Crossing the Gorge

I Watched my grandpa’s line roll across the water in a radial arc until his fly landed in a deep pool that was protected from the current by a large boulder. “That’s where the big ones are,” he shouted. His line drifted slowly downstream until it caught the speed of the current. He flicked his rod back to the 10 o’clock position sending his line whizzing back overhead until it became parallel with the earth behind him. He continued the same back and forth motion, casting graceful curves into the air, until his fly landed gently back into the pool without a splash.

Watching an expert fly fisherman on the water is akin to watching a ballet dancer. The delicate turns and precise movements danced to the music of the wind and the babble of the creek. My Grandpa was most certainly an expert. He’d been fly fishing since he was a boy; long before it became a sport. He came from a dirt-poor family in Eastern Texas where a good days fishing could be the difference between a good supper and going hungry.

“Grab the net,” He yelled. His rod bent sideways turning it into the shape of the letter u. I scrambled to his position in the river and waited for him muscle it in. His rod jerked sporadically as the fish fought desperately to save its own life—His left hand slowly pulled the line which floated downstream with the current. I often wondered why he didn’t use his reel, but was too afraid to ask.

He fought the monster trout for more than ten minutes. It ran upstream and then downstream. It tried to hide behind a rock or log, but my grandpa would change his position or move his body and chase it out. Finally, he drew the fish in close and I slipped the net beneath it. Just in time. As soon as I scooped it up, he broke free of the fly. “Good job,” My Grandpa said as he slapped me on the back.

That’s how I spent the summers of my late adolescence. We were nomads, wandering through Northern California and Oregon in search of fertile rivers. We camped in an old travel trailer that was pulled by a rusty International pickup. I often slept outside on the ground looking up at the stars or in a pup tent if the weather was Cool. Sometimes, we would we would find a good spot and stay for weeks. Other times, we would break camp after a day if the fishing wasn’t good.

Each morning, we rose at sunrise. “That was the best time to fish, ”my Grandpa told me. We also fished in the late afternoon. “That was the second best time,” he said. When we weren’t fishing, I did chores around camp or picked wild blackberrys for my Grandma to make a cobbler. Each night, my Grandpa sat at a table by the campfire and tied flys in preparation for the next days work.

“I’m gonna head up river and see if I can find another spot,” I asked.

“Okay, Drag, just make sure you’re back in time for supper.”

That’s what he called me. He was never happy with the speed I walked or worked, so he coined the name for me. Drag was short for drag-ass. It stuck too. That’s what my grandma and cousins called me until I reached the age of 13 at which point I put a stop to it.

In hindsight, I’m not sure that my Grandpa ever liked me much. I was a chubby kid from the suburbs who had no knowledge of the outdoors. I think he and my grandma felt that it was their responsibility to show me the way of the country folk. That’s what they called themselves. So, for three summers, from the age of 11 to 13, I spent my vacations learning their ways.

I walked up stream by myself—finally free from the pressure of my Grandpa’s ever critical eye. Golden shafts of light streamed through the trees and lit up the ground in patterns of green and yellow. Mayflies danced in the light and then disappeared into the shadows. It was a good day to be a boy.

My grandfather taught me the proper way to look at nature. To watch the air and water to see what type of insects were hatching. That was part of the art of fly fishing: To trick the fish into thinking that your fly was real. I stopped and pulled a mayfly from my bag and tied it to the end of my leader. I used a knot that resembled a hangman’s noose, just like I’d been taught.

Above my Grandfathers position, the river cut a narrow gorge into the solid rock. Straight as an arrow, it flowed without deviation, from east to west. The water was swift and churned violently. A constant roar echoed through the forest. “It certainly wouldn’t be any good for fishing,” I thought, so I pushed eastward.

I tramped along the edge of the bank which was dotted with thick blackberry bushes. They were heavy with ripe clusters and I stopped occasionally to pick a few. With one hand, I climbed over rocks and through trees as I made my way upstream—all the while nibbling on berries which had stained my hands purple.

“What were my friends doing back home?” I wondered. “Probably riding bikes or playing pickup games of football in the street,” I guessed. That all seemed to be a million miles away to me now. But, I wasn’t homesick. I was gaining confidence and independence that could never have been achieved at home. I was starting to become a man.

My fishing was improving too. Although I was not yet at my Grandfathers level, I had reached a minimum level of competency. My casts were smooth and I was able to create long flowing arcs with my line and rarely snapped the fly from my leader. My Grandpa gave me a limit of 2 flys per day. Any more than that, and I was relegated to fishing with salmon eggs on a spinning rod. That was motivation enough—nobody wanted to be a bait fisherman on the river.

