north fork blackfoot montana
Photo: Chad Shmukler

My wife and I took our 9-month-old son, Fisher, to our favorite river over the weekend. It was his first trip there, a cause for celebration, but the occasion was tinged with sadness. We were also there to spread the ashes of our recently deceased dog, a fiery little corgi named Murphy who made numerous fishing trips to that stream.

In his 10 years, Murphy packed a lot of love into his stumpy frame, and he treated loyalty like a job, fancying himself as a tireless guard dog in the face of constant threats. It never occurred to him that he wouldn’t intimidate anything bigger than a squirrel. He was basically a loud stuffed animal. As he grew more rotund with age, I christened him “The Round Mound of Sound.”

That tenacious temperament enabled him to participate in activities not typically associated with corgis, like fishing. Nature hadn’t designed him to be a great swimmer, but he would intently monitor me from the shore, his tiny legs heroically navigating boulders three times his size. He never wanted to be left out.

The river was the obvious choice for his remains. Those cool waters hold the promise of new beginnings, and I trusted them to carry Murphy into eternity. They have never led me astray before. Five years ago, I knelt at the same river’s edge, pulled a ring out of my fly box and held it up to my future wife. Renewal. Life cycles.

Now here we were, saying a final goodbye to our dog while introducing our son to this magical place. One book closes and another opens. Yet, the river never stops churning, offering predictability in an uncertain world, permanence amid endless change. Unless humans ruin everything, it will always be there.

Under the surface, hidden from our sight, complex ecosystems of fish, bugs and plants were perpetuating their own life cycles. As a fly fisherman, I’ve spent countless hours trying to decode their mysteries, often with Murphy by my side. And now, he’ll still be with me, on this river at least. He has become part of the mystery.

Late in the afternoon, I held Fisher as he plunged his hand into the pulsing enigma, first shocked and then enthralled by nature’s icy vigor, the baptism of yet another river disciple. Lose a loved one, gain a new one, and the water welcomes them both.

Over the last year, Fisher has largely replaced fishing, whereas in the past I’ve spent more than 100 days a year on the water, going nearly every summer day after work and putting in marathon sessions on weekends. Even when I get out now, the priorities are different. More than pursuing fish, the delight arises from building a catalog of life experience for a wide-eyed boy, which is to say that his joy is mine.

Our other dog, a yellow Lab named Caddis, has embraced her role as Fisher’s best friend and occasional object of torment. While Fisher doesn’t yet grasp the concept of death, Caddis often seems lonely in Murphy’s absence. But the gloom fades when the river comes into view, as it does for us all.

On Sunday, Caddis sprinted along the bank as Kate and I navigated our way to the water, Fisher tightly secured in my arms. Kate crouched and opened the bag of ashes. We watched Murphy disappear into the current.

Then the three of us, bathed in light from the year’s warmest sun, huddled on the shoreline. Caddis joined us, dripping wet. She had just emerged from the water.