Revisiting a River
To revisit a river is like trying to redream a dream. You are aware, of course, that you have changed and that the river must have changed and that no two dreams are precisely alike. Yet the identities are more profound than the differences, and the moment you are on the stream you have the old illusion of timelessness. This mortal has put on immortality. Some hundreds of miles to the south of you your secretary is saying firmly: ‘No, he cannot be reached by telephone or letters or telegrams. He expects to come out in about a month.’ There may be other ways of securing such absolute freedom from this most relative of worlds, but if a man has sense enough to know when he is happy, is there anything like that moment when the guide has packed the duffle bags and rods and tent and provisions into the canoe, seen that she trims well with your weight in the bow, and pushes off! ‘ Au large! ’ he may exclaim if he is a Frenchman. If he is an Indian or a dour Scot he will e’en just say nothing. But what is there to say? The cup is full.
Let us have a little geography, but not too much. The river which I am revisiting after five years’ absence is in New Brunswick, and where we take the water we are one hundred and fifty miles from the sea and fifty miles above ‘the settlements,’ with only two rough hunting and fishing shacks on that stretch of fifty miles. The river is the only road. There are larger streams in the Province, and a few where the salmon and sea trout are heavier, but none that runs through wilder country. On the Crown Lands map you will find the region of C. E. B. C.’s camp indicated by the words ‘Tungsten and Salmon’ in red letters. But the tungsten mine, worked for a time during the World War, is now abandoned, and a saturnine hedgehog, the sole watchman over all that costly machinery, lies curled on the rotting rafters above the main shaft. Prospectors for gold and radium have come here likewise, but they are all gone now, like the caribou. Once or twice a week, during the summer, a fisherman’s canoe slips up or down the river, and in October there are a few hunters in quest of moose and bear.
Two of the three guides waiting for us are old friends. All three are Scotchmen, born and bred on this river, like their fathers and grandfathers before them — lumbering in the winter, driving logs in the spring, guiding fishermen in the short summers, and hunting in the fall. They are a wiry, tough breed, used to what they call ‘brutin’ work,’ though there is not much of that in store for them at Burnt Hill, whither we are bound.
I miss the log canoes this year — those old thirty-foot dugouts, hollowed from a single stick of pine. Down by the settlements you still see a few of them, but almost never a new one. The primeval pines were burned in the great fire that swept up the river a century ago, and, though the pines are slowly coming back, there are few big enough to make a dugout. But these log canoes were steady, strong, and good for thirty or forty years of rough work. Poled by two men, they arc surprisingly quick in the water: indeed, this very summer we were visited by a tall, lean guide who had poled his ‘log’ alone twenty-nine miles upriver in five hours and a half. Fast going! And you can stand up in them to cast for salmon far more securely than in a canvas canoe.
Our three ‘canvases,’ this year, are shod on the outside with extra longitudinal ribs to protect them in this rockiest of rivers. The water is low, and the bigger rapids, though seemingly less formidable than usual, require dexterous poling as well as that special knowledge of channels and currents which is the priceless inheritance of guides who have spent their whole lives upon one stream. You do not realize their expertness until you watch canoes manned by good men, though strange to this river, pick their way cautiously through the fast water by our camp. They may be Frenchmen or Indians or Tobique or St. John men — seasoned guides, of course, who can be trusted, even in new territory, to pick up a trail or find a spring. But how gingerly they pole past Orr’s Rock and Dyer’s Hole and the Lower Pitch! This is no job for a mere general practitioner. It calls for a specialist.
Were the salmon already running up? Yes! That strange wireless telegraphy by which every dweller on a salmon stream knows precisely who killed the fish this morning — perhaps forty miles away — is working accurately. And there are reports of a big run of grilse, too — a grilse being a three-year-old salmon, making his first trip back from salt water to his native river. Last season he was only a fouror five-inch parr, swarming in every trout brook that pours into a salmon river, and often rising voraciously to a salmon fly in the river itself. But now, after only a few months in the Atlantic, he weighs from three to six pounds, and every ounce of him is full of fight.
