- By Jack Slocomb
Seneca Creek rises up out of ancient, wrinkled folds of earth, out of timelessness, an immense continuity.
When I breathe in the space and the sweep from the observation tower at the top of Spruce Knob, it is this image, this whole idea of it, that seems to be what finally distills from my last 30 hours of ranging up and down this stream.
My eyes settle on the long sunken wooded ravine below my perch where the creek has cut into the folds of the mountains, and then beyond that into the purple hued distance and the curves of the overlapping step hills of the Alleghenies that seem to assimilate into a boundaryless haze. I have to strain a little, but I think I can still hear water.
It is a muted echo and may only be a sound that is slowly dying away within my own consciousness – like the diminishing ring of a chime long after it has been struck. Yet up here I want to believe that it is the real thing, the faint descant of flow and riffle mixed in with the feckless ridge winds.
The morning before, I began my trek early in a gray chill.
I remember as I got started that there were a couple of blue jays bobbing around indifferently in the dead lower branches of some Red Spruce trees looming along side the path. I felt briefly then like I had happened in on a pulse, something that had its own inexplicable logic and rhythm, a noisome, feral ceremony of some kind, a liturgy of the dawn, of the night spirits lifting into awakening, the marking of darkness beginning to meld into slow daylight.
Late July is my time of year to come up to this country. It’s good for driving away the dregs of lowland dog days. But mostly I love to track this creek, to walk with its unfoldings, to chase around its spirits. It is a trip that tugs at me all the time, like a lost and insistent child that wants to be heeded and held close and long.
Seneca Creek trickles up from the wet core of the Monongahela National Forest at about 3000 feet in the rises of Pendleton County, West Virginia, draining the high narrow valley slung in between the western dip of Spruce Knob – the Mountain State’s highest elevation – and Little Allegheny Mountain. And I am at its very beginning.
Up ahead, ground scud is just starting to burn off in the intensifying heat of the shrouded sun, slowly unveiling an open wrack of Sphagnum bogs, abandned beaver dams, and a limberlost of decaying, lichen shackled Spruces, most half fallen over but some still spiring up defiantly into the mist.
A breeze slides down from the higher elevations. This is a zone of purity, like the clean splendor of a Canadian wild, a primordial muskeg drapery, a ghost left behind in the high Alleghenies of a boreal, glacially seized landscape, still claiming cold remembrance. But underneath it, I sense a creek, a nascent wetness below the ooze, percolating, biding its own murky time, fathering its waters, getting ready to pour out into day.
A little further on I hear pulsing. I know that the soggy puddles have coalesced into a flow. And I want to see it fresh, fresh out of the underground, fresh out of the decay and ferment. So I slip expectantly through the trees.
And, as I had guessed, Seneca Creek is there, materialized. It is all light and shadows, delicate and clear, almost as if it were celebrating its own sparkling emergence from the depths of the muck, a slick ribbon of stream sluicing over the rocks, pulling drafts of refrigerated air along with it.
I stand in place for a couple minutes, balanced on the gossamer, hypnotic boundary between earth and water until a word is formed from the sound, from a creek mindfulness that has begun to settle in on me. Allegheny, it seems to whisper, Allegheny, Allegheny – an Algonquian expression, I remember. It translates into something akin to Eternity or Beginning of Many Waters. And it is everywhere in these mountains, Eternity, the Beginning of Waters. You are young with it, awash in it, source and sapling and spendthrift seed in it, the stream’s own fresh language.
I continue down the old narrow gauge rail bed from the logging days, which is now officially designated as the Seneca Creek Trail, soon passing out of the boreal reaches of red spruce dominance into upland hardwood stands of red maple, beech, cherry, and streamside yellow birch.
After about three miles, just beyond a grassy clearing – the remains of a long abandoned farm now called the Judy Springs Walk-in Campground – the road constricts into a rocky footpath that hugs the stream banks more tightly as the valley steepens. It is after this point that the trail also becomes cloistered in tall forest and doglegs back and forth from one side of the creek to the other. Water seeps from ragged layers of mudstone and clumps of woodland ferns and open roots. Papery crustose lichens in dark shades of green and occasional floppy liverworts glisten on the rocks where they seem to have been haphazardly pasted on.
Not too far up ahead the stream drops off an edge and begins a whole other phase of its life. After deftly negotiating a wobbly crossing on somebody’s flimsy makeshift bridge made of yellow birch trunks right before this point, I cautiously ease my way down sideways along a path which cuts off steeply from the main trek. I kick up a lot of loose stones and gravel as I slide. When I reach the bottom, I am in the full view – and embrace – of the High Falls of the Seneca Creek. This is about as far downstream as I can go. The remainder of the trail was washed pretty much into oblivion by the 1985 West Virginia floods.
It is a wide waterfall, and the diving water has scoured out a bowl that amplifies the deepest resonances of the plunge into an eternal hollow roar. I feel a little like Livingston when the Zambezi brought him, finally, to the brink of Victoria Falls: suddenly it’s just there in all of its huge naked thunder. The water pours over the moss slickened walls into a shallow pool where all the powers of the mountains seem to be gathering together before the final run into the North Fork – and then ultimately into a far settling in the humid, flattened expanse of the Chesapeake Bay. It is a little hard to imagine, all that distance.
Maybe in another time I would have been like Ishmael, drawn along by the articulations of the creek to the big waters and Moby Dick and the whales. But today what is being pressed into the weave of my genes is the irresistible instinct for cold upland creeks. This is where I want to stay. And I believe then that the urging will be given down through some newly minted gene and could affect generations.
I can imagine some of my progeny waking up on a hot, steamy morning and feeling sudden cool rivulets veining their bodies, driving out the hangover of sweaty heat killed sleep. What is seeping into me may be my one worthwhile segue to the future. I may have no other such lasting connective tissue as this itinerant spirit of stream, this bloodline of heedless clear waters.
Later on, heading back toward the spongy meadows that squeezed out the creek, I set up for the night at Judy Springs near a solitary apple tree. I gather wood and, after a couple of tries, kindle a fire.
I have a strange awareness right then that I am here on a homesteading project. I’m trying to find my way to the high hidden ground where I can finally take root and tap into the eternal sweet clarity of a creek, trying to find the still point of being where longing and landscape finally meet. I slouch, legs lotus folded, leaning back against a big Sycamore log – which now seems to have become a permanent piece of campfire architecture. This is the best posture for fire gazing. I fix my gaze on the settling, glowing coals, almost like I was staring into the red hot hissing oven where the earth was fused, waiting until the last dying ember of my own consciousness is swirled around and swallowed up in the creek, in the long liquid beginning of time.