bobby angel

Ode to a river
Pretty Boy and the Gunpowder music video

To be honest I was miffed:

How could cartographers leave the Gunpowder out?

Words and music by Bobby Angel

My response was to right this song. Yes, the Susquehanna River is the Chesapeake Bay’s largest tributary, and the Potomac River is bigger too and also drains the Shenandoah Valley. But to look at a map of the drainages of the Chesapeake Bay and to leave the Gunpowder out downright irked me on too many levels to count. But what is a hydrologist to do? And who do I complain to? My philosophy: Never complain and never explain, and rather get down to the business at hand. And specifically, that means telling the story of a pretty special river that sadly people don’t know exists, or sorely misunderstand. The opening line to the song came to me while hiking the river trail just above Jerusalem Mills. I refined the lyrics in the following days in the loft overlooking a brook that feeds the river. But it wasn’t until returning to Florida that I finally put the final touches on the song, and in particularly the last two lines.

Where does this song rank in the Maryland song canon? Behind the Star Spangled Banner and Maryland My Maryland, I’m having trouble coming up with a third. That being the case, I’ll rank it 2nd since Maryland My Maryland is a knock off of Oh Tanenbaum.

Hydrologic identity
Contemplation of a near miss or two

Havre De Grace came very close

To being the capital of the country.

Major counties and watersheds of my youth

And who’s to say it wouldn’t have been the perfect spot. At the confluence of where the Chesapeake and its main tributary meet, two centuries ago it was hard to argue it wasn’t the perfect spot. Eventually of course they picked Washington D.C., in part because the Potomac was a deeper water port, and Havre De Grace was shallower and silting in. Or maybe there were other reasons, too. My point: Havre De Grace went on to miss out on being the state capital (to Annapolis) and county seat (to Bel Air), too. Talk about a fall from grace! Or maybe not. Havre De Grace has an eclectic charm all its own, and is somehow preserved in time. So maybe swinging and missing at all three was its saving grace.

It makes me think about Maryland at large as being my “home state.” People always ask me: “Bob, where are you from?” My knee-jerk reaction is to say Maryland (the full state). But really when I think about it there are only two counties of the 23 that I know really well — Harford and Baltimore Counties — and can truly lay claim to knowing if not as good as the back of my hand, then as well as the bottom of my feet will ever know.

Or is it the watersheds I know best? As a kid my brother and I worshipped Deer Creek. Sometimes we told our parents we were going to church we’d drive there instead. The Gunpowder was our other spot. Unlike Deer Creek that flowed into the Susquehanna River, the Gunpowder emptied straight into the Bay. Both cut deep valleys into the Piedmont Plateau imparting a rolling landscape in reverse: the highest spots the highest remnants of the flat plateau and the waterways forming the base of the large hills.

View of Deer Creek Valley from the King and Queen Seat

So, am I a Marylander or a Harford/Baltimore Countian? Probably a Deer Creeker describes me best. Standing on top of the King and Queen Seat looking down, sometimes I wonder why I ever left.

Adolfo Sports Bag Prepared
Friendship is the ultimate safety plan

Mt Katahdin is more …

Than just Maine’s highest spot.

Can you see the Florida Trail?

 It’s southern terminus is three miles
off the photo to the left.

It’s also the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

I am proud to report that I made it there once. There’s a hazy photo of it somewhere that somehow along the way got lost: Just the four of us, my brother and long-time friends Chad and Geoff. It was inclement weather and the four of us were unprepared but resolute. Our only rain gear was double-ply plastic garbage bags.

Nearing the peak we encountered a dense fog and in the distance, above us, two hikers in bright orange Gortex jackets and pants in retreat. They somberly reported they hadn’t made it to the peak. “Too foggy to continue.” But it was onward and upward for us, heavy with poorly-packed bags on our back and one of us (who shall remain nameless — okay, it was Geoff) was carrying all his supplies in a now famous Adolfo duffle-style bag which he carried by his side with one hand. We dead reckoned up the rocks until finally we found our mark: a wood sign among the rocks in what must have been a thirty-foot visibility thick-as-pea-soup view.

Not too much longer we were joined at the top by the two guys in the bright orange Gortex. “Hey bud,” Geoff greeted one of them, looking half confused. “Didn’t you say you were turning back?” The one gave a sheepish look before the other spoke up: “Something about seeing four guys wearing garbage bags as rain gear carrying their gear in a non-water resistant Adolfo Sports Bag gave us a change of heart.”

