We were only two full days into our 10 day trip, but I felt as though we’d been in camp for weeks. It could be the comfort and confidence of being with friends. Committed friends. Kindred spirits. It could be the familiarity of the river, the muscled spirits that patrol its currents and the rough-hewn stone, sage and willow landscape that cradles them — a memory I carried in my soul, powerful as the birth of a child, since exactly one year ago.
Night was close. The translucent shadow of dusk having already soaked its way up the near canyon wall. A fat, full blue moon was due to rise, but looked as though it would be buried in the first cloud cover of the trip. The fleeting scent of rain tangled with the musty sweetness of sage on the heavy warm breeze. We grabbed our gear and crossed the river for a dusty cattle road on the opposite hillside, leaving the rest of camp to unwind and put their feet up at long day’s-end. Camera, lenses and tripod carried efficiently in his pack, Grant had a spot in mind where the road rose to meet the far ridge and, hopefully, the moon as the clouds cleared. Rods in hand, Rebecca and I eyed the increasing frequency of dimples, swirls and drifting concentric circles on the glass skin below.
As sprawling as the canyon was, the world had shrunk to the immediate universe of our purposeful footfalls and wader-swish. Our talk was soft, muffled by the bigness of the falling night. Here and there the darker shapes of grazing cattle, moving away with nervous, curious awareness of our presence. The night before we had heard coyotes. The shrill and insistent cacophony of barks and yelps sounding closer than they should be. We walked on.
A few hundred yards on Grant found his vantage point and settled into his ritual: backpack down, kneel and breathe and survey, internal inventory of necessary gear translated into deft movement of hands pulling the camera from his pack and intuitively swapping lenses, sit or lie prone, pause to breathe and survey again, viewfinder to eye, aperture, shutter speed, composition, breathe, begin.
By the time Rebecca and I were fifteen paces away he was as much a part of the dark wash of brush as the brush itself. We picked our way down the embankment and across an open area to the riverbank, hoppers still clicking from our path. We waded slowly together out into the glass, catching evidence of rising fish in the splish and frail reflection of what little moonlight the clouds afforded. Riffles a hushed murmur fifty yards downstream.
Wading in a river, casting dry flies to rising fish in the dark is at once a fantastic and terrifying act of faith. As many mornings as I’ve walked blind and by sheer memory into the 5 a.m. woods to find my treestand during archery season, I’ve still never completely lost the cold chill that breathes at my neck and makes me imagine things. Crazy things. Here, I have no memory of this stretch to assuage my lack of sight and as we wade further out and apart the chill is happy to settle back into my mind.
But the chill was short-lived as I settled into my own ritual: stand still and breathe, survey the ringing dark for the slightest sight or sound, unhook the fly from the third snake guide and hold it gently in my loosely closed left fist, strip 30 or so feet of line from my reel and pinch it between my right-hand trigger finger and the cork grip, pull the fly and leader till I hear the slick shoosh of the fly line sliding through the rod tip, lower and turn my head to listen forward, close my eyes, breathe, begin.
Rebecca and I fished our way upstream. We talked, but not much. Our presence there, the faith and confirmation that our casts were finding their mark, Grant coaxing the moon from the road above, stories being passed at camp — and further away, our children, lovers, hard-earned responsibilities and plans for the future — were enough that we both knew what was in each other’s mind anyhow. We closed our eyes and listened and cast in the direction that intuition whispered – there, go there. We let go of the weight of what we didn’t have and embraced the expanse of what we did.
Before we were done our hands held the slight glint of a few heavy fish. The beautiful, cool gravity of life.