Book Excerpt: Casting Homeward

May 6, 2024 By: Steve Ramirez

Be brave and walk through the country of your own wild heart.
Be gentle and know you know nothing. Be still. Listen. Keep walking.

—Mirabai Starr

I once met a man called “Musky Jesus.” That wasn’t his real name of course, but it might be a more accurate description of this quiet young man than the name he was given—Gabe. He got that nickname from his fellow fishing guides in Wisconsin and was not shy about sharing his discomfort with this honor, and I understood this, because he came across as a deeply humble, decent, and ethical being. They gave him this pseudonym because he seems to have an almost spiritual connection with musky and a supernatural ability to find them. But I see the name as fitting because of the deeper conversations we had both on the water and off. They were conversations that told me we shared a common inner silence that yearns for a better human world but lives within the one we’ve collectively created. Musky Jesus was born and raised “up north.”

When I arrived in Birch Camp on the Good News River, I met three young men who seemed to personify much of what gives me a sliver of hope for the future of humanity and this dying planet. When we were on the water together and when we were sitting across the table from each other breaking bread and sipping wine, there was no difference in our ages or backgrounds or futures. We were all simply timeless friends living in the moment. It was beautiful. All three of these young men were born and raised “down south.”

Like Rich, Jack, and Brother, I grew up in the American South. The southland I knew wasn’t the angry, bigoted, fearful, or self-righteous place that I keep seeing in the media today. The southland I knew was kind, respectful, connected to Nature and natural living, bold yet humble. I’m not sure what has changed the most, my native homeland or my understanding of it and its people of every race and origin. I suspect it’s a little of both, but mostly I grew up and grew in my understanding of human nature’s darkness and light.

I now know that those darker aspects of humanity existed there when I was a child and that, sadly, they exist and even flourish in every place I’ve visited. Sometimes we are brave and wise, and other times, not so much. But my travels around the country and the world have taught me that no place and no people have a monopoly on ignorance or wisdom. And I also know that those things are not a reflection of the entirety of what is—or what can be. They are simply a snapshot of the loudest, most frightened corners of American culture.

Like me, most of the guides I met in Alaska were “sons of the South.” They came from Arkansas, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Texas, and Alabama, and every one of them I found to be kind, honest, accepting, nonjudgmental, decent human beings. The three young men who greeted me and my buddy Steve Negaard were no exception. They personified what I knew growing up and I felt that we became friends for life, in an instant. I am grateful for the times we shared, and now I want to share them with you.

Rich Yancey and Jack Lawson were our guides on the Good News River, and Brother Swagler was so much more than the camp cook or even camp manager. He was (and is) a poet of sorts, not by what he writes but by how he lives. For me, if Gabe is “Musky Jesus” then Brother is Good News Moses.” I’ve always known what is all too often forgotten: North, South, East, and West, every land contains its prophets of peace and poetry. I wish the media would focus on those quiet, caring, accepting souls, no matter where their headwaters might surface.

The evening we arrived at camp after an hour-long ride in T-Bird’s plane, Brother prepared a dinner that was as good as any I’ve ever had—and I’ve eaten a lot of good food. On a camp stove he prepared lamb chops with a side of absolutely amazing Tuscan-style pasta, and I had seconds of both—even though I had chosen to stop eating meat some six months prior in my desire to mitigate and even reverse my heart disease. But for this adventure I had decided to allow myself to experience it as it came—food, drink, fishing, and all.

While enjoying dinner we shared chilled white wine and warm conversation about the river, the region, the fishing, and the meaning of life. Afterward, we sat outside the dining tent where Steve and I sipped a bit more wine than perhaps we should have, as we laughed often and spoke of things both deep and meaningful more than once. It was a pleasant evening, and we watched the Good News slide by and the daylight grow soft and supple, like a child’s blanket. It was comforting.

At one point, Steve, who describes himself as “a cobbler,” seemed to become a bit melancholy as we both reminisced about the unfolding of our lives, and how life seems to happen to us while we plan. It was important to me that I stay with my friend, to listen and learn, and to simply be present. There wasn’t anything he shared that I haven’t felt myself. Like me, Steve is self deprecating about his fishing prowess, but in truth he gets it done and done right, on so many levels. What’s more important to me is he knows that fishing is about a lot more than catching fish. I guess that’s why it was so bittersweet for me to know that we’d be going in opposite directions soon. I knew I’d miss our laughter and shared joy at simply being alive. I wouldn’t trade a moment. I never want to lose the memory of that evening. These are the meaningful moments that lives are made of.

The next morning it was decided that Steve and Jack would go downstream to seek out more king salmon, while I chose to go as far upstream as possible in search of the Dolly Varden that were following the chub salmon in hope of feeding on their eggs. As I’ve shared in the past, I don’t fish with “guides,” I fish with friends. It just so happens that some of my newest as well as oldest friends are also guides. And so when Rich told me the night before that Brother was itching to do a little fishing, I invited him to join us. I am so grateful that he agreed. Fishing and friendship are two of the best medicines I know.

It was cool that morning and the mosquitoes were not as active as most other times. I stood outside the dining tent with my buddy Steve as Brother made us some amazing French press coffee. We all enjoyed the coffee with some egg sandwiches that were so delicious that just writing about them now makes me hungry. Life was good, indeed.

After breakfast we all met up on the edge of the river and loaded our gear and ourselves into the boats. My buddy Steve is a tall guy, and I noticed as he and Jack motored downriver to chase king salmon that he made the johnboat look small. It wasn’t; my friend is just really tall. Then again, at only five foot six everyone seems tall to me, and yet somehow I’ve always felt tall—on the inside.

Rich, Brother, and I began our journey upcurrent along the Good News. Wet weather had come in during the night with a low cloud cover that seemed a bit worrisome for our planned flight out of camp later that day. But that was for later. For now, we were a band of brothers braving the elements in the middle of a vast wilderness.

It was raining softly as Rich navigated us around rocks and riffles and over rapids. I always enjoy the feel of raindrops as they contact the brim of my hat and roll with the rules of gravity off its edges and back into the river—homeward. Someday, I will make that same journey, just as the salmon that were spawning on either side of us were about to do. Going home comes naturally no matter what our plans may be for future travel and discovery. When it’s time, the universe opens the screen door and calls out, “Come home.” We all answer that call—ready or not.

I kept my eyes glued to the surrounding hills and tundra, hoping to see a moose, bear, or rare wolf. About a week prior, Jack and Rich had recorded a short video of a lone wolf loping along the very same hillside I was watching. Later, they found the paw prints of a single large wolf along the “Trail of Tears” that connects the floatplane landing site with the camp on the other side of a fairly steep bit of tundra. It’s called the Trail of Tears because everything brought in must be loaded on the backs of the guides and camp manager and carried up and over that hill. Everything. Even boat motors.

I never saw that wolf or any moose or bears along those hills, although I did see two big brown bears while looking out the floatplane’s cockpit window the day prior. But on this wet, wholly overcast morning, what I did see were many scores of chum salmon writhing in their redds and fighting for the opportunity to pass on their genetic memories to another generation. Behind these salmon we hoped were the char and rainbow trout that we would target while trying to avoid disturbing the many amorous chum of these waters. They had endured enough to reach this moment, and we wanted to leave them to it, while we kept their tormentors busy.

After a long, wet ride upriver we came to a confluence of two branches, and there we made our first play for the fish of our dreams…