When John pulled into the Orman farm there was no one home. Although he had permission from Les to help himself to anything, he wasn’t comfortable going into the house, but he did get his steel foot locker from the barn and put it in the back of his pickup. There was still an hour before dark and he wanted to try and catch a trout, something that had eluded him thus far. Les had told him about a pool up the road that was usually good for at least one, if not two, brookies by the end of the day. Les referred to the last hour of daylight as the “witching hour;” if you had a slow day with a client, and found yourself up against the wall, this was the time to redeem yourself as a guide. Generally, if a person caught a fish at the end of the day, that meant more to them than having a very successful day over all. When you catch fish all day it appears easy, and seems less significant. When a person starts at the crack of dawn, has traipsed all day in hot chest waders, eaten only a soggy sandwich washed down with warm soda, somehow, when the rod bends at dusk, it rejuvenates their soul. They feel as though they have earned the experience, rather than payed for it.
When John arrived at the bridge that crossed the river, he pulled off the road and noticed two other fishermen, waist deep in the river, fly fishing. Their oscillating arms resembled pendulums, working back and forth until the end of their line was exactly where they wanted it. The tiny fly would land and begin to slowly sink while the current swept the thick line down stream, slowly arching, then straightening out left to weave back and forth a few times in the swirling water. Then the line was pulled back through the eyelets of the rod, and the whole process was repeated. Suddenly, the rod tip bent and the highly visible line went taught. The other angler retrieved his presentation and fumbled with a net that seemed to be stuck to his back. After a few minutes, the fish was tired and brought in close enough to be netted. The fisherman who caught the fish removed a trout from the net, dislodged the small hook, and released the fish. This process happened four times in 30 minutes and John never left the seat of his truck. He felt funny about trying to hook a brook trout with his hardware store presentation, and even worse, he was using a live night crawler and a shiny trout spinner. He doubted he would even get a strike. How could the fish be so anxious to attack these tiny flies made of squirrel hair and not seem to have any interest in a fat juicy night crawler? It made no sense, but Les had spoken about “matching the hatch”… whatever that meant.
Feeling defeated again, he drove back to Les’s house. It was getting dark and the kitchen light was on. When he got out of the truck, he saw Les through the open window, standing at the small cook stove. The the smell of fried onions filled the air. “Hey John, I bet your hungry!” John was always hungry when Les was in the kitchen. “I guess I could eat,” John said. “How was New Jersey?” “It was nice to see the folks and I bought a truck.” “I see that, four wheel drive too.” “Yeah, I got it for two grand, an older guy had it and took good care of it by the looks.” “That’s good, looks solid.” “Yeah, no rust to speak of, it made it this far so I guess it will go for a few more years.” The coffee started boiling in the glass bubble on top of the percolator. Les grabbed two cups from the dish drainer. “Coffee?” “Yes please!” John said as he pulled out a chair and sat down at the table. For some reason, the coffee pot reminded him of the tent, and the fact he had to tell Les he was planning on spending the winter in it, maybe tomorrow he would broach that.
“So have you seen Ken?” John asked. “He was here two days ago, said he was going to have your stuff ready next week.” “Yeah that is the plan I guess. I was up at the river tonight and a couple guys caught some nice trout.” “Did you get any?” “No, I just watched them catch four nice ones.” “Are you planning on getting into fly fishing?” “I would love to, but don’t have a clue.” Les was flattening out some ground meat and making patties. “I have an old five weight you can use if you want, needs a reel though, I might have an extra if I dig for it.” “Whats a five weight?” “That’s the weight of line the rod is designed for, generally you can go one size up or down, depending on the size of the fish you are going after. Around here you won’t need more than a six weight.” “So I need line and some flies?” ” You need a leader and a tippet also.” “Why?” “Because without the leader, which is generally a foot longer than the rod, and a tippet, which you attach the fly, you can’t cast a fly rod.” “Doesn’t the fly have enough weight to cast it?” “That’s not how it works. The fly has nothing to do with it. If you are using a very small fly, like a nymph, you would use a five or six x tippet, so the fly can sink, that’s if your using a wet fly.” John felt more confused now than all his years in calculus and trigonometry combined. “There is a-lot to fly fishing I guess.” John said as he sipped the hot black coffee. “Sure there is, but it gets to be second nature after awhile. Don’t over-complicate it and let the rod do the work. That’e the best advise I could give anyone.” “Okay then, I guess I will grab some fly line at the hardware store tomorrow.” “Get a five weight, double taper, you won’t be making long casts and the wind isn’t bad in the river for the most part. I have some leader and tippet in the barn. There are a few knots you’ll need to know how to tie in the dark. We will get you started on nymphs and later some dry flies. The suckers are done spawning so they will be hitting other patterns.” Les put the burgers on plates along with some fresh green beans and and potatoes. The two ate supper and drank coffee for an hour, then John washed the dished while Les did some planning at his desk for an upcoming fishing trip the following weekend.
