Seduced By Moving Water
Almost twenty years ago, my wife and I began making plans to move from the Front Range of Colorado to the mountains that lay just to the west. I had moved there from Massachusetts in the late eighties, and spent my weeks travelling around the world installing and repairing various computer-related equipment. On weekends, I would head up into the hills almost every weekend to explore what I considered to be my new backyard. She was from a mountain community to begin with, but was attending college in the city when we met. When I first arrived, Colorado was in an economic downturn, and getting from the places I lived around Denver to the mountains for the weekend was easy. But in the early nineties, the economy improved and people began pouring in. Statewide, Colorado has never really looked back. Since I got here, the population has doubled from two and a half million to over five, and its supposed to double again by 2050. Now, getting to the mountains from Denver can be quite a hassle, especially at peak times like weekends year-round, and powder days in the winter.
My wife was looking to establish a pet boarding and training facility, and almost every weekend we would supplement our outdoor play time with searching for properties that might fill her needs. As for me, I only had one stipulation – whatever property we moved to had to have a year-round flowing water source, one that at minimum could support a self-sustaining population of trout. Trout need clean, cold water to live in, so almost by definition any water in which trout can thrive probably sits in desirable surroundings. I’ve spent lots of time fishing small creeks, and it often amazes me that decent-trout trout can live in a creeks barely wide enough for them to turn around in.
This “flowing water” metric eliminated a number of properties that would have served her needs, but I held firm. She would say, “But there’s river right down the road you can go fishing in!”, but living next to moving water was always about more than just fishing for trout. The ability of trout to live in piece of water is in itself a metric, it shows that water to meet that clean and cold standard. It also means that it will flow year-round, and not dry up late in the summer. If we were going to be making this big of a move to the mountains, I didn’t want to have to drive somewhere else to get to moving, fish-friendly water. It had to be in my front or backyard, even if I could jump across it.
Why that was so important to me is hard to explain. There’s just something about moving water of any size that I’ve always been drawn to. When I was a kid growing up, I’d spend almost all of my free time deep in the New England woods. The end of my street dead-ended into what seemed at the time to be an infinite forest. It went on for many miles before crossing any roads, more than enough room for a kid to get lost in. This was back in the late Sixties and early Seventies, when most parents weren’t of the helicopter variety. In the summer, we’d go out every morning and on many days not come back until it was getting dark. What we did as kids to fill that time in between was up to us.
Running through my vast “wilderness” was small stream called Nuisance Brook, which began deep in those woods and flowed north, eventually emerging into the small town I lived in. Nuisance wasn’t big enough to run a shoe mill, but down in town there were lots of trade shops built along it banks. It was a year-round creek though, and even in the hottest, driest summers there was always some water flowing in it. Whenever I was out in those woods, we almost always spent some time near the little creek. There weren’t any fish in it to speak of, but as kids we were often floating model boats in it, or damming it up just to alter the water’s flow, or just splashing around in it. There was something about that little brook that I couldn’t resist. At the edge of the woods, when Nuisance came out from its leafy canopy into civilization, it was dammed up into an outdoor public swimming pool we called the Rez, short for reservoir. The Rez wasn’t that big, maybe about the size of two football fields. It had low cement walls on three sides and a sandy bottom, and served as the town pool in the summers. In the winter it usually froze over, so we ice skated and played hockey on it.
As I grew older, I began to travel further afield in town and began to explore the “big” river upon which my hometown of Southbridge was built, the Quinebaug. Southbridge is a classic New England mill town, and places like these tended to ruin the rivers that ran through them. Back in the Industrial Revolution, rivers were both a source of power and a convenient place to dump waste. In the 1950s, the Quinebaug flooded and caused a lot of damage to the center of town, so the Corps of Engineers built what became called the Westville Dam, which created a small lake behind it. That area became my focal point when it got older, since it was only a fifteen minute bike ride away. The Quinebaug begins in the woods near Brookfield and gets dammed up by a reservoir there, creating a short tailwater that we fished a lot once we got driver’s licenses. Then the river flows east through Sturbridge, which had some mills but not nearly as many or as large as Southbridge’s. After passing through Old Sturbridge Village, which is a recreation of a New England village circa 1800, the river goes through miles of deep woods before flowing into the Westville Recreation area. Old Sturbridge Village had a mill pond backed up behind by a low head dam, with a covered bridge running just below it. Fishing the aerated water below the dam was one of my favorite fishing spots, and tourists would often take my picture from the bridge thinking that I must have been one of the period-appropriate interpreters who work there.
