As The Crow Flies by Mark Usyk
Posted: Oct 13 2018
A remote Adirondack canoe trip. I’ve been reflecting on a canoe trip for the past week, and it’s not something I’m finding an end to. It was one of those trips that will always stick out in my mind above the rest, always in the front, never in the back. It was only a week ago and I know that memories fade and others can be made that can bump them down the list, but this isn’t one of those. This one will hold its position, no matter what else I do in the future.
JP and I took this trip with two new friends, Mike Crawford of Upstate Guide Service and Butch Hassler, a seasoned Adirondack guide and personality that could be dropped into the wilderness with nothing but a shoe lace and walk out three months later in a tuxedo and a smile. Although he has the skills, I also know him just well enough now that he’d probably forego the tux and just show up in wool pants and bright orange suspenders. My kind of guy. Oh, I lied, three new friends. Butch’s dog Kelly goes everywhere with him, and so she accompanied us on this float as well, and I now consider her a friend too. I’d like to think the feelings were mutual.
As the crow flies, from put-in to take-out the distance measured on a map is just over eight miles. Eight point two, to be exact. But as Butch stated when I asked him how long he thought this float would actually be he told us, “Well, it’s 8.2 miles as the crow flies. But the last time a crow tried to fly this river he got dizzy!”
We portaged in to the headwaters of this river system, high above where anyone else ever floats, simply because Butch knew the land better than anyone else alive I’d have to imagine. He’s seventy-four years old, and he’s been doing the float religiously for years now with a group of like-minded friends. He told us that over the years, a couple friends have bowed out as time has went on, which is just one of those things that happens. Two years ago one of his buddies did it for his last time, I’d imagine… He was eighty-nine! We made the portage through a private club, it wasn’t easy, and in the end it took one of our group becoming a member to finally gain access, but in the greater scheme of things, I’d say it was probably worth it. Butch would normally make over a three mile portage, cutting across the club land turned it into a half mile. Butch didn’t protest, and was grateful in the end, because as he puts it, being born at an early age is starting to catch up to him.
These were head waters to be sure. When I say we began our float on a stream, I mean we began our float on a stream. The water was just barely wide enough for a canoe. Not much farther downstream it finally widened out to wide enough for two canoes side by side. Surrounded by hills and mountains, our float meandered through a huge, I guess this is as good as place and possibly the best place that I’ve ever had the opportunity to use the word vast to describe something, it meandered through a vast beaver meadow. I’ve never been in one as expansive in my life. And if you know anything about streams that flow through high grass and alder choked moose and beaver country, you might know that what Butch had stated earlier about dizzy crows is completely true. There were no straight stretches, it was a complex, confusing, and disorienting flow, a never ending series of hair pin turns and switch backs. I spotted an old tall pine standing lonesome when we first cleared the woods to begin the float, and watched it slowly over the next couple hours get closer and farther away, until finally passing under it almost two hours later. It was only a couple hundred yards away several times, only to make a series of bends at which point it would be farther away in a completely different direction, spotting it over the opposite shoulder that I’d last noticed it.
The alders that flanked the water were basically impenetrable, unless you were a beaver, in which case there seemed to be beaver tunnels and beaver slides hidden everywhere. The tunnels were nothing more than black voids where the water and alders met, something you might picture some Special Forces sniper team slowly emerging from with face paint and silent focus, the slides came in from a foot or so above the water, smooth and muddy gaps in the undergrowth that came from nowhere and disappeared into wet nowhere. I tried getting out of the canoe once and moving through the alders and high grass, and quickly decided it was probably a good way to end up cut up, frustrated, and hypothermic if anyone ever found themselves foolish enough to attempt a crossing on foot. The beaver and it’s low center of gravity and the moose that towered above it all seemed the only plausible characters to traverse this terrain in any such story without a canoe. Which brings me to the second and most impressive obstacles. Beaver Dams.
