Monday, March 26, 2018

The Woods Are Lovely, But Also Dark and Deep

The majority of us who spend time in nature do so to at least some extent for its physically and mentally regenerative qualities. It's hard to be depressed, bored, tired or anxious on a clear mountain peak at daybreak or along a secluded river bank building a fire to cook the day's catch. Hard, but not impossible. Stress, failure, depression; they find us all, whether we live in an uptown condo, a suburban enclave or a cabin deep in the woods.

Steelhead Joe Randolph was a well-respected fishing guide on the Deschutes River, A lean and youthful 48 years old, he had the windblown good looks of a 70's cigarette ad model. I would guess that when he walked into a bar, any unattached female over the age of 40 -- and likely a few younger and/or attached ones -- took notice. His fellow guides generally respected him as someone with unorthodox, but highly effective skills, and even those who criticized some of his methods grudgingly had to admit he was great with the paying customers and almost always sent them home with the trophy fish they came for.

Like many men of the outdoors, Joe's "office" was his truck, a red Tahoe outfitted specifically to hold the tools of his trade; leaders, flies, pliers, camp gear and most noticeably a type of fly rod called a Spey which was nearly the length of the massive vehicle. It was Joe's office and also his coffin. Joe was found dead behind the wheel on November 14, 2012, the victim of self-administered carbon monoxide poisoning.

Joe's story, like an onion going bad from the inside, gets progressively less palatable as the layers are stripped away. His "nymphing" technique, which uses a bobber or other floating strike indicator and a nymph dangling below it in the water, was, although legal, considered a form of cheating by fly fishing purists. Further, he was competitive, some say combative, both on and off the water, often poaching other guide's spots.

He'd divorced his first wife, Florence, in 2008 -- she simply could not accept being the wife of a river guide -- and had suffered a somewhat lonely existence since. A few months prior to his suicide, he had lost his job as a guide with a local shop called Fly Fishers Place. Although he had a valid fishing license, his guide license, a complicated and expensive document to acquire, was in the shop's name, and so he took to offering clandestine, "off-the-books" trips with the knowledge that if he were to be caught he would be subject to a $2,500 fine and up to a year in prison, as well as forfeiture of any future fishing privileges in the state.

For a man like Joe, whose life had essentially become fishing, such a penalty would have been akin to a death sentence. Shortly before he took his own life, he had been approached by the state police with evidence of his misdeeds. This was apparently the final straw. An investigation would reveal that he was deeply in debt at the time of his death, that depression had run in his family and that he, himself, had admitted to periods of depression on and off throughout his life.

On the day he died, Joe spent the afternoon at Bronco Billy’s, a local bar, watching a football game and drinking Maker’s Mark with beer chasers. Around dusk he left, walking out on a large bar tab. Then he drove to a gravel pit 10 minutes outside town and ran a garden hose from the exhaust pipe to the right rear passenger-side window. He left no suicide note. He had six dollars in his wallet when he died, likely all the money he had in the world.

As outdoorsmen, we take things like fishing and hiking and paddling seriously. Some of us even compete at them, turning them into a kind of game, and a rare few eke out a living at them. Sometimes it is important to remember that the guide who is a little too upset about your not getting your fish, may have a problem deeper than liking a beer or two (or six) at the end of the day. Yes, the woods are lovely, but they are also dark and deep, and for some they harbor as much ugliness as they do beauty.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Safety First for Early Season Paddling

As the weather warms up this spring, paddlers across the Piedmont will be getting their boats out of storage and heading back out onto the water. While spring is a great time for kayak and canoe fishing, photography and sightseeing, it also offers some specific challenges.

The first of these challenges has nothing to do with your boat. Even the most experienced kayaker may not be in shape physically for extended trips after a long winter indoors, so you may want to take advantage of cold or rainy days to hit the gym before heading out, and build back up to longer excursions with a shorter trip or two early in the season.

Of course, you also need to make sure your boat is "in shape" too. Today's rotomolded hulls typically require very little maintenance, but should still be looked over thoroughly before the first trip of the season. Inspect the hull for cracks, deep gashes and weak spots caused by friction or impact. If there is any question about the integrity of your hull, let a professional take a look. Also inspect your deck rigging, life jacket and, especially, your paddle. You may even want to consider taking a spare paddle along on any extended trips, and it goes without saying, but I will say it anyway... always wear your lifejacket.

