Tucked away in the southern part of Vestal is Jones Park, 330 acres of hardwood and fir forest bought in 1968, and one of the smartest investments a town government has ever made. The park has a host of well marked trails for hikers, naturalists, and mountain bikers, but what brings me to this wooded paradise every fall is the little brook that rambles through its hilly terrain.
The brook is one of those no-name trickles, a faint line of blue on a topo map that twists and turns through the park and terminates with Choconut Creek, a tributary to the Susquehanna River. This brook acts like a big burly creek early in the spring, laden with snow-melt. By late summer, however, it is low and gin clear but still running cold as it slips through deep gorges ringed with fern, moss, and hemlock.
For the non-observant, Noname Brook appears lifeless, even dead in some places. Indeed, as I hiked into the park this past weekend I have to admit I was a little concerned about its condition, especially given the wet summer we’ve had.
On my last visit the brook was a skinny but continuous trickle – now it could only be described as a series of disconnected pools.
But in these cold pools, trickles, and runs, life takes its stand. Hiking heavy-footed, I first noticed the dimples of small fish darting for cover. Stalking up to each pool more carefully, I soon discovered that each of these tiny water worlds were teeming with life…
As I continued my hike upstream, I found deep gorges where time and water have done their work: this little brook has much to be proud of….
According to Nick Karas, author of “Brook Trout” (a great read, by the way, for brookie fanatics), “temperature is the single most important factor in determining distribution of brook trout over their range”. When I checked the temp of these shallow pools, I was impressed with the cold…
Standing atop a bank above a gorge, I could survey a nice pool without casting shadows. In the gin-clear water, I found them – slim athletic forms that held in the current – a good dozen or so…
These 2 – 3″ trout were not the big shots of the brook, either. I scouted enough pools to find a few brook trout in the 4″ – 8″ range. The better fish were ultra spooky – testament to the “they don’t grow big by being stupid” rule. Many would vanish before the eyes – slithering into rock crevices, hiding under piles of surface leaves, or scooting under tree root overhangs.
I left Jones Park that afternoon excited with my scouting results and as fulfilled with my trip as if I had caught a dozen big browns on one of the local Catskill rivers. But then again, brook trout, according to Nick Karass, “are members of an ancient order of fishes that had its beginnings more than 100 million years ago in the Oligocene Epoch”. Who could bet against such genetics.
The preface of “Brook Trout” begins with an account of a local Indian legend, old Jesse Logan, of the Cornplanter Reservation in Warren County, Pennsylvania, the last (in 1928) of the Shikellemus tribe:
“Once long, long ago, when Manitou visited the land of the Iroquios to lead his lost children back to the Happy Hunting Ground in the Far East, He grew weak with hunger and cold on this long quest. Toward night He stopped beside a pool in the Seneca country (New York) which was overshadowed with colossal white pines and hemlocks. Noticing that it was full of handsome trout, as black as ebony, he reached in His hand and easily caught the largest of the superb fish. Looking at it he was struck by its beauty and agile grace, and decided to control His hunger and let it live, so He dropped it back in the deep pool.
“The trout went its way, but instantly its sides took on a silvery hue where the fingers of the Great Spirit had held it, and all of its kind became marked with the same silvery sheen and many colored spots and halos, as a token of their being handled by the kindly Manitou. For that reason, the Seneca Indians and others of the Six Nations would not eat brook trout. Brook trout were sacred to the highest instincts of their race. But what the redmen spared,” said Logan, “white men destroyed by the millions.”
There is no doubt the brook trout has faced many man-made challenges above and beyond just surviving a year in a tiny brook in the woods. Overfishing, acid rain, introduction of non-native competition, and loss of habitat have all had their way. But it is encouraging to witness Mother Nature’s remarkable resilience in a little corner of paradise, so close to home. Manitou may just be smiling…