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.

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