Jim Harris

High, Dry, and Hot:   Dreams of Fishing

            When Englishman Geoffrey Chaucer  (1343-1400) chose a pilgrimage as the framework for his “Canterbury Tales,” he knew he was picking the proper literary plot, a journey, to tell what turned out to be his internationally human story.

            But Chaucer also knew the religious nature of the Middle Age pilgrimage would set the right tone he wanted to appeal to his readers of the 15thcentury. 

            So Chaucer was in my first thoughts when I woke on Tuesday morning of last week from one of the most pleasant dreams I have ever had in all my life.

            In modern English and in his preface to the “Canterbury Tales,” Chaucer writes, when April’s soothing showers pierce the drought of March, and bathe every vein with its sweet liquor, then folks long to go on pilgrimages. 

            Those are the words I heard just after I awoke from dreaming about a pilgrimage to fish waters on the far northern plains.

            For what seemed like a feature-length, wide-screen movie, something like “Lawrence of Arabia” but with a wet setting, I dreamed of a journey 2000 miles north of my Lea County home and a number of boat excursions on the familiar waters of a place named Jan Lake in northern Saskatchewan.

            How familiar to me is that lake surrounded by three adjoining ones and blanketed with hundreds of coves, bays, narrows, and streams?

            If I had been able to cross the US border into Canada in May or June of 2020, this would have been my 30thyear to have fished a heavenly boreal forest created after the last ice age scooped out depressions in granite and created thousands of lakes that were later filled to the brim with walleye, northern pikes, and a variety of other fishes.

            Yes, 30 years without missing a single year, a record and enough pilgrimages to create countless memorable dreams.

            Therefore, the remainder of this Last Frontier will be a brief description of my resent journey-in-dream; the experiences of low, wet, and cold environments; the history one passes on such pilgrimages; a selection from a sacred fish text; and a lesson to be learned from life’s journeys and dreams.

            Preparation and Drive

            In preparing for the trip north, I organize such objects as rods, reels, lures, winter clothing, camping gear, and I make a list of foods, drinks, and cigars to carry me through two weeks.

            By traveling up the North American Plains, I sail through sites that were jumping off locales for the settlement of the American West, from exploratory trails by Lewis and Clark, and the settlement trails to Oregon, California, and New Mexico.

            I pass by historic forts, such as that near Laramie on the Platte River and Buford at the junction of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers.

            I travel through regions of infamous massacres, such as a slaughter of Native Americans at Sand Creek, Colorado.  I travel through geographic sights as beautiful and unique as any on the earth, such as the grasslands of northwestern Nebraska and the tall mountains of western South Dakota, where for several decades sculptors have been altering the top of a mountain into a rock figure of Chief Crazy Horse.

Fish and Fishing

            Each day of the eight or nine nights on the Churchill River or La Ronge Lake, Baldy Lake, or Jan Lake is like a dream, floating early in the morning around ice floes and islands, anchoring in the still waters of an isolated bay, eating fresh fried walleye on the shore at lunch, catching the fish that appears almost limitless, and motoring slowly back to the camp at sunset when the magic hour turns into four or five red skies before you fall asleep, perchance to dream of the next day. 

The Fishing Text

            Just a few weeks ago, heirs to the library of fisherman and novelist Ernest Hemingway released an unpublished short story that instantly joined Papa Hemingway’s canon of sacred texts on fishing.

            Here is a paragraph near the end of the short story titled “Pursuit as Happiness”:

            “ ‘All right,’ I said, and we fished another month. We had forty-two marlin by then and still the big ones had not come. There was a dark, heavy stream close in to the Morro—sometimes there would be acres of bait—and there were flying fish going out from under the bows and birds working all the time. But we had not raised one of the huge marlin, although we were catching, or losing, white marlin each day and on one day I caught five.”

A Lesson

            The act of fishing and the exercise of fishing metaphors teach us much about our physical and spiritual world.  Traveling each year to the Great North of Canada can be much more than a getaway from the routine world.  It is more like the pilgrimage of Chaucer’s 14thcentury than it is a vacation in 2020.

            Each year there is a new lesson on this spiritual trip, and for this year when the Corona virus has changed so much of our daily routines and kept me from my traditional appointment in Canada, I have been rereading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s best-known sermon-essay.  It is titled “Self Reliance”, and it is filled with as many memorable sentences as Jan Lake is filled with walleye and northern pike.

            As a young man, how could anyone argue the truth of Emerson’s sentence, “Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist.”

            Or “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron sting.”

            Or “The only person you are destined to become, is the person you decide to be.”

            Or “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

            Or “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”
            If Emerson were alive today, he might think that my 30 years of pilgrimages to one place is foolish consistency, but there is much more than just relying on the self in a pilgrimage that makes us happy we are breathing, the heart pumping, and the lungs filling.

            Fishing has taught me that there is also much happiness in what might be called the collective reliance of a journey with a neighbor or brother.  It has to do with a sacrificing of the self for the good of group.  It is an acknowledgement of the importance of the family, the community, the country, and Mother Nature, who sometimes seems bent on taking us down.

            In fact, at this time in our history when so much seems broken or fragile enough to break, it’s collective reliance and even pilgrimages that make for sweet dreams and a kind of eternal journey beyond being high and dry, on beyond the heat to a place low, wet, and cool, and to a heavenly place.

A young walleye on his journey to lunch. With an open pit mine and blue haulers on the horizon behind them, buffalo take their meal on the rich, rolling plains of eastern Wyoming. Former Hobbs resident and artist Terry Bumpass looks back at water from nearby Dechambeault Lake falling into a river and bay on the western edge of Jan Lake.