~ by Ann Miller
The wipers swish in soft rhythm as my van turns from north to east, clearing the first light drops of mist from my windshield. It has been nearly four years since I have been up north, but countless previous trips with my husband remind me that this last leg of the trip will take another hour. We had spent innumerable hours exploring Michigan above her knuckles, an imaginary line on the mitten that happened to correspond with the birch line, close to the 45th parallel. We had camped, hiked, hunted mushrooms, bird-watched, photographed wildflowers, cross-country skied, and fly fished in much of northern Michigan, and now its moldy and pine-scented aromas tickle my nose through the cracked window, triggering recollections of prior getaways.
Pleasant memories are jolted momentarily as I pass a couple with a baby strapped in a car seat. I briefly dwell on the horrors of that night in the labor room and try to push the thought away. I look for a new selection from the cassette collection strewn on the floor between the front seats.
The Cars, Best of… nothing morose about them. I crank the volume and am temporarily protected from ghosts of the past. I think of my two beautiful, healthy babies that I kissed goodbye hours earlier. Really their first goodbye they have known since their births, seventeen months apart. In my eagerness to protect, perhaps I have smothered. Certainly I have suffered as much separation anxiety, and probably more, on this first trip without them.
I reach the outskirts of Grayling and watch for my turn north to Gates Au Sable Lodge. Grayling is a bizarre town, a mix of tourists and National Guardsmen from around the country that come every summer to practice bombing the crap out of the local flora and fauna. Recently, the Guard missed a target and a piece of shrapnel had punched a sizable hole in the roof of a home; fortunately, the family was out and about and no one was hurt. I never understood the extensive bombing and war exercises since the Guard’s main job seems to be protecting towns that have been flooded or tornadoed or other such catastrophes befallen them. I find my turn and head north, hopeful now that the rain has ceased but still watchful of the early summer skies that remain low and gray.
Within minutes I am at the lodge and stretch my muscles after the long drive. Inside the fly shop I am greeted by the proprietor’s shy grin. “You must be Ann.” Seems odd that he would know, but when I glance around for other female faces, I find none. It’s an odd thing to be born with desires that some societies dictate as gender specific; I wonder if men in needlework shops squirm and make excuses. Feelings of anticipation erupt as I glance at the bins of colorful flies; I dwell on the moment, knowing that with my lack of skill this could be the best part of the trip. As I marvel at the creations in the dry fly compartments, I ask the owner about water conditions and hatches. “It’s been cold, everything is late, especially the brown drakes. Fishing is real slow.” Phhht, my balloon is deflated a bit. I remember this from fishing B.C. (before children) – conditions are always better the day after you leave or were great until just yesterday. Before I die I will be there on the day that the fishing is just perfect.
After making a selection of flies (passing on the brown drakes), I decide to invest in a decent raincoat. I had forgotten how much it rains in this section of the state and I make a mental note to bring a raincoat next time, regardless if it’s seventy and sunny at home. I check into my room and am delighted. It is spacious and clean with a picture window view of the famous Au Sable River. Instantly I am homesick and wonder again what possessed me to come up here alone. Thoughts of sneaking out and driving home begin to creep over me. The rain begins again and I calculate my arrival time if I were to leave now. No, I can do this, I have to do this. Four years ago I could barely go shopping, go to work, leave the house. I need to prove to myself that I can do this on my own, to restore the confidence that I had once taken for granted.
A shot of Irish whiskey coaxes one foot out the motel door. My gear is still inside the van, but I dash back to my room for my new raincoat and flies. I am off! To the river I charge. My heart races as my van accelerates out of the parking lot. A light rain dampens my spirits momentarily, but with each passing mile emotions vacillate between excitement and terror as I consider fishing alone for the first time.
I arrive at the river, leaping out to assess my domain. The rain has stopped and I have the entire place to myself. An old bridge extends across this section of the Au Sable, marking the upper boundary of the “flies only” water. I pull on my waders and boots and lug my heavy vest over outstretched arms. My vest is like my purse–both can always hold more even though nothing is ever removed. A final layer of raincoat and hat finishes my ensemble before I start to rig up my rod. The sound of tires on gravel makes me turn. Damn. The magic of the evening is spoiled, I am not alone after all. A man and two kids bounce out of the sedan and the man immediately comes over to speak. “Don Stacey, Saginaw, Michigan.” Nice to meet you and other pleasantries. He actually apologizes for interrupting my paradise. A nice enough man, especially if he is taking his son and daughter fishing. They plan to stick close to the bridge so that the kids don’t have to do much wading. They invite me to join them but I decline, heading in an opposite direction in my quest for solitude.
There is no path heading upstream, so I elect to cross the river and look for a trail on the other side. The current is steady here, especially in the middle where I must hold up the bottom of my vest to stay dry. I cross uneventfully and easily spot the trail as I emerge from the river. I try to make note of the landmarks along the way as I tromp along and caution myself not to stay out too late. I cross a creek with an old fish weir and stop to examine both. The creek seems very small and I wonder what the weir is supposed to block. The trail becomes more and more diffuse and I consider stopping and fishing back to the bridge. It will be a long walk back in the dark. But voices are still audible from the parking lot and I am urged onward as the trail angles into the woods.
