Authors note: I wrote this story for Tapestry Magazine ten years ago, but it could have happened yesterday.
Rivers have had their say again, and seldom have they spoken so loudly. Halfway through summer, people throughout the Midwest are still wrangling with the aftermath of June flooding. As rivers return to their banks, life, as it must, returns to summer.
Children, of course, have summer’s best perspective. While the rest of us lift our responsibilities and tote our problems, children actually get around to living. Two teenagers with nothing of importance pressing on their young lives, other than a life and death struggle with a virtual villain, while away a sultry afternoon in Gays Mills playing computer games. “Ridiculous” says one to a sinister-looking warrior in a virtual forest that materializes on his 14-inch screen.
When I was his age – yes, I can remember that long ago – I recall fighting an equally fearsome but imaginary battle among friends in a real forest behind my house. White pines provided cover for our gorilla warfare, with the winner securing bragging rights for having captured our fort with a “ridiculous” but crafty move. Whether in virtual or real forests, thirteen-year-old warriors don’t like to be beaten, unless properly compensated for such ignominious defeat with pizza and soda.
Perhaps it was the child in me that set aside my worldly concerns on a recent summer weekend and went fly fishing with my son. Guided by Daniel Boggs of the Driftless Angler in Viroqua, we descended from Highway 27 into Timber Coulee to do battle with brown trout. Descending might be too generous of word, for it felt like we were plummeting. Besides having a nose for trout, Dan has the foot and feel for navigating narrow, steep roads that lead to fish. We flew by the Snowflake Ski Jumping hill, which might be the only quicker way to the bottom of Timer Coulee than Dan’s jeep.
But the drive along coulee roads, notched into verdant hillsides that drop like table linen into meandering creek beds filled with trout and lined with pastureland, might be as stunning as any in the Driftless area. Never will you find such balance with the world as when lost among the myriad coulees coursing through the Driftless area. Trivial concerns vanish behind impenetrable horizons as you reach deeper into these pockets of paradise.
Explaining that a trout stream can be broken down into the kitchen, dining, living, and bed room; each room serving a different purpose for resident fish, Dan took me to trout school. And showed amazing patience for someone incapable of casting across the bathroom. As a novice fly fisherman, I did more battle with my rod and line than with any lurking trout. Looking like a little leaguer flailing at high-and-away pitches, I eventually succeeded in casting my fly in the general vicinity of the dining room, and was rewarded with a nice-sized brown trout. Dan stuck the successful fly in my cap as a sign of fishermen’s rank, but I’ve not noticed anyone saluting me of late.
Two weeks later and armed with a new sense of self worth – I have a notorious reputation among family and friends as a bad fisherman – I decided to cast my luck on the backwaters of the Mississippi River. My wife and I set out from the landing on our sixteen-footer for “Dillman’s Pit,” a backwater stretch with a precipitous drop off where fish have been known to hangout in the basement of this multistory “house.” My first cast netted a 14-inch large mouth bass, and judging by the look on its face, was as surprised as me at my good fortune. I released him so that he might spread my reputation far and wide, telling his kin of a crafty fishermen lurking on the surface with more fishing tackle than he knows how to use.
Luck or skill – I make no judgment here – prevailed that evening, until I went to start the motor. The 40-horse Johnson apparently failed to recognize my growing repute as a no-nonsense river man, and refused to go back to work. It protested my pleas for cooperation with each turn of the key with an indifferent cough. My wife, who had spent the last hour casting for words in her crossword puzzle, was unimpressed. “Where are the oars?” she dubiously asked. “I think they’re hanging in the garage,” I sheepishly replied. Silence. There’s not a lot to talk about when seated in a boat lacking necessities and half-full of ignorance.
But if necessity is the mother of invention, then ignorance is the father of desperation. Two quick pulls of a starter rope fashioned from our anchor line sent me back to good graces and us back to shore. Relief begets appreciation as I surveyed my rediscovered luck; and the sun setting over the Iowa hillside. The entire western horizon had been set afire, and the embers were still glowing. I could have sat beside that fire all evening had the fire stoker allowed me. Summer is the time for celebration in the Driftless area, whether it’s battles won with dumb luck, or paradise found with luck given.