Although inland paddlers don't have much of an issue with currents, the rapidly changing wind patterns of March and April here can be a concern. This time of year, it's not uncommon for a paddler to start out early in the morning under calm conditions only to begin their return trip into a 15-20 MPH midday wind. And as anyone who's ever paddled into a stiff headwind will tell you, that can be a very unpleasant experience. The advantage to kayaking on our inland lakes and rivers is that you are never all that far from land and civilization, even if it's not exactly the place you want to get to. Always carry a mobile phone with you and make certain that someone on shore knows your "float plan" and potential extraction points along your intended route if weather conditions should make a return to your departure point impossible.

Even though air temperatures this time of year may be in the 70's, water temperatures, especially on the larger bodies of water like Lake Norman, will still be in the upper 50's and lower 60's for several weeks. Water temperature impacts paddlers in two ways: If you should end up in the water, you could develop hypothermia within a short period of time, and water cools the part of your boat that it touches, potentially making for a chilly and uncomfortable trip. It's a good idea to keep a spare change of clothes in a dry bag this time of year, so that if you find yourself unexpectedly wet or uncomfortable during a longer paddle, you can either change into a drier outfit or layer up for warmth. It's also a good idea to keep an "emergency kit" on board with basic first aid supplies, a couple of energy bars, a bottle of water and matches and tinder for fire-starting.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Book Review: Crazy Mountain Kiss by Keith McCafferty

Crazy Mountain Kiss, the 4th book in Keith McCafferty's eclectic western mystery series, starts with the protagonist, Sean Stranahan... nowhere to be found. In an interesting literary choice, the Montana private investigator, artist and fly fishing guide doesn't appear until 30 pages into the story, by which time the central mystery has been investigated by series regulars Martha Ettinger and Harold Little Feather.

While Sean is helping friend, cohort and fellow guide Sam Meslik start a winter fly fishing service in Florida, the body of a young girl is found lodged in the chimney of a Forest Service cabin in the Crazy Mountains. The mystery deepens upon his return when the body is identified as Cinderella "Cindy" Huntington, missing daughter of a local woman famous as the spokesperson for a fictional brand of trucks, and it is determined that she was 5 months pregnant at the time of her disappearance. The investigation takes an even oddER turn when Martha and Sean learn that the cabin was used as the primary venue for a "swingers" group called the Mile and a Half High Club and we are introduced to some of that group's eccentric members.

It is here that McCafferty takes some chances with the tone of the story, straying at times toward the slightly kinky, but not moving much beyond the hard PG-13 sexual verbiage typical for these kinds of novels. Perhaps more relevant to readers of the preceding novels, the story moves further from the fishing-centric plots of the first two books continuing the more general "western" themes of the third book. This is, I suppose, understandable, as, from a purely practical standpoint, the market for western-themed mysteries is surely much larger than that for fly fishing-themed mysteries. Still, there is a sense that the fishing aspects are becoming more of an add-on and less a part of the substance of the story.

While the reader has a pretty good idea early on who might have been involved in the death (murder?), the exact nature of the incident and how it played out is revealed methodically and with great skill over the course of the book. There is really no "ahah" moment or malevolent bad guy offering a soliloquy on what he did and why he did it. McCafferty also continues and expands upon his use of Native American imagery and spirituality throughout the book, and if the ultimate payoff for that comes across as a little deus ex machina, well... so be it.

I enjoyed the book, as I do everything McCafferty writes -- fiction and nonfiction -- but I will say that this is probably my least favorite of the four Sean Stranahan books I have read thus far. Parts of the story meander off into tributaries that either don't have a payoff or aren't integrated into the core story; the Florida fishing venture with Sam and Sean, for instance. Maybe it's the setup for a future story, and if so I'll be happy to eat my words, but to introduce that idea at some length and then have it ultimately dismissed in the course of a few sentences seemed like an unnecessary distraction.

John's Weekly FIELD NOTES Column is Now Published in Speckled Paw

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