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The Wilderness of Our Childhood

By John Holyoke

The stream was narrow. It was shallow. Several times a summer, after we had climbed every tree we could climb, were unable to settle our latest croquet rules dispute, and were waterlogged by swimming for hours, we’d head to the stream. Rods in hand. Worms safely stored in the nifty, twist-to-open dispenser (the odd slogan, “Half a turn, there’s your worm,” still resonates, thirty years later).

The brook must have had a name, although that official label, whatever it was, never mattered much to us. To my brother and sister and me, it was just “The Brook.” Our frequent summer adventures always began just upstream from the lake at a place we still called “Bumpy Bridge,” although the old log

structure that earned it the name has long since been replaced.

One of my favorite Maine guides often says that on his chosen river, there are certain special places that he won’t abandon until his sport has caught a fish.

“There are always fish there,” he’ll say. “If we don’t catch one, it means we’re going to have a bad trip.”

To us, Bumpy Bridge was just such a spot. Every adventure began there, with the three of us hand-lining our worms between the logs of the seldom-used bridge. We’d lie on our bellies, peer through the cracks, and wait for the telltale tug. The fish couldn’t see us that way, we figured and although the gaps between the logs weren’t too wide, neither were the tiny trout we were hiding from. Eventually, however, we always moved on. The Brook awaited. And so did the trout. Maybe.

The ultimate goal, I realize now, was never “to catch fish.” Not really. Surely we intended to do so, and most days, we succeeded. But it seems what we really wanted to do was simpler, more elemental, more primitive—we just wanted to go somewhere we hadn’t been before.

On a small brook like ours, doing that meant bushwhacking farther upstream than we’d ever bushwhacked before. Some days, we simply ran out of time (or caught too many fish on our way upstream) to do so. But other days, we’d hop rocks, climb steep embankments, and fish our way deeper and deeper into the woods. On those days, we’d round one final corner, spy an unfamiliar (and therefore, in the eyes of a ten-year-old, undiscovered) pool and smile.

Progress was incremental, of course. Despite our best-laid plans to really, truly explore the entire brook, our jaunts could only be as long as our meal schedules allowed. Our best trips began shortly after lunch, but we always knew they had to finish before supper, no matter

what—Mom’s rule—and Mom’s rules were not to be trifled with.

Eventually, we figured, we would trek The Brook in its entirety. We would need to start early. Fish less. Hike more. Eventually, we would discover where this little trickle originated. On those days we actually worked our way deep into the woods, days when every twist and turn along the Brook unveiled new fishing grounds, were rare (the farther you head afield, I have since learned, the more advance planning is necessary). But those days were also the most memorable. Deep in the woods, things were different. Out there, there were bears and all sorts of unknown critters looking for a tasty and tender ten-year-old snack (or so we told each other). When deep in the woods, we young adventurers tended to fish pools closer to each other and to look over our shoulders a bit more often.

My cousin, always a bit more adventurous than the rest of us, came prepared. He carried a knife, though I never found out whether it was really a fishing knife or actually a self-defense, bear-fighting knife, as he may have led us to believe. During one deep-woods snack break, he stuck his knife in a log for safekeeping, and forgot all about it until we arrived back at camp hours later. For a few days, I searched for his prized possession and learned an important wilderness truth—in the woods, one log looks much like another, even the rotten, knife-holding logs.

Years later, I found that knife. It was a rusted, forgotten relic left by a boy who had moved on to bigger and theoretically better things. Eventually, each of us did the same thing. We moved on. We stopped fishing at Bumpy Bridge. We stopped hiking upstream. And I suppose some of us even stopped wondering where The Brook originated and whether we’d ever get there.

A few years ago, I returned to Bumpy Bridge. There were no logs to peer between, nor any eager adventurers fishing the shallow water. Farther upstream, I found, there are homes. Culverts scar the once-pristine trickle. The wilderness paradise of our childhood is no more, it seems.

Now, years later, I still don’t know what The Brook’s real name is and I still haven’t hiked to its source. But even though the waters I fish now are typically bigger and more spectacular, I’ve come to realize that I haven’t completely moved on after all.

Not really.

The mysteries of that childhood trout stream are strong, you see. And the memories of those hot summer days keep me thinking about the places we loved so much and wondering about the places we never quite discovered.


Award-winning journalist John Holyoke describes his favorite childhood fishing spot in the prologue to his book Evergreens: A Collection of Maine Outdoor Stories.

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