November 25, 2009
stepped off the stone terrace, and plunged up to my chest into cold, manic
Not like I hadn’t been along that shelf of sandstone a dozen times or more. But the creek was high, rushing, a manic flow of streaming hysteria. I knew very well that about the deeper pool upstream of where I stood mid-calf in November water. I guess I had just never stepped off exactly in that spot. Or the rains of the last few months had washed our a new plunge in the urgency of the stream’s journey.
The cold hit me like thousands of needles pricking my skin. I stood for a moment, water rushing over my torso, and gasped. Stupid, stupid, stupid! Only inexperienced wade fishermen make such silly mistakes. Always, always, always check your footing, make sure your next step falls on something solid. But I had blindly put one foot in front of the other. I’m lucky I didn’t go in face first.
My fishing buddy, upstream and to the right on the correct outcropping of stone, didn’t hear my splash, so fast and raucous the laughing creek was that morning. He fished a collection of nubby stumps and blowdowns, working his fly line like a conjurer.
I had to twist around, fighting aggressive, insistent current, to find the edge of the rock and step up out of the water, soaked from waist to armpits. Luckily, I keep the belt on my waders tight, so no water got into them. I had never worn them here, as the water is usually just nicely cool, but in November, it was cold, and I was cold, and water drained from the pockets of my fishing vest and my knife sheath. My teeth rattled. I looked up again at Pete, not sure if I wanted to be certain he had not witnessed my foolish baptism, or if I secretly desired some sympathy as I stood there trembling.
So, what to do? I had no dry clothes in the truck, though I almost always bring them. This time I forgot. Oh, and besides, the truck was back in Lafayette, where I left it and rode with Pete up to this stream in the national forest that I have so grown to love and dream about in the deepest caverns of my sleep.
It is inviting but miserly, giving but more often taking. Moody, and tempermental, and I often wonder why I journey to that little creek in the pine-studded hills, three and a half hours from home. I gaze far away dreamily when I think of it; the creek is kind to me in my dreams but wounding in the stark waking hours.
My fishing partner working a likely spot.
Nothing else to do: I kept fishing,
working my way crosscurrent to the right side of the bank and upstream toward
Pete, who made me grin with his declaration of exasperation over not catching a
spotted bass among the clump of stumps: “Well, I just don’t understand all I
know about this.”
Few know these precious and rare Louisiana streams like he does. I could spend a lifetime trying to be the fisherman he is on all waters and never come close, but when it comes to these misplaced treasures – fast, clear, cold water running childlike over sand, gravel and solid stone – I’ll only ever achieve a reflection of my friend and mentor
But that’s fishing. The water that day was high and moving fast, but leaving dark pools and jerky, spastic ripples. This little waterway has taunted me and disappointed me many times before. I can count on one hand the number of times I caught fish there. Sometimes they are fairly leaping into my hands; most times, they pass my fly hardly a glance. At such times I cuss it, rage red-faced at it, and swear we’re done, through, do you hear me? I won’t call, I won’t write, I won’t –
But I do. Because I am taken by it completely. The stream is by turns excited and exuberant; sluggish and drowsy, alternately manic and suddenly well behaved. Its overhanging trees snag my lines on my backcast mockingly, sand shifts under my feet threatening to swallow me up, petrify me in the anaerobic zone below the moving water.
Not much later, I found a careful foothold with my left food on a flat stone. I raised my right foot, and the old prankster was in a mischievous mood. The fast water caught my right foot broadside as I lifted it, and with a gleeful shriek spun me around clockwise, twisting my left leg like a corkscrew. The pain in my hip was white-hot.
It’s a wonder I didn’t fall again. I pushed my right foot down into the stream, against the protesting agony, and found solid footing again, straightened. The pain receded at once, and I stood there, breathless, it had been so sharp, while the stream glanced away, innocently, but with a lopsided grin.
“Good one,” I whispered. “Great joke.” The stream only danced more frantic, laughed louder.
The old stream was off-color and mischievous that day.
Those wonderful sandstone terraces
that form the rapids are Miocene deposits, no more recent than 5 million years
ago and old as 23 millions years ago. We live on very young earth down here,
but those hills are an uplift of rock that was later
covered by Mississippi and Red River deposits. Streams and smaller rivers ate
through the deposits, some harder than others, and the hills were formed.
On my first visit there, I fished far downstream to a bend in the river where the bluffs were blue in the dim last moments of day. The silence was absolute, and there were shadows moving this way and that. The stream was slow and sluggish that day, drowsy, barely audible, but it spoke of time unfathomable. Adai and Caddo warriors probably stood near where I looked for living shadows and sentient darkness, and part of them remained.
We drove downstream, where a little forest service bridge crosses the stream. As I waded beneath it, fifteen feet above my head, I saw tree limbs and leaves and other debris in the iron framework.
What rage the old miscreant must have felt! The river’s equivalent of a barroom brawl. The rains had engorged the stream, and its mood was foul. In another spot it had totally rearranged its own geography, moving sandbars from here to there, toppling trees, shifting washouts by yards.
The bridge downstream.
There is a huge slab of its bone upstream of the bridge, gray flat sandstone, and over generations since these hills were settled the stream’s guests have chiseled their names into it, a history book of centuries. The steam had, in its last fit of rage, deposited a waist-high bed of sand over it, and the edges later spalled away, leaving it looking like a small, bleach-white mesa. There is a small waterfall, too, and a deep plunge beneath it, and it sparkled with a glint of devilishness.
A history book of visitors and vandalism
Sand deposited in the high water.
By the time we were nearing the day’s end, I could barely lift my left leg. Part wading in the strong current, part the little prank the stream had pulled on me, and the climb up the sand bluff back to the truck was a lesson in agony and endurance. The next day I could barely walk, and had to actually lift my leg to put it in the truck.
Through it all, though, I mourned. That I likely wouldn’t see that startling, frustrating, enchanting creature again until spring, and the winter months would be long, bereft. But when I close my eyes, creeks dances and laughs on the backdrop of my inner eyelids, flowing like the blood of the earth, a genie unleashed; and I count the months, slowly, measuring time slowed to a crawl under winter’s grip.