The next morning both John and Les were up with the sun and drinking more black coffee. John was making a trip to the hardware store for some fly line and a few groceries to help out Les. He had stayed there enough that he felt obligated to pitch in. Before he left he took some mental notes of what Les had for canned goods in the pantry and he looked low on coffee. Les didn’t use many spices to cook with outside of salt and pepper, and the occasional splash of garlic powder. Les was in the driveway looking at John’s new truck. “Looks pretty solid.” “It runs good too, uses a little more gasoline than I like, but it will do the trick.” John was actually quite happy with his new acquisition. The truck ran great and had a certain squareness to it that looked tough. The sparkling brown paint was in good shape and the chrome was still shiny. It had a big diamond plate bumper on the back with a trailer ball built into it. The front bumper was shiny chrome to match the big mirrors. It also had chrome window trim and a sliding rear window he could stick long poles through for transporting, it was perfect.
When he got to the store he gassed up and bought some groceries. He pretended to know what he was talking about when he asked the location of fly line in the store, and was relieved no one asked anything that revealed his lack of knowledge of the sport. He bought a long handled shovel to dig a hole where he thought there might be a natural spring on his property. The thought of fresh fish for lunch sounded good, so he stopped at the steel bridge where he caught his first two small mouth bass. On the second cast he connected with a nice bronze back and decided to keep it and try for a second, that would give him enough for lunch after he dug a hole. He made several more casts and caught another bass almost exactly the same size. Happy with his fish, he drove back to the property and blazed a trail to the area he thought would be the best place to set up camp. It was reasonably flat, seemed dry, and the sun seemed to shine in for most of the day. He knew he would have to cut some trees and pull stumps if he was eventually going to grow food. He located a good place for the outhouse, in the opposite direction of the water to avoid contamination. When he got to the spot he had dug by hand it was full of clear water. It had filled up overnight….. This was good….. John started digging with the shovel and piling up the wet soil off to the side. There were many roots and some jagged rocks that he had to pry out, but after an hour of digging he had a hole three feet deep and four feet wide that already had twelve inches of muddy water in it. His next task was to ferry some rocks up from the river bed to line the sides of the hole to keep the earth from falling back in. This would take many trips, and he was looking forward to lunch, so he went back to the truck to get his two bass and start cleaning them. Within minutes they were cleaned, skinned, and sizzling in the cast iron pan that was sitting on his new camp stove. He was impressed by how much faster he could enjoy a meal by using the stove verses having to build a fire and wait for the hot coals to form. There was a definite advantage to modern conveniences when your had chores to be done and time was limited, not to mention he had worked up a good appetite digging his new well.
After lunch he walked down to the river and started piling up round, flat stones from the stream bed. If he adequately lined the hole he had dug, and kept it from caving in, it should be possible to fill a bucket of water. If it was a natural spring it would provide him with water all summer. He spent the rest of the afternoon carrying stones up to the new well and managed to find a route that wasn’t overgrown with thick spruce trees. He liked the shapes of the stones and thought about building a ring for his campfire, but then remembered the stories of exploding rocks from the moisture inside river stones. When the rocks heat up, if there is water trapped in them, they explode like a hand grenade and many campers have been seriously injured by this. There were plenty of rocks around the property so he could build a fire pit without the risk of bodily harm.
