Remembering the River of My Youth
By Tamia Nelson
I spent my childhood within a short bicycle ride of the 'Kill. What the Dove was to Charles Cotton, the 'Kill once was to me. It's a lovely little river, born in the meadows of a well-watered valley and flanked by mountains of marble and slate. It brawls and bounces its way through a forbidding ridge of shadowed peaks, and then slows down, becoming wider, deeper and more reflective, while meandering among ancient low hills. The headwaters of the 'Kill are swift and narrowso narrow that the sky is often hidden by a Gothic arch of trees. Lower down, the river opens up, with sweeping views back toward the mountains of its birth. Here its waters chuckle over cobbles and murmur around gravel bars, only to pause at wide pools, each fringed by sycamore and maple and guarded by occasional ancient pines.
Brown trout live in these slow-moving pools, growing fat on the harvest of the stream. On calm, warm summer evenings, mayflies and midges mate in the air over the river. Not many survive to be eaten by the trout. Some are rudely snatched from their nuptial embrace by graceful, low-flying tree swallows. Others become a quick breakfast for early-rising brown bats. And, at dusk and dawn, whitetail deer visit the pools to drink, while solitary mink patrol the banks in a never-ending search for prey.
The deer and mink seldom have the 'Kill to themselves, though. Anglers from Atherton to Wulff have made their homes on the shores of this little river, and thousands more visit its waters every year to try their luck. The brown troutthey themselves are visitors who stayed on to make their homes herewait patiently for whatever comes their way.
I first came to the Kill not as an angler, however, but as a refugee. Even in high summer, the pools of the lower river were cold and inviting, a welcome respite from the clinging heat of town. I waded, floated and swam, acquiring an understanding of the 'Kill's currents and pools that I could have gotten in no other way. When, much later, I first put a canoe in its waters, I had no need of a guidebook or a river map. The river and I were already intimate acquaintances.
As I paddled the 'Kill, I often came upon fishermen. (They were always fishermen in those days. They still are, mostly.) I'd round a bendhugging the inside, back-paddling, ferrying, in no hurryand I'd see a bulky figure, armored in rubber and canvas, rising out of the near-shore shallows in the spreading pool below, rod in hand, line in the air, working a deep hole under the opposite bank. The 'Kill was less crowded in those days than it is now. Anglers and canoeists greeted each other as kindred souls. More often than not, the rubber-shod figure and I would smile at each other and exchange quiet good wishes. Then I'd either pull ashore to wait while the fisherman worked through the pool or, at his invitation, paddle round him, carefully avoiding the holding waters.
Always, it seemed, these encounters came near bridges, or in places where the highway touched the river, or along the little-used rail-line that followed the 'Kill for a short distance below one tiny hamlet. Of all the miles of river and pool I'd come to know in years of wading, swimming and paddling, only a fraction were fished by sportsmen. In a brief evening paddle, I'd pass a dozen pools and riffles, each one alive with rising trout but altogether empty of anglers. Then, only half a mile further on, I'd meet five fishermen clustered together in a single, barren pool, close by a road. It was no wonder, I thought, that the 'Kill's brown trout had acquired a reputation for supernatural wariness and selectivity.
When I did meet an angler in one of the long, unfrequented stretches away from the bridges and the roads, he'd likely be a school-boy or a local man, with a close-faced spinning reel and a coffee-can full of worms. And he'd usually have a fish or three on his stringer. On the rare occasions when I went fishing in those days, I took my lessons from the school-boys. I fished the river well away from the roads and bridges.
But most of the time I paddled. Only when I acquired my first fly rod did I begin to take a real interest in fishing for its own sake. Fly fishing was a revelation. For the first time in my life I understood what drove the rubber-shod pilgrims to their streamside devotions. Soon I, too, had joined their number. I was tying my own flies and looking forward with increasing eagerness to returning to the 'Kill as a "serious" angler. First, however, I made a pilgrimage of my own. I dropped in on Harry.
