The legal description of the 50-acres of wooded shore front my parents owned noted a huge boulder at one edge and a brook at the other. The watercourse was called Smelt Brook because every spring the smelt – anchovy-size minnows used mostly for bait to catch larger fish – would run into it to spawn.
Fisherfolk from town would show up, as well, and that’s the crux of this tale. They would bring their beer and build small campfires next to the creek, and be sociable. The smelt ran at night when kids my age were supposed to be in bed, so dad and his long-handled, fine-webbed smelting net attended the party alone.
At first, we looked forward to their arrival as marking the arrival of spring. The ice, if not completely gone, would not be long in finishing its springtime disappearing act, and the tinkle of ice crystals would give way to the clacking of mergansers at the edge of the swamp. Smelt meant the water soon would provide pleasure to loons, moose, and at least one boy who lived to fish and swim in the lake.
About the time I was in high school, something changed. The men who came to catch smelt and drink beer seemed to focus more on the beer than the fish, and by the time they went home in the early morning they’d completely forgotten their trash.
That did not go over well with Mom and Dad. They started calling the game warden. It wasn’t long before there were signs nailed to trees where the brook crossed under Route 234, warning that taking from the creek was illegal – they could be harvested only from the lake side of the creek mouth. Another sign notified would-be smelt catchers that being on private property was prohibited during smelt season.
That was the only time we ever actually banned anyone from our acres. A snowmobile trail passed through on its way to Canada, and parades of snow machines were fun to watch as they crossed the frozen pond. In fall, hunters meandered through the woods, though most of them stayed on the other side of the hard road and hunted the mountainsides.
Mom discovered someone cutting birch one day, by hand saw so there would be less chance anyone would hear him, and selling the logs to the veneer mill in town. Our rule was the land had been there long before we were, and would be long after, but making money from it was a right reserved to those who paid the taxes.
After high school, I enlisted in the Navy and after a 20-year career, returned home to find much of the land I had wandered so freely had been bought up by “folks from away.” No Trespassing signs decorated much of the roadside, and game wardens were charged with citing trespassers who did not have written permission in their pocket – which was difficult to obtain because mostly the signs were not signed by their owners.
Home the past two decades has been the woods and water of South Central Pennsylvania, where I suddenly found this summer “Posted” signs along a favorite creekbank. The landowner, an avid conservationist, said he was not eager to see a bunch of cars parked along the road, their occupants tramping down the grass and shrubs.
Which is why I rarely specify the locations of treasures I find. I submit the privilege of finding treasure is far better than the holding of it, and much easier on the property of willing landowners who, after all, are, as are all of us, merely temporary caretakers.
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