Fischer’s River of Return – Part II
Story by Van Egan with Photography by Nick Didlick
( In the opening story, Will Fischer returned alone to the river he’d known as a young man. The old cabin was worn with age, but still standing. And the river? On the first day it gave him a beautiful trout and he returned to the cabin feeling at ease. Next it would give him a jarring encounter with two mountain lions.)
That night the rain came. It came in a drenching downpour and in sheets carried on the wind. It pelted through the hemlock canopy and struck heavily on the cedar shake roof, and Fischer heard not a bit of it, not until early daylight woke him. He arose stiffly from his long day on the river and went to the door. Looking up the lake he could barely see the far shore and the lake surface was throwing something of a tantrum. He looked for several minutes, trying to take in the change he hadnt expected. A wayward gust swept a veil of cold dampness into the doorway and he backed off, shook himself awake, closed the door and went back to bed. It was not that he would go back to sleep; he hadnt wanted that anyway. He just needed a few minutes to prepare for a more conventional meeting of the day.
A man needs to warm up for a day like this, Fischer thought out loud as he started the naphtha stove and set the small pot of water on to heat. Theres no warranty on weather in this country. No use fretting or feeling unjustly done by. Outdoor work on days like this had been routine in his logging days, so I can damn well play in them too.
Play his brow knit not exactly an accurate description. Finishing his breakfast and the dishes and securing his food from the deprivation of any tailed visitors, Fischer donned waders and his waxed cotton jacket and hat and, with rod in hand, started down river. At the bottom of the first rapids he stopped, rain streaming off his hat brim. It was the thought of that good two-pound rainbow that held him but, no, his goal for today was on the river far downstream. He walked on beneath the dripping hemlocks, seeing the pools and runs he had fished the day before, noticing the signs of elk, the piles of chocolate marbles looking fresh with the rain on them. The elk had wintered along the river; they would be on their way into the high country now. And then he reached the place where the bench dropped down. Here the hemlocks thinned out and the low bottomland took on a more sinister aspect. It was the edge of the slash that Fischers crew had left some years ago. There were alder copses with bowed or broken limbs from past winter snowfalls and thickets of salmonberry and wild rose and bracken fern, all cut through with deserted river channels filled now with rainwater and bordered by the tangled sprays of nine-bark. Sapling cedars and hemlock struggled in the competition for light. In time they would be the winners, and the loggers would come again.
Fischer had a choice to make: crash through the dense overgrown slash or take to the river. He chose the latter. The bench fell rather sharply and the trail, what there was of it, ended abruptly. At the river he waded out three or four feet and looked down a long straight run and felt the wind sweeping upstream. The river was up several inches with the heavy rain and was running fast, though the run was flat and only broken where infrequent boulders loomed below the surface. He had tied a fresh Invicta to his leader back in the cabin and with the wind cold on his hands he was glad he had. He payed it out and let the current carry it away, and then with 30 or 35 feet of line off the reel he roll cast the fly into midstream. The river took it as if it were hungry and devoured it straight below him. He tried again, followed by several quick steps downstream to give the fly a chance to sink and drift for seconds before the current snatched it inshore. Again and again he made the effort, finding himself well down the run. There was no chance for a proper backcast with the wild bankside shrubbery pressing out into the river and not much hope either of crashing through it to get ashore. The thought of bucking the current to retreat was too much, too, so Fischer pressed on. Well along the run he rolled the fly out behind one of the large submerged rocks and almost as soon as it lit there was a flash near the surface. He felt the sharp take and then it was gone. Even the rain and gusting wind seemed to let up a little to allow a moment of encouragement and Fischers roll casts seemed for a time to sail more easily out over the river, but they went for naught. At the bottom of the run a grassy glade beneath a stand of alder allowed him to leave the river, and thats when he discovered he had been fishing without a fly, probably since that confidence-lifting strike. There was a lesson here not to be forgotten, though quite possibly to repeat.
