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Orchids on Snider

Orchids on Snider

On June 6, 1981, Vermont’s Green Mountains were enveloped in steady, warm rain.  I woke to it pattering against the window of my bedroom, the swirly glass in the hundred-year-old pane blurred further by streaks of water washing down old cobwebs and the tiny bits of last fall's iridescent fly wings that they contained. I glanced out at the distorted world – a view cleaved by leaden sky and indistinct, early-season green, then came down the stairs of the farmhouse where I grew up two at a time. I was a week away from my tenth birthday, and a day of rain meant the odds of going brook trout fishing with my dad – odds that were always good regardless of weather - were exceedingly high. I slid a wicker-bottomed chair across the kitchen floor and stood on it to peer out a window that faced our garden, expecting to see my father digging for worms to use as bait. He wasn’t there, and my heart sank when I heard the creak of wide floorboards above me in his study where he worked. I stared at my giant, stub-tailed cat, Lynx, curled asleep on the couch, envious of his ability to pass so perfect a day to fish in blissfully-unaware slumber.  

“Tomorrow,” my father said to me over lunch. “We’ll let the brooks come up today and tomorrow we’ll see what we see.”

It seemed an eternity away but when the following morning arrived, the earth bathed in bright sunlight and gentle, north wind, my young mind was acutely aware that it had actually come rather fast. That perhaps it had come too fast. I distinctly remember looking at my father’s jeans while we dug worms together, somehow understanding that one day too soon mine would be the same size.

It was a difficult sensation to shake, this feeling that time’s inevitable passage led full-throttle in one direction, and while I looked out over hill farms overgrown with meadowsweet and red osiers on our drive west across Lowell Mountain, my gaze was drawn to a horizon of Jay Peak. I knew that by the time we reached its foothills this ride would seem no longer than a single blink and that even the excitement surrounding our expedition to a new stream – anticipation that would ordinarily draw out time while I waited impatiently – wasn’t sufficient to slow our advance. When we parked along a dirt road still wet in the shade from yesterday’s rain, I couldn’t entirely remember how we’d gotten there.

In front of us was a great berm of gravel blocking our way, dumped by a crew of men working on an iron bridge a few hundred feet the other side. My father chatted with them, remarking on the steel plate attached to one end of the small span with the names of the Westfield, Vermont selectmen engraved along with the year, 1928. Like most Vermont bridges, this one was rebuilt a year after the November floods of '27, and on this day, 54 years later, was getting a face lift. On the upstream side, lay Snider Brook, cascading down from the spine of the Green Mountain Range, water tinged the color of clayey soil like the bark of the beech trees growing from its banks.

My father and I walked upstream half a mile before we started fishing, putting enough distance between us and the road below to escape the most easily accessed portion of Snider and water that had, in 1981 when plenty of people still fished for brook trout, likely already seen its share of foot traffic during the spring. The woods were full of birdsong. A white throated sparrow called from a boggy seep of dense spruce, blue jays chortled on a hardwood ridge south of us, and a Cooper’s or sharp shinned hawk screamed incessantly, his disapproval of our intrusion upon his world coming in peels of shrill shrieks. All around us the woods were bursting with new life, but where lightning had split a maple the summer before the leaves on the half that had suffered more damage were already a light pink, the first ones to preview autumn. In their hypnotic sway, I believed that I could see the midway of county fairs, jack-o’lanterns, a morning of snow, and the silent ascension of winter wood smoke when our thermometer showed barely a nub of mercury.

The fishing was superb. In every hole that should have held a trout we caught at least one, sometimes two or three. We plucked them out of swift riffles, from beneath cut banks where spring high water had eroded lairs under the exposed roots of leaning spruce, and from the downstream side of polished, granite boulders flecked with mica and feldspar. As the light of mid-day, our supply of worms, and the size of the stream all diminished together, we came to a dog-leg bend pool that my father pointed to with the tip of his bamboo rod before handing it to me to fish on my own.

In the woods, you never go under anything you can go over, and you never go over anything you can go around. It was the adage of my namesake, the lifelong outlaw and woodsman, Jake Blodgette, and my father had preached it since I was old enough to accompany him. It was also the furthest thing from my mind as I leapt over a waist-high log, landing awkwardly on the other side in a pile of softball-sized stones. I felt my left knee buckle, gravity yanking me downward with the force of some unseen demon, as eager to pull me underground as I'd been to get to the brook.

“Hop right up,” my dad said as I began to cry. Like most fathers of that era, he subscribed to the theory that the best way for people to heal – particularly young boys – was to deny pain.

