Happy 40th birthday, Ed! Thanks for the idea and the encouragement.
The sun setting didn’t look much different than when it had risen that morning. Just the other side of the sky. Orange and red and purple, colors of trout as big as the heavens.
My body was sore from a long day of hiking punctuated by periods of time standing in cold water. Camp was a half-mile upriver and I trudged toward it, not yet allowing myself to think of its comforts. The day subsided around me, the birds quieting, the wind dying, leaving only the sound and movement of the water over the rocks.
The trail along the river was uneven, hardly a trail at all, and in the fading light I nearly tripped several times and frequently stepped into holes and dips that jarred my body. I stopped at the top of a riffle and stared up the slick above it, thinking that if I could make out a rise I would be somehow obligated to cast to it. But it was too early in the year to see bugs this late in the day.
As I was about to move on I saw a shape emerge from the brush next to the river, at the base of a tall bluff. It was a whitetail doe, and she slowly looked up and down the stream and then gingerly dipped her head to the water and drank. As she drank I got a cigarette out of my vest and lit it, my vision ruined for a moment by the flare of the match. When I could see again, she was gone. I wondered at her coming all the way down that bluff for such a brief drink from the stream.
The campsite was situated on top of a high bank overlooking a big corner pool of the river. When I waded across the riffle that poured into the hole and climbed up to the site it was full dark. I stumbled over to the truck and got my headlamp out of the front seat. I looked around in the beam of the light at the tent, the fire ring, the table. Everything else had been stowed away in the truck while I was gone and the site seemed impassive and unwelcoming. I needed to get a fire going.
I shucked off my vest and waders and wading boots and put on dry socks, a jacket and hiking boots. I had wood stacked under the picnic table and I moved it closer to the fire ring and shaved off some kindling.
It took some effort to get the fire going, coaxing it to life by blowing and carefully placing and rearranging pieces of wood, but when it caught it started to cast good warmth and light. When I could throw more wood on without too much care and it would burn I started on dinner.
My meal was simple: egg noodles, canned tuna and cajun seasoning. An acquired taste, it didn’t go over well at home. Sitting at the picnic table with a cold can of beer on a dark, quiet evening, it was perfect.
It was still early when I finished eating. The days had not yet lengthened to the point that finishing dinner would bring me to bedtime. I was fine with that. I had wood to burn, a bottle of Jim Beam and a book.
I mixed the bourbon with some water and sat by the fire. I had a familiar volume of MacQuarrie’s in my lap, but for the time being I didn’t pick it up, instead just sinking into the canvas folding chair, studying the fire and the silent, dark valley I was the sole occupant of.
When I was a younger man, 27 or 28, I had come here with my uncle Pete. He and I had fished and hunted many places before then, but this was the first place we had come that neither of us had been to before. We had explored the river and sat around this same fire, drinking the same whiskey out of the same tin cups and recounting the angling successes and failures of the day, the hopes for the next. We had discussed hatches and habitat and I had even clamped a tying vise to the picnic table and we had taken turns experimenting with feathers and fur to create some new patterns for the next day based on our observations.
The fact that this was a new river to both of us and that Pete hadn’t been showing it to me made that trip the first time I didn’t feel like on some level he was the guide and I was the student. We had simply been two men on the river and around the fire that weekend.
Now I was at the fire alone. Pete had passed away a week prior and I had driven directly from the cemetery to this river. Though the last several days has been marked by a deep, relentless sadness at losing him, on arriving here I had felt unusually peaceful, that this was the way of things, like generations of birds migrating north every spring and south every autumn, like rivers flowing toward the sea.
For a couple hours, I sat by the fire and alternately read the book about times and places I had never experienced, and put it down to look at the stars or the fire and think about times and places I had. Occasionally I would stand and walk to the edge of the firelight and take a leak, then walk to the top of the river bank and look over the starlit stream which rushed over the rocks below.
As I was walking back to the fire from standing over the stream, coyotes began to yip somewhere upstream and I stood still and listened to their calls.
When they were quiet again I returned to the fire and stoked it up high against the cool, damp air of the spring night. I sat back down in my chair and stared into the flames and decided I would fish upstream in the morning.