As we slip downstream, watching warily for everything from a mink to a moose, it is evident that the season is two or three weeks late. Pale wild roses are still in bloom, and blue iris. Bluebells are waving everywhere in the crevices of the gray rocks, and the pink sheep laurel covers the sunnier, higher ledges. Not a huckleberry yet anywhere. My guide whispers: ’On the right; way down!’ and there is the first deer, with his head quite under water as he munches the short green moss on the submerged rocks. There is the first fish hawk, and when we go ashore for lunch and pull a trout rod from the case and make the first cast after many a month of abstinence — bang! There is the first squaretail! C. E. B. C., whose canoe is ahead of G.’s and mine, is lucky enough, as we near Burnt Hill, to see a huge black bear standing up on his hind legs by the shore — the very bear, perhaps, that sneaked into the camp last year and stole all the fresh doughnuts.
We round the last bend of the river, catch the steady roar of Burnt Hill Brook on the left, shoot the last rapids, and there — as if we had left it only yesterday— is the old camp, a fishing shack built thirty years ago for Joseph Jefferson. ‘Mr.’ Jefferson, I notice the older guides say, and never ‘Joe.’ They were very fond of him, though he had stern prejudices against spearing salmon by torchlight and shooting deer out of season. On the east end of the porch—where the boards are gnawed by hedgehogs and split off by hunters in too great a hurry, on October evenings, to get a fire started in the cookstove inside the cabin — thousands of salmon have been flung down. A few of the biggest have had their outlines rudely carved on boards, nailed up outside and inside the cabin, with the captor’s name and the date. Two women fishermen, in gracious recognition of the rights of the owner of these best pools on the river, have added t he words ‘ By courtesy of C. E. B. C. ’ Laurence Hutton — a friend of Mr. Jefferson and of nearly everybody else — used to say that there was one difference between persons even more marked than Charles Lamb’s distinction between the men who borrow and the men who lend — the difference, namely, between those who forget to say ‘ Thank you ’ and those who remember.
The twilights are long here, and after the tents were pitched on the bluff and supper eaten in the cabin there was light enough to hook — and lose — the first salmon. As it slowly darkened, the nighthawks began to circle above the stream, the deer stole out to drink, and the ripples along the faster water began to weave their fantastic patterns of black velvet shot with silver. A whippoorwill, the first I remember hearing as far north as this, is calling from the white birches behind the tents. The thermometer registers 43, and we crawl into our sleeping bags and listen for a few happy minutes to the roar of the river — and the next thing I know’a golden-coated three-year-old buck is pawing and snorting just outside the tent, in the broad morning sunshine. We have come home.
How wayward are a fisherman’s memories! I recall that buck far more vividly than the first day’s fishing, and indeed I have to turn to the log book to discover that for three or four days the fishing was hardly worth recording. The water was still falling and the days were bright and hot. I watched for certain friends made on the previous trip, and found the marvelous clusters of mourning bride butterflies still circling about the hollow of the ledges, just out of reach of the rapids. There was a great flight of big yellow Turnus butterflies also. The kingfishers still haunt the river, flying, G. says, ‘as if they were going somewhere.’ But the purple finches that used to swarm about the cabin five years ago had dwindled to a single pair. The rabbits were not so friendly, and there was not a partridge to be seen.
There are hours in these long tranquil days when salmon fishing is a fierce obsession, and you cast greedily, insatiably; but there are other hours when all you seem to want is to watch the butterflies on the rocks, to try to recall the names of plants, and to bewail your general ignorance. ‘The advantage of going into the woods,’ said a Maine guide to me once, ‘is that you learn something new each day.’ That is true enough, but what you learn is pitifully small compared with what you would like to learn. The guides can set you straight on rare varieties of trees, for they are born lumbermen, but I have never known one possessed of more than a child’s knowledge of birds and flowers. This river is one of the richest fields for a mineralogist, but the guides knowonly that the quartz veins begin a couple of miles above the camp, and that schist and granite are just schist and granite. An angler ought really to be rich enough to lead a captive botanist and ornithologist and geologist in his train to answer questions—provided they would not complain too much of the black flies, and would keep out of the way of his backcast!
