Fischer’s River of Return – Part 1

Story by Van Egan with Photography by Nick Didlick

Editors Note: This is Fischer’s River of Return – Part 1 of a short story from an early addition of A River Never, by the late Van Egan, a long time friend of Roderick Haig-Brown, and of ours.

From the air the lake looked glassy smooth and the river funnelled out of it, slickly gathering speed, turning to white water as it struck the first rocks which broke its rush into currents and pockets. From above the north side of its bank Will Fischer could see the trapper’s cabin beside the smooth outlet, shaded by the stand of second-growth hemlock. This was his destination, his escape from his urban retirement. This is where his heart had always been, ever since he came as an immigrant forester those many years ago.

He wondered, even as the float plane banked for landing on the lake, how the cabin had fared over the years. It had likely not been used since the trapper had given up his line away back when, except by the mice and packrats and perhaps an occasional timber cruiser or hiker. Perhaps an angler like himself had discovered it, made a temporary lodging while he fished the river for its trout and wandered the elk trails to marvel at the lush banksides of fern and moss, of ground dogwood and wild rose, of the giant cedars that remained after the loggers had moved on.

That was, what, fifty ‚ sixty years ago? Long before he had become super of the logging operation moving up the valley. How many weekends had he taken them back to the river, this little river compared with the greater one that drained the valley, to overnight in the little cabin and spread himself out on the thick straw-covered bed, wrapped in his single Hudson’s Bay blanket? Would it be like that still? He wished it so. The trout would still be in the river, moving down from the lake or up from the greater lake miles below. In the spring when the river came to life with insects and the fry broke from the salmon redds, the trout would be there to meet them. Rainbows and cutthroats. Good, strong fish, out of the lakes, hungry and opportunistic.

The plane landed well above the outlet. Then it taxied to an old haul-out beach where the pilot nimbly hopped onto a pontoon, grabbed a line fastened to a strut, jumped into the shallow water and brought it to a stop. Fischer began passing his equipment to the pilot who packed it to the beach and within five minutes the plane was on its way up the lake, ready for takeoff.

Will Fischer stood watching, admiring the efficiency of the bush pilot, how quick their every move was, how little time there was for delay. He waved the plane goodbye as it banked to head down river. It would be back in four days. Three full days alone, alone with his river and his fly rod, and a couple of books for those days when a little rest was in order. He looked at his pile of equipment and supplies: that old Hudson’s Bay blanket rolled up in a tarp with some extra clothes and raingear and a pair of waders; the two canvas bags of food and cooking utensils, the bottle of rye whisky protected by two layers of wool socks; the white gas stove and can of fuel; a folding chair; two rods in their aluminum tubes and the satchel that carried a tattered vest, boxes full of flies, line dressing and things like that and the two books he knew he would need. The old legs would not be good for all-day fishing, but he would need them now to pack his stuff the half-mile to the cabin.

The door stood open, hanging on surprisingly sturdy hinges. Fischer stepped inside and noted the floor give underfoot, not dangerously but enough to know that time was taking its toll as it does with all unused cabins in the rainforest. He stepped gingerly toward the bunk to set down his pack and thought better of it. He knew he would have to get some fresh boughs of hemlock or cedar to sweep it clean of droppings and bits of straw.

