Updated: Oct 20, 2021
It's silent, aside from the swollen raindrops pinging on the metal roof of the cabin, like dimes being dropped on the floor, and the steady hiss of the old gas lantern that envelopes the small space in its warm light. Soothing. Peaceful. A cool October evening in Northern Michigan. My only company comes in the form of Harrison in hard cover, Jameson in a tin cup and thoughts of tomorrow’s float down one of my favorite rivers with a friend. I finish my drink and my chapter, extinguish the lantern and turn in for the evening. The rain’s staccato storytelling and the tangy scent of cut pine boards on the walls my last cogent memories.
As the morning yawns itself awake I can hear that the rain has let up. Shaking myself loose from the sleeping bag I get some coffee started in the camp percolator — the one that always reminds me of my grandparent’s house during the holidays. I fill the trusty red thermos, throw on an old flannel and hit the road. Even in the dampness the day holds promise. The promise of escape. The promise of the river. And perhaps, if luck holds, the promise of a fall brown trout on the fly.
My radio is tuned to a local country station and the lyrics to a Dierks Bentley song feel especially poignant in the moment — like a short sermon delivered to a notoriously delinquent parishioner: “This morning I got up at 6:01. I walked out and saw the rising sun. And drank it in like whiskey. I saw a tree I’ve seen a thousand times. A bird on a branch and I watched it fly away in the wind. And it hit me. It’s a beautiful world sometimes I don’t see so clear”. The tires hum along worn blacktop. I sip my coffee and observe the passing landscape with a newfound appreciation, the message having found its mark.
Pulling into the vacant boat launch cold gravel crunches under the tires. I see Geoff, already in his waders, looking out over the tannic ribbon of water. Colored leaves rattle quietly in the trees. It’s a scene that is distinctly Michigan in the fall. The breeze carries a hint of decay as one season begins its transition to the next: from birth to death, from death to birth. I walk up beside him and pass the thermos as we observe the river.
Moving now, the oars dipping quietly into tea-colored water that pulls us ever forward, the calmness of its surface belying the powerful turbulence below. The stillness is so complete that, for a time, we merely glide along, afraid that even the gentle whisper of the fly line will offend the moment.
Eventually we meld into the rhythm of the stream and, out of habit, I adjust the weathered camo hat on my head hoping to coax a small measure of the luck I know it holds. Pulling back gently on the oars — already fighting the inevitable end — I move the boat into position. Geoff’s cast finds a promising undercut bank on the left, seasons of practice displayed in a precise tight loop. A slow twitch followed by a watery explosion and the hat has done its job. I smile knowingly to myself and grab the net.
Another sip from the thermos and we continue down the winding waterway like time itself. My tired soul rejuvenated by the incomparable beauty of the feisty spotted fish, the light gurgle and bubble that gently eases us along and the heavy scent of wet leaves hanging like unapologetically gaudy ornaments in the trees. I’m buoyed by the friendship, powerful in its quiet way, and the knowledge that escape is only ever as far as a river running through the big woods of Northern Michigan.