There is a faint trail that leads through the jack pines, through
openings scented with the smell of sweet ferns mixed with wild
blueberries, and cedar swamps dark and mysterious. At the end
of this trail is the river; tea colored water stained from the
tannic acid of water seeping from the cedar swamps and boggy
places from which it is formed. On a slight rise overlooking
the river are the remains of an old fishing camp; a remnant of
a time that has been forgotten by all by a few old men whose
memory stretches back to a simpler time. Whenever I would pass
by this place I always stopped to ponder the men and their times.
By Neil M. Travis, Montana
Nothing much remains of the fishing camp. A few rotting boards
that once formed the platforms where A-wall tents were erected,
and a crumbling stone fire pit where anglers would gather at the
end of the day. Some crude wooden benches have long since succumbed
to the passage of time, and the wooden outhouse has collapsed under
the weight of winter snows and only a pile of rotting boards remains
to mark its location. In a few short years nothing except the circle
of stones of the fire pit will remain as a reminder of what existed
I have no idea who used this place. It was abandoned long before I
came to fish the river. Old timers in the area remember a group of
men from the city that came here during the summers back in the 20's
and 30's. They set up a camp here each summer, and for several weeks
they would fish the river. In those days brook trout were the primary
trout species, and much of the land was still recovering from the reign
of the lumber barons that had stripped the land of its virgin white
pines and cedars leaving only the inferior jack pines to reclaim the
land. Some had tried to farm but the soil proved too poor, and the
human population dwindled until only a few hardy souls remained in
scattered cabins throughout the county. Today the land is nearly as
wild as it had been when those unknown anglers spent their summers
along the river.
A faint, but still discernable path leads down the hill to the river.
A small spring is near the path and a rusty tin cup still hangs on a
wire wrapped around a rock. The bottom of the cup has rusted through,
and the rust has stained the rock a dull red.
I wonder about the men that drank from this cup, from the icy cold
water that still emanates from the ground and nourishes a patch of
tangy watercress. I imagine them coming up from the stream in canvas
waders with wicker creels over their shoulders, and long bamboo rods
with silk lines and gut leaders with several wet flies attached to
droppers. I can see them opening their creels lined with sweet ferns
to reveal speckled brook trout glistening in the bottom.
Who were these men and what had become of them? It is unlikely that
any of them remain, or if they do they would be as fragile as the
tin cup that hung by the spring. Do they ever think of this place
or is it merely a dim memory that flits through the twilight dreams
of some old man dozing in his chair? I find no answer here.
The old fish camp reminds me of the brevity of life, the vanity of
its boastfulness, the brashness of youth, and my own mortality. The
brook trout are mostly gone from the river, and like the men who
plied these waters with wet flies and silk gut they are only remembered
by a dwindling few. The leaves of the quaking aspen flutter in a passing
breeze too faint to detect, and I stand listening, trying to catch the
sound of voices stilled by the rush of years, but only the faint
fluttering of the aspen and the gurgling of the spring break the
What is the relevance of this place, and what lessons does it teach?
I hurry away, uncomfortable with thoughts of my own relevance, the
purpose of my life, and who will remember my passage through this
place. The mark that I have made is less permanent than theirs,
and perhaps that is as it should be.
I step into the river, and look back up the hill toward the camp.
From the river no visible sign exists that would hint that anything
except the forest ever existed there. Time would ultimately erase
all the signs, and only the rusty streak of the tin cup on the
rock and a circle of stones would remain.
My own footprints in the dust of the trail would be gone before
tomorrow, a certain impermanence that marks all of life, a symmetry
that suddenly felt very proper, preordained. The river beckoned,
and there seemed to be a proper symmetry in that, too.
~ Neil M. Travis, Montana/Arizona
From A Journal Archives