I realize now that I have spent my entire life around water. My memories are water.
On a recent outing in the dog days of summer, I took a break from my office to take a stroll along a path of rolling hills and scorched prairie grass in South Central Minnesota, far from any sea. It was hot, and I was thirsty. Birds of prey cruised the thermals, peering down at me through razor sharp eyes that cut the heat’s haze like a laser. The slightest breeze, no more than a whisper on my cheek, was enough to ruffle the brittle, delicate leaves of terminally dehydrated prairie grasses. A single bead of sweat jumped from the skin between my shoulder blades and rolled lazily down the watershed of my back. As I crested a bluff and reached for air, I was confronted by a precipitous drop into the Minnesota River Valley. There, one of our thousands of lakes beckoned below, and in an instant I felt pulled towards it, and pushed into deep visions of memories, of water.
Off the lush Oregon coast, a massive swell rolls towards me. I’m a piece of dust, wallowing around in 71% of the earth. I won’t take this one, so I sit straddling my board as the mighty Pacific gently, but firmly, lifts me into the air. As I fall, and the wave crests, a stiff offshore burst of invisibleness sends part of the lip crumbling skyward, falling around me like the briefest of spring showers. It’s cold on my unshaven face. I spot a rainbow through the remaining mist, and smile. The flowing water world is still for an instant. I feel the tide, the currents, the lull between sets, but hear nothing as I’m momentarily lost in thinking of that one wave’s path, and it’s long, long journey to me.
As I turn my gaze towards the horizon, my heart sinks, and all senses come roaring back to their rightful place. I’m awake. The next set has arrived, and I’m caught inside. I paddle furiously towards open water, but it’s far too late. I ditch the board as a dark green monster rears on its heels before me like tectonic plates converging to form an instant mountain. It starts to curl, so I breathe deep and dive. Below the surface, the world is muffled and dark. There’s a momentary calm, but I know what’s coming. Just before she tears into me, I swear I can hear her scream, “How about this one you worthless fuck!” “How sweet,” I think as the air is punched from my lungs, and I become a limp ragdoll getting rinsed by the 71% of the earth that just became a heavenly laundry machine. Whitewater explodes into every crevice of my body, and my wetsuit floods, freezing cold. I relax. It should be over soon. “Take this like a man,” I think. An eternity passes, and it still isn’t over. I panic, and start clawing for the surface, heart racing, blackness petrifying. The chokehold eventually relaxes as my head breaks through the barrier. Lungs contract. Breathe, boy!
High in the Rockies, a snowflake tickles my nose. It’s early morning and a few lonely flakes whip around rocks, dive into valleys, and whisper through pines, eventually landing among their brethren in an ocean of white. I’m surrounded by water. Billions and trillions and infinite numbers of frozen water droplets drape the landscape like a heavy cotton sheet. Imagine if it was liquid, clinging to rocky crags, immune to gravity. The ever early sun pokes holes through remnants of last night’s storm, illuminating each and every one of the endless crystals, shimmering like glitter or stars on stars. I crane my neck upwards, and put one foot in front of the other. At 11,000 feet, every breath counts, burning and counting. In. Step. Out. Step. In. Step. Climb. Keep climbing. The skis and skins on my feet are heavy, or so say my legs, screaming for oxygen. But there is none, and I keep climbing. I pause and look back at where I’ve been, a delible trough that cuts the great white sea, weaving through pines and over seasonal meadows.
At 12,000 feet, I leave all signs of trees behind and enter a blinding, windswept expanse. The alpine gusts are perfectly visible as the wide open face is striated like an endless desert of windswept sand. I beeline towards the ridgetop, and take a look around. To my South I see the shallow dip of the Continental Divide at Hoosier Pass, to the West the 10 Mile and Mosquito Ranges, the distant silhouette of the menacing Gore Range to the North, and the Front Range to my East. A 360 degree view of age old rocks, absolutely soaked with pure, scintillating water. Skis connect to boots, connect to feet, connect to mind, and I’m ready to paint. I drop my hip, and initiate the first sweeping stroke as thundering muscles resist gravity to the miniscule extent they can. Each arc comes faster and faster, the valley rising towards me as I fall to the floor of the earth. Heart pounds, muscles scream, eyes tear up, and the world rejoices. The mountain is my canvas, and the earth will erase it. Come spring, the crystalline snow will melt, filling my strokes with water, and make a journey down thousands of feet of gullies and creeks, ultimately landing in the Blue River, and then on to the sea.
Beneath a canopy of deciduous green, I’m stalking trout. It’s a relaxing feeling to stalk an animal you can’t see. Gin clear, spring fed water babbles excitedly over my feet, and over rounded stones, shifting and tumbling along the riverbed. Somewhere far upstream, this water emerges from a black and mysterious aquifer, meandering through dairy farms, under county roads, and into the homes of whitetailed deer and mosquitoes. Ancient glaciers once roamed these parts, leaving behind boulders and other evidence of their existence, known as drift. The Rush River, however, traverses an area characterized by a lack of drift, so the area naturally became known as Driftless. And that’s how I feel as I make my way upstream, listening to the song of summer Cicadas and distant cows. My fly rod moves back and forth restlessly. I enter a kind of mindless trance, picking apart riffles, runs, and eddies without any real conscious thought. Over and over again, searching for elusive trout, slipping deeper and deeper into my driftless state. The song of the swallows melds with the buzz of gnats, the flowing stream, the wind in the trees, and the heat of the day. There is nothing but this. Before long, my eye catches a movement that swims against the grain of the driftless. A small shadow slips out from a log and moves lazily upstream. Here we go.
I strip out excess line from the reel, maybe thirty feet, and it falls away downstream behind me. A quick flick of the wrist brings the rod tip up to two o’clock. For a moment, I’m fifteen and driving with my mom, permit in pocket. “Hands at ten and two!” she would command. Didn’t she know that was much more pertinent to fly fishing? The line is ripped from the surface of the water and fires backwards over my shoulder. I can’t see it, but my little brown Caddis fly with its razor sharp point zips within inches of my ear. I wait. It happens quickly, but there really is a discernable moment to wait. Time stops and there is no sound. My eyes are pegged on the fish, right arm one with the rod, waiting. Then I feel it. The line begins to straighten out behind me and the rod tip begins to pull. Steadily, the pressure increases as the weight of the line builds power into the rod, bending further and further away from me. I know the line is taught, but I have to wait. A moment longer. My eyes haven’t left the fish when I feel the potential energy reach its real potential. An authoritative flick of the wrist with a burst from the upper arm brings the rod tip to ten o’clock. Just like that and the line is flying the other way, screaming past my head with a new kind of zest, a life of it’s own. The loop uncurls like a flower blooming, and the Caddis skips through the air, landing delicately in front of the shadow. Before I can blink, there’s a splash and the fly disappears. I instinctively raise the rod tip over my head, and the line is taught, twanging with the movements of the little trout. I can feel its every move. Through the water, into the line, down the rod, across my skin, and into my heart. I tell the trout to jump, and it does. My eyes feast on its beautiful colors, a stream chameleon of browns, reds, and yellows. It looks like the stones beneath my feet, under the water. Without warning, it spits the fly and it’s not my day.
Then I’m back on the bluff, sweating harder, feeling excited knowing that my life is fluid.