The QE Journal is proud to publish this true story by Michigan writer Juli Wilson.
Juli writes with a colorful, powerful and very intelligent style that is captivating and very enjoyable. And, best of all, it is from a woman's point of view. Enjoy!
As any angler knows, rivers have the power to heal a multitude of ills that come with living in our disordered, chaotic world. I've always been drawn to rivers, even in my pre-fishing days, but the wading part that comes with fly fishing…that slow-motion, breath-holding glide into the river through clouds of flying aquatic life, over and into the boulders and the gravel and the silt and the water's unfathomable power...that's where the real medicine is.
We tend to think of a river's therapeutic power as a tranquil commune with nature, and more often than not, it is. But rivers can also offer a far different sort of healing.
"I felt a fear of rivers for the first time..."
A few summers back, I pulled into the parking lot on the southwest bank of the Madison River in the late August twilight, just upstream from Three Dollar Bridge. Several cars were leaving as I was stepping into my waders, and the anticipation of having a big chunk of river all to myself was causing my adrenalin levels to rise. I pulled my gear together and made my way down to the river's edge, passing all the guys just ending their day on the river, the colors of the fading sunset reflecting on their faces as they headed back to their vehicles and their everyday worlds. I have to admit, I rather enjoyed the looks of surprise and respect as they nodded in polite camaraderie, as if to mark the novelty of a lone female angler out for a night of fishing on a far-from-tame western river (which really shouldn't be considered such a novelty these days, but that's another story...). Above, the infinite Montana sky was a glowing palette, from ultramarine in the east to pale turquoise in the west…a perfect evening to spend on the water, with only my own peaceful thoughts (and with luck, a few trout) as company.
This stretch of the Madison has rock-strewn, scrubby, muddy banks, marked by numerous sinkholes hidden by tall grasses. I maneuvered carefully upriver in the dimming evening light, along what could loosely be described as a path, much as one might pick their way through a minefield. Since I hadn't packed my wading staff for this trip, I relied on gingerly poking the grasses ahead with the reel end of my rod, checking for solid ground. I failed to avoid one particularly nasty hole, and the black muck claimed my right leg up past the kneecap. With my boot feeling 10 pounds heavier than normal, I wasted precious fishing time extricating myself from that thick, limb-sucking ooze. Weary of the trek in mind and body, I decided this was as good a spot as any to wade on out and cast a line.
"In the gloom, the Madison had undergone a transformation too, from a lively, inviting, play of moving light to a dark, pulsing mass - a wild, wide band of perpetual motion, at once ominous, exhiliarating and mesmerizing."
Night falls very quickly under those fabled big skies. By the time I'd settled into knee-deep water a couple of yards out and made my first cast, the sky had lost its former glow and gone almost black. In the gloom, the Madison had undergone a transformation too, from a lively, inviting play of moving light to a dark, pulsing mass, a wild, wide band of perpetual motion, at once ominous, exhilarating and mesmerizing. A bit spooked by the deepening dark, but undaunted and determined, I switched on my halogen headlamp and fished on.
The breeze shifted, coming broadside to my rod, so I made to adjust position and move a bit further from the brushy, fly-snagging bank. Misjudging depth and current in the reflected light of my headlamp, I took one step too far. Balancing thigh-deep on a bed of ankle-twisting, melon-sized stones, packed together like marbles in a jar, my legs already taxed by the struggle with the sinkhole, I felt a fear of rivers for the first time ever. The pounding, inky water fought my intrustion with fervor, and tried its best to knock me off my feet. It almost succeeded, nearly pushing me to my knees as water rose up past the belt of my waders. In a flash of self-recrimination I cursed having left my wading staff back home in Michigan. With a death-grip on my rod, I somehow caught my balance and managed to gain a wide stance, wedging my boots between boulders to remain moderately steady. I took a deep breath, said a few choice words, then leaned into the force of flow and held in place several seconds, stock-still, to unscramble my senses before carefully, slowly edging out of the current's grip.
"I imagined the speed with which my hapless body would move, my waders filling as I gulped the Madison..."
I was safe. But damage to my plan for a relaxing evening of fishing had been done; the excitement and anticipation of a potentially awesome catch had been drowned out by foreboding visions of going down completely—try as I might to banish the thoughts, I imagined the speed with which my hapless body would move, my waders filling as I gulped the Madison up in frantic efforts to take in air and stay afloat, with nary a soul on the bank to hear any cry for help I might muster. I couldn't stop thinking back to all the times before when I had tempted fate by foolhardy wading thigh- or waist-deep, often across unknown riverbeds, almost always solo.
The shivers I felt then had little to do with the cool night air or water temperature. Do all who wade turbulent waters experience a similar waking nightmare at some point, I wondered? And how ironic to use such a benign, agreeable word as "wade" when describing such endeavors! I turned back toward the haven of the riverbank, found a precarious foothold in the relatively calm shin-deep shallows, and slowly regained enough confidence, peace of mind, and control over my wobbly legs to stay the course and fish as planned. Better to untangle a few errant flies from the bushes than for someone to have to untangle my lifeless body from submerged debris, miles downriver.
Whether I caught any trout that night is irrelevant—I don't even recall if I did or didn't. I gained something more important: a new-found respect for the river's power, and for my own vulnerability and mortality. I had been healed from a nearly-terminal case of hubris, as well as a pretty hefty dose of stupidity...and been spared by the river-goddess to wade another day.
Juli Wilson is a pediatric occupational therapist by workday, and an escapist angler by weekend. A Wyoming/California native, her body currently lives in Michigan but her soul resides in Scotland, Ireland, and various points west of the Great Plains.
This is Juli's first contribution to The QE Journal and hopefully we'll enjoy many more.