We do not go to the green woods and crystal waters to rough it, we go to smooth it. We get it rough enough at home, in towns and cities.
- Nessmuk, 1863
(Photo — Joe Hackett)
For a majority of the country's population, the adventure of traveling through the dark wilderness is no longer considered to be a normal part of life and yet, buried somewhere deep within all of us, there remains a need for the challenges that such travel once provided.
Pursuits such as hunting and fishing continue to feed an innate human need, and they answer the call from within, with a firm response to the primeval summons.
It is a subtle process that begins with a reclamation of gear, the readying of equipment and the scouring of crumpled maps, checklists and wrinkled old notes that are so weathered and discolored from storage they are barely legible. But somehow, they are read and reread, studied and devoured.
As the attendant season approaches, there comes a notable fidgeting, fired by a natural uneasiness. It's as if there's a pent up animal just waiting to be unleashed and freed. It is a restlessness fired by a relentless charge that takes hold of a man's soul and calls it out.
Once released, there is no way to put the genie back in the lamp. It can only be satiated in the roughest manner, in the pursuit of solitude and the rawness within.
It is often brought on by the shift of seasons, a slight and almost indistinguishable change in the earth's tilt. But it is real and powerful. It can move strong men to hurry and freeze lesser ones in their tracks.
Ode to a fisherman
There was no flash to his efforts. He slowly folded the old wool pants, crumpled a wool hat and mashed a rain slicker into the mix. The wispy old bamboo rod had been cleaned and put up in a metal tube.
The vest held a few tobacco tins, stuffed with old flies and still older memories of the days he had spent long ago with friends on the Miramichi, the Restigouche and the Yellowstone. There were still wild wolves in these wild places back then he had once assured me.
In the back of his mind, a lingering worry wandered as the tired collection of gear was deposited into a frayed packbasket and a pair of rubber hip boots was slung over the side.
"Will it still be there," he muttered to no one in particular, and while awaiting a response remarked, "and can I make it this time?"
It took three trips to the truck to load the load and finally he was on the road. Like a compass needle, the tamarack stem of the battered old guideboat strapped to the roof of his truck finally settled on a direction. It pointed to the north, due north.
As dawn unfolded, his limber old rod swayed back and forth ever so gracefully in the morning mist. The air was cool and the earth silent, but through the fog came the sound of a splash.
At first note, it was easy to mistake it for a beaver slapping a warning. But then it repeated off by the shore, and again just a bit closer. Again and again, it called to him from all corners of the round pond.
Soon the noise echoed off a nearby wall of blank trees, their buds still intact in the early spring. He quivered and stripped out more line.
With the velocity of a whip, the line snapped out and disappeared into the mist. This time the slap was replaced by a splash, and he noticed the faint difference.
He raised the rod sharply before it stopped dead in a tip-to-tail rainbow arc, quivering in his chilled hand. In his chest, there was a pounding and in his mind there was a pondering.
It was just him and a fish, battling alone on a lonely pond. There was no audience, no judge and no jury. They waged a war of nerves for what seemed to be an eternity, though only seconds had passed.
Finally it was over. He slipped the trout into the net and gently removed the fly. Time stood still and his gray hair was black once more. His back no longer ached. The only wrinkles crossing his worn face were the result of a wide and irrepressible grin.
A slight chortle was issued as the fish slashed out of the net, free from the botherings of an old man. And the old man was free too, saved by memories of years past. He was no longer bothered by the pounding in his chest, this season had always been his best.
Sleep came easy, with a roaring fire at his feet and a million stars over his head. He knew the count now stood at four score, plus four, yet he swore there will be at least one more. He too was finally free from the botherings of an old man.
He was 17 again, and he had just discovered his own secret mountain pond. There were no more worries of age, no cares of war and his dreams of a wife and a child remained just a dream.
"One more visit," he promised himself. "Just one more!"
He slept in late the following morning as the coals of the night fire glimmered in dawn's early light. By the time the sun's shadows slipped off the nearby ridge, it became apparent he was not going to wake, and the woods went still.
Ravens gathered in the blank, budless trees and assembled like a pack of preachers without a pulpit.
Once, he had claimed the pond as his own, but now it had claimed him. His soul may have departed, but that eternal grin never left his lips.
His ashes were later scattered in the wind, along the silent shores of a still mountain pond. We fish together every spring, and I still hear his laughter on the breeze.