Tag Archives: Salmon River

WEST TO WATER

 

Midway from Chicago to LA it still hasn’t hit me. Sprawling canyon, salt flat, scrub brown and mountains crawl below. I carried on three fly rods and a book of Jim Harrison’s poetry. Our platinum blond, plump-lipped stewardess calls me Skippy. She won’t take cash for a beer.

**
Here, I am slow motion. Layers of break-neck life peeling away. I know it’s the wide-open expanse of frontier plainsong. Forever rolling and howling as the speedometer pushes 85 and The Grateful Dead wander their highway through Althea in Nassau. I am small here.

**
Gas station coffee, grain elevators, rail cars, Friday night lights, onions, grapes, magpies, llamas, cottonwood groves, sunflowers, sage, corn, wheat, cattle, chukar, grouse, desert quail, winding roads, canyon, famous potatoes. One lone strip club hiding over the county line.

**
Hot copper-white and sage canyon floor. We sit in camp chairs with beers, grilling meat for lunch in the weak shade of a nearby tree. Driftwood and brush flood-woven eight feet up in its branches. On the other side of the willows the desert river pretends to mind its own business.

**
4 a.m. Roadside sage and gravel shoulder chase the curving road, a cold ghost-gray in our headlights. We make the Sawtooth Basin by sunup. Eggs, sausage, homemade white toast and coffee in Stanley. Outside, thin smoke from a small late summer campfire, quiet talk, mountains. It’s 27o.

**
To get here, switchbacks had us coming and going. We park on the shoulder outside Lowman, pull on waders and step-skid-step to the water. This seventy yard stretch runs twelve feet deep and gin clear right from the edge. Sun finds us at 10:38. Smoke from last season’s fire a thin film in the air.

**
We spot a moose as we haul the jet boat down Highway 26. Big black body in full stride a half-mile out into Swan Valley’s amber waves of grain. Her pine and brush foothills another quarter-mile off. A combine leads a yellow dust cloud across the next immense field. The sky looks like rain.

**
Mack truck river hauling the ass-end of mammoth runoff. There’s no thinking at this pace. We drift, I sling. Wail full-on gun-shots into slack eddies, under thick brush, against cliff wall undercuts and grass-sand banks. Swings and short-strikes. Dusk drops on our run back to Conant.

**
I know he’s going to take before he does. Everything’s right. Cast, distance, depth, slower- than-river-speed drift, Folsom Prison Blues playing in my head. The fly touches bottom a couple times, tumbles from the riffle into the pale green. I look him in the face, good one he says. Good one.

**
An hour-and-a-half drive north. The sun burns off the morning haze and the Tetons get to their feet. Riverside parking and talk of big fish. Forty minutes downstream from the truck, we scramble from a game trail into the river. At thigh deep, I’m the knife at a gunfight.

**
From where I stand, frontiersmen once contemplated their purpose in this landscape, the panorama of destiny. Motionless, forty yards into the river, a small whirling eddy in my shadow. Perspective. The wide arc of a distant osprey. Big fish rise carelessly, thinking the coast is clear.

**
Mesa Falls, Ashton, Rexburg, Rigby fill our rearview mirror. Windows down, simmering late-afternoon sun, we’re on the other end of the gauntlet and there’s nothing pressing to say. The last eight days packed tight in my tired, calloused hands, ready to throw like a sneaky left in the final round.

**
Snake, Payette, Salmon, Henry’s Fork, Owyhee—forever in my blood. These days and miles and fish and landscapes are forever in my blood. Tomorrow is 9/11 and our flight back east. Tonight we drink bucket-beers at the stock car races. I feel like a good fight or some Howlin’ Wolf but I’m hungry and still have to pack.

**
12:20 a.m. Wheels-down in Rochester. Shuttle ride to the car, Army duffel, pack and rods at my feet, two frowning wives cluck about Yellowstone’s rustic amenities. One husband nods, Good fishing? I nod back. Montana? he asks. Idaho. My voice is 10-day gravel and far from being home.

