The Bar Too Far
Michael Bartlett sat in his jockeys, cross-legged in the willows surrounded by the contents of his jacket and pockets: Fancy remote-control car key, probably ruined; cellphone, definitely ruined; reading glasses, damp but serviceable. Also wet: flybox, tippet, various tools and potions on various zingers and snaps. Socks and fleece pants, still dripping. Fancy quick-dry fishing shirt, drying quick in September evening sun. Inside-out waders hung from a bush; inside-out jacket ditto. The six-weight leaning impudently against a tree--he’d held on, though he couldn’t remember doing it. Landing net, gone. Brand new The Fly Shop cap, also gone. Other things were probably also gone. Michael was sensible enough to know they’d be missed only when needed.
Eighty feet westward, across the narrower of the channels, the high dirt bank of the Missouri marked the limit of a bronze floodplain hayfield. Across the field a big new pickup pulled an old drift boat down the two-lane. 200 more yards upriver Michael could see his car parked in the easement turn-out.
That western channel widened into a muck-bottomed pool where a dozen big trout rose eagerly, snouts jabbing upward as they chowed Baetis spinners.
At the corner of the hayfield sat a big riverfront home, close enough for Michael to see a Big Wheel in the yard and laundry on the line. Upriver the channel turned sharply to the west again, and another house stood on the east bank, close enough to smell the roses, which were being eaten by a smallish mule deer.
Behind him, across a broader busier eastern channel, reddish basalt rose two hundred feet in weathered bulges and rilles, ponderosas jutting out here and there from small coulees. Visible at the top of the cliff was the front of a deck and a slice of chimney.
Michael’s Island was perhaps fifty yards long, a typical lozenge-shaped river bar grown with grass, flowers, and scrub willows. The bulk of the flow broke left against the cliff face, forming deep swirling holes and eddies where the river urged and jostled stone. Plenty of water went right, past the gravel finger that extended from the riverbank parallel to the channel.
An unwary angler, enticed by a pod of risers in that hayfield pool, might edge out and downcurrent on the gravel finger to get an easy drift to naïve and oblivious fish. That angler might decide that, rather than standing pat and trying harder to improve his or her cast-and-mend, he or she or it or them should perhaps take another step along the current. Taking steps along the current is easy; he or she knows that, at least in the abstract. He, or she or whoall, might then decide to take another step—that first one went OK, you know. Besotted with the opportunity at big dumb snouts in soft water, that angler might take another step, and another one. Then—tempted to call it ‘suddenly’ but let’s be honest, it wasn’t the least bit sudden, rather a willing, enthusiastic march toward trouble—he, OK, yeah, just he, would, and did, find himself too deep. Too deep is just deep enough to notice that you are pressured by current, that the flow suddenly matters to that edgy teeter of traction and lean, that slow-mo moonwalk of maybe that defines stable or stupid.
For Michael, things went stupid. He found himself pressured past the point of control by current. Too shocked to curse out loud, he discovered himself to be skidding slowly along rounded slick bottom-stones, propelled by the slope and the power of water and a tiny bit too much buoyancy—damn you, Archimedes! Of course he maintained a perfectly rigid posture, hoping for tiptoe traction enough to regain control and keep those waders dry, but three steps ago he was doomed to accelerate very gradually before momentum and force and depth did their cold-assed implacable thing. He might could at this point prance right, back toward shore, out of the current; but that way is deeper and muck-bottomed too which he knew, he knew. And a scramble left is trouble too, because out there it’s no deeper but the powerful current from the tailwater river increases enough to tumble him upside down and fill the waders—in other words, would do to him sooner what was going to happen to him anyway. For the unwary angler in this case, hypothetically, had violated a simple common rule of wading in a big river: he’d been a lazy dumbass, and had let eager fish suck him out on a narrowing bar with depth on one side and current on the other and slick jealous rock below.
This is the point where the angler sighs and pulls the ripcord on that inflatable vest he prudently wears, despite the hassle and discomfort. Except this unwary angler is not wearing his inflatable pfd, which is safely stowed back home with snowshoes and telescope. So it’s terror and not resignation that blanks his brain and scrambles his guts as the river wins and laughs and slides him rigidly out to sea like a clown in a stop-action film. He spends the last few slippery-slope seconds staring stupidly as the water level approaches then overtops his wader bib and fills him up. He watches blankly as if wet cold testicles was the worst of what was about to happen.
