Strange things can sometimes happen in and around a trout stream; the more time you spend on the water, the more likely it is that you’ll experience one of them….or so it seems. Beaver have paddled between an angler’s legs; bats are hooked on dry flies; sunbathers in less than full dress float by in tubes or canoes…..all these have been reported by friends and fellow anglers. Christmas is approaching as I sit at my laptop today, and although the holiday has only a peripheral connection to this tale, it is, nonetheless, what triggers this story.
Late in the trout fishing season, just before its close, I was fishing the lower reaches of the Batavia Kill downstream from Windham. The water was low and clear, and I felt lucky to be releasing a small brown trout that I had fooled with an ant imitation. The little fish had darted off to safety when I heard what appeared to be drum beats just inside the woods behind me. I turned to face the bank as two boys stepped onto the low-water streamside gravel. They were twelve or thirteen years old, and one of them was, indeed, tapping out an irregular rhythm on what appeared to be a very old drum. “Got a trout, huh, mister?” inquired one of the boys. “What did you get him on?” Without waiting for an answer, the other youngster announced, “We couldn’t get a thing on worms or spinners or anything!”
“So what’s with the drum?” I asked. The boys looked at each other and began to relate the story of their day – their adventure. They had been dropped off at the creek by the drummer’s dad with a plan to be picked up about the time the late afternoon sun would dip below the horizon. There were the usual cautions about “deep water” and “no foolishness,” but the boys had fished the creek for a few years in the company of adults. They knew their way around, and in late September the water level would likely be minimal and benign on the Batavia Kill. With a perfunctory goodbye wave the boys set off for a nearby bridge pool and the dad drove back the way he had come.
Fishing was slow, dreadfully slow, practically non-existent; in less than an hour the boys were wondering what to do with themselves for the rest of what then seemed like a very long day in front of them. Exploring was always an option, and maybe the only option worth considering on this day. And they had a starting point for their explorations: on the drive along Route 23 the dad had briefly recounted what he called the “Legend of Music Mountain.” He said that the story went something like this:
During the Revolutionary War, General George Washington had dispatched an elite military fife and drum corps to boost the morale of the troops commanded by American General Horatio Gates and (then) Major Benedict Arnold. (“Yes,” said the dad, “Benedict Arnold was a patriot before he was a traitor!”) The corps’ orders were to be back in Philadelphia for Christmas. Washington knew that it would be a long cold winter and he wanted entertainment for his own troops. The musicians were in Saratoga for the first “Battle of Saratoga” in September 1777, contributing energy and spirit to a campaign that was basically indecisive. In the time between that part of the battle and what turned out to be the decisive and positive (for the Colonials) engagement in October of that year, the corps leadership got nervous. They worried that they would not be able to get back to Philadelphia in time for the Christmas season as ordered. Their agonized decision was to leave.
The long march proved to be very difficult, and was made more so by a freak early season snow. The dad said that as he understood the legend, somewhere in the vicinity of the Schoharie Valley the cold and exhausted soldier/musicians decided that they would never arrive in Philadelphia on time unless they abandoned their instruments. Hoping to travel lighter and faster they cached their beloved instruments in a cave, covered the entry with brush and departed with hopes of returning in the spring. Local legend, claimed the dad, indicated that on certain autumn days fife and drum corps music could be heard coming from a nearby mountain, but no one had ever found the source of those military musical notes. At least no one ever talked about finding their source.
I stood mid-creek, with knit eyebrows and a smirk of doubt, as the boys unfolded this convoluted tale. As I waited, the rest of the story bubbled out: when it was clear that fishing was not going to be much fun for the two young anglers, they had decided to explore the ledges north of the creek, and, of course, within minutes thought they heard the martial beats of a fife and drum corps. Following the sound into a dense thicket in a little cove in the steep ledges, they discovered an opening in the mountain. The music was louder and was definitely coming from a cave in the mountainside. They cleared brush and found, in a rocky outcrop, an ancient makeshift door. Pulling it open revealed a dark tunnel and music even louder and more distinct than before.
There was barely enough light to see, but the boys, their hearts now pounding, crawled a dozen feet into the tunnel where the passage was blocked by another door. This one had a real but old fashioned handle; it did not show the weathering visible on the first door they encountered. With trepidation but the bravado of twelve year olds, they pulled open the door. Before them was a storeroom illuminated with a pleasant but unearthly light. The room reminded them of an enlarged closet like the storage area in their middle school music room. Arrayed neatly on the cobwebby storeroom shelves were dozens of musical instruments: brass and silver and copper fifes and flutes, and sparkling drums and other percussion instruments.
Mouths agape, they stood in amazement and took in the fantastic scene. Then, as they imagined and wondered and speculated and trembled just a bit in the doorway to that wonderful room, the instruments began to play – beautifully in tune and with a volume that was nearly deafening at close range in that small space.
It was an amazing story, the verification of a legend. I was wide-eyed with wonder. Still standing knee deep in the flowing water but now with rod tip hanging limply in the current, I blurted out “So what did you do?” And the boy with the drum in hand looked right at me and responded, “We took this drum and beat it!” And the two of them marched off into the woods to the steady beat of the drum.
Old fool that I am, I’d been had….or had I?
John La Rocca lives, works and writes stories in New York’s Capital District. He fishes for trout (mostly) wherever and whenever he can. Some of his best fishing buddies call him the Adirondack Elf, a handle earned leading expeditions to the brook trout ponds of the North Woods. This and many of his stories first appeared electronically and in print in The Current, the newsletter of the Columbia-Greene Rip Van Winkle Chapter #569 of Trout Unlimited. Thanks to those folks.
We are so grateful to John for sharing the first of the Catskills Trout Tales Passport tales! Want to learn about the Passports and how you can share your stories, discoveries, and more?Learn More!