I have been to a river.
Annually, my family meets somewhere between Eugene and Portland – my folks take a few days to drive and my brother tucks away his projects in Brooklyn and arrives by plane. We end up in two suites at a certain bed and breakfast on the McKenzie River in Vida, Oregon. This particular B&B – one of a handful we have stayed at over the years – is preferred because there is a place along the bank in front of our rooms where trout can be caught conveniently. The other places we have stayed have sub-par fishing holes.
My father is a fisherman. He can tell stories about specific casts when he was twelve with an enthusiasm that still carries an twinge of giddy urgency. You can close your eyes and almost see him, two and a half feet shorter and all those years peeled off his face, standing in a kitchen telling his mother about that one huge bass in the lake. Or I can, anyway. I remember family road trips, having to stop at roadside ditches for just a couple of casts because he was convinced that fish were hiding in the rushes. I have heard the story about my mother’s 1997 Steelhead more often and in greater detail than the story of my birth. It’s nice to see him giddy. It’s like the way I feel about jam or figs or lobster tacos. So we go every year because he loves it and the rest of the family enjoys it well enough. Fly fishing really is pretty fun when the fish are biting, when the day is warm but not hot, when there is just enough of a breeze running up the river to cool your face in between casts. It’s downright enjoyable when you are landing more strikes than you miss, when you don’t snag the trees, when you see the osprey and the ducklings and the beavers on the river too.
The first fishing trip I can mostly clearly recall is our Epic Journey to Idaho in 1992 or ’93. We drove two eight-hour days. I remember thinking that the exotic land of Stanley, Idaho – our rendezvous point – was almost certainly a lifetime away. My brother and I made up a song about a town called Winnemucca that began Oh, I’m going to Winnemucca with two cows and a ducka. I remember a new kind of sticky heat and staying in a motel with the kidney-shaped pool and eating at a Basque restaurant where they sat us with strangers: there was no menu and we all ate family-style together and long tables with benches for seats.
The Idaho trip was run by the same company that we meet up with every year on the McKenzie. In my memory, it was some kind of magical, traveling show – 18 guides, a cook, a swamper, 9 boats, a barge and one big blue raft with enormous yellow oars. Our gear went ahead of us on the barge. Tents were pitched by the time we arrived at camp from our daily float. Our meals were prepared for us thrice daily. I remember bacon for breakfast – the only bacon I have ever happily eaten. I remember bread in dutch ovens and pork chops in massive fry pans and impossibly fresh salads. The wives and mothers and kids rode in the raft that almost never tipped over while husbands and brothers and sons wet- and dry-fly fished out of driftboats adroitly piloted by sinewy cowboy-types who knew the river like a hometown. The Middle Fork of the Salmon River, of which we floated about a hundred miles – is wilderness. We released every fish we caught with specially-designed unhooking tools that allowed us to keep with fish in the river during their entire ordeal. For dinner one night they flew in flash-frozen trout. We took nothing, and theoretically left nothing. That week was pure fish fever though, and – I think – some of the prettiest wilderness I have ever seen.
As a young person, I was not expected to fish, only float. One afternoon on our seven-day trip I rode in one of the drift boats instead of the raft. That was the day the raft tipped over in the rapids and we all had a nice reminder to wear our lifejackets . That was also the day we came upon The Flying Bee – a house in the middle of all of that wilderness with a huge blue trampoline underneath the rotating sprinkler in the fenced-in front yard. We went ashore and bought fudgsicles, as evidently the house doubled as a store – - or, at least, a place to get a a girl a chocolatey frozen treat. That could have been the the day I got heatstroke. I’ll ask my dad, but I am almost positive that the Flying Bee is real.
Every time we meet on the McKenzie to fish, we talk about Idaho. Our favorite guide runs eight trips each year up there and Dad likes to hear about which guides from the company – many of whom we’ve fished with over the years – are going. I am interested in the ever-tightening regulations on the outfit going into the Wilderness. I learned a few days ago, for example, that they can no longer use nine volt batteries – and not because they might leave them there as trash, but because, it was explained to me, nine volts make it too easy and it is not supposed to be easy in the country.
