By Michele Desilva, Library
Summer and I have a love-hate relationship. I love many things about summer: sandals, ice cream, real ripe tomatoes, early morning sunrises. But, my main quibble with summer is that it creates the illusion of so much time. There are all those long days to fill with activities: running, hiking, fishing, swimming, boating, camping, and catching up on family visits near and far while the traveling weather is more beneficent than in December. At the same time, I’m supposed to be reading summer’s bestsellers and that stack of classics I’ve been meaning to get to for years, watching the summer blockbusters (which, admittedly, I don’t think I’ve ever actually done), and listening to the summer’s new music. Oh, and it’s gardening season, a precious, short-lived time in the high desert (my husband, Dave, and I actually started our garden in March with tomato seeds, a heat pad, and a grow light, but that’s another story).
When this frenetic activity reaches a fevered pitch and I find myself longing for the comparative calm of winter’s short days, I know it is time to get to the river. Almost any river deep enough to float a boat will do, but I am particularly fond of the Deschutes. So, mid-July, when we were particularly exhausted from a session of pulling long-rooted grass blades out of the garden, we decided to leave the garden with a friend and disappear for a four-day fishing float trip on the lower Deschutes. An online fishing report indicated slow fishing, as few steelhead had yet to return over the Columbia’s gauntlet of dams, but we deemed it an exploratory mission and packed our gear.
The next day, we were driving out of town at sunset, into the desert north of Madras, where the Mutton Mountains meet ranch and farmlands, the checkered patches of green fields made more vibrant by the contrast of the browns all around. The sunset, a vivid, liquid gold and crimson light leaking across the sky to fill all of the space not occupied by clouds, appeared to be in the process of erupting out of and spilling down the flanks of Mt. Jefferson.
The dark followed us into the canyon. The rolling golden hills all around us, close up, broke into their constituent parts: tall tan grasses, reddish-purple and black lava rock, and the occasional dusty green juniper tree. The river, a dark ribbon in the dying light, was barely distinguishable from the equally dark road except for the hint of motion transmitted by the gleaming white froth of the rapids’ waves.
We turned off onto the gravel road along the river and the darkness increased until I could no longer see the grasses, rocks and trees around me. I could feel, however, if not see, the huge walls of the canyon reaching high into the clear night sky studded with stars. On the car stereo, Bob Dylan sang “Desolation Row.” I began to think it was the longest song I had ever heard. I turned the music up very loud to drown out the noise of all of our river gear shifting, bumping, and clanking as we drove down the rough road. Caddisflies swirled in my headlights like snowflakes immune to the force of gravity, staying suspended in the air rather than falling to the ground.
On the other side of the river, an occasional translucent green light pierced the darkness. The lights hovered in the dark, seemingly without source or design. I had been here enough during daylight hours to know that they were traffic control lights on the train tracks. It seemed that any train coming down the tracks tonight would not need to stop.
We passed boat ramps and campgrounds: Buckhollow, Pine Tree, Jones Canyon, Beavertail, and Rattlesnake Canyon. We passed Grumpy’s and the Hogline, favorite fishing holes. Finally, we arrived at the nearly empty Mack’s Canyon campground at 10:30 pm and set up a quick camp to catch a few hasty hours of sleep. We were well away from the lights of any towns, and I fell asleep under the glow of the visible Milky Way and thousands of other stars that I probably hadn’t seen since my last river trip.
Come morning and the sun has risen early, though its warmth and full light hasn’t yet reached completely into the canyon. As we wake, a train loaded with lumber and an unidentifiable substance in tankers rumbles by slowly, as if it, too, were still drowsy.
At the boat ramp, we inflate our raft, a beast of an old commercial gear boat that we purchased used and discover a small air leak that needs a quick fix. That, in turn, leads to a discovery that our repair kit is woefully understocked with shore adhesive, which we need to make the vinyl patch stick to the raft. We make do with duct tape, which, remarkably, stays on for the entire trip and greatly minimizes the air loss.
While we are packing the boat – strapping the metal frame on and dropping in the large cooler and watertight kitchen boxes and dry bags of clothes and sleeping bags – a falling rock on the opposite shore gets our attention. There are six big horn sheep standing comfortably on what appears to be an almost sheer cliff face. They have stopped and stand still, facing us, probably trying to sniff out whether or not we are a threat. There is a young one with the group, and it is noticeably more careless of our presence than the adults are. Eventually they decide that we are harmless and continue walking their steep path, grazing at the sparse grass as they go.
It is our first steelhead fishing trip of the season, and my casting is noticeably rusty. The first few casts crumple into ineffective piles of line on the water, tangled messes with a fly in the middle. Even in this mess and the messy process of reawakening my muscles to the motion of casting, there is beauty in the sunlight glinting on the water droplets as they slough off of the line, making prismatic, liquid gemstones. When I straighten my casts out, the line snaps through the air and the fly knotted to the end of the transparent leader arcs gracefully through the air to the middle of the river, where the steelhead might be swimming.
The fishing report we read online seems to have been correct. But, the advantage of poor fishing is fewer people on the river. We have a quiet day and find most of our favorite spots unoccupied. We close the afternoon by landing, if not a fish, then one of the best campsites on the river – one with shade, a flat spot for the tent, and easy access to an outhouse, all fronted by some beautiful water that we will fish when the light exits the canyon again in the evening.
Early the next morning, Dave catches a wild steelhead, so fresh from the ocean it is still mostly silver. Its thick flank is scarred from a previous encounter with a net of some sort, in either the ocean or the Columbia. What steelhead do out in the ocean, besides grow larger, is a bit of a mystery. Unlike populations of salmon that have been exhaustively studied and tracked in both the rivers and oceans, steelhead have received relatively little attention. When released, the fish swims away strongly, intent on fulfilling the purpose that drew it back to its home river.
It takes the morning light a very long time to work its way into this part of the canyon. The sun chases the shadows down the sloping hills behind us, then across the train tracks and finally to the river’s edge, where the shadows have no escape except to sink into the river, where they will bide their time until the evening. Then, they can safely reemerge and will bring with them the coolness they’ve collected at the river’s bottom during the day.
There is no time I love to fish so much as the early morning. It feels like being at the border of something – the border between dawn and day, maybe, but also more than that, something like the border between a suspended state of timelessness and the point at which time begins. I always think I will be able to hold onto that feeling of complete calm, even when we have returned home from the river, but it slips away, just as the shadows do when the sun comes out. I don’t know why other people keep fishing (especially when they catch as few fish as I), but I know that I keep at it because I can’t think of any other excuse to stand in the river and watch the light and shadows trade places and the world wake up to another day.
Neither one of us caught any more fish that trip, but I can’t say that it mattered a great deal. Whether or not the fishing is good, the fishing is always good.