Now I know I’m a fisherman. I’m very aware that the word of a fisherman is to be taken lightly, or to be taken with a grain of salt, or to be completely disregarded in some instances, say, when hands are held out and the statement “It was this big” is uttered. But I want to express my sincerest intentions here that I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that we most likely dragged our canoes over fifty beaver dams. And that we most likely floated over or around another twenty or so that were either underwater or blown out on one end or the other. And there were a couple instances of large old growth pines in the couple wooded stretches that had blocked passage. There we needed to either carry over or in the least lie flat on our backs as if inventing some type of canoe limbo. In one limbo instance I realized that we were actually fortunate to be carrying the weight of our dry bags and fishing gear if for no other reason than taking that weight out would have made the canoes ride an inch higher… An inch that would have been the difference from carrying around or stuck underneath in a precarious situation. It was serious work floating these headwaters, work I’d gladly dedicate myself to again tomorrow if the chance or need presented itself. I’ve been told numerous times over my life that beavers are no good for trout. I’m about to argue that here from experience, not just hearsay.
Now out here in the wide open, with no wooded flanks to shade the water from the heat of the sun, no cover except for tucking under the alders against the banks, there would be no structure, and with no structure, no oxygen being churned in the water. I understand that merely one or two beaver dams wouldn’t do much of anything to improve this as a brook trout habitat. That being said, fifty or so dams on the other hand not only creates fifty or so small deeper pools to find cooler water on the very bottom, but it creates fifty or so miniature unnatural waterfalls producing pockets of white churning water on the bottom sides of these dams. In my head calling the dams unnatural starts a debate, because on one hand, if it wasn’t for a large beaver population building them, Mother Nature herself wouldn’t have put them there, it would have been a slow and meandering almost stillwater. But on the other hand, I would say that the beavers are indeed and actually Mother Nature at work, part of her design, and therefore indeed natural. It’s a rabbit hole you could go down if you like. I’ll just accept it for what I saw it as. Beavers, creating excellent brook trout waters.
Not only were the brook trout there in great numbers, but being fall and just before spawning, they were aggressive. How aggressive? Well I always fish them with small streamers, so to say that they were chasing down streamers really doesn’t reinforce the claim. Instead I’ll use Mike’s fishing tactics. He was fishing a small bugger/nymph looking thing under an indicator. A ball of foam, two-toned red and bright yellow about the size of small bass popper. More than once he made a cast and almost instantly or while moving the rig to another spot those brookies were coming up and trying to eat that indicator!
Butch doesn’t fish. Let me explain that when I asked how that was possible, he volunteered that when he was a kid his mother would tell him to get dinner. That meant go catch fish. It was a chore, not done for fun. So he grew up looking at it differently than most of us and in turn never viewed it as anything more than a chore. He’s enough of an outdoorsman, one who can outdo just about all of us in any wilderness skill needed out there, so I let the whole non fisherman thing slide. So I laughed at his comments about Mike fishing the indicator. After the third hard strike at the indicator, Butch told Mike “You need to put a hook on your bobber!” Naturally, Mike corrected him. “It’s not a bobber Butch, it’s an indicator.” To which I added “Yes, this is fly fishing. It’s much too sophisticated to use bobbers.”
I’ll write about this trip in much more detail for the last story in my next book, I’ve already started it. But it was the kind of trip that needed recognition sooner than later. My take aways from the trip were numerous, and I’m sure the more I think about it and write, there’ll be more I’ll discover along the way. But for now I’ll leave it at two. One, contrary to my previous beliefs, beavers are not always bad for trout, and two, you can trust a man who doesn’t fish. Every now and then. One out of a hundred. Ok, maybe one out of a thousand. If they’re name is Butch. And they have a dog named Kelly that loves canoe trips.
Mark Usyk is the author of Reflections of a Fly Rod, sixty-one short stories of life where fly fishing happens. It’s available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and signed copies are ready for perchance on this site, JPRossflyrods.com. He is currently working on his next book.