Pine Creek JonFeb 28, 2022 09:00AM ● By Lilace Mellin Guignard
“For Jon!” was the rallying cry last year at Pine Creek Outfitters in Ansonia, as the staff, reeling from the loss of their friend and boss, launched into the 2021 season without their trusted guide. Jonathan Frederick Dillon, the owner, passed away from brain cancer on March 12, 2021. He was a father, son, husband, musician, philosopher, businessman, jokester, and adventurer. He was thirty-seven.
Grief is life at flood stage. On Saturday morning, March 13, the PCO staff gathered at the store and headquarters for the yearly CPR and First Aid training. Stunned, red eyes peered at each other. Hugs were shared, covid-bedamned. Everyone waited to see what the plan was. Would they open?
As the instructors set up, Chuck Dillon, Jon’s father and past owner of the business, came in. The room went quiet. “We go on as usual until Amanda decides what she wants to do,” he said. Amanda, Jon’s wife, is a fourth-grade teacher in Galeton and lives at PCO with their two daughters. “I’ll keep the books and write the checks. You guys do what you do.” What they do is provide opportunities for people to paddle, pedal, and hike in the Pine Creek Valley, offering guided trips, rentals, and shuttle services.
PCO would open. But what was usual anymore? Staff went back to trying to breathe life into the training mannequin.
A Childhood on Pine Creek
The Pine Creek Gorge, also called the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon, was carved by Pine Creek flowing from Ansonia south past Waterville. This is the Deep Valleys area in the Allegheny Plateau in the Appalachian Mountains. Here the interbedded sandstone and shale cliffs can be viewed from rim vistas on the eastern and western sides, the rail trail below, or the creek itself. Harder to see is the siltstone and mudstone hidden under wooded slopes. Almost invisible is how certain people have shaped the valley, their love as much a force of nature as the seasonal flows that rage with spring snowmelt and trickle with late summer droughts. Jon—his love of this place and the people here—was such a force.
Chuck and Sue Dillon were living in Philadelphia when they fell under the spell of Pine Creek and began looking for land to homestead. Instead of a small farm, they bought Great Valley Floats in January 1984 when Jon was two months old. Chuck came up weekends from Philly, bringing the family when he could. In 1988 they moved here full-time. They’d been told the rafting season lasted six weeks, but soon found it could be three weeks or less. Having no input from large tributaries, Pine Creek only reliably flows in spring, though rain sometimes lengthens the season into June. Chuck grew the business by buying a bunch of used wet suits and renting them. They also started renting rafts and canoes and providing information and rides for hikers of the West Rim Trail. Sue was involved for years in trying to get the Pine Creek Rail Trail established, and when it opened in 1996, PCO started renting bikes and shuttling folks on the rail trail.
As PCO grew, so did Jon and his sister, Alison. Jon took his first river trip with his dad at age five. Alison, who is two years older, says of Jon, “He was my buddy. Once we figured out we could get away with more by working together, we became a duo.” They’d be gone all day, riding bikes to Asaph to play kickball, to the Ansonia Gulf station to get ice cream, and then to Flat Rock swimming hole. She describes her brother as fun-loving. “He always found an excuse to start shenanigans with someone.”
She and Jon were expected to help out with chores. The guides would entertain them, and Jon would mess with the guides, trying to keep them from their work. One day when he took things a little too far, the guides took eight-year-old Jon, hog-tied him with one of the van seatbelts they’d removed, and hung him from the rafters with bungie cords. They took him down after a few minutes, but he seemed to learn his lesson.
As Jon got older, he started really working there—once you got him out of bed. Many of his friends got jobs there too. Chuck had intentionally created a business that cared about their customers and employees. “I enjoyed the most working with young adults, giving them responsibility and standing back as they figured it out,” Chuck explains. “They kept me young.”
One of Jon’s buddies who started working there in high school is Mark Cimorelli of Wellsboro. Mark tells about having to get Jon out of bed Saturday mornings to guide a trip. Mark would jump up and down on the mattress. One time the covers came off and Jon, who slept buck naked, started wrestling with Mark. “Sue passed the door, looked in, and just kept walking,” Mark grins. It wasn’t just a business. It was a family, full of quirky people who didn’t fit any stereotype, who were all different in different ways, but who all found belonging at PCO.
