She’d passed the old-timer on her way down river to check on a report of people swimming by the bridge. He had somehow made it to a large boulder in the middle of the river and was casting lines towards the far bank. Just from the split second she could see him, she saw his casts were smooth with practiced ease. Then the sun glinted off the river spray, her eyes darted away and back to the road, which required attention at all times (because of rock falls and wildlife and tourists), and he was gone from view.
“How in the world did he get out there?”
She made a mental note to check on him on her way back up. The report of people swimming in the more dangerous waters downstream took precedent. Luckily, whoever it was had been smart enough to get out of the water and move on before she got there, for their sake and her own. There were no cars matching the descriptions parked nearby and nobody in the water. She tried her radio to call in an all-clear back to the station but received only static.
The canyon walls played havoc with radio signals. There were dead zones all up and down the river, and sometimes spots that worked one day wouldn’t the next. Jumping back into her truck, she turned it around and headed back towards camp. She’d make the report in person when she got there.
As a Ranger, the safety of the visitors to her park was a huge priority. It wasn’t her first priority as most guests seemed to assume, but it was a big part for sure. Jumping into the river to save people getting swept through rapids wasn’t actually something she was tasked with. She would be just as likely to get as injured or worse as the people she was trying to save, but she had some rope and a long pole (which was handy for all sorts of things around the park actually) and she’d do her best if called upon.
So far, in her nearly ten summers of working the park, she’d never been called upon. She was thankful for that. The odds of her being able to save someone who legitimately needed saving were slim to none. The water was too fast and too cold. The rocks too slick and too unstable.
The old-timer hadn’t moved very far from where she’d seen him earlier and she pulled her truck into a pullout just beyond and walked back along the road to where he was fishing. It wasn’t often she saw people of his age out on the river. When she did, she didn’t often have to worry about them because they usually knew what they were doing. Still, it didn’t hurt to be friendly and make sure. Besides, they usually had good stories. Old-timers almost always did.
She had to yell to be heard over the roaring water, “Catch anything?”
He either hadn’t heard or was ignoring her in the hope that she would go away. Here she hesitated. If she scrambled down the bank to river level and he wanted to be ignored she’d be bothering him and wasting her time. Looking up river, she watched the water tumble and roll. It growled as it crashed into rocks and screamed as it was sent skyward in beautiful arcs of spray. The beauty was the problem. How could something be so beautiful and so dangerous at the same time?
She hadn’t come up with an answer to that in her going on ten years. She might need at least another ten to figure it out.
Turning back to the fisher, she called again, “Catch anything?”
His head moved just enough for him to glimpse her in his periphery and then shifted back to focusing on the tiny pool he was fishing. She understood that it was his way of acknowledging her. She carefully picked her way down to the water and, finding a likely enough rock, she sat and waited for him to finish. Her guess from her half glimpse before had been correct. He knew how to fish these waters and if it had been a little later in the day, closer to sunset, she likely would have seen him catch a trout. As it was though, it was too early in the day for the fish to rise. She knew he knew that just as surely as she knew he wouldn’t have been safe fishing in the semi-darkness later.
He cast a few more times, hitting his spots each time, and then reeled in and carefully, slowly, made his way across the rocks back to the bank where she sat. Each step seemed to take an eternity to her and she busied herself by seeming to be interested in something upstream. She watched him all the way, though, tensed, ready to spring forward and lend a hand should he wobble too much. He made it okay, though, and she stood to greet him.
Before she could speak, he was already talking, a broad smile on his face, and not waiting for her to answer any of his questions, which weren’t really questions at all.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it? Haven’t caught anything yet, not yet, but the day is still a bit young, right? Seems a likely enough spot, though, maybe I’ll try my luck again here in a bit before the light gives out. Certainly don’t want to be trapped down here in the dark. But, while the light is still good, you just stop to chat or did you want to see my permit? Lifetime fisherman, here, though it has been a few years, I’ll admit, since I’ve had the joy of fishing this here river. Beautiful day, isn’t it?”
With that he turned away from her to gaze up stream as she had been doing moments before. He seemed so content that she regretted interrupting his time on the river. “It truly is a beautiful day. I won’t keep you long just saw you down here by yourself and wanted to check on you.”
“Smart. Very smart of you,” he replied, a chuckle in his voice. “I’m not as young as I used to be. Still, I thought I had at least one more trip in me and here I am, proving it true.”
He didn’t turn to look at her as he answered, his gaze stayed on the canyon walls, the towering pines and the river, the river, the river.
“Glad to hear it. Have a fun and safe rest of your visit.”
She turned, her eyes picking the route she would take back up to the road.
“Still, would do me good to rest. There’s plenty of day left and my legs wouldn’t mind a break for a few minutes. If you’d stick around, you could maybe help me back to my feet if I sit too long and my legs decide they don’t want to work anymore.”
With that he moved, slowly still, to the rock she’d been sitting and took it for his own. She found one nearby and waited for him to get settled before asking, “So, you’re having a nice trip? From the way you talk and the way you fish, I’m pretty sure this isn’t your first time here?”
He laughed. Then he sighed, glanced at her briefly, and returned his gaze to the roaring waters. Even then he didn’t answer for a long time, he just smiled.
She nearly gave up on him replying and was getting ready to ask to another question to try and strike up a conversation when he said, “No, this isn’t my first time here. My family has been fishing this river since the 40’s. And, yes, I’m having a nice trip. More than nice. It’s exactly what I needed.”
She smiled in response, even though he wasn’t looking at her. The stories would come now. They always did. The moments on the river he remembered best. The times with his family. The times by himself. The beauty of it all. The river. The river. The river.
She’d loved it for nearly ten summers now and she was sure she’d love it for at least ten more.