The bank at the outside bend had briers and stiff brush at its border, and it took some time to poke my rod and leader through the maze. Tippet, forceps, nippers and more dangled from my vest and reached for the nearest branch, so I hugged them close to my chest, trying to make myself skinny. I ducked under a thick oak limb that had broken and fallen from its parent and was now suspended four feet from the leafy ground by the solid underbrush.
These hearty plants grip wet rocks and dirt with their tangled roots. When the floods come they lean into the raging water and stand their ground, or they’re washed away. The strongest survive.
Navigating the network for ten more yards, I crawled through the last stretch until I finally broke free.
The patch of forest beyond was more open than I remembered, and I walked easily through tall spruce and dying ferns, chasing the last remaining shade-line sideways until it disappeared. Silence soaked in with the shade. With the fading light, I felt the cool earth of the forest reach up and take over what the fleeting sun had left behind.
These changes of light and season happen both suddenly and gradually, depending on your own perspective and movement in time. Sit still for a while and watch the daylight fade into blackness, and it takes hours. But walk among the trees at dusk, across a soft bed of spruce needles after a long day on the river, and time speeds up. The pace of the trees, the perspective of the forest, takes hold within you, and a good long look into the future looks a lot like the past, with the days and nights rolling into each other, turning in concentric circles, day to night, season to season, through a window of time both small and wide all at once — all of it happening both here and somewhere else concurrently, though you can’t be sure.
As I walked, I admitted that the fall season had finally blown in, and with it had come a change in the weather pattern. The rains ended. For three months I’d seen nothing but daily showers and high rivers, but now with the windy cold front, the mountains had lost their green sparkle. And over the span of three connected days on this water, I’d watched the vibrance of the hills fade into a new saturation: reds, oranges and yellows began to spread from the valleys to the mountaintops. Next, the leaves will be gone, I thought. It will happen soon. It happens in circles.
The river was still full here, impassable in all but the widest parts, even for the boldest and strongest angler who is full of piss and vinegar. Because he’d wash away in the mid-current, lifted from underneath by water up to his armpits, and no amount of will or determination can fight the buoyancy of the human body. Alive and full of air and water, we float — eventually — even against the weight of a packed fishing vest.
And so I took the long way around, setting my course inward of the bank-side brush but well within earshot of the riffling water. I knew that when the rumble faded to a whisper I’d be adjacent to the widest tailout for miles upstream or down. There I would find my way from rock to rock and across the chutes, surrounded by Blue Winged Olive spinners falling in parallel with the oak leaves, fluttering down until they lay spent and dead, next to foliage of a similar fate. I’d watch the noses of occasional wild brown trout poke a ring through the glassy slick just before the lip of the tailout, plucking size twenty mayflies between the crispy, dry oak leaves that float and drown in the surface, all of it in the half light of the fading day. So much beauty.
But until I reached that wide crossing, I walked through the forest as my grandfather had shown me when I was a boy.
“More patience, son,” he’d told me. “Walk slower and you’ll see more.”
And that’s how I did it. I scanned the hillside and saw scurrying squirrels wrapping up their daily gathering and storing of chestnuts. I spotted a bloom of oyster mushrooms on fallen logs around a spring hole. Browning and past their expiration date, I left them attached and walked past. Striding through the tall stand of spruce, I found my path easily, planning ahead for the coming obstacles while living fully in the moments around me, looking forward and being present in one space all at once.
I caught the faint scent of death just before I saw it. A small deer, this year’s fawn, was trapped between the crook of two oak limbs at my eye level, five feet off the ground. I saw the ghost of white spots on its wet and matted fur when I approached. Its eyes were gone, pecked out by birds or insects. Who knows which? But the whole of the young deer was remarkably intact. I’ve seen this before. Flood waters pick up unsuspecting deer, usually young. No amount of will or determination can fight the natural buoyancy, and it’s carried away, tossed in the current and drowned until it’s eventually lodged between two limbs below the high water mark, alone until I find it. And then I pass on.
The river faded to a whisper — just what I was waiting for. I walked to the water’s edge, and the floodplain graciously met the river at a gradual slope. Across the sandbar, and over the limestone rocks, I met the oak leaves and the Blue Winged Olives, just as expected. I saw fewer trout making a meal of them than I’d imagined, but otherwise my revery was complete.
Then I stopped midstream, a solitary man ankle deep on a limestone perch in the center of an enormous desolate valley. I stared upstream across the pool and into the woodsy bend already in darkness. I waited forever — or for only a moment. Who knows which? As alone as I could ever be, I breathed deep: silent but for the sound of the river downstream; standing still but for the swaying of the currents around me.
Alive and fulfilled, I stood and watched until the stars twinkled to life.
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