There were three sections at Westville that one could fish. The upper stretch looks like a beautiful, wild river, and a dirt road that runs alongside gives good access to cars or kids on bikes. In the middle section, the river widened, slowed, and formed Westville Lake, really not a “lake” at all. Below the dam, the river began a headlong plunge towards the town and its mostly shuttered mills. The dam isn’t tall enough to create a true tailwater, and that lower section was pretty wooded and fast. It was tough to fish but you could have it all to yourself. The middle part saw the most activity by far, and is dominated by bait and spin fishermen. The state fisheries folks put truckfulls of rainbows into Westville in the spring, and if catching stocked trout with powerbait or worms is your thing then it’s a great spot to do that. The upper part was my favorite. It moves pretty fast and has lots of pocket water, but you’re more likely to scare a trout by dropping a Mepps or Daredevil on its head than you are to catch it. However a nicely placed and drifted Parachute Adams will do the trick, and it was on that fast little wooded river that I honed my fishing skills. There are lots of overhanging tree branches in that section, and I left more than my share of flies stuck in them as I learned to cast.
It was on the Quinebaug that I began fishing in earnest, first as a bait fisherman like my grandfather, and then as spin fisherman, and finally with my first fly rod. I’m not sure why I began fishing at all. My father wasn’t a fisherman, and although my grandfather did he did so purely to put fish on the table. He had a tough life, including getting mustard gassed in a Belgian trench in The Great War. His eyesight was permanently impaired because of it, and he wouldn’t have been able to see a dry fly or anything else floating on the water. My older sister’s boyfriend (now husband) still spin fishes, but once I graduated to flyfishing we didn’t fish together as often. My best friend Chris was the one who really got me to put away my spinning rod and learn to cast and drift a fly. The fishing gene had skipped a generation in his family too. His father was more of a hunter than an angler, but Chris’s grandfather had been an avid sport fisherman and instilled that passion in Chris, who then passed it to me.
From the perspective I have now looking back, I think that the main reason I fished was that it gave me a reason to be next to the river in the first place. After all, if I went down to the river and just sat there, I’d be a good for nothing layabout. But if I was trying to try to catch a fish, then now I wasn’t a lazy bastard but a fisherman. We tried doing other things in the river, like floating it in cheap department store “rafts” or swimming it (both of which had the same end results). But the Quinebaug wasn’t quite big enough to float most of the year, and when it was higher in the spring it was too damn cold. So fishing became my vice, and it remains so even today.
Perhaps the way I feel being near flowing water of one type of another is simply a result of the extra negative ions being produced by water in motion. There is a growing amount of scientific research showing that negative ions have some profound effects on our mood and health. They’re created by water molecules moving through space. So maybe those intangible good feelings we have being near a river, stream, ocean or waterfall are not so intangible after all. Maybe its one reason why fishing in a still water situation like a lake or pond is something that I’m just not very into. I’ve always thought that it was because still water fishing is inherently boring, and involves far less skill than fishing in a river or creek, so therefore not as demanding or stimulating. But perhaps its all those negative ions that we can’t see which draw us to rivers and streams, and makes us feel good even if we don’t know why.
A river is many things at once. Its an ecosystem unto itself, teeming with myriads of lifeforms both seen and unseen. Sit alongside the Colorado River long enough, and the number and diversity of creatures that you can see is astounding. In addition to the obvious ones that capture your attention like bald eagles, otters, bighorn sheep, bears, elk, ospreys, great blue herons, hummingbirds, musk rats and mergansers, there are other smaller forms that you might miss at first, like caddis flies, mayflies, stoneflies, water skeeters, and midges. For every fish that you see rise to sip a bug out off the surface, there are a thousand more beneath that you will never see. Plus, there are those that you almost never catch with a fly, such as whitefish, dace, and sculpin. Sculpins are a remnant of our prehistoric past that still live in our rivers today only a few feet from where we stand, invisible. It’s like having a direct link to the dinosaurs.
