We drove slowly down the abandoned logging road, gravel crunching beneath the car’s tires, from time to time loudly pinging metal. It had been fifteen years since I’d driven down this road with Dad, and back then, Mom and three other kids joined us. I liked the idea of spending Dad’s seventieth birthday with him this way, just the two of us. I rarely got his undivided attention as a kid.
The woods on either side of the road were thick with cedar, birch, and pine. The late August day was sunny and cool. The leaves were just starting to turn, and here and there a splash of red or orange punctuated the sea of green leaves. The Batchawana River wound close enough to the road at times that we could assess whether there were any deep dark pools without trekking through the bush. So far, all we’d seen were shallows, the water so clear you could count the stones on the bottom.
“Stop here, Dad. This looks like a good spot,” I said.
He pulled the car over close to the edge of the road to allow other vehicles to pass, although we hadn’t seen anyone for the hour or more we’d been searching for the spot. We walked to the edge of the woods and peered down the steep embankment leading to the river. There was no path, and the bush was thick. Fifteen years ago, Dad and I would have slid down the embankment on our behinds, one hand holding our poles, the other grabbing at branches to slow our descent. Back then, we didn’t worry about how he’d get back up.
“It looks too steep,” I said. “And there’s not much of a path.”
“It’s pretty steep,” he agreed. “And it’s shallow. Let’s keep looking.”
We got back into the car, and I resumed scanning the woods for a trail, Dad dodging the holes and rocks in the road. The car climbed higher in elevation, the river no longer in sight. As we came around a bend, we could hear the rush of the falls. Suddenly, the woods thinned and fell away beside us, revealing the riverbank abutting the road, and my breath caught in my chest.
“Stop here, Dad!”
“We can’t get down there,” Dad said, as he kept right on driving.
“Just stop. I want to look.”
Reluctantly, he pulled over and I hopped out. I stood at the edge of the road and looked down the ravine. The waterfall plummeted down a stone canyon, black water turning to foamy white, settling into a deep pool at the bottom. The river stretched downstream, surrounded by the black stone canyon walls. The tops of the walls were met with thick woods of white birch, their silvery white leaves rustling in the breeze. I had forgotten places like this still existed.
I heard the gravel crunching beneath my father’s feet as he approached and stood beside me, interrupting my reverie.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it, Dad?”
“That’s a nice deep pool,” Dad said. “But we can’t get down there. Come on, let’s get moving.”
My Dad, always bounded by the practical. I wondered if he saw the falls as anything other than a potential fishing spot. Too soon, I followed him back to the car.
We continued up the road, and I spotted a path through the woods that led down to the river. This one wasn’t as steep; Dad should be able to make it down. We grabbed our poles, a couple of extra bobbers, and the worms I had dug earlier out behind the outhouse. I didn’t like the big night crawlers you could buy at the trading post, their scaly bellies grabbing at your fingers as you tried to thread them onto the hook. Usually, I could talk Dad into baiting my hook.
We picked our way down the path, careful not to get the poles hung up in the brush. (The trick, my Dad taught me, was to hold the pole by the reel so that the rod extended behind you, close by your side.) The river wasn’t as deep as it was by the falls, but it looked deep enough to be home to a trout or two. My Dad baited my hook first, and watched me cast. It had been years, but the cast was perfect, the bobber plopping into the water right where I wanted it. He watched it for a moment, then baited his hook and threw his line into the water. I watched my red and white bobber float downstream, past a log, and around some gleaming black rocks jutting up out of the inky water.
“Don’t get hung up on that log,” Dad whispered. Dad had always warned me about getting hung up on logs, rocks, and various other perils.
“I won’t, Dad,” I said, somewhat annoyed, but finding it oddly comforting that some things never change.
“Shhhh,” he said.
We fished in silence, watching the bobbers float downstream until they came to the edge of a rapids, then slowly reeling in, and casting again, our bobbers plunking into the water. The breeze was cool as it rippled across the river. Except for the sound of the water running downstream and the breeze rustling through the trees, it was quiet. I watched my bobber disappear beneath the surface for a brief moment, then pop back up.
“You’ve got a bite,” Dad whispered. “Now let him take it.”
I watched the bobber, holding the pole in my hand, ready to give it a jerk when the red plastic ball disappeared again. The bobber bounced up and down on the surface, then vanished beneath it once again. I gave the line a quick yank. I waited, concentrating on the feel of the line, wondering if I had lost him.
“Reel it in a little,” Dad prompted me.
Slowly, I reeled in the line, but felt nothing. Either he had eaten my worm and swam off, or he wasn’t very big. Again I turned the reel, and this time I felt the fish on the line, tugging it from side to side. I reeled him in slowly and steadily. Dad had set down his pole, and was standing at the river’s edge, ready to help land my fish. We hadn’t brought a net along. I guess we hadn’t really expected to catch anything after all these years.
I pulled the fish in to the water’s edge, and could see him zigzagging toward me in the clear water. Dad pulled him out, gingerly holding him up for me to see. It was a beautiful little speckled trout, his iridescence gleaming in the sun as he wriggled in Dad’s hand.
“Let’s throw him back, okay?” Dad said.
“Yes,” I said, “I don’t want to keep him.”
Dad struggled to get the hook out of the fish’s mouth.
“Aw hell,” he said, “he’s taken the whole thing.” “If I take it out, I don’t think he’s going to make it.”
“Will he make it if you leave it in?” I asked.
“No. He won’t.”
Dad took the hook out of the fish’s mouth as carefully as he could. He reached down and gently slipped the trout back into the water. We watched in silence, as the fish floated on its side and was caught by the river’s flow. Suddenly, the fish gave a jerk as if it had come out of its daze and would begin to swim. But it merely floated on its side once again, toward the rapids.
“Maybe when he gets to the rapids that will jostle him out of it, and he’ll swim off,” I said.
“Maybe so,” Dad replied.
We stood together at the river’s edge and watched as the fish floated toward the rapids, and then out of sight.
“What a damn shame,” Dad said, letting out a deep sigh. “What do you say we call it a day? We should go back to the cabin and see what your Mother’s up to.”
Silently we gathered up our poles and the container of remaining worms, and made our way through the woods, back up the trail to the road.