Tag Archives: salmon

WHERE THE ROAD NARROWS

Sitka spruce - Juneau, AK

When we piled out into the dust and cool of the morning we were barely a quarter-mile from the end of the road. Unlike the sprawling blanket of spruce and meadows covering the glacially-crafted elevations we’d seen from the windows of the de Havilland Otter the evening before, we were now face-to-face with southeast Alaska. Wilderness. The end of the road. I stood for a fistful of seconds, surveying the dense growth just off the front bumper of our SUV and turned to identify the one person out of the other six I’d need to outrun if that dense growth produced a brown bear.

To get here, our caravan out of Auke Bay, just north of Juneau, followed the blacktop as it wound its way along the coast, guarded by spruce, boulders and dense fern undergrowth on both sides. Between the trees, glimpses of wide saltwater, sharp-shouldered islands, a small, postcard-like scatter of boats seining for silvers and kings. The further we drove the road narrowed. We reached a flagman who held us up to follow an escort truck through a few construction zones. I hung an elbow out my window and watched the rumbling busyness of heavy equipment and men in hard hats and boots busting up massive knots of bedrock to widen and improve passage. The road narrowed even more. A few miles further, as we pulled into the lot, the road curved left ahead of us and disappeared into the immense green.

Pulling on waders, passing bug-dope, stowing water bottles and bear spray in our packs, lining rods and tying on flies like bets placed on a stud hand you haven’t even looked at—the seven of us fell into hopeful, impatient, nervous chatter about pinks, dollies, chum, brown bear and the immensity of what we were about to witness.

But in this moment I felt decidedly, suddenly, disconcertingly under-prepared. Packing lists, advice, cross-country flights and drives north out-the-road listening to bluegrass only get you to the water. Steps along the heavy-canopied peat and spruce paths and into the blind, milky artery flowing from glacier to salt would be my own from this point. Intentions, intuition, instinct and mis-steps would be my own. The road had narrowed more than the blacktop we drove in on. My mind was down to a game trail in a wilderness of its own. I was used to feeling inconsequential – a residential hazard of my upstate New York roots where everyone is holding onto their own small, posted patch of heaven in the face of gluttonous taxes, commercial development and manicured Stepford-suburbia sprawl. Our wild, undeveloped places seem to get smaller with every punch thrown in their defense. But in the grand scheme of Southeast Alaska, of the Tongass and it’s millions of salmon and spruce acres—my inconsequence had more to do with realizing just how small my existence on this planet really is. I was reminded of how I felt on trips to Idaho and Oregon, northern Michigan and the Keys, Colorado and Montana. I closed my eyes and returned to the quiet wonder of my upstate New York childhood when I would escape and spend my days haunting the dense, still-undeveloped shorelines of my favorite fishing spots.

The more I let myself embrace the weight of my existence vs. the magnitude and beautiful unknown of this place and this moment, the bigger I felt. I grew with each whistle that echoed into the primeval growth or pierced the brilliantly dense fireweed for brown bears in day-bed drowse, and each step that found the river bottom, alive and ever-shifting. I began to understand that my steps here, or anywhere on this planet, are not, in fact, inconsequential. Under the vigilant sidelong eye of a host of bald eagles and stoic indifference of snow-covered mountains, I discovered the end of my own road. And the narrower it got, the wider my horizons became.


This is the first of three pieces I’ve written since my trip to the 
Tongass National Forest this past July as part of Trout Unlimited’s Blogger Tour. As far as the other two, one is in the online magazine – Revive Fly Fishing and the other showed up on this blog a handful of posts ago. I’m working on getting back – even further north – so I have more to write about.

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Filed under On the water, The road

HEALING THOSE WHO SERVED

The weekend of November 4th brought a pretty heavy frost to the Salmon River near Altmar, NY. It also brought over a dozen combat veterans from the Ft. Drum Chapter of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, and at least that many local fishermen to serve as guide/mentors.

Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing is a national organization that is dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and veterans through fly fishing, fly tying education and outings.

Friday evening was check-in at the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation Officer School barracks just outside of Pulaski. Bob Rock, a long-time supporter of Project Healing Waters and master fly tier/instructor, arrived early, took a seat at the head of the table in the lounge area, set up his vise and tying materials and started warming up on a wooly bugger pattern.

As soldiers and volunteers arrived, they took seats, one-by-one around the table– some behind donated vises, some behind their own– and began working on goo-bug, egg-sucking leech and woolly bugger patterns of their own for tomorrow’s excursion. Many of the men in this group carried the scars and continued pain of physical injuries from the war–gunshot and shrapnel wounds, broken bones, burns, traumatic brain injury (TBI). Some wrestling with PTSD as well. That said, you would be hard-pressed to tell that any of them had any issues at all. The art of camouflage conceals so much more than any of us understands. It’s a matter of self-preservation.

