Waiting for the Run
This year, the sap didn't run. It was the fault of March-- a lost month-- lost to cold, mud, ice, snow, and rain. March was like a kitchen full of stale wood smoke, old meat, and the smell of wet wool pants. We wanted to open the windows and let in the spring, but we couldn't-- the cold, damp air flowed down from the woods, across the slush-covered upper pond, and poured into the house like a bucket of half-frozen sap, yellow from sitting in the sun too long. We were more than ready for a spray of daffodils, the sight of red buds on apple trees, and the faint hum of honeybees stirring from their white winter hives in the weak midday sun. We woke up each morning hoping to find 450 gallons of sap in our tank. And we were ready for it, with a big woodpile of well-split hardwood, plenty of kiln-dried maple for a quick, hot start, and lots of cold beer in the house. Once the arch started up, the intense heat would drive out the chill, the sap bucket-gray sky, and the storm threatening from the southeast.
If you spend much time in the country, you are used to waiting. Each year, we wait for the corn to come up, the pigs to put on weight, the potatoes to mature, the river to go down, the ground to thaw out, the rain to come, the rain to stop, and the weather to clear for haying. Nothing is immediate. Everything is in the process of becoming. One older neighbor received a new hat for Christmas. When asked why his significant other didn't also give him a pair of gloves, he remarked, "Well, I'm going to have to wait 'til next year. She isn't sure I'm going to last." No point spending money on a new pair of gloves if you aren't going to get some real use out of them.
A few years ago, when my second daughter, Caroline, had just turned nine, I took her up to New Brunswick for a three-day salmon-fishing trip on the Miramichi River. It was a three-family father/daughter affair organized by my fishing buddy Andy, who had made the same trip three years earlier with his oldest daughter, Alexandra. (Andy once gave up a promising career in a prestigious Boston law firm to go fishing in New Zealand for six months. He also showed up stark naked-- except for a straw boater-- at his ex-wife's door, having been chased by the police. But that's another story.) After a 10-hour drive, we arrived at the small camp, just this side of Doake's fly shop. There was snow on the ground, it was bitter cold, and the wind was up. The ice had just let out and the fish weren't running.
Anyone who has ever been to a fishing or hunting camp knows the drill. The week before, the fish are jumping, the deer are plentiful, and the grouse are thick as flies. The night you arrive, the water is too low, the moon is wrong, the deer are scarce-- in other words, you have arrived in limbo. The signs are always encouraging-- nobody wants the sports to go home early-- but you have to be patient to see what the next day will bring.
The first day of our trip was bitter cold, but Andy's daughter Catharine caught a 20-pound salmon on the second cast. For the rest of us, it was hard going. In the first two hours, it hailed, snowed, and then rained. The kids were dropped off midmorning for hot chocolate and cookies, and the dads made their way back to the river. We went to bed early that night, after a heavy camp dinner, and listened to the hollow sound of iced trees rubbing in the wind.
The second day, Caroline hooked into a big one, and the guide asked if she wanted to reel it in. I said sure, it was her trip, but she lost it after a couple of minutes. The day was gray, not much warmer, and we spent seven hours on the river. Caroline was a trooper, cold but determined and cheerful enough about the one that got away.
On the last day, the sun came out, and we were headed upstream to a new spot. As we passed Reed, the other father, he hooked into a good 12-pounder and landed it at the same spot that Caroline had lost hers. Now we were down to about an hour of fishing, and we were the only father/daughter team that had come up empty.
We headed to a point where the river split, anchored, and threw a line into a hole right next to a deep-cut bank. Caroline stripped out some line, the wet fly (it was a Silver Rat) was swung downstream by the current, and then the salmon hit. The rod bent almost in half, the line stripped out like a shot, and the reel clicked rapid-fire. It took 15 minutes to land it; it was a small 6-pounder, but it fought well. The guide netted it, and my proud nine-year-old held up the bright fish in her arms. I still have the photo on my desk to prove it.
During the long ride home, I thought about that fish. It was worth waiting for, all right, but other memories of the trip burn more brightly: the warm sun on our faces on the last day; three canoes on the fast spring water, each with a guide, a father, and a daughter; the look of encouragement that Caroline gave me when she thought I might be disappointed by the poor fishing. At other times, though, after a long wait, the fish never takes the fly. I have sat in the woods many November evenings waiting for a buck and he never showed. I have waited for a 12-year-old to kiss me goodbye at the bus stop and she never does. I waited for a friend to come home from the war and he didn't.
We just have to learn to be patient, to know that our time is spent in transition, in waiting rooms of our imagination. And then, one day, we wake up and realize that the sap isn't going to run. There will be no boil, no steam, and no syrup. The fish doesn't rise to the fly, the woods remain cold and empty, and you never see your friend again. I guess we had better learn to enjoy the waiting.
This editorial is dedicated to David Bloom.