This story, and next week's follow-up, are for real... Ron was a real guy who taught me an awful lot about life.
A PROMISE KEPT
â€œAs we grow oldâ€¦the beauty steals inward.â€
Ralph Waldo Emerson
When Ron arrived at the lodge one Saturday with twenty other fishermen, I thought he was a nice old guy, but there was something different about him. He traveled alone and preferred to fish by himself, which in itself was unusual, but there was moreâ€¦ something I couldnâ€™t quite put my finger on. I donâ€™t mean that Ron was odd, or different in any way. He was normal enough, friendly and out going, as lone fishermen at any lodge tend to be.
Ron was from Michigan and had fly fished all of his life. Like many older fishermen, especially from the northern states, he had an affinity for brook trout, and it didn't take him long to finger me for someone who'd love to hear him recount the days when a big square-tail wasnâ€™t an oddity. Over dinner he discovered that Iâ€™d fished the Au Sable near Grayling, and he quizzed me. â€œDya fish the Main Branch?â€
â€œA little, but mostly the South.â€
â€œAbove or below The Smithâ€™s Bridge?â€
â€œMostly below, out of Havenâ€™s Camp, but sometimes weâ€™d wander up into the Mason Tract.â€
â€œAround the Chapel?â€
â€œHow â€˜bout the Middle Branch?â€
â€œAbove Frederic. Good Brookie water there.â€
â€œBut hard to fish.â€
â€œâ€™Cause of the cedar swamps,â€
â€œYa â€˜betcha!â€ He concluded, with a big toothy grin. As far as Ron was concerned, we were now buddies, and that was just fine with me.
â€œI just love brook trout,â€ he continued during dessert. â€œThatâ€™s why I came to Alaska.â€
â€œThere arenâ€™t any Brookies up here, old timer,â€ another fishermen at the table said, joining the conversation.
â€œOh, I know that all right,â€ Ron, said, with a twinkle in his eyes, â€œBut the Arctic Char and Dolly Varden might as well be first cousins.â€
The painting that illustrates this short story is a watercolor titled, â€œOne Last Look â€“ Arctic Charâ€, one of the many beauties that Ron caught during his week at the lodge.
September is my favorite time of the year in Alaska; the cottonwood and birch trees become shimmering, golden curtains that frame cerulean waters. The tundra is aflame in a riot of purples, reds, and yellows. Mornings are cold and crisp, and the afternoons warm and gentle. There is a sense of bounty that is ripe with transition and urgent in itâ€™s calling; a reminder that summerâ€™s golden end is at hand and winter will soon follow.
Ron had picked just the right time for a journey to Alaska, particularly to fish for arctic char and Dolly Varden. The sockeye salmon were at the height of their spawning, and both the char and all the other resident fish would gorge themselves on their eggs. The char fed most voraciously of all, since they also would spawn themselves within the month. The mature fish were in prime condition, and the ivory colored edges of their fins seemed even brighter in contrast to their pumpkin-orange and bright red flanks.
I was on the dock at the end of Ron's first day of fishing, and stood in the long shadow of one of the Beavers, when he emerged from the last plane to return. â€œThatâ€™s the best gowlderned day of fishing anyoneâ€™s ever had!" He said, his face aglow, and a smile from ear to ear. He turned to his guide and gave him a big bear hug. â€œThanks! I canâ€™t thank you enough!â€
Ron was half way to his cabin, moving slowly, head down, when his guide, Matt, called out to him. â€œSee you at dinner, Mr. Brookie!â€
Some nicknames are inspired on a divine level, and this was one of those. Mr. Brookie it was. â€œSo,â€ I said, turning back to Matt, "Tell me about Mr. Brookie's day."
â€œWow!â€ Matt said, shaking his head. â€œThat river must have saved it up all summer for this one man; it was on fire! Iâ€™m exhausted from just releasing his fish. I canâ€™t imagine what he feels like.â€
â€œSo how many?â€
â€œI stopped counting.â€
It wasnâ€™t like Matt to stop counting, and that meant something special. â€œWell, I guess weâ€™ll be sending a bunch of fishermen to the â€˜Pakâ€™ tomorrow.â€
Ronâ€™s second day was on the Agulawok, and it was a carbon copy of his first. After day three, the other fishermen at the lodge had decided that Ron was some sort of fly fishing deity; the Brookie Buddha from Michigan. Everyone asked me where he would fish next, and oh by the way, was there room for another guy? Ron handled his success and popularity with aplomb, if he even noticed. He was so exhausted by the time he made it up to the lodge for dinner (and everyone wanted to buy him a drink and pick his mind) that it was a minor miracle that he was up for breakfast the next morning. I kept waiting for him to ask about taking a day off to catch up on his rest, but it never happened. Ron was always the first guest up for coffee in the morning, often joining the guides in a game of cribbage, long before the other bleary-eyed fishermen shuffled in for breakfast.
We shared dinner most nights, but hadnâ€™t had the opportunity to fish together, and the week would soon wind down, and be gone. As luck would have it, The Boss put us together on Friday for the grand finale. Weâ€™d be going back to the â€œPakâ€ and I knew that itâ€™d be tough, if not impossible to improve upon his first day there with Matt.
Ron spent the morning casting rather casually for a fly fishing God. At one point, he stopped in mid cast and asked, â€œCan you imagine if all of these char and Dolly Varden had been square tails? It must have been like that in Michigan once."
His voice trailed off, and he looked thoughtful just as a big fish hit and pulled him back into the game. He landed the fish in just a few moments; a sure sign that heâ€™d been at it all week. â€œNot bad for an old guy who hasnâ€™t fished for almost ten years.â€ He said as he let the big rainbow slip through his fingers and back into the river.
â€œTen years?â€ I asked. â€œI figured you to fish at least a couple of times a week, even more after retiring.â€
â€œMy wife got cancer,â€ he said quietly. â€œI took care of her for almost ten years before she went. There wasnâ€™t any time for fishing.â€
I didnâ€™t know what to say.
â€œShe made me promise that, when it was overâ€¦ that Iâ€™d take some long fishing trips to places Iâ€™ve always dreamt of.â€ He set his rod down. â€œI didnâ€™t come here alone,â€ he said.
It was in that instant that I realized what was different about Ron. Everyone else was on a holiday, a diversion from the pressures of their everyday lives. But, Ron hadnâ€™t come to escape; he had come to recapture a part of his soul. He wasnâ€™t running away from anything, he was searching for the rest of his life, and taking the memory of his wife with him.
â€œLetâ€™s have lunch,â€ he said, looking away and reeling in.
Thanks for visiting,
Thereâ€™s a photograph of Ron over my writing desk to remind me about promises. It was taken in South Americaâ€¦ but thatâ€™s another story. See you next week.
"Make it matter, fuckos." jhnnythndr
" Herre jävlar vilka fiskar!!" P-A
"I'm no saint though, nor a judge. Rock that shit good and hard, and on your way out, wipe your dick on the curtains." - Kyner