O/B Hit List- Best Story 2011

by Jeff Hostetler

Just downstream, near the top of an island, a trout rose into the air in an arc and then vanished back into the river. Larry and I maneuvered our kayaks into an eddy at the bottom of the island; Larry marched back to the top of the island to hunt down the fish while I stood on the bank, watching the seam between the calm water and the main current of the river. A fish rose, and I sent my #14 Yellow Sally into that seam, where it rode the riffle and a head came up and ate it. At the same instant, Larry came around the corner with his rod bobbing in his right arm. We landed the fish within feet of each other, both shiny summer rainbows around 16 inches long. We took a picture of both fish positioned in a yin-yang pose in the large rubber boat net. Larry and I restored the fish and they darted off upstream under the midday sun.

Larry went back to the head of the island and I started casting where I stood. I hooked and landed another rainbow, this time a smaller one, and as I lifted my head after releasing the fish, I glanced downstream and saw that Larry’s yellow kayak had drifted 100 yards down the river. I yelled to Larry, who peered downstream at me, then spotted the kayak from under his straw hat. He started running along the bank, reeling in his line.

“Get in your boat and go get it!” he yelled.

I reeled in my line and made the few short leaps toward my boat, and when Larry got there I confirmed, “You want me to go get it?”

“Yeah man, I’m gonna have to swim.”

I was new to kayaking, so I looked at Larry again and asked, “You sure?”

“Yes, go!”

I dragged my boat off the bank, grabbed the paddle, and hopped into the open hole. I slipped my rod within the shock cord on the bow of the boat, half of it extending past the bow like a jousting lance. Still uncomfortable in a kayak, even though I had spent a few hours in it that day, I rocked my hips back and forth to center my body weight, and made quick stabbing strokes toward the escaped boat. Its yellow hull looked like a giant banana on the green water, and the high sandstone cliffs to the right cast a shadow toward where the boat was headed. Larry’s camera, his fishing pack, and his lunch were perched precariously on top of the boat.

I moved surprisingly fast and within a minute was 20 feet from the boat. Up ahead in the shadows was a van-sized boulder, and I cranked hard so I could grab the other boat before it hit the boulder and capsized. Both boats had entered the shadows now, and the river beneath them was pine-forest green. With a few more strokes, I was within paddle’s reach of the yellow kayak. Doubt reeled through me. How was I supposed to grab the boat when the use of my paddle necessitated both hands? What was I was supposed to do once I grabbed the boat? Should I grab the yellow boat before it slammed into the boulder or after the boat spun around it? If it hit the boulder it might go under, become pinned against it, and then we’d never be able to pry it off—all of Larry’s possessions would sink or be swept away. I thought about what Larry would do were he in my shoes, how he wouldn’t think twice about saving my stuff.

Then the yellow boat rose up in the swell formed on the face of the boulder, and silently slipped off to the side. My rod tip touched the rock first, snapping it into pieces. Then the bow of the boat made a hard plastic thud that entered my toes, shocking my knees and hips. The bow spun off the rock, I was thrown out of the boat, and I saw only the grey veins of ancient sandstone. The rush of the river around the boulder entered my ears, loud, old explosions of momentum, of torrent, of elements, and my boat hung sideways on the face of the rock, suspended in this timeless race of gravity, helpless. Graphite tinkled, I saw green, and I was underwater.

Against my right shoulder, hip, and knee, I felt the worn, rounded grit of the sandstone boulder. I reached up with my right arm but felt only sand as pebbles rattled around between my palm and curved fingers. My legs were pinned above me, the river forcing my knees into the sandpaper finish and abrading my thighs. My chest and face were forced to the rock, smashing my nose in the darkness.

Womblike, the river and the rock held me there. I thought of my wife Erin, under the big maple, in the grass I mowed last evening. The baby would be lying on her back in the grass, Erin tickling her wriggling legs and the rolls under her chin as the baby giggled. The white cat Camino would purr around her hips, nudging her elbows, trying to win some affection from his owner. The dog, Duke, would raise his ears as the wind blew the maple leaves, thinking he heard a gopher in the hedge. Pickups with stenciled doors would rattle and clang by with black trailers full of mowers and sprinkler parts, or sod and hedge trimmers. In a couple of hours, Erin would put the baby to sleep for her afternoon nap, and she would lie barefoot in the hammock on the deck. Not much later, the older children would arrive from the park, shouting and dropping their bikes in the driveway, and start up the metallic stretching of springs on the trampoline. Then back flips and crack the egg, and when it got too hot they would put the sprinkler underneath, leaving wet footprints in the launch pad, springing and bouncing and singing.

And then I dug the fingernails of my left hand into the rock, pushed into the gravel with my right hand, and my body was perpendicular to the rock. Again I dug, reached above and across my head with my right hand, and with my feet at eight and head at three, I skidded my chest to the left, reached up with my right hand where I felt a ledge, and clutched it. I pulled, the suction broke, my wedding ring sucked off my left finger, green and white bubbles rushed past my head, and like a trout set free, I swam downstream, underwater. I felt the bottom, and drug my toes to slow my movement. Then the current slowed—I was in the eddy. I pushed off the bottom with my feet, and launched into the cool air of the summer shade of the massive cliff. Gasping for air, I staggered to shallower water, looking for the boats and for Larry. He was in the middle of the river, swimming toward me. It looked like he was on a conveyor belt, and I just raised my right arm and waved.

“I’m OK.”

“You sure you're OK?”


“Get back in the river. We need to get those boats!”

Convulsing from the adrenaline, I slipped back into the current, but more controlled than before. I went feet first this time so I could steer myself off any submerged rocks. Larry stopped at an island, secured my boat, dropped his rod, and ran back into the river to get his yellow boat 400 yards below. When I arrived at my boat, I knew I had to get back in and help Larry. But where had he and the yellow boat gone? The river and the cliffs bent to the right, and I couldn’t see my friend.

I put my boat in and paddled hard. Then Larry came around the corner in his boat, paddling up the eddy formed inside the corner. The boats were saved, and the only things lost were a straw hat, some sunglasses, and my wedding band. My rod was still strapped atop the boat, shattered in five pieces, with the fly line still strung through them.

Larry told his wife that we had quite a day fishing, and that I'd broken my rod. I told Erin the truth, and she hugged me hard, kissed my swollen nose, and said she was glad they lost the ring and not me.

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