How cold and red the fingers as he wrestled with another Invicta and the unwilling end of the leader. How intricately and exacting the train of loops and tucks when the fingers refuse their usual dexterity. And when the knot is drawn hard against the eye of the hook, how unsure that slippage is impossible. But such concerns lingered only until Fischer turned to start through the alders.Undulations hidden beneath the dense fronds of sword fern; spreading canes of salmonberry with tiny infectious spines; black boggy depressions over which devils club spins its menacing limbs all laid out as if to keep one walking in anything but a straight line. And the river, within sight and sound, offering temptations to fish even in its swifter pace and Fischer, knowing it had to be crossed, wondered where?
Weaving in and out, now at riverside, now back in the bush, forced into a serpentine route, he arrives at a wide, shallow stretch over loose gravel. In the bankside shrubbery he finds a stout, springy hemlock limb, debarked by the forces of the river; a wading staff, and Fischer starts the crossing. The river pulls hard on his legs and the gravel slides underfoot and when he feels the tiring aches he sets the hemlock staff hard into the bottom and presses his weight against it, gaining a minutes rest. He wonders if this is such a wise move, yet knowing it is important to get to the far bank, to find his way down to The Long Bend, that great sweeping crescent of past memories memories both poignant and melancholy.
When Fischer reaches the opposite shore, tired but relieved, he finds himself facing a 10-foot high bank. He cant follow the river by wading for it picks up speed through a treacherous rock garden, heavily overboughered with sprays of nine-bark jutting nearly to river level. It is so dense there is no telling what he might be getting into below. Choosing the high ground is tough but not foolish. As he weaves his way among the naked alders and around scattered hemlocks and firs, stumbling at times through fern thickets and ambushed by trailing vines, the land gradually slides downward bringing the river ever nearer. And then it is there at his feet, a deep pool with narrow shoots of current breaking out of the tail of the rock garden. Not his goal, it is still too much to ignore and a few casts into it finds a willing trout. It is a scrappy little fish, for all of ten seconds, and comes ashore as if it is disillusioned. Then finding itself upright facing into the current, supported by a mysterious and gentle touch, it sets itself into high gear and disappears in an instant.
The day was progressing rapidly and Fischer was impatient to get on to The Long Bend. He could wade the river now, staying out of the overgrown slash upriver, and there were runs and pools to tempt a cast, which he did. But his casting was little more than haphazard acknowledgements of the waters. He pressed on until at last he was there, where the river began its broad ox-bow. A short rapids ended in a broad shallow flat. He remembered seeing salmon spawning here in the fall, in the wonderfully perfect gravel favored by coho and sockeye, the hens on their sides shifting the gravel with powerful flexing of their tails, the vicious encounters between males, the enervating expenditures of lifes valiant finale. His reveries were interrupted by crashing brush on the opposite bank and he saw the bushes trembling. Suddenly a black bear plunged into the river. She seemed not to be going anywhere, not attempting to cross, just splashing in a playful manner and making a fuss with low grunts, and then a small black head thrust itself out of the riparian bush. This mother had a cub. Fischer stood dead still. He hadnt been seen and he knew any movement on his part would frighten them off. Black bears had always been numerous in this country, thriving like deer in the logging slashes. This sow had brought her cub to the river to bathe and the cub was reluctant to make the dive of two or three feet into the river. The sow continued her persuasions, splashing and grunting, and the cub finally joined her. They frolicked like kids for several minutes, standing and shaking and throwing water in all directions, and then submerging and repeating the act. After several performances the mother led her cub downstream to where the bank was less steep and the two disappeared into the bush. But Fischer remained engrossed, feeling privileged, his minds eye the two black lumps of fur bouncing about in a carefree exhibition of family play. Without knowing it he was smiling and ever more quiet as he continued his wade down river.
