Every now and then we all need time to ourselves. It has to be a day, or at least the better part of one where it’s just you and a quiet place where no other human soul is near by. For me, this time and place of solitude happened Saturday where I spent the afternoon on one of my favorite trout streams. It was a perfect early summer day and I took my motorcycle a few hours north into the heart of the Adirondack Mountains. The water was crisp and cold, the sky was a deep blue as a few clouds floated by and the trout were biting. Other than being with my wife, this is my favorite place to be in all the world.
For nearly 30 years I have fished this particular stream and I have never, ever seen another living soul on it. What I have seen year after year, is one set of boot tracks other than my own. They would show up, just like me, about four or five times during the trout season. I would drive to my stream and there they were, a size 8 or 9 Vibram-soled boot tracks moving from one deep hole to the next. This interloper went to exactly the same hidden spots I had found and it really irritated me. Honestly it felt like the stream had somehow been defied by another, and on more than one occasion I almost abandoned it.
Why, you might ask? To begin with every old-school trout fishermen like myself, is a purist. That is, they know a secret trout stream really is a sacred thing and they keep it that way. It’s a place where your soul is refreshed and your mind renewed. Here you breathe in the deep, earthy smells of the forest and appreciate the beauty of what God has made. You can still sip the ice-cold water that has been purified as it tumbles over a thousand rocks. I can’t explain why, but when you bow your head and drink this holy water, it satisfies more than just your thirst. It reconnects you with the basics of life and says, “welcome home son”. Every time I kneel in this place of solitude to drink, I meet with God, and I feel His pleasure because I have come once again to enjoy His creation.
Saturday, as I got near “my stream”, a very old green truck was parked on the dirt road where I usually park. And… there they were, those boot tracks going from it right to the bank of my stream. I was upset as I fished and I followed the tracks down stream to where a massive glacial boulder sits in the middle of the stream. The tracks had stopped for a moment, turned upstream, and then moved on. I pulled some huge, native brook trout from this deep hole and my heart sank when I realized that my mystery man had been there. I was glad that for some unknown reason he had not fished it, but non the less he had been there, and that was enough to upset the balance of nature. This was just wrong and I was the man to set it right.
I quickly baited my hook and had just flipped my night-crawler into the water when something caught my eye. Down stream about 300 yards was the owner of the boots. I could hardly believe my eyes. After all the years we were finally about to meet face to face. I wanted to let him know I was not happy about the unmitigated gall of him fishing “my stream”. I finally pulled a nice trout out of the water and then I sat down on a rock to study the one who had eluded me for so long. I was on a mission to uncover who this man was and why he had invaded my private world.
I could see by his use of a walking stick that he was very old and needed it to keep from stumbling into the stream. He had a fishing poll in the other hand and a handmade wicker creel, just like mine, slung over his right shoulder. He moved with a painful ease from rock to rock that really surprised me. I watched in amazement as he stopped mid-stream to balance himself so he could send his line into a hole that was right below him. I had fished this stream hundreds times and never noticed that particular spot. How could that be? The fluid dexterity of his cast, and the precision of where his worm landed, told me this was no ordinary “old man”. I felt like I was watching a secret symphony and he was the master conductor. His pole was the baton and it was clear that he alone knew how to pull the very best music out of what the stream had to offer
I finally approached the man and he glanced up, quietly nodded and smiled at me. I sat there stunned as he pulled a beautiful 14 inch, native speckled trout out of a place I had walked by for years and never noticed. The shock of white hair that protruded out from under his water-stained Fedora caught the breeze has he slid the beautiful, flopping fish down through the opening in his creel. Then to my surprise his weathered hand reach out and shook mine and he said “My name’s Jim, … so you’re that other set of tracks that have been on my stream all these years”. Huh???? On His Stream???
We sat there on this beautiful day and enjoy each others company. He told me he had seen my tracks for the first time nearly 30 years ago and always wondered who I was. He never tried to “catch” me because he saw how I respected his stream. I never left trash, never brought anyone with me and only came a few times during the season so as not to over-fish things. He liked that so much, he had left me alone. Then he honored me with something I did not expect. He said, “I could tell you were just like me, You love this place, so I decided to let you share “my stream”. Now that I’ve met you I’m glad I did”.
I discovered Jim was 92 years old and had fished this steam for nearly 80 years. It had been a very good run for him but this was to be his last fishing trip. He was in the end stages of cancer and had very little time left. When he awoke that morning and realized it was probably his last good day on earth, he decided to spend it on “his stream”, and …….. I am so glad he did.
The afternoon sun moved across the sky and finally Jim and I prepared to part company. We shook hands once again and as we did, Jim said, “well I guess this is going to be your steam now Bill. Take good care of her and she will take care of you.” With that, Jim leaned on his walking stick and painfully headed back upstream to his truck. I watched him as he went. He stopped every so often and looked around, knowing it was his last adventure. I am sure he was remembering that past 80 years and the hours he had spent in this unchanging sanctuary as all the world had changed around it.
As he rounded the bend and was just about to disappear from sight he turned to watch me make my next cast into a deep, clear pool. Then he waved a final good by and was gone. At that moment a thought crossed my mind, “The baton has been passed and I am now the conductor on “our” stream in this river symphony.”… And as that thought surfaced in my mind a nice speckled trout hit my line. Somehow I knew I had caught that one for Jim ….and I was now the conductor,… and the stream was now playing its symphony of life for me.
My question for you today is this; “what boot tracks have you left in the lives of others”? If you happen to encounter any of them on the river of your life, will that meeting leave a lasting impression that is good or bad? If you develop your character and your compassion, then you will be like Jim who passed the baton on to me with honor and sincerity. If you don’t, then you will defile every life stream you walk in and leave no life song but pain and empty regret. Now is the time to make those changes so your boot tracks will be a blessing even to strangers you may encounter in your last moments of life. Live your life well, and let your river symphony, your life song pass that blessing along . Life is way too short to live it any other way!