I pulled myself onto my feet and took a couple of tentative steps. 

“Look at this,” he said, and as the world came into focus through drying eyes, I saw him pointing to a great hunk of quartz sticking out of the ground.  It was more clear than milky, covered in places with dark-green moss and lichen, bare in others where its translucent surface revealed the depths of the stone, the flares of light and prismatic fractures locked inside like entire miniature galaxies.

As soon as I realized I wasn’t seriously hurt, I began digging at its sides, clawing away fallen leaves, peeling back damp dirt thick with the hair-like roots of vegetation. I made it down eight inches or so before larger roots halted my excavation then asked my dad if he could help me dig it up and perhaps, if it wasn’t too large, carry it out for me. I’d collected rocks as far back as I could remember, and this would have been a fine centerpiece.

My father placed one of his boots against the quartz and shoved hard, and when the stone refused to tremble shook his head.

“It would take a team of oxen to haul this out of here,” he said, though I wasn’t convinced. I’d seen the earth lay its claim to stones before while chiseling pieces of chert and pink granite out from under our front porch - my winter pastime when that was Vermont's only bare ground - amazed at the grip with which dirt could hang on. He gave it another half-hearted shove and again said, “A team of oxen,” but I marked the stone’s location, near the log I’d jumped over, beneath a three-finger-thick white birch, believing one day I’d come back alone and, as my father had said before this first trip to Snider, see what I see.

Upstream, above the bend where any trout there would have seen me walking off my injury and spooked, just below where Snider split, one fork coming from the north and another, slightly smaller branch joining from the south, I fished a final pool. It was a deep run flanked by alders and a camel’s back boulder dividing the current, and I caught a brook trout almost ten inches long out of it. The largest fish of the day, we would have kept this trout with no questions asked, but just as I removed the hook from its upper jaw I was overcome with a sensation of dread. I peered into the woods across the brook where a dead animal larger than a dog but smaller than a bear lay draped over a rock, its skin stripped of fur, the scent of decay wafting toward me. The trout splashed back into the brook as I raced toward where my dad sat watching. 

“There’s a dead animal up there in the woods,” I whispered. “I think it’s a dire wolf.”

I knew even as I said it that it was unlikely that one of the animals from my picture book of extinct mammals had reappeared here, more than ten thousand years after it last walked these mountains, but I had no better explanation for what I’d seen.

Instinctively, my father moved his body between me and whatever had frightened his young son and said, “Whatever it is, it can’t hurt you. We’ll go look together, but you let me go first.”

I didn’t want to look again, but I liked the idea of waiting alone in the woods while my father investigated even less. Reluctantly, I placed my feet inside the larger tracks from his and eased along behind him. When we reached the place where my trout had escaped we stopped and both looked across the brook into the forest. As far as we could see, which is never terribly far in Northern Vermont woods, there was no sign of death.

“In the scheme of things,” my father said, “it wasn’t very long ago when our sense of foreboding probably help keep us alive. I’m certain that you saw something here. And I wouldn’t want to be a dire wolf going up against you.” He patted my back, but I couldn’t meet his eyes. I toed at a skunk cabbage plant, bending its large, ribbed leaves toward the brook.

As we moved away from the stream to hike back among hardwood trees on its north bank, my dad talked about the importance of trusting our eyes. He asked me if I would believe it if I saw a polar bear stroll across our path, and quietly I said that I would. He laughed and said that he would, too, but that he’d hope it wouldn’t see him.

In the early afternoon, the woods were quiet and the breeze was still cool, a scent on it like cut corn in the fall. Again I had the disconcerting sense that time was moving very fast, compounded when we stopped on a ridge covered with pink lady’s slipper flowers. As the heads of these large, wild orchids bobbed and swayed, I wasn’t sure whether I’d seen them before – in dreams when my mind brought me on occasion to magical places – or knew that like the quartz boulder I would one day see them again. I stared at a flower until I was forced to blink, feeling as though my feet at that precise moment straddled the distance between a young boy and a young man. Further, beyond my small, rubber boots, distant things that may have been and future things yet to come were both as tantalizingly out of reach as the center of the rock we’d left beside the brook.

On our ride home, as Juice Newton sang Queen of Hearts over our scratchy, AM radio, I remember looking at my father while he drove, thinking his feet easily reached the pedals while mine, for the moment, barely touched the floorboards. I looked out my window at the fields on top of Lowell Mountain before I saw anything else.

