One frustrating aspect of living in an outdoor paradise is the perpetually nagging notion that—no matter how much you do—you are missing out on something. That’s nowhere more true than in central Oregon, which is known worldwide as a playground for outdoor adventure: from skiing to mountain biking, from climbing to bird watching. And, of course, there is the fly-fishing.
I have long loved to fish, since my step-dad first took me trout fishing at Silver Lake, in the mountains of northeastern California.
The details of that first ever morning on the water stay with me: the overcast sky, the rich smell of the lake, the deep pine-duff where we left the old brown pickup, my little black and white fishing rod. I remember too that the anchor in our boat was fashioned out of an old Folger’s can filled with cement. It was very cold and I can still hear the slap of water against the boat, the muffled banging of the oars, as we rowed out into the dark gray water. I am certain, because these memories are so vivid, that I was in a kind of existential trance the entire day.
Last Friday I had another trip like that first one, and the gift of it will likely stay with me until I am carried away to Happy Acres. It was about time too, given that sincere little voice in my head that keeps telling me I’m not getting enough done, even as I know my days are full, excuses are easy, and sand is always running through the hourglass.
But last Friday, some forty years after I first went fishing, something changed for me. I think there are a couple of reasons for that, not least of which is this growing sensibility, and concern, I am developing about what we are doing to the planet all around us. But more importantly–and I think it was the river itself that did it—something vital, something intensely human and personal, was revived in me that police work had nearly killed.
I’ve known that vital thing was dying, and I have struggled mightily—drinking far too much, living in a kind of lubricated haze, and diving breathlessly into the darker regions of my mind–to keep it on life support for far too long. What was revived, brought suddenly and brilliantly back to life, was a profound and deeply held appreciation for the many good things life still brings us. And what frightens me most, as I look back on the last ten years, is how close to dead that part of me actually was.
I am not a great fisherman. I only learned to fly fish five or six years ago, and was self-taught. I gravitated toward fly-fishing, I think, because it seemed to represent something clean and singular and healthy, something without artifice, and precisely in opposition to the filthy, heart-crushing, and duplicitous meat-grinder of southern California law enforcement. I was attracted to fly-fishing as an antidote to all of that, and it may be among the greater gifts I will ever receive from The Creator.
On one of our many initial visits to Sisters, before I retired and we moved here, I wandered into The Fly Fisher’s Place, our local shop, and met the owner Jeff Perin—who has become a friend and who is a real gift to this community. I told Jeff I wanted his cheapest beginner rod, some flies, and an idea of where to go and what to do. Jeff, who likely thought I had dropped in from outer space, outfitted me happily, and I took it all home, tried to figure out the requisite knots, and practiced a few lame casts in the driveway. Next morning, Wendy and I drove out to Crooked River, where we had never been.
What happened was, I got lucky. I caught a lot of fish on my very first day, even as my casts were bad and self conscious and I was trying hard to imitate what I thought I was seeing in the famous fly fishing photographs and movies, where every swing is a work of art and there seems to be an element of magic at work. Catching fish my first time out with a fly rod was a lucky bonus, I suppose, but I also noticed and welcomed a sense of the pure, focused, and unadulterated joy that comes with a thorough immersion in the things of life, rather than the things of despair—which is where I had been living for so long.
People write books about this sort of thing, and I won’t be able to articulate it fully here, but fly-fishing is a fully engaging enterprise. It involves the body, the mind, and most certainly the whole-soul. It is multi-dimensional that way. There is no small measure of skill and experience required, but as in all things sporting there is also and always a dollop of luck involved. And there is a ubiquitous human appreciation for the more ephemeral sketch of the experience, recorded in cultures worldwide. I think of the Ceiba trees of central America, which the Arawak Indians revered for having their roots in hell, their trunks on earth, and their leaves in heaven.
At any rate, that’s my fly-fishing curriculum vitae, thin as it is. Outside of a magnificent drift trip down the McKenzie River with my good neighbor and full time guide, Steve Erickson, and my colleague from the old days Ed Olsen, (though Ed and I had at least one great day on another Oregon river) my fishing has been hit or miss and never more than occasional. But always, and without fail, each experience on the water has left me with a renewed and invigorated appreciation for the broader things of this life, and for the better and brighter mysteries in it that we might better cherish and sustain.