By late afternoon he was heading back to the farm and thinking about how he was going to set up his tent. He needed some poles for the tent, as he had passed on the metal frame that was available from the manufacturer. Many outfitters out west use the same poles every year, leaving them at the camp site, so they only had to transport the tent and supplies on horse back. However, some places where they camped forbade the cutting of trees so a metal frame was available. John had plenty of trees and the black spruce was ideal for making poles.
Les had gone into town and stocked up on the food and other items he needed for the weekend. He would be guiding the grandson of one of his oldest clients. The weekend fishing trip consisted of a canoe trip and fly fishing. He insisted on making a traditional meal for this trip; t-bone steaks with carrots and potatoes in the dutch oven along with peach cobbler. Les put a-lot of emphasis on food and its preparation. He cooked everything in cast iron or over the open flame of the fire. These were the nuances that made river trips so memorable. Many of the old traditions of guiding were being replaced with modern techniques. Prepackaged freeze dried meals in foil bags, cooked over titanium stoves seemed to be the new trend. Carbon fiber was replacing the warmth of ash canoe paddles. The old canvas paintings of men sleeping under a canoe on a river bank told of a different time that was alluring and romantic. These were the images that brought John to the north woods of Maine. Now he was here and had the opportunity to try and adapt to the surrounding environment in any fashion he chose. He could easily build a comfortable home that would completely isolate him from the elements. Or, he could sleep on the ground and wash up in ice water like the woodsman of old…. Maybe something in between.
Les owned a canoe made by the E. M. White Company that was made of ceder and canvas. It was long and heavy making it stable and capable of carrying very heavy loads. He had used it on moose hunts and camping trips for many years. He had removed it from his pickup for the long ride to attend the funeral service, and it had to be loaded for the upcoming weekend. “You want a hand loading the canoe?” John asked. “Nope, I got it.” John watched in amazement as Les grabbed the gunwale, rocked the boat on its side so the keel was facing him. Then in one fluid motion, he grabbed the thwart, gave it a spin. The canoe was upside down on his shoulders. Just as effortlessly, he walked to the back of his truck and slid the canoe onto the rack. The whole process took thirty seconds. The paddles he used were made from ash that Les claimed had a certain “spring” to it. The forests of Maine had many hidden Jewels and brown ash was one of them. This wood was used for making traditional snow shoes, toboggans, canoe paddles and the coveted pack baskets owned by every Maine Guide. In the early days, a woodsman could survive in the wilderness with only what he carried in a pack basket. It included a wool shirt, ax, a good knife, rope, fire starter, a small tarp, a pot for boiling water and a sewing kit. Wool was a woodsman’s best friend because it maintains most of it’s insulation even when wet and has saved the fingers and toes of many lost hunters.
“You do any fishing today?” John asked. “No, I was in town most of the day doing errands. I talked to my friend with the sawmill and he said he had a big pile of scrap you could pick through and have for the taking.” “Well actually, I was thinking about using a tent.” “A tent? What kind of tent are you gonna live in all winter?” “Its a wall tent, you know like they use out west, with a wood stove.” Les finished tying down his canoe with a ribbon knot and climbed down out off the back of his truck. “How did you come by this idea?” John thought about it. He saw an ad in a magazine…. It struck him like a bolt of lightning…..The last two major decisions he had made were sparked from ads in magazines, one of which he threw away! He’d spent four years of his life in school researching modern agriculture and its effects. The whole “living off grid idea” was because of an ad he saw at a bus station. Backpedaling, “Well I just thought, for now, I could get by in a tent.” “Yeah, now its summer time, the nights are warm and the days are long. That’s going to be over in two months.” “What do you mean two months?” John asked bewildered. “I mean we get frost in late September. The ponds are frozen over by thanksgiving, then it gets cold.” “Yeah, but I have the wood stove and plenty of firewood.” You have a wood stove and trees that need to be cut and processed into firewood. That is what you have. That road you are on isn’t even plowed. How are you going to get out for supplies?” “I guess I’ll stock up.” John said, some what abashed, and staring off into the field. “Stock up? Where are you gonna put a winters worth of groceries in a tent?” John felt a heaviness in his chest and wanted to change the subject, but he couldn’t. His whole plan seemed infallible last week, and now he felt foolish for ever leaving New Jersey. He was standing there with a pickup truck, some camping equipment, and no explanation. Maybe this was all a mistake. Maybe he should have looked into getting a job and started a life doing what he was educated for, work in the field of agriculture; and have a steady paycheck, and house or an apartment. John felt as if the world had stopped, and it wouldn’t start back up until he had an answer, a good answer for this giant of a man staring at him. “I guess I better start cutting wood then” was all he could come up with. Les dried the sweat off his fore head with the back of his wrist, “Coffee?” “Yes, please”.