 

(Originally published in Volume 4, Issue 2 of the Flyfish Journal)

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Filed under On the water, The road

THE COURAGE OF HOPE

 


Camaraderie, balance, and hope.
I have two handwritten quotes on two small pieces of yellow legal paper taped to the wall next to my desk. Each given to me by friends at points in my life when I really needed them. The friends and the quotes.

The first is by John Buchan, a Scottish author:
“The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive, but attainable. A perpetual series of occasions for hope.”

And the second, by John Wayne:
“Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”

As a freelance writer, fly fisherman, father, and veteran, both quotes have offered some much needed perspective at various times since they were gifted to me. Especially when it comes to my time spent outdoors and it’s value in my life. While it’s true for me of pretty much any wild place, I’ve come to see that rivers have a special way about them. They take what we give them and return our selves to us. They press and push and keep us off balance until we learn how to stand in seemingly equal measure.

The river is spiritual. Healing. Holistic, and wholly powerful. But what we give the river is only what we’re willing to let go of. And sometimes the river is not enough to loosen the grip we keep on that weight. Or loosen the weight’s grip on us. Rivers can never be too full of our sins and pain. Our fears. Doubt, guilt, anger, sadness. But sometimes simply finding our balance, whether figurative or literal, takes more than finding our small station in the constant rush to larger and larger water.

Through it all we need to lean on the ebb and flow of hope. If we didn’t have hope, there would be no reason to try, for anything, in the first place. And that, for me, is the draw of fly fishing, and the reason Project Healing Waters exists and serves our veterans. The hope of reaching out and having our efforts connect with another living thing—be it fish, or human being—and the healing that happens as a result.

There is an inherent danger in hope, however. Hope disappoints. Hope ends up far below expectation more often than not, if at all. It sets you up for failure. But our combat veterans are cut from different cloth than most. Even in the darkest hours, they manage to find the slightest, dusty ray of light. They hold on in spite of disappointment because that’s what keeps them in forward motion. Without hope, without some thread of belief, they would lose their edge, their passion, their empathy. Their fight would leave them and fear would take its place. It takes courage to be hopeful.

Our veterans live with the hope of finding some normalcy again. Hope of finding a respite from their pain—be it physical or mental. They hope to return home in every sense of the word. Imagine feeling as though you’re caught between two realities that are as different as oil and water. Imagine living with a constant reminder of the worst in this world, even in the best, most beautiful situations, and not knowing how to let go of that weight.

To see our combat veterans at the vise in the evening, intent on tying a fly that could catch them their first steelhead or brown or salmon at first light. To see them opening up, letting their guard down, and talking and laughing with mentors, guides, and volunteers—many of whom are veterans themselves. To see them wade with growing confidence into the river with those mentors and guides, the morning coming to life right in front of their eyes, the river alive with the possibility of huge fish willing to eat. To see them find their balance, holding onto the hope that any and every cast could be the one that will connect. Their mentor or guide standing close with the same hope. This is why we serve those who have served so selflessly for us.

Ultimately, one hope brings the other to fruition. The hope that comes with their focus on something as small and deliberate as a tying a fly. The hope that comes with finding their own strength in the power of the river, and finally reaching out, connecting, and holding their glorious, finned hallelujah with both hands. Each of these answer our veterans’ larger hope for normalcy and returning home. The camaraderie and glorious unquiet-quiet and life of the river loosens their grip on the weight they’re carrying, and loosens the grip of combat and all the shit that it has imposed on them. Ultimately, it’s a gift of presence, and greater courage. On the water and in life. Elusive, yes. But attainable. And absolutely worth saddling up for.

(fp note: this post was written to commemorate the Project Healing Waters event held on the Salmon River (NY) earlier this past November, hosted by the Ft. Drum and Syracuse Chapters of Project Healing Waters. I am honored to have again been a part of this event, and the fantastic work that PHWFF does for our veterans. Thank you to Dan Morgan, Ira Strouse, Fran Verdoliva from the NYSDEC, and all the guides and volunteers who made the weekend a success.)

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Filed under On the water, Time in service

I’M HOME. SORT OF.

I miss it already

Ten Days. Five different rivers. A whole lot of new friends. Idaho kicks ass.

Stay tuned for reports from the trip.

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Filed under On the water, The road