Fischer dropped his gear outside, went back to the beach for another load, this one to include his ax and then set about cutting enough to sweep the cabin clean and make a bed. That night as he lay wrapped in his 4-point blanket the wind came down the lake carrying the chill of the snow-clad mountains. He lay awake listening, hearing the tree tops moan and, with each dying draft, the soft chatter of the rapids downriver. He would fish the long run below in the morning, he thought, where the rainbows and cutthroats would be waiting for the day’s insect life. Between these pleasant thoughts and the alternating sounds of river currents against rocks and wind in the hemlocks, he felt a restlessness that cancelled sleep. The change from city to wilderness had been sudden. He had learned to shut out the drone of traffic and the shouts and laughter and sometimes quarrelings of passers by; hearing them without hearing them. He had longed for the sounds of wild, tumbling water, of wind in the trees, and now that he had them he must listen. He must hear what he was hearing.
For long minutes the sounds caressed his ears and his mind tossed out images of waving spires and white, broken water. And then he was up, pulling on pants and shirt and stepping into open boots. Out on the shoreline he felt the chill wind and drew his heavy shirt closed, facing into its freshness, seeing the dark expanse of lake with bare flickerings of star-shine on the crest of wavelets. Star-shine. That was it; the real wilderness overhead.The magnificent cosmos of burning stars and galaxies, of numbers and distances beyond the grasp of the human mind. Beyond, too, the manipulations and machinations of human impulses to re-order all he surveys of his infinitesimal world ‚ this wisp of dust, this mote of a life-bearing body in the astonishing sea of unending space.

His thoughts of the enormity of the universe and the earth’s miniscule part in it all were interrupted by rustlings on the opposite bank. In the lull of the wind, quiet footsteps, not quiet enough, broke a dry stick, went on a short way and fell silent. Then twigs snapped and branches whipped one another and the wind returned and whipped the trees and shrubs and all sounds became one. Fischer listened hard but heard only the wind and the wind’s way with the forest, and when the wind died only the sound of rapids, seemingly now so far away. A speck of dust, but what a speck, he thought; this earth alone supports life, so far as anyone knows. With those thoughts, he went back to the cabin and found sleep.

Daybreak was two hours in the past when Fischer awoke. He rolled from his bunk, dressed and started a burner on the naphtha stove. Sausages were sizzling in the pan when he cracked the shells of two eggs and poured their contents to join them. The spicy aroma filled the cabin and Fischer quickly covered the pan. He cut thick slices of bread to place on the collapsable toaster now heated on the second burner. He chose to eat breakfast sitting in the open cabin doorway. From here he could see the lake, a flat glassy sheet that only began to show signs of movement where it narrowed to begin the drift into the river. He finished eating quickly, to get on with fishing, and his plate sat empty in the doorway while he threaded the flyline through guides on the rod. He took note of the nervous twitches in his fingers as the line progressed on through the tip guide. For all his anxiety he knew he had better clean the dishes and stow away all food items. The packrats and mice could have a field day if he didn’t. Clad in light-weight waders he made his way down river, through waxy-leafed salal and shoulder high blue huckleberry bushes. Soon the canopy of hemlock overhead became nearly solid, except where blowdowns opened the forest to the sky, and the game trail he was trying to stay on, so indistinct through the thick salal, became a mat of needles with scattered, decaying limbs and scraps of fallen lichens and struggling bracken fern that seemed to be in search of light.

Easy walking now in this second growth, where the giant old growth had been felled half a century ago and hauled out to the salt water by locomotive. That had been well before his time when he was superintendent of the logging show. Now, even the steel rails had been taken up and he knew that truck roads would follow as the logging progressed up the mountain’s steeper slopes. He had been a part of it, cutting the timber in the valley floor, and it had given him a good life in many ways. It had brought him from Switzerland to this rich coastal rainforest and to rivers generous in their seasons with fish‚ sockeye salmon in the summer, coho and springs in the fall, steelhead in winter, and in the summer too, if you knew where to find them. In the spring, and what he was here for: resident trout.
He knew in his heart, in his very bones, that there was a connection between the forest and the fish; you couldn’t level one and not the other. He paused by the trunk of a windblown hemlock on the edge of the bank overlooking the short rapids where he would begin his fishing, sat on the prostrate trunk and proceeded to fill his old meerschaum pipe. It too had known the river. Its warm boll and soft glow had always been a kind of first response to an invitation to rest. Fischer did not need the rest now, but there was within him a need for calm. Too many springs had come and gone not to arouse anxious expectations mixed with burning questions. He need not just to settle the inner man, but to take stock of the river.

