At the risk of getting all highbrow, I recently tapped into some really instinctual parts of myself while putting my entire life behind me and setting my priorities on the Rangeley Lakes region of Maine. In the end, I couldn’t help my mind from steering its way toward a book, more so to the ideas it was created to give voice to, that once kept me holed up in a hotel room reading it for the first time while I should have been immersing myself in everything a wedding in Las Vegas means. Some passages from that book kept popping into my head while I was in the car for hours on-end driving back to the rat-race accounting for a goal well met, a few things that suddenly made more sense than they used to, and some unfinished business.
“Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”
Yep, Melville, thou art quite right, at least when it comes to this crusty Bostonian who gets his back up every time his car is towed or ticketed, and he endures every imaginable SNAFU that city-folk have mythologized the way apple pie is to normal people. In deference to a deeply ingrained part of myself that gets just as annoyed as everybody else when people start quoting classics, I’ll just leave that one bread-crumb behind and let you figure out what book has laid more metaphysical eggs than I thought it had in my soul if you care.
As I closed in on my destination, the Kennebago River was pointing the way alongside the road. I had never seen it for myself and when there was a nice stretch of pavement without curves or other cars, I would undress it with my eyes for way longer than was safe at high speed. In the fall, this is some hallowed ground, I would learn in only a few short hours, but my innocent heart was already thinking, “Fuck the hotel, I can sleep in my car tonight, there’s got to be some absolute pigs holding alongside these undercut banks, in these spacious nests of boulders, and where all of these riffles lay their tongues out into languid reaches of calm, deep, dark water.”
Another voice won out (pretty sure it wore an eye-patch), though, and I held tight to the keel until I hit Rangeley, checked myself in, ditched a few things in the room, and set out for an evening hatch, somewhere, anywhere. Mishaps, misunderstandings, some stand-offish natives, and possible car-stranding-ruin-your-trip dirt-roads landed me on some pretty famous trout water a couple hours before dusk. I fished angrily, so the catches were small, naïve brookies and salmon, but once I chilled out, and actually pulled my head out of my behind mayflies were swarming/mating in the air all around me. If I had more than a slim chance of finding my way out of there in the dark, I’d have gotten up on a classic March-Brown spinner fall!
At what felt like zero-dark-thirty the next day, I met up with the first guide I have ever hired in my entire life. Gone forever are the days where I fritter away the first few days on a new watershed feeling around in the dark if I have anything to do with it. Normal reality involves long, unpredictable hours of stressful work with only my wits to ensure that the wallet stays fat, so I’m happy to line the pockets of somebody whose daily bread depends on how well attuned they are to their ecosystem. Shit, at the end of the day, I want people like my guide to exist in every ecosystem everywhere in the world, because they are the first line of defense when some possible-bad-actor-of-the-future decides to turn an ecosystem into cash. I want stake-holders, vigilant and invested, armed with the required resources to stop it while the rest of the world merrily ruins everything else where it’s already too late.
He led me across a river that isn’t exactly a secret, but I’m not about to be “that guy” either. We got some nice face-full-o-spider-webs along a path that was travelled, but not daily, and not exclusively by people. He put me on one of the few places the river flattens out, and we had a heart-breaking stretch of highly-oxygenated, cold water, with a strong flow filled with fish all to ourselves. He rigged me up the way he wanted, and I was, literally, a good sport about it. I got a nice brookie in comparison to what I was used to right away. Once that fish was happily home (this river is fly-fishing only, barbless-hooks, catch-and-release regulated) I had another on. Soon we had one in the net that I felt required photographic representation. A few minutes later we had one in the net that dwarfed it. The fishing just kept on being awesome, then we got hungry, fished more, bounced around some, then we got tired, and the day was over. That dude was Santa!
I could go on forever, but in the interest of brevity:
When you straddle a rotting deer corpse to hook a fish that just does what it pleases, rips off line over-and-over like you aren’t even there, wraps you around a boulder, and leaves you cursing yourself chest-deep in rapids while you demolish the loop-connector on your fly-line ripping the rig loose, that’s actually a fantastic series of bad events to have experienced. You will wonder until the day you die why it didn’t even occur to you to tighten your drag down a few clicks, but then you will remember that you’re basically a chimpanzee and sometimes life puts you in a place where reason is subject to more fundamental urges.
You may think of yourself as overweight and washed-up from day-to-day, but when you hook a giant salmon, and it leaps four feet out the water to show you how big and strong it is before it zips off with your 5x tippet downstream into a quarter-mile of uninterrupted rapids, you’ll figure out 200 yards later, when it’s all done in a patch of calm water the size of your desk, that you can still hop across raging torrents only touching the exposed tips of boulders with yesteryear’s agility, you can fall flat on your face against piles of granite and still keep the fish hooked, you can shove the badass prima-donna of a fly-rod that nobody else gets to touch under the sweeping boughs of streamside trees, and emerge bloody, bruised, but victorious! After all of that commotion you carefully nurse the fish in slow water until it is strong and ready, then set it free….
Back at the ponderosa with moths swarming about the few bulbs, bullfrogs crying into the void for love, geese, foxes, and god know what else making a song in the night the same as it ever was, it’s a place you can go to sleep and not care too much whether you ever wake up.
I’m going back. If you happen to see the remains of a fisherman lashed by the tangle of a million broken-off flies to the side of a giant brookie right before it crushes your dreams and swims away into the darkness, those are mine, and you found your way to my spot.
** ASO Prostaffer GW , our resident trout bum, lost his mind in the Rangeley area. And I'm happy for him