WHEN I WAS A LITTLE GIRL, I learned to fish on my great-grandaddy’s boat. Every vacation we traveled from our home in Virginia to his retirement home in Florida, and my fondest memories are of being with him on the Lady Catherine (the name still makes me smile), motoring along the intracoastal waterway, bottom fishing for Drum.
I’d drop my line and let it sink. I’d hold the rod tip high, just like he taught me. I’d try to be patient. To this day I can hear him fishing behind me, his voice already holding the gravelly tenor of an old man: Come to Papa. Come to Papa. Eventually I’d get a nibble, then like I’d been taught I’d wait, watch, hoping for a greater tug on the line. When I was sure the fish was sure (or I was too excited to wait anymore) I’d set the hook–not jerking, exactly, but pulling hard, with determination and intention. Grandaddy would make his way from stern to bow and watch with great delight as the fight of that fish bent my rod toward the water. “Wind him, Cathy, wind him,” he’d say over and over, an anthem, and I would do my best to will my little girl hands to hold that rod steady, high, to turn and turn the reel’s handle, to get that fish close enough to the boat to be scooped up in his net.
THEN A FEW YEARS AGO my sweet husband and I decided it would be fun to get each other fly rods for our anniversary. I’d never fly fished–but I did love the poetry-in-motion art of it which I had experienced from afar in two ways: 1) A River Runs Through It, and 2) My neighbor Bruce, whom I see floating around Bickley’s Pond in his kayak many, many days after work, and who–let’s just put it this way–knows his way around a fly rod. We exchanged the gifts, which Tim promptly put to use and which I put in a closet somewhere, waiting for that magical day when “I had time.”
Months passed. Years passed. Then we started talking about the possibility of a grand trip to the Canadian Rockies with the Quiggs, the dear friends who introduced us back in 2000, dear friends who happen to be experienced, avid, and exceptionally proficient fly fishermen.
“I’m in!” I exclaimed, as I am always willing to go just about anywhere just about anytime. And the planning commenced.
I SHOULD SAY this. I have a great deal of interest in exploring and traveling and very little interest in planning for any of it. Luckily Tim does, so while my attention is focused elsewhere, he is the detail man.
And so it came as a bit of a shock to me when the trip approached and I realized in no time I would be in one of the most revered fly fishing locations in the world with one of the most experienced fly fishing guides in the world. And I would have absolutely no idea what I was doing.
(WHO DOES THIS??? And also: The night before our first float Vickie kindly taught me how to at least put my fly rod together. She also showed me a collection of flies and all the things
a person an angler uses that, for the most part, seem to hang from a vest, which I don’t own, and which were so odd and foreign that, although she was wild with excitement, I felt my own eyes glaze over.)
Then early, early the next morning, there I was in a boat, my assembled fly rod in my hands, and an Australian fishing guide paddling us out onto Canada’s Elk River.
GREG, THE GUIDE, could not have been more kind. Or more patient, or more encouraging. Tim was the same, and the experience turned out to be one of the greatest gifts of my life. It is terrifying to try something new at this age; it is particularly difficult to try something new that is so public. I mean, casting a fly rod is a very big, very visible, very intimidating thing. There is not much you can do that is more physical or takes up more space, that also requires such refined artistry. FLY CASTING WELL IS HARD. And then there are the 10,000 other things you have to remember to do and not do that make fly fishing a mental challenge, as well.
And the biggest surprise of all–nearly all of these fly fishing ways are in stark contrast to the bottom fishing methodology (basic as it was) that I learned as a girl. Needless to say the casting, itself, is completely different. But also you don’t hold the rod tip up, but down. You watch the fly. You present and mend and mend and mend and when you get a strike–you SET, by god, you ACT rather than waiting, confirming, deciding. Decades and decades (and decades) have passed since the last time I fished, and still the old muscle memory held strong. I had to fight my instincts with every motion.
THERE IS ALSO THIS, which still brings me to tears. Tim had fished like a pro, oddly not landing a fish. The guides were a little dumbfounded (although it did not stop us from teasing Tim mercilessly). At lunch on Day 2 he decided to change his jacket and therefore, change his luck.
“I’m putting on Kent’s vest,” he announced.
This made me smile, knowing how much my Daddy loved to fish, knowing how pleased he would be that Tim was remembering him, honoring him, knowing how happy he would be that we were here, doing this together. And off we went in our separate boats, this time the girls together in one, the boys together in the other. When the day was done and we gathered for drinks and fish stories, Jim pulled out his phone to show me a photo of Tim’s first catch that afternoon, which–of course–was one of many, many that followed.
We all stood quiet a moment, once we got a look.
Can you think of a more perfect exclamation point for this most perfect day? Can you think of a sweeter endorsement?
We carried on for several days more, making our way to Lake Louise, making our way to Banff. We wade-fished Emerald Lake; we marveled at the ridges and glaciers on every turn of the Icefields Parkway.
And lordy we had fun. We laughed and ate and delighted in each other’s company. We knew in every moment that we four had been gifted something very special in this adventure, that this remarkable vacation was one for the ages–a genuine trip of a lifetime.
It was, without a doubt, #thebigtrip.