Monday, May 16, 2011

Floating Away

We float on this liquid ribbon, Keith and I.  We float out of need- we've left jobs and families, obligations and bills, and left it in a hurry, for this, our chance to feel free again, to drift under somber skies, our time measured by a distinct lack of haste, a nonchalance in our approach to this whole adventure- neither of us have really packed right.  Keith had no idea the contents of his gear bags when we left, I had no idea what I had for food or cooking utensils.  People rarely starve or freeze in 24 hours.  It's nice to have food, but not necessary.  We've done this so many times now that there are no shortages or emergencies, only the inconveniences of short-sightedness- I've only packed one rod (which will come back to bite me) and Keith hasn't packed one at all, which he grumbles about as we drift and dig.

We talk and drift and dig.  We talk about our kids, our jobs, our frustrations, concerns.  We drift with the current, dipping a paddle to correct here and there.  I dig- Keith is definitely not in a hurry, but I find speed to be an ally in negotiating the frequent strainers and blow-downs.  This kind of kayaking is blissfully relaxing and we blow off more steam in two hours of paddling than we ever could any other way, any other how.

I portage three times on the float down into camp. Keith portaged two.  He's more aggressive than I am about making a path through downed trees- I've had several close calls in the last two years (including a partial sinking I'd rather not think about a couple weeks ago) and am much more cautious.  I'm more than happy to jump out of my boat and drag it around obstacles.

Michigan has so many hidden treasures, like this one- a nondescript stream, in a nondescript corner of the state, complete with its own wilderness areas.  When I cross the Mackinaw Bridge headed north, I automatically lose 20 pounds, my voice lowers, tears appear in my t-shirts at bicep level.  Yes ladies, it is a testosterone fueled dream, but not the one you're thinking.  I just feel rejuvenated, new again, ready to to take on the wilderness, the rivers, woods, weather, and fish.  I'm sure you have your own version of this vision- you unleashed, unhinged, ready to take all-comers, a bad person in the badlands.

Keith is a couple of years younger than I am, and we make a good team.  I organize larger expeditions, 6 to 7 guys (no gals have joined us yet, but you're more than welcome), kayaking 30 or more miles of river in 3 to 4 days.  This isn't much in the world of paddling, but these trips aren't about paddling.  I do the legwork, picking the stream, inviting the crowd, putting together gear lists, setting dates, arranging rides.  I run my own business, and feel that I tend to be overbearing and this is where Keith comes in.  On the river I sit back and let things develop.  Keith is a natural leader, and when direction is lacking he takes over and initiates breaks, meals, reins in absurdity, and organizes the search for camping spots.  I sit back, and weigh in only when necessary.  Floating, just the two of us, none of this is necessary- we know where we are going, how long it will take.  All we have to do is get there, so we slide along, shifting in our kayaks, comfortable in the balance we've struck between boat and stream, more at ease here than in our lives.

This river is strange, disconcerting even, with steep, sandy birch-and-spruce walled banks, banks heavily eroded from consecutive 100- and 50-year floods.  It winds tightly, and several times we realize that we have floated for 20 minutes, only to end up within 20 yards of where we were 20 minutes ago.  The floods have mercifully cut off the longest one of these meaders- the break in the isthmus was a trickle last year, this year we float down into a raging boil that hits the far bank head-on, a tricky maneuver in our 12 foot boats.  Keith's boat is rather flat bottomed, but mine has a more complex hull, multi-chined, with a hard keel line, and all of these boils and hole-turns grab and twist my boat relentlessly.  As we near our goal we realize that the river is not slowing- the beaver dam is gone.  A six foot drop eliminated, and still the water is ungodly high.  We float through boulder rapids, neatly skirting the rocks that would claim us, laughing as we bounce and skim and then suddenly, Shangri-La appears- the inflow of another stream, this one gravel-laden, and immediately I am struck by the shiny gravel ovals- steelhead.  It bodes well.  We turn the kayaks around, push up against the bank, the inlet river also swollen, and we stagger ashore.
making the world safe for campers

 It is heaven, a heaven made of spruce, birch, trickling waters (from all angles), a triangle of land with our boats and our names on it.  We set up camp quietly, and then go look for fish, and fish there be. Fish everywhere.  Fish singly, in pairs, in pods.  I rig up, we rustle, and I mean rustle, some firewood.  Then I fish, while Keith mans my camera.  I manage to hook up on one fish, but it's a tough crowd.  Keith manages some shots, but the light, and my line fails us, and we retreat to the comforts of camp- a fire, freeze-dried food, and fleece.  We have The Campfire to End All Campfires.

rod building, caveman style
This is when Keith gets the brainy idea to build his own rod.  He has a spinning reel with him but no rod.  So he hacks down a little spruce tree and proceeds to strip it, fire harden it, he fashions eyelets out of fish hooks and duct tape and carves out a reel seat, all while I mock and goad him.  But if I've learned one thing, it's that Keith can be a very determined person.  He once built an awesome cook table out of a piece of burnt out pine stump with his survival knife.  He may actually succeed.  Eventually we fall asleep in our tents to the sounds of gentle rain, the insistent gurgle of the stream and the occasional splash of steelhead making more steelhead.