Dark boulders shredded the river’s passage. Over and over again, accelerating currents split apart, shortly to regroup, and in the end settle into two swift shoots that marked the beginning of a long, deep run.In the quiet water near the shore, several light colored rocks, the size of basketballs, were peppered with dark cases of caddis flies. Fischer recalled how they concentrated their numbers preparatory to their final metamorphosis into flying adult insects. When water and air conditions were to their liking they would be airborne and clouds of brown sedges would be casting about over the river. You never saw them sitting on the water drying their wings like mayflies. Suddenly they were just there, in the air. And the trout appetites sharpened.
Now, as he sat smoking, Fischer saw not a fly in the air. He fingered the artificial fly he had tied to his leader, an Invicta on a number 10 hook, a mottled olive/brown wet fly that had always produced for him in those glory years when he had lived in this country. With the pupas so apparently about to emerge, it may happen at any time. Perhaps with a degree or two higher water temperature it would bring it on. Perhaps the trout knew that too. Perhaps they were alert, ready to strike.
Fischer eased his way down the bank and into the river.

As he moved further out he felt the cold water drawing against his legs, and it was good. He stripped out several yards of line and let the current carry it away. Then, wading further off shore, he sent the Invicta out into the near shoot. It floated a short distance until the folding seams in the current drew it under. Fischer watched it disappear, mended the line upstream to allow it to drift naturally into deeper water.

All this took but seconds, seconds that seemed eternal as Fischer’s mind tried to visualize what his eyes could not see, what his thoughts could not answer. Somewhere in that deep green the fly was leading the line. It would rise in the current at the end of the drift, perhaps like a caddis pupa about to take to the air. His pulse quickened when the line suddenly took on a life of its own, running wildly across and down the run, and his arm seemed almost paralyzed as he lifted the rod. Then the river burst open and spray flew in all directions and his heart erupted like a volcano.
He had not yet fully grasped the situation when a bright projectile cleared the river, fell back and set Fischer‚ reel screeching.

With the line’s backing beginning to show, the run stopped and a fierce head shaking began as if the fish were trying to batter the offensive hook against a rock. Fischer’s excitement turned to worry. He wanted this trout very much.
Long minutes later he had just slipped the hook from a short tear in the lower jaw of a two-pound rainbow and set it free. His heart was pounding and his teeth were clamped tight on his pipe, which had been forgotten and turned cold. Elated and weary, he needed a respite and a pipe that had some heat in it. He needed to blow clouds of smoke and reprise the event that brought him to this state of exhilaration, each tactic that time after time had him expecting the trout to find its freedom, in just the right order with just the right time intervals. And then it came to him. All this had transpired and he had made but one cast. He drew deeply on the meerschaum, closed his eyes and lay back and thought through it all one more time.

That evening Fischer ate a freshly caught trout. The delicate flesh seemed almost like a miracle to his taste buds. He had travelled a mile or more of the river, fished pools that seemed largely as he remembered them. Some gave up a fish or two, others yielded nothing, and at no time was there more than an isolated sedge in flight. He had waited until late afternoon to kill a trout and by the time he was back at the cabin he was ready for a quiet finish to the day.
Following supper, he built a small fire near the river and propped himself against the boll of a hemlock tree, cup in hand holding a mix of rye whisky and cool river water. At once weary and bone-tired and yet restored in spirit, his thoughts were so vigorous as to defy his fatigue. Tomorrow he would explore further down river, where the logging had taken place under his direction. A twinge of concern inserted itself among the more pleasant satisfactions of the day and of tomorrow’s anticipations.

But he put the concerns aside. There were too many sweet things for the mind this evening, or night, for the sky was delivering the first yellow lanterns against a deepening indigo blanket. Sleep had been reluctant last night; tonight it would come with no hesitation.