Tuesday, December 20, 2005

A Mountain Lake Supper

The tent was securely staked down, the fly zipped, and my backpack was safely stored inside. The only piece of extraneous equipment was my whisper light stove, a frying pan, and some butter. I picked up my fly rod, a knapsack with some extra tippet and flies, and walked about fifty feet behind my camp on a small peninsula to the edge of a lake nestled high above tree line in a cirque of mountains in the Wind River range of western Wyoming. It was almost suppertime.

As I approached the lake, I crouched down low to the ground to keep as much of an oblique angle as I could between myself and any cutthroat trout lurking along the shoreline. I spotted a large bolder partially in the lake with a nice gravel bar next to it and decided that would be my target. Still crouching down, I drop the knapsack at my feet, unhook the fly and strip out about ten feet of line. Looking behind me to make sure I wouldn’t snag anything, I start the rhythmic count of fly-fishing.

On count one, the fly rod is cast forward and held out in front of you. More line is fed out at this point. You pause holding the fly rod out until you reach count two to allow the line to unroll in front of you. On count three, the fly rod is cast behind you while your free hand gathers up more line. You pause once again, holding the fly rod until you reach count four to allow the line and the fly to catch up and unroll behind you. You have reached count one and once again you cast the fly rod forward. One, two, three, four. One, two three, four. Rhythmic.

With one arm raised high trying to keep the fly and line off the ground, always working the count, I duck walk up behind the bolder and look over the top for potential targets. The water is crystal clear and the shore falls off dramatically so it takes me a few seconds to spot him nearly fifteen feet below the surface and twenty-five feet out. But the large cutthroat trout is cruising from my right to my left paralleling shore, in no hurry but ever vigilant. I reach one in my count, strip out a few extra feet of line, and roll cast my line about fifteen feet in front of my prey, the last few feet composed of translucent line all but invisible in water allowing my dry fly to land on the water’s surface, seemingly unattached to anything on land.

I freeze motionless and continue to watch the large trout continue on a path that will intersect my fly but fifteen feet below it. Ten feet… five feet…. is he going to see it, is he even hungry? With a quick shift of the tail, the large trout suddenly shifts and starts swimming upwards at a sharp angle, my fly now directly in his crosshairs. I watch him swim up from the depths, sharply flipping his tail back and forth as he picks up speed. Three feet, two feet, one… splash. I see the silvery sheen of the trout's belly for an instant before it disappears and all I am left with are ripples hiding the trout now in full dive mode.

I pull back on the fly rod with my right hand as my left hand presses against the reel to apply friction as I set the hook. The rod bends nearly double and I know the fish is on but it is by no means on for good. When fly fishing in the mountains, I always debarb my hooks on the flies. Fly fishing with fragile line means wearing out your opponent and reel him in gently so not to exceed the tippet tensile strength. For the tippet is weak compared to regular fishing line which gives it the invisibility necessary to fish in water almost as clear as air. Because this wears out the fish and I often catch more than I can eat, I want the release to be painless so not to add more stress to a worn out fish. I want the fish to live for another day and for another fisherman to catch. A barbless fly comes out easily with minimal damage to the lip of the trout and it can be held in the water where you gently move water across the gills by moving it back and forth until it recovers and swims off. Fishing with barbless flies also means that you must constantly keep tension on your line so not to allow dinner to slip off. It is all about finding balance of keeping supper on the line while not breaking it. It is all about giving supper a fighting chance to take themselves off the menu.

For the next twenty minutes, the fish and I practiced give and take. He would swim off and I would allow line to strip out while I kept resistance on the reel with my left hand. He would tire and I would gently reel him back in only to have him recover and take off once again. Back and forth, giving and taking, the battle went on until exhausted the cutthroat trout finally gave up and allowed me to pull him to the gravel shallows to the left of the boulder that I had been crouched behind earlier. Careful not to slip in myself, I reach into the very cold water, chilled by a small glacier on the opposite shore in the shadow of a mountain, and gripping the lower jaw, I lifted the trout out of the water.

By fishing standards, the trout was small but by dinner standards he was quite large. About two pounds and a little over twenty inches in length with large vertical blood red gills giving him his name, the silvery body was plump and in very good health. I said a quick prayer of thanks as I removed the fly from the mouth and carefully set my fly rod aside getting ready to exercise the domain over all animals given to us by God. I hit the head of the fish against the bolder stunning him and with a knife that I pulled from my pants pocket, made three quick cuts, one on each side of the gills and one up the belly cutting it from anus to my gill cuts. Holding the trout in my left hand, I stick two fingers into the belly near the anus and start separating the guts of the fish from the belly meat, dragging it up towards the gills. Once my fingers reach the gills, I grab the head and with a quick twist, the head and all the guts come off leaving behind a perfectly cleaned fish.