Who was Harry? In classical mythology, every stream and pond had a resident spirit, a semi-divine guide and guardian, familiar with every cranny and creature that lay therein. And, while Harry would have rejected the idea out of handhe was a High Church Episcopalian, after all!he was the closest thing the 'Kill had to a water-sprite. True, he was no longer young. He was well into his ninth decade when I tied my first fly, in fact. And he certainly wasn't well-known. The 'Kill has figured in the writings of many celebrity anglers, to be sure. But Harry, though a fisherman all his life, was never a professional. His relationship with the 'Kill was born of love, not commerce. It remained so till his death.
I went to Harry as a novice seeking guidance from a master, and I wasn't disappointed. Until we talked, I thought I knew the 'Kill as well as anyone could. I was wrong. Harry had waded and fished the river for sixty years, in all seasons and all weathers. I was still a rank beginner. It showed.
There was one point, however, where our roles were reversed. I mentioned, off-handedly, that I'd be using my canoe to fish the 'Kill. Harry was puzzled. He'd seen canoeists on the 'Kill many times. How could he not have? But he'd never put a boat in the river himself. Not once in more than sixty years. The idea struck him as absurd.
"How you going to get back to your car?" he asked incredulously. I explained as best I could. "The river runs both ways, Harry," I said, trying to make a joke of it. "I'll paddle upstream when I can, pole where I can't paddle, and run downriver at the end of the day. It's just that simple."
Harry was astonished. He'd never thought of this before. He was, admittedly, no canoeist. He knew every eddy on the 'Kill, at every water level, but he'd never once thought of using those eddies to help him paddle a canoe upstream. And he'd never even heard of poling a canoe. I continued my explanation. As I talked, I could see a wistful light come into Harry's eyes. With two new artificial hips, he felt far too fragile to entrust himself to the 'Kill's sometimes boisterous currents. His fishing days were all but over. What little fishing he still did was done from a lawn chair behind a parking lot. It wasn't much fun.
Now, suddenly, Harry saw the river opening before him again. It was easy. Just get in a canoe and go. Of course, he'd need someone to paddle while he fished....
I'd like to be able write that I took Harry with me out on the 'Kill, where he renewed his old acquaintance with the river while I learned all about "fishing fine and far off" from a master of the art. But, unhappily, I can't. I never took Harry up the 'Kill. Why not? Woman trouble, I'm afraid. Harry, though no longer young, was still a lively lad. Then, as now, the hills around the 'Kill were home to many well-to-do widows, and Harryalways something of a lady's manwas quite a catch. As soon as his current love learned of his plans to spend long days on lonely stretches of the 'Kill with a "younger woman," she put her foot down. That was that. Harry was no fool. After all, he told me with a wink when he cancelled our first (and only) fishing date, there are some things in life even more important than fishing!
Still, that didn't stop me from putting my plan into action. And I soon learned that I was right: there's nothing like a canoe for fishing a river. Upstream or downupstream and downa canoe can help any competent paddler-angler find unfished waters, even on much-visited streams.
This won't be true forever. Things are changing fast. The 'Kill is no longer the river that it was in my youth. Many of the farms through which it flows have been sold to property developers. The paths to the swimming holes I remember from my childhood are gated now. No Trespassing Signs warn passers-by away. The once-wooded banks have been cleared to make room for homes andnice irony, thisswimming pools. The farmers who still hang on, hoping to make a buck in an increasingly competitive global market, plow right down to the water's edge. And each year canoeists and fishermen come to the 'Kill in ever-greater numbers. Both are now convinced, not without some reason, that the other is an enemy. Meetings in mid-river
elicit few smiles and even fewer good wishes. Cans and rocks have been thrown at fishermen, and canoeists sometimes hear a dressed hook whistling close by their heads as they paddle away from a pool.
All in all, the 'Kill is a much smaller and less friendly place today than it was when I made my first pilgrimage to its banks, paddle and fly rod in hand. I'd like to think that this will someday change for the better. Perhaps it will. But I'm not optimistic. When I last saw the 'Kill, it was a dark March day. I was walking along a dirt road that skirted one of the swimming holes I often visited as a girl. A cold, driving rain was sheeting down, and the turbid flood of the 'Kill was swelling over its banks. Plastic trash and construction debris choked the few remaining alder thickets. A dead brown trout bobbed endlessly in a surging eddy, its pallid, lifeless body trapped by a sunken shopping cart. That was enough for me. I turned away from the river and walked back along the road. It was time to head upstream.
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