Winning Essay in Oregon Quarterly

A Flyway Runs Through It
By Dwight Holing

Dressed in a pressed blue suit, my father had on a fixed smile, his good-luck tie, and a pair of comfortably worn athletic shoes. “Take care of your feet and they’ll always take care of you” was one of his folksy mantras, a lesson he learned more than a half century before while leading a company of infantrymen through the murderous and malarial jungles of Guadalcanal. The shoes were my sister’s idea, more of a nod to his practicality and sense of humor than a backhand at sartorial convention. Besides, no one would be affronted by the choice of Dad’s informal footwear. The lid of the casket was like a Dutch door and the bottom half was closed.

Despite the thermostat’s purposeful low setting in the visitation room, the scent of gardenias hung heavy as I watched the mourners file by to pay their respects. My brother, older than me, took his place at the end of the line, the last to bid farewell. He bent low over the open casket, whispered a few words, and placed something inside. After he left, curiosity won out. There, hooked to the breast pocket of the blue suit was a #12 golden stone nymph, a Polly Rosborough original, I was certain of it, knowing that my Dad had known the late fly-tying master. Also, gleaming from his grasp now firm for eternity was the brass cap of a twelve-gauge duck load. Charon’s obols, maybe, but totems to be sure, and another mantra filled the somber silence: “When it comes to hunting, never be a shell short, but when it comes to fishing, it’s not how many flies you take, it’s the kind you do.”

My father practiced those beliefs in blinds dug in a barley field he owned along the shores of Klamath Lake and in chest waders casting in the clear, cold waters of the Williamson River that fed it. He was not native to the Klamath Basin, but had discovered it after a long search to duplicate the Dakota farmland of his youth when, following his discharge from the Army at Camp Roberts in California, a whirlwind romance and marriage to a comely USO volunteer bound him to the West Coast forever. Here, like a winged migrant that errantly veers off its Midwestern course, he found life along the great Pacific Flyway to his liking and quickly adapted to it. Here, also, he shared his love of the great outdoors with my brother, sister, and me.

There’s no rocket science involved to explain why we three siblings built lives and careers of our own that were longitudinally aligned with the house and field on Klamath Lake and its sparkling rivers where my Dad and old Polly had fished. My brother and I both studied at University of Oregon, my sister became a Huskie. Later, bookended by homes and jobs in Seattle and San Francisco, Klamath remained our center, and we always found our way back there, our timing not uncoincidental to the flocks of waterfowl moving first south then north, and the redband rainbows swimming from lake to river and back again as water temperatures changed and clouds of insects billowed. The cycles which set the movements of birds and fish triggered our own, connecting us to them, to the land and water, and, mostly, to each other.

Whenever we arrived at the home in Cove Point, Dad would always have something new to show us. Out we’d file to see a great horned owl he called Fred in honor of a neighboring farmer whose stature was even bigger than his own John Wayne frame, or to admire a lone bald eagle that had taken up residence in a fir overlooking the lake. Down to the water we’d tramp so he could throw dummies to demonstrate how well Dobie and Blix, his brace of Chesapeake Bay retrievers, were following hand signals. Or we’d load up in his dusty, rattling Cherokee and head to Tom’s Hole near Chiloquin as dusk fell and the trout rose. We’d fish till dark and catch up on each other’s lives on the drive back, and when we returned to our own homes, we couldn’t wait until we could do it all over again.

Those and other remembrances welled up like the tears in my eyes as we laid my father to rest next to his beloved USO bride. As we stared at the shared granite headstone etched with our parents’ names and searched to find meaning in life and death, my brother leaned over and whispered, “You going to make the hex hatch this summer?”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” I whispered back.

But miss it I did. Things came up, work got in the way. At least that’s what I kept telling myself as first one, then two, then three years rolled by. The truth was, I just wasn’t ready yet. Though deep down I knew that the Klamath Basin would still be chockfull of life as I’d always remembered, from the river otters tobogganing down banks on the Williamson and the mink dining on crayfish to the millions of birds blackening both sky and lake on their way between tundra and tropics, I was afraid that all I’d see was a soul that was missing.

