There's something just a bit unnerving about having a dead man talking to you, staring at you, looking you right in the eye and saying his piece. I wasn't comfortable with the idea. Not at all. Still, I didn't have much of a choice. When the dead man is a friend of yours, you have to listen - out of compassion, out of respect, out of a deep sense of responsibility. You have to stand there and soak in the words and bear the burden of your dead friend's trust. And then you have to decide just how far you're willing to go for your friend. Your dead friend.
It all started innocently enough. Just another day on the Fork, another bluebird, Idaho, Henry's Fork kind of day. A couple of clients who couldn't believe they'd finally made it to fly fishing's own version of Mecca; a fly shop crowded with the half tangible early morning expectancy of mayflies and rising trout; a dozen guides going about the everyday business of greeting their sports, picking out flies and leaders and drinks while deciding where to go for the best shot at Mr. Rainbow.
My people came in early, before eight, energized by the prospect of a day on the most famous river in the world, a day with a guide who knew the water and the fish, who could show them all the little tricks and secrets that would guarantee their success.
They were easterners, damn near foreigners, the kind of men who had little knowledge of the Fork and her trout, but who believed - in the best American tradition - that enthusiasm, equipment and money would make up for their lack of experience and understanding.
Hell, I didn't mind. After all, it's my job. I took them aside and asked all the necessary questions, about their tackle and their angling background and their expectations. Then, without being too obvious about it, I started shifting the emphasis from the size of the fish they hoped to catch to the overall quality of their experience. You need a deft touch to set in motion that kind of metamorphosis, but if you get lucky and it takes hold, it allows for the possibility of success regardless of how the fish bite.
Of course it doesn't always work - some people are just too caught up in society's bullshit to open themselves up to anything beyond competition and ego - but when it does you feel like you've made the world a little bit better place.
By ten after eight, we'd decided to float from Osborne Bridge down to Riverside Campground. We left the shop, drift boat in tow, in my beat up old Bronco, made the short drive south on Rte. 20, and pushed off before anyone else even showed up at the launch.
At six forty five we were back in Last Chance, tired and sated from a long day on the water, ready for a beer and a burger across the road at the A-Bar. I was sitting on the porch, pulling off my waders and thinking that the day had gone pretty well, all things considered, when Tom, my boss, opened the screen door to the shop and said, "Hey, Pete, come in here for a minute. We've got to talk."
I walked inside, leaving my waders laying on the porch, and looked around. Half a dozen guides stood near the cash register, huddled in one of those grim little groups you see at shotgun weddings or funerals where everyone seems limited to the hushed, monosyllabic speech patterns of our aboriginal ancestors.
"What happened? You guys all get skunked again?" I joked.
No one said a word. In fact, no one looked in my direction.
"Shit, Tom, you're going to have stop working these guys so hard. They get downright surly when you don't give them a day off now and then."
Tom didn't even smile. Instead, raising his eyes, he told me, "Pete, Mark drowned this morning."
I looked at Tom in disbelief, and I could see the shock and the pain etched on his face. The other guides stood there, speechless, while the full impact of Tom's statement hit me in the stomach.
Mark was dead. But it wasn't possible, not with Mark. He was too young, too alive, too good at what he did. It didn't make any sense. Hell, he'd been loading up his clients as I'd pulled out of the parking lot that morning. He'd been fine, ready for another day on the river. And now ... damn.
Tom continued, his voice threatening to crack. "He was walking his drift boat through the heavy water at the top of Box Canyon, and he got his foot wedged in between two rocks. The current knocked him over and he couldn't get loose. We didn't get him free until almost three this afternoon. I called his folks a few minutes ago and ..."
Tom kept talking, or at least his lips continued to move, but I didn't hear anything else. Instead, I pictured Mark holding his boat, wading slowly through the swirling currents while his clients cast into the little slicks behind the canyon's boulders. He smiled that infectious grin he always seemed to wear, and motioned for the fellow in the front of the boat to cast into the eddy beside a bankside log. Then I saw him step into a hole, imagined the shock he experienced as his foot caught and the river swept the boat from his grip, felt his fear as the water knocked him over and pushed him down, held him down, kept him down.
The next few hours were a blur, an incoherent mix of anger and grief. So much talent, so much potential, wasted forever. It was senseless.
When I finally started paying attention to my surroundings again, I found myself sitting in the A-Bar, holding a half empty bottle of beer. I don't think it was my first. All around me, somber men talked quietly, saying that yes, it was bound to happen, that every one of us had come close, that it had only been a matter of time. They were right, too. I'd felt the cool hand of fear on my neck half a dozen times over the years, experienced that terrible anxiety as my foot caught in a bad place while the current tried to pull the boat loose from my grip. It didn't make things any easier to accept, though, didn't ease the pain I felt. Like it or not, Mark was gone, finished, dead.
The DVD showed up about ten, stuffed in a plastic case, wrapped in the remnants of a paper grocery bag, and tied in twine. It had my name written in red on one side. Jon Dolan, one of Mark's housemates, handed it to me, saying "Here, this was in Mark's stuff." I opened it and found the DVD with a note tucked along side. It read, "Pete, please watch this the first chance you get. Thanks, Mark."
