Scene I: The Proposition
“I know a guy,” my friend Doug whispered, and—although I should have sprinted for the nearest exit—I stayed until he finished his proposition. Following a friend’s “I know a guy” advice usually involves some sort of felony, but Doug had no reason to believe I wanted to get rid of a body, and I bet on the prospect that Doug’s guy had something to do with fishing.
“Are you kidding?” I asked after Doug said his guy had told him about a place to fish on Junction Creek. “I don’t know, man, I’ve stopped at that river a few times to check the temperature, and it boils from mid-June until the end of trout season. I’ve never seen it below 70 degrees.”
“Not by the bridge,” Doug said. “This guy told me about a spot upstream where an old train track crosses the river. He said he used to wear himself out catching big brook trout. He’s an old guy who hasn’t fished for years, so you’d probably have the place to yourself.”
After Doug used his finger to sketch a vague map in the dust on my rear window, I decided to go to this place where I could catch a buttload of big brook trout. What could possibly go wrong?
Scene II: The Road In
“Driving backward through that woody tunnel was impossible, so—if not my Waterloo—an encounter with a fallen tree would have been a costly battle for me to win.”
The turn off from the main road started as a two-track in a field, but about a mile in it disappeared into a grove of small trees. Granting unreasonable trust in Doug’s guy, I pushed through the leafy wall and slogged down a branch-lined tunnel where hundreds of woody fingers scratched and clawed at the last layer of paint on the exterior of my truck. I reached through the window a few times to push branches away from the truck, but somehow none of the overhanging limbs plugged the path. Driving backward through that woody tunnel was impossible, so—if not my Waterloo—an encounter with a fallen tree would have been a costly battle for me to win.
Once out of the woods, the two-track ended at the shore of an ancient beaver pond that spread mostly to the south of the road’s supposed path. About fifty yards ahead I could see the trail reappear from the water and then, of course, vanish into another wall of trees. With no place to turn around, I pushed on. The water below me was a foot or two deep, but to my right an earthen dam held back a pond whose surface was even with my eyes.
On dry land and through the next woody tunnel, I arrived at the bridge over Junction Creek. There I found a place to park—and, more important, to turn around—about 100 feet from the river.
My GPS showed the train track about 100 yards to the south of the road. A marshy swamp surrounded Junction Creek, and downstream—to the north—lily pads mottled the river’s surface. Lily pads! The indication of a place to catch a buttload of bass, maybe, but not a buttload of brook trout. Then I saw the rise of a good fish. Okay, what the hell do I know about lily pads?
About 20 feet from my car I found an old trail that took me directly to the tracks. Although the tracks were abandoned, the bridge was in good shape, and a well-used game trail led to the river.
Scene III: The Decision
The water felt warm enough for a bath, so I didn’t bother to take its temperature. Instead, I cast a hopper pattern, twitched it once, then watched it disappear into the good rise of a plump, feisty, over-sized chub.
At this point, I considered four possibilities:
- Doug had hit on the guy’s wife or something like that, and I was the victim of the retribution this guy intended for Doug; or
- Doug thought I had hit on his wife or something like that, and I was the victim of the retribution Doug intended for me; or
- Doug’s guy failed to mention—or Doug failed to hear—the part about the fishing being good only in early spring before the water warms; or
- Doug’s guy failed to mention—or Doug failed to hear—the part about the bridge being the access point to the good fishing that was further upstream before the slow flows of the bayou brought the cool water to a boil.
Doug is happily married, and he doesn’t do the type of things that call for retribution, so possibility 1 was unlikely. Doug knows that any trip to a new remote river—fish or no fish—is something I’d enjoy, so I ruled out possibility 2. There are a lot of rivers that fish well in the spring before warming in the summer, and Doug’s guy would likely assume that Doug knew that, so possibility 3 was highly probable. Still, my satellite map showed the beginning of the bayou less than a mile to the south, and I could see large trees in that direction, so maybe the shaded flows of the upper river were a refuge where I’d find a buttload of big brook trout fleeing the heat of the unshaded bayou, just like Doug’s guy had many years before. The river was difficult—if not impossible—to wade, so I’d have to walk through the surrounding woods. But I had a GPS, and, again I asked, what could possibly go wrong?
