Back To The River

He had to reach the river without killing someone. Long ago his failing eyesight took his driver’s license and arthritis stole his grip. The shapes in front of the car were foggy and his hold on the wheel was feeble. If the police stopped him he would have to explain why he was driving a stolen car. He had to be careful. He had to get to the river.

When he woke up in the morning he knew that he had to get to the river. The bedroom in his son’s house felt too small, like a shirt left out in the rain and dried in the sun. If the family noticed his pre-dawn prowling they would not think it unusual behavior for an old man. He went downstairs, stole his son’s car keys and headed for the river. He must get to the river.

His son had followed another path, preferring to do battle with computers, financial statements, and month ends. The slashing brown trout was not his son’s chosen adversary. Favouring the clacking of business machines over the slurping sounds of feeding trout and a world illuminated by incandescent bulbs versus lit by the soft summer dawn. Kids these days! His mind was wandering and he had to concentrate on his driving or he would never make the last few miles to the river. He needed the river.

From the well of his memory the old man’s brain filled with names from the past: Smith, Clarke, David, and Hardy. Names that now lay in a dusty trunk in a forgotten corner of the attic. He was too old to use the tackle and the books held too many memories. The trunk would probably find its way to a second hand store after he was gone and sold for five cents on the dollar. The river would never cheat him like that.

He arrived at the parking lot leaving the car unlocked. Now he must find the strength to travel a long five hundred yards to the river. In his younger days, he could have bounded on one leg down to the river, but now his joints popped like popcorn and his back was out more than it was in. Slowly shuffling along the red gravel path down the hill, he paused to catch his wind before climbing up the other side. With crunching steps he took the path winding through the cottonwoods to a picnic table on the river’s bank. The table was scarred by each year’s graduating class. The older years were faded dents while the newer years were bright white wounds in the wood. Once there had been wild rose bushes and trees here, ready to snag nets and waders. Now there were civilized gravel paths winding between government-issue picnic tables with their regulation fire pits and woodpiles. He wondered what happened to this country? All a bunch of sissys and law makers now.

The morning sun felt good on the old man’s bones and he closed his eyes to drink in its warmth. As his eyes shut he remembered how it had been before. Grasses bowing to the sun as the wind raced up the river valley; the whisper of leaves, no paths, no picnic sites, just the river and the fish.

He had caught his first fish by an old cottonwood that had finally surrendered to gravity and now lay in the river. During his first year fly-fishing he must have hooked that tree a dozen times and never landed it once. That first trout was forever suspended in his memory. A leaping rainbow, silver and red with a green and orange spruce fly clenched in its jaws. Oh yes, he remembered his first fish.

Across from where the old man sat was Beaver Island. One July day he and Jim Johnston decided to wade over to the island and explore its right bank. They had gone upstream only a half-mile when they found a pod of trout well into a pale morning dun hatch. For two hours they cast in silence except for the swishing of fly lines in the air catching all the fish they could fool. When the hatch was over they grinned at each other. There were no words for that kind of sharing. It was something only fly fishers know. Some years ago Jim’s heart ceased to beat and they buried him next to his wife.

The floods of ’80 and ’81 put the water high and brown over the banks, flooding the area where the old man now sat. The fish took no interest in the hatches those years and would only be caught on a wet fly. In ’82 the runoff did not come and the fish avenged themselves on the emerging insects. It was a great year to be a dry fly man.

He and Bert Landers fished the little backwater behind the island’s tip. The old man remembered the day a crosswind buried a weighted nymph in his jaw. Bert had been holding a cigar and was so shocked that he put the lit end into his mouth by mistake. He spat that old stogie in the water faster than you could think it. They both laughed so hard that they lost their balance and fell in. A drunk driver ended Bert’s days. His daughter married a lawyer and moved back east.

The Brown Hole was his favorite spot on the river. Every spring, on opening day, he would fish there to see if it held a big brown trout. Some years he found out and others he was left to wonder. As the water dropped through the summer the big fish moved to better lies and their places in the Brown Hole were taken by younger, more easily pleased fish. He wished that he could walk all the way past the bend to see the hole again but his body would not let him and the land had been sold to a condo developer.

Patrick loved to fish but he never was really any good at it. He and the old man would come to the river in the evening to fish the caddis hatch in the summer. One hot July night Pat hooked a bat and after a vigorous struggle managed to break it off. It was the only living thing that Pat ever did hook except himself. The cancer took poor Patrick, much too young.

As the years passed so did the old man’s companions. Their places taken by eager young men who wanted to know what the old man knew and where he went. The where was more important to them than the what. When arthritis ended the old man’s fishing days it also ended their visits.

It felt good to sit by the river thinking of old places, old friends and old fish. In the early morning mist he could see Bert, Pat, and Jim dressed for the river inviting him on one more trip.