LETTER TO A STRANGER: BONAVENTURE, QUÉBEC
BY DARRELL HARTMAN
Every fisherman cuts a figure there in the river; yours was elegant, trim, a little stooped. You were the only person haunting Première Est, normally a crowded pool, as the sinking sun started to brush the tops of the spruce trees—old-growth, I suspected, on slopes so steep the timber harvesters never could get to them.
It was that hour when the salmon-seekers up and down the river start asking themselves whether they should finish out the day where they are or bet on one last, hopeful change of beat. You were content to stay put: up to your thighs in the flow of that straight, fast run, a stretch of water bounded by an inlet at one end and a merry set of rips on the other, with a view of the bridge beyond.
Why was it that the sudden arrival of a pair of interlopers made you smile? You turned upon hearing my trudging steps. (My wading boots are like a mountaineer’s.) Not a distracted nod, or a polite “Bonjour.” Instead, I saw—barely, in the shadow of your hat’s full brim—your mouth turn up, sending friendly ripples across your face. Your little wave, in its delicacy, struck me as a rare gesture for these parts.
But then, what do I know of these parts? At 34, I’m only newly familiar with them. My father, in his retirement, has been coming up once or twice a year. He thinks constantly about fly-fishing nowadays, and especially of the princely Atlantic salmon. He landed one on the Bonaventure three summers ago. It’s not as entertaining a story as others he’s acquired here: there was the time he pulled a hook out of a fisherman’s eyebrow. (They’re still in touch.) But such tales he dispenses easily, as from a deck of cards or a shared bottle. The private memory of the fish he keeps buttoned in his breast pocket.
When I was approaching school age, my parents moved us into an old house on one of the few rivers in Maine that still had Atlantic salmon. Dad caught a single salmon there—at a pool called Reversing Falls—and then they stopped running up that river, too. Decades later, he sometimes makes the nine-hour drive from home to the Bonaventure alone; he’ll cross paths with fishermen he knows, and just as often, he’ll meet new ones. The masters, the aficionados—those to be watched and learned from—interest him most. Funny: When I was younger, I always thought he was one of them.
I have been inheriting his quirks and prejudices, though I’ve been fighting against them as long as I’ve been his son. And so I was primed to make a study of you, with your air of the careful veteran. Atop a plain bench on the rocky bank lay your old canvas satchel. It was a Filson, the kind of artifact some of the fantasy-makers I run with in New York—and I myself, I suppose—might scoop up for a photo shoot. My father asked me after we left you there if I’d seen your Wheatley fly box, held together with rubber bands. I hadn’t. But I did, once I took my place a considerate distance behind you in the water, notice a cigarette dangling from the hand you were using to strip in your line. It rested there between your fingers as the current swung your fly over the pockets of indifferent fish. The salmon were jumping that week—boy, were they jumping—but they weren’t taking.
I never thought to watch for where you laid that cigarette when you cast, sending the line out like a dancer’s unfurling limb.
There were but a few old men plying the Bonaventure those three days I was on it. My father learned from your brief conversation that you were from Montreal, though he couldn’t place your accent. You told him that here on the Bonaventure, clearest of North America’s salmon rivers, you’d found le paradis.
Last year, my first on the Bonaventure, I discovered a place that has since taken up residence inside me. It is a pool called Petit Black. It is not particularly known for its “productivity,” as the fish-counters say. Less easily reached than Première Est, it lies at a bend in the river; its water is deep and slow. Branches overhang the sheltered near bank, on which you must take care not to snag your hook. You cast onto a moving pane of blue-tinted glass. Water like this invites a dry fly to be sent skating fuzzily along its surface, in hopes that a salmon will rise and engulf it before your eyes.
I had barely let out my first lengths of line last year at Little Black when I started picturing myself there in a life after this one, fishing with my dad.
This is not my river of origin. Nor is it my father’s or yours. But it is for the salmon, which is the reason they return from the ocean to swim up it every summer, leaping out of the water as though we were not there.
A vein of freshwater flows towards the sea, with a force just weak enough that its spawn may make the necessary advances against it. The pathways these creatures travel seem more grimly predetermined than our own. But in this late-day light, as the Bonaventure woods radiate avenues of possibility, I often pine instead for the salmon’s linearity and focus, theevident purpose upon which its most strenuous movements rest.
I remember you leaning, a little unsteadily, on a wooden wading staff that was tethered to your belt. And now, many miles away from that place, I parse that spare image I have of you—your cordial greeting, your angled hat—and think of it, however fancifully, as the outline of a man at the end of seeking, held fast for a last glowing moment in the river’s sweep.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Darrell Hartman is a freelance writer based in New York City. His travel writing has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, Afar, Travel + Leisure, and The Wall Street Journal. He is also cofounder and editorial director of the Jungles in Paris, a digital media company specializing in nature and global culture. His favorite place is Lake Parlin, Maine, but he almost died a few hours south, in Augusta. Find him on Twitter @darrellhartman.
Photo by Matt Hintsa