In the Midst of Magic: Six Generations in the PA Wilds
Barreling through the Seneca Highlands on Scenic Route 6 in a gray 1957 Ford Fairlane bound for Coudersport, I was in sensory overload. At the tender age of 8, I was totally overwhelmed by these big mountains and wide valleys. They just seemed to go on forever. The view was amazing! Nothing like the flatlands of Ohio where I was born and raised.
Sensing my awe, my Grandpa, at the wheel of the old Ford, leaned toward me and whispered, “Beautiful view isn’t it, Eddie? There is magic in these mountains.”
He should know.
Born in 1898, Grandpa and his forefathers were Potter County settlers. They lived in the little towns of Austin, Costello and Wharton, and as far as I can tell, our family goes back six generations in the Pennsylvania Wilds.
The earliest among settlers was his father, my great grandfather, Frank Plotts, who married Almina Nelson and raised nine children, six boys and three girls. Later, the ladies married men with last names of Mitchell, Long and Cox.
Born and raised in “God’s Country,” Grandpa labored as a wood hick for the timber companies. Among his most vivid memories was witnessing the horrific collapse of the Austin Dam. He recounted details of the disaster often. As many times as I heard it, I was in awe of his story.
But years later, as the timber industry faded, Grandpa, like many other Allegheny Mountain men, followed the lure of high-paying steel mill jobs to distant places. The steel mills were booming and whole families moved on to cities such as Pittsburgh and Youngstown, which is where I was born and raised.
Relocating to Ohio, Grandpa never forgot his Potter County roots. In 1957, he bought a camp on Ice Mine Road in Sweden Valley to have a place to return home to God’s Country. Living in Ohio, we went to the mountains on weekends and vacations, because the mountains were “home.”
Over the course of many childhood summers, how I lived for Friday afternoons! Dad would get home from the mill in Youngstown and Mom would have the car packed – and off we went to Grandpa’s camp in God’s Country!
It was at this camp, the “Silver Spruce Lodge” across from “Ice Mountain,” where I spent my childhood summers. Nothing fancy at all, it was a simple one-floor structure located on Mill Creek. It had two huge rooms. One, was a combination living room/kitchen, the other, was a sleeping area with 10 beds! We affectionately referred to this arrangement as “the mess hall – and the dormitory.” For a young boy, it was a magical place, with a trout pond, a beautiful creek and a whole mountain to explore.
On many a Saturday night I would fall asleep on the living room floor of that camp listening to Grandpa and his siblings regaling us with their childhood tales of encounters with rattlesnakes, bears, wolves and panthers. The stories were endless, so was the laughter.
Memories abound; standing with Grandpa and my father in a mountain spring, which was the headwaters of the Allegheny River near Gold, swimming Mill Creek and Lyman Lake, jumping in the car at dark to go “deer spotting” down Route 872, catching fireflies in the field near the nearby Fireman’s Camp, picnics at Cherry Springs, Stevenson Dam and Patterson Park, staring in awe at the ruins of the Austin Dam, again and again. Fishing Big (and Little) Moore’s Run, Nelson Run behind the golf course, the First Fork of the Sinnemahoning, Prouty Run and the “Fish Basket,” where I was always on the lookout for rattlesnakes.
And who doesn’t recall their very first trout catch?
During a family outing at my great aunt and uncle’s cottage on Little Moore’s Run, I caught my first native brookie. It was a tiny trout caught with a tiny fishing rod, with a tiny earthworm as bait. My great-uncle, Bill Long, ecstatic with my first catch, ran over to inspect my trout and insisted on throwing it on the grill for me. As I was eating it, a horrific thought occurred to me and I stopped chewing immediately. “Uncle Bill,” I asked, “Did you take the worm out of this trout before you cooked it?” The adults exploded in raucous laughter. The “worm story” was told and retold by Uncle Bill and Aunt Dorothy Long around Coudersport for years. But, hey, at that moment, I wasn’t laughing. As an 8-year-old, it was a serious question and I needed to know!
As time went on, Grandpa’s health began to fail. He sold the camp when I was 21. How I hated to see that place go. If I had the money at the time, I would have bought it, because the place was such a huge part of my life. Just like Grandpa said, it was magical. I felt a profound sense of loss. Almost like a member of the family had died.
All of my family’s Potter County homes and camps are gone now. But as my father once told me, there are two things in life no one can ever take from you: experiences and memories.
As an adult, I was fortunate to relive the memories, through my brother, sisters and my four children at the camp my father built in the early 70s along Tionesta Creek in Forest County. With Sweden Valley in our rear-view mirror, we dearly missed Grandpa’s camp. Dad knew we needed a place to call our own, to continue making more family memories. My siblings and my children considered our new Forest County camp “home,” and three generations later, the family comes back “home” to the mountains for holidays, weekends and vacations.
Fast-forward to today.
There was never any doubt where I would end up. Right here, in the Pennsylvania Wilds, in the midst of magic. Thanks to my forefathers, I inherited my love for these mountains and found the place where I will spend my final days. Life is good.
I am fortunate to have experienced all of those wonderful childhood memories and today, in retirement, I get to return and revisit The Prouty, Big Moore’s Run, Nelson Run, Mill Creek, Hogback Hollow, Tionesta Creek, Logan Run Falls and Minister Creek, among the many mountain brook trout streams I fished, both as a young boy and as a man from Tionesta to Wellsboro, to Hammersley Fork, all across a big chunk of the Pennsylvania Wilds.
Every time I hike these mountains, there is a profound sense of the past and those who went before. It’s almost as though I can feel their presence.
Grandpa was right. It is a magical place and it’s so easy to see why so many people have a special love, awe and reverence for the beauty of the Pennsylvania Wilds.
My Dad was one of those people.
He left us in 2013 and I remember him saying so many times around so many late-night campfires, “If you want to see and talk to me after I’m gone, just come down to the creek, because that’s where I’ll be.”
In 2014, we gathered to scatter his ashes on the banks of the Tionesta. It was his last wish – and how incredibly appropriate.
To this day, I visit there often, hoping to see him, perhaps talk to him and relive the good times – those mountain memories made in the midst of magic.