I awake to a loud splash.  The light is gray, with mist and drizzle continuing.  I roll out of my bag, brace myself against the morning chill and wander down to the take out to filter some water for coffee.  As I sit there blearily pumping, shapes emerge, water boils, dark shadows dart and chase- four buck steelhead are fighting, three feet in front of me for the right to tend an 8 pound hen on a redd.  I look upstream and see four more fish, another bed, 20 feet away.  There's more fish across the river along the far bank.  Is it really going to be this good?  I finish with the water quickly, put my coffee pot on and grab my rod.  How cool would it be to actually land a fish in camp, in my long handles?  But it doesn't happen.  I change tippets, change flies, I go back for my espresso when I hear the pot boil and return.  I give it a good go, but aggressive as these fish are, they aren't fooled by me, intent only on their purpose here.  I go back to camp, build a fire and start breakfast.

Eventually Keith rolls out, we eat, I completely re-rig my rod and Keith strings up the Spruce Goose.  Those fish in camp have me worried- hopefully we'll find some more cooperative fish.  Not too far out of camp I hook up on a small buck, 3 pounds.  He does his merry best, but I land and quickly release him.  I find a deeper pool under a cedar upstream, walking past a dozen fish out on gravel.  I can see the dark shadows in this pool, and on my second drift through, my line streaks downstream while I'm looking away.  This is a hot fish, and I have to jump in and give chase.  200 feet downstream I cross the river, barely avoiding a swim, all the while continually trying to turn this fish away from the various sticks and logs he seeks to hide under.  I'd like to show you this fish, but someone (me) forgot to check the camera settings.  He was beautiful.

the small fish of the day

Keith wanders on without me, and I negotiate the opposite bank.  I'm astounded by the size of some of these fish, a couple must be pushing 15 pounds, but these big ones are all sitting in places that would be impossible to get them out of, and I keep walking.  I land another small fish in the next run up, and then hear brush breaking and voices.  We have company, a guide out of Marquette, with three clients from downstate.  I fish with Keith for awhile, but he's not feeling good and wants to go back to camp.  I confer with these other anglers and decide to leap-frog them far upstream to give them space to fish- I've been wanting to explore the upper reaches of this area for some time now, and there's plenty of fish to go around.

 As I walk upstream I count fish.  Five, ten, twenty.  I've lost count at 44, all steelhead.  I come to a broad flat and count twenty fish ranged across it and I decide I must make a cast.  I flip my line out, into a dark seam of current that has some large fish next to it.  None take, but when my egg drifts behind a rock a large buck, a fish I hadn't seen, grabs it and we're off to the races, the fish cartwheeling and charging, trying to shake the hook.  He relents after a few minutes of this, a beautiful, dark colored fish and I snap a couple of pictures and send him back out to find a girlfriend.

I pass more fish and then come to another large pod. I count at least eighteen, but in the shifting kaleidoscope of water and fish, light and shadow, liquid and air, keeping count is impossible.  Right when I think I've counted them all fresh battles erupt, fish break ranks, charge and slash, wheel and regroup.  I stand mesmerized.  A couple of these fish might be 12 pounds.  I step in and give it a go, briefly hook up, hook up in the trees behind me twice and eventually just stand there and watch, out of breath from excitement, thinking "this can't be real".
there were over a dozen fish in this area, seven in this photo

