Excerpts from Juniata, River of Sorrows

Juniata, River of Sorrows
Juniata, River of Sorrows: One Man’s Journey into a River’s Tragic Past
“...brimming with colorful stories masterfully told...touched a chord in the hearts of Pennsylvanians…running together across the pages of this monumental book.”
—Eric Foley, Saint Francis University Magazine

Chapter 2
The People of the Standing Stone

“Those are the most strange people of all those Countries, both in language and attire; for their language it may well beseeme their proportions, sounding from them, as it were a great voice in a vault, or cave, as an Eccho.”
Captain John Smith (1608)

He was a soldier, sailor, geographer, and cartographer, and at the age of only 28, he may have been the first white man to learn of the Juniata River. In August 1608, with 12 Englishmen and two Indian guides, the British explorer Captain John Smith sailed in an open boat of “hardly 2 toons” 200 miles up the Chesapeake Bay and into the Susquehanna River. Smith and his “discoverers,” as he called his men, had left Jamestown in the present Virginia on July 24, 1608 and reached the lower Susquehanna on August 1.

Like the thousands of “discoverers” since in the shallow Susquehanna, Smith and his men repeatedly ran aground, and the exasperated Captain complained in his journal of “[h]aving lost our Grapnell among the rocks of Sasquesahanocks,” his name for the river (Smith, 1986, p. 105) . Forced to halt his expedition on the Susquehanna, Smith set up camp and sent his two Indian guides on foot upstream to scout for other Indians, a band of whom visited his camp four days later. His visitors were the Susquehannocks (“The Freshwater Stream-Landers,” as they were called in 17th century English), and Smith’s description of them is a classic:

But to proceed, 60 of those Sasquesahanocks, came to the discoverers with skins, Bowes, Arrowes, Targets, Beads, Swords, and Tobacco pipes for presents. Such great and well proportioned men, are seldome seene, for they seemed like Giants to the English, yea and to the neighbours, yet seemed of an honest and simple disposition, with much adoe restrained from adoring the discoverers as Gods....Their attire is the skinnes of Beares, and Woolves, some have Cassacks made of Beares heades and skinnes that a mans necke goes through the skinnes neck, and the eares of the beare fastned to his shoulders behind, the nose and teeth hanging downe his breast, and at the end of the nose hung a Beares Pawe, the halfe sleeves comming to the elbowes were the neckes of Beares and the armes through the mouth with pawes hanging at their noses. One had the head of a Woolfe hanging in a chaine for a Jewell, his Tobacco pipe 3 quarters of a yard long, prettily carved with a Bird, a Beare, a Deare, or some such devise at the great end, sufficient to beat out the braines of a man, with bowes, and arrowes, and clubs, sutable to their greatnesse and conditions (Smith, 1986, p. 149) .

Like some of his fellow Elizabethans, Smith (1580-1631) may have been inclined to exaggerate, so his description of the Susquehannocks as “Giants” should not be taken literally. The Indians’ clothing (“Beares heades and skinnes, that a mans necke goes through the skinnes neck”)no doubt made them look taller than they actually were, for anthropologist Barry C. Kent has estimated that the Susquehannocks averaged only five feet four inches tall. Though the Susquehannocks may not have been tall, they generally were taller than the typical European of the time. To Smith, therefore, an Indian over six feet tall may have looked like a giant (Stranahan, 1993, p. 41; Hubert and Schwarze, 1999, p. 154; Jennings, 1968, p. 15) .

To record his explorations in the New World, Captain John Smith drew what he called a “Map of Virginia” that includes not only the present Virginia, but also parts of today’s Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. In the upper right corner of his map, Smith drew a picture of a Susquehannock Indian he called “the greatest of them.” The calf of this Susquehannock’s leg, Smith wrote in his journal, was “3 quarters of a yard about,” and the rest of his limbs so large that Smith described him as the “goodliest man that ever we beheld.” The Susquehannock’s hair on one side of his head was long, but shaved on the other, leaving a ridge on the top of his head like a “cocks combe.” His arrowheads were splinters of stone “in forme like a heart,” an inch wide and an inch and a half long; his quiver a wolf’s skin that he wore on his back, a bow in one hand and a club in the other (Smith, 1986, p. 150) .

When the Susquehannocks visited Smith’s camp, they hung a chain of large, white beads (“waighing at least 6 or 7 pound”) around his neck and laid presents of skins and arrows at his feet, stroking his neck and singing “a most feareful song [in a] hellish voyce.” After finishing their chant, the Indians raised their hands to the sun, appearing to ask their God to bless Smith. “(W)ith a great painted beares skin they covered our Captaine,” wrote Nathaniell [sic] Powell, an officer in Smith’s party, promising “what they had to bee his” if Smith and his men would defend them from the Massawomecks, their enemy. But Smith and his “discoverers” left the Susquehannocks (“they much sorrowing for our departure,” Powell noted), but promised to visit them again in a year (Powell and Todkill, 1986, p. 232) .

