Several years ago I was invited to participate in a summer fishing trip that would be new for me, but an annual tradition for most of the other parties involved. Relishing the idea of a couple days on the river, some undoubtedly good conversation, and eating well around the fire as we camped, I quickly agreed.
Virginia is graced with a number of slow-moving rivers that, barring a few harrowing sections, are fantastic for a lazy float in a canoe or johnboat, and only moderate paddling. Most of them are teeming with fish at various times of the year, and offer a fantastic view, a peaceful downstream float, and plenty of sand bars and islands for camping. This trip would be perfect.
When I was invited on these trips, however, I was not apprised of was the high propensity for disaster. Things routinely went wrong, and they invariably took place along the loneliest stretches of river, far from cell phones and other people, forcing all involved to think quickly. Yet now, after years of doing these floats, I still remember them fondly, even the disasters, and would jump at the opportunity to go again, should it arise. After a time, you just expect things to go wrong and laugh about it.
From the get go, we’ve never been out the door quickly enough, so the earliest we’ve ever put into the water has been well after noon. Somebody has always forgotten something, a life jacket can’t be found, or the friend who loaned his paddles or canoe can’t remember where he put everything. Canoes that haven’t been touched in months have to be nervously approached where they sit behind sheds and quickly flipped over with the expectation that we’ll have to run. Bees like canoes. Spiders do, too, but they don’t fly out and chase us around the yard as we shriek and remember how much we hate running. We’ll spend most of the first day out stomping on the spiders that crawl out from unseen nooks throughout the boat. For some reason, they’re always black widows.
Canoes have to be lashed to cars that aren’t designed to hold boats, and eventually a slow convoy of vehicles with odd hats is driven to the river (after repeated stops for healthy delicacies like potted meat, cheap beer, and Italian sausage). We’re wearing odd hats, too – a bunch of pasty white guys unaccustomed to hours of direct sunlight, trying desperately to avoid a hideous burn on the water. One guy always wears shorts, forgets to put on sun block, and gets badly burned anyway. This happens every time. I usually lose something and get sand in my shoes. Somebody else always catches more fish, and disasters occur with without fail.
One year a johnboat, somehow magically springing a catastrophic leak not a quarter mile from the shore, deposited its passengers and a profusion of coolers, rods, tackle, and other supplies into the water. What floated was courteously picked up by other fishers, in between gales of laughter. A few favorite rods and tackle, however, are still at the bottom of the river. The boat’s still down there, too. Quick thinking, some frantic rearrangement, and the float continued with one less boat, cramped passengers, and bows dangerously low in the water. Sleeping bags are heavy when they’re wet.
Many think of fishing and camping trips as a relaxing break from the fast pace of life and its dependency on technology, and a return to simple living and simple food. But I always eat better at camp than I do at home. We don’t hack it at all; we bring cast iron cookware, gourmet food, and there always seems to be at least one buddy that can cook better than I ever have. Curiously, I have never eaten fish. Ever. We always throw those back. They’re dirty or something. Pretty as the rivers may be around here, a glut of sewage plants spewing sludge into the water has left things less than safe to eat. What astounds me is that through one section of river, there are sewage plants in some places, interspersed with water treatment plants that PULL OUT this water a few miles down, and invariably a few more sewage plants downstream. They alternate – quite close to each other. I actually try to stay out of the water.
But we have fun. While we sat around the fire on the night of my first trip, one of the other guys turns to me and says, “Ben, since it’s your first time out with us, you get the wear the pink nightgown.”
“Yeah. It’s the tradition. Last year Frankie had to wear it.”
Some guffawing later and I learn it’s a joke. It was also that year that some very drunk and celebratory businessmen on the far side of our camp island lobbed vegetables at us well into the night with potato guns. I hurled back beer bottles I found hastily buried in the sand around our camp.
Another year, conversation somehow turned to the best way to “frog gig.” Some insisted that the purist used only the “frog giggin’ stick.” This was quickly countered with an assertion that it could also be done with a pistol. The demonstration of both methods commenced then and there, by flashlight, on the banks of an otherwise peaceful river. I was not involved in this particular debate, and only observed from afar.
During another float, one rather observant member of our party spotted a blowup doll hung in the brush overhanging the water and felt the need to bring it with him for the remainder of the trip – as a clearly-displayed passenger. Perhaps thankfully, nobody took any pictures.
Without fail, I always learn something on these excursions. There’s a guy who knows how to fish with a whole worm and not lose it in the rapids. I’ve tried repeatedly to imitate the technique, but have thus far never figured it out. I want to master it because he catches more fish than anybody else. There’s a guy who knows a good bit about knives, and always has some sharpening ideas or perhaps a new model I might check out.
I learn how not to flip the canoe when we broadside the rocks in the middle of the rapids. We’ve taken on water, but I haven’t sunk yet. That was the OTHER boat. Not my problem, but certainly my entertainment. I’ve learned how to cook breaded, boneless chicken breasts in peanut oil and what to do when the gas stove explodes and starts blowing flame all over the place. The answer: save the food and don’t spill the beer.
I’ve learned the best way to carry my gear and how to avoid drenched, dehydrated, burned or drunk. It’s easy; drink water and wear a waterproof burka. More importantly, I’ve learned who NOT to take in my boat with me. But above all else, I’ve learned there are a bunch of intelligent, fun-loving guys just looking for a few comrades to escape the rat race with them, be dumb, get filthy, eat greasy food, and remember just how much we like air conditioners. We’re always looking for new people to join our merry practitioners of stupid. Not only do we need people to wear the pink nightgown, but we also want young folks. We’re in constant need of somebody to flip our canoes for us and run in terror. We’re getting too old for that part.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved