The Real OutdoorsmenApr 01, 2021 10:45AM ● By Pat Kelly
On his right hand he had tied on a makeshift bandage made out of plastic bags. He was sitting on top of a trail-side picnic table with trash spread out all around him. As I climbed up the creek’s embankment, I could hear him loudly talking to himself. When he noticed me, he flinched in obvious surprise. We were in secluded woods early in the morning and each man’s presence made the other feel uncomfortable. Noticing my fly rod, he relieved the tension by asking if I had any luck. I returned the favor (albeit while lying) and told him I had caught nothing. Afterwards I didn’t think much of it. The way I saw it, encounters with vagrants were bound to happen to hunters and fishermen. We occupy out-of-the-way places and are outside when most people are not. That was five years ago, and I’ve fished “Hobo Creek” dozens of times since then without incident. Until this past year the memory had all but faded.
Just before Christmas, I was working a section of Hobo Creek upstream from an old covered bridge. There was snow on the ground, and I had built a twig fire next to the water so I could periodically warm my hands. After a few drifts I managed to land a respectable rainbow. I was in the process of taking the obligatory fishing hero selfie when something unexpectedly splashed into the water right in front of me. My first thought was that it was a jumping trout, but that didn’t make sense since the water along the shore was only an inch deep. Maybe a squirrel had lost the handle on a walnut? I looked straight up, but there were no overhanging branches—just blue sky. I stood up and stared hard into the woods. Did someone just throw a rock at me?
Similar to a soon-to-be-murdered idiot in a horror movie, I dismissed the strange anomaly and resumed fishing. Walking upstream, I started noticing boot prints in the snow. I didn’t think much of it at first—it was, after all, a public tract of woods. Then as I started fishing the next run, I smelled wood smoke. I was 100 percent positive I had put out my fire, going so far as to kick all of the embers into the water. I cast a few more times, but the smell was so strong it became impossible to ignore. I stopped fishing and turned around to reexamine the woods. I was shocked to see that not ten yards behind me was a crude campsite. A checkered quilt was spread out on the ground with an empty beer can lying next to it. A foot away from the blanket, built up against the trunk of a large tree, were the smoldering remains of a fire. By the looks of the ash heap and the height of the bark’s scorch marks, this must have been a roaring blaze.
I smothered the smoking coals as best as I could with snow, and with renewed interest picked up the boot tracks that walked away from the fire. I was curious that this might be the same hooftie I bumped into years ago on the picnic table. As I followed the tracks deeper into the woods, I finally remembered the mystery splash and paused. Did this person see me building my own fire and think that I was setting up shop in “his woods?” Maybe he felt crowded, picked up a rock, and decided to put a shot across my bow? Regardless, what good would come from finding someone at the end of these tracks? It was time to get out of the woods. Before leaving I checked the weather on my phone. It went into the twenties the night before and it would again once the sun went down.
I woke up the next day soured on Hobo Creek and in the market for a better fishing spot. A couple months prior I had found a fantastic new stream hidden about one hundred and fifty yards off of the Ironton Rail Trail. The IRT is a nine-mile-long macadam path that runs parallel to the Lehigh River and some of its tributaries. It is the type of place that Karens and Kens use to walk their dogs, push strollers (oftentimes with dogs in them), and ride bicycles in excessively tight clothing. The local consensus is that it is a safe place. However, when I fished this water for the first time, I found I just couldn’t stop looking over my shoulder. Then an unexpected thought popped into my head: “This would be a great place for me to get killed without anyone ever knowing it.” I missed setting the hook on a trout and took it as an omen to leave. I hadn’t been back since.
Since then, the seasons had changed and everything looked much different. There were six inches of snow on the ground and the bare branches allowed me to see much deeper into the bush than I could before. As I left the trail, a suburbanite on a $1,000-bike zipped by me. His presence made me feel stupid for being so paranoid the last time I was here. After an hour of walking the creek, I finally had a trout strike a drifting nymph. As I set the hook, I saw the flash of his silver belly just before he relieved himself of my fly. Thinking I was all alone, I swore aloud at maximum volume. After my little fit, I heard a susurrus somewhere behind me, almost as if my tantrum had startled something. I whipped my head around and saw tucked back in the brush and briars a green tent. Outside of it was a man in a rough winter coat kicking snow away from the entrance. It must have been his eyes I felt a couple months ago. That said, up close he didn’t look too dangerous; he just looked cold. Back at the car I checked the weather on my phone. It was going to be another below freezing night.
In two days of fishing, I had managed to blunder into two different homeless guys’ campsites. Up to this point I had only ever seen homeless people on city sidewalks. These two were more hardcore—tucked away in the snowy bush, well outside of town and all alone. I would not go so far as to say I admired these people, but it was hard not to be impressed with the level of toughness required to live like this.
A few days after Christmas, I was heading into town with my two sons. I was riding shotgun, with my sixteen-year-old driving and my eleven-year-old wasting his youth on some video game in the backseat. On a whim I told my eldest to turn down the road my new creek was on and to drive very slowly. The leafless trees and snowy backdrop made it possible to just make out the green tent from the road. I had him stop right there in the middle of the street so I could point it out. I told my two boys that was what real hardship looked like and to not let that happen to them. At a gas station we picked up some jerky, pretzels, and candy bars and tied them up in a plastic shopping bag. Back at the trailhead I told the boys I would be out of sight for a few minutes and to wait in the truck. The green tent was on the opposite side of the creek. Cupping my hands over my mouth, I yelled that I was chucking a bag of food across the water. I wished him a Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year, and to be careful. Then I left the outdoorsman to the elements and walked back to my son’s warm truck.