My dad and I fished Snider at least two dozen more times prior to our last excursion there shortly before I graduated from high school. I don’t remember much of note from that trip except that I was consciously walking slowly enough for my dad to easily keep up and that we didn’t get many trout. All across Northern Vermont the brook trout fishing had tapered off, dissolving with my boyhood as though its appearance on the map of time served only the purpose of yielding great memories to a boy and his dad. Purpose enough, I believed. 

I asked my father a couple of times during my early years in Montana if he and his beloved dog, Outlaw, had made it over to Snider in the spring, and he answered no, that a flood rivaling the one of 1927 had ravaged Vermont in 1996, leaving its brooks straight and wide, obliterating the bends and cover brook trout needed. I didn’t doubt it, but when my mother confided in me that there were “special” places my father and I had fished together that he refrained from going to without me it made more sense. During my short visits to Vermont, I realized there were places that I avoided for the same reason.

And then one morning last October, back in Vermont to photograph the fall colors, on a dawn that broke clear after a night of rain, not unlike the one on which my father and I had first fished Snider, I decided it was time to go get that chunk of quartz.

Forty minutes later I parked next to a bulbous, galvanized culvert, the modern, more-efficient, if-not-uglier replacement to the iron bridge of 1928. There was no plaque naming the Westfield selectmen who had served in 1996, and I wondered if somewhere downstream in the tangled wreckage of broken trees and boulders I could find that original plate.

Leaving that search for another time, I hiked upstream under a canopy of colorful leaves, through dense, wine-red stands of hobblebush, around clumps of balsam fir where caribou moss grew ankle deep, and in the shadow of granite glacial erratics larger than pickup trucks. The tops of these boulders provided elevated perches for yellow birch, sinewy roots spiderwebbing down the bare rock, groping for soil below. I parted the pale-yellow, oversized leaves of moose maple, their fuzzy undersides still damp, heard the distant flush of a ruffed grouse, and once stopped to look at a fresh, running deer track, splayed hooves digging through crimson maple leaves.

When, after what seemed an impossibly short time, I stood where Snider Brook divided into nearly-equal parts, I slung off my pack and sat down in a patch of sun and closed my eyes, listening to the rush of water over rock. This time, the only sense of unease I had came in the recognition that any trace of such was as lost to the years behind me as the dire wolf was to this world, and that the millennia between his footfalls here and the decades between mine were both, on a universal scale, immeasurably small.

“Let’s see what we see,” I said out loud as I started downstream toward where the quartz lay. It was easy to find, jutting from the earth near a white birch larger through than my upper leg, and before I began pulling it from the ground I paused, my hands tracing the exact places where they had long ago. And then I gripped a corner of rock, dug in my heels, and pulled a hundred-pound stone up out of the hole it had laid in since it washed out from under a north-bound glacier.

Not quite a team of oxen, I thought as I smiled and rolled the quartz into my large frame pack, one that had carried plenty of loads of elk meat this heavy over more difficult country in Montana. The downhill walk, one again punctuated by the silence of afternoon woods, passed as swiftly as the years between my visits to Snider seemed to have. When I wedged the stone – lichen side up – under the memorial bench in the Irasburg cemetery with the dates of my dad’s life carved on top, I wondered if what had frightened me many years earlier was some innate understanding that the ways of the world lead us all toward where I now rested, my forearms scratched by the sharp edges of clear stone. Maybe my nine-year-old mind created the dire wolf – an animal known to me to be long gone – because it was an easier way to begin understanding our own mortality. I sat on the bench while Canadian clouds blew fast into Vermont, lost in thoughts of changing seasons, ending eras, and the haunting possibility that I’d never see the upper reaches of Snider Brook again. But then, as cold raindrops began landing all around, I knew that I would. At least once more.

One day before my forty-seventh birthday this June, at the height of Vermont’s apple blossom (and black fly) season, I started up Snider with my camera and 200mm Nikon macro lens. I wanted to photograph lady’s slippers – to capture some of these beautiful flowers that, as my friend and Vermont author, Garret Keizer, so aptly stated, appear as out of place in the North Country woods as a Tahitian dancer. Unlike the piece of quartz, I had only a rough idea of where I’d seen them growing 37 years ago, somewhere on the north side of the stream.

