In 1946, on a family vacation to Canada, Dad and I portaged into a remote and pristine lake. There were no roads leading to this lake and no cabins dotted its shores, but it did appear on an old map of the region, and its name was Shabomekaw.
The lake and its sonorous name made quite an impression on me, so much so that I finally contacted the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., and was thrilled to learn that “Shabomekaw” was an Algonquin word. A North American native tribe in Ontario had named the lake, sometime in the distant past. “Shabo” was their word for “the end” and “mekaw” was Algonquin for “trail”.
In 1957, at the end of a trail in Kinniconick country, I discovered my very own “Shabomekaw”. Because I left behind a map of this discovery, the present owners have retained the name. The place is a magical corner of the world, and Sharmon and Todd have sensed that magic. My hope is that they will live long lives and keep the place safe, and then pass it on to others who will love it, too.
(Click on the creek photo in the upper right corner of this post and follow Sharmon’s blog, “True Adventures of an Art Addict”.)
Some years ago, I wrote the following memoir about Kinniconick and Shabomekaw.
WHISPERING, KINNICONICK GOODBYE
A Memoir by
Dawn, and I wade the shallows of Pine branch on my way to the eddy. Silvery light filters through overhanging trees and shines upon clear water. The water flows over gravel, marking a path to the riffle up ahead. I hear the roar and I see the mist. A cornfield in the bottoms is on the right, deep woods are on the left, and sweet smells from both fill the air.
My dad leads the way, carrying rods and tackle, and soon we are at the creek. The mist is like a cloud as it moves up the hill, just before the sun breaks through, before the sky turns blue. In a backwater above the riffle an old scow waits to be baled. We’ll board and move into the current, paddle upstream and rekindle our love for this special place.
My grandfather discovered Kinniconick, sometime before the first World War, but only because a bachelor friend of his had built a cabin there. The friend’s name was Bathiany.
Bathiany had found something unique in those mountains of eastern Kentucky. The mountains were really foothills of the Cumberlands, elevated to 1200 feet or so but steep and numerous, flowing along ridges that created the watershed. The hills were old and made of sandstone; and so the soil was acid and provided for acid-loving plants: white pine, hemlock, beech, oak, laurel, ferns and wildflowers. The stream was most beautiful. Natives called it “the creek” or “the crick” or “Kinny”. It had cut its bed in sandstone, creating many riffles but also long, deep eddies where lilypad beds grew and old logs piled into drifts. A man who loved nature and read Thoreau and sought peace in the mountains could not resist Kinniconick. Such a man was Bathiany.
My guess is that he became acquainted with the folks who farmed the bottoms near Pine eddy and was able to purchase a small tract of 2 or 3 acres on Pine Branch (about 200 yards from the creek). Among the Scotch and Irish families who had settled along the creek during the nineteenth century were McCartys, Staffords, Pells and Hamiltons.
Big chestnut trees grew nearby, not yet infected by the blight, so local craftsmen built his cabin with logs from those trees. With sandstone from Pine branch they constructed a fireplace. Bathiany installed a wood-burning stove in the kitchen and a pump that brought well water into the kitchen sink. That wonderful cottage is long gone (purchased by a stranger who took it apart, log by log, for assembly again miles away) but I can see it so clearly today that I might sketch its every dimension.
At the turn of the twentieth century Lewis County and Kinniconick were remote destinations for folks in Cincinnati. Bathiany traveled by train to Vanceburg and by horse and wagon to the creek. When my grandfather bought his first touring car, the family traveled gravel roads and wagon trails, forded creeks and boarded ferries to reach their favorite mountain retreat.
Light from an oil lamp casts shadows in the rustic cabin. Mother tucks me in for the night and soon the flame is extinguished. Before my sleep is deep I hear the sound of Dad’s voice and then awaken to another sweet memory. He has returned from a late evening on the creek and the fishing was good. He proudly displays a magnificent fish, over three feet long, silver and gold and bronze with white belly and dark spots. I’m four or five years old but I know even then that I will always be a fisherman.
Kinniconick made fishermen of us all. It was not only the most enticing water in which to fish, it was the mystic water in which the muskie dwelled. And somewhere in those deep, dark waters of Pine Eddy was Old Man Pell, a legendary monster named after farmer Pell, who lived nearby. None of us hooked Pell, but several big fish were taken over the years. Two of the family’s largest catches were mounted: an uncle’s 25 pounder and Dad’s 20 pounder, stuffed by an amateur taxidermist in Cincinnati who had never seen the species before, reduced to ugly, varnished stove-pipes but proudly displayed and the objects of my boyhood fascination.
“Whispering while you cuddle near me. Whispering so no one will hear me. Each little whisper seems to cheer me. Whispering that I love you.” In Bathiany’s cabin as rain makes music on the roof, strains of that old ballad chase away our blues. The skies are gray but the fireplace glows and Mom and Dad are here so I am a happy boy.
