John woke up the next morning before daylight. His mind was going in all directions over the events that had unfolded over the last twenty four hours. He had already put a deposit on a piece of land and he hadn’t been in Maine for two days. It was only the second time in his life he had been north of Massachusetts. The plans and ideas were going through his mind one after the other; build a cabin, live in a tent, buy a kit and assemble it on-sight. These were all things he was considering. He knew he was going to be without electricity, and access with a vehicle was limited to seven months out of the year due to snow and mud season. He didn’t even own a vehicle yet, so what should he buy? It seemed that a pickup truck made more sense than anything, but he would need four wheel drive and those were expensive. John noticed the sun was rising out of the east window of his hotel room and thought maybe these things would be easier to figure out with a cup of coffee.
The hotel was comfortable, but John was anxious to drive back up to the property and look around some more to get a better feel of things. He finished his second cup of the freeze dried coffee the hotel maid had left the day before, and promised himself that once living here he would never again drink anything other than camp coffee. Breakfast consisted of two powdered donuts and some peanut butter crackers he bought from the vending machine in the lobby. There wasn’t much traffic on the Maine interstate that morning being Sunday and most people had the day off. There were a few logging trucks that seemed to have rocket engines in them as they passed John’s rented car and they left him in a trail of dust. He tried to count how many logs were on the back of each truck and figure out how much board feet each load contained. It saddened him a little thinking the beautiful forests were being farmed off at such a fast rate. However, he knew people needed homes to live in, and jobs to pay for the homes.
John pulled into the same hardware store he had stopped at before to get gasoline and a few more supplies. There was a different gentleman behind the counter this time and he greeted John with a big “hello” as soon as the door opened and jingled the little bell as it did every time someone came into the store. “Good morning” John said with a big smile as soon as he smelled the freshly brewed coffee. “You up here doing some fishing?” “I hope to wet a line before I have to head home, but haven’t had a chance yet.” “Are you a fly fisherman?” the man asked. “Well, I want to learn how, but for now I still use a worm and spinner.” John looked over on the wall and saw several fishing poles all set up with reels and full of line. He walked over and picked up an Eagle Claw spinning rod with a nice open face reel and it was priced at twenty nine dollars. He also noticed a vintage fishing creel with a ten dollar sticker on it. Inside the creel was an old LL Bean trout knife with a leather case that had started to turn green. The inside of the creel felt smooth and had a smell to it that suggested it had been, many times, full of fish.
John knew he couldn’t go back into the woods without some kind of defense against the man-eating black flies. He grabbed a mesh head net and a bottle of Ben’s Deep Woods bug repellent. “Is this the strongest thing you have”? John asked the cashier. “You mean for bug dope?” “Yes, I almost got eaten alive yesterday.” The man walked around the counter and went to the isle with the camp fuel and charcoal. He grabbed a bar of camp soap and passed it to John. “Try washing up with this, it will get rid of any perfume smell you might be carrying with you. By the way, my name is Mert Hollis, nice to meet you” Mert reached out and shook John’s hand. “Nice to meet you as well.” John grabbed some sinkers, hooks, and a tub of worms from the cooler and set everything down on the counter. “Looks like your having trout for dinner,” Mert said with a big smile. “I hope to catch a couple of those native brook trout I hear about.” “Well you know those small mouth bass are pretty tasty.” John had caught many bass back in New Jersey and had always thrown them back because of the water he caught them in. The streams and ponds were cloudy and foam covered from pesticides and fertilizers. The thought of eating any fish from his home state was appalling, unlike the rivers he had seen in northern Maine that were crystal clear and cold. It seemed the fish would be safe to eat, but he never considered bass to be on the menu. This was good news because he already knew how to catch them, unlike the mystic brook trout he had only read about.
John walked back to the fishing tackle and grabbed two Mepp’s rooster tail spinners, he had caught many small mouth bass and chain pickerel with these lures growing up, fishing under the rail road trestles and in some of the small ponds around the local golf course. He also bought three cans of baked beans, a loaf of bead, a can of spam, a bottle of vegetable oil and a roll of paper towels. He looked at a small pup tent on the shelf but thought he would wait and find something bigger and perhaps better quality. He didn’t own the land yet so he didn’t feel right about camping there and was in hopes of finding another hotel or possibly sleeping in the car. He did purchase a synthetic sleeping bag figuring he would need one regardless at some point and the nights did get cold up in Maine even in the summer months.
“That about do it?” Mert asked, as John put the tightly rolled sleeping bag down on the counter. “I think so, for now anyway.” “Are you camping out?” “Not sure yet, but just in case, I figure it wouldn’t hurt to have a sleeping bag, even If I end up sleeping in the back seat.” “You can never be over prepared out there, that’s for sure.” The total of the items and groceries came to one hundred and five dollars. John felt a tinge of guilt as he pulled out his wallet and unfolded six twenty dollar bills. “You may as well make it one-twenty and I will put in fifteen dollars worth of gas.” “Sure thing, you don’t want to be running on empty up here, not a lot of filling stations once you get off the highway.” “Have you lived here for long?” John asked. “Been here almost forty years. I came up after high school and got a job in a logging camp as a cook. I did that for a few years, then got into the hardware business with my wife’s father. He passed away ten years ago leaving us the store.” John put his wallet back and picked up the two bags of provisions. “Well, have a great day and thank you.” Mert threw two books of matches in one of the bags. “You should never go out in the woods without some kind of fire starter, and you will need to cook those fish over a campfire tonight.” “Ahhh, yes, good thinking!” John said as he turned around and headed out the door.