I meander for some time through a plantation of white pine, probably planted in their nice, neat rows by the U.S. Forest Service fifty-some years ago. The trail winds out of the woods, paralleling the river; I pick a ninety degree offshoot that eventually directs me to the water. Watching the surface for activity, I unzip my rainjacket, releasing the heat built up from the hike in. I start fumbling through my vest for fly boxes while I cool off. An occasional plunk increases my blood pressure and I hurry to unsnap the pouch with the dry flies. After the third try, I find what I am looking for, but as soon as I step into the river it starts to rain. Not lightly this time, but a real pail dunking. I laugh out loud at the weather and at myself. Have I proven anything yet? Am I happy? Can I go home now? I pull on my hood and zip up, pondering these questions while searching for the perfect fly. A very distant flash in the sky causes me to lose my concentration. Was that lightening or Camp Grayling?
Just then the rain lets up and a few fish start to feed. Ooh. I quickly scan the stream in search of flying insects but see none. More fish are feeding now, perhaps seven or eight. My hands are quivering as I select a small Adams and tie it onto my tippet. I roll cast my offering to a fish that is feeding regularly in the same spot, but it drifts by untouched. I try it again and again. Nothing. Fish are beginning to feed in a frenzy now and I snip off my rejected fly and try something else. I cannot see to tie on my fly and search through my vest for a flashlight. Directing the light over the water surface reveals no sign of winged activity.
I try one more fly, this time a tiny caddis. Only caddis could escape unnoticed so quickly. Darkness is rapidly settling in and a light fog over the river makes it difficult to see my fly as I cast it out. Another roll cast to my friend, and this time a quick strike. And a miss by me. Damn. I cast again in the direction of another fish and notice that the feeding frenzy is gradually tapering off. Nothing. One more cast. One more cast. A flash of light and subsequent boom cause me to look up in bewilderment at an approaching storm. Where did that come from so quickly? At the same time my friendly fish takes the fly, hooking itself momentarily. I strip in several feet of slack line that I had let go when interrupted by the flash and boom. Too late, the fish is free. Felt like a nice one, too.
At least I got the fly right, I muse. I cast three more times in the direction of past splashes and come up empty each time. The fish have shut off now and I suddenly realize that I cannot see across the stream. Yes it is dark, but now the light fog has suddenly become as dense as smoke from burning leaves. Another flash of lightening; I start counting seconds to the boom, getting only to one-thousand two. This is not good, I think, reeling in my line. Why didn’t I leave earlier? I should have left at that first flash of light. Deep down I knew it was lightening and not Camp Grayling exercises. Idiot! Should have stayed at the bridge. Should have stayed at home. Self flagellation at a time like this was not useful, but I had to lash out at someone. As my mother used to say, “I yell because I care.”
I finish cursing myself as I wade toward the shore, slipping on the muddy bank. The storm is building and the thunder and lightening seem practically on top of me. I grab an alder branch and pull myself out. I unhook my flashlight from my retractor and its light starts to falter. Goddammit! I smack it and it seems to take notice. Should have checked the batteries. Should have, should have. That’s been my life. Should have used another doctor. Should have insisted on keeping the monitors on. Shit, I can’t handle this abuse now. The storm is like a great beast beyond the river bend; it hasn’t seen me yet, if I hurry I can escape it. Lookit God, I know I’m behind in prayers, but please keep me safe.
I hurry now through the alders. Where is the path? It should be here. I stop as I am jerked behind, my tangled line snatched by the brush. Shaking hands fumble with the snare and finally I cut the leader. I take the rod down and stow the reel in a vest pocket. Stupid. Did I really think I might fish on my way out? Flash! boom! lightening and thunder are nearly synchronized now; I turn to go, scraping my cheek on a errant branch. Ouch. A tickle on my cheek suggests blood and I wipe the annoyance against a wet shoulder.
I make better time now that my rod is down. I can get out of here, stay calm. The flashlight falters again, the rain is coming now in buckets. The trail is difficult to see, it is somewhere in this mess of alders and grass. I shake the flashlight. Curse again. I have reached an impasse and realize that I am not on a trail at all. My mouth is completely dry, my heart is racing. I cannot think, I try not to cry.
Go back to the river. How brilliant! The river will get me back to the parking lot eventually. Can I be electrocuted if lightening hits the water? Probably. But it should hit the trees before it hits the water. You will be safer in the water. My mind is at least functioning and I follow its directions, retracing my steps back to the water.
My first step into the river lands in a deep and mucky spot, but I don’t have the luxury of looking for a better entry. I carefully place each step forward, gagging on the stench that is emitted each time I retrieve my foot from the decay. Go slow, don’t fall here. The muck is knee deep but getting looser and I finally feel the relative stability of the river’s shifting sands. The water prods me forward and I try to stay in the slower current. My feet maneuver around small stones and a few logs. Another thunderbolt. Has the beast spotted me?
