Following is the first half of my story entitled “rivers.” As a child, my family and I didn’t attend church on a regular basis. As I recall, Easter Sunday was the only day we might be found there with any regularity. However, having said that, my brother and my father and I, did do quite a lot of fishing on the rivers of upstate New York, Northern California and Western North Carolina. And it was on those rivers that we communed with God, or maybe, just something greater than ourselves. Not unlike the characters in Norman McLean’s novel, A River Runs Through It, on our local rivers and, through the sacred act of fishing, we found our connection to a higher power and to one another.
Perhaps it was because of my father’s experiences as a child in a Catholic military school, or perhaps it was just from some strong internal impulse, my father saw it as very important that my brother and I spent a goodly amount of our weekends roaming the Catskills, the foothills of the Trinity Alps, or the Eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I hope you will enjoy this story and I hope it is a shared experience. And if it’s not a shared, I hope it will be one that inspires you to find a similar connection in your own life. In my mind it’s these kinds of experiences that define our existence on this little blue planet and make it all worthwhile.
rivers (part one)
by philip scott wikel
The South Fork of the Trinity…
… the Delaware…
Calicoon Creek, the Sacramento, the American, the Shawangakill and the Neversink.
Rods, reels and creels, deep pools and morning’s rising.
Risen, the conversation turns to fishing trips long past and recent tips on the best bait and the assurance that the night crawlers dug from the garden will be the best bet.
Eggs and bacon and the layering of Pendleton’s over t-shirts. Jeans and boots and the sound of the car igniting toward the new day.
The getting there is, as always, one of the best parts of the journey. It’s autumn and the trees around the old highway are alight with the season.
“Strung it with ten pound test,” one says.
“Browns have been hitting pretty consistently,” says another.
“Mom’ll have to use the biggest pan tonight,” adds yet another.
Morning’s light streams through birch, pine or hickory and we trudge through the distance from trailhead to stream. Wet leaves, rocks covered in lichen and moss; leaves as deep as knees and we wonder if waders were made for this. The dew is heavy everywhere and threatens to soak through but we’ve worn our best wool socks and waterproof matches ensure a fire if the wetness gets through.
“What do we have for lunch,” says the smallest of three, thinking already of mid-day and a picnic in the sun atop a dry rock jutting from the river bank.
“You can’t be hungry already,” says the father.
“Well no, but it’s good to know.”
“Ham and cheese and chocolate chip cookies, do you have the net?”
The smallest struggles for a moment, sleep still heavy in his head. He reaches around his body and finds the net bouncing against his back.
“It’s around my neck,” he replies.
“As soon as soon as we get near shore with one, do your best to be there.”
“I will dad,” he returns, thinking his is the most important job. A fish will often let you think it has him until he gets close to shore. It seems it’s always then that he manages to break the line and swim away.
The trail rolls over and heads toward a gorge. The three catch their first glimpse of the river and it sparkles like a liquid necklace of jade and turquoise, with saplings rising at her edges like charms given by a close friend. In sync, all three think “this is God’s country” and give silent thanks for such a wonderful day.
The sun is still low but is slowly rounding it’s way toward the tops of the trees, each leave kissed with its fire. In places where the sun touches the ground, rocks and leaves begin to steam like newly kindled coals. The chill air gives way to the coming warmth of the day while spiders and beetles and skier bugs begin their busy business and the air is filled with the richness of the forest that is forever composting; feeding itself with all that has fallen.
The older brother is quiet, on a mission. His day of fishing is a quiet meditation. The river is his canvas and with it he will paint a portrait of the mountain men of legend. His eyes are already searching for the places fish will likely be. He is a fish, and knows where he would go.
At river’s edge the older brother turns north, upriver, saying only, “See ya around lunch.”
The father turns to the small one and says, “Come on kid, we’ll look around down here, then make our way back up.”
“What’s in the thermos dad?”
“Hot tea, you want some?
“Yeah, my body’s a little cold.”
They stopped and he took a drink, burning his tongue with the hot liquid. He could feel the tip of it gone dead and started running it around against his teeth to wake it up.
“Burnt my tongue.”
“You all right?”
“Yes,” he replied lisping as he continued to test his tongue.
They rounded a bend and came to a point in the river where it slowed and where there would likely be a few fish. There was a long branch of a willow extending over a small pool and the water was swirling slowly below it. Along the river bank the water headed back upstream and it was in this place that the skier bugs did their dance. Here they could scoot across the water without fear of getting caught in the current and here the kid crouched down and watched them while his father prepared for the mornings first cast.
“Hey kid, could you hand me a few weights from your creel?”
The boy was startled, having quickly become mesmerized by the bugs and the swirling. But dad had said “your” creel and this implied ownership which meant that dad’s creel had become his creel and that he was now a fisherman of means and part of the club.
“Daddy won’t you take me back to Muellenberg County/down by the Green River/where Paradise lay?”*
This song began to play itself in his head as he reached for the weights. He grabbed the weights and handed him to his father and looked him full in the face. His dad had the look of an old Lumberjack and though only thirty-five years old he had an air about him of an old soul. Sometimes his dad seemed more like a grandfather, wise and full of stories. It seemed to him that his father had really lived, lived enough for two people’s lives or maybe even three. It seemed there really wasn’t a question he could ask that his dad didn’t have an answer for. And if he didn’t have a specific answer, he was always willing to venture a guess that seemed to make perfect sense anyway.
“I’m having a good time dad.”
His father hesitated and seemed overcome. Dads being dads and loving their children and doing things like fishing with them and having their kids enjoy these things made dads swell with joy.
“Me too kid,” his father replied with a hint of a cry in his voice, “me too.”
“I love you dad,” said the kid feeling this was the right moment to say this.
“I love you too kid,” his father said with tears in his eyes, “you know you’re really growing up kid, you’re mother and I are very proud of you.”
“You really don’t have to say that,” the kid replied, “I know you do.”
“Even so, it’s important to say it.”
This struck the kid deeply and he felt very loved.
“Why don’t you get your pole ready and cast your line?”
The kid thought about this and he thought about how he’d rather be there for the assist. To him there was a great glory in being there at the right moment to make sure the fish got ashore. In this moment his father thought maybe he hadn’t heard him and asked again, “Why don’t you get your pole ready?”
“I’m just gonna watch you for now dad… but I’ll be ready with the net.”
(To be continued tomorrow)