Thursday, 31 May 2012

A River Nowhere


Out of a clear, blue sky, I find myself in a situation.  It’s a situation that seems insurmountable.  I can’t possibly go on, but I have no choice; there is no option but to continue, to push ahead, to overcome and ignore everything my body is telling me, to do the complete opposite in order to survive – ironic, considering my body is telling me to stop in order to survive.

In all my years, I’ve not found myself in a physical predicament of this magnitude, not that I can recall anyway.  My legs are burning.  My stomach has liquefied.  My lungs, incapacitated somewhat due to my smoking habit, are closing up.  I’ve never had sweat actually sting my eyes before, but right now, it’s happening.  Blood flows from several deep cuts to my hands, dirt covers the knees of my waterproof pants.  Underneath them, a wetsuit keeps in the mounting heat.  But I must go on, I can’t stay here, I have no option but to keep going.


The Cabin
The previous evening, a Friday, three of us had arrived at the cabin, a simple wooden structure, sans electricity, deep in the wooded hills high up behind Coffs Harbour.  It was grey and cold, darkness setting in early as we stoked up the fire, unloaded the four-wheel-drive, strolled briefly down the back to check out the stream running through the property.  As darkness properly descended, we drank beer and sampled the whiskies we’d each brought, ox-tail stew bubbling quietly on one of the portable gas burners on the bench.

Later on, two more arrived and the five of us sat in semi-darkness, a couple of us laconically strumming guitars, a few brews, some fine food.  Talk was on the task at hand though, not too serious a task four of us thought, but one, the Fly Fisherman, the one who had been here before and who had been stalking The Trout since he was a young man, he knew better, although perhaps he thought it’d be fine.  For how hard can a fishing weekend possibly be?  How much effort can one possibly expend whilst casting and reeling, wading and snagging, the eternal hunt for the perfect trout, the one that’ll fit that pan to perfection, it loves the dill and the butter and the lemon.  Come on you little bastard, take the bait, suck it up, you’re dinner.  Oh, the humanity.


We set off at around nine in the morning.  It’s late May, so the water will be cold, hence the wetsuits, waterproof pants etc.  We carry small backpacks with dry clothes, water, lunch, a towel.  I add a hipflask, which I know will be important later in the day.  We drive 20 minutes down the road, park, get out, check the gear – five guys (ages ranging from 31 to 45), five rods (three fly setups, two spinners), at least five fish needed.  How hard can it be to catch a trout?  It is, in actual fact, the last weekend of the trout fishing season, so perhaps the rivers won’t be as teeming with fish as they had been months earlier.  But the Fly Fisherman knows a spot, seldom fished, ideal for himself and his four novices.  Let the games begin.

We walk out of the carpark towards the bush, and once on the path, you can see, way down below and along, a waterfall, one which certainly isn’t a minnow, one which certainly isn’t close.  That’s where we’ll end up.

The Waterfall

The sun is out, warming our faces, expectation is high and spirits are light, we step sprightly and laughter abounds, each of us mentally hauling out trout after trout, glorious rainbow colours flashing in the sunlight, our almost maniacal laughter booming off the cliff faces as we delight in our many catches – this will be the day, we five men will clean this river out, and tonight, we will eat like kings, taking home with us tomorrow, to our wives, tales of fishing before unheard, the bounty from which will be the proof that we are, indeed, men.  Wild men.

The Fly Fisherman takes an unexpected turn off the path, and so begins our descent – into the gorge, yes.  But also into a world of pain and anguish, physical pain and aguish, the likes of which I’ve never, as I mentioned, seen or felt before.  A descent into hell, of this I am sure, although at the time, I had absolutely no idea.


Am I being too dramatic?  Am I making this out to be something it really isn’t?  To be honest, in the cold, hard light of day, a week or so after our return, sitting at my desk in warm, dry clothes with a cup of coffee close by, it seems as if I am being a little histrionic.  At the time however, I and my three fellow fly fishing novices – dads all, myself excluded, desk and café workers and owners whose weekly exercise regime doesn’t extend far beyond beach walking and surfing – as we were thrust into the aforementioned situation (and this was only the beginning), began to have doubts.

Doubts that this would be the relaxing fishing weekend we’d envisaged a month or so beforehand, downing schooners at the Bruns pub.  Doubts that we’d be able to make it to the bottom of this ravine, this almost vertical gorge, let alone spend five hours fishing, and then, horror of horrors, climb back out.  Doubts that we’d ever be the same again, to be honest.  Oh lordy, the fishing had best be good, I thought to myself as we struggled downward, razor grass our only handholds on an 80 degree slope, soft earth and hidden rocks and logs beneath our rapidly tiring feet.  The fishing had best be good.


We made it to the bottom some 20 minutes after we began, legs wobbling, panting, wanting to vomit with the exertion of it all.  I thought back to that Thursday night at the pub, a month or so ago, when three of us were entertaining the thought of doing this.  Wide, slow-running, shallow rivers were on our minds.  Rivers in the middle of a field somewhere, a short walk from wherever we’d parked the car.  Fly rods whipping back and forth, lures landing in the exact spot we were aiming for.  Quiet, calm, relaxing.  Then back to the cabin for music and whiskey.  

