Fischer’s River of Return – Part III
Story by Van Egan with Photography by Nick Didlick
(In the first and second instalments, Will Fischer returned to the river hed known as a young man, and found the grave of his beloved fishing dog. In the conclusion, he finds himself haunted by spirits again. But this time they are real. . .)
Will Fischer sat in his cabin that evening, head in his hands and elbows on his knees. He couldn’t 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 hadn’t 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 didn’t 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 Benji’s 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 wasn’t 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. Fischer’s 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 labyrinth 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 doesn’t 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 Fischer’s 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 don’t 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 wasn’t 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 lives 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.) Read the first and second instalments of Fischers River of Return.
This is the final instalment of Fischers’ River of Return.