The better part of a year later, after the warm fall afternoon Nick and I passed among the shades of Worthless Pool, I make a decision. I will take myself down to the Nitinat and try fishing the long weekend of May.
I put my little blue dinghy, all nine feet of it, on a long green foamy I used to use for camping. I put it on the roof of my car and pass the rope over and down, through the car windows to the other side and over the boat and so on. Along with me comes my $12 K-Mart special rod, with three flies: a huge Royal Coachman; some Atlantic salmon fly; and one made of orange and brown. I do not know how ugly these flies are and how useless. That’s because I am nervous, having stopped being a river person for almost thirty years. Much of that time I was married with kids and a wife whose version of the outdoors meant walking to Dairy Queen.
So, to the water that I have so frequently thought of as my real home, in the earlier years of my life, I return, apprehensive, pushing doubts away. I do not know what is below where I will launch - waterfalls, deadfalls - whatever. I do not know about the Nitinat wind, but I will learn.
I tie a dumbbell to a rope and tie the line to the bow of the boat. I put the oars in the oar locks, my spinning rod, the one that after the cast, the bale sometimes does not flip back over. Twenty five pound test line as well. Lunch. Water bottle, camera gear, tackle box, pack sack, knife, but not a coat, no lifejacket. I swirl away from the launch oars in the air, turning in a circle beneath the bridge, into my own deliverance, without knowledge of what is in front of me.
When I have drifted down the half mile to what I now know as the Stump Pool, I decide to tie up and fish from the boat just below the fast water that turns to the left and drops into a deep pool. I will be casting Buzz Bombs, some ancient Mepps Aglia used hunting cutthroat in the Altrude lakes in Alberta decades before, a Dar Dev’l, Len Thompson, red and white spoon.
I dump the barbell over the downstream side of the blue dinghy and the line goes taut. The boat rolls over and I am flung to the bottom of the river. I know in that instant I will die, not that I was a father, a former husband, but the knowledge that comes in terror: I am going to die.
Then my feet touch the bottom and I look up several feet. All around me in the water column is my gear, fly rod going down, oar, pack sack. And then I am angry and push so hard I come up under the upside down boat. And I push it to shore, which sends me back down to the bottom, only 8 feet this time, where I push off again and by a slow, inch-worm process come up neck deep and struggle up the sliding, watery gravel.
Expletives I yell, and yell again, drag my upside down boat up the bank, finding I still have my spinning rod in my hand. Fancy that – drowning, but with priorities: I will not lose the rod until I am dead. I throw it down and fetch my sodden packsack, my sinking tackle box. But I have lost some things: one oar, one fishing rod, my water, my vest.
With me shouting obscenities, my oar floats calmly downstream on the opposite side of the very deep pool. I grab my spinning rod and cast my Buzz Bomb across the river, trying to snag the oar. If it is lost so am I. I run down my side of the bank until I have to wade through some very sinky mud that closes on my thighs, casting and retrieving as my oar slowly trundles along over the horizon. While I am shouting: %!@#%$!@#@$!@#$ - which means spirited lament - I go up to my chest and can go no farther.
Then a strange thing happens. The oar turns toward shore and starts coming back up of its own accord. Ah, I see why this has happened: it’s in a back eddy and the water is carrying it up the opposite shore. I go struggling through the mud, lifting each leg and placing its foot down, and pulling the other, causing the first to sink in the silt from a thousand trees felled the previous century. I am too angry to notice that each step sinks farther than the last. I cast like a fiend, Buzz Bombs strafing the air, breaking trees off their roots, white-coloured lead breaking the sound barrier. More expletives. A million bombs sent flying, but not one, not one, snags the oar, its black, plastic oarlock.
I run up my side of the river, casting. A good hundred yards back to my sodden stuff, but the hook will not catch. The line passes over the oar but the hook slides by. And then the oar comes to rest. It has drifted right up to the head of the back eddy and swung so that the blade just touches the big rock at the head of the pool. And there it stays. This is my chance, my only chance, to retrieve it. So I turn the water out of my boat, and like rub-a-dub-dub, three wet guys in a tub, kneel in the bow. I put one vertical stroke down one side of the boat, then a vertical stroke down the other. The river works on me, running me out of reach as I reach my longest finger for the oar. The river carries me away, one stroke on one side one stroke on the other.
Just before sinking over the horizon, I am spared. With the luck of the forest, the maple trees with their green hands, the elk with the velvet knobs of antlers, I am gathered up in the back eddy and carried upstream to my oar. When I came even with it, I simply reach down and pick it up as though nothing has happened.
