Journal Entry: The Clackamas

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Journal Entry: The Clackamas River

I remember my first time fly-fishing like it was yesterday. I was eight years old, and my Uncle Steve took me. On this trip, we were heading to the Clackamas River. Back at that time, it was a beautiful spot. We would head down highway 224 into the mountains driving right alongside the river. Each twist and turn of the river would bring you deeper into the lush forest that blanketed its shores. Each familiar bridge or shoreline brought back memories.

Now those memories washed away, some due to the flood of 1996 others the fault lies in irresponsible people. Their trash and disregard for the wilderness had caused the Forest Service to install “Public Campgrounds.” Now I no longer can pull off into some secluded piece of the Clackamas; instead, I have to pay to stay in RV parks that hopefully aren’t packed with a bunch of drunken teenagers who want to party all night.

This trip was before that. All I had then were my memories and dreams of things to come. I always wanted to make my home on some river out where no one could ever find me. It would have been great to live on the land, take what was given to me, and no more. Let me state, however, I believed in logging to some degree as long as they managed it well. Hunting was okay to do; we all had to play our part in the food chain. It seemed that more and more of the Clackamas River valley had been logged each year. Plainly stated it was ugly to me.

The beginning

Each trip to the Clackamas would start with my uncle promising me he would be at my house at eight in the morning. Eagerly I would wait for his arrival by getting my fishing gear together, finding my water shoes, and packing my bag. Then eight came and gone, and sadness and hopelessness set in. I would go back to my room, unpack my things and swear to myself that he would never show up, followed by the spoiled crying and whining.

Then just like clockwork, about noon or so, his pickup truck pulled up outside my house. He had one of those old beat-up trucks whose only use was for fishing or target practice; today, the truck would be used for fishing. It was gray with black and red pin strips along the side. I am sure it was quite a beauty at one time, but I couldn’t picture it being so, seeing how it had more dents in it than anything else. My uncle called them battle scars, but I had another name for them, signs of old age. It broke down so many times, nothing major, mind you, but enough to not have you label it as dependable. Nonetheless, it took us where we wanted to go, and that is all that mattered.

Setting up the camp

We arrived at the Clackamas river just before sundown and had enough time to make camp. Making camp was always a disaster with Steve. Frantically and filled with excitement, we would attempt to make camp. It first started with the putting up of the tent.

Setting up the tent is always an extensive and delicate operation, especially without proper light, or so the excuse went. My job was to put the poles together, and I grabbed the instruction book, which is a slap to all man’s pride, and proceeded to read about these ridiculous yet needed poles.

“Put yellow pole with green pole, followed by the blue pole.”

It made sense, yet when I did as they said, the poles didn’t make any tent shape. It looked more like a cube than a triangle.

I could see Uncle Steve sort of snickering off the corner of my eye. At this point, I was in no mood to be laughed at or beaten by these dumb poles. So I tried again, although I couldn’t tell the difference between blue and green because of the lack of sunlight. After finishing the easy job of pounding in the stakes, Steve came over to try to help out.

“Here, son, let me show you how to do this.” He said with a sense of manliness about him.

Reluctantly I admitted defeat and let him try. After a few minutes of explaining how simple it was and how quick he would have it done, I noticed something in his voice. He was beginning to get upset too. It wasn’t as easy as it looked, and he knew it.

He had me get the lanterns out after a while with still no success, for it was well after dark. I couldn’t help but seize the moment to make fun of the situation.

“Hey, Uncle Steve, I thought you said this would only take a few moments?” followed by a snicker and a smile.

He didn’t seem to find the humor in it. I set the lanterns up, but there were still no signs of getting closer to sleeping in the tent.

After a few hours of no progress, Uncle Steve finally conceded. The tent got the better of him, and he realized it. Our first night at camp would not be spent in our tent, but instead, we would sleep in the back of the truck. It was fine by me, but it made me realize that tents were simply a waste of time, with too many chances to fail. To this day, I don’t sleep in tents.

