Since January, I’ve thought and written a lot about the inevitable shift in my family relationships. In the days immediately following Dad’s death, I told my brothers that I wanted them to include me in their fishing trips.
One of my brothers immediately noted, “But you don’t like to fish.”
I told them it wasn’t really about the fishing. I knew that they had always connected through hunting and fishing. We are three brothers and one sister… three fishermen and one non-fisher person. I figured that if there were going to be future gatherings of family, they were most likely to happen around the activity that brings them together. My request was noted.
This summer, my brother Dean called to invite me to join a trip on the Deschutes River in Central Oregon. With a lump in my throat (that’s what happens when the dog catches the bus), I joined Dean and brother Bruce on September 2, when we put in at Warm Springs, OR, for a 4 night floating-camping-fishing expedition.
Dean’s led this trip dozens of times, most often using his own 13′ raft, and Bruce has often participated. I was jumping aboard a trip with a lot of history, joining men with well-established habits.
What happened wasn’t really what I expected.
I imagined it kind of like a movie: after attending to the necessities of the day (breaking camp each morning, making camp each afternoon) and a long day of fishing and floating through dramatic volcanic canyons beneath blue skies, we’d contentedly kick back in our chairs and fall to talking about Dad, or Mom, or the burial, or our families. It would be a reverie of memories, longing and love.
I was right about the talking, but wrong about the quantity and the topic. The sporadic conversation centered on fish, insects, stars, geology and fish. Did I mention fish?
For example, did you know that Gary LaFontaine extensively studied caddis fly behavior underwater and designed the Sparkle Pupa fly to imitate rising nymphs (read more)? Or that they work so well because the sparkly antron fibers successfully imitate the gasses that build up under a real pupa’s shuck?
That makes me sound unappreciative. On the contrary. It was just one more life experience where you go looking for one thing and find something completely different, something all the more beautiful because it was unexpected.
I learned a lot. I had to confide that I’d never set up a camp, and I needed to be shown a lot. It turns out that Dean has quite specific ideas (inner smile) about how one does things. When you’ve made this trip as often as he has, you have long since figured out the optimal menu, way to organize a camp, method of packing a boat, and even how to do dishes (wash them with environmentally-friendly soap in one container, rinse in a second basin of hot water, and dip a third time in a basin with a few drops of Clorox for good measure). I also learned a lot about fishing, although the one that I hooked was by complete accident when the fish saw me pulling the line up to recast it (I’m told I got him on the rise).
I also was awed by the majesty of the canyons, river and sky of the Deschutes. How had I missed this? Within the first hour, the walls of the canyon rise up along side the river. The first few buttes stood back at a shy distance, their rising brown hillsides topped with rocky red crowns. In front of them, green water streamed serenely by. As we floated past rock gardens — shallow bars with water only inches deep — every rock gleamed in the crystal clear water. The canyon walls crept closer, and erosion revealed their geologic story of volcanic pressure, uplift, ash explosions, hot flows and cooling into a myriad of shapes, colors and textures.
Some lent themselves to flights of fancy, the way cloud formations beckon us to see images in their ever-changing shapes. Bruce thought the lone rock below looked like the head of an Argonath. I found myself remembering Dad being wheeled down the hospital hallway for an MRI reciting from Shelley: “My name is Ozymandius, king of kings:/Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Small islands straddle the center of the river between the off-limits property of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation on one side and the many public campgrounds on the opposite shore. As we pass them, Bruce and Dean remembered their fishing luck on past trips; one island was so favorable they referred to it as “our island.” We tied up at one that could be circumnavigated on foot, revealing tree roots that waved in the water like red hair.
We did not go unnoticed as we floated down the river. Wild horses on the reservation stopped their slow stroll as they came down to the water to drink, the stallion keeping us under observation to make sure we posed no threat. Great blue herons heard our approach, crouched and flared out their five foot wide wings to beat slowly upstream ahead of us. Mergansers dove, kingfishers cried their piercing call and ospreys whistled and chirped, circling high above the river. We counted 43 osprey during the course of our trip. At one point, a young buck cautiously approached the river’s edge while Dean cast just 30 feet away.
After the sky flamed from orange to fuschia to grey, the nights were even more magical. With only the background noise of the breeze, the Milky Way made such a perfect, broad arc over us that I could imagine a circle of spray paint continuing past the horizon both north and south, cinching the earth beneath us like a belt. Thousands of stars blinked into view revealing constellations, many of which I’d heard of, but never identified. Each night, I watched shooting stars through the netting of my tent and listened to the chorus of crickets and the thumping of bugs trying to penetrate the thin layer of nylon between them and me. I started to bargain with God: “I’ll go to sleep if you show me just one more shooting star.” And each morning, I awakened to an orchestra of birds calling as the sun poured down the brown hillsides behind us, often punctuated by the cry of a frustrated osprey as it flew reconnaissance over the river.
As entranced as I was by the natural beauty of the area, I really noticed things about my brothers.
I watched Dean walk upstream to fish. I love to watch my brother walk, as weird as that sounds. He conveys preparedness in every fiber. It’s visible in the set of his face, the tension in his arms, and the way he plants his legs as he moves purposefully forward. He has such a sense of purpose, a guy who know’s where he’s going and what he’s going to do there. When he sits, which isn’t for long, he’s usually (as my Dad would say) “working the problem.” When we were en route to Maupin to pick up a rented boat from Deschutes River Adventures, his face reflected concern about making it on the river in time to set up our first camp before dark. Even more serious was his expression when approaching White Horse Rapids. His intensity of expression reflected the responsibility he felt as organizer and river guide. Once he met the challenges of the day, he was finally at ease. Dean is such a rock, and I love that about him.
Bruce’s demeanor is and always has been more relaxed, even graceful. There is a gentleness to him, in his stance and in his voice. His walk is loose and his movements, fluid. He stood up and demonstrated casting back and forth, side to side, until he popped the fly right in front of a big trout. It was almost like watching a dance as his weight shifted from side to side. Of course, I teased him and said, “Can you do that again?” (He obliged.) Bruce loves to share his passion for things, and his passion for fish may be unsurpassed. Although he had plenty of time to fish on his own, he seemed to really want to guide my progress as I attempted to lob or roll cast. As bad as I was, he never seemed frustrated or irritated, using the same, calm voice to direct me.
That voice brought me right back to being five or six years old, when he patiently illustrated a poem about an elf sitting under a mushroom cap umbrella. I still have the drawing.
I watched as he caught the biggest fish of the trip. “Are you getting this?” he asked, knowing that I had my camera in hand. After the fish was released, he showed me how his hand literally shook in excitement. Bruce is such a geek, and I love that about him.
On our last night in camp, after being chased off the river by a dramatic thunderstorm (complete with hail, 40+ knot winds and horizontal rain), I summarized my experience for my brothers, telling them that the trip was different than I had expected. Dean asked, “What did you expect?” I shared my little fantasy about deep talks under the stars.
“Oh no, we don’t talk about relationships,” Dean said, “This is a guy’s trip. We do stuff.”
One brother was missing, and that made me sad. His absence made me wonder aloud on the first night, “How are we going to stay connected as a family?”
The next night, Bruce replied, “I’ve thought about what you said. We’ve learned some things. We’re better off together than we are separately.”
We as a family are moving forward, perhaps in fits and starts, but making progress.