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The Gentle Life

John Conway - Sullivan County Historian
Posted 4/10/20

Tourism in Sullivan County has been influenced over the years by many things, from the arrival of the railroads to the construction of the Quickway and the advent of the concept of the Fortress …

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The Gentle Life

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Tourism in Sullivan County has been influenced over the years by many things, from the arrival of the railroads to the construction of the Quickway and the advent of the concept of the Fortress Hotel. While the relative impact of these and other factors is debatable, one fact is not. It is indisputable that the origins of tourism in Sullivan County are directly linked to the fishermen who early on came to test their skill in the region's abundant lakes and rivers and streams.

Beginning in 1832, with the publication in a national sporting magazine of an article by Charles Fenno Hoffman about a six pound trout, the largest caught anywhere in the world up until that time, having been taken out of White Lake, sportsmen made the often arduous journey to the mountains to fish and to socialize. And this was in the days before the railroad made reaching Sullivan County a simple trip. The fishermen's growing number prompted J.B. Finlay to construct the first summer hotel in the county in White Lake around 1846, and since then fishing and tourism have been inextricably linked.

These anglers were influenced in their selection of fishing venues by the writings and recommendations of men like Hoffman, Alfred B. Street and Frank Forrester, and while two of their frequent haunts, the Beaverkill and the Willowemoc, have become world famous streams today, these waters were often overshadowed in the 19th century by the Mongaup and Callicoon Creeks and by the Neversink River, which was once considered the greatest of them all.

The Neversink has been favored by many of this country's most renowned fishermen, including Theodore Gordon, Edward Ringwood Hewitt, and George LaBranche, and many from John Burroughs to Leonard M. Wright, Jr. have written of its charms. Some of the best of these essays were gathered together back in 2007 by Justin Askins, who put together the book, “The Legendary Neversink: A Treasury of the Best Writing About One of America's Great Trout Rivers,” a title that might be regarded as pretentious if it wasn't so undeniably accurate.

One story about the Neversink that did not make it into Askins' fine anthology but should have, is little known today, but captures the majesty and the mystery of the Mad River like none other. “The Gentle Life,” penned by Henry Van Dyke in 1901 as part of his collection “The Ruling Passion” is a tale of a chance meeting by the author with a mysterious fisherman along a picturesque stretch of the West Branch of the river. While the characters are unforgettably drawn with the flowery prose of another era, they are nonetheless overshadowed by the unmistakable solitude of the Neversink itself.

“Do you remember that fair little wood of silver birches on the West Branch of the Neversink, somewhat below the place where the Biscuit Brook runs in?” the story begins innocently enough before raising the stakes almost immediately. “There is a mossy terrace raised a couple of feet above the water of a long, still pool; and a very pleasant spot for a friendship fire on the shingly beach below you; and a plenty of painted trilliums and yellow violets, and white foam-flowers to adorn your woodland banquet, if it be spread in the month of May, when Mistress Nature is given over to embroidery.”

The author relates that he and his fishing companion that wonderful day, an old friend named Ned Mason, had split up in the morning, each taking his own meandering path along the stream and agreeing to meet at this designated spot for their midday meal and smoke before resuming their sport. Mason is characteristically late for the rendezvous, however, but another angler on the water that day does arrive, unobtrusively, and is eventually engaged in conversation by the author, who has grown drowsy after his lunch and is surprised by the presence of this vaguely familiar stranger.

Their dialogue is the spine of the story, at once engaging and whimsical, never mundane or flat.

“Where had I seen such a figure before?” the story continues. “The dress was strange and quaint—broad, low shoes, gray woolen stockings, short brown breeches tied at the knee with ribbons, a loose brown coat belted at the waist like a Norfolk jacket; a wide, rolling collar with a bit of a lace at the edge, and a soft felt hat with a shady brim. It was a costume that, with all its oddity, seemed wonderfully fit and familiar. And the face? Certainly it was the face of an old friend. Never had I seen a countenance of more quietness and kindliness and twinkling good humor.”

The story progresses, as the two men become acquainted and the odd stranger, could it be Izaak Walton himself who conveys to the author the secrets of a life well lived, the gentle life, the enjoyment of a fine day of fishing, of course, paramount among them.

“The Gentle Life” is nothing if not gently written, and while it may be difficult for some to wade through because of the somewhat stilted prose of the era in which it was penned, the reward for seeing it through is indescribable and, ultimately, extremely satisfying.

In his book, Askins notes that the Neversink is in reality “many rivers” and it has spawned many tales. None captures the essence of the sacred stream like Van Dyke's essay. It is now available for free online, and should be mandatory reading whenever fishing—and tourism—gears up once again.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com and ask how to order his new book “In Further Retrospect.”

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