Jon started playing electric guitar at twelve, and played in the band, The Gaping Maw. His good friend, Jake Tomlinson, remembers “a bunch of young kids jamming out to Led Zeppelin. His talent on virtually any instrument, sometimes several different ones at the same time, always amazed me.” He played guitar, mandolin, banjo, suitcase kick drum, harmonica, ukulele, and the digeridoo. He read J.R.R. Tolkien and loved Star Wars movies. He played video games where you build villages and whole worlds.
But Jon loved the world of Pine Creek best. He was a paddler, hiker, and mountain biker.
Nevertheless, when Jon left for Susquehanna University to major in history, he didn’t plan on moving back.
May the Forest Be With You
“I’d just found a buyer for the business when Jon told me over Thanksgiving break his junior year that he wanted to take it over,” Chuck says. “He said he wanted to come back to the shire.” Alison was relieved the business would stay in the family. But Jon was wild, unfocused, and no one was sure how this would work. In 2006, he and Chuck began a three-year plan, where Jon would shadow and observe Chuck for a year. The next year Chuck would cut back hours, and in the third, Chuck would be around only as needed. By the second year, Jon started to put his stamp on the place.
Though Jon long resisted getting a cell phone or social media account, one of the changes he made was to bring PCO up to date with online marketing. He created a website posting all the information of the annual newspaper guide Chuck started in the 1980s, and eventually added an online reservation system. “He understood the changing demographics,” Chuck says. “Lots of people wanted two-hour trips rather than all-day ones.” Jon advertised shorter paddles on the Upper Pine and offered tubing in summer when the water was too low to paddle.
“I was nervous for him,” Sue says, “but once Jon got into his element at the outfitters, he grew into this amazing man.”
Amanda came into Jon’s life the year after college. Originally from Coudersport, she returned to teach at the elementary school. She saw how committed he was to the business. “I knew what I was getting into. He worked seven days a week, March through November.”
They got married on July 10, 2010, down the road behind Valley Alliance Church on the Upper Pine as an eagle flew over. The heat wave had been broken by a storm the night before. It brought the creek up enough for the wedding party to float away in canoes.
Friends and family comment on the irony of Jon—a class clown who didn’t make things easy on his teachers—marrying one. But Amanda’s patience and focus complemented Jon’s wildness. And when she did need to get his attention, she knew how.
For example, when their first baby was due in April—the busy season—Jon was still going on the creek after-hours with the staff, where there was no cell service. Amanda kept asking, what if she went into labor while he was unreachable? “‘Oh, that’s not going to happen,’ he’d say.” One day close to her due date she decided to get his attention. “When he came in at dark—having had a beer or two—I was downstairs with my bag yelling, ‘We have to go! He was stumbling, trying to get the wet suit off. I’m yelling and watching him in full panic mode. Once we were walking out the door I turned and said, ‘I’m not in labor. But what if I was?’” Two weeks later he was at Eliana’s birth.
There were advantages to living at the outfitters. Jon could take the baby when Amanda needed a shower. If she needed both arms to do something, she opened the door to the office and someone would be excited to hold the baby. Two years later, Lylah was born in January when both parents could stay home.
Jon watched the girls in the winter, and Amanda in the summer. He continued the tradition of making the outfitters a family—one that played pranks. Sure, occasionally their car was stuffed with stinky life jackets and wrapped in plastic on a hot day, or a flaming deer head was hung in their yard, but when you’re married to Mr. Shenanigans you expect this. “Sometimes we thought of living elsewhere,” Amanda says, “but living here gave us the opportunity to eat meals together and for the girls to run out and see him.” Nothing meant more to Jon than his girls, and he took them on adventures to the places he loved from the time they were babies. He talked to them about their spirit animals. His was the eagle.
Rough Water Ahead
In 2017, after several high water days, there were some tragic accidents on Pine Creek. Though they were unrelated to PCO business, Jon and staff assisted in the search and recovery efforts. The deceased man’s family and friends, who’d held vigil daily by the river, were so grateful for the volunteer efforts they requested memorial contributions go to the Morris Fire Company and PCO. Then when the Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservancy and the Bureau of Forestry wanted to install water safety signs, Jon donated the money for the project. Under Jon, PCO also donated equipment and shuttle service for the Headwaters annual cleanup float. Just as the Pleistocene continental glaciers left their mark on the Pine Creek Valley, so did Jon.
