[NOTE: "Being One" is the tentative title. This is the third draft of a first part of a short story, to be completed over subsequent installments. Comments are welcome.]
It was getting late. There was still enough light to see. He could see the trajectory of his cast, and where the bait landed in the stream. He could follow the drift of his bait ticking along the bottom. Having fished that hole for the previous twenty minutes, he knew where the snags were. He cast and drifted his bait to avoid the snags, still hoping that it was down where the brown trout were. He knew the difference between the feel of the bait ticking on the bottom, and the two-beat jerk-jerk of a trout taking the bait. By the pull at the tip of his rod, he sensed when the bait was coming off the bottom at the end of the drift. Then he reeled up, and cast back to the head of the pool for another drift. Each cast was bringing him closer to dark.
Kevin was on his usual mid- to late-June camping and fishing trip to the Aspen River. He came up Tuesday morning. He was now ending his second day on the river. Tomorrow, depending on how the fishing would go, he’d leave either mid-day after the morning fishing, or if the fishing and weather was good, he’d stay until dark.
He made an annual trek to the Aspen for three days and two nights of camping, fishing, but mostly relaxing. Back along the Aspen, two miles down a two-track, ten miles from the nearest state two-lane highway, the silence was loud. Wind shushed through the pines, spruce, and cedars. It tinkled as poplar leaves flicked right and left. Downy woodpeckers drilled dying trunks and branches of hard maple and choke cherry trees. Flickers as if on big lake waves careened through the woods up a crest and down a trough. Bigger cousins, pileated woodpeckers, rode ocean-size waves. He often heard their crescendoing scree-scree-scree well before he saw them, or their hammering a tree that sounding like a chain saw starting up. Male partridges drummed their wings, signaling their location to females ready to breed.
Red squirrels squeaked, like a human sucking the inside of his cheek. A doe would snort, blowing her nose to get a better gauge on his scent. Fawns were dropped over the past few weeks. Walking through the woods to the river, he would on rare occasion nearly step on one before it jumped and sprinted away. Each time, Kevin felt more startled than the fawn. Something reddish-colored flushing suddenly within a few feet of him caused his brain—his own species not that long ago having come down out of trees to roam and prey on the savannah—to think it was a predator, maybe a rabid fox or a more reddish rather than grayish coyote. Half a second later, he realized it was a fawn. But the first reaction was flight. His brain directed his adrenal glands to mainline a large dose, and it took a few minutes to calm back down.
The quiet was a healthful deafening. Kevin’s life was filled with so much noise. To take a few days a few different times during the year to be surrounded by not exactly silence but quiet, helped Kevin hear more precisely. This was one time. Sitting in a deer blind for a few days mid-November, with nuthatches going beak-first down the dead cedar next to his blind and landing two feet away on the open window sill was another period of silence. And in January there were several hours of silence, but usually no more than three hours at a time and often after dark, in an ice house lit by a kerosene lamp, looking through a hole in the ice to a silent world below.
Kevin travelled to the Aspen at this time of the year to clear his nostrils, ears, eyes, and finger tips after nine months in the classroom as a teacher. School was rarely a quiet place. Students arrive with boisterous chatter. Bells ring. Assemblies and pep rallies demand ear plugs. Who trained, or is it corrupted, those kids’ fashion sense? The hair styles, the colors of their clothing, and patterns and prints. Sometimes Kevin thought he should wear sunglasses in class. Nay, sometimes he thought he should put on a welder’s helmet, through which only things nearly as bright as the sun were visible. Then some of the sophomore boys had not yet realized that their glands were producing chemicals that made them positively stink. Other sophomore boys thought they needed to imitate mid-twenty year old dandies from the movies and television commercials and wore perfume, otherwise known as men’s cologne. And the girls were no better. Well, they were a bit better. Girls seemed to learn better from their mothers to wear deodorant. Girls smelled fresh, mostly like Ivory soap. He noticed that when they’d come up to his desk to ask a question or turn in an assignment. Only a few girls overdid the perfume, not as bad as the blue-haired church ladies, however. Besides the students, there were all the chemical smells of institutional cleaning supplies. Schools, doctors’ offices, hospitals, nursing homes: they all have unique and distinctive odors. Why did the school bathrooms smell so badly when they were freshly cleaned? Which senseless chemist invented those cleaning chemicals?
September was always a shock to his senses, having been away from school for so long. When he himself was in junior high, he helped a neighbor, for no pay but just for the experience, on a dairy. He’d show up at 5 am in the barn, as would the cows into their stanchions. The odor would smack his senses, and he’d breathe through his mouth. But after five or ten minutes, he’d be breathing through his nose, and it didn’t seem offensive. He especially liked the sweet smells of a dairy, much sweeter than a beef, chicken, or hog operation. The sweetest smell was the silage, moist hay stuffed into a silo, slightly fermented, especially as you drew it out of the bottom of the silo to feed the cows as they were in their stanchions waiting to be milked. Was it a cocktail for a cow? Kevin wondered but never knew. At school in September, it took only a week to get used to the smells again and cease the mouth breathing. At the beginning of the school year, many of the students arrived with the latest fashions, or at least what they called fashions. The principal arranged a few assemblies. And as it was football season, Friday last period was often a raucous pep rally.