Luckily, no matter how old you grow, a big brother remains a big brother, and mine eventually showed me the way back so that on a crisp October morning I finally joined him in the land of our father, more precisely, chest deep in the waters that we had fished together so often. The first few casts felt awkward. The slender rod went back too far, the imitation insect collapsed in a frustrating and embarrassing coil. Who was I kidding, I fumed. I’d forgotten all that my dad had taught me. I stole a glance at my brother fishing just upriver. Sunlight and droplets sparkled from the translucent line arcing overhead in long, graceful, patient loops, the fly shooting out fifty, sixty feet, touching down gently without causing a ripple. Sure, I thought, of course. He’d never stopped fishing here, never severed the ties; he lived just on the other side of the Cascades, made the short drive over often to check on the farm. Steeled by a younger brother’s resolve, I turned back to my own casting and, finally remembering, let the river’s rhythm guide my own. When I finally felt a tug on the end of the line I knew that what connected me to Klamath was still strong; it may have frayed, but it had not broken. And as I set the hook, I could hear a familiar voice, another one of those plain-spoken mantras, calling over the babble of the current: “Keep your tip up; if he wants to run, let him, but remember, just as in life, always keep a tight line.”

The big redband was the first of many caught and released that day—a day that I wanted to go on forever. Though the hours rushed by like a fallen leaf borne by whitewater, I found myself able to focus on the moments, to see what I had missed so much: A doe and her two still-dappled fawns quietly nibbling on tender blades of late-season grass at river’s edge; a belted kingfisher using the supple tip of a willow branch as a springboard to launch itself after a minnow; a flock of flight-resistant mergansers paddling comically upriver; a fox sitting on his haunches on the opposite shore just watching us. As long as I was keen to look and listen for it, life still abounded here, all around, in the air, on the bank, and especially in the voice in the rapids.

On the last morning of the trip, my brother and I stopped off at the old place in Cove Point. The house had changed hands and the new owners had made it their own, punching out a deck, adding a sunroom, converting the garage. While seeing it brought up memories, I found solace knowing that another family was making new ones there. The nearby lakeside farm reflected changing times, too. My brother, who had taken on ownership, was working with conservation organizations to plant willows in one section and create riparian habitat for wildlife. A new, more efficient irrigation system was in place. The barley grown here was now certified organic.

It was frosty as we walked out to survey the fields and the recently threshed stubble crunched beneath our boots like the sugary breakfast cereal we ate as kids. With a comforting smell cast from woodstoves lingering in the air and a thin band of alpenglow haloing Mount McLoughlin as a backdrop we toured a new blind he’d built, each assessing it for our own needs, him for duck hunting, me for bird watching. We talked about things of no import, but in doing so the conversation meant even that much more to us. Finally, it was time to part, and as we said our goodbyes, we plotted return trips, one for the explosive hatch of hexagenia mayflies come June, another for the duns next fall.

As I headed south on Highway 97 and my brother turned north to reach the cutoff leading to his place on the Umpqua, I thought of how he and I and our sister were inextricably linked, not only by blood and our shared upbringing, but by the aerial ribbon of the Pacific Flyway. And I realized it wasn’t just our family that the flyway helped define, but all who lived in the land beneath, whether in big city or small, on a farm or in a suburb, for it and the watery stepping stones and food-rich resting and refueling spots it follows delineates the natural world in which we all dwell, a place of power, beauty, and grace where trees still stand tall, fields grow lush, rivers run free, and birds fly from pole to pole.

Through the windshield I could see a caret of snow geese silhouetted against the sky winging their way in the same direction as me. Their journey would be much longer than mine, but several months hence they’d heed nature’s call and turn around and head back north again. As the Klamath Basin retreated in the rearview mirror, I knew so would I.

Dwight Holing ’76 lives and writes in California. He’s currently working on a book about wildlife migration for Animal Planet. Previous books on conservation, natural history, and travel have been published by University of California Press, Time-Life, and Random House. His fiction has won honors in literary journal competitions with short stories recently published in Cutthroat and Phoebe. He graduated from University of Oregon in journalism.