After a while, announcements and house-rules were covered, BBQ was served and everyone started to warm to each other and the prospect of hooking up with the largest (for some the first) fish they’d ever caught.

http://www.flickr.com/slideShow/index.gne?group_id=&user_id=68121956@N06&set_id=72157628128890020&tags=ProjectHealingWaters,SalmonRiver,Ft.DrumChapter
Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

The next morning came quickly and after an even quicker breakfast of coffee and donuts, the group caravanned to an undisclosed rally-point to gear up, pair up with a guide and get in the water. Thanks to the tremendous leadership of the Ft. Drum Chapter of Healing Waters and the good folks at the DEC, these men had an entire section of unpressured and absolutely prime water to themselves. A small gesture of thanks for their service and sacrifice, and a great opportunity to have success on a river that is notorious for tough fish and Black Friday-esque lines on the shore.

But that success is bigger that just catching fish. For some it’s the success of making it through 2 cold days of difficult wading and fishing in spite of the pain and limitations of physical injuries. For some it’s finding a peace and sense of calm that allows them to relax and laugh from the gut and feel like things are OK. Life is OK. Being home is OK. Even if that feeling is only for a short time. While it will definitely take a lot more than just fly fishing, in the end, the hope and mission of PHW is that if enough of these quality days are strung together, it will help these heroes make their way back from those dark haunts that frustrate and scare the shit out of them–to help them finally make their way home for good.

Now, I’ve heard stories and seen pictures of other Healing Waters events in other parts of the country. But I’d be willing to bet that there isn’t another chapter that has experienced the number, species diversity and size of the fish that were caught by these guys–every single one of them–over our two days on the Salmon.

The weekend was a profound and humbling experience for me. It was an honor to be able to spend the time I did with the guys, to hear their stories, shake their hands and stand in the river together just like a bunch of normal fishermen chasing bent rods, lake-run monsters and grip-and-grins.

That is, if there is such a thing as a normal fisherman.

Be sure to “Like” the Ft. Drum Chapter’s facebook page and visit the national Healing Waters site as well. And if you can get involved in a chapter near you, please do. Our soldiers need our support right here at home.

 Photo credits: Grant Taylor

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Filed under On the water, Time in service

HOOKY

I love to fish. Early mornings. Late afternoon to dusk. Lake, stream, pond, puddle…I fish for whatever’s swimming. And there are days when I’m just as excited to catch sunfish on a micro-popper with my 3-weight fly rod as I am to set the hook on a smallmouth with a 6″ Texas-rigged rubber worm. Summer is my primary season to fish, since hunting for deer and geese has my Falls spoken for. But the truth is, if I can get out and fish, even once during the “off” season (using that term very loosely), it’s a great bonus.

There were times in my life that I’d have the luxury of spending entire days on the water. But, just like the shape of some streams change under the influence of current and time, my fishing opportunities too have changed. Kids, work, coaching, volunteer boards…no one season is long enough anymore, let alone a weekend or even a day. I am fortunate that my kids are getting to the age though where we can go fishing together rather than me taking them fishing – parents with kids that fish understand the huge distinction in that. But as for “me time” on the water – where I’m able to be as aggressive or slow as I’d like without having to maintain that extra level of kid-vigilance – my love for fishing, a certain personality trait I like to call “ingenuity” and a bit of good-luck has helped maintain a fruitful compromise.

The last two days I’ve been able to close my laptop at noon, announce that I’m heading out for a bit and then sneak off and play hooky from work for about an hour. I now have a co-worker-turned-fishing-partner as an accomplice who joins me too. It’s nice to have the comaraderie. We fore-go lunch. Eating is over-rated when you have a tremendous trout and fall salmon fishery not five minutes (or two miles as the crow flies) from work.

I say tremendous, not because it’s a blue-ribbon stream or because it winds it’s way through wild sweeping vistas – but rather, in spite of the sprawl of suburbia not fifty yards away, it might as well be fifty miles. I’m able to lose myself in the sound of the water, the reflection of the mid-day light on it’s roiling and determined surface. The gentle flight of my fly line finding it’s way silently above the flow. Heron, muskrat, squirrels, blue jays and cardinals busy with their day-to-day. Trees standing stark above the tangle of underbrush along the bank, waiting for winter. Waiting for the possibility of that electric shock when a trout picks my fly unceremoniously from some downward current off the near side of a boulder across and slightly downstream from where I’m standing.

For that brief time, that short respite from my desk and every other thing pulling me in every other direction, I get to breathe deep. I get to be a kid fishing away my summers. I get to recapture perspective and appreciation for what I’ve got. I get to be gone, gone, gone – even if it’s only two miles as the crow flies.

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Filed under On the water