by Reid Bryant
First published in The Drake, Fall 2012
When you were young and just starting out, it was simply a logical assumption, arrived at innocently enough: there had to be more and bigger fish around that upstream bend. It’s what kept you out till after dark, well beyond the trampled grass of the fisherman’s trail, in places where the worm dunkers’ styrofoam gave way to bear scat and silence and raccoon tracks in the sand. Always up there, in the wilder place, there was a perfect pool, an untouched glide dimpled with rise forms, and a pod of fish near as innocent as you. They slashed at what you threw them for the self-same reason… just to get a taste of what they’d never seen before.
So it started as a means to an end. Longer walks for more and bigger and somehow better fish, then longer drives down roads that threatened to rattle your teeth loose and reduce the truck springs to scales of rust. You were driven by the conviction that effort and distance and inaccessibility would result in a proportional reward, both in size and quantity. You were nearly always right. But with success and a dash of humility, you found yourself realizing that the destination, and the fishing that it promised, might only be part of the deal. Walking out in the twilight, with the night sounds descending and the sun almost gone, it began to seem that the condescending new-agers had something right: the journey itself was perhaps the most lovely piece… the journey away from things well-trodden, worn thin, and somehow made replicable.
You began digging deeper, going farther, exploring more and more the remote headwaters and mountain lakes and beaver backwaters that held the promise of solitude and wilderness and pure, clear water. The privileges of adulthood brought to bear things like boats and planes and places far from home. And always there were the fish, the bigger fish, and more of them, more wild, unsullied by the mundane, the tedious, the mindless flailing of the weekend warriors. Even as you caught them, and bent to hold them heaving and dripping in your hands, it was the backdrop that filled your heart and memory with vibrant color. It was the clarity of thin air and midnight sun and water so cold it almost hurt. The fish were just an excuse, albeit a heartbreaking and glinting excuse, but an excuse nonetheless for your presence in that composition of color and silence and raw, ragged wilderness. The forest for the trees, after all.
So while your friends settled in to workaday lives that ensured manufactured comfort, you looked up at that far upstream bend. What exactly might it be that waited just out of sight, around the corner and beyond the big leaning Spruce? That question filled you up with promise and hope, attached you to fish that were the purest embodiment of wildness and truth and all that has ever been alive. It afforded you the chance to wake up every morning to the possibility of something new, to the awareness of something boundless and untapped. And then one morning you are standing there, with a rod in your hand and joy in your heart as the rotor roars, whips the water and then recedes over the tundra and 500 miles of Lapland Arctic, and you breathe out and smile and realize just where you are: far away from anywhere, and perfectly, exquisitely, at home.