I don't know what fishing with fathers is normally like, but I imagine words like serenity, bonding, man-time, and peacefulness come up a lot. I can't say that my childhood experiences didn't contain all of these at various points, but overall the feeling was different. More of an endurance test with hints of warzone strategy.
I can still remember the dreams that he would wake me from while our house sat quietly under the siege of night. Preparations made in silence, a piece of toast for me, a coffee for him, maybe an apple or two for later. Not much though as we usually packed light to ensure absolute efficiency. Rods and paddles were retrieved from the dark depths of the woodshed while the dusty lifejackets hung on the same hooks they would always hang on, lonely and forgotten.
The 20-minute walk down the mountainside on which our homestead sat was also usually done in silence. Dad was never one for initiating conversation and I was usually too tired to bother. I recall wondering, on more than one occasion, if the 5 a.m. start was really necessary. Did the early bird really catch the worm? Or were there worms around all day and we just forfeited the comfort of a warm bed to tramp around with headlamps for no reason?
Once at the water's edge we would grab our battered canvas canoe from the undergrowth where it lived, next to my Uncle Chris' unstable tiger-striped one, and carry it down the rocky shore, me using every muscle in my body, Dad using a thumb and forefinger. Then, after stringing up our rods and tying on a lure, we would quietly bid farewell to the mountain's toes and set off under the dim light of a looming dawn, paddles slicing the water like scalpels.
To fully appreciate this story you need to see my father. You need to feel him sitting at the back of the canoe in worn black jeans and a green jacket with some kind of nondescript ball cap atop his balding head. What few hairs he does have are being cherished and nurtured into a grey ponytail that snakes it's way down his back like a skinny waterfall. His fishing rod is locked between his knees and his purposeful paddle-strokes propel us forward in short, sudden bursts. He is a loving,no-nonsense man who grew up too fast and didn't spend quite enough time with the general public, which is probably one of the reasons why we left the house so early.
The other reason is that we didn't usually fish where everyone else did. Instead, we would cross the imaginary line made by the orange triangles marking the legal fishing boundary and head upstream. It's not that my dad didn't enjoy the ritual of fishing, but rather, that above all, we were putting food on the table, so why fuck around? The fish were more plentiful up the river, so we went up the river.
It's not as though it was always like this. A constant battle of life and death waged over the simple act of obtaining food. There were the other moments too. The stumbling upon herds of sleeping elk, the steam rising off their bodies mingling with the mists of the morning; the fish that got away, always bigger than the ones we took home to Mom, and the feelings of accomplishment that always returned in our back pockets whether we caught anything or not. We had done something to be proud of, even if it was against the rules.
The danger only added to the appeal and gave us a secret to share. Our mission was simple: get in, get out, and leave no man behind.