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In The Dark

April 1, 1999

“In The Dark”   Salmon Trout & Steelheader Magazine.  Apr-May, 1999

IN THE DARK
By Perry P. Perkins

I was just eighteen, and I remember lying face down in the grass, soaking wet, freezing cold and sick to my stomach.  I also remember thanking God that I was alive, no worse off than a twisted ankle and some badly pulled muscles. Somewhere in the dark canyon below, I had just lost the immortality of youth.

It was a cold April morning, just after the opening of trout season, when Paul called me and asked if I wanted to go fishing.  This was, of course, simply a polite way of telling me to be ready at dawn the next Saturday. 

With his usual optimism Paul gave a glowing report of the fishing action on the Eagle Creek, a popular trout and steelhead stream here in Oregon’s Willamette valley.  He said he had found a new spot and it was hot, but it was also a little tough to get to.  This was my first warning.  Paul is the most physically fit person I’ve ever known. I hover somewhere near the opposite end on the scale.  If it’s a tough hike for Paul, it’s a tough hike!

When Saturday morning dawned, I dropped a box of flies in one pocket, some spare tippet in the other and, cinching up my boots; I headed for Paul’s house.  My second warning should have come when we hiked back through the woods to the lip of the canyon. 

Paul showed me the spot he had gone down the week before, but assured me he had found an easier way a bit further down the trail.  I remember looking dizzily over the edge and tracing a narrow game trail that went straight down the cliff, two hundred feet, to the creek below. 

I told him it was a good thing there was an easier way because I’d have hated to sit in the car all day!

A mile down the path there was indeed an easier way, easier, at least, than repelling down the face of the cliff.  With much slipping and sliding and wear on the seat of my jeans, I made it to the creek more or less in one piece.  It was just as Paul had described, the water was perfect, plenty of foliage to breed insects, and a perpetual shade on the water from the cliffs looming above us. 

The fishing was some of the best I’ve ever experienced, foot-long rainbow trout lurked in every pool and back eddy, waiting to be served their next meal.  The bank was boulder strewn and tough going, and we had to wade a few spots in icy water, but my body soon adjusted and warmed with the excitement of an unblemished day on the water. 

We leap-frogged from pool to pool for several miles down the canyon, stopping for a quick lunch once we both lost count of how many trout we’d caught and released. 

This was close-up fishing, usually crouched or kneeling a few feet above the pool, cast just below the head riffle.  The fly would sit there, twirling in the current for a moment and, as it reached the edge of the white-water, disappear in a splash as the hungry ‘bows nabbed it. 

Because of the size of the fish and the size of the water, the fight was usually short-lived, and we would slip the trout back into the current within a moment or two of the strike, watching their iridescent sides flash indignantly back to the depths.  It was fast paced, on the move fishing, that covered a lot of ground, and it was a lot of fun!

However, it covered a lot of ground, one moment it was cloudy midafternoon and the next dusk was falling, and falling fast.  This realization hit Paul and I about the same time, and we stood silently, reeling up our lines and we considered the situation we were in. 

It would be dark in a half and hour and in the bottom of a canyon, and in the middle of a national forest, that meant pitch-black, can’t see your hand in front of your face dark. Paul muttered an oath and started taking down his pole, I did the same and we started the hike back upstream as quickly as possible.  Climbing out wasn’t an option; the walls of the cliff were sheer, cloaked in slick shadow-grown moss, and bare of any handholds.  Our only choice was to go back the way we had come, far upstream, and hope to find the trail in the dark.

I struggled to keep up with Paul and he tried to go easy for my sake.  I had forgotten how many places we had waded, how many times we had crisscrossed the stream, and how much colder the water seemed at night. 

I also learned that wading in the dark is tough going!

Often waist deep, we stumbled over every invisible rock and branch, fighting a current that was now working against our tired muscles.  Paul was out of sight, calling back every couple of minutes, and I was struggling across a slippery section of shale when it happened. 

Like a sunken teeter-totter, the rock I had just stepped onto dropped beneath me and, as my weight forced the upstream end of the rock down into the current, it flipped.  I was thrown forward into the creek as the stone slab came down across the back of my calves and pinned my feet to the creek bottom. 

I found myself submerged in icy-cold darkness, unable to get my head above water. 

Now long I was under, I can’t say. I can remember inhaling water and sandy grit from the river botom and beginning to gag, as my hands clawed frantically at the water smooth rocks and my vision started to darken.  I panicked and somewhere in my frantic thrashing I felt my ankle twist, a bolt pain shooting up my leg into my lower back.  Then my feet slid loose of the boulder and I popped to the surface like a cork.  I crawled up onto a boulder and collapsed, gasping and gagging upriver water. 

I lay there shivering; cursing myself for being stupid enough to get caught down here after dark, for not being properly prepared, and for not taking up a nice, safe sport, like…stamp collecting.

I was still lying there when Paul stumbled across me, literally.  Getting no response when he had called my name, he had headed back to find me. He told me the trail was only half a mile ahead and he had missed it twice in the dark.  Arm in arm we limped the last stretch and crawled, clawing our way up the muddy trail on all fours.  Finally reaching the top, I collapsed onto the thick, wet clay and tried not to be sick. 

It was the best day fishing I have ever had.  It was also the worst.

That was fifteen years ago and I’ve grown a wiser, I hope.  I have a wife now, to speak some common sense when I start getting careless, and even Paul takes it a little easier these days. 

I’ve learned to look at a trail, or a set of rapids, or the long jump to a wet rock and ask myself; “Can I do this?” And I’ve learned to be honest with myself.  I’m not bulletproof and I’m not immortal.  I still fish every chance I get, I take along the right gear, and I’m willing to beat myself up a little if it seems worth it. 

I guess if it ever gets too tough I guess there’s always stamp collecting.

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