A night on the Clackamas River

So we settled down in the back of the cozy, for lack of a better word, pickup truck. There was no moon out, so the stars were especially bright. You can’t see the stars as well in the city, but they illuminate everything here in the wilderness. I enjoy trying to find the satellites orbiting above me. Occasionally you can see a few; sometimes, you think you saw the same one twice. I couldn’t help but fall in love with the outdoors and the nights it gives me.

Finally, after an eventful night, everything calms down, the stars become a bit hazy due to the nodding off. It was the beginning of another great camping trip on the Clackamas River, and more than that, it was a fishing trip that would change my life.

Just before we went to sleep, Steve said to me, “Dave, not a word about this to anyone.”

As you can see, I kept my word.

A new day

Early the following day, just as the sun peaked through the evergreen trees, I was awakened by the smell of a kindling campfire. My sleeping bag was still wet from the morning dew.

Daybreak on the Clackamas River

The fire was a welcome sight, so was my uncle as I watched him prepare breakfast.

“Morning, Dave!”

How could one have so much joy this early in the morning I thought to myself?

“Morning, Uncle Steve,” I replied.

“When are we going fishing?” I asked.

After all, this was the purpose of our trip.

“After breakfast, by the way, how do you want your eggs?”

Since we weren’t fishing anytime soon, I decided to warm up by the fire. I have always loved the smell of a campfire. Each log thrown into its blazes ignites a different aroma that fills the air. It doesn’t cause me to remember back to a better time; I just like the smell, much like an over-stressed drill Sargent liking the scent of tear gas.

A new way to fish

Just after breakfast, which was indeed tasty, we set to putting together our fishing rods. I set about eagerly organizing my tackle box when Steve told me I wouldn’t need it today. Sure I knew he had enough tackle for the both of us in his box, but what kind of fisherman would I be without my own? Come to find out, none of us would use the tackle boxes at all or our spin reel rods.

Instead, he went to the truck and retrieved two odd-looking fishing rods with reel placed down at the butt of the rod. They both looked incredibly limber, far too light to land a fish of good size. Yet they had a certain beauty about them. Instead of looking plain and sturdy, they looked graceful and light.

The reels were very strange; they looked more like perforated hockey pucks than reels to me, and what was that solid green line in where the fishing line should go? All these questions filled my mind as my uncle prepared these so-called rods for action.

“These are fly rods, Dave.” He said as if he knew what was going through my head.

“Today I am going to teach you a different way to fish.”

Different, I thought my way was good enough; after all, I was catching fish?

“Why?” I asked,

“What is wrong with how you taught me before?”

“Nothing is wrong with it, and something doesn’t have to be wrong for you to change what you do. Sometimes you find that different ways suit you better.” He responded as if a master were speaking to his pupil.

I thought he would end his talk with some speech about the “Force” being with me or something along those lines.

Then, as if to completely confuse me, he pulled out a small tin box about the size of a wallet filled with oddly misconstrued flies. This was all very confusing, and it was now well past prime fishing time.

“Uncle Steve, I don’t want to learn a new way. I want to fish.” After thinking about it, I must have sounded awful spoiled. All I wanted to do was go and fish the Clackamas river.

Fly casting

He calmly went about setting the rods up and tying on these so-called flies to some fishing line. It was like he didn’t even hear me.

“Almost done,” He said gingerly.

“I have a few things I have to teach you before we can go down to the river, but you’re smart, and I expect you’ll pick it up quick enough.”

At that age, someone’s compliment would go far in having me do what they wanted, and my Uncle Steve knew that.

He handed me one of the rods; there was a sublime feeling as I held it in my hands the first time. The worn cork handle felt soft in my small hands. The rod glimmered as the rays of sun beamed against it, showing its workmanship and time spent carefully constructing this art form.

I decided to try and cast it to see what it could do. To my dismay, the line made a swooshing noise through the air but never went more than a couple of feet ahead of me. I felt foolish after a few more failed attempts, but my uncle wasn’t laughing this time. I could sense that this was far more important than any tent or a new way to catch fish.

