America’s Caveat River

America's Caveat River: Click for a larger view of the Bear River basin, Courtesy Utah State Division of Water Rights,
Bear River basin
Courtesy Utah State Division of Water Rights 
I grew up in a town that had a story for nearly every run-down property in its borders. Most buildings had at least one ghost floating around its fence line, but the really haunted estate—the one where, supposedly, my great-great uncle plastered babies into the walls, where it’s said he threw his wife into the well, where the land itself swallows livestock and spits out bones, where you can still hear screams coiling up near the hackthorn bushes and willow trees—is just outside of town. Just far enough to escape the reach of the city lights, but not too far that you won’t make it back by morning. The location, more than its history, is probably the reason for the stories. If there is no journey, there is no room for stories to germinate.

My friend, Dr. Lynne S. McNeil, is a folklorist. She told me that it’s common for haunted things to happen in liminal spaces, in the places between places. So the haunted house on the edge of town makes sense. Just like it makes sense that most of the people who went to the haunted house were teenagers—not yet adults, but somehow not kids either. It’s human to seek out nooks to create the things we fear, and the things we feel compelled to lie about. She also told me about the theory of ostentation. People act out something of the legend to connect to the legend more. It’s not enough just to go to the haunted house, but you have to throw stones in the well to see if the motion of something falling will awaken the long murdered wife.

America's Caveat River: Click for a larger view of the Bear River, Courtesy USDA Forest Service
Bear River
Courtesy USDA Forest Service 
I now live near the geographic center of the Bear River drainage. I can walk to decent water from my house. But I hardly ever fish it. Mostly because the best fishing in Northern Utah is in Southern Idaho. Some of it is right on the border. There’s something in the trip. It’s more of an event even if the trip distance is increased by fifteen minutes. The Bear River travels nearly five-hundred miles, but its mouth and source are only separated by about 100 miles. It starts and ends in Utah, but crosses the borders of five states. It’s the largest river in North America that doesn’t flow to an ocean. It is known for its calm meanderings and its white-water kayak sections. It is America’s caveat river. Almost as an homage to the river that always needs an explanation, I choose to travel to it. I choose to fish those tributaries that feed the river instead of the convenient pull-outs where the Bear threads the road. I like to follow the fish to where they spawn. I’m always looking for the less obvious place to fish because everyone knows the story goes that you have to work for the big fish. Fishing trips need time to steep both before and after fishing. Where, if you fish with others, they’ll tell you how the fishing is going to be or was that day. Where, if you fish alone, you’ll think about how the fishing will actually be or was that day. You’ll compare it to other times at the same place and you’ll remember both real and imaginary fish. If there isn’t a space between fishing and not fishing to think and create, if you don’t drive past water that looks fine in search of great water, the fishing won’t be as good. I’ll never be a guy who spends more time on the road consistently than in the river—but, I’ll always give the fish and the river the respect of a drive.