The blog you’re now reading is named after my 2016 book, “The Dying Fish (A Sojourn to the Source)”
In 2007 I began hiking north from Dawson County Georgia along the spine of the Appalachians. I would attempt to walk through the entire native eastern range of the brook trout which would take me to the New Brunswick border in northern Maine if I could complete it, which seemed unlikely on that Georgia July day I stumbled downhill on a country road with over 80 pounds of gear inside and outside my pack.
I did stumble on though, learned how to hike long distances and learned something about the native trout along the way. I’d planned on 4 years but it required 5, returning to Pittsburgh for more than half of each year to earn some money to keep me in the woods as long as possible. And the mission took me far askew of the original plans I’d hatched in the safety and comfort of a Pittsburgh apartment, taking me to places I couldn’t have dreamed of. “The Dying Fish” tells this story in its 530 pages.
(Almost all photos accompanying this post were taken along the route of my walk.)
I’ve spoken many times since coming out of the woods and one aspect of the whole adventure that has seemed most compelling to my often young audiences is the period when it all began – inception to actuation. I’d like to attempt to put that in writing for the first time. The story of how one comes to leave civilization behind and wander off into the forest isn’t a simple one, as you might imagine.
I’m going to be honest here – honest enough to tell you that a young hobbit named Frodo Baggins had something to do with the spark of inspiration. I’d never read the Lord of the Rings books when I was young so the movies that appeared between 2000 and 2005 seemed to be one the most fantastic adventures I’d ever encountered, fantasy or not. A mere hobbit, wandering off mile after mile with his pack across Middle Earth…
In 2006 I’d seen Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man,” the story of the life and death of Timothy Treadwell who lived summer after summer among the Alaskan grizzlies until eaten by them. This too got me thinking…
Also in 2006 I’d run my first ultra-marathon offroad race and nearly won. I felt incredibly fit and I’d spent more time on trails than ever before in my life, running across the hills and valleys of western Pennsylvania for hours at a time. I came to wonder what it would be like to just keep going…
Then too there was a certain lucid dream that had seemed too real to be an accident – the first inkling of inspiration toward my long trail. You’ll encounter this very early in the book.
I was working as a janitor in 2006 at a large apartment complex on Pittsburgh’s North Shore of the Allegheny. Life hadn’t really taken the direction I might have imagined at the time of high school matriculation and now I was stuck in a largely unfamiliar city with little in the way of great prospects looming before me. My old truck would soon be dead thanks to Pennsylvania’s road salt and my legs generally carried me around the few places I needed to go. I’d just ended a relationship with the first girlfriend I’d ever had.
And at about this time I stumbled into references to an expansive study of the eastern brook trout known as the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture. It seemed that nearly every researcher or manager involved with brook trout in the east had contributed to this assessment of the quality of the eastern waters, watershed by watershed, in reference to native trout. Things didn’t look good for the brookies. In my little apartment, I printed out the maps they’d generated and pored over the report.
Feeling the tug of inspiration, I came to see my personal situation in a different light. The most important thing about my status was that I was free. I could go out and do something – maybe something extraordinary. I had some money I’d saved. I wasn’t making car payments. I’d killed off my couple thousand dollars of recent debt. I had no relationship to tie me down. I could escape the place I was in. More importantly though, I could do something meaningful, something worthwhile and I felt that that something had to do with the little trout who’d meant so much to me earlier in life.
I’d caught my first brook trout while a child in Newfoundland, Canada and the first of these fish had seared themselves into my impressionable mind; the memories of starry flanks had never left. They’d been my companions during my teen years in the wilds of western Maine when I was otherwise alone. I’d fished by myself at the age of thirteen through the ice on winter days and nights for them, my mind wandering as the coyotes would begin to wail in the deer yards and the faint northern lights would make an appearance. I’d largely left brook trout behind long before in the north country but pictures, physical and mental, reminded always of more perfect places and a better life.
The thought of a book about the imperiled brook trout came quickly but what would that book look like? Would I try to interview all the people who knew the most about brook trout and their conservation problems? No – they probably wouldn’t talk to me and I had no qualifications that suggested I was even capable of writing a book or understanding the subject matter. I could look up everything I needed on the internet then – surely everything I needed for a book was all right there. Well, I could but no one would read that, particularly not from me.
What if I had the material for a great adventure story, an adventure into which I could embed the conservation ideas about brook trout that I really thought were important? Now I was on the right track. What if I made some trips out to the woods, taking a few days here and there off work, and pitched my tent near the trout streams? I was getting closer.
I looked again at the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture maps showing colored splotches all across the range of the species. Would it be possible to walk it – all of it? Yes, it was crazy. How would I start? How would I pay my way? What would I eat? How would I deal with dangerous animals and dangerous people? What good would it all do in the end?
I was never able to answer all of this satisfactorily but I did start to concoct a plan.
It’s been noted by many observers of human nature that the most dangerous man is the one with nothing left to lose and this very nearly described my situation though instead of dangerous I might substitute “ambitious.”
I wanted a great challenge.
I wanted something I could excel at, something only I could do, something uniquely mine.
And I worried about what I was becoming as I became more and more anchored to a civilized place, further from wild things, more reliant on other people and more prone to ask permission than to do. I feared what I would be at the age of 40, likely something unrecognizable to the 14 year-old Cedric who’d chiseled holes through the ice of western Maine lake, cut his own trails and found his own way.
