we come unstuck
When he was 14, I took my son to the whitewater stream in Maine where, 20 years earlier, I had taken a group of 14-year-old campers on a canoe trip. I was 21, newly married. Spencer and I drove a hundred miles of logging roads, past idyllic lakes, secluded hunting shacks and old paper company camps. Moose, bear, eagle country. When we arrived at this old haunt of mine, we both encountered new territory.
The general store at the road head hadn’t changed in 50 years, according to the proprietor, though I didn’t remember the beginner fly-casting kits, Orvis felt-sole wading shoes and Maine State Lottery tickets. Derelict high-top sneakers will always be my stream-wading footwear of choice.
The skills of the woods had been my lifelong passion—fishing, camping, building fires, playing with knives. Wildwood Wisdom was my first favorite book and I pored over the diagrams showing how to pitch a teepee, pack
a mule, lash your bedroll to your pack board, and make sassafras tea—
the lore of a complete backwoods life. My peers played basketball in
their driveways after school; I headed for the woods to catch frogs,
make flaming pine-tar torches, erect lean-tos and play suburban Leatherstocking. My enthusiasm persists. I envisioned a hunter-gatherer father-son initiation ritual.
At 12, Spencer went to a wilderness camp. He lived in tents, built a cedar-and-canvas canoe, hiked and paddled Maine mountains and rivers—the landscape of my own camper years; of my college wilderness-trip-leading summers; of the summer I got married and lived in a canvas tent; of the wilderness stream we stood beside.
He was an ambivalent camper—no second summer for him. And yet, to this day he regales us with the delicious hardships of camp: the miserable food, hummingbird-sized mosquitoes, cruel counselors and rancid jokes. It fails to shock. He describes days I romanticize.
Now we stood streamside to re-enact past experiences. He is my reluctant camper. I am the gung-ho camp counselor again. Can we reconcile the two worlds embodied in one stream?
Such a moment was evoked by E.B. White (in his essay “Once More to
the Lake”) revisiting his childhood haunts with his young son, watching the boy who used to be himself as the father who used to be his father. This is being unstuck in time … and feeling the icy chill of superseding generations.
My father disliked fishing and was a reluctant camper, though he obligingly accompanied me on two expeditions—fishing once, at a creek
in New York, and backpacking once, in New Hampshire. It was sufficient to launch my love of the woods. Once we had dug worms, arrived at the creek and worked out casting, dad just struck up a conversation with
an out-of-work steelworker fishing the same bank. Backpacking in
the White Mountains, years later, dad spent the second day overcoming the deleterious effects of his own campfire cooking. My brother and I contentedly picked blueberries and raspberries and carved our names
in the log wall of the shelter. It was a one-night expedition.
At our stream, Spencer put on waterproof waders and stepped into the brisk current. I wore my high tops. Spencer caught the first fish, a small bass, which he reeled in quickly. I took commemorative photos. He caught another, while my dry flies failed to entice any fish in the riffles upstream from the pool he was working. But the loveliness of the scene, appreciating this moment together, struck me. He was not my camper;
I need not lead him into the experience. He had his own reasons for enjoying what we shared. Weeks later, hearing Spencer tell the story
of fishing made me realize that the lore, the storytelling, connected us. Doing it, then saying it, is the full experience of having it. Even now.
We caught six bass in all, fish lurking mid-eddy, rising to both dry flies and metal lures. The exertion of wading the current, soaking my camera and braving moose flies rewarded me with a single moment of splendor:
A hefty trout hit my line just as the bald eagle surveying the scene from
its perch atop a tall spruce tree unfurled his wings and flew off. I had poached his fish. So, I gave it back.
We camped on the edge of a big lake. We set up our tent at dusk, cooked dinner over a fire and listened to loons call across the cove in twilight. We chopped wood, carried water; played with matches and whittled with our knives; hid from mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds. Ah, hunter-gatherer rituals.
The neighboring campers, sitting in their trailers, surrounded by four-wheel-drive all-terrain vehicles, started up portable generators to power lights and appliances. Not everyone comes to the woods to be Natty Bumppo, alas.
Todd R. Nelson is a writer in Penobscot, Maine.