exploretheline.com presents:

Writings and other musings from my explorations

of seldom-seen corners of  southwestern Pennsylvania,
western Maryland and northern West Virginia

By Pete Zapadka

Boys sought the icy rights of the first thaw

First publised Sunday, Feb. 20, 2000, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Winter is on the wane, and with the lengthening hours of daylight, my mind invariably begins to wander. My thoughts often travel back to boyhood rites of spring.

In Wurtemburg Heights, my peaceful country neighborhood not far from Ellwood City, one ritual always came to pass. It happened as surely as the lawn mowers replaced the snow shovels, certain as the colorful flowers took the place of the brown wilted weeds.

That first processional to the banks of Slippery Rock Creek normally came before the wet-season floods and while there still was plenty of ice clogging the banks. An aggregation of unpretentious boys whose minds were filled of visions of trout and bass fishing always took advantage of an unseasonably warm day to make the pilgrimage.

We rushed home from school, then flocked to the edge of the hallowed waters, yearning for the not-too-distant time when we'd be wading or taking a plunge into the clear estuary to seek relief from the heat.

Protocol demanded we meet at the top of the Cement Hill, trudge down the steep concrete roadway, gingerly cross busy Route 488 and approach the Slippery Rock from the steps behind the old Wurtemburg-Perry Township Fire Hall. The stairs, made of cement blocks set side by side, made passage down the precipitous hillside an easy trek. They had been built by a friendly man who lived behind the fire hall, and he was quick to grant us passage. Somehow, we knew he once had been an explorer like us.

The solid steps first stopped on a ledge on which sat an old bathtub filled with fresh spring water. We enjoyed watching the minnows swimming in the tub and wondered if the little fish knew of their destiny as bait for their larger brethren.

Here, the trail joined a path that led to a large flat area inhabited by wild ducks. The fowl were drawn by the clear water and food left there by the kindly builder of the stairs. We always were tempted to try to catch one of the birds to take home to become a delicious meal, but never a feather was harmed. Perhaps we were more immersed in thinking of the creek, a flowing friend with whom we'd not visited in many long months.

Across the water sat a solitary island, our beachhead to the Scout Hole, a back-channel swimming spot established by Boy Scouts that had become popular with other youngsters. We couldn't wait to swim there, in the deeper water behind a rock dam we helped to reconstruct every year.

As the creek slowly rolled by, we stood smiling, mesmerized. Spread along the southern embankment, we laughed aloud. Someone tossed some stones, someone else broke up some of the frozen chunks that lined the banks. I remember thinking, with fish feces in mind, "Geez, I can't believe you put that in your mouth! That's not a Popsicle, you know!"

And one of us always seemed to fall into the Slippery Rock's icy grip, an incident that surely cut short our annual vernal appointment. After all, drying by the creek was not a wise option, and the walk home was mostly uphill, arduous and always frigid under such circumstances.

There would be other days, we reckoned, times with the sun shining and temperatures soaring. The waters of our beloved Slippery Rock Creek would be flowing gently, calling to us with a whisper inexplicably audible to explorers such as these intrepid boys from Wurtemburg Heights.

Pete Zapadka -- Mason-Dixon Line Western Crossings -- exploretheline.com -- Mason and Dixon Line -- Mason-Dixon Line -- Charles Mason -- Jeremiah Dixon -- Pennsylvania -- West Virginia