In addition to a river being an intact, thriving ecosystem, there are also the benefits that all that fresh water provides, nourishing crops, animals, and humans. Forty million people in the southwestern United States depend on the Colorado River for drinking water. Sitting beside the river watching it flow past, it can overwhelm the mind thinking about where each of those water molecules may end up. Some might end up watering tomatoes in the Imperial Valley that will be on the dinner table in December. Other molecules may end up dazzling tourists on the Las Vegas strip as towering displays of water at the Bellagio. Yet other molecules travel deep under the Rocky Mountains to end up on the other side of the Continental Divide, filling toilets and pools and nalgene bottles and running east towards the Gulf of Mexico.
Then there is psychological effect of thinking that this aquatic strand inexorably flowing past connects melting snowfields a few miles away to the Pacific Ocean 1,200 miles distant. The powder snow that I am skiing through in February gets magically transformed into the water we drink and swim and paddle and fish in come August. Snow is the gift that just keeps on giving all year round to almost everyone in the southwest in one way or another, in every month of the year.
The flows of a river are also somewhat analogous to the lives we all lead. Like a fish in a river, we live in a world that seems to be constantly moving forward in time, and yet within that flow of time we can all make decisions within that realm. A trout can decide to hold on the left bank, or on the right bank, or travel upriver or down. Or they can just hold very still on the bottom, safe from predators and waiting for bugs or smaller fish to drift past. They can choose a difficult but more interesting and rewarding existence and cover many miles, or none at all. In the same way, we can venture out into the world and hop on planes or boats or bikes or cars and go wherever we want, but we are still bounded by the ecosystem we inhabit, in this case the one we call “earth”. Like a trout, we can make day to day decisions that influence what we do and where we go. But ultimately we are all part of the same grand flow of the world’s progress, which keeps rolling on with or without us.
The Hindus have a saying that one never steps in the same river twice. The river may look the same, but the water is different each time and so are you. One could take a thousand photographs of a fast moving river, and every photo would be slightly different. Maybe this is why I can sit beside a river for endless periods and never get tired of it. It’s a constantly changing scene, and no two glimpses are exactly alike. And that’s just what one can see with eyes, the thriving lifeforms just beyond your view and your feet multiply that variety a thousandfold.
Even in the winter when the river gets a layer of ice over it, it still has magic. Looking out into my backyard in February, its easy to forget that the river is still there and flowing past. The snow in my yard seems to just keep going beyond its normal border at river’s edge, and looks flat and white until it gets to the other side. My normally small yard seems to be as big as a snow-covered football field. Most winters, I’m able to clear off a large enough patch to play hockey on, and skating along the frozen river I become twelve years old again, back on the Rez. But beneath that white expanse, the river lives and breathes still. On cold December nights, when the river water changes state from liquid to vapor and rises from the cooling river to form fog, those water droplets cling to the bare branches of trees and freezes there. For an hour or two each morning, all of the trees along the river look like upended chandeliers glistening in the sunshine. That same sunshine soon melts those icy tentacles and the scene becomes normal. But in the early morning light, the entire river corridor looks like it comes some computer-generated fantasy world.
My wife and I ended up carving out our existence not on some small spring creek or other minor tributary, but on the Colorado River itself. Of course each one of those small feeder streams that are connected to the Colorado are every bit as important as it is. They still have the negative ions of the big river and the teeming ecosystems that the Colorado does. If I “only” had Red Dirt Creek or Nuisance Brook flowing through my backyard, I’d probably still feel just as entranced by their burbling, playful waters as I do by the bigger river’s. But being next to a flowing body of water makes me feel more connected to the rest of the planet than any high speed internet connection ever could.