Smith returned to England in 1625 and published his “Map of Virginia” four years later, drawing what he understood the Susquehannocks had told him to be the Susquehanna River and its main branches, one of which is the lower Juniata. Smith’s map is the earliest written reference to the Juniata I found and shows five Indian villages in the central Susquehanna Valley. The first hamlet on the map, Sasquesahanough,was near the present Harrisburg and, Smith said, commeth du north 3 or 4 daies journy from the head of the [Chesapeake] Bay” (1986, p. 148) . The second village on the map, Quadroque, was on the North Branch of the Susquehanna across from the mouth of the West Branch. Tesinigh, the third Indian village, was on the North Branch of the Susquehanna above Quadroque. The fourth hamlet, Utchowig, was on the West Branch of the Susquehanna. Attaock, the fifth village, was on the left bank of the Juniata near the present Millerstown, just above the river’s junction with the Susquehanna.

Although the word, Attaock, on Smith’s “Map of Virginia” may be the earliest recorded reference to the Juniata River, the first word that resembles our word, Juniata, is on a 1655 Dutch map that called the Juniata the Onojutta, from the name of the Indians who lived on it: the Onojutta-Haga. Onojutta (pronounced Ooh-nee-ooh-ah-tah) means a vertical or standing stone and Haga (Hah-gah) means people or inhabitants. Onojutta-Haga, therefore, could be said to mean The People of the Standing Stone. The word, Onojutta, is related to the Mohawk word, Oneija (Ooh-nee-eh-ah-ha), meaning stone, and is the root of our word, Oneida, the avenue in many Pennsylvania towns. The town of Huntingdon on the Frankstown Branch was originally called Standing Stone and today has a township named Oneida. A nearby stream is called Stone Creek. The word, Onoya (Ooh-nee-ooh-ah-yah),alsomeaning stone, was the symbol of the Oneida Indians, who marked the entrance to their villages by placing a stone in the fork of a tree (Africa, 1896, p. 3; Guss, 1886, pp. 30-31) .

The Onojutta-Haga erected a monument in their village on the right bank of Stone Creek at its junction with the Frankstown Branch in the present town of Huntingdon. The earliest English references to the “Standing Stone,” as the obelisk was known, are by Conrad Weiser, a representative to the Indians for the Province of Pennsylvania, and John Harris, the trader who founded the town of Paxton (sometimes called Paxtang), today’s Harrisburg. On August 18, 1748, Weiser was traveling west along the Allegheny Road, a footpath that followed the Juniata from the Susquehanna River to the Allegheny River, and made this entry in his journal: “Had a great Rain in the afternoon; came within two Miles of the Standing Stone” (Provincial Council of Pennsylvania, 1851, p. 348) . Five years later, Harris made a trip from Paxton to Logstown (today’s Ambridge) and recorded the distance between many points along the way, including from a place he called “Jack’s Narrows,” which was on the Juniata just above today’s Mount Union, to the Standing Stone, which Harris said was ten miles. (In June 2001, I clocked this distance as near as I could in my Jeep, and it isexactlyten miles.) Unlike Weiser, who came close to the Standing Stone but did not report seeing it, Harris claimed he saw the monument and described it as being “abo[ut] 14 f[eet] high 6 inch[es] square” (Africa, 1896, pp. 5-8; Hazard, 1853, pp. 135-136) .

The Onojutta-Haga, the People of the Standing Stone, disappeared from the Juniata some time after Harris’s trip from Paxton to Logstown and may have been annihilated by another Indian tribe. The Standing Stone itself was destroyed or stolen, the latter theory based on a story that the Tuscarora Indians captured the monument, but this explanation is probably wrong because the Tuscaroras did not come to the Juniata Valley until later (Guss, 1886, pp. 31-33) .

In 1768, settlers in today’s Huntingdon erected a monument on the site of the original Standing Stone that David McMurtrie, who arrived there in 1776, described as being eight feet tall and inscribed with the names of John Lukens, Surveyor General; Charles Lukens, his assistant; and Thomas Smith, Deputy Surveyor for Bedford County. This obelisk was later destroyed (one account says by vandals), and a third monument was built that stands in a small park at Penn and Third Streets in Huntingdon and bears this inscription:
Standing Stone Erected
Sept. 8th, 1896
As A Memorial Of The Ancient Standing Stone
Removed by the Indians in 1754.
The Standing Stone, Huntingdon, Pennsylvania

Although the word, Juniata, appears to have come from the word, Onojutta, identifying the origin of English words derived from Indian words is difficult because Indian languages had many dialects with different pronunciations of similar and even the same words. David Zeisberger and John Heckewelder, Moravian missionaries who travelled throughout Pennsylvania and Ohio in the 1700s, compiled dictionaries of the language of the Lenni Lenape Indians, who lived in the Delaware River Valley. Zeisberger’s and Heckewelder’s lexicons, although brief, illustrate the complexity of many Indian words; for example, schachachgauchsogan and tuckauwussowoagan are the Lenni Lenape words for justice and kindness (Horsford, 1887; Heckewelder, 1971) .

