A yellow road sign, spattered with buckshot, holes rusting through. It read: Narrow winding road, next 3 miles. More like, next 100 miles. But who’s counting?
I’d gassed up on the way out of town, and the attendant said he’d heard there were fifty cars parked near Whitaker Creek boat ramp on the Siuslaw. I didn’t expect to see those numbers where I was headed.
Boulders the size of my Honda studded the road, recently calved off the sandstone cliffs hanging overhead, a tangible reminder of the potential dangers, fishing alone in the Coast Range.
The water was high and cloudy at my first stop. Fishable, but I’d need to go big and flashy to get any attention. The logging trucks I’d passed every ten minutes or so since I’d climbed into the mountains weren’t helping with the visibility. I’d passed a new clear cut on the way into the valley.
I considered my inability to tell whether the world was getting better or worse. Gains in my lifetime: increased equality, information. Losses: declining species diversity, free time. I didn’t know if it penciled out.
My waders kept breathing into my face. They smelled terrible, worse than usual. Coffee-piss, sweat, mildew, chewing tobacco. I spotted a pull-tab can of Black Label Beer that must have been rusting out here for thirty years. There are cigarette butts on the ground, more recent. I wonder if all fishermen are slobs who make terrible decisions, or if that should be applied to men in general.
We’re moving this summer, to be closer to my family and for my wife’s new job. I think about exploring this landscape with my son in a few years, traveling from the Midwest to show him the place he was born, the climate that shapes the way he thinks and feels, this temperate jungle where wild fish run up abandoned rivers from the ocean.
Fishing alone, you get to do things differently. Think crazy thoughts. Stop to fish at random spots.
I pulled over at a run I’d never stopped at before, but didn’t see any obvious human impact. Banky conventional wisdom: If there’s a trail wide enough for a bunch of fat dudes to waddle down to the river and it’s littered with pork rind bags, it’s probably a productive run. Fish are going to stop in the same places, tide after tide. No trail, no trash — no fish in that spot.
I jumped over to another basin, to see if the water was clearer. There were cows all over tidewater, shitting, tearing down the floodplain, just like every other coastal river in the Northwest.
I headed up another dirt road, my Honda groaning and juking potholes. I can’t believe I’m doing this. The maintenance light has been on for weeks. The car nearly stalled a few blocks from my house, just before I’d left.
I arrived at one of my favorite spots and stumbled on a newt. We have a lot in common, walking the paths along the bank, seemingly aimless, unlikely predators – but our feet keep us moving. I kept casting.
The piece of water usually runs knee deep with riffles and big holes carved into the bedrock. But today the water along the banks was over my waist. I gave up my plan to cover miles on foot. I’d have probably tried it, before my son. But now I’m too afraid to drown. Or too afraid of my wife to come home hours late because the wading was tougher than I’d planned.
The danger creates tension. One misstep wading and the river swallows me up. One slip of the steering wheel and my car dives over the side of a cliff, leaving a small hole in the dense forest. Tiny decisions.
I tell myself that with this much water, the winter steelhead won’t wait. They shoot up the river. And I drive home. I wonder what my son will think when I drag him into the wet, cold woods to get skunked.