After an hour, truth to tell, Michael was warm, comfortable, and unterrified. He began to get bored with island exile. He was comfortably hungry, and had no beer. The sun was angling toward the hills across the river. This was Montana; it would be cool later, he thought hopefully. Two drift boats had run by, but Michael had been too embarrassed to ask for a lift to shore, and they probably couldn’t have reacted in time to pull over anyway. Now there were no boats, because, Michael thought equably, Michael’s Island was at the top of the typical Mid-Cannon float and the guides had all been through in the morning. Another angler was visible upriver but out of hailing range, and Michael wasn’t about to hail him anyway since that would entail some sort of rescue. His recent terror now forgotten, Michael thought he might rather spend the night by a campfire than face a snickering sheriff in a johnboat.
Campfire. Michael had no lighter or matches. His clothes were wet, and evening was approaching. A delicious Jack London moment.
A third driftboat went by as Michael was clacking stones together, spraying occasional sparks in unproductive directions. There was something like flint, but it wouldn’t spark off of his perhaps-steel forceps, so he clacked randomly, and then a boat was there, guide and two anglers arrested by the sight of a naked hermit clacking rocks. They stared, Michael offered a smile and a wave with a big round rock, and the boat was gone.
Next Michael sawed away with a fire-drill made with a shoelace and two pieces of driftwood. This was not as easy as the rock-clacking, and less productive. The bow wouldn’t spin the stick, then the stick wouldn’t stay positioned in the groove, and then it popped loose and nearly put his eye out, so Michael put his reading glasses on so he could see what was going on and also protect himself, and that was when Jack London gave way to Piggy’s Specs and soon he had a neat fire and his clothing smoking aromatically.
It seemed unsurvivorlike to be bored and spend valuable survival time at anything other than essential survivor tasks, but there was nothing else to do.
Michael was fairly certain that rescue was his for the asking if only he would swallow his embarrassment long enough to try for it. He had no doubt that he could swim the small channel back to the main bank. Bundle up the stuff in the waders and go for it, troubled only by a cold re-entry and a bedraggled hike to the car. Or start yelling. Or stand at the top of the island so the next boat would see him—they wouldn’t even have to stop fishing; he swings in, guide pulls hard a couple of times, and he’s home. Any, or all three, would solve the problem. So he did the natural thing, the thing he’d traveled a thousand miles from St. Paul to do: he went fishing.
He’d missed one rise before the baptism, but in the hour up to sunset he slew them. He went with a standard Montana tandem—Copper John and something else, a couple of shot, and a four-dollar bobber. Every ten feet of the channel delivered a hefty rainbow. One went 20 inches measured against his rod-butt and rang off enough backing to require five minutes of cranking. The initial series of greyhound leaps was so thrilling Michael forgot that he was wearing only jockeys and unlaced wading boots.
Michael knew that survivalist standards required that he eat this fish. But his catch-and-release instincts were stronger than his hunger so he took a picture and released it. Except he had no camera—there’s one of those missing things he’d need later. No matter. Mix an echoing rosy gillplate sunset; cliff a rainbow of reddish brown as the sunset rose; fish rose/gold/pewter, blunt-headed, ridiculously beer-belly-bulky. The scene was viciously, ineradically memorable. Wearing nothing but underwear and unlaced boots.
He swam the trout back into the flow but it hung a left and bumbled into the shallows. He scooped it up again and was turning toward deep water when it spoke.
“Heyyyy…you ok?” it said in the voice of a distant, helpful woman of late middle age.
It had been a strange fishing trip. He was comfortable and, to be precise, joyful. So the fish’s words were apt, even soothing. He was OK. He did not yet answer out loud, but he found himself smiling.
The fish kicked suddenly and disappeared into dark orange and indigo current, but he heard the voice again.
“Are you OK?” it said. It was not the fish. The voice came from above. At the top of the cliff, still in sunlight, a woman leaned over the corner of deck and looked down at him, shading her eyes.
Michael hesitated only a moment. “Uh, no,” he said, then shouted. “I’m stuck. I got, uh, washed over.”
She nodded, and smiled. “OK, great,” she called. “Hang on a minute. You sit tight. I’ll call Linda, she’ll come over and help you out of there.”
Linda’s was the house with the roses. Her husband had a canoe, and she had a clothes drier and beer in the fridge. The husband agreed that fishing was terrific in the slots along the east side of the island.
“But I wouldn’t try wading that channel no more,” he said earnestly. “That river will wipe you out.”