River of dreams

Russell Wangersky
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Sometimes, things go right. Spectacularly, wonderfully right. Despite being close enough to the highway that you’d expect the junk left by careless travellers to be almost everywhere, despite the column of hundreds of hungry blackflies above my head like aircraft holding over Chicago’s O’Hare airport, despite all the things that can take simple wonders and destroy them, the day unfolded into sheer wonder.

It didn’t seem that way at the start: looking out over the river from where I’d parked the car, you could see that someone had dumped the paneling of a recent renovation job down the embankment.

It wasn’t the only unsightly piece of repair work. Down in the valley, there was also the battered remains of the work of a particularly enterprising group of beavers.

They had, in a fit of animal engineering hubris, decided they could block the river and flood the whole valley — this, a river some three feet deep or more in the spots where it narrows to 20 feet wide, a healthy amount of water even in dry times.

But the winter’s high water had undercut the effort along one flank, and a year’s work (the dam wasn’t there last year) had been swept down both sides of the river. Of the beavers, that blown dam and the stumps of trees up the banks were the only signs left.

But the day was warm enough for June, and the water on the river was high enough for trout to be moving into unexpected spots — they were rising for small flies in the shallows as soon as I got to the water’s edge.

I only had an hour or so and that meant I was rushing to get to a spot below one of the falls.

There is a staggered row of falls on that particular river, some of them spots where there’s swimming in late August, all of them usually holding bigger trout swept down from the huge pond above by the spring flood.

I wanted to do a quick scoot through a few of the best spots, hoping the fish swept down would be so eager they’d ignore the sloppiness of early season casting.

Slipping in my old boots, those olive-green waders I’ve trundled up rivers in for years, the soles worn almost perfectly round now like a bald tire — but still with only one leak, and that one’s high on the inside of my left thigh (where, truth be told, water doesn’t come in unless I’m in too uncomfortably, foolishly deep anyway).

And, like every spring, that rush saw me fall a few times. I think it’s like ships and sailors — walking rivers is like finding your sea legs, a curious kind of rolling gait that takes into account the unevenness of the bottom and the regular chance rolling of unstable stones underfoot. I know I’m always better at it by July, but every spring makes me wonder how long it will be before my feet are too unsure to do it any longer.

(You may not know that feeling yet, but you will.)

I was fishing up the river, working the spots between the falls, until I came to a narrow spot where the cliffs edged in on both sides, the righthand side vertical, the left an angled fault of rough stone I climbed around and over.

Then, the blackflies biting my arms, the spots between my knuckles, the back of my neck, poked and pocked by sharp sticks, sweaty and fish-less, then, for the first time that day, I turned and faced downstream.

Leaning up against the jagged rock of the cliff, points of stone pressed into my back, I watched my fly line lying flat on the water, not even fishing then, the small grey fly sunk in the current.

I saw the river for a moment framed between the grey cliff on both sides, set up as if for a photograph, well below the hills behind so that there was no direct sun, but sun ahead in the valley back where the beaver had tried and so spectacularly failed, in the foreground, the water boiling roundly down over a low falls so that it looked thick, like the surface-turn of cooking jelly just before it’s ready to bottle.

There are things you see and catch and mark and know are the moments of living.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached

by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Geographic location: Chicago

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