Scene IV: Synchronicity
A marshy swamp surrounded the river, and the massive beaver pond I’d driven through was about 200 yards to the west. Between those impenetrable barriers, a swath of high ground presented the path through which I hoped I could walk to a place where Doug’s guy had caught those big trout. So I entered the woods and followed the remnants of an old trail.
I remember the first time I watched the Wizard of Oz with the audio replaced by the music from Pink Floyd’s album The Dark Side of the Moon. I was amazed by the way the music synchronized with the movie, and—like most—I believed that Waters and Gilmore had done this on purpose. Later I learned about a phenomenon called synchronicity that refers to our tendency to see and hear patterns and connections in places they don’t exist. This is why you can synchronize any song to a sequence of photographs in a slide show. Something that on the surface seems like an impressive work of art is actually quite easy. And this, I believe, explains how a desperate fisherman sees a random scattering of trees in the woods and thinks he’s found an old trail.
A sequence of deadfalls destroyed my fantasies about a trail, and when I descended from the last I teetered on the edge of a frog-infested swamp. I should have seen this impassable pit for what it was, but, instead, I saw another pathway. A clump of ground sticking up here, a tree trunk there, a boulder beyond that, then another clump of ground all synchronized into a footpath to my Shangri-La.
“. . . if I hadn’t started to think that Doug’s guy was actually describing a place to get rid of a body—I might have enjoyed it more than I did.”
Wading through a swamp is an amazing experience, and—if I hadn’t started to think that Doug’s guy was actually describing a place to get rid of a body—I might have enjoyed it more than I did. You step off one clump of ground and your foot finds a solid tangle of roots and limbs less than a foot below the slimy surface. You step off another, and you’re thankful for the last inch of height on your waders. And everywhere you step, whether it’s on a mound of ground, a rock, or a tree root, gurgles and bubbles emerge in all directions, and you become a gurgle-symphony conductor for an audience of frogs and herons. The little trees that grow out of every other clump of ground sometimes secure your balance like the rails on a stairway, but many snap off in your hand and you wish there was an easier way to tell the difference.
After an hour in this quagmire, I found high, dry land that I hoped to walk to the river, but, according to my GPS, I was farther from the the river than when I first followed the Yellow Brick trail from the train tracks. Somehow, though, I stumbled onto a game trail that was not a synchronized creation of my imagination. No, this was an actual trail that—judging by the spectacular pile of steaming shit—was recently traversed by a huge black bear. When I saw something in the pile that looked like a human fingernail, I decided to give up and go back to my truck. The game trail headed toward the river in one direction and toward my truck in the other. Now that I knew about this “trail” I could come back another day and easily find the river. Right?
As I should have expected, the path toward my truck dissolved into the edge of the swamp, but a seam in the thick layer of muck on the water’s surface marked the route the bear and deer and Bigfoots used to get through the swamp. About halfway to “dry” land, I again thanked Simms for the last inch of height on my waders. The trail wasn’t as obvious after I slithered from the swamp, but the island-sized paw print my buddy the bear had recently stamped in the ground confirmed I was on the right track and heading in the same direction as the bear.
scene V: A Lesson Learned
My phone showed three bars throughout the adventure, so I didn’t really worry about breaking an ankle and having my demise later confirmed by the DNA from a fingernail some searcher found in a pile of bear shit. With the find friends feature enabled on my phone, my wife could give the rescuers exact coordinates for my extraction. If I didn’t make it out, though, the old joke about telling my friends to not let my wife sell my fishing gear for the price I told her I paid for it seemed more like a wise contingency than a joke, so I vowed to come clean if I made it home.
When I got back to the truck, I took off my sweat-soaked shirt and used the driest spot to wipe off my glasses. Then I opened a beer and called Doug to complain about how horrible his lead had been. I told him about the road in, the bayou, the swamps, the bear, and the dreadful dearth of trout. He asked a few questions and then started to laugh. “What’s so funny?” I asked.
“That’s the wrong Junction Creek,” Doug said.