Monday, November 28, 2011

River Report: Fishing With Ghosts

For a fisherman, time is marked by moments on the water, a long silver chain of experience. Sometimes we think that chain will be endless, that it will suspend us forever between the past and the future. But nothing, not even us and the things we love, last forever.

The ghosts tell us that.

Mark and I went to the river on Friday afternoon. It was a mild day; the sun shone but the river ran cold. And we both knew we weren't alone.

There were the ghosts of the salmon, so recently alive and intent on the fulfillment of their life purpose, now dead--but not gone. With generations of salmon before them, their presence could be felt, a silent run of life still filling the river.

And there were others. I thought of those who had known this river before me down through the centuries, the First Nation peoples who lived in and hunted this valley, and probably fished this river. The river may have changed course here and there, but it has always been here, and the hills and ridges and mountains I see today are the same contours that shaped their world. They are still here, watching over the land that was theirs, pausing on the river bank to watch me as I fish.

There were the early explorers who floated down this river in their dugout canoes, the miners and the adventurers who traveled through this valley long before the first settlers put down roots. If you stand still and listen you can hear the dip of paddles, the jingle of bridles, as they pass.

Near the river is a canyon, a narrow defile a few miles long with sheer rock walls on either side. In 1858 an expedition of 167 miners, traders, and packers, coming from Fort Okanogan to the south, entered the canyon, a well-known short cut through the valley. They were on their way to the newly discovered gold fields on the Thompson and Fraser Rivers.

Chief Moses, of the Chelan tribe, had warned them that they would not be permitted to pass through the valley. His brother had been killed by whites just a few weeks before. But the expedition ignored the warning. Halfway through the canyon they became suspicious when they saw freshly cut saplings and brush, the leaves wilting in the summer sun.  A man rode forward to investigate, and Chelan warriors rose up from concealment and opened fire.

A battle began--more a standoff than a battle; but thee miners were killed and three wounded in two days of fighting. The expedition finally retreated, crossed the river very close to where I fish, and made their way on north.

I recently went outside late at night and saw, up on the ridge at the north end of the canyon, a string of wavering lights making its way slowly down the dark ridge. Someone was up there. It was easy to imagine a ghostly expedition, or a line of ghostly warriors, making their way down the trail.

They are here.

So are my own ghosts, those of my people who went before, who are no longer living except in the marrow of my bones and in my heart and soul. As I do every Thanksgiving, I thought of the first Thanksgiving I remember, a family gathering at the family farm in northern Indiana when I was four years old. What I remember most is the old farmhouse full of people, the people from whom I sprang, sitting around in the warm glow of a fireplace. Many of them are gone now, but they are with me always.

Just before we went to the river I learned that another of our uncles had died. He was my father's brother, the youngest of five boys who grew up on a farm in Iowa. My father and one brother are still living, but now three brothers have joined my Grandpa in death.

My Grandpa was a singer, and he formed the boys into a quartet that became renowned in that part of Iowa. They once sang at a Billy Sunday revival in Marshalltown in the Thirties. My aunt said last week, "Now they have a quartet again."

But I remember my uncle from the time I was growing up in Idaho. He had been in Idaho for a long time, and was a true Westerner. And he was a fisherman, and was often there as my father and brothers and I went in search of trout in streams and lakes. He is with me now as I fish.

In early dusk a cold wind picked up and the temperature started to drop. I climbed the bank, stepping where generations of deer have gone down to the water, and made my way back to the truck.

Mark was already there, beginning to warm up.

Some ghosts we left at the river. But many went with us as we pulled out onto the highway below the canyon and climbed the hill for home. But that's good. They watch over us.

And they wait.


  1. Beautifully written tribute...and I feel them when on the water too...

  2. Chilling and beautiful. Thank you.

  3. e.m.b.: Thanks. I'm sure you do.
    Laura: Thanks, Babe. A properly Novemberish meditation, I think.