Indians pronounced some letters differently than speakers of English do. The Iroquois said the letter, “o,” as ooh, as in the English word, “do,” and the Unami tribe of the Lenni Lenape had no “f” or “r” sounds, so they pronounced the English words, Philip and Priscilla, for example, as Pilip and Pliscilla (Guss, 1886, p. 30; Hubert and Schwarze, 1999, pp. 141-144) . Other North American Indians spoke from the throat rather than from their teeth, as Europeans and Americans tend to do; hence Smith’s amazement at the Susquehannocks’ voices that, he said, sounded like they came from “a vault, or cave, as an Eccho.”

When explorers and missionaries on the Pennsylvania frontier tried to write Indian words in their journals, they understandably mimicked them in English or, when unable to find a similar sound, simply omitted them. Not surprisingly, therefore, the earliest white men in the Juniata Valley spelled Indian words (including the word, Juniata) in many different and often confusing ways. In reports to his superiors in the Pennsylvania Colonial government between 1743 and 1748, Conrad Weiser spelled Juniata six different ways, and George Croghan, trader and later agent for the Province of Pennsylvania, wrote Juniata as both Junieta and Junitia on the same day: September 10, 1757. But Croghan’s mistakes are not surprising because his writing typically contained many misspellings, although in his defense as well as in Weiser’s, literacy was hardly universal in the mid-1700s in Pennsylvania (Guss, 1886, p. 28; Wagoner, 1979, p. 106) .

Not only does the word, Juniata, appear in various forms in journals, maps, and reports from the 1600s and 1700s, but it also appears in poetry and music in the 1800s. In 1850, Marian Dix Sullivan of New England wrote a poem called “The Blue Juniata,” inspired by a trip she took on the Juniata Division of the Pennsylvania Canal1, so named because it followed the river from Duncannon to Hollidaysburg. Mrs. Sullivan was the wife of John W. Sullivan of Boston, who was the son of General Sullivan of Revolutionary War fame. She was a daughter of Timothy Dix and the sister of Dorothea L. Dix, the philanthropist. Mrs. Sullivan died in 1860 (Gray, 1983, p. 73) . The title of Mrs. Sullivan’s poem has left the impression that the word, Juniata, originally meant blue water, and today, many people in the Juniata Valley still call the river “The Blue Juniata.”

1 The Pennsylvania Canal opened in 1826 and transported passengers and freight from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh via its Juniata and Frankstown Branches, which ended in Hollidaysburg. From there, the Canal connected with the Allegheny Portage Railroad and crossed the Allegheny Mountains to Johnstown where passengers continued by rail to Pittsburgh. The Pennsylvania Canal cost more than $100 million to build, but returned only $44 million, nearly bankrupting Pennsylvania, which was happy to sell it to the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1857. The Canal carried an average of only 30 passengers a day east and west and lost favor with many people who considered it a “slow coach” and began to support the idea of a railroad between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh (Waters, 1983, pp. 4-5; Jones, 1855, p. 336) .

“The Blue Juniata” by Marian Dix Sullivan (1850)
Wild roved an Indian girl,
Bright Alfarata,
Where sweep the waters
Of the blue Juniata.

Swift as an antelope,
Through the forest going,
Loose were her jetty locks
In waving tresses flowing.

Gay was the mountain song
Of bright Alfarata,
Where sweep the waters
Of the blue Juniata;

“Strong and true my arrows are
In my painted quiver;
Swift goes my light canoe
Adown the rapid river.”

“Bold is my warrior true—
The love of Alfarata;
Proud waves his snowy plume
Along the Juniata.”

“Soft and low he speaks to me,
And then, his war-cry sounding,
Rings his voice in thunder loud,
From height to height resounding.”

So sang the Indian girl,
Bright Alfarata,
Where sweep the waters
Of the blue Juniata.