No angler could ask for better company, it is true, than G. and C. E. B. C. They sit on the cabin porch for hours during the glaring middle of the day, discoursing learnedly about the relative advantages of Hoff and Hardy reels, and the precise number of ounces that a dry-fly salmon rod should weigh, and whether a certain imported English line is really too light or too heavy for a certain Leonard rod. They know all about knots. They have read the latest treatises on fishing. Their fly-books arc a Paradise of Dainty Devices, and they argue amiably about patterns and sizes and double-pointed hooks and all the other tangible aspects of this old art and mystery of angling. It is with unfeigned humility, after listening to them. that I reach into the pocket of a disreputable fishing coat, faded with the rains and sunshine of a dozen summers, and pull out a cheap water-stained flybook which I have carried for thirty years. Alas, I find that I am ‘short’ of this or that approved pattern for the day, and that I cannot remember the names of half the flies in the book. Worse yet, I am secretly aware that there are some battered lucky flies there, on which I have killed fish year after year, although I know well enough that the loops are liable to pull out if I strike a heavy salmon. I ought, of course, to weed them out, and have a new pigskin book, properly filled with this year’s flies, all as neatly arranged as a museum. And I ought to sort my leaders more carefully, and record the exact number of pounds each is warranted to pull. I am getting lower and lower in my mind. To think that I once ventured to grade myself as a ‘ C+ ’ fisherman! ‘D— ’ would be nearer the truth.
Just then, curiously enough, my guide Henry passes the porch, axe in hand and a young birch tree, for firewood, balanced on his shoulder. As I recall something Henry happened to say last night, my humility alters suddenly into a whimsical inverted pride. I had lent him my rod, to see if he could hook a fish that I had raised once but could not tempt again. Henry tacitly hooked and landed him, as simply as if there were no approved theories to be observed and it was just a question of catching one more fish and salting him down for the winter. I asked him how he liked the reel — a borrowed one, costing $52.50. ‘It’s all right,’ said Henry laconically and without enthusiasm. And then he added,with a proud shyness which I liked: ‘I bought a reel myself this spring. Paid five dollars for it. I can take it apart with my jackknife and fix the drag just to suit me. For fishing, it’s just as good as that fifty-two-dollar one.’
‘For fishing!’ Is not that, after all, the test? I am not foolish enough to believe that it is the country boy’s traditional cut pole and bent pin that give him the advantage over the ’city fellow’ on a trout brook. His advantage does not lie in inferiority of apparent equipment, but in superiority of real equipment — in which tackle is only a minor element. If the Lord made that country boy a fisherman to begin with, and he knows the brook, he has already won more than half the battle. A good marksman with a poor rifle can outshoot a poor marksman with a good rifle. I reckon that superior excellence of tackle makes about ten per cent of one’s fortune in fishing. Now a thrifty angler will not readily surrender that ten per cent of advantage. Chill penury should not repress his noble rage for the best outfit he can afford, even though he be, in Donald’s phrase, ‘ too poor to make the first payment on a fishhook.’ It is silly for him to mar his pleasure and his chances by using a reel that is liable to ’skip’ or bind or backlash at precisely the wrong moment. But the point is that if your rod is supple enough to put out the line easily, and strong enough to hold your fish, you had better forget who built it and how much you paid for it, and concentrate your attention upon the far more important ninety per cent of the business, which depends not upon your outfit but upon yourself.
I fished a certain pool in Nova Scotia once with three New Yorkers. Our tackle was costly and correct, and we had all had a fair amount of experience. We never raised a fish. Just as we were moving upstream a lady appeared upon the bank, followed by a slouching fellow carrying a gaff. She wore a black hat with a red feather, a dark skirt that came to her ankles, and she looked oddly out of place upon a salmon river. But she produced a light greenheart rod of native manufacture, spliced with electric tape, selected a fly from a small brown pasteboard box, and made a side-arm cast or two, to work her line out, which opened my eyes a little. And they were opened still wider when the lady tranquilly proceeded to hook and bring to the gaff two very fine salmon. Now I do not affirm that she killed those fish because she used an old-fashioned spliced rod. If she had traded rods with one of us she might have had even greater success. But her intangible equipment ‘ for fishing ’ was infinitely better than ours. (I learned later that she lived on the first, farm above the pool.)
