Rogue River Journal

John Daniel


John Daniel is the author of Rogue River Journal, The Trail Home, Looking After, Winter Creek, and two collections of poetry. In the fall of 2005 he will serve as the Saint Mary's College MFA Program's Distinguished Writer in Residence.

This excerpt is from Rogue River Journal, in which Daniel recounts a winter spent alone in the woods in a Brothers retreat in Oregon.

All writers have been comforted to learn, over the last few decades, of the brain hemispheres and the distinct ways they work. We know well - too well, some of us - that to invigorate the subconscious springs we must spend time away from words doing physical, spatial, right-brain things. Washing the dishes, say, or sweeping the floor, but those appeal little to either hemisphere. Here at Dutch Henry there's always more wood to split, but that's maybe a shade too analytical. There's the hour a day of caretaking - mowing, bolstering the bear defenses, maintaining trails, skimming scum from the newt pond - the Brothers exact for use of their hermitage, but tomorrow is usually a more promising day for that. There's this, there's that, but sooner or later there is only one question: When shall I go fishing? And the answer, sooner or later, is now.

That was my answer today. Twenty minutes down the trail and there was the Rogue, its graceful green self, sliding and roiling translucent between riffles and brief white rapids. It was running at about its summer pace and level, but the boulders close along both sides, which in summer are scruffed with nondescript brown and dirty-blonde matter, have been wakened by the few fall rains to date. They now were thick green pelts, some velvety, some feathery, some a limish green so bright it shouts, some in richer and darker shades that make me want to sink my fingers into them. The boulders altogether form a verdant retinue flanking the steady, spirited progress of the river. What is this stream, if not the very river out of Eden? The flowing, swirling, churning, soothing, glistening mystery itself, the voice and vessel of possibility.

I had expected the river to skunk me a time or two before permitting me a catch. I was a fishing enthusiast in my youth, but in midlife my faith lapsed. Brother Frank, the older of the Brothers, has tried in recent years to rekindle it. I felt his blessing today. Brother Frank is an elder of the Salmon Way. Outsiders know little of the workings of the Way, but some say that Brother Frank is its highest priest and practitioner. When the Brother's line is in the water - usually a fly line, though he does fish by other means - he enters a trancelike state, totally attuned to the river's multifarious energies, a slight twitching of his formidable eyebrows his only outward animation. He does not fish. "To fish" implies a subject-object relationship. He enters that deeper metaphysical condition of being in which river, fish, and fisherman are one, a single fluxful stream of pure potential that resolves, to the eyes of observers, in the manifestation of fish after fish at the end of Brother Frank's leader.

He is generous with his gifts. I have seen him, on a small coastal river, step with spinning gear into the midst of a group of anglers who've been thrashing the water all morning to no avail, cast two or three times, eyebrows homing in, and suddenly his familiar mantra: "Fish on!" As the others cleared their lines from the river, Brother Frank thrust his doubled, dancing rod into the hands of a very surprised novice, then coached the novice as he struggled against the bulldog runs of a very large fish very displeased about its detention, charging priver and down, screeching line off the reel. The novice had never felt such a power. I know this because I was that novice. Eventually the bulldog tired and submitted to the net, revealing himself as a thirty-pound chinook salmon. I was a quivering puddle. Brother Frank remarked, "Good action," and went back to casting his line.

The steelhead I caught today are of a small variety known only in the Rogue and Klamath Rivers - young fish that, for reasons best known to them, return from the Pacific after only six months rather than the usual two or three years. They'll spend the winter in the river and ship out next year for the rest of their ocean hitch, after which they'll return once or maybe twice to spawn. Though sexually immature, these fish, like the young of many species, are jazzed and ready to dance. If they can't have sex themselves, they want to hang around where sex is being had or has been had or possibly could be had. They are commonly called half-pounders, which is far too pejorative. My two are each about sixteen inches, a pound and a half. They look a lot like rainbow trout, which is appropriate because they are rainbow trout. A steelhead is a trout with a taste for seafood and a willingness to travel. In January and February the grown-ups will arrive, the five- and seven- and ten-pound lords of the Rogue, the kind that turn your knees to putty if you're lucky enough to connect with one. We'll see then what kind of fisherman I am.

In the twilight, as I was cleaning my catch while humming along to "Clementine" - one of the top ten hits on my inner radio - I glanced up at the right moment to see a whiskered head gliding downstream along the mossy far bank, scarcely rippling the surface. An otter, so at home in the river that he was the river, as much as any roil or riffle or laughing slosh. He was, as Thoreau said of the fish in Walden Pond, "animalized water." He glanced once my way and slipped on.

Dusk turned to dark as I climbed the trail. I had my headlamp in necklace deployment, ready for duty, but found I didn't need it. The trail was indistinct, but clear enough for my plodding pace. (What takes twenty minutes down takes thirty or thirty-five up.) Where the forest opened slightly, I noticed that my body cast the faintest of shadows. No moon or stars, only the residual light of the thinly overcast sky. At the cabin, after using the headlamp briefly to find my down booties and a beer, I reclined in the La-Z-Boy and enjoyed, in the darkness of my home, the luminosity of early night, now with an evening planet in the west. Conifers stood around the meadow in their various heights like a solemn council holding session in silence, their lower portions blended in shadow, their points and upper reaches sharply silhouetted against the pale glowing sky.