Within fifteen minutes of being dropped the closest to the middle of nowhere I’ve ever been, I eat the first arctic grayling I’ve ever seen, cooked on an alder-twig fire built over a pile of blueberry-filled bear scat—which looks good, to tell the truth—like the syrup my mom would make on special occasions like snow days and Christmas, poured over pancakes in the shape of a big letter E. I’m hungry, starved from 24 hours of checking lists, red-eye flights, sleeping in airports, waiting, and then frenzied last-minute buys at a podunk liquor store before the bush pilot flew us out. Not delusional enough yet to eat the premasticated berries, but close enough I pause to think twice.
My partner Jay and I are on something of a survivalist Choose Your Own Adventure, disguised as a fly fishing trip, trapped in casings of a “vacation,” as cover-up for our mutual feeling of being born in the wrong time and wrong place. I fully admit to romanticization of woodfires, animal-powered mobility, and “living off the land,” all the while knowing what a “woman’s place” would have been a few centuries ago. Decades ago, even. And I don’t like it much. So while I let that romance make me work harder at some things in life—gardening at high altitude and stacking cordwood, foraging mushrooms in the backcountry and helping to butcher deer on the kitchen table—I’m an Elinor, I don’t let it make my sensibilities swoon.
Which all makes me think: I once asked my grandmother, now in her mid-eighties, what the biggest development or advancement had been in her life. There were many years; there could have been many answers. But without hesitation—birth control, she said, this woman who’d had five children and two miscarriages, whose entire life revolved around pregnancies and children, housework and husband and home. Maybe when she was in her thirties she wished for another time and place too. Something far in the future though, instead of back. She’d been romanced enough, thanks very much.
We’d packed extra rods and put fresh line on reels. And for this river that never gets fished, we obsessed over each box of flies as if we were going to tailwaters of the South Platte. People say the phrase here in Colorado, that certain waters “never get fished,” which means maybe you’ll only see a handful of other anglers instead of dozens. That maybe if you oversleep you’ll still be able to snag the last parking place at the access trail head. But there’s no guarantee. Places like that get blown in a hurry.
This oxbow river in the Alaskan bush, however, is the real deal. And you can die from that, from no one being around. In the next dozen days and hundred miles of river, we will see only two other humans. Grizz hunters with moose tags, motor-boating in oil barrels filled with flour and butter and beer, all camoed up with stories as tall as the stands of white spruce. Yessirs, we’ve seen lots of sign. Paw prints into which I could fit my size 9s, fresh scat, low bull-grunts that hang across the valley like fog.
We paddle most of each day, set up and tear down camp, scout for grouse, and log coordinates each night, in a rhythm that becomes rote like prayer. Give us this day; As I walk through the valley of the shadow; Forgive us our trespasses—they all come back too easily. I see us moving on the GPS screen in a snaky-stitched red line like a newbie at a sewing machine, closer and closer to The End. But there’s no way to stop it, to go back up-river.
We do catch fish on our “fly fishing trip,” so I guess that makes it legit. We weren’t completely lying. But to be truthful, we eat them, alternating grayling and northern pike just to keep things interesting with our instant rice and dehydrated broccoli. And a few days in I start taking note of something strange—here, I have no desire for “one last cast.” I catch what we need and put the rod away. The usual competition of counting and casting, and the pull of what will be next was gone, lost in sudden dependence. My hunger and need turned what was once sport into reverence, and respect that we’re all just out here eating and being eaten. So when the rules of the game changed, it didn’t seem right to catch and release for the fun of it anymore. It felt right to catch until we were full, sucking the meat from each bone before returning them to the water like viking kings.
Gierach writes that catch and release fishing is rather like having sex while using birth control: you get all the fun without the dirty diapers and crying. Without the blood and bonking, without the gutting and eyes that glaze white in the fire. And I’d say that’s all my grandma wanted, that choice, the one I had and have made, thanks to the time and place into which I was born. What’s good for women is good for anglers, too… only working in reverse. More fish on one hand, less of us on the other.
One night toward the end of our river-run, as we gather firewood and set up the old Eureka! tent with the exclamation point making it seem like a genuine Welcome Home no matter where you are in the world, grayling feed in a frenzy not far from where we’ve beached the canoe like a dying whale. Rise after rise, the rings overlap and grow until the entire surface is rippled. Movement on a still day, like magic. I should string a rod, Jay says, almost pleading me to, so we can feel like we are on that fly fishing trip we said we are on. And we both know it would be fun, and easy, and should be a simple decision to make. Anyone else would be fishing by now. But I stand watching, with armfuls of beaver-chewed alder and spruce, satisfied with the choice I’ve made.