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Too Hot? Go Find a Creek

Want to make kids happy this hot, hot summer?

Put them in a creek.

A creek will cool them off. A creek is free to play in. A creek has little wild creatures like minnows, frogs, salamanders and crayfish, and often bigger wild creatures like muskrats, snakes, blue herons and even beavers.

Daughter Shark’s birthday falls near Memorial Day. In recent years we’ve celebrated that holiday and her birthday together with a picnic at the No. 1 Shelter area of Tomlinson Run State Park. The creek (the South Fork of Tomlinson Run) runs right past the shelter. Most of the creek’s course there is shallow and rocky – perfect for hunting for crayfish. We of course toss them back in the creek – the crayfish, not the children – for someone else to catch.

Learning to catch crayfish (which you may call crawdads) is a rite of passage for kids in our family. Crayfish aren’t easy to find, and once found, are harder to catch. Turn over a rock and now you see them, but with a flip of their tails, now you don’t, they’re someplace else.

Most are small, but a big one might be three inches from end of tail to tip of pincers. Their pincers are fearsome-looking, and they reach back trying to pinch whomever is holding them with thumb and forefinger.

For a child of seven or eight who has mastered both fear and technique, and knows how to hold a big crayfish, few things are as richly entertaining as watching a skittish grown-up man try to do so without getting pinched.

A COUPLE OF MILES upstream from the state park, a portion of this same Tomlinson Run meanders through the creek bottom of our farm.

(A “meander,” by the way, is the proper name for a single bend or loop in a stream.)

The bottom was once a cow pasture, but in my lifetime has grown up in brush, briars and tall weeds. My brother-in-law General Doc patrols it regularly as he and my sister exercise their hunting dogs, traveling on a system of lanes kept mowed though the rank growth. There’s no bridge to cross the creek, but there is a ford by which a tractor or four-wheel-drive vehicle can access the other side if the creek’s not running too high. Other than at the ford, it’s difficult to get to most parts of the creek along this stretch. It has reverted to the wild.

I never had a swimming hole in the creek but did fish it as an adolescent, catching little chubs and sunfish that my mother, Ol’ Food, would pan fry for me in flour and butter. I was 12 when my dad had the Soil Conservation Service build our farm pond, and from that time forward, the pond was our place to swim and fish.

I SUPPOSE IT WAS our family’s enjoyment of the creek at the state park that gave grandson Bob – also known as Activities Director Bob because of how the younger boys follow his lead – the idea for exploring the creek on our farm.

He decided that all the boys – including a cousin from Weirton and twin cousins on a summer visit from Florida – should wade the creek from one property line to the other, a distance of a quarter-mile. It was something I had never done.

So on a recent hot summer’s day, this intrepid band of young explorers, age 7 to 10, led by Bob, age 12, climbed onto a trailer behind our 1948 Farmall C tractor and I hauled them down to the ford. They waded through a pool, crossed a sand bank and disappeared into the unknown. I went back the tractor and headed for the rendezvous. From my tractor seat I could hear them now and then or see one at a distance.

Forty-five minutes later they emerged from the wilderness at their goal, but were having so much fun they decided to reverse course and hike back upstream. By this time the troop had become a primitive tribe, with Bob as their chief. They sang, carried sticks, painted their faces with mud and chanted like aborigines.

Before reluctantly leaving the creek, they transformed a waist-deep pool near the ford into a little water park, splashing, leaping daringly from the high top of the bank, and making otter slides down the yellow clay sides. Ah, to be a boy on such a day in such a place.

So I say again, go find a creek.

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