Our McKenzie trips are not wild. We haul out or burn our trash, yes, and only take our limit of fish per the Oregon State Fish and Wildlife authority, but it is impossible to pretend that we are “roughing it” (even Idaho didn’t feel like roughing it, though – there was a cook, for heaven’s sake!) with multi-million dollar homes lining the banks of the lovely river. It is impossible to pretend that we are having an authentically rustic experience after having a three course breakfast at the B&B before meeting our guide at the turnout next to Ike’s Pizza. It is impossible to think you are communing with nature while carrying a tiny bottle of hand sanitizer in your pocket in case your hands start to feel icky.
But we do not go to the McKenzie River to commune with Nature, or to demonstrate our survival skills. We go to the McKenzie to kill trout.
In recent years I have, predictably, begun to feel very uncomfortable with fishing for its own sake. It is fun, yes, and satisfying and exciting (especially while sporting polarized sunglasses, with which you can see the fish come up to the fly while they are still under the water) – but I think it is also a kind of cruelty if all one is after is hooking, hauling, and release. Luckily, the McKenzie River is stocked with “planter” trout – a scheme to protect the native species by giving we anglers something to pull out of the river – and the planters are just as tasty as the natives.
As a Lover of Food and an aspiring Back-To-Basics-ist, I rather enjoy the experience of catching and killing my own food. First revision: I rather enjoy the experience of catching my own food, then forcing myself to look on as someone else whacks it over the head and puts it in an icebox. Second revision: I rather enjoy catching my own fish… Fish are so unrelatable. So long as we are catching for lunch or for takin’ home, I am all about throwing my hook in the water and waiting for those poor suckers to take a nibble. As soon as we catch our limits, however, the activity loses all appeal.
Our lunch on the McKenzie is the same every year. We work for it. Sometimes we have a slow morning, and worry loudly if we will catch lunch at all (there must be sandwiches in that cooler – how could there not be a contingency plan?). Then, at some predetermined spot that is not someone’s front yard, the guides pull the boats onto shore. Folding chairs are produced. A camp table happens, usually while I am catching poison oak in the bushes. Grapes, chips, and salsa are often offered while lunch is prepared. A long mornin’ of fish-killing makes a girl hungry, but the grapes, salsa and chips must be resisted.
A fire is lit with wood and charcoal. While the guides dress the trout in the river, leaving the heads, skins and entrails for the birds who will come to clean our lunch site, the woodfire lights the charcoal until sets it all glowy-gray. The charcoal is transfered to the dutch oven in which our buttermilk biscuits are baked. The ridiculously fresh fish are dredged in flour or cornmeal and then pan-fried in butter over the open fire. Someone’s wife always sends along homemade jam. A simple salad – lettuce, cucumber, tomato, mushroom – rounds out our meal.
This is, I am afraid to admit, what keeps me happily returning each year. I might advocate for another activity – one that does not involve itchy rashes or animal cruelty – were it not for the good eatin’ that follows our day on the McKenzie.
A couple of days ago I came back to the city in a rush. I had to be at work; I missed the cats, the Squeeze. I had my day of catered ease and fresh air and wild birds and I was ready to get back to real life that, lately, has been moving too fast. Relaxation was not easy to come by. A couple of days ago when I returned to the city I brought the River with me. It came in my camera and in my icebox. At work on Saturday, my boss was generous enough to let me brine and smoke what remained of our catch in the bakery’s kitchen. I’ve sampled smoked trout a handful of times but was never impressed by it. My family, colleagues, and fishing guide were all more excited at the prospect than I, but smoking seemed more sensible than freezing, so smoking is what I did. (Actually, I merely brined the fish – a pre-smoking treatment. The chef at work smoked them, for which I am grateful.)
This smoked trout is notably tastier than any other. It is better because my skill- or dumb luck – landed those poor things in the boat in the first place, because it is fresher than anything you can find in the grocery store, because people I know helped me prepare it.
I think I will always prefer the garden and the U-pick farms for “getting in touch” with my food. I think if I had to kill all of the meat I consume that I would eat far less meat, if any. Maybe it is all of that fresh air they have up down there on the McKenzie in Vida, even if it is wedged in between those big houses. Maybe it is the adventure of it all, making like I am a fisherwoman and not some mostly-helpless little girl who could never hook a critter without assistance from her daddy or the guide. Maybe it is seeing my food from start to finish – river to pan to plate and back again to the river.