Streamside Solitude

Madison River, Craig Hergert

Streamside Solitude

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Mike England

 The sun sits high overhead as I drop my pack and flop down on the rocks. A cool wind wrinkles the water as Cole, my four-legged companion, trots over to quench his thirst.

We’ve been hiking for two hours, clambering over driftwood, diversion dams, and river rock, under a relentless summer sun. Resting in the shade against a downed cottonwood, I feel languid and dreamy. We have all day to fish, I think to myself as I close my eyes and drift off.

I awake to see that Cole has started fishing without me. He’s stalking the shallows, ears perked forward, head snapping left and right as trout and whitefish dart away at his approach. I can’t help but smile. This is exactly why we hoofed it upstream to this little patch of public land abutting the river. Nobody’s here to complain about him spooking the fish.

A few weeks earlier, we’d fished the Beaverhead, just below Clark Canyon Dam. It was a popular spot; by 8:30am, a dozen fishermen had lined up at uncomfortably close intervals. I squeezed myself in and had just hooked a nice rainbow when I heard an angry voice behind me.

“I’m gonna kick that damn dog,” came the gruff proclamation, and I turned to see a heavyset man wading toward the bank, where Cole had his nose buried in the man’s gear.

I broke off my fish and walked over, where it took every bit of diplomacy I could muster to avert streamside fisticuffs. In the end, I took Cole back to the truck and sacrificed choice spots throughout the day as I checked in on him.

But out here in the boondocks, far away from the nearest access point, there are no annoyed fishermen to placate, nobody’s personal space to invade. This stretch of river belongs to Cole and me for the day. We have only ourselves to bother, and only ourselves to please.

As I munch on elk jerky and scan the water for rising trout, I wonder why more people don’t hike in a few miles and spend the night on the river. The fishing is generally great, and the solitude unparalleled. And out here, epiphanies ride the wind.

Fishing is one of those activities that actually fosters epiphanies—rare moments of lucidity when one catches a glimpse of totality, its meaning, and one’s place within it. “Yes. I see it. I feel it,” you announce to everyone, and to no one. It’s as if you’re wired into the universe, feeling its pulse, flowing through its veins in an uninterrupted stream of energy. And then, like a passing memory or a mild bout of melancholy, it slips away, leaving only a vague and indescribable feeling, and a hope for its return. So you keep fishing, and you wait.

Out here the epiphanies seem to come more often; with the distractions removed, the conditions are more conducive. I see not only myself, but other creatures, other species with ancestors much older than mine. The soaring eagle, the nimble otter—fellow fishermen and fellow dreamers—what do their epiphanies tell them? What do they see with a collective unconscious one million years old?

The day is long. Cole and I fish at a leisurely pace, keeping two fat rainbows for dinner: browned over an open fire, hand-peeled off the bones, and shoved into the mouth in huge portions. I wipe my face on my sleeve and sprawl out, gazing at the stars above. I vow to learn more constellations as I drift off, thinking of a day when I’ll be able to recall an epiphany, and communicate it to the angry man who kicks a curious dog.

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