I realized I’d made nearly the same trip nearly fifteen years ago with my father and my brother. My father’s cousin, the one who taught him to hunt and fish, invited everyone down for a long weekend of family and friends, chasing smallmouth and squirrels. Beer. Fireworks. We never made it because my father didn’t know which stream to ford, chose the main river instead of the smaller tributary, and buried what may have been the world’s only five-speed 1994 Plymouth Voyager minivan in the middle of the stream. I assume there was water in the engine compartment because there was definitely water shipping in under the sliding door. I was handed a clunk cell phone and hitched in the back of a red Ranger to find Shannon County’s One-Armed Towtruck Driver. My father and my brother and our obese chocolate lab fished and swam. It would’ve been a year before his surgery. Two years before dying of complications. He wasn’t an asshole, just the kind of guy more easily understood in hindsight.
The campground was full at 12:30 so I huffed it a couple gravel bars upstream and staked a place on a massive new gravel bar. I tried coming two months ago, but twelve inches of rain and twenty feet of water prevented, reshaping the entire river in the process. It was hot and sunny and I loafed and snorkeled until the evening, catching a couple sunfish and one smallmouth well after dark.
I started a campfire and laid out on the gravel bar, watching the stars and fireflies and listening to the whipporwhills and Fowlers toads and cricket frogs. At two-thirty I woke up because coyotes were howling and a raccoon back in the trees was growling and shrieking, as if reliving some past offense. At three-thirty I woke and noticed it was muggy, that mosquitoes were biting my face and gnats were in my ears. At five I raised my eyelids to a featureless sky and flickers of lightning, so I hauled everything up the bank behind arching willows that had survived the flood.
I caught a couple over-eager longear and some dink smallmouth as it rained on me, but the topwater bite I’d been hoping for never materialized. I was spoiled fishing for smallmouth out east- the streams are dirtier, more turbid, and so many are so impounded folks are far more likely to head to some reservoir, anyway. I explored a couple new places until the first few kayaks started drifting from upstream, then packed it in and headed for the parking lot.
Nineteen cars in a space designed for ten, not so much parked as stopped in the place and moment the owner lost interest in driving. I miss that about out east, too- if you’re willing to walk a mile or entertain an elderly landowner’s theory on the Second Coming, you can have a good stretch of river mostly to yourself. “Loved to death” is an appellation commonly applied to this place, one of the most protected streams in the country making it one of the most protected streams on the planet. Sometimes the problem isn’t a dam or a mine or a shopping mall, sometimes it’s us. I cracked a beer and asked around for the owner of the White Ford that had boxed me in, and scouted for another more desolate access without any luck and pointed the car home.
Another day, hopefully.