Some fishing memories are peak experiences and will stay with you as long as your memory lasts. One summer steelhead, canyon river has offered up several of mine. A day in March when the river was too strong to be crossed, yet had to be crossed, four times – upstream – before I dropped a fly in a cut rock seam not ten feet long. And out of it a summer in the air that is the beauty of the invisible made visible.
Blue green water in a granite canyon all alone. My next fly in the same slit of water brought another summer to my fly. And then a third cast and third summer steelhead in the cool of winter – a fish that could have been in freshwater since the previous May. Several miracles in a few minutes, I having sweated upstream, hauling my body up a rock bank, rod thrown high in the bush, and hands grasping a dozen ferns each so I would not fall back out of the forest into the river and be swept away.
Another day, I crossed above a water fall in the same section of the river, and edged onto a rock face to look down. The rock face, slick with winter rain, bore a small dead animal. It was crouched down into death, and like a cat had sunk onto its forelegs and back, almost as if sleeping, and then died there anonymously. The spot was so difficult no scavenger, crow, or carrion eater had made it there to eat. The skin and fur were unrecognizable, perhaps an otter or beaver, I don’t know. But I moved the carcass aside and picked out what looked like a femur and have it today on my mantelpiece. It is the rituals we make of life that give our experiences meaning. Why it chose that place to die will always be a mystery.
The rock face was slick with rain and years of fir needles. Almost too slick to keep from sliding off and down into a pool 25 feet deep. And then another cliff on another day. I had looked closely at the topographical maps, and taken several times to find the right logging spur into a clear cut with its jumble of crossed stumps, Jimson weed, and fern.
I descended a hundred vertical feet to the bottom of the cut and then looked down the even steeper slope. It bent down before me and out of sight. At the time, I did not know that when a slope disappears, that means it is a canyon wall and vertical. Having looked down into the first growth cedar before, I had brought a bright red, high quality climbing rope, never thinking it might not be long enough.
I was so scared, I mapped out five separate legs from top to edge, and told myself I would stop at the end of each one, to decide whether I felt it was safe enough to take the next leg. The second last had a log so large I could straddle and sit on it while leaning out over the edge. Another hundred vertical feet, and only from a tree I had to edge down to in the silence of a canyon and tie my rope. Of course I had not left instructions of where I was going, just trusted my own good male instincts that I would get through. The usual.
Holding the line circled around my fist, rod in the other hand, I slid the wet, grey and white granite rock down to the river. The rope ended six feet above the gravel and I let go. Orange tailed coho fry scattered like melting nails. And after a half hour going upstream, I came to a canyon wall some 100 vertical feet on both sides, leading to a frothy chute. I would have to swim into it, then around the corner, where I could not see, to where I might haul my body out. So I said no.
I went back to my rope and jumped up and down to get enough of the rope in my hand, rod cork crunched between my teeth, and hand over hand haul my carcass back up to the tree. I hung to the bottom of the tree, its roots growing into rock like bent fingers, for a good ten minutes, figuring out how I would get to the top side of the tree, slide the rope in a circle around the butt, so I could untie the knot and make for that log that looked far above me.
When I finally made my way up the wet, slippery rock slope and took hold of the log – it was fifty feet long and several tons – it moved with my hand. That’s how slippery fir needles on wet rock are. No soil whatsoever. It took another ten minutes to work up the log and cross over, all the while knowing it could give way and roll right over me. It was my great good fortune not to have died, and once back on the top, on the edge of the clear cut looking down the 300 vertical feet I had just come up, told myself I would never do anything so stupid again.
But it is one of my peak experiences I return to it from time to time, Here is another: one of the bridges over this one-person, canyon river looks down 90 feet to the small summer river, white between rocks the size of cars. I had bought some black nylon rope that I knotted and let down the rock face, that, had I fallen I also would have been killed. At the bottom of the rope, I swung out wide and avoided the vertical drop for a less deadly route. (Of course, this means that it swung back over the vertical slope, and thus required a good scary crossing to pick it up on the way back up).
Down the canyon in the two o-clock sun of an eighty five degree day were the shadows of 50 summer steelhead, pooled up in green water, illuminated by the sun. Each side was a vertical rock face. The canyon was a chute, twenty feet wide and straight up rock. I unfurled my cast back into the narrow opening and forward to where the fly landed among the fish. Its small splash shattered the school and they disappeared downstream around the corner. I left the fly there for several minutes, but they did not come back.
I knew at this spot in the canyon, there was a water fall 15 feet high several hundred yards downstream, and had fished up to it before from below, sometimes taking several steelhead in the six foot wide tailout. The walls were vertical, but hollowed out by millennia of silty winter flood water and the pool below was a perfect circle.
While inching down the far side, I came to a point where my left foot had its boot on two inches of rock outcropping. There was a willow growing out of the rock, and another narrow ledge on the far side. I reached for the willow in my left hand and had it take my weight. As I began the turn, I grabbed with my right hand and swung out over the canyon, holding onto a sapling half an inch thick. My right foot landed on the ledge, and I was able to bring my left foot under me. That swing is one of the two most important memories I have from fishing rivers on my own on Vancouver Island for decades. And that one I was mid-fifties. I will never forget trusting that willow and swinging my body across the open space.
Round the corner where the steelhead had retreated, I found them in a shadow on the far side. At that point I lost my balance and fell down into the river up to my neck. The fish bolted all around me. There was little current here because the water was deep. So I continued down, holding the canyon walls with my hands, into a bowl where I listened to individual drops of water fall out of the forest ten stories above me, and plop the water in an echoey room of rock.
The walls were wet and slippery, and I was chest deep in the shadows, hoping I would not go over the edge. When I came to the lip, it was round, worn, green granite with water over the top only six inches deep. I was not in danger, looking down at cutthroat trout swum up the canyon ten kilometres. They wavered in their line and I watched them for a long time. I will always have these memories. And there are others. I am sure you have your own.