Trapped on an island in the raging waters of Appalachia.
[by James Wu]
THE WATER WAS ANKLE DEEP AND CLEAR UNDER A STONE BRIDGE WITH THREE ARCHES, the streambed tannic brown. It was mostly bass habitat, with trout tucked in around subsurface springs. Sun-shot haze glowed in the Appalachian canyon, lighting up the cliffs. Pine needles and leafed forest, unsettled in the breeze, filled the dark mountain slope. The warming air smelled wet and slightly metallic.
That summer I had driven out with a friend, and we caught trout and bass on the bright days. We camped in tents off river roads and hiked in to fish branches of the Potomac’s highland watershed. Trout took Elk-Hair Caddis, black Woolly Buggers with grizzly hackle, and small bead-head nymphs. The streams were so shallow that fish spooked nervously at the mere click of a reel.
The roads were steep and narrow with harrowing oxbow turns embedded in the valley’s folds, wrinkled ravines dropping bright, dusty gravel straight down, and tall spruce trees shooting up with hardwoods and cedars. The streams flowed varicose, and we stopped anywhere that we could get close enough to look down the bank and see bass ganged up in little pools, waiting to attack balled-up baitfish. In the clear light, you had to know the terrain well to sneak up on them.
“The brown silent water kept coming, and I controlled my breath to stay calm.”
The last night it rained for about eight hours, and that morning the camp was a soggy mess. We stashed wet gear in our cars, Rob’s Buick two-door sedan. He was young and freakishly tall, over six feet six inches, thin like a fly fisherman, with a shaggy beard. We’d met at an evening fly tying class at a local high school. He’d recently gotten his biology degree, had good parents, and had road-tripped the United States and Canada with his girlfriend, who was about four-eleven. They were getting married the next year.
After we cleaned up camp, running on smoky black coffee and no breakfast, Rob had to get back to town. I decided to fish Shavers Fork before closing the book on our trip. Shavers Fork flows the other way, into the Monongahela and then all the way to Pittsburgh into the Ohio. I drove up the mountain, my little four-cylinder wagon whining, inertia slowing against the gradient and gravity. I passed through patches of darkness and light where sun shone through the leaves, then went down the other side of the ridge, riding the brakes.
The drive took a lot of time, and the area was sparsely populated, away from the interstate. The people were conservative, remote, and had sided with secession. Their livelihood was mostly logging in the national forest.
I took a dark and shady road down the canyon, winding around a few settlements and a tight turn nestled into the cliff, then down an almost vertical incline to the valley floor, where I crossed the stone bridge with three arches.
The sun had come out, and it was humid and breezy. The water was clear and low, and I could spot fallfish under the bridge in the gravel, tilting this way and that to eat nymphs in the drift. The water didn’t seem trouty, so I rigged a large stonefly– hellgrammite mixture on a 3X leader, left my car at the foot of the bridge, and wet-waded in to have a look. I walked upstream, watching the laces of my boots flop around. Tiring, impatient, I got out of the river and hiked up the bank through some quiet farmland, then to a big island and a separate islet with some trees on it. I got onto the island easily and crossed over a shallow riffle to the islet, where I could fish the main stream.
I stood at the head of the smaller island and looked at the water coming right at me, transparent and shiny. I didn’t see any fish, but made a few casts upstream toward the drop-off on either side. The rock wall of the valley rose straight up, with bristling conifers blocking afternoon light and obstructing the river, turning it back toward the stone bridge around the bend. I fished mindlessly and thought about the drive home. A few clouds swept through from last night’s storm. The air still felt electric. I was roll-casting the fly into the main current and letting it sweep down the side of the little island, but I don’t think there was a fish there. Maybe the fly was too big.
Then I noticed the water had turned cloudy brown and was up to my calves. Dumbly, I wondered at the change. There was no one around. A deserted camp on the far side stood under tall trees against the slant of a hill next to the canyon wall.
In less than three minutes, the water came up to my hips, thick chocolate milk swirling with wood debris from upstream trees still green with leaves. Sharply inhaling a panic, I retreated up the islet, feet secure in gravel and grass and some remnants of trees all swept back and hacked from prior floods. The brown silent water kept coming, and I