Wish I'd Said It

Weeds are flowers too - once you get to know them.

- A. A. Milne

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Life Of A River Rat (#194)

It may surprise some of you to learn there was a brief interval in my life during which I may have been accurately characterized as a ne’er-do-well.

No, seriously, it’s true.

Others among you (most of whom share a percentage of my DNA) might suggest there’s only been a brief interval in my life during which I might not be called such. Or worse.

Let’s not argue. Who’s telling this story anyway?

Where was I? Oh yeah – somewhere in the mid-70s when I was in my mid-20s.

The freelance writing thing wasn’t working out too well yet. I had a string of what we, back then, called “Joe” jobs, loosely defined as those which couldn’t possibly be mistaken for a career - or even the first tentative steps towards one.

Half the time I was out of work, and for two to four months a year collected “pogey” - unemployment insurance. It wasn’t enough to live at all well on.

Unless you were a river rat.

A river rat’s needs are simple: fishing tackle, tobacco, gas and booze. The rest we left up to Mother Nature and working spouses.

I blame my wife-at-the-time’s brother. I helped introduce him to fishing and darned if he didn’t take to it. He too, was out of work a fair bit. As were some of his buddies.

Darned if many of them didn’t take to fishing as well and begin to accompany us. Of course, I wasn’t surprised. I’m surprised when I come across folks who are immune to the charms of worms and fish slime.

So, a group of four to six of us tended to find ourselves among a larger group of 15-25 men (never met a ratette, though I’m sure at least a couple exist) who greeted most dawns and sunsets on the banks of one stream or another during various fishing seasons.

Our boots would crunch through frost-stiffened stalks of field grass and frozen puddles until we reached the stream bank. There, we’d wander up or down, heading to the next-best pool not already covered by a couple of anglers.

Somebody would build a fire after casting out his line and resting it on a forked stick - careful to leave the bail open so an interested fish could pull line out freely.

Somebody else would pass around a bottle of belly warmer. We’d either take a sip or add a splash to a thermos cup of coffee. We ate strips of beef jerky, chunks of cheese, hard-boiled eggs and slices of kielbasa.

We kept the car windows open a lot on the way home.

Each new arrival was greeted, by nod or by name. Eventually, everybody knew everybody else. Before long, I knew way too much about other men’s wives, girlfriends and bosses.

We became a community - a community of river rats.

There were weeks on end when we’d spend up to 20 hours a day along the banks of local streams and rivers. If we heard the walleye were staging at a particular dam 70 miles away, we’d be there from dusk to dawn. If the steelhead were running in Wilmot creek or the Ganaraska river, we’d be there three or four hours after the pub closed and stay until some necessity or another called us home.

We’d smoke, drink, tell lies and catch fish. It wasn’t a bad life – if you were single and independently wealthy.

A couple of us were single but none were wealthy. A couple more of us became single along the way. It may or may not surprise you how few spouses are content to support the lifestyle of a river rat.

Eventually, maturity reared its ugly head and I left the river rat life behind.

Memories of those days came back to me recently while out fishing for steelhead. I set up across the creek from a small group of young men in their late teens or early 20s. They had the look of young ratlings-in-progress. If I’d been downwind of them I might have been able to confirm my suspicion -- bathing not being a high priority among river rats.

As I stood there, enjoying the day and gnawing on a hunk of kielbasa, it occurred to me that I could probably afford to revisit that lifestyle again, should I wish. My responsibilities have diminished as the boys have gotten older. And on some level, the prospect appeals to me very much.

But I’m more of a loner these days. Plus I no longer smoke. And I won’t drink and drive. And, worst of all, I have too darn many aching body parts to withstand the rigors of full-time river ratting.

But I’m definitely going to be wetting my line much more frequently than I have the last 30 years or so.

Those nearest and dearest to me needn’t worry. I’ll need a hot shower or bath afterwards to soothe those creaky body parts.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Determination (#193)

Last evening’s walk was one for the book. It was Sunday, Ben and I had just come back from Hilary’s and it was about 48 hours after the Big Flood.