He noticed that the rain had lightened up to little more than a mist, that the wind had calmed and its gusts came less frequently. Halfway along this great curvature of the river he could see ahead the top of an old dead cedar snag. It was the landmark he sought. He began to hurry and the bears were forgotten and when he was opposite the snag he left the river. Many years had come and gone since he was last here, but it wasnt the dead cedar he had come to see. He searched the area near it, parting the bushes and kicking about the forest litter. He was nearly ready to quit when he saw the post. It was a weathered, rotting chunk of Douglas fir, askew and nicely camouflaged in the thick ground cover. And that was all. He looked hard and long at the old post and at the ground around it and then he turned and walked to the river. The river here has a wide shingle beach and the flow along the far side is deep and dark and he wades out to make the cast. The fly begins its swim and Fischer takes several steps downstream to allow it to settle deeply. When the line suddenly begins to draw, he raises the rod and feels the fish. The rod is arced and trembling and Fischer begins to play the fish in a trance. He is hooked up with a very good cutthroat and suddenly beside him is Benji, a young black labrador that seems as real as the trout, wading carefully forward, now concentrating on the straining line that cuts the water, now wildly eyeing the surface commotion as the trout fights for its freedom. Benji looks up at his master, then back to the action. The rod is no gun and whatever is raising a ruckus in the river is no blue grouse. Benji would know what that is all about, but this? The trout is tiring and coming in on its side, not feebly but with quick thrusts and turns and sharp shakes of the head. In the crystal water bright flanks are tinged golden yellow on the bottom and there are brilliant, roseate slashes beneath the jaw. Then, possessed of a primeval force, Benji springs upon the fish, grasps it in its jaws and turns to his master. Fischer is awestruck and seconds pass as he registers what he has seen. For Benji, the retriever, it is a first. He watches the cutthroat struggle to regain its balance, and sees Benji as if he were on point. And when the trout darts for deep water Fischer sees a dripping black retriever bringing the catch to his master.
A gust of misty wind strikes Fischers face, bringing him back to the present. He looks around and there is no Benji. He reels the line in, fastens the fly in the hookkeeper and wades ashore. He looks up at the cedar snag and at the thick bush all around. The post, so badly deteriorated, yet still nearly upright and in its place, is missing its cross-piece now. Fischer is on his hands and knees, parting the bushes and ferns and sweeping aside the layers of mulching leaves when his hand strikes the end of a metal bar, the cross-piece that the decaying post could no longer hold. He lifts it free and clears the wet litter off and reads again the brazed lettering on the black iron Benji, The Best Fishing Dog Ever.
Will Fischer sat in his cabin that evening, head in his hands and elbows on his knees. He couldnt remember feeling so bushed. Two matters needing attention seemed almost more than he could bring himself to begin: removing his waders and preparing supper. He rolled himself out of the first, poured a cup of straight rye whiskey and sat again. The rye simmered into his empty stomach, fired up his mind that had been in neutral since somewhere along his three-mile trek back up the river. He hadnt counted on this degree of exhaustion. Between bush-whacking and wading against the current his legs had reached their inertial low and mental energy became as much a factor as physical in carrying him forward. It seemed as if it should be so easy once the old hemlocks were reached, and it was to a degree. He didnt have to think about moving his legs; like an exhausted horse they seemed to know how to get the body home, back to the stall, to the hay and oats and the water. Fischer found the energy for the latter, a few steps to the river to temper the rye, but the hay and oats would have to wait.
The rain had stopped even before he had reached the cabin. Overhead the clouds were breaking into a mixture of dark gray blankets and lighter, almost bright, sheets. Slices of blue fabric were in the sky that might disappear at any time. Fischer had hardly noticed. He was hungry and tired and the cabin loomed as the sole point of purpose in life. Reaching it, everything became automatic, though at a wearisome pace, and when he at last rolled himself into his bunk a quarter cup of rye and water remained on the table along with the hurried leftovers of his simple meal.
The next morning Fischer stretched the stiffness from limbs and body. He looked out the door to see sunshine piercing a misty lake. He stepped outside and felt the dampness of the air. The drippings from the needled canopy and the chill caused a shudder that awakened his mind and revived his consciousness, and it erased whatever lingering regrets he harbored of the previous days ordeal. It had been an ordeal, slugging his way back, but there had been the rewards too the mother bear and cub and finding Benjis grave and the cutthroat in the run nearby.