In short, one must know a hundred things which are not set down in the Hardy or Mills catalogues of tackle, and which cannot be passed over the counter by the smoothest salesman that ever outfitted a green millionaire. Here, at this moment, is an illustration. Fifty yards in front of that cabin porch where we have been discussing theory and technique is the Cocktail Pool. Down toward the foot of it, by an eggshaped blue rock that breaks the glassy current, I catch sight of the back fin and tail of a gently rising salmon. I pick up my rod and sneak down through the alders. My self-respect is beginning to return. In starting after that fish, inexpert as I am, I have one advantage over the most perfectly outfitted stranger: for I have fished that pool some hundreds of times and know precisely the distance for each cast and every trick of the current. Yet what I should like even better than hooking this particular salmon would be to know the answers to the unanswerable questions: Why is the salmon rising at this moment? Why should he rise again five minutes from now, as I trust he will, when the fly swings around the lower left-hand curve of that blue rock? Will it be a proof of hunger? Of curiosity? Of irritation? Of the play instinct? There are dozens of scientific chapters written on this topic, and no two of them agree. And why should he rise to-day to an artificial fly of one special color and pattern, and to no other, when none of the flies resemble closely any natural fly that can be seen in New Brunswick this month? And — apparently a far simpler question — why should salmon after salmon, in an endless procession, prefer the north side of that special blue rock? I took one there last night, and here is another! (I lost him; but we will forget that.)
Where the Clearwater joins the Miramichi, there is a flat white rock on the sandy bottom, so low and level that your eye cannot perceive that it gives any shelter; and yet for the last score of years, if there have been grilse in the river, one has been lying beside that white rock. Two summers ago I watched for an hour a superb salmon under Ross’s Bridge on the Margaree. A piece of white cardboard had blown off the bridge and sunk to the bottom, in about fifteen feet of water. That king salmon hovered just above it, moving twenty feet upstream at intervals of about two minutes, turning always at precisely the same point, like a restless tiger in a cage, and then drifting back downstream to his post above that sodden bit of paper. Was it a landmark for him? Or was there a dead point in the current which had allowed the paper to sink, and which made it easier for the salmon to hover exactly there? We may have our guesses on all these matters, but we do not know. It is ninety years since the wisest of American writers gently reminded us that ‘we are as much strangers in Nature as we are aliens from God. We do not understand the notes of birds. The fox and the deer run away from us.’
Many nature-lovers are keenly conscious of the impression of changelessness, of timelessness, conveyed by any running stream. Carlyle writes of Annan Water in Sartor: ‘It struck me much, as I sat by the Kuhbach, one silent noontide, and watched it flowing, gurgling, to think how this same streamlet had flowed and gurgled, through all changes of weather and of fortune, from beyond the earliest date of History. Yes, probably on the morning when Joshua forded Jordan; even as at the midday when Cæsar, doubtless with difficulty, swam the Nile, yet kept his Commentaries dry, this little Kuhbach, assiduous as Tiber, Eurotas, or Siloa, was murmuring on across the wilderness, as yet unnamed, unseen.’
One has this feeling often in the northern wilderness, where Indians are spearing and netting fish to-day from the same rocks on which Indians were standing when the canoes of the first coureurs de bois paddled up the St. Maurice or the Ottawa. Nothing seems to change, if you are only far enough north. The learned Cambridge chemists and physicists are now inclined to put the age of our planet — on the evidence furnished by the intricate and unhurried process by which nature manufactures radium — at about 1,600,000,000 years. Reflecting on their calculations, last summer, and watching the huge glacial boulder left stranded on the point near the head of Lake Nicolaus, I remarked to old John Sibley, the guide, ‘John, that rock has been there a long time.’ ’Yes, sir,’ said John confidently, ' I don’t see that that rock has changed any in the fifty years that I’ve known it.’ If I had had a trained captive geologist in the canoe, he could have taught John that fifty years in the world of his science are less than a moment in the life of a lumberman.
