.  I have explored on this rocky bit of shore the great concept that nothing stands alone and everything, no matter how small, is part of a greater whole.  The Point has shown me time and again that William Blake was right when he wrote:

                       To see the world in a grain of sand,
                              And heaven in a wild flower;
                     Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
                               And eternity in an hour.

“I believe that what I have known there is one of the oldest satisfactions of man, that when he gazed upon the earth and sky with wonder, when he sensed the first vague glimmerings of meaning in the universe, the world of knowledge and spirit was opened to him.  While we are born with curiosity and wonder and our early years full of the adventure they bring, I know such inherent joys are often lost.  I also know that, being deep within us, their latent glow can be fanned to flame again by awareness and an open mind.

“Listening Point is dedicated to recapturing this almost forgotten sense of wonder and learning from rocks and trees and all the life that is found there, truths that can encompass all.  Through a vein of rose quartz at its tip can be read the geological history of the planet, from an old pine stump the ecological succession of the plant kingdom, from an Indian legend the story of the dreams of all mankind.”

Sigurd Olson was born in 1899 and died in 1982.  He was an American hero who fought for wilderness preservation and protection of the environment.






Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Walk in the Woods



                                 CHAPTER   FOURTEEN             

                  A   WALK  IN  THE  WOODS  

  

                           “Do not go where the path may lead,
                                go instead where there is no path
                                             and leave a trail.” 
                                      Ralph Waldo Emerson


 On that early fall afternoon in 1957 when I walked an old logging road through woods and across a pasture and to the edge of a deeper forest, the path ended and my adventure began.  I had reached a place “at the end of the trail” and its
name would become Shabomekaw.  In the words of Robert Frost, “I shall be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence” and this has come to pass:  I’ve written fourteen chapters about Kinniconick and the cabin for this blog.

The cabin and the creek were always central to the experience of living in the woods but I spent uncountable hours walking the sixty acres and beyond, usually within sight of running water and never disappointed by the view.  The paths that existed had been there for a long, long time.  The Zornes family, the folks who previously owned the property, had walked those trails.  Before the Zornes arrived, the McCarty family had roamed these woods for a hundred years.  I’m sure the McCartys found paths trodden by native Americans, where  the Shawnee had hunted the buffalo and the deer, and long before first human presence the tracks of animals created the trails. 

One path led from the cabin site and followed the creek, almost always in sight of Kinniconick as it flowed downstream.  It was lined with hemlock trees, ferns and wildflowers.   Along its entire length one would always hear the sound of flowing water:  riffles and rapids are music to the ear.  Two of the oldest and largest trees lived along this path, beech trees that spread their canopies wide in the woods.  One of them was at least four feet in diameter and would have been in its spot above the creek when the Shawnee trod that very ground.  A special event on walks in the spring was the drumming of Ruffed Grouse, when a male bird beat his wings to summon a female nearby.

On this downstream path, and inside the boundaries of Shabomekaw, stood the ruins of an old, old cabin.  I was never able to learn the identity of its occupant, but without doubt it was a friend of the McCarty family and he or she was in love with Kinniconick.  The remains of a stone chimney and of the log walls stood on the bank above a shallow stretch of water, about half a mile from Pine Eddy.  Further along on this trail the bank steepened and enormous slabs of sandstone rose like monuments, and the ancient rock enhanced the feeling of solitude.  After all, those slabs were millions of years old, formed by sand eroded from ancient mountains to the south, then compacted into sedimentary rock, then moved by the Teays River a million years ago.  The slabs were covered by lichens and moss, and it was always cool and damp along this magical trail.

I have my good friend Sharmon Davidson to thank for the following photograph, one showing a path thru some of Kinniconick’s geologic history. 


One upstream trail commenced at the cabin and followed the creek along an old logging road, with a great view of a small eddy.  Another path climbed the ridge, and led to an old cemetery where the McCarty clan buried their folks beneath rustic stones.  Some of the graves are well over one hundred years old.  From the cemetery the path was steep.  The reward was escape and the age-old search for a forgotten past. 