Fleeting years have borne away
The voice of Alfarata,
Still sweeps the river on,
The blue Juniata (Gray, 1983, p. 72)

In 1865, the Reverend Cyrus Cort, Pastor of the First Reformed Church in Altoona, wrote a poem called “Response to ‘The Blue Juniata.’” Reverend Cort made many trips along the Juniata to visit members of his congregation. On one such outing, he showed his poem to his traveling companion, the Reverend Henry Harbaugh, who offered to print it in the magazine he published, The Guardian. The poem appeared in the journal in March 1866 and has since been published many times, often without attribution to Cort (Gray, 1983, pp. 73-74; Cort, 1902, p. 109) .

“Response to ‘The Blue Juniata’” by the Reverend Cyrus Cort (1865)
The Indian girl has ceased to rove
Along the winding river;
The warrior brave that won her love,
Is gone, with bow and quiver.

The valley rears another race,
Where flows the Juniata;
There maidens rove, with paler face
Than that of Alfarata.

Where pine trees moan her requiem wail,
And blue waves, too, are knelling,
Through mountain gorge and fertile vale,
A louder note is swelling.

A hundred years have rolled around,
The Red man has departed,
The hills give back a wilder sound
Than warrior’s whoop e’er started.

With piercing neigh, the iron steed
Now sweeps along the waters,
And bears, with more than wild-deer speed,
The white man’s sons and daughters.

The products, too, of every clime
Are borne along the river,
Where roved the brave, in olden time,
With naught but bow and quiver.

And swifter than the arrow’s flight,
From trusty bow and quiver,
The messages of love and light
Now speed along the river.

The engine and the telegraph
Have wrought some wondrous changes,
Since rang the Indian maiden’s laugh
Among the mountain ranges.

‘Tis grand to see what art hath done,
The world is surely wiser.
What triumphs white man’s skill hath won
With steam, the civilizer.

But still, methinks, I’d rather hear
The song of Alfarata—
Had rather chase the fallow deer
Along the Juniata.

For fondly now my heart esteem
This Indian song and story;
Yea, grander far old nature seems,
Than art in all its glory.

Roll on, thou classic Keystone stream,
Thou peerless little river;
Fulfill the poet’s brightest dream,
And be a joy forever.

As generations come and go,
Each one their part repeating,
Thy waters keep their constant flow,
Still down to ocean fleeting.

And while thy blue waves seek the sea,
Thou lovely Juniata,
Surpassing sweet thy name shall be,
For sake of Alfarata (Cort, 1902, pp. 1-4)

There is a song called “The Blue Juniata,” also written by Mrs. Marian Dix Sullivan, whose lyrics are the words of her poem. The music and lyrics to the song were published as a supplement to the Minneapolis Tribune on October 4, 1903. The character in the song is the Indian maiden Sweet Alfarata, a name most likely chosen by Mrs. Dix because it rhymes with Juniata. The song caught the popular fancy 150 years ago and was sung by almost everyone, “from lisping child to gray-haired parent.” So favored was the melody that Union General William Tecumseh Sherman ordered it played to his troops, including during his infamous march from Atlanta to the sea (Singmaster, 1950, p. 93; Cort, 1902, pp. 109-110; National Historical Association, 1936, pp. 17-18) .

In 1968, Malcolm Cowley wrote a book called Blue Juniata: Collected Poems that featured his verse, “Blue Juniata.” Unlike Mrs. Sullivan’s and Reverend Cort’s poems, however, Cowley’s poem was not about the Indian maiden Alfarata, but the Juniata Valley house in which he had grown up and which, he lamented in his poem, sadly lay in ruins. In the introduction to his book, Cowley remembered that when he was a boy, older people in his neighborhood often sang the song, “The Blue Juniata.”

“Blue Juniata” by Malcolm Cowley (1968)
Farmhouses curl like horns of plenty, hide
scrawny bare shanks against a barn, or crouch
empty in the shadow of a mountain. Here
there is no house at all—

only the bones of a house,
lilacs growing beside them,
roses in clumps between them,
honeysuckle over;
a gap for a door, a chimney
mud-chinked, an intense fireplace,
the skeleton of a pine,

and gandy dancers working on the rails
that run not thirty yards from the once door.

I heard a gandy dancer playing on a jew’s harp
Where is now that merry party I remember long ago?
Nelly was a lady...twice...Old Black Joe,
as if he laid his right hand on my shoulder,
saying, “You father lived here long ago,
your father’s father built the house, lies buried
under the pine—”

Sing Nelly was a lady...
Blue Juniata...Old Black Joe:

for sometimes a familiar music hammers
like blood against the eardrums, paints a mist
across the eyes, as if the smell of lilacs,
moss roses, and the past became a music
made visible, a monument of air (Cowley, 1968, pp. 2, 5) .