Yet one of the discoveries that one makes in revisiting a river — even one whose banks and bed are largely worn out of the solid rock—is that the river is altering visibly from year to year. It is not the fact that we are now grown up which makes the ‘old swimming hole’ of our boyhood days so strangely shallow. The truer explanation is that the hole has filled up with sand and gravel, in the ceaseless process of erosion. On a swift river like the Miramichi there are ice jams and freshets to be reckoned with, to say nothing of the occasional dynamite used in the spring drive. ‘That pool has been no good since the freshet of 1923,’ say the guides, meaning that the rocks have been rolled down the ancient channels, filling in here and scooping out there, altering the currents, and disturbing, in some way we cannot fathom, the preferences of the fish. Five years, in fact, have made more changes in certain favorite pools of ours than I should have supposed were possible in five hundred. Some of the humble have been exalted and some of the mighty have been brought low. I confess that I have never noticed until this year, and then only when Donald pointed it out, that the big rocks which survive this age-long annual pressure of the ice jam are the ones whose upper surfaces slope upstream. The descending ice slides on up and over them, whereas a square rock which took the full force of that terrific impact would be torn from its bed. It is a curious instance of fitness for survival.
Even when your eye can detect no difference in the pool, the salmon find causes for dissatisfaction or for content. Sometimes, of course, you can reason the thing out, after a fashion: you can see that the colder water pouring in from Burnt Hill Brook, for instance, and traceable for two or three miles down the north shore of the river, has been diverted by some new heap of boulders, so that the salmon in search of the ‘brook water’ — which the guides distinguish sharply from what they call the ‘sour’ river water — will now shelter themselves under a different ledge or hover in a deeper or shallower ‘ run.’ Every trout fisherman knows that there are certain favorite places in a stream where the fish find the right food and shelter, and that these spots are moved into like the best rooms in a hotel. When one trout ‘checks out,’ either upstream or by capture, another promptly takes possession. Now a salmon, who almost certainly takes no food while in the river, — except perhaps the juice of some fly squeezed between his jaws and rapidly ejected, — chooses his temporary quarters in an apparently arbitrary fashion, with far less obvious attention to shelter than a trout. Many a skillful fly-caster who does not know these changes in the pools will be tempted to cast ‘ over the fish’s head’ for a salmon that may be lying not fifteen feet away from him. In fact anybody who has fished a Strange salmon river alone, and then gone over the ground again with a competent guide, will admit his humiliation at having fished so stupidly at first, though his only real error lay in not knowing what it was impossible that he should know.
And no two summers are just alike. A year ago this week, according to C. E. B. C.’s log book, under precisely the same conditions as to weather and water, the Burnt Hill salmon were rising plentifully to dry flies. This year they take the wet fly when they are taking anything. Last year there was only an average run of grilse; this year the river is full of them, and they are bigger and stouter in battle than for a score of years. What happened to them out in the mysterious Atlantic? Anglers will always have their moments of glory and their hours, or it may be whole days, of shame, but the moods of one visit to a river can never be repeated in the next. I am not sure, however, that the pleasures of recognition are not as deep as the joys of discovery. One remembers exactly where a big fish rose, — it may be five years ago or thirty, — and as you put your fly over what looks like the same ripple, you expect, in defiance of the laws of logic, that the miracle will happen again. And it often does — though this proves, perhaps, that fishing is an art and not a magic. An angler is bound to believe in the causes of effects. There was a reason for that fish’s rising, once before, and now it is your privilege to juggle with the causes until you can reproduce the effect. Yet what inconsistent reasoners we are! If the fish comes up in accordance with your carefully worked-out plan of campaign, it seems a triumphant demonstration of the beneficent laws of the universe. If he does n’t rise, how easy it is to slip back into the psychology of the gambler or the medicine man, and to content yourself with phrases about luck! Or you may turn materialist, blaming the wind or the light or the barometer, or settle down into the hopeless fatalism of declaring that they are not ‘taking’ to-day.
When this last mood is on you, the remedy is to say casually to the head guide, ‘Donald, it’s fifty cents to a dime that you can’t raise a salmon.’ The Scotchman is game. He borrows your rod, glances through your disorderly fly-book, selects a fly as different as possible from the one you have been using, and in a minute he is at it, with that inimitable coaxing, wheedling, teasing cast, very light and not too long, covering each yard of water once and once only, until suddenly there is a flash, an oath, — ‘Holy Lazarus!’ — and before your duller senses have registered either the flash or the oath, Donald has struck him! Donald will lose that half dollar playing forty-five with the other guides to-night, but what of it? He has cured your fatalism.