Fischer returned to the cabin and saw what his sleepy arousal from slumber had overlooked. Several slices of bread lay on the floor, partly eaten, the remainder of the loaf scattered about on the table. An open can that had contained enough ham for a serious sandwich lay tipped on its side and empty. The nights visitors had had a banquet. Only the rye and water appeared untouched, and Fisher wasnt so sure of that either. He chuckled out loud, but tossed the remaining liquid out the door, and began the cleanup before making breakfast.
Walking through the towering second growth was like being beneath the tinted windows of a cathedral as the sun found a slot in the cloud cover above and its shafts set afire the suspended water particles. Fischer made his way leisurely along the river; he would not go far today. He did want to be on the other side and choosing a crossing left him wondering. The rocky bed above the first good run was negotiable with care but would put him in thick bush and keep him from the river for half a mile. He chose the top of the next pool, a broad flat that held possibilities of trout from either side.
From the right bank the pool had given up nothing two days ago and the deep run along the far side had been well beyond casting distance. Reaching the left bank Fischer saw clouds of salmon fry in the still backwaters. He changed his Invicta to a tinsel fly and made his first cast. And then another. And another. Fry moved downstream at night, he remembered. They would hold in protective shelters along the banks in daylight. He broke off the fry imitation and selected a bedraggled, wingless nymph from a leather wallet. Several casts later he felt a sharp rap and was gladdened at the sound of line running off the reel. A rainbow vaulted into the air, churned the surface into whirlpools and sped off across the river. Fischers nerves tightened but his hands remained cool. He brought the fish slowly back to his side, gave line at its insistence and, when it turned on its side, he hand-lined it close and twisted the hook from its jaw. The trout sunk slowly and Fischer watched it settle by his feet, regain its balance, resting, and then, with no visible movement, it was gone.
How often he had seen it all before in his days along the river. A tired trout, resting and righting itself and then disappearing so quickly, with so little effort, leaving not the slightest shifting of sand or fine gravel, nor any motion of the water, as though it had just never been there. Trout, more than any other fish, were natures highest achievement in cold waters. Fischer thought long about this, even as his fly passed undisturbed, over and over, through the run.
Fischer would move down to the Pump Pool, where in the past a pump had been set up to fill the fire suppression water tanks for the trains. There was no pump there now, but the name had stayed with him. He would have to get out of the river, the run along his side being too deep, and that meant climbing onto the bank and scrambling through shoulder-high bush to where the river widened and shallowed and made for easy wading. Back in the river, all too soon he felt the current pressing harder against his legs and the water rising on his body as the river closed in for its shoot into the Pump Pool.
A rocky point capped with salmonberry jutted from the left bank and beneath them he saw the remains of salmon scavenged last fall. Gill covers, fin rays, jaws and bones, the hard parts left by gulls and raccoons, perhaps even a bear. The point was a favorite fishing perch for bear when the salmon were running. Just above the neck of the shoot he saw a flash underwater, and then another. He backed up against the hard current and pitched his fly above where he had seen the flash, and the trout came swiftly as if hunger were its single instinct, which it probably was at that moment, and as it turned with the fly, Fischer saw a soft yellow streak and knew he had a cutthroat. It was a good one that, in the swift water, could not be held and Fischer followed with some ankle-twisting footwork over the bouldered bottom. But he had to stop, even as the trout pressed on into the deep pool below, for the weeping branches of an old alder tree trailed in the current and his line was dancing among them. He dipped his rod tip into the river and brought the line inward beneath the forbidding branches and, keeping the rod low, carefully fought the trout. In the end Fischer was able to work the fish into a backwater and slide it onto a muddy shallow. He was thrilled by its size, easily three pounds, and when he slipped the hook from its jaw he saw two salmon fry part way down its gullet. Cutthroats could be notoriously non-selective when feeding and this one had taken his hare nymph while keyed on migrating fry. Perhaps they had been too few, the fry, in the light of midday. But Fischer was pleased; he could not remember having caught a larger cutthroat.