Although the poems and the song about the Juniata River were popular (and certainly romantic), the word, Juniata, did not come from the idea of blue water. In fact, A. L. Guss, an authority on Pennsylvania Indians, has “no reasonable doubt” that Juniata comes from the Onojutta-Haga, the ancient people of the Juniata Valley (Guss, 1886, p. 33) . In the early 1900s, a Wyandot (Huron) Indian who spoke the Iroquois language was asked to translate the words, Onojutta-Haga, and replied: “The People of the Mountain Top,” “The People of the High Stony Place,” “The People of the Standing Rock,” pausing as he tried to think of another translation. How would “Standing Stone People” be? he was asked. Excellent, he said (National Historical Association, 1936, p. 18) .

The Onojutta-Haga had ceased to exist before the first European colonists reached the Juniata Valley in the early 1700s, but the tribe left a legacy that honors their memory long after they disappeared from their homeland. The Onojutta-Haga, the People of the Standing Stone, gave the Juniata River their name.

Chapter 9
The Long Narrows

Lewistown to Mifflintown
July 10, 2001
Twelve Miles: East–Southeast

Her name is June Rowles, which the people near her home in the village of Mifflin on the Juniata pronounce “roles,” although I say it as “Rowles” as in allows. Her neighbors, though, have it right: June Rowles is a woman of many roles. She is a wife (husband Max), mother (daughters Kelly and Kitty, stepson Tony), and grandmother to Nathaniel, 18; Brandon, 12; Tony, Jr., 9; Zachary, 9; Haley, 7; Paige, 4; Payten, 4; Sawyer, 2; and Kara, 11 months. June herself has 14 brothers and sisters.

June performed the roles of waitress, bartender, cook, and sewing machine operator before starting and managing June’s Drive-In and Bait and Tackle Shop 19 years ago near Mifflintown. Four years ago, she sold that business and started another, June’s Bait and Tackle Shop, at her home in Mifflin. However, her greatest role is that of matriarch: she is the glue that holds her family together, a modern pioneer woman, a throwback to the Pennsylvania frontier.

At 7AM on Tuesday, July 10, I launch from the ramp at Victory Park in Lewistown into a mile-long pool that is a mirror rather than a river. Earlier this morning, I dropped my boat at this ramp and drove 10 miles downriver to the Mifflintown Access of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, my destination today, where I parked my Jeep and trailer. The reliable June Rowles drove me back to the Victory Park Ramp where the sun is rising, the water and weather are clear, and I am alone.

Two bridges cross the Juniata just below the Victory Park Ramp: the upper bridge carries Pennsylvania Route 103 and the lower is an old railroad trestle. To the left of these bridges is the mouth of Kishacoquillas Creek, which drains the “Big Valley” to the north, home to many Amish and Mennonite families who live near the town of Belleville. They sell crafts, produce, and baked goods there every Wednesday at “The Sale,” as it is called.

In the early 1700s, a band of Shawnee Indians led by Chief Kishacoquillas lived at the junction of the Juniata and the creek that bears his name. In 1731, Colonial surveyors James LeTort and Jonah Davenport mapped this part of the Juniata Valley and reported that “Kissikahquelas,” as they referred to him, was Chief of the village they called “Ohesson upon Choniata,” a town of 20 families and 60 men, today’s Lewistown (Jordan, 1913, pp. 32-33) .

In the 1750s, many Lenni Lenape from eastern Pennsylvania joined the Shawnees at Ohesson, having been driven from their homeland in the Delaware River Valley. Among these Lenni Lenape was the infamous brave the colonists called “Captain Jacobs,” who later was responsible for the kidnapping, torture, and murder of hundreds of settlers in the Juniata Valley.

The whites who settled near the Indian hamlet of Ohesson established a village known as “Old Town,” which was said to have consisted of “a tavern and a few scattered hovels, containing nothing worth notice.” A young colonist in Old Town described his new home in a letter to his “Mam” in England. (The year of the letter is unknown, but the first settlers reached today’s Lewistown in the mid-1700s.)

[In] March I Went out to the Back Country, 160 miles from Philadelphia, whear thaar is a new place a Bilding by the name of Lewes Town purtched a Lott and Hous, not finished, which cost me 60 pound, and 20 pounds mor will finish it which will Rent for 15 pounds per year....This is a fearful Country for wild creatures, Such as Dears, Bars, Wolves and Panters, the Dears meet yousd for Beef or venison, and Bears meet Good Bacon. Fishes and Folls in Great plenty. This is a fine country for Roots and Vegtales....Coowcumbers, Water Mellens, Squashes and Pompcans, with a variety of Beanes, sich as you have none in England, with many others too tedis to Name (National Historical Association, 1936, pp. 252-253) .

As I drift near the site of the ancient Indian village of Ohesson and the white settlement of Old Town, I can hear rapids ahead, but the rising sun blinds me to them. Standing in the boat helps, and I paddle for an opening between two ledges, but miss the mark and bounce to the left through the rocks.