“Let me show you, Dave” he spoke again in the Master’s role; I could only guess what my role would be.

” Keep your elbow tight to your rib cage, hold the rod as if you were shaking someone’s hand.”

So far, it seemed easy enough.

” Now you want the rod to do most of the work, throw the rod back till it reached ten o’clock on a watch and then through it forward till it hits two o’clock. Just like this.”

Ten and two

He let out a few yards a line and cast between a clump of trees. It was a sight to see, he was making music, and the rod was his instrument of choice. He cast a bit further to a bolder just ahead of the trees. The arch of the line would quickly unravel as he pointed the rod towards the rock.

“Ten to two Dave, ten to two” followed each cast.

I had never seen my uncle so focused before; he closed off to the rest of the world as he cast more and more. It wasn’t necessarily a serious mood, but a reverent one. He had become so fluid with the rod it was hard to tell where his arm stopped, and the rod began. The rest of his body remained motionless.

On the Clackamas River

I gave it a few tries and slowly started to get the hang of it, enough for Steve to say that we were ready to go to the Clackamas river.

Every other cast, my fly ended up in the conveniently placed tree behind me, which seemed to move parallel with me no matter how far I hiked up or downstream. Frustration soon set in, and the romantics of it all quickly washed away in the river, along with a few snagged flies. I guess it is most people’s typical first fly-fishing trip, but I was hoping mine would be different for some reason.

Shortly thereafter, I contemplated getting out of the river and checking on my uncle when I saw a trout rise just ahead of me a few yards. I couldn’t leave the scene now; it was as if the fish was challenging me. Desperately I cast my fly over to the vanishing ripples made by my opponent, and as if it was destined to be, it rose for it.

My first trout on a fly

The fight was on, and this is where I would love to exaggerate and fabricate a most excellent fight scene between man and beast.

Perhaps something along these lines: “It leaped five feet, no three feet, into the air and pulled fly line as it rushed gallantly downstream. My tiny body was feeling the weight of this enormous and fierce fish. The reel spun uncontrollably as the fish ran around the rocks, desperately trying to reach the rapids. Realizing its plan, I quickly jerked my rod against it, hoping it would be enough to slow him down.

There was no choice now but to swim down the river with it. I braved the fierce rapids of the mighty Clackamas River with my rod held high and struggled on till sunset with this magnificent beast. Just before dark, with my arm exhausted, I bravely landed my foe.”

The real story

Now that is how I could tell the story of my first fish. Although it would be far from the truth, then again, fishing is made not by the fish themselves but by the reports made by those that catch them.

In all actuality, I landed my first rainbow rather quickly. The fish wasn’t the biggest, roughly eight inches, but still, it was my first. The fish tried hard to fight against my rod, but to no avail, and within a few minutes, I had landed my first trout on a fly rod.

The small rainbow twitched in my hand as it gasped for the life it found only in the water. The glimmering rays of the sun that pierced through the trees drew out its colors of a golden brown hue. I could see the fear in its eyes as if it sensed that death was not far off. Although I had other plans for this fish, he would live again today.

Slowly and carefully, I lifted the small fly out of its mouth and gently placed him back into the water, and as quickly as I caught him, he was gone.

A love for the Clackamas River

I felt a sense of pride from catching my first fish, it wasn’t due to my superb dealing with the fly rod, but I did catch one. It did more than that for me, though; it somehow alerted my senses to notice not just the fish that were the ultimate goal but to see the views around me. Each part of nature would play its role in my success or failure in catching fish. I didn’t realize it then, but my love of rivers was firmly planted in me that day. It was the beginning of a new day in my life and an idea that would revolutionize the way that I thought about life over time.

The drive home

It was a quiet ride home; both of us were exhausted and filled with excitement at the same time. Another successful fishing trip on the Clackamas river filled with memories that, if told, could humiliate us both good thing no one will ever know about the tent or the truth on how I caught my first fish. Good thing. It was silent. I had fallen asleep once again, leaving my uncle to drive me home.

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