June 18, 2009

Happy Fathers Day

My father first took me fishing before I could grasp a rod, and for more than a decade of summers thereafter, he made it an almost daily practice. Until this year I'd come to think our excursions were a thing of the past. Yet when I needed it most, Dad found a way back to tranquil water.

I grew up in Southcentral Alaska, where salmon filled the rivers and gave themselves up to a hungry food chain. My father and I caught more than a few fish together, but that was never our primary interest. Spending time outdoors in a place shaped by mammoth tides and glacier-fed streams was at least as important. For Dad, it was also an opportunity to put theory into action. He worried about me--knowing the problems kids face--but he figured: Boys who are busy fishing won't get into trouble.
Today I understand his reasoning, because I recognize fishing as a remedy for a host of ills. I planned my life on the banks of turquoise rivers, a fly rod in hand, casting flesh and egg patterns to monster rainbow trout and char. Dad would point to interesting water and muse aloud at how he might fish it. Being a serious angler, he didn't say much otherwise, just smiled in my direction when he hooked something big.

I learned life's lessons while with Dad. One summer we pulled two grown men from a river after their conoe had capsized. Safe on the bank, they watched their camping gear float away and the first words either of them could muster was: "Hell, there goes my cigarettes." I laughed until I recognized a melancholy side to wanting.

But that didn't stop me from doing the same thing: want things that seemed to drift beyond my grasp. I left Alaska in search of fortunes elsewhere and saw my parents only during the handful of vacation days I could scrape up. The regularity of our fishing trips became further constrained by Dad's age and diminished health. Then a few years ago, my folks moved to the small town in Idaho where my father grew up.

I thought the relocation would mark an end to our time on water, but Dad saw opportunity in it. He reminded me that a day's drive was all that separated us now and that Alaska didn't hold a monopoly on fish. He spoke of trout streams near his new home--places he'd frequented as a boy--and invited me to spend a week with him to try our luck there.

I jumped at the chance, in part, because I'd come through a rough patch. After two decades searching for wealth (and finding only money and position instead) I was disillusioned and unhappy. I'd just quit my job and begun to think of myself as a "recovering" investment banker. I swore to do something nobler than mind the figures in a trading ledger, but I needed time to clear my head and make plans. A week with Dad on a trout stream sounded therapeutic, if not magical.
There were unexpected bonuses to our reunion. Dad showed me the home where he was born, the camp he'd visited as a Boy Scout and the grove where he'd picked chokecherries. We went to a diner and ordered the special--chicken noodle soup on mashed potatoes--and I listened to Dad's recollections of a time long ago.

Early the first full day, he drove us along a dirt road through hay and barley fields until we arrived at a train trestle spanning a deep chasm. The rails had been stripped, but Dad remembered when trains still ran the line. The year 1882 was cast into one of the concrete butresses, but the girders were as clean as if they'd been set in place a month before.

We walked across the span over swirling water a hundred fee below us. Boulders and fallen timber littered the streambed. Cottonwoods and scrub willows covered each slope. Upstream the water curved and left a promising pool along one bank. In the opposite direction swift wter disappeared behind thick foliage. The creek had everything we wanted: deep pockets, riffles, cutbanks and rocks. In a manner approaching reverence, my father spoke its name: Bitch Creek.
When I wondered about its appellation, Dad shrugged. "She's a bitch to get down to," is all he said.

Undaunted, we clambered down the slope through a cloud of dust, hoping we'd eventually find an easier way back. From the bank we threw stone-fly nymphs and hopper patterns into the swirling water behind boulders. Native cutthroats, some as long as our forearms, took with a vengeance and fought like berserkers.
By the end of the day, my therapy had taken hold and I stopped worrying about life's vagaries. Being with Dad reminded me that the riches of a lifetime aren't found in the baubles we collect, but in human relationships. And as long as there are babbling streams and a father's devotion, I figure this boy won't get into too much trouble.

Happy Fathers Day, Dad.

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