So, a year after inception, I quit my job, took a south-bound bus and embarked on a quest to save the eastern brook trout and Cedric Keith as well.
After walking the walk, “The Dying Fish” took about 3 years to write. Here are excerpts from near the beginning and near the end:
The 7:00 alarm was right on time. I rolled over and pressed a button. Morning light streamed in. It was another Tuesday. Slowly, I decided to get up and then to put some clothes on. Time to look for some breakfast, I didn’t want to be late. Crawling to the door, I unzipped it and found my boots outside.
I could see blue sky through the leaves overhead. My tent had kept me safe and dry through one night. I could hear running water nearby, where I could get a drink and my backpack was propped against a tree, full of camp food. I felt prepared to survive in a strange place.
Five minutes later I was on the pavement of a little country road, walking back toward town for coffee and snack cakes. I didn’t really have far to go, I was camped about exactly a mile from the two gas stations in Dawsonville, Georgia. The morning was still cool even though it was July, cool enough to drink something hot.
My wallet was $2.70 lighter on the way back and I was sipping coffee. I did have time for coffee today. I rounded a bend and looked over the new houses going up across the street from my little patch of woods. They looked just the same as the ones popping up in Pittsburgh: shingles, plastic siding and a few windows on each side. Of course houses were popping up, everyone needed a house. There was something on the horizon that caught my eye—a deep blue mountain ridge that looked like a long walk from here. The thought of what I was about to do was a little scary but I felt good right now, headed for the tent in a quiet country morning, doughnut sticks and coffee in my hands.
The old tent had served me well and I hoped it’d last through the days ahead. It was a two-man tent I’d bought about four years earlier at Walmart. I’d never had any problems with it and it was comfortable without being big enough or bright enough to catch attention. That was important when I camped in places like this strip of woods between a road and corn field. It was all I’d had to work with when I stumbled down here from Dawsonville yesterday, barely able to lift the weight of my pack and definitely not able to walk anymore.
I had a little cereal from the pack to add to my gas station sweets. Anything to bring the pack weight down. I pulled out a map I’d printed off at Mom and Dad’s and made sure I knew where I was. I also wanted to know where the streams were so I could go find fish today. I unsnapped my small backpack from the large frame pack and emptied what was inside, mostly food, into the tent. I thought about what I needed for the day and each item went into the pack. Fly rod, flies, thermometer, measuring line. Then also something called my “survival kit,” a hip pouch containing all the basics that I thought would keep me alive if I lost all the other stuff. Lunch, my last snack cake, also went in.
… and 5 years later:
I asked about the trout here, now in search of a Maine giant rather than fingerling headwater brookies. I was in the right place now, according to Paul. But there was more, a fish more desirable still swam here: the blueback trout, he wondered if I’d heard of it, the vestigial arctic char of America. I questioned Paul carefully on this, not always trusting others on matters of taxonomy. Paul did know what he was talking about, though, and the bluebacks were described as every bit as plentiful as the brook trout, though on average, smaller. The profound implication, as I paddled off across the roily surface, was that it was possible, with the next paddle stroke, to see the trolling rod bend and find myself tied to an arctic char, or to a seventeen-inch brookie for that matter.
The lake had passed before my eyes, I think, as I’d pressed my face against the window of a Greyhound bus racing across Ohio and bound for Georgia. I hadn’t known how long the next five years would seem or the many interlacing paths life would take in that time but I’d held onto a dim image of a northerly lake, bordered with conifers, waiting in silence.
Paul was closing the lodge today, maybe forever. He and Kathy worked vigorously to board up windows and doors, repairing steps and gutters. The season hadn’t brought a lot of guests and the season before hadn’t either. It was a familiar tale I’d heard recounted by lodge operators from North Carolina to Maine: things had been rough since 2007. Expensive and time-consuming getaways had been first on the chopping blocks of family budgets. Paul thought that other, longer-term changes were afoot.
“The younger generation doesn’t want any part of all this,” Paul asserted, glancing significantly around the spruce border. “They’re all working on computers, playing video games and everything else they do on the smartphones, finding all the answers on Google. I don’t think they see any value in all this,” his gaze hanging a little longer on the wilderness.
Uncle Johnny had put a more positive spin on the matter: “The hostel’s here; not goin’ anywhere, if folks do want to get out. We can’t make a whole lot o’ money anymore but that was never really why the hostels came to be,” he’d drawled, keeping it concise and genuine, East Tennessee. “If folks still find somethin’ to love out in the mountains, they’ll find us too.”
On the day I paddled through, it seemed that folks’ love of the mountains hadn’t been enough for the lodge, for Paul and Kathy. This lake and the north Maine woods itself seemed to be closing down, sunset falling across the water as I’d dragged the boat over gravel at the outlet and fastened it to the wheels for portage.
I don’t know if it was the noise off the water or the pale light filtering through the evergreens that woke me first. But there was a noise out on the water, I could hear it every minute or so as my mind left behind the place of dreams and acclimated to, well, to another place of dreams. And the thing out on the water named himself in the rasping and fuming noises that went along with gentle splashes. I left the tent silently and crept through the reeds at the shore until I could see them. Two otter silhouettes bobbed close by, backlit by a fiery pink that was spreading across the eastern horizon. The otters beckoned that the fishing was good and this was the time and I believed them.