By June, when classes were out, Kevin’s senses needed therapy, recovery, rejuvenation.
He went to the Aspen mid-week for two reasons. One is because he could. Unlike the rest of the work force who had to work Monday through Friday, and maybe a weekend day too, now that school was out he had about ten weeks free. He could pick his days and times to run errands, get groceries, go for a hike or jog or bike ride. He could avoid the frustrations of having to be in busy traffic and busy stores. He could be on the Aspen when most others, except retirees, were at work. The second reason was because the Aspen was busy on weekends. It was a popular canoeing river. Back in the seventies when canoes were aluminum, it was called the silver hatch or the aluminum hatch. Every Saturday and Sunday morning, from June through August, at 8 am, hundreds of canoes would appear on the water. On the busiest weekends, a thousand canoes a day would put in up steam and take out down stream. By noon, a tenth of the canoers were intoxicated, the river banks and bottoms strewn with empty cans. By seven or eight in the evening, they were off the river to avoid the evening mosquitoes. Starting in the late eighties, the state enacted restrictions, both for the number of canoes per day permitted on the river, and time regulations: no water craft on the river before 9 am, and all watercraft off the river by 6 pm. The latter was to provide some peaceful conditions for those who wanted to fish, or at least to give the fish some peace and quiet.
Kevin went to the Aspen mid-week to pursue solitude. Mid-week gave him great chances for that. He rarely saw more than a dozen canoes or kayaks go by him mid-day mid-week. And they tended to be canoers and kayakers, not partiers in canoes and kayaks. They were quiet. If he wasn’t looking, they could float past him unnoticed.
He also went mid-June because it was near summer solstice. In northern Alaska, and anywhere near the Arctic Circle, those were the days of no night. In northern Michigan, it meant visibility until after 10 pm on a clear night. Sundown at 9:30 pm, civil twilight after 10 pm, nautical twilight almost 11 pm, astronomical twilight almost midnight. On the years that moonrise was just before sunset, visibility could be adequate longer, especially if you were outside with no artificial lights from 9 pm until midnight as your eyes adjusted to the diminishing light. It wasn’t as bright as a winter, snow-covered full moon night, but it was as bright as you could get in summer. With so many nocturnal animals around the Aspen, chances of seeing them without artificial lights were good around solstice. Too, the world seemed quieter at night. Less road traffic and less airplane traffic. Even ten miles from the state two-lane highway, if there was no wind in the trees you could hear the whine of semi-truck tires on pavement. You’d have to get to a unique place in a wilderness to be out of the flight pattern of airlines.
That morning he was on the river at 5:30, half an hour before sunrise. Fiddlehead ferns were soaked with dew as he hiked through the woods to the river. Wearing waders, he didn’t get wet, and the dew prepared his waders for the river. He went by dead reckoning. He wanted to connect to the river just upstream from the beaver dam.
The beaver dam wasn’t a dam any more. It was halfway between Spruce Creek and Daley Creek where some beavers had, in the late fifties, started a dam. Then one spring in the early sixties after a winter of heavy snowfall, and with extra heavy spring rains, the river cut a new, shorter course, leaving an oxbow behind. Over the years, blowdowns, leaves and other vegetation filled much of the oxbow, becoming a stagnant swamp. The river lost a half mile of its course.
The course of the Aspen rarely went straight for more than fifty or a hundred yards. It wound back and forth. Occasionally Kevin took advantage of that to surprise canoers. In a few places an upstream and downstream section of a half mile of the river were divided by only fifty yards over a small hill. Kevin would wave to the canoers on the upstream side of the hill, traverse to the downstream side and wave to them again eight minutes later after they had floated the half mile of the river.
The beaver dam area was a favorite place for him to fish. He’d get there either by camping near Spruce Creek and bushwacking through the woods downstream, or by camping near Daley Creek and bushwacking up stream. There were several deep pools the half mile above and below the beaver dam, holding large brown trout. He would fish the beaver dam early in the morning until early evening. He never fished it late evening because it would be too easy to get lost in the woods after dark trying to find his way back to his campsite two miles away. Dead reckoning works at dawn. He could head out from his campsite in the right direction at the first hint of dawn. Over the next fifteen minutes as it would begin to lighten, he could find his way rightly. Too, he would be drawn to the sound of the river. But there would be no sound to guide him back to his campsite in the dark.