Just below these rapids, the river also bounces left off a stone wall and opens into a long pool. Distances on such flats are deceiving because the water moves so slowly; a pool only a half-mile long can take an hour or more to float. Not ten feet in front of me, turtles surface and, surprised, dive with a speed that belies their slow crawl on land. Like the Great Blue Herons (more gray than blue and taller than they look), the turtles are afraid of people, but often bask in groups on rocks, their shells clanking when they slide into the water to dive for cover. Sometimes they climb onto the low-hanging limbs of trees along the banks. Once, I drifted under the branches of a tree below Mount Union, and a turtle fell into the boat, the sound the same as kicking an empty bucket. As I glided under the tree, I thought a snake might drop into the boat (I am terrified of them), but hadn’t considered this hard-backed hitchhiker, head and feet drawn inside its orange-bottomed shell. When I flipped the Juniata tortoise into the water, its head and feet popped out and it quickly swam away. On another outing, I floated under a tree seeking shade and reached overhead to grab a limb to stop the boat. The branch, however, grabbed my hand and curled around it—a four-foot black snake was lying on it. The squishy feeling still gives me the creeps.

Almost two miles below Lewistown, Jack’s Creek enters the Juniata at two small islands where 20 turkey vultures peck and claw each other for positions in the shade. Not a pretty sight. Usually, these huge birds circle high overhead, gliding on thermals. I have never seen so many in one place. An hour has passed since launching, and I have not caught a single fish, the action as cold as the lemonade I take from my cooler. There is (almost) nothing like an ice-cold lemonade on the Juniata.

Below these islands, small rapids give way to another long pool where large flat rocks on the left seem to slide into the river. Under the trees on the right, a couple “red eyes” bump my frog torpedo out of the way, the extent of their interest. Sandy banks and weedbeds line this flat; the water is stagnant and barely a foot deep, hardly the best habitat for smallmouth bass. To me, variety makes the best river habitat, which also seems to make the best fishing. The smell of freshly cut grass is everywhere on the Juniata this morning, and floating grass clippings are catching on my plug’s hooks. (At least I am catching something.)

Below this flat, the river makes a slow, mile-long left turn, and foam collects in the inside of the bend like meringue on a lemon pie. On the left, a green velvet curtain of leaves hangs from the trees. At 8:30AM, I reach the long, straight stretch behind the Exxon Station on United States Route 22, a couple miles east of Lewistown. The concrete ramp at the station is open to the public (a donation is requested), but has an S-turn that has confounded my amateurish trailering.

At the tail of this stretch, the river appears to ease into the “Lewistown Narrows,” the next section of the Juniata, but squeeze would be more accurate, as the water funnels left against a stone wall. On previous trips, I have walked my boat through the safer right side of these rapids, but today I find unexpected courage and decide to take them. Immediately, I am swept into them, as the water yanks the boat to the left. Two quick paddle strokes straighten it, the waves slapping the bow. Next, the stern slides left—and then too far left—and suddenly I am sideways and then backwards, frantically trying to right the boat. The stern bounces off rocks, jarring me, until a flat rock somehow stops the boat. I try to push off the rock with a paddle, but the rushing water rips it from my hand and shoots it down the river. Standing and rocking back and forth finally frees the boat, and I bang my way backward through the rest of the rapids and into the “Lewistown Narrows.”

Originally, this famed span was called the “Long Narrows,” a stretch Columbia Magazine described in 1788 as “one continued break [through] astonishing crags for upwards of eight or nine miles” (National Historical Association, 1936, p. 252) . Almost 200 years later, Juniata Valley historian Zenas J. Gray took a train trip through the “Lewistown Narrows” and said the gorge was bordered by “huge, rocky promontories, black and dismal...a scene [of] positive wildness” (Gray, 1983, p. 90) .

On the left through the “Lewistown Narrows” is United States Route 22, pinched between Shade Mountain and the river. This stretch of highway is one of the most dangerous in Pennsylvania, and its original three lanes have been reduced to two to prevent passing. On the right along the river, the Pennsylvania Railroad somehow carved tracks out of the foot of Blue Mountain.

By 10:15AM and the head of the “Lewistown Narrows,” I have caught only one little bass. In the next 30 minutes, though, I catch five smallmouths and as many “red eyes” on a silver spinner. The fish, however, are hardly hitting. When they are biting, you can expect a jolt on almost every cast. I am getting a bump every five minutes or so. High clouds have blocked the sun, and the wind is increasing. In a small flat on the right, I miss a terrific strike on a “Sluggo,” a pencil-like soft plastic lure with erratic action when twitched just under the surface. The adage, “Wind from the west, fishing is best,” gives me hope, but the fish are becoming not only inactive, but also invisible, to me the sign of an impending storm.