On the previous Friday, when Hilary and I headed back to her place, it rained like Noah was still in business. The not-yet-completely-thawed ground was already saturated from snow melt and previous rains. It couldn’t hold any more water.

The result was predictable.

Son #1 emailed pictures taken across the road from our house, where Ben and I take our daily walks. The paved pathway, which in some instances is twenty or more metres from the creek banks, was completely underwater. Benches looked like they were floating.

Now, two days later, the waters had subsided to only inches above normal instead of several feet. Just before leaving on our walk, I’d had a brief argument with myself about footwear. If I stuck to the paved path and didn’t go all the way to the south cedar grove, I wouldn’t have to wear my rubber boots – which weren’t as comfortable to walk in as their laced-up kin.

As Ben patiently tugged at the cuff of my pants, I finally decided to go with the rubber boots. Now, as I trod the muddy path that followed the creek, rather than walking the paved pathways, I was pleased with my decision.

Along the way, perhaps half-way to our turnaround point, I came upon the bleached body of a flood-tossed fish. This isn’t too unusual in the aftermath of a flood. But despite my familiarity with the creek and its denizens, I couldn’t immediately identify this one.

It was about four inches long and white-ish gold, with the body shape of a chubby perch or shad. A faint tinge of washed-out orange surrounded the edges of the fish, leading me to suspect that its other side - the one lying against the mud of the path - would show a darker shade. It was probably a goldfish, perhaps someone’s unwanted pet released into the creek or washed out of a backyard pond. An unusual and sad place for a pet to die.

Did I just see its mouth gape? Impossible.

Bending low, I stared hard. There - it was faint but unmistakable - a tiny tremor of the gills and mouth. The fish was trying to breathe.

I picked it up and stumbled the 15 feet to the creek. Stumbled, because the mud near the eddy I walked toward was very soft. I didn’t risk releasing it anywhere but into a quiet eddy. The swift main current would quickly remove this last, faint whisper of a chance for survival. In three steps I nearly reached the eddy. In five I was stuck.

I stretched towards the water and eased the fish into it. Ben, of course, was there to help. Since he weighs approximately 190 pounds less than I, he had no trouble staying atop the mud. I shooed him away and tried to keep the small fish upright in the cold water, without losing my balance completely and tumbling bass-ackwards into several inches of goop.

It was tricky.

After about 30 seconds, I had to let go of the fish. It was either that or face the ignominy of waiting for the fire department to fetch me out. Which could take a while since #1 was watching Wrestlemania at a friend’s house for the next several hours; #2 was in Cuba for a week, and a quick pat of my pockets reminded me that I’d left my cell phone in another jacket. Pretty sure Ben had never seen an episode of Lassie so he wouldn’t have a clue what to do either.

I saw the fish's gills flare once, weakly, before it slipped onto its side and drifted into the depths of the eddy.

The next minute or two provided about as much drama as I care to deal with these days. My boots were about a foot deep in muck and resisted every attempt to lift. I corkscrewed my body and rested some of my weight on my hands in the somewhat firmer mud behind me. I formed a tripod of sorts as I struggled to free my right foot. Finally, with a disgruntled sucking sound, the mud released its grip. In another moment, I managed to free the left boot.

A few slogging steps later, I stood, panting, back atop the bank and marveled - both at my escape and that fish.

I'd found it about four or five feet above the current water level and fifteen feet away from it. The poor, no doubt, still-doomed creature, had to have been lying on muddy land for several hours, very likely for at least 24.

And it flat-out refused to die.

When I picked it up, I was struck by how dry the skin on its exposed side was, especially compared with the relatively slick side which had been lying against the mud. The fish should have been long-dead.

There’s only the slightest doubt in my mind that all I did was extend its dying for a time.

Only the slightest.

But that’s okay. I’m confident it would prefer to take its last breath in the water and am glad it waited for me to help make that happen.