I missed old John S. on the river this year. He must be nearly eighty, and being a notoriously reckless and shiftless guide, I suspect that no one engaged him and that he was forced to stay in the settlements. But I could have put up with his poor cooking for the sake of seeing again his unique method of fly-casting. As he starts his backcast, he inhales a long rapt breath as if he were going into a trance, lifting his ribs and his elbows very high, like some strange old bird about to take flight. As the cast starts forward, he seems to breathe it out softly across the river, as gently as a child blowing dandelion seed. He gets an incredible distance, but I never saw him raise a fish.
Yet the story of John S.’s salmon at the mouth of the Clearwater deserves to be set down. Improvident as ever, he was fishing with a frayed leader and with the one fly he owned, when he hooked and lost a big salmon — the leader parting. John was cast down but not destroyed. In his hat was a rusty long-shanked pickerel hook, and in the sand bank above the pool was the hole of a kingfisher. John puts in his hand cautiously and captures the mother bird on her nest, pulls out two or three feathers, — taking pains, he says, to hurt her feelings as little as possible, and replacing her gently on the eggs, — ties those feathers on the pickerel hook in imitation of a big Blue Doctor, and at the third cast he hooks and lands the identical runaway salmon, with the other fly and the broken leader still in its mouth! Whether there were reliable witnesses to this exploit I cannot say, but the sand bank is still there, and on the thirtieth of July, 1926, there was a hole in it which strongly suggested a kingfisher.
I miss also, this year, the companionship of a painter with whom I have fished many a stream, and whose eye was far quicker than mine in noting the changing colors of the water. There arc no claybanks here, or rich alluvial meadows to help stain the river ten minutes after a shower. The Miramichi alters little at first, except to turn a slightly darker brown, while the bubbles and raindrops spoil its transparency. But as the rain comes more heavily, and the Burnt Hill Brook and the Clearwater begin to pour their brighter torrents into the main river, you can distinguish the brook water for a long distance on the north bank, and on the spring drive, I am told, the rivermen can trace it for a dozen miles — only they do not have, like my painter friend, a color vocabulary, any more than trout or salmon.
How under-vocabularied are most fishermen, likewise, in recording the charm of the changing sounds as the river falls or rises! When it is ‘holding,’ it seems hushed at noon, louder at dusk and lower at dawn, but I am not sure. Certainly it grows hoarser and deeper with rising water, until the flood covers most of the boulders, and then it seems strangely quieter, except for the dull crumbling reverberation of the loose rocks as they are rolled along the deepworn channels. I wish that Thoreau, whose ear was so acute for any sound in the woods, and whose ‘tree fall’ sentence in the Maine Woods volume is one of the most perfect things in literature, had spent more time on big rocky rivers and less on the quiet, brimming Concord streams. He could have detected tones and overtones that are too subtle for my ear to catch distinctly. But what happiness, even for a dullard, to wake at night in your tent on the bluff above the rapids, and guess by the sound whether the river is rising or falling, or — by the sound again — whether the next day will be muggy or crystal-clear!
The guides, naturally, are far more weatherwise than we. They accept philosophically the long days of waiting for the river to come up or go down sufficiently to give us the best fishing, for they are paid by the day and the work here is light. But they are as eager as we for a successful trip, and they like a cold night or a strong wind to stir up the fish and set them traveling; and they hate as much as we the ghastliness of very low water, where all the bones of the starved stream stick out, and you scan the northwest in vain for thunderheads. To these guides, infinitely more than to any transient sportsman, the river is a living, sentient creature. It is to them what ‘Mother Earth’ was to the Greeks. They were born on the river and they will die on it, like their fathers. They draw all their livelihood from it and from the forests to which it is the only path. Highlanders by race, and settled here since their ancestors drove out the French in the old wars, they keep alive the history and romance of the river by oral tradition. Nothing is lost, and it may be that here and there the Celtic imagination adds something.