And like Pine Creek, which originally flowed northeast before glacial ice dams changed its course to southward, the trajectory of Jon’s life changed drastically when in 2018, two weeks before he turned thirty-five, Jon discovered he had a grade two brain tumor that required immediate removal. Knowing he’d need help running the business, Jon called Dan Shelmire, one of the guides he’d tormented as a kid. Dan had worked for PCO off and on as he moved in and out of the area. Now back in Stony Fork, the self-employed contractor didn’t hesitate to rejoin the family that retained many long-time employees, including Mark. Chuck says about the staff, “The extent to which they went 300 percent just blew my mind.”
For five months after his surgery in November, Jon recovered as a highly medicated hermit. He emerged from his upstairs room in spring 2019 to reconnect. When PCO could finally open, more people came than ever before. He greeted return customers who were happy to see him behind the counter and on the river again. Despite being a shorter season, it was their best financially.
Though he loved entertaining people, Jon always declined to perform on stage. Everyone was surprised when he agreed to do so at the 2020 July 4th celebration. Even though he’d started having seizures again, he didn’t change his mind. Alison says, “He dazzled the crowd with his signature move of playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” with his teeth, just like Jimi Hendrix.” After that night, his seizures came so frequently the family stopped calling 911. His tumor had recurred, this time a grade four glioblastoma.
The Gray Warrior
“It was so much worse than a nightmare,” Amanda says. Glioblastoma is the most common and deadliest primary malignant brain tumor in adults. She and Jon chose a research organization for PCO to support, StacheStrong, but he got worse before they could fundraise.
Amanda says they were always a team. “Through all the ups and downs, we built a strong foundation. We were in it forever.” She takes a moment before adding, “And forever shouldn’t have ended at thirty-six”—Amanda’s age when Jon died.
Alison calls Jon their gray warrior—gray is the ribbon color for glioblastoma awareness. The Upper Pine was a gray ribbon flowing behind Valley Alliance Church the day of his service on March 19, 2021. Two of Jon’s friends spotted eagles circling overhead. Alison isn’t sure why Jon felt his spirit animal was the eagle, but Chuck thinks it’s because of The Hobbit. In the novel, when all is lost the Great Eagles fly in to save the day.
That year, the staff saved the business. “I feel like Jon left the girls and me this support network to see us through,” Amanda says.
Alison worked with PCO staff to organize a river float to raise funds for glioblastoma research. In trying to name it, they came up with Regatta because Jon would say, “We gotta, we gotta regatta!” On May 23, 200 people floated down the Upper Pine while an eagle perched not in a tree but on the bank, watching while the boats paddled past. Many more people bought T-shirts. They raised $6,300 for StacheStrong. The 2022 Regatta will be held on May 22.
When June came, it was clear the folks who’d discovered outdoor adventure during the pandemic were coming back for more. Numbers were up, and staff got the word that Amanda wanted to keep the business. “I couldn’t imagine not staying,” she says now. “It’s all the girls have known.” Living attached to the outfitters provided support. “We didn’t have to ask them to step up. They just took care of everything when I couldn’t even think.”
The girls could still run into the store to hang out or bounce on the rafts piled out front. Staff let the dogs out when Amanda wasn’t around. The PCO family remains a collection of gifted misfits with various worldviews and political affiliations. In a year when the country, even the county, was more divided than ever, it’s easy to imagine Jon watched with pride at how the staff focused on their commonalities: love of the outdoors and of a young man who seemed to know exactly what to do with his short time here.
PCO not only made it through the year, they had a very successful season. At the employee appreciation dinner in November, they showed slides of Jon and PCO’s past. After Mark shared some memories, he looked at Chuck and Sue and said, “I got a lot more than a job out of this place.”
In 2022, Dan, now the operations manager, is ready to steer the business in the direction Jon wanted. Jon talked to Dan a lot about his ideas to expand, things to try next. This year more guided options for paddling, biking, and hiking will be offered.
On Jon’s birthday last year, Alison visited one of his favorite vistas at Bradley Wales, about half-way along the West Rim Trail. “I didn’t believe in signs,” she says, “but I asked him for one. An eagle came and rode the air currents for two minutes. The leaves swirled in the breeze and glistened.” She left flowers.
There’s geologic time, and there’s human time. Perhaps Jon’s spirit exists somewhere in between. Certainly, any heaven worth his soul includes the Pine Creek Valley. “Sometimes it just hits you,” his sister says. “The place breathes Jon. He’s still there, laughing at all the shit we do.” And no doubt watching over his creek and the people finding the peace on it that he did.