Musings by Leah Jorgensen

Archive for July, 2009

River Dancing

Many women like myself fell hard for Brad Pitt in the poignant film, A River Runs Through It.  There was a poetry and a dance in the way his silvery line moved about him as he nestled himself in the beautiful rivers of Montana.  I felt a certain connection to the character, as my father, a great angler in his own right, was born on the Blackfoot Indian reservation in northwestern Montana in 1937, during the height of the Great Depression, before his family returned to the Willamette Valley. 

Writer Norman Maclean didn’t begin writing until the end of his life.  He published his novella when he was seventy years old.  So, I thought it was appropriate to send my father the 25th Anniversary edition of A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, with a forward by Annie Proulx, for his seventieth birthday.  I had hoped it might spark an interest in writing for him, as my father is a great storyteller and writer.   In some ways, I am disappointed that he hasn’t been bitten by the muse of the pen.  It’s a shame, really.  Because my father is a quieted Norman Maclean or Ernest Hemingway.  His stories live through his children.  And, the stories that resonnate most for me are the ones about the rivers and coast of the great northwest. 

I suppose it’s up to me to embark on the journey of storytelling for my family.  And, while I navigate my way through the cool waters of words, I have discovered my own way along the rivers.   I am just beginning to understand the beauty and mystery of rivers.  I am just learning the secrets of the angler.

My favorite part of Mclean’s masterpiece encompasses the final sentences, the winding paragraphs that ripple, roll and splash into the very last word, a cast line that lingers for me and wanders for miles and miles in my mind.

He wrote:
“It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.

Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.

Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t.  Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening.  Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.  The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.  On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops.  Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters.”

And, so, five years into my life in Oregon, I finally embarked on my own angler adventure.   The Farmer and I joined another couple for a fly fishing get-away on the Metolius River at Camp Sherman in the Deschutes National Forest.   We were delighted by the friendly, historic general store at Camp Sherman.  River guide, Steve, gave us some great tips and we purchased some gear, flies and I rented my waders and boots.


My father took me out in the backyard a decade ago to show me the 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock motion of casting a fly rod.  I still remembered the lesson well, the way he effortlessly released the line in mathematical precision.  He bought me a beautiful bamboo rod and gave me his father’s old reel.  I was proud to carry on the tradition he and his father shared.

For this trip, I left the antique reel behind along with my never-been-used rod, as the cork grip became unattached to the handle, probably from the lack of use.  The Farmer would have to glue the grip back on to the handle.  Meantime, I borrowed a rod from our friend.

I learned how to pull the line through the rod and attach and knot the fly.  I pulled on my rented waders and boots, and gathered my gear.  We walked along a smaller stream that flowed into the Metolius.  It was a clear and arid morning, the sun was hot and I marvelled at the vision of life and activity beneath the surface as seen through my polarized sunglasses. 

I was afraid of the larger waters, of the slippery rocks and steady current.  I worried that I didn’t have what it takes to be a competent angler.  But, the shallower waters of the off stream provided me with enough balance and confidence to work on my cast.  And, in the midst of the action I lost myself.  There was no fear, self criticism or impatience.  I just practiced the meditative movements learned from my father and Steve, the angling expert.  And, angling is indeed a meditation.  I could have been folded up in an ashram somewhere far and distant.  Rather, I was knee-deep in shining waters with a glassy line that glissaded over me and the playful stream that rolled over rock and rushed into patches of sunny wildflowers.


This was a prayer.  I felt the holiness in the waters the way I have felt in the back pews of a Catholic church, after dipping my timid hand in the holy water, making the sign of the cross and feeling blessed.  Slowly, I became comfortable with my casting and in the growing strength of my inexperienced river legs.  I treaded carefully and purposefully with each step over slippery rocks, feeling the constant push of the current, pushing me along.

It is quiet in the river.  You can hear its secrets, if you have an open heart.  If you’re lucky, you can see a fish meandering below the surface, searching for flies.  Sometimes the fish will flop around for a moment and then swim along on its path down stream.  Sometimes the fish will follow then bite your line and give you the dance of your life.  When the dance is over, your catch is then released.  You are grateful for the dance.  You take your bow and cast another line seeking another dance partner as the sweet music plays a new song.