The rest of the ride went quickly, and John was back on north road following the river. He noticed a man fly fishing, so he eased the rented car to a stop and watched him for a few minutes. It seemed as though the angler was putting very little effort into casting and letting the action of the fly rod do all the work. Back and forth a few times and the line just floated out and settled down on the water, drifting along until it was far enough down stream, then pull in the line and repeat the process. It was very methodical, yet almost hypnotic to watch. After several casts the fisherman moved up stream to an eddy and stayed on the inside of the bend. On the opposite side of the river there were some overhanging limbs that created shade over the swirling water. The angler raised the tip of his rod to cast, but this time the presentation was different. He brought the rod tip up and then forward, but dropped it almost horizontal to the water, giving a pendulum looking action to the line. When it settled onto the water it naturally followed the current and drifted back up stream with the swirling water. All at once the rod was bent and the line went taught. Instead of “setting the hook” the man simply “lifted” the rod tip up and slowly worked the fish out of the current and up to the rivers edge. He took his small wooden net from behind his back and dipped up a beautiful square tailed brook trout that looked to be at least twenty inches long. After removing the tiny hook from it’s mouth the angler simply released the fish back into the swirling dark water. John sat in his car and watched three more of these beautiful fish get caught with the same presentation and then released unharmed.
Eventually the fisherman moved further up stream and out of sight leaving John in awe after the demonstration he just witnessed. He knew there was a zen-like approach associated with fly fishing, but never actually saw anyone do it with any success at all, never mind catch four magnificent brook trout and release them. He would have been embarrassed to have been caught fishing with live bait by someone with that kind of understanding for presentation and ability to read water. John thought he had a lot to learn, and now was certain of it. The stories he had read about those old Maine Guides and the fish they caught were true, and he just had a front row seat. This was their turf and he knew it.
When John got back to the bridge just before his property he wanted to try his luck at catching dinner. He pulled the car off the road and grabbed the mesh head net, bug dope, and fishing rod. The water was slow moving under the road and he thought it might be a deep spot in the river. After tying on a rooster tail he climbed down the bank, found some good footing and made a cast. After several casts he moved under the bridge and cast as far as he could. The lure bounced off the bridge pylon making a “chink” sound and fell into the water. When he started reeling it in the rod went tight and immediately a bronze back small mouth bass leaped into the air trying to spit the hook. John was ecstatic, and fought the two pound fish all the way back to his side of the bridge. The fish was incredibly wide and strong, unlike the bass in his home state, this had a darker color and beautiful pattern. He decided to keep it as he was allowed two per day by state law and quickly made another cast back to the same spot. After a few casts and no luck he tried further down under the bridge. He managed to hook into another bass about the same size giving him a limit.
John strung the fish with a piece of shoe lace that he still had in his pocket from the day before and returned to the car. When he started driving up the road he felt a bit of pride as he had just caught his first north woods dinner. When he got to the property he figured it would be okay to use the existing campfire ring made of small rocks by some campers the previous year. He got a small fire going with the matches that Mert had given him back at the store and some dead twigs he found under a conifer tree. The fire blazed away for about twenty minutes, then died down leaving him with a small bed of glowing coals. He knew it wouldn’t take much to heat up the new fry-pan and put it on some rocks in the fire to hold it up, out of the direct heat and poured in a good amount of vegetable oil. He then started skinning the small mouth bass and got them ready for the hot oil. John wished he had bought some corn meal or flour to cover the fish in a batter, but also figured he was lucky to have the fish to eat, and would remember to get some the next time he was in town. As the fish sizzled away in the pan, the sun was going down, and the sounds of coyotes off in the distance sounded almost surreal to him. It was hard to believe that in just a few weeks this was going to be his land, and he could build a home for himself. Those thoughts and many others filled his mind, and the fish filled his stomach.
After the fish were eaten and the coals in the fire had become almost invisible, John decided to bring the remaining fish carcasses down the road and leave them for a hungry fox or coyote. As he walked along in the moonlight he could still hear the sound of the river and the gentle winds from the north west. It was getting cooler by the hour and he was wearing his wool shirt he put on to protect him from the black flies, and he felt comfortable. He tossed the fish bones into the bushes about one hundred yards from the campsite and felt better about giving a little back to nature. He had gotten his meal for the night and some furry creature would get a midnight snack from the remaining morsels he had just deposited. John had a slight sense of confidence with himself, and felt good about everything that had happened over the last two days. When he started walking back to the car on the loose gravel road he noticed how loud his foots steps seemed compared to the dark moonlit forest. He stopped walking a couple times just to hear the whispering pine trees. He could faintly smell the remains of his cooking fire. Everything seemed right with the world up here. There were no loud highways, crowded shopping malls, and no traffic jams. The only foreign sound was the dull roar of a small airplane every so often, and even that seemed to blend in with the sound of the river and the prevailing summer breeze.
John decided to sleep in the back seat of the car. He unwrapped his new sleeping bag and spread it out on the seat. It wouldn’t be the most comfortable bed, but it would keep him out of the bugs for the night and if it rained he would stay dry. This got him thinking again about what kind of vehicle he should be looking for. He kept considering a pickup truck, but shuddered at having to pay the steep price of a four wheel drive. He remembered reading a story from one of those thrift store books back in high school about a man who lived in a station wagon for one year while building a log cabin in Alaska. That got him thinking about buying a van and turning it into a camper. It would be very useful during construction and he could live in it all summer. The only downfall being that it would be rear wheel drive and that limited where he could drive. However, it was a thought that he would continue the next day as he slowly drifted off to sleep under the nylon shell of his first new sleeping bag.