Saturday, January 21, 2012

A North Woods Haunting (Revised)--An Essay

    When the northern sky begins to gray, early on a summer morning in the North East Kingdom, everything is still.  The moments before the sun comes up are serene and quiet, no human presence is inherent—they are the ones that make me appreciate where my feet stand.  When the sun peeks over the horizon, hundreds of  lakes and ponds shine in the midst of dark conifers and ferns, like mint coins tossed to Earth from heaven by God.  At that moment, you might look up to the mountains surrounding you and the streams that separate them, then back again at the water lapping against the monumental boulder where you sit and wonder what mysteries the water holds.  What mysteries are possible here outweigh the ones that aren’t; for these are not merely bowls of water, but abstract worlds carved by prehistoric glaciers, and any contact with one of the aged inhabitants of these submerged worlds is a purely magical experience.
    To think back, the first image that comes to mind when questioning the contents and goings-on of a mountain lake occurred on a summer fishing trip on a large pond in close proximity to my grandparent’s cabin.  The pond is stocked yearly in the spring with fingerling Rainbow Trout from the hatchery at the foot of the mountain, and is quite popular in the height of summer with swimmers and boaters.  Fed by a small brook in the south end, and (had the mountain not been cut away to build the road) several strong springs in the north, it is not a wilderness pond by any means; nevertheless, it is natural.  On a cool morning in the spring one could watch small native Brookies beat even the strongest hatchery Rainbows to an unlucky surface-dwelling insect.
    On the day I remember most clearly though, the frantically feeding fish had given up their vigils at the mouth of the brook for the summer, and turned to pursue aquatic food sources in the deeper, more oxygenated layers of the pond—giving way to the scrappy Smallmouth and Yellow Perch that dominate the shallows in the warmer months.  My younger brother and I had been working all morning for a tree that was in a terrible pinch between a young birch and an ancient oak.  Our grandfather, who was running the operation, was recruited by our grandmother to pick Blueberries in a nearby field after the determined tree had made its point that it was not coming down.  The grandparents were busy, meaning I had some down time.  What else was I going to do than fish?
    The conversation before going fishing was routine.
    “Wanna go to the pond?” I’d ask hopefully.
    “Which pond?”  Connor would reply, hoping for a change of scenery; for he doesn’t find fishing as entertaining as I.
    “The pond.”  I would say, slightly annoyed at the fact that he hadn’t caught on yet.
    Reluctantly, and seemingly disappointed, he would exhale, “Sure.”
    Ten minutes later, I would be paddling the canoe south to a stretch of wood-littered bank that we would fish for smallmouth.  We were always successful; it seemed to me I had the body of water figured out.  The swimmers at the fishing access, and Bayliners zipping up and down the length of the pond demystified it, as if I could firmly grasp everything it had to offer.  Paddling the canoe put me in a philosophical state, and the things that traversed my mind now escape me.
    After thoroughly fishing the length of the pond, we settled in the sunny, southern bay, where the rippling water spilled over a naturally sandy beach, and the pond came to a hard halt.  The water in the bay was skinny, not more than three feet deep at the most, and it was here that I boated most of the day’s bass.
    It was midday when the sun had tired me, I looked at my brother and he too seemed lazy.  The bay was the end of the line, and we would usually, as we did then, return after reaching it.  Like always, I paddled the canoe towards the opposite bank, the one we didn’t fish, and paddled the length of it back to our launching point.  This trip was one of routine, and like always, I leaned my rod against the canoe, angled back to give trolling a shot on the way back.
    The two of us paddled back in silence, my brother in the bow slowly digging his paddle into the dark lake water, and me doing the same, submerged in deep thought, coming out of my trance periodically to devote my attention to my rod tip, pulsing slowly as the lure crept through the depths of the pond.  When the silence was broken, it was by my querying brother, wondering if “fish [swam] out in the middle of the lake.”  The tail end of his sentence was brought to a halt by the sound of my reel slamming into the thwart of the canoe with extreme force.
    We both focused our attention on the rod, for the lure must have been caught on something, and we needed to retrieve it.  I set my paddle down with care in the hull of the aluminum craft, still trying to preserve some serenity and not wishing to spoil it further, and picked up the rod.
    Within a second of touching cork I was aware of what was happening.  The rod tip throbbed, powerfully, and the canoe reversed it’s course in the water to follow the mystery fish that I was tied into.  For several minutes, but what seemed like the rest of the afternoon, I held onto the rod as if it was made of thin glass and the weight of the fish was going to shatter it any second.  All the while the fish was under water, images of what I thought I knew to inhabit the pond swam through my head—none fit the monstrous profile.
    When the line began to slice upwards through the water column, I knew we were going to get a glimpse of a magnificent creature, and I looked on as if I was about to see something I knew I wasn’t worthy enough to lay eyes on.  A full thirty yards of line had risen out of the water, and a pale, green log broke the surface and exited in a glorious leap, exploding from the surface like a buoy being released at the bottom of the pond.  Now knowing what I was dealing with, I humbled myself, and prepared to boat a colossal Brook Trout.  I shuffled my feet in the canoe, to make room for the fish.
    Leaning over the side of the canoe, I stared into the depths of an unknown world, one that I previously believed to have understood.  My eyes searched for an outline, just a glimpse of a fish.  I was gaining line quickly, and my opposition was getting weaker.  In the dark, black water, I was excited by a quick flash of a green cheek plate.  It dove, and it was gone.  My limp rod and expressionless face were all I had to tell the tale.
    Mysterious are the waters of the north.  That day I was humbled by an ancient, native fish, one that had survived by way of nature.  To think that a fish that would have stretched three feet made its way to the world it still dominates by way of a feeder stream I couldn’t wet my ankles in is almost as difficult as swallowing the complexity and depth of the interconnected watersheds these fish thrive on.  Many claim to understand these waters though, and I might be one of them to some degree.  To really capture the essence of that water which wets your toes, you must gaze from your perch on the boulder, out across the water, take in the sound of bellowing loons and the cool, night breeze flowing over the lake that laps at your feet, and when your eyes finally rest on the mountain at the foot of the lake, that water on your toes will hold new meaning.  I believe a Montana gentleman said it best, “I am haunted by waters.” 

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