Without any conscious thought, I put the note in my jacket pocket, grabbed the DVD and headed across the road to the fly shop. I was out the door before I realized that I still had the beer in my hand. "Screw it," I thought to myself, and chugged it down as I walked.
Everything was dark at the shop except for the muted glow from the Coke machine on the porch. I fumbled for my key and then let myself in, wondering what could possibly be on the disc.
I flicked on the light switch and crossed over to the TV that Tom had set up so that our clients could watch fly fishing videos. I've never been good with machines, but I turned everything on, popped in the disc, and then hit the play button on the remote control, daring the whole bloody mess not to work. I'd have taken a hammer to it.
For a second everything was static, and then Mark was there, outlined against a brilliant blue sky. He flashed his big, open smile, looked down at the ground for a second, than back at the camera and started to speak.
"Hi, Pete, hope you're doing OK. If you're watching this recording, then I guess that means that I've, ah ... that something happened and I ... that I'm not around anymore. God, what a strange thing to say. Still ... we've all got to go sometime. I'll tell you what. If there's a good trout stream where I am right now, I'll wet a line for you. And if there's not, then we're both out of luck. Either way, there's not much we can do about it.”
Mark paused for a second, took a deep breath and then went on.
"I might as well get to the point here. I've got a favor to ask, and its a big one. You see, I never liked the idea of being stuck in the ground and rotting away until there's nothing much left but bones. What I was hoping was that you and Tom and some of the other guys might take me down to Hatchery Ford, prop me up in my drift boat, set it on fire and then float me down over Mesa Falls. I always thought that it would be a hell of a ride over the falls, and the idea of going down the river, Viking style, with flames shooting up in the air, is a lot more appealing than decomposing in some damn hole.
I know it's a lot to ask, but if anyone can understand the way I feel, I know you will. Thanks Pete, you've been a good friend. Take care of yourself."
The screen flickered for a second or two, then filled up with static. I sat there staring at the TV, thinking, for a very long time.
"Hey, Mark, what'd you get that last trout on?"
"One of René’s little CDC caddis."
"Did you see that fish rise over there?"
"Yeah, he looked like nice."
"Want to try him?"
"No, I think I'm just going to sit here in the sun for a while."
"What are you gonna do this winter?"
"I don't know yet. Maybe Florida. How bout you?"
"Can't say. Got to make enough cash to get through to next spring, though."
"What do you think this place was like before we came here?"
"Beautiful, quiet, peaceful, spiritual."
"What do you think it will be like when we're gone?"
Five days later, half an hour before dark, we drove the Forest Service road that picks it's way down from the vast Island Park plateau to Hatchery Ford.
I was first, with Mark's trailer and drift boat hooked on the back of my rig. Tom came next in his shiny new diesel pickup, the one you could always hear five minutes before he showed up. The others followed, eleven more trucks holding every guide worthy of the name for fifty miles. Looking back in the rear view mirror, all I could see was dust and headlights.
There's not much room at Hatchery Ford. The canyon walls rise straight up to either side and the river fills most of the space at the bottom. Even on hot summer days, it's cool and damp down there. The river is calm, almost like it's resting up for the sheer drop at Mesa Falls, and its voice is soft and reassuring. I don't think there'd ever been thirteen different rigs down in that hole at one time before.
I backed Mark's drift boat down to the river, and then slid it in. The anchor, a heavy steel cylinder with small knobs welded at right angles, held the boat tight to the bank while I pulled the Bronco away from the water.
Twenty nine men stood off to the side while Tom and I loaded the boat with kindling. It was a wooden boat, a beautiful old thing that had floated nearly every river in Idaho and Montana, and it glowed like it had just been polished. When we finished with the wood, I poured a gallon of gas over it all and then stepped back.
One by one, every man there walked up and dropped a dozen flies into the bottom of the boat. Soon, the whole inside was covered in Royal Wulffs and Humpys, Sparkle Duns and Elk Hair Caddis, Sofa Pillows and Renegades. Finally, when they'd finished, I laid Mark's old five weight Leonard in the bow. There wasn't a sound except for the river slipping by.
"You all know why we're here," I started. "Every one of you saw the tape, and you all heard what Mark wanted. Nobody loved this river more than he did and nobody worked harder to protect it. I could stand here for the next half hour and tell you what a wonderful guy he was, and how lucky we were to have known him, and all the other shit you hear every time someone dies. But I'm not going to do that. Instead, I'm going to make a toast."
We pulled out our bottles - tequila, mostly, and whiskey - and raised them to the sky.
"They buried Mark yesterday in Virginia. I tried to talk his folks out of it, but they wouldn't listen. They said he belonged back there, next to his family. I wish there was something I could have done to make them understand, some way I could've gotten through to them. There wasn't. So Mark is laying in the ground two thousand miles from here, and we are the only connection he still has to this place."
I paused for a second.
"Here's to Mark, and to the river he loved. If we keep him in our hearts, he'll always be alive."
When the bottles came down, I lit a match.