A group of young outdoor enthusiasts traveled to Washington, D.C. from across the country after winning an essay contest sponsored by Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development, a coalition of sportsmen and conservation groups led by the National Wildlife Federation, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Trout Unlimited. The contest’s theme was “The Importance of Public Lands to Me,” and the essays highlight the forests, mountains, sagebrush steppe and backcountry waters of our public lands.
Hailing from both the East and West, the winners are Jarred Kay, 17, Flagstaff, Ariz.; Haley Powell, 17, Rock Springs, Wyo.; Matthew Reilly, 18, Palmyra, Va.; Rebecca Brown, 17, Conrad, Mont.; and Noah Davis, 18, Greensburg, Pa.
Read the student’s essays below, and let us know what you think about their passion for public lands in the comments section:
A Day on Bell’s Gap Run in State Game Lands 158 – By Noah Davis
The trees still cling to the morning fog as I drive out of the valley into the mountains along the Allegheny Front, toward a lake of clouds nestled in the ridges. The early summer foliage acts as translucent glass, sending patterns of light down upon the hood of my truck. The pull-offs in the game lands are used mostly as snowplow turnarounds and are seldom occupied, except for the two weeks of rifle season when most Pennsylvanians head out with hopes for a deer.
I park next to a section of flowering raspberry and mind my step over the last remaining colt’s foot whose yellow blossom will turn to seed within the next couple of days. The 2wt. in my right hand was built by my barber this past winter, his name engraved above mine on the handle, a Royal Wulff imprinted above both.
My wading boots are treated more like hiking shoes that are always wet. With 23,000 acres of public land, I need to be able to move freely in order to explore this fine seam through the hollow, the miles of water that crease it. My goal today is to reach the waterfall before drifting my fly a couple of miles downstream.
The narrow gauge railroad that was used to pull timber from this far wilderness during the late 19th century can still be found in the occasional rusted rail. Two miles in, under the cover of ostrich ferns, I find a lamp knocked from an engine. On most of myjourneys here, I discover some artifact, an emblem of our past being reclaimed by the green world.
The farther I walk the older the trees become. Remnant stands of old growth hemlock shade the pools; rhododendrons as large as houses force me to crawl on all fours. Deer and porcupine scat make me wary of where I place my hand, and every grouse or woodcock that bursts into flight leaves my senses buzzing.
The sun has risen to a point in the sky that the dew on the backs of rhododendron leaves warms and begins to evaporate. At a crossing just below the first pool, I see the tracks of a fisher. Crouching behind a boulder, I string my olive line through the guides of my rod, inspect the quality of the tippet, and tie a Royal Wulff to complete the outfit.
I then stand, so my eyes can catch the light reflecting from the water, and wait for a signal near the small waterfall. It doesn’t take long this time of year. Bugs are always on the water: terrestrials all day, caddis at noon, and mayflies as I make my way down the mountain. This time it’s an ant that’s fallen in the water that causes the trout to rise at the tail of the pool. I raise my rod and flip my fly up into the current. Characteristic of brook trout, it doesn’t take long for my fly to be sipped below the foamy film.
The most beautiful aspect of small, remote, trout streams, like this one, is the variegation of colors. Every season possesses a certain brilliance. The spring with its thick-green bleeding into summer. Fall with maple-gold and oak-orange. The gray of late season, when I take to the woods a final time for deer. And the white that winter brings to the deep woods, its silence and space, a place to reconsider and think about what is still to come.
The eight inches of brook trout I hold in my left hand reflect all of these seasons and add still to their splendor. The white of winter confined to anal fins, the fires of autumn caught on the underside, and the dappled back which forces me to look up and see its mirror, light cascading through the canopy of summer in this present tense.
When the fish is again under its sunken log, I gaze up the hollow. Another piece of flat water is twenty yards up and a deep pool ten beyond that. I dip my face into the cool, and let it fall down my front as I stand.
In a world where the façade of ownership blinds and corrupts, public lands are the jewels that keep wildness a part of our lives. When people experience the natural world— where human intervention is minimal at best—there’s the chance to feel connected to something greater than ourselves. Public lands allow for the experience of hunting, fishing, hiking, berry-picking, bird-counting, and simply listening and watching.
It’s these last two acts that will save our forests and rivers: the ability to listen to and watch the earth, to join with its waters and trees and the lives that depend upon them.
Noah Davis, 18, of Tipton, Pa., is a first-year student at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pa., where he studies English and plays for the basketball team. He enjoys hunting and fishing, especially fly fishing for native brook trout on small streams. His own writing has been influenced by some of his favorite authors, including Rick Bass, David James Duncan and Aldo Leopold.