Sports

Matt Dickerson: A forester and his trails: Remembering Roy Wilkinson

ROY WILKINSON

I was at a meeting of outdoor writers down in Arkansas at the start of the summer when I met the editor of Backcountry Journal.
The journal is a publication of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a national organization devoted to the conservation of public lands and traditional outdoor activities. The editor asked me for two pieces for upcoming issues: one on the Popo Agie Wilderness in the Wind River Range of Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest (which I wrote about in this space back in 2016) and another on the Green Mountain National Forest of Vermont.
Although the Wyoming piece was my first suggestion, the later story was a more obvious choice for a Vermont writer whose home sits just across the street from the GMNF, and who for the past 30 years has fished, hunted, hiked and cross-country skied within its borders or on waters flowing out of it.
Not long after agreeing to the assignment, I thought of just the place I wanted to focus on: the Wilkinson Trails off Goshen Road south of Ripton. The three little brooks that come together there — Hale, Goshen and Gonya — offer archetypal Vermont small-stream wild-brook-trout habitat. Those sorts of little streams and their famous residents have always been, in my mind, one of the great iconic gems of our forested Green Mountains.
As local anglers know, the GMNF is home to countless little brooks like those three. I could have written about streams flowing south into the Deerfield River watershed, or tributaries and headwaters of Otter Creek south of Rutland, or about streams that flow eastward down into the White River.
Ripton alone has miles of brook-trout stream in the headwaters of the Middlebury River’s various branches and their tributaries. Many of those other waters are more productive habitat than Hale, Goshen and Gonya. I suppose to explain my choice, I might have added that the Wilkinson Trails sit across the street from Widow’s Clearing, which was the first place I ever cross-country skied in the Green Mountains some three decades ago. Or that the trails are a sort of gateway to the famous 16,000-acre Moosalamoo National Recreation Area.
But the real reason I wanted to write about the Wilkinson Trails was Roy Wilkinson, the USFS veteran who laid out the trails and after whom they are named.
When I was working on the story over the summer, I knew that Roy’s health was failing. Nine and a half decades of life had caught up with him. I thought that writing about those little trout streams flowing past the trails that bore his name would be a fitting way to honor his legacy for a journal that also believed in the importance of the national forests where he had spent much of his adult working life.
After growing up in Rutland, Roy served his country for more than 20 years as a marine, spanning World War II (where he fought at Iwo Jima as a dog-handler), the Korean War (where he miraculously survived the horrors of Chosin Reservoir) and later in Vietnam. Retiring from the military, he went on to serve his country for 23 more years with the U.S. Forest Service, working out of the GMNF office in Middlebury before that office closed.
Roy retired from the USFS in 1990, only one year after I moved to Addison County. That was about the time I was getting to know him and his family — mostly through his son Alan, daughter-in-law Deb, and three (soon to become four) grandchildren who lived in New Haven.
When Roy found out about my love of the outdoors and wilderness, and especially fishing and wild trout, he delighted in sharing stories with me about his many discoveries and adventures in his years of working in the forests, ranging from little beaver ponds he had stumbled upon, to favorite trees, to encounters with all manner of wild creatures.
His retirement didn’t lessen his enthusiasm. He had a contagious passion for the woods, and all that could be discovered by the attentive eye or the patient observer, whether it was just a surprising patch of flowers, or the interesting shape of growth rings in a cross section of a fallen tree. His delight into those things usually turned to his delight in God, to whom he gave credit for creating trees, flowers, salamanders and trout.
Even when Roy moved through his 80s and into his 90s, and slowed down noticeably, he would still continue to pass along to me interesting stories, often in the form of old newspaper clippings or other memorabilia he thought I might be interested in.
On Nov. 3, a couple months after I submitted the article, but several months before it is scheduled to appear in Backcountry Journal, Roy passed away. At his memorial service, I thought some about the delightful section of the national forest whose trails now bear his name — on my most recent visit there, just this past summer and the several little wild brook trout I saw patrolling the pools and cascades, hiding beneath logs and undercut banks.
I thought of the fact that even in the middle of a hot summer afternoon, I worked up the shoreline beneath tall trees whose canopy blocked out the sky and kept not only me cool, but also the trout I was chasing.
I thought of the legacy not only of Roy Wilkinson and his name, but the value of the national forest he loved and worked to preserve. And of all the public lands that are so important to our country, and the other stewards who work to protect them.
Even if I don’t get up there cross-country skiing this winter, I will be sure to meander up one of those little brooks admiring their denizens. Then I will walk back along the Wilkinson Trails to my car parked off a USFS road and remember an old friend and his beloved trees and brooks. And I’ll smile.

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