Clear view I never saw

Later that same trip we found ourselves hiking down the Cathedral Trail. Nearing the bottom to Chimney Pond Camp, several day-hikers climbing up greeted us with strangely similar comments: “Whoa, check out these guys hiking down Cathedral.” Their amazement infused us with a great sense of pride which grew each time we heard it said (and quite literally it must have been at least a dozen).

Eventually we made it to the bottom at which was a giant sign: “Warning: Do Not Climb Down Cathedral Trail!” The trail was too steep, rocky and slippery to safely descend.

The four of us at the top

Of course, no such warnings apply if you’re toting an Adolfo Sports Bag!

fall

Very ripe on the vine
And how I got back into seasonal sync

You know fall has arrived Up North …

When the apples really start to crunch.

Fall is apple season in the Northeast

One fall long ago I visited my brother in the Hudson River Valley. I had just returned east after living a few years in the Sonoran Desert corner of the Great American Southwest studying (you guessed it) water.

The back story is that Arizona didn’t have any (water), or not much of it — with every drop being all the more precious because of its scarce state. Also conspicuously absent were “seasons.” Not that the natives wouldn’t scoff indignantly at my insinuation of seasonlessness: “Of course we have seasons!” was the usual rebuttal. Yes, I get it: the saguaros are less green in fall, or are the more green — one or the other, or maybe they were the same and other things changed. In a nutshell, I didn’t stay long enough to get into seasonal sync with the Southwest at the same time I lost sync with the old rhythms of the Northeast.

Opening my brother’s fridge, I was shocked: Apples were packed everywhere – up on the egg racks, behind the butter, in every unused drawer. It was fridge full of apples and barely nothing else. Not having much of a choice, I grabbed (you guessed it) an apple and posed the stupidest question I’d ever before or ever since asked: “Are the apples good to eat?”

“Unless you like them in spring when they’re really ripe on the vine!” came a reply from the other room.

November marks the start of orange season in Florida

Boy did I feel dumb. The consolation prize was the apple was as good as it looked and sounded. Just a big old crunch on that first bite. It was October in Dutchess County, New York. Of course the apples were good! What part of fall didn’t I understand?

How To: Survive a storm
Lessons learned from Hurricane Agnes

Early-season hurricanes are not the norm,

But they do happen from time to time.

If only they worked as good as they look

Agnes (June 1972) sticks out in my mind.

It goes in the record books as my first hydrologic memory, not as a Floridian – where it made landfall, but as a native Marylander where I was born, and where the storm passed through on its way up the Atlantic Coast.

I was only 3 years old at the time.

My mother and father judiciously had us take cover under ground, not for the reason we didn’t have shutters on our windows – we did, but because those shutters were fake!

We sheltered in the basement

The so called “ornamental shutters” were made of flimsy plastic, manufactured too narrow to cover the full width of glass, and – the final insult – drilled permanently into the wall siding. They looked great on a sunny day, but that was about the good of them!

But Marylanders are nothing if not innovative – and so we found shelter in the basement until the storm passed.

Summer of ’87
And why it feels like just yesterday

It seems like just yesterday …

That the cicada brood emerged from the ground.

As seen in Maryland …

Or rather, make that two yesterday’s ago.

The last one I missed, back in 2004.

But rewind the clock another seventeen …

And I was still in high school: It was the summer of 1987.

In the Summer of 2021

I feel like a cicada in a way …

Leaving me to wonder, if any of the cicadas feel me?

Read more

ye old mudderland

Roots of the willow
And how they helped tame a mighty river

The problem was as complex and exasperating as they come for a home owner.

Each spring, especially the wet ones, our basement “took in moisture.”

Fortunately my father had a solution:

He would plant weeping willows in the back yard, by the fence line – five to be exact. That would solve the problem.

Never a student of botany (to be honest, I’m not sure how his theories took root), my father’s faith in the weeping willow was to him as clear a fact as there ever was or would be in the world.

At the dinner table, on his way out the door to work, or to anyone who would listen, he would tout the divine powers of this miracle tree and its prodigious powers to suck wet earth dry and underground rivers barren.

I was a grade schooler at the time, so I had no reason to question his selection of tree, or doubt his declarations of its moisture wicking properties … but it certainly laid the seeds for future doubts.

The flooding in the basement never abated, but – as my father would tell it – that was only because “the trees need to grow bigger before you see the full effect.”