Not wanting to attract bears, I toss the head and guts out into the water where the birds will eat what floats and the rest will be eaten or decompose naturally beneath the surface. I quickly rinse the fish, my knife and picking up my fly rod, walk quickly back to camp fifty feet inland. I set the fish on a flat rock near my stove which I had previously primed and had ready to go. Within about thirty seconds, it is hissing and my pan is sitting on top with a pat of butter already beginning to melt and slide around. Within five minutes of having pulled the trout out of the lake, it hisses and pops as I lay it in the pan with the tail draping over the edge. I sear the trout quickly on one side and then the other, checking the inside to make sure it was just done, perfect. I turn the stove off, grab my spoon and knife (never bring a fork to save weight) and start eating, now about fifteen minutes from the moment I pulled the fish from the lake.

I quickly ate one half of the trout, flipped it over and consumed the other half leaving behind just an empty skeleton of bones lying in the bottom of the fry pan. Because I had caught the fish almost immediately, I was able to do the dishes, walk back out to the bolder, this time making no attempt to hide this time, and sit on top as the sun sank behind the mountains. The sky quickly fades of light, there aren't many places to see a sunset in the mountains, and with the last of twilight, I walk back to camp, well fed and happy.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Fiercely Patriotic

Saturday in southeast Iowa was a very joyous affair. People flocked to line roads decorated with balloons, signs and ribbons only to later cram auditoriums and other public spaces. Smiles, laughter, tears and hugging were the currency of the day as our sons and daughters of the Iowa 224th Engineers came home from Iraq.

I had planned to join in on the celebration to express my gratitude for these people who fought on my behalf even if I disagreed with the reasons our commander in chief sent them to Iraq. They were doing their job, laying their lives of the line and because they like me, were fiercely patriotic towards their country. But with my impending trip to the Philippines, the only time that I could make it to the bank was during their homecoming.

I looked for their buses as we drove the twenty miles to the neighboring larger town where we bank but our timing was off and our paths didn’t cross. My wife and I did our banking and shopped for a few odds and ends before wrapping up and getting ready to head home. It was now almost one and we decided to grab a late lunch at the local Applebee's before driving home. It is always full but today it seemed especially full for that late on a Saturday and upon stepping inside the restaurant I saw why. There were perhaps a dozen soldiers and their families in their celebrating their return along with the normal crowd.

We had to wait a few minutes before being seated but for once I did not mind. As we waited, I contented myself to watching the families catching up on each others lives and never once taking their eyes off their children in uniform. I was living the happiness of others vicariously and it was rubbing off on me. By coincidence, a table for us opened up right next to a family of four, a mother, father, daughter and son who was dressed in his desert fatigues and boots. While we ordered and waited for our food, I couldn’t help but secretly glance at the family.

The son seemed only a child and much too young to be fighting in wars but yet there he was back from fighting one during the last year and a half. The parents were excited and like everyone else, couldn’t keep their eyes off their son, which gave me plenty of opportunity to watch them. Their clothes were thread bare and a little ragged in places and by their demeanor, I could see that they probably fairly poor. This part of Iowa is not a wealthy place and these fine folks seemed like they were on the bottom end of the financial ladder. Yet their son was back and they were taking him out to eat at one of the more expensive places to eat in town in celebration. Money was not a concern today as they lived in the currency of togetherness and being a family once again.

While the waitress was distracting the family, I quickly ceased the opportunity and asked my wife is she would allow me to do a good deed. She instantly knew what I wanted to do and gave me permission. I excused myself telling her I needed to visit the restroom and walked back towards the cashiers. The waitress was ringing up the bill for the family and I politely asked her if she could ring it up on my credit card instead and give the money back to the family. She instantly knew why I wanted to do this and accepted my card. I asked her to just tell the family thanks and that I wished to remain anonymous. I asked her to just bring the receipt to sign with my bill later after the family had left.

Sometimes, well-intentioned plans don’t go off exactly as planned and as I walked back to my seat after visiting the restrooms, I could see the waitress talking to the family and then pointing in my direction as I sat down to resume my meal. She handed me the receipt and walked off. I was instantly hoping that this family wouldn’t take this act of charity the wrong way but the father looked into my eyes from across the aisle and said thanks to which I replied, “No, thank you.” We both went back to our meals and I was happy to know that everything was going to work out after all.

As the family finished their drinks and stood up from the table, the father again came over to shake my hand and tell me thanks. His son, the soldier also came over to thank me. I shook the sons hand and told him thanks for serving his country and I told him sincerely that I was happy he was back home. I told the family to have a happy holiday season as a whole family. I fought hard to retain my composure as tears of gratitude started to well up in my eyes and fortunately they didn’t dwell long and headed outside.