He felt he needed a rest and climbed over an old Douglas fir log part way up an embankment. The deeply fissured bark still clung to the wood and Fischer checked the butt and found that it had been felled, likely half a century before, and left on the ground. Its centre was punky, making the log uneconomical to haul out in those days of plenty. Abundance was always accompanied with waste, as if the only future were now. At the top of the embankment a cedar log made a seat and Fischer reached into a pocket and took out a sandwich. He sat, facing away from the river. All around him were the huge stumps of cedar. The returning forest was a mix, largely of hemlock and alder, and as he was eating and looking about he noticed that one alder had had one side of its trunk deeply scarred, about three to four feet above ground. When he went to have a closer look he saw that some of the scratchings were fresh, perhaps not more than a day or two old. He looked around quickly in all directions, wondering if the cougar that used this tree was present, perhaps watching him. The forest was silent, sombre and he saw nothing but trees and ferns and scatterings of salmonberry and heard only the river behind him. He retrieved his rod and began walking the embankment until it dropped off into a narrow drainage creek, overtopped with an entanglement of bush. He still felt his nerves somewhat tightened by his discovery of the scratch tree and had no wish to get himself entangled in the labrynth of limbs and branches that might surely leave him vulnerable to attack. He turned toward the river and made his way to a rocky delta where the creek joined the river.
Following the river downstream has its problems, too, he thought. The gradient and bottom are steep and rocky and the rivers swiftness becomes more difficult where a large alder and a huge cedar stretch their branches well out nearly touching the water. Further along two aged cedar trunks, gray and branchless, are pressed against the bank and Fischer is ready to sit and rest. His feet are hurting from being cramped and twisted between unyielding rocks. Behind him a handsome and very old yew tree sends branches out overhead. He recognizes the yew by its few remaining reddish berry-like seeds and turns to check the bark. It is smooth and brown but his attention is drawn to the forest behind, which is much darker than where he had eaten his sandwich. There are no alders to allow filtered sunlight through and the ground is thick in moss and the ferns are sparsely scattered. The second growth trees are clean and tall and densely canopied, and his eyes shifting about in the gloom stop on a decaying stump that sets back 25 or 30 yards from the river. Was there movement there? Or was it just nerves, which are tightening again? He peers long and hard and sees only the frazzled remains of rotting wood. He turns back to the river and ponders again the fresh scratch marks on the alder trunk.
The meerschaum pipe is going again and its fire and smoke are warm and soothing. Absently he fingers the fly in the hookkeeper and pricks his skin. Perhaps a change of fly; he is here to fish and the run is long and inviting and there are sandy brown sedges in erratic flight over the river, the first in any numbers since his arrival. He replaces the nymph with a favorite Invicta and as he is knotting it to the leader he hears a soft, pitched sound from somewhere behind. He turns and there is only whispering in the tree tops. But he listens, and watches. There is nothing more. Fischer is working his fly at the top of the run, concentrating on its currents and where he thinks a trout may lie. He has never heard the mew of a cougar and doesnt know that the strange sound he hears is a signal to another cougar, probably a sibling. Young sibling cougars, newly out on their own, often remain together for a year or more. But Fischer is unaware and is now fully with his fishing. A fine cutthroat trout is caught and set free and all along the run there are rainbows opportunistically making the most of this sedge hatch. By the time he has reached the end of the run he has hooked seven or eight. He thinks he will kill one for his dinner, and does so. He dresses it out quickly then sits down to rekindle his pipe which had been out for unknown minutes.
The old meerschaum is always a comfort. As the pipe is drawn on slowly, tired muscles begin to relax and Fischers mind empties of all anxieties and notions of fishing. Even the thrills of the past half hour subside. He absently takes notice of the tufts of grass that have taken hold in the cracks of the old cedar trunk and of the scattered mosses and the tiny purple striped Montia flowers a small native garden clinging to little more than bare wood that even resists rotting. One thought, however, drifts in and out the plane comes in tomorrow. For fifteen or twenty minutes Fischer did little more than allow these musings to stray through his consciousness. He was not fully recovered from yesterdays exertions and there was contentment in just sitting by the river, the water lapping at his feet and ankles. It took some will power to get started back to the cabin. He placed the trout, wrapped in plastic, in a pocket and took up his rod and began. He got no further than the yew tree at the top of the run, and he stopped.
