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  • Writer's pictureTodd Stevens

Fishing in the moonlight

There’s a place way back up in the Blackfoot canyon in Western Montana, that I used to frequent when I was single. There’s a little shadow of a dirt road that if you weren’t really looking for, you’d never see. I used to drive up there on late summer evenings and sneak onto that little track and drive over until my truck couldn’t be seen from the road, and then park. I’d grab my little box of fishing stuff, which was very small, and my rod, and I’d start the hike over to the river. There was a huge blue/black mountain to the southwest of the river, and in the evening it would cast a long, deep shadow over the pine and fir forest that bordered the river. The minute I stepped into that shadow, the temperature would drop sharply, and even though it was still daylight, the air took on a kind of blue calm that I won’t be able to describe here, it’s ethereal, and almost like you’re walking into another world. I have been on hundreds of rivers in many, many states, but none have the magic of a late summer evening Montana river. About half way down to the water, the cool, fresh, coppery smell of the river starts to rise through the air and fill your senses, and whatever it is that’s bothering you, whatever burden it is that you’re carrying around with you immediately feels lighter in that atmosphere. That river is still wild, and when you come out of the timber there is a wide band of white and gray rocks that have been exposed during the high water of spring runoff. Battered trees, and branches wrap around those great chunks of shattered granite, left until the next runoff moves them downstream. I always stood at the edge of that band of exposed rock and looked past it to the big black river beyond. I stood there and breathed that air and searched for some inner footing, and I usually found it. I'd pick my way down through the rocks until I stood on the shore, completely alone in the calm of the canyon, the river gliding by endlessly. I found some strange solace in knowing it was constant, whether I was in times of trouble or in times of calm, the river was always there, flowing, regardless of the problems I was encountering. There was a great swirling pool there, and there was a big, smooth, white boulder at the mouth of the hole that I always sat on. The fishing was secondary to the peace I felt while I was there. My great grandfather spent most of his life just a few miles away on the other side of the big mountains to the south of the river, and I often thought about him, and my great grandmother, and I wondered if they’d ever been where I was sitting, ever driven by on the road behind me, and I doubted the former, but believed the latter. And I thought about many things as the night slowly descended over the Blackfoot canyon. Something about that solitude of that place brought out the echoes of my ancestors, my relatives, my family.

The water in that river is a kind of clear, jade green during the day, but at night it was inky black, and mysterious, and the environment stimulated me to think on a different level. I was in my early 30’s at the time, and going through the roughest part of my life. I’d been blinded in an eye only a few years back, and I was going through a brutal divorce. So I’d sit there and watch the tiny wake my line made where it entered the water, and look at the little acrobatic purple winged swallows as they rose and fell on currents of air the river created, sometimes coming only a few inches from the surface of the water, inches from disaster, then they’d alter their wings and soar away. I’d sit and smell that fresh water and the pine scent that poured out of those forests, and for a few moments I was a part of it, and all that was going on in my life would dissipate like vapor. No one knew I was there, and for those minutes I was completely unconnected to anything I knew, or anyone that knew me. Sometimes the moon would rise, and when it did, it seemed almost like there was a calming effect. Even the breeze seemed to know that it needed to be still and hide up in the timber. Right in front of the rock where I sat was a slick patch of water, and the moon made a perfect, sharp reflection in it, doubling its own light. That moonlight was so intoxicating.

I was so used to the time constraints of a family, the demands of children, that to have that suddenly removed was almost overwhelming. I had to fight the impulse to leave that moon and create some kind of responsibility, because responsibility had been my only purpose for so long. So I’d sit there all alone in the calm of that canyon, with the mystery of the river gliding by, and I’d think of things that I’d long forgotten in the frenzy of being a young father and the child rearing that goes with it. I remembered picking Prince Albert cans full of tart little cherries from my grandad’s tree on hot summer days. Then he’d give us a quarter, and we’d walk down to an old abandoned gas station that still had a working soda machine, and in that soda machine were glass bottles of freezing cold grape Nehi soda. I remembered waking to the smell of oatmeal cookies being baked before the sun was up one rainy Missoula morning, my grandmother humming around the kitchen, my grandfather sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee and reading the paper. I thought of my Dad and I way up in Pattee canyon collecting moss for some long forgotten school project. I thought of my aunt Sharon bringing over an Easter basket to my cousin, not knowing that would be the last time I’d ever see her. I thought of friends lost that had once been so close. I remembered clearly holding my oldest daughter’s tiny little hand as we walked up for her first day of school. She was scared, I was sad, and her little hand fit perfectly in mine, and I did not want to let go, no I didn’t. I thought of all these things, and so much more, and I sat there fishing in the dark and found out that life is change, and sometimes it’s painful, and sometimes you can see the meaning in the pain, and sometimes you can’t. One thing I discovered though, is that you have to just keep fishing, sometimes all alone.

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