We were as far from that idea as we were from the cabin.  All I could think of was the ascent come days end.  Still, there was work to be done and so we rested and recovered and washed blood off our hands and started to set up the gear, test the water, see what was what.

The River

The river itself, a relatively narrow, quick flowing affair, was the balm to sooth our savage breast to be sure – mossy rocks, small pools, little waterfalls, the bush towering above us on both sides, as picturesque a scene as you could hope for.  Our spirits rose, and we began to fish.


On his second cast of the day, the Fly Fisherman strikes.  One decent-sized rainbow trout, an impressive looking thing which is quickly stored away.  We are, almost instantly, invincible.  We can catch anything.  Anytime.  Anywhere.  The Fly Fisherman lands another, slightly larger, specimen a short while later.  Things were looking good and we could all, no doubt, already taste it, The Dinner, it would be impressive and we would stomp on the terra and own it all by days end, surely.

The god of fishing though, is a selfish, abrasive old man.  He rarely smiles and when he does, it’s at the misfortune of hapless fishermen who think they’re In The Know, but really they know nothing.  He cackles away on his old chair, his face almost completely obscured by a wild mass of whiskers, his hands covered in warts, his face (what you see of it) as gnarled and twisted as the cane he carries in his left hand.  He’s a bastard and a bounder, a nasty old man.

The Pretender

I didn’t even see a fish in that river.  Neither did the other three.


So we sat under the waterfall, having fished our way up the river over the course of the day, finishing under this thundering beast, gently soaking in its spray.  I pulled out the hipflask and order was, for a short time, restored.  The only trout we had were the two the Fly Fisherman had caught.  The sun was rapidly sinking.  It was getting cold.  We all sat for a few minutes, no one saying anything, but everyone, to a man, thinking the same thing.  Now, after the epic onslaught of The Descent, after a day spent clambering over boulders and through ice-cold water, it was time to climb back out.  This is when I found myself in a situation, out of a clear, blue sky.  We had no option, other than to carry onward.  And upward.


Three metres from the top, the path and carpark visible through the trees, I stopped.  The last few steps were up a sharp, nasty little incline, a final fuck you from an exercise we certainly weren’t expecting.  I couldn’t do it.  Physically.  I eventually used a fallen tree, a few metres away, to pull myself up.  On to the path, over to the car.  Stripping off wetsuits and pants, dry towels and jeans, dry, warm boots, another hit from the flask.  We all laughed.  I made a joke about how, in hindsight, that was fun.  Everything was funny – you could have made a joke about dead puppies, and it still would have gotten a laugh because we were all so overjoyed with the fact we’d made it out of the gorge.  The waterfall had fallen back in the distance as we’d slowly, ever so slowly, made our way out of there.  With no fish to boot.  We were beaten men, but we had to put on a brave face.

The Relief

We returned to our hidden fortress, we re-stoked the fire and rustled up some snacks and beer began to slowly flow, switching to whiskey.  We cooked the two trout, broke up the juicy flesh and ate it on dry crackers.  Potatoes in foil sat in the fire, the harsh spice of the homemade Mexican beans bubbling on the gas burner, their accompaniment.  We ate like kings, but the fish course was barely an appetiser.  Oh, the humanity.  We all retired early.  A lot earlier than the previous evening.  Slow guitar playing, cuts on fret fingers.  Slow whiskey.  Slow food.  Slow to get up off the chair and into your bunk where blessed relief wasn’t far off.


The next morning we fished, somewhat half-heartedly I must say, in a small stream not far from the cabin.  No climbing.  The laughter had returned –  though we were tired, there was still the jubilation that we’d overcome yesterday’s gargantuan obstacle. 

Writing this now, thinking back to The Climb, I’m definitely sure I’m being overly dramatic.  The Fly Fisherman seemed barely phased by the whole thing.  Two of the novices did a meritous job, the other having the excuse of age, but me?  The youngest by a good seven years, and yet struggling the most.  Good god, am I a weakling, someone who just doesn’t have the strength to climb a hill?  Surely not.  But I assure you – this ‘hill’ was close to an 80 degree angle – have pity on me.  Speaking to my sister on the phone a couple of days later, she (jokingly) likened it to childbirth, by the sound of how I was describing it.  I cautiously offer up that yes, it was like childbirth.  Possibly.

What it was, was something we weren’t expecting, but to be honest, the thinking is that this is a good thing.  How often does one get so bodily hurled from their comfort zone?  We thought we were in for a relaxing weekend of fishing, but we were tested, physically and mentally.  Plus, we caught not a fish amongst the four of us.  Oh that humanity.  No tales nor bounty would we bring home to our wives, no fish would we eat for weeks on end.  Not a one.  No fish.  Nothing.  We are, I think, cursed.  But we’re also united, in that despite the fact we caught nothing, we survived this madness and lived to tell the tale.  I will fly fish again, of that I have no doubt.  Next time though, I will make sure we fish in a river somewhere, as opposed to a river nowhere.  Of that I have no doubt.

Samuel J. Fell

1 comment:

  1. Utterly splendid and terribly accurate.