The river gets deeper, about thigh high, the current a little stronger. I am wading faster, but still able to feel the bottom with each step. It is mostly sandy here with just an occasional downed tree and few rocks. As I approach a bend in the river, the water reaches above my waist and I calculate which bank I can make it to first. If I head for the outside of the curve, it will be further but the current will be less strong. The inside bank is much closer, but it could be deeper and there might not be a trail there anyway. Which way? The water is above my belly button and I switch from shuffling to tiptoeing. As I scoop up the bottom of my vest, a fly box pops out and is carried downstream. Dropping the left side, I reach out to grab the box, which, while still floating, is just out of reach. I start to bounce a little quicker on my toes – six, seven, eight giant steps. One more step, I grab the box and then abruptly pitch forward as I trip on a submerged stump.
The water is cold and I feel it as a dam bursting, flooding first my head and arms, then trickling down my back and into each leg. I’m flailing and sputtering wildly as my feet search for safety. I try to swim but thrash helplessly with a fly box in one hand, a rod in the other. I think of my babies, growing up with just a dad, someday learning that their mother drowned while on a selfish fishing jaunt. Everyone will be sorry, but secretly pissed off at me, knowing that if I had just stayed at home this would never have happened. I realize I am living my recurrent nightmare where I fall in and eventually get tangled in an underwater logjam. I am going to drown. This has always been my worst fear, and now I am living it. Will my son be grown up in heaven? A sudden memory of a Dave Whitlock video flashes in my head: there was Dave, floating down the river, calmly narrating what to do if you fell. “Lean back and allow the current to float you to shallower waters. Don’t try to fight the current…” I stretch my arms out while twisting around backward, allowing my head to bob to the surface. A deep breath restores my lungs, I try to keep arching my back. Within moments my feet are dragging in gravel and I swivel around and right myself. I make my way to the bank, half standing and half crawling, unable to walk upright with my extra ten pounds of water. I collapse on the bank, quickly losing an easy five. Thank you, Dave.
Still clutched in my right hand is the rod, the fly box in the left. These cursed weapons that I have paid hundreds for and protected so, all to pursue a fish that I will subsequently release, have nearly cost me my life. I should pitch the flies into the river, break the rod over my knee, bury it all in an unmarked grave. But practicality beats out capriciousness and instead I consider the consequences of staying in this spot all night: lying flat I would not be struck by lightening, the rain would keep the mosquitoes away, I wouldn’t drown. I mull it over for a few minutes, but soon start shivering, reminded that hypothermia is no picnic either.
The storm is so peculiar. While it seems that my escapade has lasted hours, the beast is still just around the river bend. Like a giant hunting dog, the storm wants to first flush me from the river, then finish me with a shot of lightening. Sighing, I pull myself together and up. I decide to walk for four minutes and if I can’t find the trail, I will spend the rest of the night in the woods.
Such a simple proposal, but within moments the head demons are silenced. My heart has slowed, my saliva returns. After two minutes and some odd seconds I find a trail and follow it downstream. The rain has turned to a gentle mist and I wonder how long it has been this way. The flashlight’s weak beam does not cut the fog, but allows me to at least see my boots and a couple of steps in front of them. Within five minutes my feet stop at the little creek with the fish weir. Thank you God and all you saints and angels.
I look at my watch again. I know that I crossed the river and encountered the weir just afterwards. Was afterwards two minutes, four minutes? How long? Crossing in the wrong spot could mean another dunking, and while I am already wet, I don’t relish the idea of another near drowning. I will go for one minute plus, not as far as two. I can hear the river but can see no more than ten feet of it. I have to step in again, go across. The current will push me and I will have to be careful not to fall. Sixty seconds. I look into the fog. Do I cross here?
Suddenly I hear a car door slam. Voices. Oh, sweet Jesus. It is Don Stacey and family. My blessed intruders of the night. A faint glow across the water –car lights. Thank you, thank you. I step into the river, carefully angling my way across and slightly downstream. I call out to them and Don yells back. “We were starting to worry.” Me too, I whisper, and aloud a little chortle. Oh, there was a hatch and I couldn’t tear myself away. Something all fly fishers can understand.
Out of the water we talk about the fishing. No luck at the bridge but the kids had fun with their casting. He is interested in my little hatch story but I mention nothing about being lost, nearly drowning, the beast. I notice that they are packed up and realize that they have been waiting for me. Thank you for waiting for me. And for leaving your car lights on. You really are a life saver. “Oh, we just got out. We didn’t really wait long. Just a few minutes.” If you hadn’t been here, I wouldn’t have known where to cross the river. I think about telling him more, but the rain starts up again and we all hastily say goodbye and jump into our cars.
Both vehicles wheel out of the parking lot; Don turns left, me right. I wish for my Irish whiskey. I wish for little arms to hug me, little voices to tell me they love me. See, there are happy endings. The rain is pelting down with a fury and I pull over to the shoulder to wait it out. Rain turns to marble-sized hail. The beast is loose.