Matt Dickerson: Fishing and social distancing
So what does a sports column look like in an age of COVID-19?
In one sense, outdoor writing is quite different from more tradition sports media, because the outdoor sports themselves (fishing, canoeing, hunting, etc.) fall in a different category than competitive activities most folks associate with the word “sports.” Sure, there are competitive bass fishing tournaments, but only a small percentage of people who fish do so as part of an organized competition. The same could be said of hiking, canoeing and hunting. On the other hand, take away the competitive aspect of baseball, football or your favorite racket sport and there really isn’t a “sport” left.
Then there are the crowds. Competitive sports have them. OK, it’s true that my Friday night hockey league plays its games before empty bleachers week after week (a fact we are all thankful for every time one of us trips over the blue line). And back in the day when Andy Kirkaldy and I used to meet on the tennis courts for a friendly go round, nobody watched that either. But people do watch hockey. And basketball, baseball, tennis and golf. When it comes to things like NCAA playoffs, they watch in great numbers. Which is one reason why these sports aren’t happening right now — along with the fact that most competitive sports involve close contact between players as well as fans. For the safety of both the participants and the spectators, all the major professional sports seasons have been delayed, postponed or canceled (much to the chagrin of the fans of the Boston Bruins, who were set to win it all this year).
Of course it’s not just professional sports. High school and college seniors across the country are grieving the losses of their final seasons: their last chances to win the league, or just to hit a homerun or sink a game-winning three. Their last chance just to walk out and take the field or court with teammates they have become close with over the previous three and a half years.
Thus sports journalists are left with not much to write about. And sports broadcasting networks have nothing to broadcast. What do they do? My son sent me a link to a video of a play-by-play announcer who has taken to announcing day-to-day activities like pedestrians crossing a street.
Shouldn’t outdoor sports be different, though? One of the primary reasons people are drawn to outdoor sports is to avoid the crowds. And, for the most part, they succeed. There are even fewer spectators lining the Middlebury River to watch me select and then tie on a fly than there are in the stands at my hockey games. Even in the worst examples of “combat fishing” — those famous trout streams where anglers fight for the best spots on the river — anglers still usually have at least six feet between them; the description of “shoulder-to-shoulder” fishing is actually an exaggeration.
This season of COVID-19, then, ought to be an important time to appreciate the value of outdoor sports (and a great opportunity for outdoor writing). And, I expect, it will be. Come April and the start of Vermont’s open trout season, and then the start of turkey season in May, and pike fishing in June, I hope to have plenty to do, and plenty to write about. But that doesn’t mean that these sports are unaffected. And it definitely doesn’t mean that the professionals who work in these sports are unaffected.
I’ll admit that I was feeling a little sorry for myself when all my travel plans for April and May started crumbling. I had been invited to speak at a creative writing conference in western Michigan on a Friday and Saturday in mid-April, with a computer science lecture at the sponsoring college on Monday. That left Sunday free, and I’d put down a deposit for a day of steelhead fishing with my cousin on a Lake Michigan tributary famous for its steelhead and trophy brown trout. That trip, of course, has been canceled.
Before I could sink too deeply into self-pity, however, I received an e-mail from another fishing guide canceling all of his trips for the foreseeable future. Fishing guides are self-employed. They get paid by clients when they take trips. Canceling all his guided trips for the foreseeable future means canceling his source of income for the foreseeable future.
That is the story of guides all over the country. I also received a personal e-mail from my friend who runs a lodge in rural Alaska, off the road system. I assumed that in his village, with a year-round population of 180 and the only connections to the outside world coming through little twin-engine planes making deliveries from Anchorage, that life would continue as normal. I was wrong. The church in town, just like churches across the lower 48, was not meeting. In a village with no doctors, and only a tiny medical clinic with a staff of one, the risk is too great. What of his summer business of running a wilderness lodge? It pays all their expenses for the year — including bills for three kids, with two more to come. That’s all a great uncertainty. Will anybody be able to travel to Alaska this summer? Stay in a lodge?
At the end of January, I had a short trip to Arkansas to write a magazine story. This week I called up the guide I had worked with there to ask a couple questions and make sure I got my facts correct. To my surprise, he said he was still taking clients out on the river. He guides out of long john boats, with well over six feet between him and his clients. He said being outdoors in a rural area has been great during this period of social distancing. The lodge where he works has all private cabins. No shared door handles or table surfaces. To date, therefore, they have been able to remain open. The lodge’s famous restaurant, however, had to close. No work for those staff. And even if the lodge is able to remain open, customers like me who would have come in from afar to fish likely won’t be coming. As the orders to “shelter in place” increase, even the local customers might disappear.
Living in Addison County, we have an advantage that the majority of others in our country don’t have: we can step out our front doors and be in the Great Outdoors. Hiking the T.A.M., paddling Otter Creek, or biking some dirt road are never more than a stone’s throw away. Fishing can be found within a few throws of a stone. And in the weeks to come, I hope to continue writing about those things. Maybe I’ll write about them as though everything was normal. Maybe I’ll need that imaginative break from the new reality.
But before any pretense that I could continue outdoor sports as though nothing had happened, I needed to acknowledge how everybody is impacted. And I won’t be asking my guide in Michigan for my deposit back.
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