Once, at the beginning of summer, I pierced my ear with a number 4 hook on a forward cast. My Grandpa had to fish it out with a pair of needle-nose pliers. The barb tore a hole in my ear as he ripped it out causing blood to flow down my neck. The scar was a reminder to keep my casts high and watch for obstructions behind me.

After an hour of hiking, I reached the mouth of the gorge. The day was late and the shadows were getting long. I wondered if I would be able to make it back to camp before dark. Just then, I spotted a deep pool on the other side of the river that I was sure would be filled with giant trout. I studied the river and decided that it was too dangerous to wade across. The water was fast and probably up to my chest at its shallowest point. Luckily, I spotted a fallen tree at the mouth of the gorge that was just wide enough to walk across. The only problem was that the far end was under water. I estimated that I could walk to the point where it was submerged and jump to the other side.

Carefully, I placed one foot in front of the other as I made my way across the narrow plank. I held my rod in front of me for balance like a tight rope walker. When I reached the point where the log was submerged, it became obvious that the distance to shore was too great to jump across. The tree was also narrow, so there was no way I could turn around and go back. I had reached an impasse. I watched the water as it crested the log and faded into a torrent of white water when it reached the gorge. I reckoned that I could take one step into the water and then catapult myself to dry land. Without hesitation, I pushed my right foot forward.

Without warning, I was sucked into the river on the upstream side of the log. I slipped off as soon as my foot made contact the slick green moss that was just below the surface. There was no stumbling or loss of balance—it was if I had been sucked in by a giant vacuum cleaner. I was under the water and my body was pinned against the log. I was in deep trouble. From the corner of my eye, I could see my rod skip along the rocks at the bottom the river and disappear into the raging torrent. I tried to free myself, but the current was too strong. My torso was folded across the log with arms above and legs trailing below.

I didn’t panic. Time seemed to slow down and I became hyper aware of my surroundings. The water was crystal clear and I could see bubbles float to the surface as they escaped my mouth. My stomach burned as a broken limb pierced my skin and tore a hole in my shirt. I wiggled my body back and forth for what seemed like an eternity desperately trying to free myself. Suddenly, the current sucked me under and I popped out on the other side.

When I came to the surface, I panicked. “Help!” I yelled, but there was no one there. My words echoed in the forest and faded away until there was no sound except for the roar of the river. I flapped my arms like an injured bird and grasped for anything to save myself. Somehow, I caught the tip of a bush that overhung the water. I could feel the fibers pull apart as the current dragged me under. I glanced to my left and saw the water churn violently as it entered the gorge only 20 feet away. It suddenly occurred to me that I might die. I thought about my Mom and Dad back home and how sad they would be when they got the news of my death. I thought about my Grandpa and how my death would only confirm his suspicions that I didn’t quite measure up. In desperation, I began to pray.

Carefully, I reached up with my left hand and grabbed another piece of vegetation. The current pulled me into a horizontal position and I felt as though the river was playing a deadly game of tug-o-war with my body. My life was literally hanging by two threads that were no larger than a piece of wicker. Inch by inch, I worked my way up the brittle threads trying desperately not to break them. Finally, I pulled myself dry land.

For a moment, I stood waist-deep in the water with my chest heaving as adrenaline coursed through my veins. My knuckles were white and still gripped pieces of twig that had broken off in my hands. Exhausted, I climbed out of the water and crawled to the top of the bank and collapsed into a soggy heap.

It was well after dark when I returned to camp that night. I had to hike upstream for another mile or so until I could find a place where it was safe to cross. To make matters worse, I lost my way in the dark trying to find my way back home. Needless to say, my Grandpa was furious when I arrived.

I didn’t fish again that summer. My Grandpa was punishing me for being irresponsible and refused to buy me another rod. He wouldn’t loan me one if his spares either. I spent the rest of my summer hiking in the forest or swimming in the river. But, I didn’t care. I had looked death in the face and lived to tell about it.

Bob Kelsoe is a freelance writer and photographer from Southern California. He has a passion for crafting non-fiction stories based on his adventures and real-life experiences. His work has been featured or forthcoming in several publications including Reminisce Magazine, The Mindful Word, Roam Family Travel and the Senior Voice. You can find his photography on Instagram @Traveling_Strong.