As proof he would point to the middle willow, which sprouted taller and fuller than the rest: “That’s because its roots tapped into a main channel of the underground river,” he would explain.

Years later, when confronted with mounting evidence of omnipresent spring moisture, he held firmly to his original vision of botanological victory:

“Just think how worse it would be if I hadn’t planted those trees.”

You see, my father was not a man whose mind could be changed easily … if at all, and in that regard his faith in the weeping willow never dimmed.

Instead, his awe in the underground stream only deepened and widened … “wherever it is and however it flows.”

It was more powerful than the weeping willow.

In my Dad’s way of seeing things, that was one mighty river.

In Memoriam: My Dad
Waters that run deep

While other fathers took their sons hiking in the woods, or fishing in streams, and for an elite few – golfing at the country club – my father found a unique way of combining all three.

Tributary flows upstream

He’d roll the car to a stop on an undesignated shoulder of twisty country road. Then he’d cut off the engine. The “official” entrance of Winters Run country club was just over the rise, and, more importantly for my father – out of sight.

Two doors down, my friend’s father was an “official” member of the club, spent weekends there, donned its cleated shoe, khaki pant, and collared shirt attire, and strode the well manicured grounds in wide motions – tee after tee after tee after tee – refining the fine art of the golf swing.

My father had me switch into my old sneakers and further directed me to “hug the tree line” on our clandestine caper to where I was not quite sure – but as sons do, I followed him anyway – until we reached it: a crooked run of rapids with the same name as the country club, on the other bank of which flapped the flag on the green of the 16th hole.

“Some balls make it in that hole,” my father reasoned out loud, “but more make it into the stream.” (So that’s why he had me carry in a telescopic retractable ball scoop!)  

Main stem downstream

First we scooped out what balls we could from the waters edge. Next we tip toe our way out on the rocks, and eventually into the shallows itself. The icy water soaked through my sneakers (it was fall).

We bagged a good many, enough for me anyhow.

But my father could not leave well enough alone. “Down there,” he said, pointing into a hole behind the riffle. “That’s where they all are!”

He was right – it was the mother load.

And it was also an ending I knew all too well.

Either a rock gave way or a patch of algae slipped him up: All I heard was a big “SPLASH!”

(But he got those golf balls. And it was the mother load.)

As funny as it is in retrospect, not only did we not laugh in the moment, we simultaneously, instinctively, (and silently) agreed, on the spot, as he emerged from Winters Run – in a silent “father-son” code – that yes, he did fall in the water, but no, he never got “wet.”

That was important to my father. Who is a good son not to oblige?

Father and son

He had me play the 17th and 18th holes on our way back – as he watched in his sloshing wet sneakers – under the cover of shortened light of the dying fall days. Thirty years later I still think about that water hole. That’s the hydrologist in me … and the son, (but not the golfer)!

Rest in Peace, Dad. I love you and I will miss you. Thank you for everything.

ye olde mudderland

Peak leaf season

What’s that old time saying:

“There’s no place like the green grass of home?”

The entrance
The overlook

For me it would be the fall foliage of the Mudderland.

Where is the Mudderland you may ask? Too far away I think at times.

The sign

Whenever I get back there I like to go to this place.

Preferably in fall (although anytime will do.)

ye olde mudderland

Polluter’s penance
When litter becomes historical treasure

It was my second summer working construction.

We were driving between job sites on Route 83, probably the most scenic stretch of highway in the Lower 48. (Yes, I am biased.) Dom was driving, Chad was in the middle and me on passenger window end. What possessed me to do it I will never know. I think I was trying to keep my lunch box clean. Maybe it the sugar rush from the Oatmeal Creamie pie. Whatever the reason, and to this day I am still perplexed why, I cracked open the window and let the clear plastic wrapper fly out in the wind.

Litter, or historical artifact?

It wasn’t two moments later when Chad turned in accusation.

“You just threw that wrapper out the window!”

“No I didn’t,” I responded.

“You did. I saw you do it.”

Dom looked over and chimed in. “You’re kidding?”

Years later on Cape Cod another friend Ben put some empty cans we’d drunk on the golf course in the back of his truck which, out on Highway Route 6, flew out of the bed.

As bad as he felt he didn’t let it bring him down.

“I just picked up ten times as many cans from the side of another road to make up for it.  You know, as penance,” he later explained.

Don’t see many pull-tabs anymore.

That made sense.

Except for one problem.

Oatmeal Creamie pie wrappers are really hard to find.