When I regain the other bank, I open my pack sack and water flows out. I take out my camera and the water runs out; it and my flash and all the film have been ruined – requiring purchase of others - in the first millisecond after my open-mouthed face hit the water. And then there is another long list of curses. My tackle box I empty and later, the water leaves a red crust of rust over everything. My lunch is something left to bloat in the sea for weeks. The banana squashed. Coca Cola disappeared.
I shiver in the weak sun that still to this day, a decade later, is cold, on this north-facing corner. The haunted trees weirdly cry with their load of moss, tons of baggy green fat. It crosses my literate mind that perhaps I can retrieve my no name K-Mart special, the one with line guides I affix with electrician’s tape, with the reel that grinds out the line at the best of times. It does not need a drag. The rust does that well enough on its own, since the day I was 13 and laid my handful of change on the counter.
I row out into the river, look down the shifting lenses of water. Way down there is my rod. Out goes the dumbbell – over the front end - and it tethers me back and forth in the current. The spinning rod tip with its Buzz Bomb goes down, down, down, and I try and try to latch onto the fly line or the rod or any damn thing. To the eagle and mink and otters and elk, to the cougars, there is a screaming human on the water, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, making fists and groaning when the hook misses the line. Twenty minutes and more, until, can I be so lucky, the fiddly line is snagged.
When I pull on it, more and more comes up. When I get the fly line in the boat, I have to pull, hand over hand, the backing from the reel, until every yard is sitting in a pile beside me. Then the reel end of the rod lifts from the gravel and comes to my hand.
And, now, I hear it. There is something else, a presence in the wilderness of rock, water and stump. I can hear it coming up the valley and turn my head to capture it. The tress complain as their limbs brush their neighbours. On this day, I have little knowledge of the river that will become mine, and it will be years later that I realize the wind comes every day there is sun. By noon the wind breathes up the 20-mile lake and then the 20-mile river. Thirty miles an hour it comes, until the sun sets and it forgets about blowing for the day.
Sitting on the shore in my yellow, canvas shirt, I do not know what is in store. But I can not go up-stream, only down. So I swing out, feet in the water in the bottom of the boat, and the first wind brushes my face. Here I am drifting down, oars in the air, watching the trees do their version of tossing like broccoli, bending into and out of faces. My oars hit the water and I cannot understand why the water should be pushing the blades down stream. Until I realize the wind blows so hard it is blowing me up stream.
In my cotton shirt and bare legs and wet crotch, I begin to row, sitting backwards, passing feet-first down stream. My afternoon becomes this: row and row and row and check the trees to make sure they are not going downstream; the big firs with their coats of Spanish moss; the big maples with leaves as large as platters; the ferns exotic as peacocks; and, my fear, as I get colder and colder and my shirt will not dry.
The bones in my limbs lose their purpose and my muscles become numb. The hairs on my arms blow from little red centres of puckered flesh. I pull over to rub myself, run up and down the bank arms around myself. I stare into the implacable, not-there eyes of the forest, thinking of The Heart of Darkness, Kurtz. His civility was stripped in a jungle that doesn’t care, as it throws more beauty at your feet than you can imagine.
My feet are onions in wet runners, my legs white, their fur of black hairs rising. I am not able to stop shaking as I row down the river, to what end I have no knowledge but down into the wilderness farther away from where I know not that I am, not having thought to bring a map, or look at one in advance, knowing only that there is a pull out somewhere down in the wilderness. Tree leaves come free and fall around me like rain. Fir needles are red tide around the boat, migrating up stream as I row and row down, hunched in the boat in my wet yellow shirt.
Where the river makes white noise, I raise my oars and look at a log in the knee deep water beside me. When I see a fish dart from the log, I rise up in my seat to see it better. And then when I am just passing the log, so close I could touch it with my oar, the log transforms it self into a moving being and makes the water boil. The log moves away, steadily toward the opposite bank, and I realize that it is a fish, the biggest fish I have ever seen in fresh water, and the river moves on carrying me with it. In my innocence I do not know this is the first Pacific steelhead I will ever see, my teeth rattling against one another. A log. Mistake a fish for a log. From here it seems long ago.
My day ends with my boat pulled over to the gravel bank where a car shakes itself along the wash board road above me, and dust comes up like a kind of intelligence. My eyes perceive this is the road beside the river. Had the car not gone by, I would not have seen that there is a road above me, so hidden is it within the second growth jungle that is rainforest. I would have missed there were telephone poles along the bank and passed beyond the last place for me to get out of the river. And if I had kept going, I would have never come back because the river would have taken me all the way to the lake in the distant white that is stars looking up from my cold wet yellow canvas shirt. As it is, I turn left and walk the rutty miles back to my car, it having to be upstream after all and thus there is no point turning right and down the road. So long ago, it seems, the dust on my runners, the dust on my knees, my eyes on the gravel in front of them. One step at a time.