Two hours and three applications of 100% DEET insect repellant later, I was beginning to wonder if, on a year when spring had arrived later than usual, I was too early. I’d found faded, red trillium, Solomon’s seal, foam flower, blue and yellow violets, flowering skunk cabbage, and wild strawberries but hadn’t located a single orchid. I’d zigzagged back and forth between the edge of the brook and a high, hardwood ridge to the north, covering what felt like several miles. At the base of a knoll where a grove of tall hemlocks provided much-welcomed shade, I leaned against an old tree, its fissured bark green with its own forest of moss, and guzzled twenty ounces of water, tipping the bottle straight up to make sure I got the very last drops.

The lady’s slipper at my feet had to have been there when, a few moments before, I nearly set my camera bag on it. A plant that takes ten years before showing the world its first flower couldn’t have grown in the span of a few seconds. Still, I looked at it suspiciously and then back over my shoulder, realizing that I was out of earshot of Snider, not entirely sure how far from the brook I’d walked. As I positioned my tripod for a photo, I noticed that there were many more, each, including those in deep shadows, with a wondrous, phosphorescent glow – a hypnotic luminance that drew my gaze from one to another, leading my eyes down a lighted path toward where a twin pair grew side by side.

I spent at least an hour photographing these orchids, one growing near a maple seedling, another against a backdrop of ferns, still more sprouting from the litter of fallen hemlock needles, vibrant color on a floor of browns. While half the black flies in Northern Vermont feasted on the back of my neck and the sun crept higher on a day not far from the longest of the year, I thought about how my visits to Snider Brook had served as place-markers in my life and how, in a way, they’d come full circle. For a time, as I moved between flowers, sure each was prettier than the last, I felt a little of the same wonder I had as a child who believed he'd stumbled into a place from his dreams. I felt that the distance between man and boy, at least in this spot, was once again remarkably small.

It’s the damnedest thing. When I left the lady’s slippers and hiked to the brook, crossing a pair of ridges I’d inadvertently placed between us, I realized that there was a particular photo I hadn’t taken. I wanted a shot at the close focus limit of my lens, filling the entire frame with the throat of one of the orchids. Well, what’s a few more fly bites and twenty minutes worth of retracing my steps, I thought? Easily enough done. I soaked my baseball hat in the cold water of Snider, slapped it back on my head dripping wet, and headed north.

In half an hour, I knew I’d walked further than the flowers. I cut back at a slight angle, searching for the tops of the hemlock through holes in the forest. When I heard the brook, I stopped and, after another small adjustment, walked north again.

I grid searched for two hours, eventually arriving on the dirt road where I’d parked without seeing a single lady’s slipper or finding the grove of hemlock. It didn’t seem possible that I could walk to the exact place where I’d seen a single stone when I was a child but couldn’t find a group of trees half an acre in diameter that I’d visited just a few hours ago.

It was clouding over when I struck out one more time along the route that I’d taken in the morning. Here and there I found my boot prints, and once where a moose had put its large hoof over the top of one. In places where I couldn’t see tracks, there were often landmarks I recalled – a shattered boulder covered in ferns, the twisting trunk of a maple that snaked between a pair of larger yellow birch, and a dry seep where brilliant, fallen leaves coated every stone. I walked until the land tipped abruptly upward, surging toward the top of the Green Mountains and then, sitting on a piece of quartz that truly would require at least a team of oxen to budge, I reviewed the photos I’d taken earlier, relieved to see that they were indeed there on my camera.

I have a good memory and am good in the woods, but I don’t have any explanation for why I couldn’t find those flowers again. I don’t believe that they vanished into thin air any more than I believe that a dead dire wolf presented itself to me nearby when I was nine. And yet, I’d seen both and had also seen them disappear.

“Trust your eyes,” I heard my father saying as I climbed into my car, shoving the driver’s seat back a bit.

Moments later, as Snider fell out of sight over a ridge behind me, and with the uneasy feeling that I was putting more distance than that between me and the brook, I caught myself singing to the Sherbrooke, Quebec radio station that had, when I crested a height of land, tuned back in.

“Midnight. And I’m a-waiting on the twelve-oh-five.”

*Some of these photos are available now under my New Releases section, where you can also view other new spring pictures*


4 comments

  • Leslie Rivver

    Just when I thought I couldn’t love HFM more….this. Thank you, Jake, for bringing him to life again ❤️

  • Annie

    Oh my heart. This is beautiful.

  • Phillis

    What a loving, moving tribute to your dad and to this land. May lady’s slippers ever bloom on Snyder.

  • Carolyn Bates

    I just loved reading your post Jake. I could feel and see and hear your walks with your dad and by yourself. Beautifully written. Totally marvelous

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