At 12:30PM, three miles into the “Lewistown Narrows,” I catch a 12-inch smallmouth on my crayfish torpedo, but the action has been uncharacteristically poor. Since mid-morning, the weather has been indecisive: clear one minute, stormy the next. Such unsettled conditions, I think, cause the bass to seek shelter. When they are prowling to ambush prey, they often hide near any irregular feature: a gap in the weeds, a rock, a stump. Astute fishermen target such spots. Bass also chase minnows when attacking. The minnows jump out of the water like flying fish in the ocean trying to escape. When I see this happen, I often cast to the area and get a vicious strike. I have seen teams of bass “herd” minnows against rocks and pound them with an audible force. Today, though, I have not seen a single minnow being chased. Even the tubes and grubs I use to imitate crayfish do not interest the bass. But when the weather clears and the sky brightens, the fishing on the Juniata usually improves. Or so I hope.

Thirty minutes later, the storm I have expected arrives, and I paddle quickly for cover to a sandy bank on the right, the bow of the boat bumping a large, submerged log. People say storms follow the route of the Juniata through the “Lewistown Narrows,” and this one is doing just that. But it could be coincidence because summer weather in central Pennsylvania typically moves from west to east, the same general direction the Juniata flows.

A lightning strike startles me, and I am out of the boat in a hop, grabbing my rainsuit and climbing the bank to get away from the floating lightning rod my boat has become. I drop to the ground like a baseball catcher to stay low, as people are advised to do in storms, and lightning strikes nearer and nearer until a deafening bolt hits behind me. The sky is black, the rain is vertical one moment and horizontal the next, and the wind is whipping white caps on the river. Again and again lightning shakes the ground around me, and I drop even lower, now prone, face in the mud.

A half-hour later, the stubborn storm begins to move downriver, and the sky to the west starts to clear. To my left, I notice the inner tube of a tractor-trailer tire entangled ten feet up a tree, apparently having washed down the river. I skid down the now-muddy bank to the boat, the rainwater inside splashing to the stern as I tiptoe my way there. With one of those big, tan sponges hardware stores sell for washing cars, I begin removing the water. Squeeze the water in, lift the sponge over the side, squeeze the water out. Fifty-three times.

The sky to the west appears clear, and I am hopeful, having three or four more miles to reach the Mifflintown Access. I push off the sandy bank with my remaining paddle and lower the trolling motor, but turning the handle through five forward speeds yields only clicks. A quick turn the other way for reverse gets nothing either. The battery isn’t dead, so the rain must have soaked the motor’s electronics. Now I will have to paddle.

In the middle of the river, my view downriver no longer blocked by Blue Mountain, I see the sky to the east darkening—not clearing—and the storm is returning. Frantically, I paddle to the left bank, which looks to be a boat-length closer than the right, and ram the shore just as lightning strikes. Out of the boat I jump and stumble toward a large concrete culvert 30 yards away. Another bolt strikes, and I splash through the drainage ditch, tree limbs smacking me in the face. The culvert is six feet square and opens some ten feet above the ditch. I scramble up the bank over the rocks amid more lightning, throw my right leg over the edge of the culvert, and climb inside. Outside, it is as dark as the inside of the culvert. The rain, illuminated by the lightning, is punishing the river in front of me. The wind is blowing waves upstream. Bolt after bolt of lightning hits near me, but I am safe inside the culvert.

A half-hour later, the storm gives up for a second time and moves east and down the river. Through the mist in the trees, I see two men in a canoe paddling hard downstream. They look afraid. A stream six inches deep is falling over the edge of the culvert, and I step through it and slide down the muddy bank and back to the boat.

In July and August 1888, Henry K. Landis of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, his brother George, and his friend H. Justin Roddy canoed from McVeytown to Harrisburg on the Juniata. Landis and his brother began their trip on July 30 and reached Harrisburg on August 14. On August 4, Roddy joined them in a second canoe for six days. They camped in the “Lewistown Narrows” at a place they called “Mountain Pine Camp,” five miles below Lewistown. As I float along after the storm, I am as near as I can tell to their camp.

Landis (1865-1955) was 23 years old when he and his companions made the trip. His journal, Canoeing on the Juniata (1888), has a brief narrative and many full-page photographs. An excerpt from Landis’s diary describes the Juniata at the turn of the 19th century:
[T]here is not an echo around save the faint rumble of an approaching train, its thunder as it passes and the murmer [sic] which the echoes send down to us from way up the river; the little birds seem more at home too....[T]he frogs hop along the bank in front of me, a hornet sat about two inches from my hand cleaning his wings....The little breeze that is blowing is just enough to shake the clinging drops from the wet leaves which fall with a drowsy patter all around. A cricket strikes up his rasping note on the pine tree above our tent, is answered by one across the canal, then by one in the hazel thicket and now as the sun just begins to struggle through the thick clouds....” (Landis, 1888, pp. 26-27) .