I wander on, past pods and pairs of fish, skirting fish and places for different reasons.  These are too close to log jams- it would be over quick, and I'm using six pound tippet because of the clarity.  Those I'll try for from the other bank on the way back down.  It's noon now, and the sun is starting to burn its way through the fog and haze.  The river is dazzling amber, fish shine brightly on bright gravel, and the cedars and spruce seem to flouresce green in the fresh light.  I manage to catch another small buck, 5 pounds and then move up to the next open area.  Again I see them, twenty dark shadows hanging in the current, flashing silver when fights erupt.  I make several casts, hooking up briefly on a buck that somersaults downstream even after shaking the hook, but the rest of the fish are unperturbed.  I continue to cast, and after a dozen tries a hen, perhaps the largest fish there, drops back in the current, slides sideways with a dart and my line comes tight.  It starts with just a slow head shake, as she simply tries to get this irritating poke out of her mouth.  She swings across the current towards me and I strip line to keep tight on her.  She heads back across and upstream, and I choose then to enter the current to better put pressure on her.  I angle the rod sideways to turn her head and at first there is no effect.  She is about 34 inches long, and easily ten to twelve pounds, and so far she is only irritated, swinging first one way and then the other, trying to figure this thing out.  Suddenly she realizes that maybe this isn't a good situation, her head shakes become frantic, and she zips downstream, line peeling against the drag, the rod absorbing the impact of the run.  With six pound tippet I don't dare put any more pressure on.  She takes off again, faster, and now I'm forced to give chase.  There's a log jam spanning the river a little ways down.  We're not close to it yet, but this is a big fish, and I'm sure she has it in her to get there.  I put the rod to her, cranking steadily, giving out line (and clearing my knuckles) when she runs in short bursts.  I know that this fish is still fresh, she still just acts puzzled, but I'm wondering if this is really going to be this easy.  She is big, bright chrome fresh, and looks as big around as my leg.  She's only coming in because it's what she wants to do, not because I'm in control.  This is when disaster strikes- I'm cranking hard on the reel, putting on as much pressure as I dare, when there's an explosive craaackkk!! as my rod breaks in two places.  The fish stays exactly where she is, confirming my fear that she's still fresh and when I reel down on her with my broken rod the line parts instantly without the spring of the rod to buffer the tippet.

It all hits me then- my fishing is over.  That decision not to bring my other steelhead rod was a bad one.  You make these choices when kayaking.  You would think that I would be angry, sad, depressed even.  But standing there in the sun and river on a beautiful day in May I could only smile, happy to be where I was, watching wild steelhead dart and fight and breed around me.  It was a beautiful, serene, sublime moment, and I wasn't about to ruin it with anger or regret.  I took my rod down and explored upstream, counting fish, stopping to admire a school of several hundred spawning suckers.  Spring.

I wandered back to camp eventually, pausing to chat with the four anglers I had passed earlier, watching as they land a beautiful 30 inch hen, thick and heavy.  I pass on some intelligence on what's upstream, and head back.  After some brief words with Keith I stumble into my tent and take the Nap Of Ages.  Sun on the tent, birdsong and river noise inspire a deliriously blissful somnolence. 

loaded and ready to go
Keith and the Spruce Goose

When I awake Keith is packing.  His stomach is still bothering him and we've decided not to stay another night.  We load the kayaks and float away, making it a point to paddle as little as possible, the sun still shining brightly, frogs shrilling in pools hidden behind the high banks, mergansers and wood ducks whistling their alarm when we surprise them, geese honking in protest as two friends float past on this, the nicest day of spring.


  1. Epic post, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Sorry you broke your rod. What kind of rod was it (length, weight, brand, etc.)? Do you think it was faulty... or just too much pressure from a big fish? I was thinking 6 lb tippet should break long before a rod... even the tip.

  2. Thorooughly enjoyed reading that! Very hard to get that wilderness experience on an island as overpopulated as the UK, especially down here in the South.

  3. @Jay- I'll just say never buy a Flextec and leave it at that. Thanks for reading.

  4. That looks like a blast and those fish are something sweet. Thanks for sharing.


  5. Jason, already done that... so... too late. I've heard good things and had a good experience thus far with the one we have. What model did you have?

  6. Great read...loved the post, and that you used the word "somnolence"...!

  7. @Jay- I'd already broken/replace the tips on both of mine, twice on the 9wt.

    @e.m.b. just for that you get to pick next weeks vocabulary word that I'll have to use in a post.

  8. I love all your writings...but this has to be my fave so far!!! I almost felt like I was there! Keith making a rod was awesome! Keep it rolling, JT...

  9. @RD- Thanks! I was afraid this was a sleeper, but the response has been very nice. Wish I could do it full time, but don't we all.

  10. Very good story and well told.

  11. A veritable Faustian Feast with neither spoon, nor fork, nor rod at hand! What an epic tale, enjoyed it very much, so thx for that! mike

  12. Yes! I'll get back to you! :)

  13. Next week's word: aerumnous!

  14. Great read - makes me want a kayak. You write pretty good.

  15. Thanks Kirk- I enjoyed reading your adventure as well. I needed to go on that trip, just for the inspiration.

  16. First one I have been reading. Just joined the blog and just discovered it (... as I am just starting and discovering fishing). This is great writing. - Like to end comment on why get angry with the decision of bringing only one rod. Decision was made. As a good friend of mine once said (while playing golf and after using way to much club on an approach to the green), "There is no 'BAD' decision, only good ones and ones you learn from."

  17. @Phil- thanks for following, I'm glad you enjoyed it. I wish you well in your piscatorial pursuits. I'll try to keep the writing up to this standard. FR