What talk I have heard, in low tones, as the camp fire burns out and the fog rises ghostlike along the river! Not that these Scotchmen believe in ghosts; but they do believe in ‘forerunners.’ Were not three of them playing cards one night in our cabin, when they heard Sandy W.’s step on the west end of the porch? The step neared the door, and paused. ‘Hullo, Sandy,’ said the guides, scarcely looking up from the cards. Then they dropped the cards. There was no one on the porch at all. And Sandy W. had died that night, in Boston. That was a forerunner. And how about the fellow that owned the old camp by the spring opposite the mouth of the Clearwater? Two guides camping at the outlet, one autumn night, heard him call: ‘I want to come over!’ They poled across in their log canoes, and as they poled he called again: ‘I want to come over!’ But there was nobody in the old camp, and the owner, as they learned a month later, was five hundred miles away that night, crossing a far darker and deeper river than the Miramichi! The cry they heard was a forerunner.
Did not Donald himself, a Scotchman with nerve enough to stay alone one winter as watchman of the now abandoned tungsten mine, across the river from our camp, hear, late one afternoon, a call for ‘Help!’ in the woods above the mine? It was thirty below zero, but he put on his snowshoes and climbed the hill, followed by his black cat. And there was just nothing, but as he neared the mine on his way back he heard that despairing cry once more. This time he stopped to make himself a cup of tea, and then took his rifle. And again there was nothing on the hilltop. But Donald did not sleep that night, and the next morning he tramped out to Maple Grove, to find that a friend of his had frozen to death the evening before, on top of his load of logs, some twenty miles from the mine. Now no man’s voice can be heard for twenty miles, even in the silence of the winter woods. Donald knows that well enough; what he heard was a forerunner.
Have you ever heard of a ‘bloodstopper’? There are ghastly injuries every season in the logging camps, even among this race of skilled axemen, and the surgery is rude. When a man is bleeding to death, the only hope lies in the services of a blood-stopper — a man who possesses the mysterious power of causing the flow of blood to cease. The secret of this power can be passed on from a man to a woman or from a woman to a man, but — as I understand it — only one person in a family can exercise it in any generation. He must be brought as near as possible to the wounded man, must whisper the charmed syllables, — I was told with awe that they were ‘Bible words,’ — and then the blood instantly stops flowing. Only, mind you, if there is any running water between the bloodstopper and the wounded man, the charm fails. Not until the hastily summoned blood-stopper has crossed the last river or the last brook that lies between him and the sufferer does his magic gift prevail. What potency of evil, what enmity of healing power, can there be in a running stream? I do not know. But I have seen a blood-stopper and a man saved by him from death on last spring’s drive — unless these Scotchmen are in error. Around the camp fire it is easier than elsewhere to indulge in that ‘willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.’
The truth is that to these men of the Miramichi the love of the river and the fear of the river, the history and romance and superstition and toil and tragedy of the river, are blended inextricably. Their stories of Dead Man’s Brook and of the Island Mystery, of treasure buried by fleeing Frenchmen nearly two hundred years ago and dug for at intervals ever since, their memories of cold and hunger, of poaching and fighting and triumphant hunting, pass into the blood of the listener. Five years ago, a few hundred yards up Burnt Hill Brook, I saw a paddle nailed crosswise to a tree. On it was scribbled the name of a young Frenchman, drowned there on the spring drive, with the date. This summer both name and date have been washed out by the rain, but no human hand will ever touch that rude cross, and no Miramichi man forgets it. Life on the river shares in the immense dignity of Death.
Let us come back to our fishing. Among all these constant reminders of our ignorance, these equally constant but tiny accretions to our knowledge of the woods and the river, there are strange flashes of self-knowledge, too. Perhaps it is the sort of revelation for which hermits once tarried long in waste and solitary places. You come back to yourself. Companionship in the woods is essential if one is to keep his sanity, but a few hours of absolute solitude make for sanity also. Here you are, the same person that fished here five years or a score of years before, with the same slender collection of virtues, possibly, but certainly with the same large assortment of faults. Are you cursed with impatience, indecision, pedantry, envy, covetousness, and idolatry? An evening’s fishing will betray you as remorselessly as the Day of Judgment.