If you’ve read earlier chapters you know that my parents loved Shabomekaw as much as I did, and in retirement they spent more time there than I could spare.  I was in the whirl of making a business career in Cincinnati and got to the cabin on weekends, but they spent many weeks vacationing there.  Dad loved to “whittle”, and he spent many hours on the porch working on pieces of laurel, ash and sassafrass. Hanging on a hook he had made were “hiking sticks”, carved staffs similar to canes, most of them made from sassafras wood.  There were three or four beautiful sticks for family and visitors to carry on hikes through the woods.

The geology of Kinniconick, described in earlier chapters, resulted in an abundance of relatively rare wildflowers, and along the trails of Shabomekaw one would encounter such plants as trillium, wake robin, dwarf iris, bluets, lobelia and arbutus.  Mountain laurel was prolific, and I discovered one plant of big leaf laurel, closely related to rhododendron, on a hike further downstream.


    
 One walk on that trail was not so serene.  It was during a fishing weekend with friends, and after canoeing down to Pine Eddy and then returning upstream Saturday evening, we left the canoe about half-way to the cabin and walked from there.  The canoe was up on a bank, not far from the water.  Our plan was to go back down to the eddy the next morning.

In the middle of the night a storm rolled into the valley.  Thunder and lightning and pouring rain, and when the downpour continued I knew that the creek would rise.  How could I ever forget walking that trail, almost a mile of it, drenched by cold rain and seeing the bolts of light in the black sky.   The power and the fury of it, the raw side of nature, is frightening but also thrilling.  I saved my beloved canoe from the rising waters of Kinniconick that night and it was more than just a walk in the woods.













Friday, October 24, 2014

Muskie of the Mountains

                          
                          Chapter  Thirteen
      Muskie of the Mountains

 

“He was big and a good 72 inches and his sides were the color of polished silver”, the old man said.   “His eyes were wild, fire-flecked and looked as if they belonged to a demon.  It was the first live muskie I ever really seen up close and it was mad enough to snort flames when it came from beneath the tie jam and scooted a good 40 feet on top of the slippery logs before it found an open spot in the creek.” 


The old man wasJoe Stamper and he lived in a cabin on Kinniconick Creek for most of his 94 years.  Folks remember him as “Muskie Joe”, and in 1984 a renowned outdoor writer by the name of Soc Clay published an article about the legendary fisherman in Happy Hunting Ground.   Later, the story was included in the book Of Woods and Waters.  Joe’s encounter with the six-foot long muskie occurred in 1905 when he and his father and brothers floated thousands of hand-hewn wooden ties down the Kinniconick.  The Stamper family lived near the headwaters of the Laurel Fork of Kinney where they made barrels and cross-ties, forty miles from a steamboat landing at Garrison on the Ohio River.

“Muskie Joe” never hooked up with a six-footer but he caught hundreds of legal sized fish on artificial  lures, in a fifty year career that began in the 1920’s and ended the year of his death in 1981.  “Ye’ know boys,” he once said, “I’ve got a sweet water spring in my front yard, a good warm cabin, plenty of fishing tackle and muskie in my back yard.  What else in the world could an old fisherman want in his lifetime?” 

Early in the spring of one year in the 1960’s, I visited Joe and his brother Commodore at their place on Puncheon Eddy.  The expedition was unforgettable because I pulled off their gravel road and the car sank into knee-deep mud.  The Stampers came to my rescue with their tractor and I have the warm memory of two good men who lived a simple but beautiful life.  On the back wall of their cabin about a hundred heads of muskies had been nailed, so I can vouch for the legend of “Muskie Joe”.  


  
The Mountain Muskie is a very exotic fish.  It did not exist south of the Great Lakes until about twenty thousand years ago.  Muskellunge are an ancient species, a relative of the Great Northern Pike whose range is not only North America but also Europe, and they inhabited lakes and rivers in Canada, Minnesota and Wisconsin for eons.  Then the Ice Age descended on the planet, and when the glaciers reached their southern boundary in North America, muskies were left in the receding waters, and those waters created the present course of the Ohio River.