Landis’s journal also lists the food, clothing, and equipment they took as well as the prices of the items in 1888. Some of the provisions and their prices were five cans of oatmeal ($.36), four pounds of flour ($.25), one peck of potatoes ($.20), 14 pounds of sugar ($1.08), five loaves of bread ($.25), one quart of wine ($.50), one tent ($3.00), one iron skillet ($.30), and a comb and mirror ($.10) (Landis, 1888, pp. 10-13). Landis became a writer, professor, and businessman and founded the Landis Valley Museum near Lancaster.

In the mile-long stretch below the site of Landis’s “Mountain Pine Camp,” weedbeds and trees line both sides of the river where two years ago, Mike Donlan and I fished during a September weekend. At noon on Saturday, we took cover from a shower that a sudden hatch of the “Juniata Whitefly” (Family: Polymitarchidae; Genus: Ephoron) turned into a summer snowstorm. Fish rose for the flies all across the river, some so close to us that Mike could tap them on their heads with his fishing rod. Mike began casting a torpedo to the rising bass, but most ignored it for the “White Flies,” which were also being picked off by hundreds of swallows skimming the water.

After the rain, Mike caught two 20-inch smallmouths and lost two at least that big that broke his line. Had we entered that weekend’s tournament of the Juniata River Anglers Association, Mike might have won individual honors because the 20-inchers he landed were as big as any bass caught. The following year, Mike and I did enter the tournament and fished this water again, dragging the boat upstream from the Mifflintown Access two miles below, but we caught nothing bigger than 15 inches and were humbled by better anglers.

A mile above the Mifflintown Access, homes begin to line the riverbank along old Route 22 on the left where an island is surrounded by a nearly impassable mud flat, except for a deeper channel on the left. I catch a few “red eyes” under the sycamores and kick some carp out from under the homemade docks. A few small bass rise for flies in the middle of the river, too far to reach with a cast.

As I drift by the Lizard’s Tail and lawns, I catch a 10-inch smallmouth on my frog torpedo. I anchor to try to capitalize on this unexpected bonus and notice that the sandy bottom is without structure, yet the fish have taken positions in the weeds and are attacking my torpedo. The four-feet-high Lizard’s Tail is an ideal ambushing spot, but beds of this plant are almost everywhere along the Juniata in the “Lewistown Narrows,” and I have targeted acres of it today to no avail. I work this water hard with my torpedoes and catch ten fat smallmouths, all 12 inches long.

Next, a small rapid opens to Carter’s Hole, the popular half-mile lagoon at the Mifflintown Access. On the right, a rock ledge 50 feet high overlooks one of the deepest holes on the Juniata, reportedly 65 feet deep. Wilbur Leach, President of the Juniata River Anglers Association, told me that Carter’s Hole is named for a family of settlers who drowned trying to cross the ice in a horse-drawn wagon. Last year at the Mifflintown ramp, a tow-haired boy of about seven gave me his version of the story when I asked him about the wagon.
“It’s still down there,” he said, “with the people in it.”

I reach the Mifflintown Access at 3:30PM, and the weather has cleared completely as it often does on the Juniata after a thunderstorm. Across from the Mifflintown Access, a long weedbed frames one of the most beautiful spots on the river. From the Victory Park Ramp in Lewistown to the Mifflintown Access, I caught maybe 35 smallmouths and half as many “red eyes,” but the fishing in the usually productive “Lewistown Narrows” was poor. At the Mifflintown Ramp, the clearing weather has brought out five or six fishermen anxious to launch their boats. I drag mine off the ramp out of their way and sit on the bow where my muddy footprints have dried into size 91/2E mud pies.
“Get caught in that storm?” a young man next to me asks, seeing the rainsuit draped in my boat.
“Both of them,” I say. “Never saw lightning like that. Thought I was a gonner.”
Slike at inna Narahs,” he said, pronouncing it like Sarah’s.

I slide off the bow of my boat and feel the water squishing inside my sneakers. After a few wobbly steps, I tramp through the grass up the slope to the nearby ice cream stand for a large chocolate cone, my favorite. After today, diabetes be damned.

Fishing Hotspots
• Mouth of Kishacoquillas Creek in Lewistown
• Between Kishacoquillas Creek and Jack’s Creek
• Long stretch behind the Exxon Station east of Lewistown
• The entire “Lewistown Narrows”
• Left of the island a half-mile above the Mifflintown Access
• Pool at the Mifflintown Access

Boating Troublespots
Rapids at the head of the “Lewistown Narrows” behind the Exxon Station