I confess to wonderment and irritation over the fisherman — though there are legions of his type — who is always certain that he has done the right thing in the right way. If he loses a fish, it is demonstrably the fault of the fish or of the reel or of the fast water or of the guide who was too slow with the gaff. I like much better the lad who asks, ‘Dad, did I strike that laker too quick, or was I too slow?’ Note that he does not blame either the fish or the tackle, but only himself! And we debate the question hour after hour, while the boat swings at anchor on our little Vermont lake and we wait for another strike. Neither of us knows the right answer, and both of us are entirely happy — having inherited an inquiring strain of blood, some ability for seeing both sides of a question, and a deep respect for ‘hunches.’
It was a fisherman on our lake, by the way, who once gave me a thoroughly local interpretation of the story of the Miraculous Draught of Fishes. In this lake the biggest trout lie in pockets along the edge of the ledges, sixty or seventy feet down, and it takes a good eye for landmarks to anchor the boat precisely in the right spot. Often one side of the boat, when two men are fishing, will have all the luck — that four or five feet of difference in latitude or longitude meaning success or failure in reaching the big lakers with your minnow. Hence my old friend’s cautious and entirely reverent attempt at New Testament exegesis: ‘Mr. Perry, don’t you think that when Our Lord told the disciples to let down the net on the other side of the boat, He had a hunch that they was anchored just on the aidge of a laidge ? ’
I cannot say that there was anything miraculous about our draught of fishes on the Miramichi this summer, unless it be in the number and size and splendid fighting quality of the grilse. The salmon fishing was below the average. But somehow the great pork barrel on the east porch of the cabin kept filling steadily with salted fish, and by and by we began to feel the premonitions of departure. Ominous yellow leaves appear on the tips of the young white birches across the river. We have no other calendar with us than such signs of the passing weeks, and a hint from the cook that we must hold back a little on this or that delicacy. I notice that G., who expects some trout fishing elsewhere in August, begins to talk about the fun of dry-fly fishing with your very lightest tackle on some brimming meadow brook where there would be no danger of a rushing grilse or salmon wrecking your rod. Alas for the inconsistency of fishermen! We hook and release every day, here on the river, trout that would astonish our friends at home, and already, with shoulder blades still aching with swinging a salmon rod, we are dreaming of meadow brooks in New England. And nothing is more certain than that when we are floating our tiniest flies again over one of those brooks we shall dream of the sudden sullen plunge of a salmon!
The final morning comes, and that ‘one more’ cast, which every angler knows. For me it is always an excessively solemn rite and is usually unattended with any luck whatever. But on this occasion, as I was slowly reeling in, a besotted salmon, hovering in the ripple not six yards below me, seemed to decide from the melancholy look upon my face that it was now or never! I struck, for once, just as he flashed, and he was so well hooked that even I could not have lost him. He weighed only ten pounds, but I am sure that he possessed a most magnanimous soul.
Reluctantly we settled ourselves into the canoes at last, at the head of the ‘Pond,’ bound homeward. As I took a final look at the rough water between my canoe and the ledge on the opposite shore, a huge salmon leaped, as if with an ironic gesture of farewell. He looked exactly like the monster that had carried off my Dusty Miller and a bit of broken leader, in that very spot, ten days before. Well, I hope now that he will rub that fly off upon the rocks long before the spawning season! I had hated to lose him, but I cannot help admiring, this morning, that sardonic parting assertion of superiority. ‘Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook?’ he seems to shout as he plunges down, while the river, for a moment, seems strangely flat and empty.
‘Perhaps not, old fellow,’ I whisper to him, as I pick up the bow paddle instead of a rod and we head downstream. ‘Perhaps not, but there is another summer coming! Au revoir! May no poacher’s net entangle you or otter tear you. May you not linger under the river ice all winter and become a mere “black salmon” to rise hungrily in the broad eddies at any lure next spring. May you rather go down proudly into the North Atlantic and take your lordly ease in the great deep until some full tide next June. Then may you make gallantly the long uphill climb against one hundred and thirty miles of tumbling water and settle again in the old pool under the gray ledge. And if in some soft July twilight you swirl up once more at a Dusty Miller or a Silver Doctor, may it be a fair fight, and may the leader hold!’