Now we can imagine the twenty thousand years of their evolution.  The fish became a distinct species,  Esox Ohioensis, and they searched for clear water, swimming upstream like salmon, spawning on clean gravel in the Ohio and its tributaries.  Before the settlement of the midwest, and up until the nineteenth century, specimens weighing over 100 pounds were caught in the Ohio River.  We can only imagine how the Shawnee pursued the big fish in Kinniconick, in the riffles and pools of Liles Eddy where evidence of an Indian summer encampment were found by Field Stafford.  (Chapter Two of this blog is about the Shawnee of Kinniconick.)


 In another earlier chapter, I told the story of my family’s discovery of Kinniconick soon after the First World War.  At that time their fishing gear was comprised of long, cane rods and rustic reels, live bait and bobbers.  When they saw  giant muskies cruising in Pine Eddy, one of my uncles created a lure made of fur and feathers and trolled it on a handline behind a scow, and the first whopper of a fish struck and was landed.  And so began their conversion to the early casting rods and multiple reels, and to artificial  lures.  Joe Stamper’s technique had evolved in the same way and about the same time, and he became famous as a fishing guide, down there on Puncheon Eddy.

In those days, muskies were still plentiful in tributaries of the Ohio.  The big river itself had become so polluted and turbid that the species was extinct, but in the Scioto and Brush Creeks in Ohio, and in Kinney, Green, Triplett, and Tygart in Kentucky, muskies thrived.  The fish was occasionally found way up the Little Tennessee River in North Carolina, though no trace of them existed in the Tennessee or any other major tributary of the Ohio.

 My love affair with Kinniconick began in the early 1930’s, and I fished for muskies until the day I left Shabomekaw, in 1977.  Though I never landed a really big fish, I “raised” many lunkers, and that is the term we used to describe the sight of one who followed the lure, or a missed strike, or a fish hooked but lost.  “The big one always got away.”  Now as I look back, I’m glad he got away.  Especially the fish that took my top-water lure at dawn one morning, in the big drift on Pine Eddy.  When hooked he shot straight up into the morning mist, his entire body above the water, then threw the plug and was gone.  It looked to be four feet long (and you know that fishermen never exaggerate).

I did get to see a four-footer when I was a kid, while on a family vacation at Kinney.  Somehow Dad learned that a big fish had been taken by Dr. Herbert Bertram, Vanceburg’s MD, and we made a special trip into town.  Doc Bertram was another renowned muskie fisherman, along with Musky Joe.  The fish was displayed in his office, right there on main street, and for many years Dad and I enjoyed re-telling the story of that lunker muskie.

 My guess is that today no “native” muskies remain in Kinniconick or in any other stream or lake south of the Great Lakes.  Populations of the fish are maintained by hatcheries.  I will never forget one day on Pine Eddy in the mid-sixties.  I happened to meet Henry Bate on the creek and he was furious.  Fish and Wildlife folks had been on the eddy a few days before, and according to Mr. Bate, they were shocking big fish to the surface in order to strip females of their eggs and males of their milt.  Kinniconick may have been the original source of the first propagated muskellunge in Kenucky.

Kinney had been the home of native muskies for thousands of years, its clean water and silt-free gravel riffles a perfect place for them to spawn, its deep pools and beds of lily pads the best of their haunts.  Then water conditions deteriorated over the last thirty or forty years.  But since the stream was designated an Outstanding Water Resource by the state of Kentucky a few years ago, I like to think that someday Kinniconick will be returned to its original glory, that erosion and pollution will be checked, and that muskies will once again thrive in the mountains.

The legend of Muskie Joe is one of my favorite stories about Kinniconick.  Joe loved the creek and the wild fish who lived there.  His words are eloquent:  “What else in the world could an old fisherman want?”


This wonderful watercolor was painted by Winslow Homer on a fishing trip to the Adirondacks in 1894.  Rowing his rough-hewn scow is an old fisherman, looking for a rising fish, finding happiness on his favorite stretch of water.

The painting of a Shawnee fishing is by the great N.C. Wyeth.