It was a Labor Day weekend during the war, probably in l942. We crossed the Ohio river at Maysville on a bridge (the ferry ride at Sandy Springs was no longer part of the adventure). Vanceburg was still the backwoods town that it had always been but the road into town was now paved. The road out of Vanceburg was gravel and though it was much improved since those first trips by the family it was still a rough, slow drive, perhaps an hour to cover ten miles. Nothing had changed the character of the country, and as darkness fell we passed the rustic little shacks with wood smoke curling from their chimneys, lamplight glowing from their windows.
Rain began to fall as we arrived on that Friday evening and didn’t end during our stay, two days of fishing in the rain without seeing a fish. The creek began to rise. Dad and I were about to give up to the weather when Old Man Pell appeared alongside our boat. He had followed my lure until I lifted it from the water and he was glaring up at me with big, bad eyes. Of all the fish I would contemplate in a lifetime of fishing he will always remain the most grand, the most mysterious, the most elusive.
That weekend is unforgettable for other reasons, too. The old cabin no longer belonged to Bathiany. Unable to keep the place because of advancing age he had sold it to a Cincinnati family but was careful to insure that his good friends would be able to rent from the new owners. The cabin was unchanged for he left all of the furniture behind including an ancient Victrola, testimony to his love of music. A pile of old records included some Caruso but mostly popular music of the twenties. Trouble was, the Victrola had been submerged in muddy water during the ‘37 flood and would not play. Dad fixed it. He mounted a tin can on the armature with a nail protruding from the can, wound up the machine and put on a record. Tiny, tinny sounds squeaked forth and “Whispering” became one of my favorite songs during that rainy weekend over 50 years ago. I guess it still is.
Emerging from a tangle of laurel I stand under beech and white oak trees in a shady glen, hemmed in by a mountain ridge rising steeply from the river valley. The creek makes a turn around this point of land and I know it is near by the sound of its rapids. I follow my guide through more laurel and descend to a grove of hemlocks where we look out to a small eddy, emerald green like a jewel, soon to be mine.
In l957, after three years in the Navy, I began my search for some acreage where I
could build a cabin in the woods. My inspiration had been Bathiany’s place and Kinney’s hold on me was so powerful that I soon found myself back there; and after several exploratory expeditions I drove into the farm on the upper reaches of Pine Eddy, a place that was originally cleared by the McCarty family one hundred years ago. Now it belonged to a man named Zornes. He was sitting in a rocking chair on his porch when I arrived.
My family’s ties to the country opened his heart and Mr. Zornes listened to my story, and yes, there was a place he might sell, up the creek. His son Hobart led the way. When at last we arrived at the stream’s edge, I knew that this would be my Eden. Riffles above and below a deep pool of water created what was known as the “Swirlhole”. Giant river birch hung out over the opposite bank, sycamore, hemlock and sweetgum grew on an island where the stream flowed out of the eddy, and water lilies bloomed along the shore. Flashes of red in patches of sunlight on the island were Indian paintbrush. Ferns grew everywhere.
And so it came to pass that I purchased ten acres and two years later fifty seven more and secured the entire upper tract of the Zornes’ farm, along Kinniconick. It comprised about one mile of frontage on the creek and was locked in “at the end of the trail”. I named the place “ShaboMekaw”.
Within a year my cabin was built. It was not too unlike Bathiany’s, of modest size and built of logs, with beamed ceiling and stone fireplace. But it had been pre-cut in Michigan of white cedar and spruce and erected by a crew in just one week. A fridge and stove were powered by propane. Most of the furniture was handcrafted back home, some of Tennessee red cedar; kitchen counters were solid cypress; floors were beautiful western hemlock, varnished and waxed and covered with braided rugs that Mother had made. No electricity and no indoor plumbing, of course, so the character of the backwoods was preserved in oil lamps, the privy and cold baths in the creek. The outhouse was a thing to behold, paneled in knotty pine with a large picture window and adorned with artwork (but just one hole).
Bedtime in a cabin on Kinniconick was a time to remember. Cool air sweeping down from surrounding hills. A chorus of treefrogs and spring peepers, and the bellowing of big bullfrogs. The hooting and screeching of owls, and best of all, the calls of whippoorwills. One of Bathiany’s old pals once remarked that the bed in his place was fine but he didn’t sleep a wink. “Noisiest damn place in creation!”
Let’s wade the shallows of Pine branch once again, Dad. Lead the way to the creek and paddle our boat upstream. Teach me to be a real fisherman and tell me how much you love this place.
After Dad’s death, Shabo-Mekaw was not the same. His love for Kinney and the cabin surpassed even my own. And the stream was becoming less pristine as more and more trash, plastic, bottles and other debris was unleashed upriver. The country’s improving economy led to a lot more disposable garbage, and the country’s declining values allowed folks to dump in the creek. At some point in the mid-seventies I knew that the time had come to close the book while my memories were good. New owners were found, a family with some of the same instincts that led my own clan to this valley, some fifty years before.
I drove out of the clearing and didn’t look back and left the stream behind for the very last time.
In dreams, lamplight plays upon cabin beams and the warmth of a mother’s love surrounds me.
Dad’s voice is near and I’ll soon awake. We’ll wade the shallows again.
Rain on the roof. . . . an old ballad’s refrain . . . . the sound of rapids nearby.