There are a couple of rivers I feel like I know pretty well, or at least that I know better than other rivers. I think to really know a river you have to experience in all its different moods; during all four seasons; during high water; during drought. For just a brief moment, I can hold all of a river in my mind as this living thing. The water, the birds, the fish, the snakes; for just flash, it’s all one thing that we call a river. Then it all dissolves back in to the components that make a river, the rocks, the pools, the riffles, the occupants. Maybe I should have called this piece, “Rivers I have loved” because there are rivers that I know and in the knowing I have grown to love them, but that title strikes me as pretentious and I don’t know if the rivers love me back.
There are a couple of rivers, streams really, in the Shenandoah National Park that I’ve come to know well. Streams snake all through the Park, so you pick a couple and get to know them. At first they all seem pretty similar, but the better you get to know them, the more unique they become. This one is fast and talkative, this one is slow and shady, that one has a lot of mushrooms along its upper reaches. Once you’ve picked a couple you’ve earned the right to call them your favorites and irrationally like them more than others.
One river that I feel that I know pretty well and that I love above all others is the South Fork of the Shenandoah. It’s big and ungainly and dirty in places, but if you know where to go, it’s as wild and free as any river. I read once that the Shenandoah river system (North Fork, South Fork and Main Stem) are some of the oldest rivers in the world. I don’t know if it’s true, but it gives the ‘Doah a quiet dignity. Some folks may abuse it, but it’ll be there long after they’re gone and it knows a thing or two.
Whenever I’m anywhere near the South Fork, I’ll check in on it. There are a couple of boat ramps that I’ll drive to and just kind of hang out to see how it’s doing, let it know I’m doing okay. It’s as close as I get to religion. I’m a Shenandoahist, I believe the world would be a better place if people behaved in a way that was in the best interest of the Shenandoah river system. Once we got them squared away, we can spread out to the rest of the world. Couldn’t hurt and you can sleep in on Sundays if you want, I don’t care.
I was standing on a low dam looking over the South Fork one winter day when another car pulled up. A woman and a man got out. She walked over to me and said, “we’re visiting from China and we don’t want to fish or swim or anything, we just want to look at the river.” I said, “good for you.” My first Shenandoahist converts. After they drove away I realized I was wearing green pants, a tan collared fishing shirt and a green ball cap. They thought I was some kind of park ranger and they were making sure they didn’t have to pay a fee. I’d like to think that when they got home, they told everyone how laid back American officials are and that there are apparently no fitness qualifications whatsoever.
I like that I’m getting to know this river, and as I do, realizing that I really don’t know anything. The more I know, the more I understand what I don’t know (someone put a dollar in the metaphor jar). I’ve arrived at a couple of observations on my own that are almost surely kind of obvious. It’s fun being a 21st century explorer who refuses to look things up. I get to name and discover things that have been named and discovered for centuries.
Among my inane revelations: after the South Fork has been blown out, two days after the herons return to hunt, the streamer fishing will be amazing; and when you first start seeing the red bud in the forest, the brookie fishing will be good in the afternoons. One that was told to me, but that I want embroidered on a pillow: “when the dogwood leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear, it’s time to start fishing for bass.” Translate that one into Latin and you could chant it at Shenandoahist mass, if we weren’t all out fishing and skipping church.
One of the things I like about fly fishing is that you hang out in the river and that if you do that enough, some pretty cool things happen. It’s this aspect of fly fishing that is the hardest for me to convey to non-anglers. I’d imagine it’s the same for hunting, spend enough time in the woods being quiet and something cool will happen. I remember standing quietly in a stream as a beaver floated right over my feet, he never knew I was there. Or the time we saw an osprey take a trout that I would have been thrilled to catch.
If you start to experience those things and a lot of little ones that don’t sound like much when you write them down, it begins to feel like you’re in some secret society. That you’re being shown how things really work. Fly fishing is my entry into this secret society. It’s my reason for being in the river and it gives me a way to interact with the river in a way I wouldn’t if I was just going for a walk. I start to notice the fish, then the bugs, then the birds and I start to blend in to it all. For a moment there, I’m just another part of the river. It never lasts long, but it’s there for a flash. You can try to put a name on it if you want, but there’s no point. It happens, you know it when it does and you miss it when it ends.
I’m usually alone when I’ve experience these flashes, but it can happen when I’m with my wife D. It can never happen for me if I’m with a person who can’t shut up for a minute; someone who finds it all too much and has to fill the quiet with BS. I tried to introduce my brother to fly fishing and he just couldn’t let go and in my experience you have to let go of a lot before you get good at fly fishing, mostly you have to let go of ego. It’s hard, you’re probably going to suck at it; for most people, it’s a pursuit that involves a lot of failure before you have that success. You have to let go of your baggage, just be in the water.
I’m probably the wrong one to try to teach my brother fly fishing. There’s this weird defensiveness that creeps in to the relationship, a hostility from growing up together in an abusive and dysfunctional home. Sometimes it seems like my brother is still seething from things that were justifiably bad, but it’s been decades. Let’s go fishing, let that BS go.
Easier said than done, of course. Sometimes I wonder if he’s just seething when I’m around, a reminder of a bad childhood. I’m trying to give him access to my secret society, but I feel the weight of not letting go, the frustration at not being immediately good at something, the anger and resentment and I immediately know that not only he won’t be experiencing one of these flashes of, whatever, today, but neither will I. There’s too much to unpack and not enough time. I can’t get there with him and I want to get there more than anything else, so I’ll have to leave him behind. Maybe he has his own secret society that I can never join. I hope so.
My wife, D is the only other one I’ve been able to get to join up. I had been fly fishing for about a year when I got her to try it. She points out that before I invited her to try fly fishing, I had tried everything in my power to find another fishing buddy: my brother, some people from TU, and this one guy I met on Facebook (I might have to write that outing in a separate entry, it got weird). Finally, I asked her to come fishing with me.
She had bait fished a lot as a kid with her gandpa and picked it up much faster than I did. She’s good. Sometimes it’s annoying, but mostly I’m sincerely glad for her. Last year in Montana we were fishing with a guide who hadn’t said much all day (D thought he was stoned) and out of the blue he said to my wife, “you have such a pretty cast.” Because he hadn’t said much all day, we both kind of jumped.
D and I have been together a long time. I’m fortunate in that I can say I’m happily married. It’s amazing how many I people I know who can’t just say that without some hemming and hawing, “we’re happy, but…” D and I are happily married and because of that, we don’t have to do a lot of unnecessary chitchat. We’re completely at ease with each other and don’t fill the space between us with a bunch of BS.
I remember one time, D and I were sitting on the bank of the South Fork, looking at the river. We weren’t talking. We were just watching the river and the trees go from crisp to fuzzy as the sun set. It was summer, and it was probably around nine. As it darkens, you realize the far bank of the river is kind of vague and then sometime later you realize that you can’t really see the far bank of the river anymore. And then, BAM! a bald eagle came down from the sky and snatched a squirrel out of the tree in front of us and took off down the river with it squeaking in its talons. Then the quiet returned and the river kept flowing.