Which brings me to last Friday. This fly-fishing trip into the otherworldly canyons of the lower Deschutes River was, I think I can say without overstatement, like being a struggling minor league ballplayer suddenly called up to play for the New York Yankees. If you can get your mind to imagine that place, that’s what it was like for me as Brett Miller, founder of Warfighter Outfitters, guided us downriver on a sharp, winter-bright early morning from the boat launch at Mac’s.
Brett and I were joined by Jeremiah Spradling, a full time fly-fishing guide from Farmington, New Mexico, and all of us were bundled up against the cold November morning as we jounced downriver over broad riffles and skated around islands choked with cottonwood, sledding in and out of the cold morning shadows and always conscious of the immense walls of the canyon and the early signs of a bluebird sky we would enjoy all day long.
This was my first time using a spey casting rig, which if you don’t know is a much bigger, two-handed rod meant for larger fish, like the notorious steelhead we were after. Brett and Jeremiah, both of them experienced spey casters, gave me some pointers and sent me off downriver to work on my cast, and to develop a feel for the movement of the water, my place in it, and how I might work the line to attract a fish.
There is a necessary rhythm to fly-fishing, I think, at least to do it well. There is some conscious sense of conducting a large orchestra, of knowing when to bring the right instruments up, or tamp them down, or bring them all together, and there were times when I managed a decent cast and could feel the music starting to play in earnest. And then I would forget some element of the tune and wrap my line around a willow branch behind my head, or send out a tangled pile of leader and tippet in a ridiculous caricature of grace.
But I didn’t care. What I felt, standing bellybutton deep in the dark rushing water, watched by herds of bighorn sheep from the shale and scree tumbledowns in the canyon walls above, or a bald eagle in a cottonwood branch on the other side of the river, was pure exhilaration and appreciation that we have these waters at all, and that they are still clean enough to support populations of steelhead, who have been making their spawning runs here since sabre-tooth tigers and woolly mammoths roamed the valleys of Los Angeles.
It’s possible too, I think, to lose oneself so entirely in the act of fly-fishing that it is a kind of baptism, so that coming out of the river is a type of spiritual rebirth. I think that because that is what happened to me, last Friday. We traveled miles downriver, stopping here and there to anchor the boat in the rocks, or around a tree, and wade into the waters to fish, or simply to watch the bighorns, or the birds, or just to listen to the water rippling over stones in the shallows, or lapping in cold eddies along a cutbank. All of that, the art of it, the quiet dimensions of it, reached deep into the recesses of my mind, and then turned it inside-out.
And so stepping out of the boat at the end of the day I felt, for the first time in many years, that my long struggles with the depressions and darker turns of mind caused by the soul-sucking rigors of police work were finally, in a meaningful way, cut free from my identity. I can’t totally explain it, not even close, only that I know that without the river, without that canyon lifted from the pleistocene, without that day full of wading and slipping on rocks, of casting and fishing, of swinging a prayer into the cold, silvery waters, it would not have happened. Not the way it did. It was as if all of the anguish I have been trying to shake was rinsed clean in those waters and became another entity entirely, something I can examine and turn over in my hands like a museum piece, rather than feel coursing through my bloodstream like a warm shot of poison.
At the end of the day, without catching a fish or even feeling a bite, I felt twenty years younger in my soul. And that, dear friends, is a real and precious gift I could not have received it doing anything else, anywhere else, at any other time, on earth. It had to happen exactly the way it did, and with the help of the river. And for once, that little nagging voice, which all along has been talking to me about something else entirely, has gone silent.
So, on this Thanksgiving, which is meant for us to give thanks, I am and will remain eternally grateful for a single day on the lower Deschutes River with Brett and Jeremiah. I can promise myself that there will be many more. But last Friday we had mile upon mile of the river completely to ourselves, as if we were indeed thrown far away in time, and the river was ours alone. And now, as I think about it, I suppose in a way we always have the river completely to ourselves, even when, perhaps especially when, we absorb, appreciate, and ultimately share the lessons it has taught us.