Given the meandering course of the Aspen, Kevin would cut the course from pool to pool by crossing the river. There were not many places to cross. While it was a narrow river with no place you couldn’t cast from one bank to the opposite bank, it was often deep with a strong current. He selected spots where the river did not rise to his waist. Between Spruce and Daley Creeks, there were only three places to cross in water no deeper than mid-thigh. What made the Aspen a popular canoe and kayak river was its strong current, which made it a challenge to wade and fish. He had involuntarily swam with waders on a few times, having his feet driven out from underneath him in the currents. He tried not to wade above his waist, except in the slowest sections of the river, to have less of the river tying to push him downstream. Besides the strength of the current, several sections of the Aspen were carved through clay. Clay ledges jutted into the river on a barely noticeable slope for ten feet, then dropped to a pool ten, fifteen, sometimes twenty feet deep, great holding spots for large brown trout. But the clay ledges were treacherous to wade in the Aspen’s current. You could be just knee deep, and the current would push you on the slick clay toward the drop-off. You’d try to back pedal, hoping there was an over-hanging branch you could grab to regain solid footing and creep to safety.
Crossing one of the safe spots that morning, between his second and third trout, he came upon a common merganser hen, a rusty-headed dive bomber of a bird, with ten ducklings strung out in a line behind her. Had it been just her, she would have jumped and flown. But as protector of her offspring, she led them downstream close to the bank under the sweepers. On the other side of the river, he cut off a section of the river to fish the next deep pool downstream. While there, after catching his fourth trout, the second one he’d keep for his noon lunch, the merganser clan had continued downstream, saw him, and turned back upstream. With the sun approaching the high point in the sky, Kevin turned back upstream to return to his campsite for lunch.
He cooked his lunch over a Coleman stove. That brought him many of the best comforts of home. He could brew coffee in the morning, and boil water to pour in a bowl for instant oatmeal. He brought along instant rice, instant mashed potatoes, cans of vegetables, bread, peanut butter and jelly, apples, oranges, bananas. The only cooking he did was of the trout he’d keep. It was just too hard to cook rice or potatoes or oatmeal in the sauce pan and try to get it cleaned out after. Thus all the instant foods. He could put them in the bowl, pour the boiling water over them, and the bowl would be easier to clean. In an old fry pan, he cooked the trout while he boiled water to pour in a bowl of instant rice. When the trout were done, the skin peeled off and with a fork he could flake the meat off the bones to add to the rice. Two small trout and a bowl of rice was his big meal of the day. After eating, he poured some of the hot water into the fry pan, and gingerly carried it seventy yards up the two-track to scrape, clean, and dump out. Raccoons would want the skin, head, and bones, and he didn’t want them too close to his camp. After cleaning up, he made a sandwich, putting it and fruit into the back pocket of his fishing vest, together with a bottle full of water, for the afternoon and evening fishing.
Kevin carried caramels in his shirt pocket when he fished. He rarely ate them otherwise. But when he fished he like a caramel. If he broke off his hook on a snag, as he’d begin to retie a new hook, he’d begin to salivate, a reaction developed from years of fishing, to lubricate the knot before he’d pull it tight. Maybe the brown juice attracted fish, or maybe it repelled them. It didn’t matter.
Back on the river, late afternoon was the warmest part of the day, and the time of the day when the river was warmest from the sun, maybe two or three degrees warmer than at day break. With no one around and no one expected, having seen only five canoes that day, Kevin decided to take a swim. The Aspen in even the hottest days of summer is not a swimming river. It is a trout river. In spite of extensive logging of white pine in the late 1800s, the river is still well-shaded. Average daily high water temperature June through August is 62 degrees, and it would cool back into the upper 50s overnight. The summer record high one day was 70 degrees. On a sunny day when air temperature reaches the upper eighties, it becomes bearable to wet wade to about mid thigh. But it is still quite a shock to the system to get wet to the waist, and almost impossible to completely submerge without losing your breath. If you do submerge, you pop up, head for shore, and stand in the sun to warm up and dry off.
Kevin went to a grassy area down stream from the beaver dam. He had hiked two miles cross-country through the woods, an hour from his campsite, down to near Daley Creek. He’d fish upstream through the evening until he was close enough to a well identified trail near Spruce Creek, a trail he could find even in the dark, to take him back to his campsite without the risk of getting lost. But first, he’d bath in the river. It was near a rare open field where, a hundred years ago, pine logs had been stacked in winter, ready to be rolled into the river to float down to the saw mills in spring. He leaned his rod against a tree, and hung his fishing vest and creel on a branch. His green felt wool hat hooked on a nub of a branch. He exited his waders. He draped his sweaty blue flannel shirt over a bush to dry in the sun. His damp socks went over the neighboring shrub. He laid out the rest of his clothes in the grass. Then he listened to make sure he could not hear the bang of paddles against the gunwales of canoes. He slipped nakedly into the river. Quickest is best, he went deep before he had a chance to think twice about it. Dipping his head in, he scrubbed his scalp as if he were shampooing. Was he scrubbing his body or trying to create warmth through friction? His breath exited. Shivering, he got to the bank, up the bank, into the grassy area, far enough up the bank to be seen from a canoer’s level only from the shoulders up. He stood in the afternoon sun long enough to dry off, enough to sit on the grass until his feet were dry enough to re-robe without transferring sand inside his clothing.