As we finished up our lunch, I couldn’t help but feel blessed. My wife and I both have good jobs, a new child on the way, a nice home and everything we could ask for. This family didn’t have as much and yet they allowed their son to fight for our country which allowed us the right to live our lives with the freedoms we possessed. Whether the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, or any war for whatever the reason, these brave men and women joined the military for one reason, to serve their country. For that, I am thankful.

Friday, December 9, 2005

Return to the Womb

I huddle close to the fire, much too close but if I put my gloved hands over my knees, the intense heat can become bearable. Funny how a fire in the winter can be too hot on one side of you but in less than a foot on the other side of you, it is icicle cold. The snow is falling quietly in large wet flakes but none penetrate the dome above the roaring cedar fire. The pine trees all around groan lightly in the slight breeze carrying their heavy burden of snow on all their branches. The silence is deafening. Beside the occasional snap, crackle or pop, all that can be heard are the trees whispering in the darkness behind me as the wind tickles their tops. Blissful.

For a time, I sit there trying to absorb as much heat as possible while watching the yellow flames consuming the twisted cedar logs and reducing it into a pile or orange coals. It is a chain of life. The log gets consumed, the flames get smaller, the cold gets colder and I huddle closer until I am practically crouched in the fire. My mind starts drifting back behind the pines to a dome shaped piece of ripstop nylon now coated with perhaps an inch of new snow. A down filled sleeping bag welcomes my mind and begs it to convince the rest of me to come, sleep.

I stand up, turn around and back right up to the very edge of the fire. In fact, I partially straddle one side and let the heat penetrate into my backside. The key is quickly because the front side is already losing the stored heat and I want to retain some of it. An intense burning sensation in the lower calves signal it is time to go. I step outside the ring of light; the cold begins to chase the heat out from my body. By the time I am at the tent and gently shaking the snow from the zippered door, shivers are already starting to arrive and I quickly crawl inside careful to leave the snow outside where it belongs.

I quickly arrange all my gear in case a hasty exit is required, because you just never know and finally crawl into the down sleeping bag. The nylon is cold, like slipping into cold sheets on a bed only much colder. But heat returns rapidly and by the time I have zipped my cocoon up until only a small air hole remains, it is warm. Some say that newborn babies sleep better when swaddled to simulate the life it just left behind in the womb. I think we never fully forget. Huddled in my swaddling clothes, enclosed in my womb protecting me from the snowstorm outside, I drift off to sleep, protected and warm.

Monday, December 5, 2005

Listening To the Sweetest Sound I Have Ever Heard

The sound coming from the small hand held speaker was full of scratches and static. I held my breath as I listened for any sign of organized sound but couldn't. It sounded random, chaotic. My breath was stuck; my heart started beating faster and faster. Would we hear anything? Why weren't we hearing anything? Then I heard it. The strong steady beat of a heart in perfect rhythm. Tha-dub, tha-dub, tha-dub or as my wife heard, whirsh, whirsh, whirsh. Although we disagree on what the heart sounded like, we both experienced the same reaction on hearing the sound of our first child's heart beat only twelve weeks old in the womb, pure joy.

I have known my wife was pregnant for over two months now. I know what that means and yet, it really didn't sink in fully until I heard the heart beating steadily over that little hand held speaker and microphone pressed to my wife's lower abdomen. I had created life. I am going to be a father. Sitting there listening to someone else's heart beat now totally dependent on my wife, but soon dependent on both of us, tears started welling up in my eyes and I felt a huge smile of joy engulf my face, so much so, I thought my head my just split at the mouth and topple over backwards. All too soon, the probe was removed, the sound stopped and the real world came crashing back in. I suspect I could have sat there the rest of the week listening to that sound and never getting tired of it.

All day long at work, the sound keeps replaying through my mind overtaking all thoughts and sounding sweeter than a symphony. My mind unable to focus on anything else so I'm happy that it is Friday. The doctor confirmed what we already had guessed, we are twelve weeks along and tomorrow will be day one of the second trimester. My wife has a superstition that says she can't spread the news until she has reached the second trimester and I can understand why since the first trimester is where more things can go wrong. Other than her mother, she had done well in keeping it a secret. Until today, only my parents and a co-worker who also recently gave birth for the first time knew, excluding my readership who is largely anonymous to me. The co-worker knew only because I wanted to find out who their OB-GYN doctor was and it turned out to be my mom's doctor as well. But today, I am officially pulling the cork out of the bottle. I've told my boss and another co-worker but because the gossip hound is out sick today, it hasn't spread beyond that yet. That is okay though. I'll enjoy the silence and listen to the sweetest sound I have ever heard, my child's heartbeat.