Take almost path you please, and it invariably
leads to water—or sometimes beyond.
by Trigg White
From the April 2009 Issue
Starbuck was a legend on this river.
We been here since the beginning, Starbuck, Jim, and me. When they opened up the Bighorn on the reservation to outsiders in 1981, the guides poured in. There was really no town then. Hell, Fort Smith, most folks wouldn’t call it a town now. I had that old trailer. It was tinny as an oil drum and shook in the wind, but the three of us squeezed in there okay. We didn’t spend a lot of time in it except in winter. There was guiding on the river from March through October, and then the pheasants. But even with duck hunting, December and January seemed like they’d never end. Those dark winter months. Man! There weren’t nothing to do but live ’em down.
Starbuck was smart. I never understood why he didn’t start his own shop rather than working for Bud at The Humpy Hatch. Maybe that would have made a difference with Maggi in the end, and maybe not. He said it would cut into his river time, and I guess it would. Folks teased him about his name once that coffee outfit started up—but only folks that knew him pretty good, because he was a big man and fit from rowing a boat, and he could intimidate you from behind that grizzly black beard. Fact is, Starbuck’s old man said everything you needed to know about life you could read in Moby Dick. Starbuck, the first one, was the chief mate of the Pequod, but he hadn’t gone off his rocker like old Ahab. Another good reason to stay a guide, Starbuck said. Besides, he liked the name, and sometimes when we was bouncing down those Bighorn Rapids he’d grin real big out from under that drowned old felt hat and yell out, “Avast!”
Now Jim was younger than us. A little wild sometimes, but a good kid. Raised on a ranch out in eastern Montana where his momma and daddy taught him there’s nothing wrong with hard work and that a man respects people and watches out for his friends. Jim would put on the river with his clients at six in the morning to hit those early risers when the spring midges got going. Then he’d pull out 13 miles downriver and, if they was up to it, shuttle back up to float that first three miles again right at dark. Serious tips. Nobody does that now.
If he had a day off, Jim liked to go to Billings, but Starbuck and I wore out on that pretty quick. They did sell beer in Billings which they didn’t in Fort Smith on account of it being on the reservation, and there were single women, but unless you got to seeing someone regular, we’d just as soon be on the river. We’d take my red Clacka or that wooden dory Starbuck rowed, and we’d just fish. Didn’t have to teach no casting lessons. Didn’t have to keep pointing out the fish. Didn’t have to put up with no bull droppins, if you know what I mean. We’d find a pod of risers up against a bank or some fish holding down in one of them little depressions just under a gravel bar, and we’d take turns, ribbing the other one when he’d mess up and laughing when someone hooked a trout.
One time I went to land a trout in the shallow water with some fancy little net I’d bought and that sumbitch run right between my legs. I was hopping all around in the water with one leg up in the air trying to get off the line, and that fish ran around my other leg so I was all wrapped up. Hell, Starbuck was rolling on the ground—a man that size giggling like that. Couldn’t hardly talk. “He got you!” he’s saying. “Hope he’s a catch-and-release fish.”
Hell. We really had some times back then.
Four years sharing that trailer, then Maggi showed up on the river that summer. She lived in Billings and liked to fish. Spent some time in the shop and over at that little café across the street. She was fun, and we all liked her. But she got her eye on old Starbuck, and he fell hard. They got married at the end of the season. Spent that first winter in Billings, but they pulled into the Fort in March with that 34-footer they lived in for 20 years.
I guess that’s one thing old Herman Melville didn’t cover in Moby Dick: how to make a decent life for a woman. I mean Starbuck was a good husband and provider because he was a good guide and had lots of bookings. At least in the summer and fall they were fine. But 20 years living in a trailer in a town with four fly shops, one crummy store, and no real restaurant. Man, I don’t know how she took that as long as she did.
Maggi settled in real good, though. She liked to have folks over. Such as we were. They’d fire up that propane cooker out in the little yard and grill steaks and sausages and walleye we’d catch in the reservoir and corn and make French bread with garlic and butter. Bud was over a lot, too, and some of the others. Guys would come by when they got off the river to sit on the steps with Maggi and Starbuck and drink a beer and talk about the river. On dark nights, sometimes we’d sit there for hours looking at the stars. Starbuck knew a bunch of them constellations and would show us. But I guess he could see things up there I couldn’t.
And Maggi did like to get out. If Starbuck had a day off, they’d be out there in his dory. Everyone knew that boat. Guys would wave and row over closer to chat with Starbuck and Maggi. She loved that because she knew how much they liked Starbuck and respected him. And those guys, they could see he really had something, and they just wanted to be close to it for a minute. Starbuck was never in a hurry when he was with her. They just let the day unwind. But if they found a good pod of risers, man they were on ’em. She was a good, technical fly fisher. She liked to pick a head and drop a tiny midge just above it. Something like a Palomino that hung low in the water and no one could hardly see.
If they were going out and I didn’t have a booking, they’d invite me to come. Especially once Jim was gone. I’d want to row so they could both fish, but then we’d find a pod and take turns nibbling fish off the back corners so’s not to put them down. Finally we would, of course, so we’d laugh and get back in the boat and look for more.
