We kicked back on the boat, toasting the day’s first fish to the net – a lovely brown, buttery yellow underneath, silver flanks flecked with spots of black and red. The sun had recently crossed the yard arm on the east coast, removing any moral dilemma, in my mind at least, concerning beer as a morning refreshment.
The sky was an jumbled patchwork of blue and grey, the whiff of moisture in the air. The sun, angling low, reflected silver metallic off the river’s surface. Looking downstream, I watched a group of six merganzas working their way steadily upstream toward us. Keeping to the shallows, they swam with their heads submerged, every few seconds popping up to take air, shaking the water from their crests, before resuming their breakfast quest. Occasionally they would dive from view to re-emerge twenty or thirty feet away, seemingly moving as effortlessly underwater as they did on top.
Approaching the boat, they gave us a wide, respectful berth, murmuring softly among themselves, continuing upriver. They had the look of siblings, doubtless hatchlings this spring, now grown and turned loose into the wide world. Taking the skills learned from their devoted, now departed mother, those that manage to survive the coming winter will no doubt return next spring, to sire and raise young of their own.
Fall is the season for melancholy – how quickly summer passes. This part of the river, a couple of weeks ago a hive of energy and activity, was now quiet, deserted, at least of human activity. The first hint of gold was evident amongst the trees and bushes lining the river, and a slight chill permeated the air. It felt good to be able to float this far up river so late in the season, on account of the higher than normal flows.
As we moved on downriver, the sky changed its patchwork to a solid overcast, the peaks to the west dark under the lowering sky. The fishing improved the further we floated into the canyon, the fish active on the surface, busy taking dry flies with abandon, driven no doubt by sensing the need to fatten for the oncoming spawn, then winter. We lunched on a gravel bar, enjoying the silence and climbed to the top of some nearby boulders for a birds eye view of our surroundings. A movement caught my attention below. A great horned owl, apparently as startled by our presence as we of hers, lifted off from among the rocks along the rivers edge and flew silently to the cliffs, landing a safe distance away to observe the interlopers, dark eyes in a full-moon face.
Late afternoon, as the boat nudged the shore of the take out, the rain began to fall. Thickening all day, their load too heavy to contain any longer, the clouds began to release their precious moisture onto the valley floor. It was the perfect ending to a perfect day. As we drove back towards civilization, I was able to put my finger on why the mood of the day had been so singular. For a stretch of the river that in the summer can see in excess of 400 boats and several thousand people, we had seen not another soul. Only once previous can I recall this happening.
It was without doubt the most beautiful day I have spent on the Arkansas. It was mid-May, 1994, and a couple of guys had booked a rowing instructional. Despite heavy cloud blanketing the mountains, and the forecast for snow later in the day, they wanted to go. By the time we reached the entrance to the canyon, fat flakes fluttered down out of the monochromatic sky, settling the landscape, dissolving into the river with a constant soft, audible hiss. Our world was cloaked in white, the rocks in the river islands of pearl and grey against the iron green of the river. Not a creature stirred, not a breath of wind ruffled the river’s surface. By the time we reached the take out, and the grateful warmth of our vehicle, a foot of snow carpeted the canyon, and icicles hung from the boat’s rigging. I felt we had been blessed, privilege to a scene, a side of the river, not normally shared.
Back at the shop this recent time, we learned the river level had been dropping throughout the day. Come morning, it would be too low to run. It had been a perfect day, a farewell to summer, and time to leave the canyon and its inhabitants to settle in to their approaching winter slumber.