Last July I took my 14-year-old son to a wilderness stream in Maine. I had not seen it since, as a camp counselor 20 years earlier, I'd led a group of 14-year-old boys on a canoe trip. That trip ended with a tedious drag of canoes up the rain-swollen stream, a journey fraught with a harrowing, near-disastrous fording of the torrent in order to land canoes, supplies, and campers safely on the side of the river near the road. But this made for good storytelling, once we had lived through the anxious moments.
July's journey began on the saltwater coast. We drove a hundred miles inland on the arcanely marked gravel roads maintained by paper companies, passing vast marshy heaths maintained by beavers, as well as idyllic remote lakes, secluded hunting shacks. This was moose, bear, and eagle country. As we moved farther into the forest, we journeyed away from comfortable, known realms toward the challenge of unfamiliar paths and feelings.
The stream-side campsite and its vestigial stone fire circle were identifiable after two decades, as were a few tidy fishing camps along the eastern shore. The general store at the road head hadn't changed in 50 years, said the proprietor, though I didn't remember the beginner fly-casting kits, Orvis felt-soled wading shoes, nor Maine State Lottery tickets.
Ever since third grade, when we moved from Illinois to Massachusetts, to a house near a big woods, I have had a fascination with fishing, woodsmen knives, and building fires. My favorite book was "Wildwood Wisdom." Its folksy diagrams depicted how to pitch a tepee, pack a mule, make Sassafras tea. While my peers played basketball after school on their driveways, I headed for the pond to catch frogs, make pine-tar torches, and play Natty Bumpo.
To this day, any trip to the stream is a chance to be Natty Bumpo, frontiersman, whether in the guise of camp counselor or father. What I wanted most was to be pure partner and equal participant in this hunter-gatherer induction upon which we had unconsciously embarked. I wanted to "go walkabout" with my son.
When he was 12, Spencer spent three weeks at a wilderness camp. The boys lived in tents, built a cedar-and-canvas canoe, hiked and paddled in the mountains and rivers of the state whose license plate reads "A Natural Treasure." He experienced the landscape of my camper years; of my college summers leading trips; of the summer I married and took his mother home to a canvas tent in Maine; of the wilderness stream we now stood beside.
He was ambivalent about it. Though he would not return for a second summer, he loves to regale us with the hardships of camp: miserable campfire food, hummingbird-sized mosquitoes, cruel counselors. It fails to shock. He is describing days I long for, my idylls. He has earned his storytelling rights, but declined the opportunity to collect more stories. So I stand at the stream hoping to reenact experience; he stands worried about the implication of camping with Mr. Leatherstocking. We wrestle with the fact that I am the camp counselor again, the Maine guide. He is my reluctant camper. How will we explore the two worlds embodied in this stream?
WHILE my father disliked fishing and was a reluctant camper, he patiently accompanied me to a creek in New York and on a backpacking overnight in New Hampshire. Once we had dug the worms, arrived at the creek, and worked out how to cast, Dad struck up a conversation with an out-of-work steel worker fishing the same bank. I plied the flat water while turtles lazed on the sunny logs. June bugs buzzed. The fish didn't bite. When he took us backpacking in the White Mountains, Dad spent the second day overcoming the effects of campfire cooking. Unaffected, my brother and I picked blueberries quite contentedly. Both episodes yielded good stories.
At the stream, my son put on waterproof waders and entered the brisk water. I ventured forth in my high-top sneakers and shorts. The sun was strong, the air smelled of spruce. Spencer caught the first fish, a small bass, which he reeled in as I took pictures. He quickly caught another. My dry flies were being ignored as I probed the riffles upstream. The loveliness of the scene struck me. We were appreciating this moment together. He was not my camper; I didn't have to lead him into the experience. He had his own reasons for enjoying what we shared.
We caught six bass in all, fish we found lurking mid-eddy, rising to both dry flies and metal spoons. All the effort of wading the current, soaking my camera, braving moose flies was rewarded in an instant of splendor: A modest smallmouth bass hit my line just as an osprey perched aloft a tall spruce tree, surveying the scene, unfurled his wings and flew. I had snagged his fish. I made sure to give it back.
We camped on the edge of a big lake, cooking dinner over a fire, listening to a pair of loons call across the cove at sunset. We chopped wood, carried water, whittled with our knives, hid from flies. Ah, hunter-gatherer rituals. The effect was marred when our neighbors, in their trailers, surrounded by a school of all-terrain vehicles, started their portable generators to power lights and appliances. Not everyone comes to the woods to be Natty Bumpo.