Most freshman English students will recall John Cheever’s classic short story “The Swimmer”, where our protagonist, Neddy Merrill, attempts to swim home from a pool party by cutting through people’s yards and pool hopping. He makes it, but you don’t need to be an English major to know that something is terribly wrong when he gets home. Just a few days ago, I nearly got the opportunity to have a Cheever-like experience. Two friends and I decided we would drift back to town. I had a class meeting at Metro, a local coffee shop downtown, and I thought I’d fish all day, make it to the takeout, peel off my waders, and casually stroll into class still wearing my fishing vest.
The lower river doesn’t get nearly the pressure the upper ten or so miles gets. There’s less public access, so you can’t get out and wade as much as you can up top. But the rumors of big brown trout have always intrigued me—I’ve seen pictures of canary-colored German browns with thick backs. I thought we had a chance at one of these brutes. I thought we had a chance to try some new water.
This has been a raucous spring, and I have caught and released my share of upper-river rainbows. The idea to try sections I rarely get to invigorated me, shook me from stupor. My fishing partners agreed to the adventure. We packed sandwiches and drinks. We put on sunblock. We found a map of dubious origins that told us the drift would take about five hours. We stashed my 2002 Honda on a popular road and drove upstream.
“The only thing is,” I said, “is that I have to be at that class by 6 p.m. I can’t miss it.”
“You’ll have plenty of time,” said my friend. Ten years younger than me, he somehow figured out a way to retire, or at the least, he never allows a steady job to impinge upon his fishing lifestyle. He owns the boat, so it was his decision in the end.
The lower river has always been a puzzle to me. When I first arrived in Casper, circa 1999, I used to drive to Roberson Road on October afternoons and creep along the ribbon of public access to cast for rising fish. I used a size 18 Adams, and for about an hour before sunset, I caught fish that I probably didn’t deserve. And there were years when a guide I used run with coaxed me into short, evening floats where we’d drift through town and cast streamers against the banks. We’d wave to people out mowing their lawns. Drifting underneath I-25 just as an 18-wheeeler galloped above was a harrowing experience. But most of the drift was pleasant. We could see the flicker of televisions as we glided past river communities. We hauled the boat out near the softball fields. I often heard the ping of an aluminum bat striking a ball, or saw people I knew coming from the fields with eye black under their eyes, a childhood jersey too tight for them now.
This drift to town was going to be my reunion with the lower river. So much has changed there since I first arrived in Casper. Major restoration projects and clean-up campaigns are obvious everywhere you look. Just last fall, before the cold weather arrived, I was walking my dogs along Morad Park in the late afternoon when I saw pods of trout feeding on the surface. I stopped and watched for the last moments of the day as rainbows sipped midges from the surface foam, and there was a larger fish out in the main current that slashed the surface. I told myself I should go get my fly rod and come back, but I never did.
Needy Merrill–hero caught forever in a bathing suit, an obvious example of arrested development–had a clear path in mind when he set out to swim across the city. He saw, “…with a cartographer’s eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the country.” We didn’t have that. Instead, we had the North Platte, its broad, braided sections, its banks crowded with willows. After launching, we quickly learned that leech patterns would be the hot ticket. The river was running at just over 500 cfs, so we had to zig-zag across the river to keep the boat in the main current. We ground the hull on sandbars every few minutes. I had to get out and push. Yet in the troughs of fast water, we found rainbows. Gangs of carp plied over the flats. I had never encountered them before. They swam in tight pods, like rugby players in a scrum. I casted the leech at them, but they were not interested. They bolted away when they saw the boat. We didn’t find any browns. But the rainbows kept coming, and so did the sunshine.
After lunch, my friend checked his GPS to see how we were progressing. He had that look on his face, part grimace, part puzzlement; I saw him make that face once in the backcountry when his rifle misfired. He slapped the GPS against his waders a few times, as if that might make it change its mind.
“Zoby, we’re not getting anywhere,” he said.
I took a look. Perhaps it was too good to be true, a pipedream that I might have saved for later in life. Drifting to work, like some kind of hero from literature, sounded good on paper. But a quick assessment of the screen on the GPS told me that I wasn’t going to make it. It was already nearly 3 pm and we had at least ten river miles to go. The map we had consulted was flawed, or perhaps it was calibrated for full summer flows, when the river is a deep, powerful slug of green water. I might use this space to point out to the reader that fishing time is liquid, and slips away at a different rate. It seemed like we had just begun, but we had been out casting for trout for hours. Now it was time to make some headway.
The mood in the boat soured. We abandoned the quest for brown trout and began to row in earnest. Bow upstream, the boat found the troughs and began to make some serious progress. We rowed in shifts. I ate the other half of my sandwich and said some bitter things about accountability and showing up on time. I’m too old to be in these types of situations, I said. I saw troughs and cut banks where I’d like to fish, one day, in the future. But there was no time now. I panicked. I got on my cell phone and made desperate calls to colleagues who I thought might meet me at a bridge, or a residential area where I could jump ship and get a ride to work.
The phone calls sounded like this: Hey Tom, I made a serious mistake and now it looks like I might miss my class downtown. Could you pick me up at the bridge on Roberson Road? I called everyone I knew. No one picked up. When my time came at the oars I rowed as if my job was on the line, because it was. I put my back into it.
Those last few miles I saw parts of the river that rarely get fished. Pods of carp ran wild in the shallows. I wanted to hang out with them, but we were out of time and out of luck. It wasn’t the end of the world; I made it to meet my class. And I didn’t have my whole world rocked, like Neddy does at the end of Cheever’s story. My eyes were glazed over by so much sun on the water, and my hair was misshapen from my ball cap. The students might have noticed that I was a bit spaced-out, there and not there. I had the look one gets when he sees whole sections of untouched river slide by, and doesn’t know when or if he’ll ever be able to get back.