The Great Buffalo Swamp it had once been called. Back in the early days before the coming of the Europeans not even the native Iroquois Seneca lived in these woods. They used it as their hunting ground because the forest was filled with deer and elk, wolves and bear, panthers and smaller game. But the land was too rugged; the hills too steep; and the tree canopy too dense to make the land habitable. Until the Europeans came, of course. Some days, when Oliver Eberstark ventured alone into the deepest parts of Opelt’s Wood, he daydreamed of what it must have been like hundreds of years ago before the coming of the farmers, then the loggers, then the miners. Oliver loved everything about the woods he inherited from his grandfather. He never thought of the acres of forest land as a possession, but rather a sacred duty entrusted to his keeping.
He had not been born in Marienstadt but in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where his mother’s family lived for generations. His mother’s father, and all her uncles, once worked in the steel mills. When the steel industry died, they stayed and eked out a living as best they could—driving taxis and working as handymen. His parents met when his father left Marienstadt to attend college in Pittsburgh and fell in love with a waitress in a diner where he went to study when his roommates were too noisy. They fell in love, married, and Oliver was born while his father was still a student—a student who, while studying for his final exams, contracted a virus that left him with myocarditis from which he never recovered.
Oliver’s only memories of his father were of a sick, frail man who needed his wife’s constant attention. The few times Oliver saw his father laughing were when his parents brought him to Marienstadt to visit his Grandfather Eberstark. During those rare weekends in Grandpop’s big timber and stone house on the bank of Pistner’s Run deep in Opelt’s Wood his father was a different man. As a little boy Oliver could not believe anyone would want to live anywhere else and every time, when the visit was over and they drove back to Pittsburgh, he prayed the few childish prayers he knew, that next time they would stay with Grandpop. He was convinced that the magic of the deep woods would heal his father’s heart.
Grandpop, whose name was Thaddeus, was a big, hardy, tough woodsman who built clocks in the workshop of his own grandfather’s abandoned sawmill. He loved the woods that surrounded his home and whenever Oliver visited he would take him for walks and talk to him about things that sounded mysterious and wonderful to the boy. Grandpop showed him great boulders with tiny mollusk shells embedded in them from a time long before the dinosaurs lived—when this land was tropical and near the sea. They found fossils with the imprints of ancient ferns and beetles in them. Grandpop told him stories of people and places that had names like Chief Tamsqua and the Chinclecamoose Trail. Those were the happiest days of the boy’s life.
He skirted around the edge of a swamp with dragonflies flitting over it. The air was filled with the fragrance of blackberry blossoms. Bees buzzed back and forth collecting pollen before the petals fell away and the first green of berries emerged. Oliver climbed a grade to one of the logging paths so long abandoned that it was barely discernible through the vegetation. He remembered the first time Grandpop brought him here.
“This is a very important place,” Grandpop had said. “Everything changes just about here.”
Oliver, who was always eager for new bits of Grandpop’s seemingly endless knowledge, looked up at him. “Why?”
“Because right along here is the Eastern Continental Divide. Did you learn about continental divides in school yet?”
Oliver shook his head.
“Well, a continental divide is a place that separates watersheds. Watersheds are areas of land in which all the water runs in the same direction. Here, I’ll show you. You stand over there.” Grandpop pointed to a rocky outcrop on one side of the path. “And I’ll stand over here.” He walked a hundred feet along the path then stopped and turned toward the boy. “Now, I might not be exactly accurate, but you are standing in the Atlantic Seaboard Watershed, where all the water from all the rivers and streams run toward the Atlantic Ocean. I’m standing in the Gulf of Mexico Watershed where all the water runs southwest toward the Mississippi River and down to the Gulf. Pretty interesting, huh?”
Oliver had turned and looked down into the woods where a small stream glittered in the distance. He pointed to it. “That means the water in that crick goes to the Atlantic Ocean?”
“Yep. Come here.”
He joined Grandpop who pointed off into the woods. “On the other side of that ridge is Pistner’s Run.”
“And so it goes to the Gulf of Mexico?”
Oliver looked back and forth between the two places trying to absorb what he was hearing. “So right here where we’re standing is where the Continental Divide makes them go in different directions?”
Grandpop put his big hand on Oliver’s shoulder and grinned. “Pritneer. I might be off by a few yards but this is just about the right place.”
“Are there other continental divides?” Oliver liked these new words and he was eager to tell Nick and Dan about them.
“Sure are. In North America there are six of them. Come on, I’ve got a map at home that shows where the others are.”
Since that day Oliver had often returned to the place where Grandpop told him about continental divides. It was a mysterious concept, he thought. Nothing you could see or examine and, yet, it seemed deeply important. If you knew which side of the divide you were on, you knew where the flow could take you.