In the August 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine six writers who grew up near the Northern Michigan water reflect on how freshwater continues to shape their lives today. Traverse City native Rachel Sturtz, who now lives in Denver, is one of the six writers. In her essay she reflects on the time she spent with her dad fishing and how the water shaped both of their lives and experiences.
My dad believed the honesty of God lay between his rod and the riverbed. He measured time in the mayfly hatches as they launched from the folding waters of the Au Sable, Manistee and Boardman Rivers; blue ribbon trout streams that we explored, picking the insect exoskeletons clinging to soggy pier legs and overturned rocks. The bugs had hours to live, not days, dropping to the river when their lives were spent, breaking the surface tension to get eaten up by the hungry brown and rainbow trout below.
I had an ear for the gulps of those fish, a glug barely discernable above the din of the river. A good fisherman can read the smallest nuances—a slight shadow turning over on the riverbed bottom, a change in a fish’s appetite, the moment the sun cancels out your casts. In this way, I learned to listen and be still.
My dad and I set out in the early mornings when the low-slung fog licked the river and mud wrenched my beat-up tennis shoes from my feet. When the sun brightened and the mosquitos got thirsty, we shared a cigar, and the smoke would quiet their hunger. When I heard a fish rise, I would tell my father, who would raise his eyebrows as he took my rod and cast a fly in front of the feeding fish. He handed it back, and together we waited as the tiny fly rode the current.
Talking with Dad about fly-fishing was like talking enlightenment with a Buddhist. There was no fervor of the born-again Christian; it was all tranquility and love, as if talking about the river reaffirmed his faith. Though Dad never had anything positive to say about organized religion. When I asked him about it years later, six months before he died, he wrote back to me, “I’m not religious, but I recognize that a lot of people have a lot of religious feeling. It’s the source of inspiration for great works of music and art. It’s crap.”
To a science teacher, there is no such thing as belief. There are only ideas, theories that can be amended, and discoveries that beg to shatter the status quo. The inflexibility of belief never jibed with him. Which is why nature, in all its glorious inconsistency and evolving parts, thrilled him. God was evident in science and nature. Imperfection proved it in the way a river marvels and humbles a fisherman every time he casts a line. To believe in constancy was to be a fool. Dad never settled on God, but fly-fishing was his handshake with Mother Nature.
She raised the stakes, however, when Dad’s speech began to slur in the winter of 2002. His tongue felt heavy and some of his colleagues suspected a drinking problem. That spring, he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). His motor neurons moved like they were in tar, slowing his reflexes and dulling his motor skills. He was embarrassed to speak, so he took up residence on the rivers that summer.
He fished with his best friends Mike, Paul and Doug. Otherwise, he fished alone. He told me he never used that time to ponder his predicament—he thought about fishing when he fished, and that was the escape. Until he fell in. He never fell when he waded, and when it happened twice in one night, he cried like a baby. Falling in the river meant the disease was winning. Falling in the river meant he’d see less of it from then on.
Soon, his fingers could no longer tie on strands of fur to tiny hooks at the weekly fly-tying nights at Nolan’s Tobacco with the boys. Then my mom had to cut cigars for him. Then walking became stumbling became paralysis, and the mosquitos could land wherever they wanted to and suck unimpeded.
Three years ago, I decided to pick up fly-fishing again, mostly in memory of my father, but also because I missed the silence of it after five years of living in cacophonous New York City. I relearned my casting on the Elk River in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, my new home state. My guide reminded me of the improved clinch knot, twisting the line upon itself four or five times before rethreading the end through the beginning loop to secure the drake. I watched his large fingers manipulate the delicate fly line, browned from the sun and gentle in their movement, and my eyes welled up. The guide’s fingers reminded me of my father’s, and it broke my heart. I let him continue knotting on the flies that day, but never watched again.
Nowadays, I never know whether a river will make me cry. My Catholicism isn’t what it once was, but the spirituality I feel on the river far outmatches what I’ve felt in the pews. After Dad died, my mom, per his instructions, shook his ashes into his favorite rivers. She saved the last, the Boardman, for when all of us kids were home. She dumped the remaining ashes from their cardboard box into the current, and none of us knew what to feel. His ashes bloomed in the water before sifting through the riverbed grasses, parting in the eddies, and swirling together again in the spots where fish roam and God now lives for all of us.
Rachel Sturtz is a freelance writer living in Denver. She writes for Marie Claire, Popular Mechanics and Outside, where she wrote a high-profile investigative article about sexual abuse within USA Swimming and youth sports last December. She graduated from Traverse City Central.