Wading the river further meant fighting the rocky swiftness that had been difficult even going with the current. Wading against it seemed too much so he went ashore. The shaded forest was pleasant, open and soft underfoot, and he walked leisurely and quietly on the deep moss carpet. But soon he stopped, sensing he knew not what. He turned and he saw them, two cougars side by side, not more than thirty yards back. While he faced them the cougars held their ground. When he walked they followed. When he stopped and turned to face them, they stopped. Always they seemed to maintain a set distance. This game of stop and start went on and Fischer began to wonder what to make of it. Was it curiosity? Would they attack? They did not appear to be full-grown, perhaps seventy-five or eighty pounds each and healthy, and they remained side by side. No crouching. No flanking maneuver. What to make of this behavior?
Up ahead the overgrown drainage creek loomed, under the circumstances, more ominously than it had coming the other way. Fischer was a hundred or more yards in from the river and undecided about which way to go. A decaying tree trunk lay across the creek half that distance the other way. He started for it but seeing a break in the tangled shrubbery, he jumped down into the creek bed and climbed the other side. The cougars remained well back and Fischer picked up his pace. He was getting into the mixed conifers and alders where the undergrowth closed over the ground and fallen alder limbs were snares to the feet and ankles. But he hurried on, passing the scratch tree without seeing it, and finding himself getting a little winded, he stopped to look back. He saw nothing of the cougars but realized they could be obscured by the ground cover. So he took a few steps forward while looking back over a shoulder and he saw the movement of ferns and caught glimpses of tawny hair. He forged on, knowing he needed to get back to the river; to cross it. He saw no more of the cougars and finally arrived at the river where he had caught the first trout of the day. He slid down the little grassy knoll he had crawled up earier. It was a short wade upstream to where he could cross and when he was nearly to other side he looked and saw one cougar standing on the knoll. He felt easier with the river between them. Cats hate getting wet was the proverbial adage, though he knew that cougars have been known to swim wide channels between islands along the coast. You dont like relying on adages at such times. He finished his wade and climbed the bank. Two cougars now occupied the knoll, sitting on their haunches. Perhaps the river wasnt to their liking. Fischer remained fascinated for unending time, but which was probably mere minutes, while four unflinching eyes stared back in unfathomable cat manner. His fascination blended thrill with awe and not a little discomfort. For what purpose is there in the shadows of a following predator? And who in a lifetime has any sort of contact with such secretive forest dwellers?
The cabin looked so good there beneath the hemlocks, facing the lake. He shed his waders quickly and his jacket and rescued the whiskey bottle off the high shelf. Three fingers in a cup of shallow water was in order. The mix cut nicely through the nerves, but not the mind. He sat in the doorway, the cup alongside, a book in hand, paging and reading and registering nothing. And his mind thrashed and twisted its way through bush and water and under the inscrutable eyes of two young cougars.
At the upper end of the lake the sun turns the sky a deep pink, banking its reflections off scattered clouds and the lakes surface. Fischer is turning his rainbow trout into succulent, delicate pink flesh. He sits on the doors threshold to eat and recognizes little of taste or of the skys flaming panorama. He thinks he will go back to where he last saw the cougars and laces up his boots. He takes no rod and wears no waders and when he arrives at the pool, below his crossing place, the sun rests on the far mountains and the air is aglow. Mayflies and sedges perform luminous dances over the pool and swallows swoop in for the harvest. His eyes are on the knoll opposite and there is nothing to see but its green covering. Breezes stir the nearby shrubbery and he watches intently, seeing only the wind in the low bushes. A persistent trout rises again and catches his eye, but his interest is only in the scene and he does not inject himself into it. He is not prepared to fish and feels no disappointment. He remembers again the Cessna will be back in the morning. He will be ready. But right now he is alonewith his thoughts.
(Van Egan, a Canadian writer who lived on the banks of the Campbell River, was a frequent fishing companion of Roderick Haig-Browns. He is the author of Tyee, Waterside Reflections and Rivers on my Mind. He was an early and enthusiastic supporter of A River Never Sleeps.com. He died in 2010 and is greatly missed.)