Flat-Bottomed Canoes of the New River

I never wanted to share the dawn.  This slow August sunrise on the New River belonged to me.  Patterns in the moving fog spoke a language beyond words.

As a child, I resented the old boatmen.  These figures, clad in gray, standing in their long, narrow, flat-bottomed river canoes, silently poling, reminded me of the great blue herons that also rose out of the mist, but unlike the herons they suggested that the river was never entirely mine.

The emergence from the heavy fog of the unstable river canoe’s square prow numbers now among those sights that will not come round again.  The last of the old boatmen are gone.

I wanted the river to myself.  I wanted to know the river as it was before the hundred years of abuse, before the mining, before the dams.”

These men poled their boats of weathered wood up and down the river for profit, hunting the giant flathead catfish, using mostly smallmouth bass for bait, a practice outside the law.  By my time, the frog gigging, the duck hunting, and the trapping largely belonged to the past.  In my youth, I shared the dawn with the last of these gray clad figures as I cast for smallmouth bass.  Sometimes I caught enough for a meal, but nothing I brought home came close to a paying wage.

I stood outside the store near the bridge when Mr. Fowler, the last of his kind, carried in a nineteen-pound walleye.  He dressed it just before he sold it.  The toothy monster’s heart pulsed in the open hand he extended forward to the crowd gathered around him.  He didn’t speak.  He couldn’t.  He was mute.  Boys and sometimes grown men tried to follow him to find out where he hunted or fished only to lose him. I wasn’t one of those who followed.  Somehow I always knew that the lessons of the river couldn’t come to me in that way.

The sight of Mr. Fowler crossing the river bridge on his rusted bicycle toward where he moored his boat under an ancient sycamore was an almost daily backdrop for my early years.  The people called him “Dummy” because he couldn’t speak.  Maybe they resented that he knew things they couldn’t.  I always thought of him as Mr. Fowler, not that I ever bothered him.  He was just there.  Burton, who ran the store, and bought the occasional fish, never said what he paid for the great walleye, but I knew the small exchange couldn’t have been worth the life lost.  I couldn’t imagine killing the great fish just to sell it.  That was years before I had any understanding of deep poverty.

I wasn’t there for Mr. Fowler’s last day on the river.  He fell face first in the shoreline mud and couldn’t get out.  He would have died if my youngest brother, Joe, hadn’t found him and taken him home.  His daughter told Joe that he was ninety-nine years old.  He never came back to the river.

I wanted the river to myself.  I wanted to know the river as it was before the hundred years of abuse, before the mining, before the dams.  I grew up fishing with layabouts, bums, moonshiners either just out of prison or on the river for a period of drying out as they rested the worst of their alcoholism.  Names came back: Jerry, Doc, Tookie, all trying to take something from the river because that’s all they knew.

I spent more time with Jerry than any of them.  I wasn’t ten the day he had a flathead catfish as long as the bed of his Ford pickup truck.  I asked him if it could be a state record.  Why a person could care about such a thing, or would want such attention was beyond Jerry.  Attention meant revenuers.  Attention meant jail.   He didn’t weigh the catfish.  He ate it.

The old boatmen are gone.  In my time I have taken fish from the river, killed ducks and geese, but mostly it was like this morning.  The little spinner I cast made small rings as it broke the surface in those seconds before the tiny impression disappeared in the current as I cast to empty waters.  No feeding frenzy of the small bass began with this dawn.  My time here will make no more impression on the river than my little spinner touching its surface.

No one much now knows how deep every hole is, or where the bottom is sand or solid rock, or tracks how the riverbed changes every time it floods, or knows where the underwater springs bring in cooler water where fish sometimes lay.  These old boatmen loved the river in a way that is no longer known.

Echoes in the fog bring voices.  I have this moment, alone with what it was like before.  The sun will come soon enough.

Edd B. Jennings runs beef cattle on the banks of the New River.  His work has appeared in a couple dozen literary magazines in the past year.