ESSAY – OCTOBER 2007
By Joshua Bodwel
“Many go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”
– Henry David Thoreau
We went fishing in early August. The nights were warm and we left the tent flaps tied back. In the morning, I could see through the thin mosquito mesh to the underbrush around the campsite and patches of blue sky beyond. Low clouds lolled by. I couldn’t see the river, but I could hear it.
Abbott got up before me most mornings. I watched him shuffle down the little path to the river’s edge, where I imagined he splashed cold water onto his face. I stayed in my sleeping bag with the tent breathing around me, the wind off the water filling it with long puffs of air and shaking the lines that anchored it to the trees. In the morning sun, the dome of the tent was dappled with a puzzle of shadows cast by the leaves of large elms. The shadows flickered and the leaves made a soft chattering sound. The wind carried the musky mint of the evergreens and the soothing smell of a morning campfire burning nearby.
Eventually, thoughts of the river and trout would roust me. After rising and fumbling drowsily through the brewing of coffee, Abbott and I would steal a few bites of granola and fruit as we gathered together our fly rods and stuffed our creels and satchels with small tins of dry flies, extra leaders, knives, insect repellant, lunch, and bottles of water.
Then we struck out into the forest in search of rushing waters.
We have returned to the same river at the north end of Baxter State Park several times over the years, and we have never seen another human being fishing along its winding shores. The water is clear, almost translucent, and we are constantly wading in and out of the swift currents all day, crossing and re-crossing the river, and feeling the insistent tug against our legs as we move upstream. There are wide, rocky beaches to cast from, the stones smooth and bright in the summer sun. We are at once alone and together on the river, miles from the harassment of responsibilities.
The river changes so much from year to year, that it always feels new and undiscovered. Every time has felt like the first time. Spring runoff redirects the river’s bends and sends the waters cutting a new channel through the woods. A few of the pools where I had luck last year have grown shallow or disappeared altogether. A rocky beach where I once stopped to eat lunch is now covered over with flowing water. The river is every bit as alive as we are, and like us it changes.
Abbott and I leapfrogged past one another up the river, rarely fishing the same pool at once. We dropped our lines into every ripple that appeared to hold the promise of brook trout. Time slowed. The river thrummed and hypnotized us into the rhythms of casting and reeling, of tugging the line and dancing our tiny flies along the water’s surface. The river babbled as it passed over rocks or between a fallen tree and the opposite shore.
Each season, the first strike of a trout at my line brings on a rush of adrenaline that warms my cheeks and races my heart. And even after I land several fish, that rush never entirely subsides, but only decreases in intensity. It feels as though I am fated to relearn the fact time and again that there are consequences to sending a tiny, barbed hook sailing into crystalline water: something might bite it.
Two days after coming out of the woods, I sat in a public park on the edge of downtown Camden. A grassy hill rolled down to a rock-strewn beach that was at low tide. Large trees cast cool shadows over nearly the entire park. I ate an apple and read from a book of poems by Stuart Kestenbaum.
From my perch on the grassy hill, I would look up occasionally and watch two boys down on the beach, no older than 10 years old, swing sticks of driftwood at each other. While there were a few close calls, none of the swings connected. When the boys, each with a wavy nest of dirty-blond hair, grew tired of their game, they took to beating sand and shells and rocks. Crack, crack, crack. The sound echoed off the water. The boys wielded their driftwood swords as if they were locked in battle with the rocky shore. They pummeled hapless seashells as though they were vicious little dragons. Cursing and cajoling, bumping and shoving, the boys looked as though they’d run out of ways to connect with another person and were willing to do almost anything in order to feel heard or seen.
I continued eating my apple.
On a blanket nearby, a woman whom I took to be the mother calmly read a paperback. Behind her, an elderly couple and their adult daughter sat in lawn chairs beneath the shade and ate a picnic lunch from a wicker basket. Beside them, a retired man painted a serviceable watercolor of the harbor: sunlight, rocks, trees, shimmering water, and the boats all tugging at their lines, yearning for the open sea out beyond the harbor’s narrow mouth.
Lost in imaginary battle, the boys were oblivious to the beauty.
One of the boys grunted loudly as he bashed a crab shell to smithereens. When he leaned back and howled at the sky in triumph, the other boy threw a tangle of seaweed onto his head. With the seaweed half draped across his face, the boy turned and swung his sun-bleached stick with wild abandon. To the surprise of the other boy, the stick connected. Thwack.
A shriek filled the air. The struck boy clutched his arm and sank to his knees in the sand. The other stood beside him in apparent amazement that his actions had consequences. He held his stick clumsily, guiltily, and poked at the sand. The mother on her blanket kept reading. The family kept eating. The painter painted on. Look up, I thought, Look up! But the boys were ignored.
As I drove away from the park, moving north toward my far-off destination, I thought of my time on the river. I thought of actions and consequences. I thought of how I can become so intent on scanning the water’s surface, so consumed in the search for dark pools and deep ripples, that I sometimes forget to look up. But when I do, I am surrounded by life.
Never, I told myself, forget to look up.