John spent the weekend doing the odd jobs Les had given him around the house while he was away guiding his trip. There was an underground waterline going to the barn that had frozen and broken last winter to replace. The ground was hard and rocky but John managed to get a ditch dug by the time a local handy man showed up to replace the line. As a bonus, he found a dozen worms in the process of digging the ditch. Some of the house windows needed to be tightened up and Les had shown him how to repair them with putty and little triangular wedges. The screen door needed new hinges and the mail box was tipping over. By the end of the weekend John had the list of chores done and drove back to the fishing spot up the road. There was no one fishing, so he tied on a trout spinner and put a fresh ditch worm on the snelled hook. He went to the same spot he saw the other fisherman catch those trout, and manged a half decent cast in the rippling current. After a few unsuccessful attempts he moved down river to a pool that looked promising and made several casts,but no luck. On the other side of the river he noticed a muskrat swimming up stream. It veered off and climbed up the bank to feed on some tall grass and vegetation. After several minutes it returned to the water and continued upstream. It made him think of a book he read about a trapper who ate beaver and muskrat all winter to survive. The idea of eating a rodent was unacceptable to some people, but many of the wilderness travelers would look forward to the lean meat. The beaver had a good supply of fat in its tail, and it was welcomed by those who were deprived of fat in the kettle for months at a time. This got John thinking. Why couldn’t he learn how to trap and harvest meat along with the fur from these animals? It made sense in a way because when trapping, unlike hunting, you only had to make your rounds once a day. It enabled a person to get other tasks done over the course of the day, and chances were, at least one trap would hold a bounty of fresh meat. When trapping is compared to hunting, it seemed trapping was better both because it’s passive and because trapping season went all winter until the rivers thawed out in the spring.
John fished for another half hour unsuccessfully. He drove back to the farm and Ken was just leaving. “Hey John, great news. The paperwork will be ready in the morning and you can come down to finalize everything.” “Oh that’s great!” John said, feeling rejuvenated after his thoughts of trapping and possibly having a food source over the winter. “I have to run, but swing by any time after ten o’clock, I will have it all ready and we will have lunch to celebrate; my treat.” “That sounds great Ken, see you in the morning.” John watched the red taillights fade around the corner. He stood in the driveway listening to the frogs and night birds start their nightly rituals. The air was warm and a slight breeze brought the smell of fading lilacs. John knew he had bitten off far more than he could chew by coming up here and starting out with nothing but a few camping accessories and a romance for a time that was fading fast. Somehow he had to figure it all out, and hopefully in good style.
The city of Bangor, Maine is well populated. Bangor is the home to Husson University, and has a joint civil military international airport. The Penobscot River separates it from the town of Brewer, and at one time this river supported the countries largest run of Atlantic salmon. It still has many miles of wilderness shorelines that draw in float fisherman, and there is a huge population of healthy small mouth bass. John was here to finalize his paperwork. The real estate office was buzzing when he arrived and Ken was on the telephone. A secretary informed him that everything was ready, and Ken would be with him shortly. Ken finished up his phone call and the documents were signed. John wrote a check for the remaining balance, and received a quitclaim deed. It was official, he now owned a home in the north woods.