I watched the documentary Fly Fishing in the Anthropocene and it made me wonder if in order to keep wilderness we need to use draconian big government laws and nudges to stop humans from ruining it? If people are left to run wild does that necessarily lead to people snuffing out so much of the biodiversity and wildness in nature- how can all the good stuff in nature and human nature run wild? It seems to me that rules tend to weaken the good and the bad in people (some rules tend to weaken both to varying degrees, but nevertheless all rules weaken both when enforced to the point of taking away freedom). The ideal is when there are healthy face to face relationships and people bring out the best in one another and nature.
“There was an eagle’s nest on a hydro tower we passed on our way south on the highway. What is it that drove me away from the physical comforts of my modern life, while that wild, majestic bird chose a manmade structure in the middle of all those wild, majestic pines?
The Flagging Tape Disorientation
When you pull up Google Earth and start zooming in on North America, then onto the Northeast, then central Ontario and onto that park that’s about the size of Vermont and, if the satellite image was taken in early Spring of that year and you can zoom in enough through the trees, you’ll see me and my brother—lost.
We were up shit creek without a paddle, so to speak; or put another way, we were lost in the bush in twilight on an overcast day without a landmark, map, compass, light, match, tarp, bottle of water, or even a knife.
I teach outdoor education, and when I teach shelter building and orienteering I always start by describing a scenario like that one and then ask them what they need to avoid. The kids invariably start with bears or wolves and never put a finger on the thing they need to avoid most—panic. I wasn’t avoiding panic at that moment, though. I was fully, keenly seized by it. I was in its mouth. I also teach the kids what to pack, even if it’s just a short hike. Well, I sure wasn’t a prudent boy scout that day, and I confirmed that silly saying about those who teach.
We had gotten out of bed before the sun was up to drive four hours north, then paddled for most of the daylight against the wind and current on the biggest river in the park. The trip to the cabin was made even harder because our aluminum and foam canoe was flat and wide—slow as molasses to paddle and quick as a wink to get pushed back or sideways by waves. The other two people in our party had a narrow Kevlar canoe, ideal for tripping. The map didn’t show all the contours and little points, so after hours of hope deferred—having seemingly spent all our energy feverishly paddling towards what we thought would be the final point and expecting to see the cabin as we turned only to see more conifers and yet another point far in the windswept distance over and over again—my brother and I did finally see that blessed cabin in a field beside a big marsh.
I flopped onto the beach like Ulysses after the shipwreck and my brother tripped over me. A phoebe bobbed its tail on a branch above us and a bur-reed rubbed my ankle. The fire roaring and the steaks sizzling and our friends with the Kevlar canoe sprawled out smoking and laughing, I opened up the cabin and perused the journal on the table by the stained woodstove. A few people wrote about a pristine spring just off the path behind the cabin. I didn’t expect a long hike. I was thirsty.
The well beaten path forked just past the thunderbox. The path turning along the lakeshore led my brother and I to the mouth of a feeder creek but no cold water spring. In the little plunge pool there were sculpins and leaves spinning around in the foam, red and green and glistening, and the water above it was the color of yellow stained glass. We doubled back to the fork and took the other path. There were pieces of orange flagging tape tied to trees every ten yards and the path was wide and clear. The promised cold water spring was still out of sight, though. As we walked the path thinned out and the pieces of flagging tape were farther apart and we followed the base of a hill to the burnt cornflakes of the bark on a big cherry tree. I considered turning back but pressed on without giving it much thought.
Eventually we heard the creek but didn’t see any more flagging tape. I rush toward the siren sound of the babbling brook and my brother followed me to the unspoiled fern lined banks. I didn’t notice the beauty of the park when I was relentlessly paddling and it all hit me looking at that serene brook, the beauty consuming, without any trails around and miles from the nearest road. Then it hit me that we lost sight of the last piece of flagging tape. The thrum of panic was deafening. I tried to sound calm and asked my brother if we should walk the creek back to the lake where we know it empties or do we try to find the flagging tape to follow the path straight back to the cabin. I don’t think I gave him a chance to answer and rushed back in the direction of the flagging tape—or so I thought it was that direction.
I had led my brother astray and then we were out of earshot of the brook and we couldn’t see flagging tape. I almost broke down in despair and I didn’t even try to hide it. My brother was poised, though, and told me one of us should stay put while the other looks for the flagging tape in order to prevent wandering even farther away from the lake and the cabin.
I saw flagging tape and yelled out to my brother, but my elation was crushed when I got closer and saw that it was purple. I cursed that this flagging tape must be a cruel joke when my brother caught up to me, and we laughed nervously. We used my brother’s bright idea of the searching and holding pattern and eventually found that cherry tree. It looked and felt like night in the bush, but as soon as we saw the light of the lake we heard our friends at the thunderbox call our names.
The steak and beans were cold. I was starving and almost too exhausted to eat, the fork shaking in my hand. I’ll never taste a better steak, though, and I hope I’ll never have to learn my own lessons the hard way again. We ended up finding the lid over the spring the next day, just by the mouth of the feeder creek. I still dream about following that brook to the source—this time prepared like a good boy scout—and catching trout that have never seen an artificial fly. There was an eagle’s nest on a hydro tower we passed on our way south on the highway. What is it that drove me away from the physical comforts of my modern life, while that wild, majestic bird chose a manmade structure in the middle of all those wild, majestic pines?
The book is filled with meta fictional virtuosity and playfulness. Still, the groundswell of it- the human need to be intimate with unspoiled natural beauty- isn’t obscured by the self reflexiveness. In fact, it is amplified by it- how we have messed up that beauty with our vanity and how beautiful it is when we are graced and our desire is made pure, and we fleetingly find that paradise that is in nature and in our imagination at the same time.
I was staring at a pool cut off from the riffle by a fallen tree. I looked at the tail of the pool and the head of a truly red letter day. The light looked like a rainbow had been drawn out of the trees and punched into the pool by a giant blacksmith.
I had only caught chubs all day-but in the flow around the top of the tree, close to the other bank, I saw some rises. The problem, though, was that I brought my three-weight, five- foot rod for casting under the tree canopy in the tiny headwaters, so I couldn’t roll cast far enough to reach the rising fish with my elk hair caddis (now I almost only use wet flies in fast water for brook trout in small streams). I also didn’t bring waders or a little landing net.
I looked in and saw the creek was only about a foot deep off the bank, so I stepped in to get closer- and quickly sank up to my waste in the boggy bottom. I plodded my way a few steps and laid a cast down upstream in the flow near the end of the fallen tree- my rod came to quivering life! Plodding my way back to the bank with the boggy bottom sucking in my legs, I stripped line in and saw the shimmering reds, purples, greens and golds- the most beautiful, resplendent living thing I had laid eyes on in my life- then watched it wriggle away, leaving me in a sopping, muddy daze.
The brook trout is still the most beautiful thing living in the most beautiful places I’ve seen, and I’m still gleaning lessons from that first contact.
What’s better than fishing and drinking beer under a tree with a friend, or as Stephen Leacock more eloquently put it: what can we learn from Izaak Walton… that a cup of ale beneath a tree is better than a civic banquet, and an old familiar song from a familiar singer outclasses grand opera.
I practise selective harvest. I fish because it is a passion and a drive, and I feel the pleasure of God’s world and the pleasure of my ancestors.