And there was always more. More fish. More guides. More time leaning on the counter at the shop. Maggi took to working at the Hatch. She was real good with the clients. I mean, she fished better than practically any of them, and she could tell them anything about the river. But if one of them made the mistake of thinking she was just shop trash—a little case of proctosis, if you know what I mean—she’d just smile a little, and the client’s guide would set him straight when they got outside.
I guess it was Jim’s dying that started to change things. That was something. Run off the road by a drunk driver coming back from Billings. His folks came and we had a memorial service right in Fort Smith. The whole town was there, because Jim had been around so long everyone knew him, and even if they didn’t, they knew he was Starbuck’s friend.
People started looking at their lives. Maggi talked about it. If it could all end like that, was this where you wanted to be? What you wanted to be doing? It was pretty clear for me, and for Starbuck. This
was what we chose. But for a woman like Maggi. . . She had chosen Starbuck, and the river and this two-bit town just came as part of the package. She liked it well enough, but it wasn’t like a real place with ordinary people and schools and all.
“What’ll we do when we’re too old to do this anymore?”
We was sitting on the steps watching the stars.
Bud said The Humpy Hatch offered the guide’s retirement plan. “You can quit sooner, or you can quit later.”
Starbuck looked up at Orion and said, “Old guides never retire. They just row off into the sky.”
The talk died down after a while. Mostly, people just got on with it. Most of us didn’t have many options anyway. When you’ve spent your life guiding fishermen, you don’t bother applying for those aircraft mechanic jobs. So we booked the trips, and we rowed. That’s what I like about being on the river: Once you put on, you know which way you’re going; the only question is where to pull out.
It was the next summer when Cecil Adams stirred things up by offering Starbuck that job. Cecil was one of Starbuck’s regulars. He had a trucking company in Atlanta, and every year he booked a week with Starbuck during the black-caddis hatch. The fishing was always good, and he figured Starbuck was the greatest guide in Montana. It gets like that. Clients that use a guide regular think he’s some superman, because during the one week a year they get away from their business and their wife and kids and come out west he puts them on a big flowing river and on a lot of fish. And you’ll work hard for a client like that, keeping them on the river until dark to catch that evening rise. Return business, that’s what pays the bills.
Anyway, Cecil thought he was doing Starbuck and Maggi the best favor he could. They could move to Atlanta. Starbuck would be in charge of the loading and dispatch center for the trucking company. It wouldn’t take him any time to learn the job, and Starbuck was just the right guy to deal with those truckers, to keep everything in line.
The pay was good. I mean good. And they’d have insurance and all. Starbuck told me about it, but I knew he’d never leave the Horn.
The whole thing probably would have ended right there except that
Cecil caught Maggi in the shop one morning and pitched it hard to her. It was near the end of a long week. Starbuck had been on the river ’til nine every night with Cecil, and she had woke up again with that trailer bucking in the wind and found the propane cooker blown over against the fence in the morning. She’d thought about leaving before, but it never came to much because she knew Starbuck wouldn’t leave the river, and they weren’t for splitting up. Besides, she just didn’t know how to go about it. But then Cecil Adams opened a door, and she looked through it. Hard.
I guess they talked about it for
weeks. Starbuck never said much, but I could see he was all tensed up. There was a deadline. Had to be in Atlanta
by the first of October, or Cecil would find someone else. They had me over
for dinner to tell me. Maggi did the
Starbuck never said a thing. But he found a buyer for the trailer and got rid of some excess gear he had accumulated. He wouldn’t sell his boat, though.
We fished together that last day. It was getting late in the year, but the
Tricos were still on and the little blue-winged olives were starting up. We
didn’t actually fish much. Mostly we drifted down the river looking at all those runs and holes where we’d made our living for 25 years. Starbuck stared
at those rusted-out car bodies at the Drive-In like he’d never seen them before. We pulled up under the Corral
and watched for risers, then drifted down Goose Island and the Pipeline Run. Twenty Dollar Hole was open,
and we pulled in there and made a few casts to fish rising on the edge of the main current. But most places, we
just pulled in and sat in the boat. We talked about some of the people we fished with there, or we didn’t say anything at all.
We floated 13 miles and got to that Bighorn Access late in the afternoon. He dropped me at the trailer. We shook hands, and that was it.
But not for Starbuck. He looked at the sky. “Couple hours daylight yet. Think I’ll float the top three one more time.”
When he didn’t come back this spring, folks said he moved on—took the guide’s retirement. But I ain’t
buying it. I know what happened as he approached that Three Mile take-out. I know because we come here
together, together with Jim, and I’m back on the river this year and they’re not, and here under this infinite sky
I can’t imagine no other way for it
Starbuck made that last run by himself, just drifting. But when the light faded off the river and the night filled with stars and he saw that concrete boat ramp creeping up, he thought about every hole he had fished and every client he guided and every beer he drank with me and with Jim and with a hundred other guys, and he saw that river—enormous, that broad, rolling Bighorn of a river, sweeping past without him.
And as he heard the waves lapping against the concrete ramp, he pulled those oars till that wooden dory lifted clean off the water and sailed 10 feet in the air. Then he spun it around with his back to the wind and rowed hard for the starry sky.
Trigg White lives on Colorado’s North St. Vrain River, writes business copy for a living, and fishes for sanity. He unknowingly kicked the drain plug out of a drift boat on the Bighorn once, causing much excitement.