Sports

Matt Dickerson: Social distancing safely in the Vt. outdoors

MATTHEW DICKERSON GOT away from the rigors of working at home and the strain of staring at screens all day by spending three-quarters of an hour fly fishing on Otter Creek below the falls in Middlebury. Photo by McKenna Poppenga

Five p.m. was rolling up on me and I needed to get outside. I’d been sitting at my computer all day, working remotely — preparing remote lectures for my classes, and holding remote office hours. I’ve learned more about Zoom teleconferencing than I ever wanted to know, including warnings about the new practice of “Zoombombing” (which is like photobombing except done into somebody else’s teleconference).
Lured by the sunny blues skies and fresh air that I’d been separated from all day by my office window, feeling my productivity and concentration starting to lag, and knowing I had yet another remote meeting planned that evening after dinner, I grabbed my fly rod and headed down to Otter Creek. Over the past few days, I had managed to get outdoors — and get some much needed aerobic exercise in this period of closed gyms — by taking my bike for a loop around some back roads. I’d also gone on some dog walks, keeping my distance from other walkers and pedestrians. But I was hankering for something more. Something that felt normal. Something to take my mind off of Zoom conferencing. I needed to stand in a river with my waders on, casting flies.
My son Peter and his fiancée McKenna joined me. Both are Art majors at Saint Michael’s College, and both are currently taking photography classes. Without access to their studio space at college, their art classes have taken a significant turn. At least digital photography was something they could continue to do and to share. They both needed to get outside to do an assignment. Among the six residents currently “sheltering at home” in our house — the six persons who are all teaching remotely, working remotely, or studying remotely under the same roof with me, and with whom I share doorknobs, counter space, cooking and serving utensils, and the very air we breathe 24 hours a day — social distancing from each other was not an option. We hopped into the same car, drove into town, and parked in an otherwise empty parking lot in Frog Hollow.
Speaking of “social distancing,” on the one hand, many traditional outdoor sports are great ways to practice that new imposed craze. Nothing has to change in the way I practice many of my favorite outdoor recreations: fishing, biking, hunting, and hiking to name a few. Unless I’m giving somebody a fly fishing lesson, when I’m out on the river fishing I almost guarantee that nobody else is within 15 feet of me. Or within 50 or 75 feet of me, for that matter. If somebody comes within that range, I move on long before they get into that danger zone we are supposed to avoid in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. And that has nothing to do with COVID-19; it has everything to do with fishing and why I fish: the quiet and solitude I seek, as well as the fact that having lots of other people in the area will spook the fish I’m trying to catch. 
The Vermont Fish and Wildlife website notes, “As we deal with Novel Coronavirus, we can and should continue to get outside, breathe deeply and enjoy the rich wildlife resources that make Vermont so special and add quality to our lives.” The Agency of Natural Resources website also points out, “The governor’s ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ order still allows us to enjoy Vermont’s outdoors.”
On the other hand, COVID-19 does and should have some implications to how we should participate in the outdoors. This was a topic on the members’ discussion page of the Outdoor Writers Association of America (which I am a member of.) Two issues in particular came up. One is that we should practice more caution than usual, and be more risk averse. Now is not the time to do something that might land you in the hospital. Our health care systems are facing great burdens right now, and they don’t need to deal with an accident from somebody taking foolish risks while fishing or hiking or mountain biking. And while I’m also sure that hospitals are taking all precautions they can to avoid the spread of infections, it would be impossible to have that emergency room visit without it causing several extra human-to-human contacts. 
The other concern is travel. One member of OWAA in one of the larger states out west brought up the question of a fishing trip that would require a drive to another state or a distant part of the same state. They suggested it might be safe, since they would be taking a camper and not interacting with anybody on the way: no lodging, no dining out, no shopping. The response from OWAA folks was overwhelming opposition to the idea. If everything went smoothly, then it might be possible to take such a trip with the gas station pump being the only place where germs might get exchanged. But what if the car breaks down? What if there were even a minor accident in the car or on the river? What is the risk of spreading a disease to a new area? That’s precisely what we are supposed to be avoiding. Pandemics change the rules. 
I wasn’t going to a new state, however. Nor planning anything particular risky. I was headed down to Otter Creek, one of the Vermont rivers that is open for year round catch-and-release fishing. The only persons closer to me than 30 or 40 feet, as already noted, would be two of the persons living with me.
I tugged on my waders, tied on a fly, and stepped out into the river. (Not too far out, of course; I was playing it safe.) Peter and McKenna — or the paparazzi as McKenna began to refer to herself — began to follow me. 
And for the next 45 minutes, I cast flies in the late afternoon sunlight beneath blue skies, while a gentle wind wafted up the river past me carrying a few large fluttering stoneflies that had just risen out of the water. Slowly the Zoom meetings and COVID-19 news items melted away. The motion of my fly rod, and reading the current became my only concerns. The river was doing its job.
Editor’s note: Matthew Dickerson’s guest photographers were Saint Michael’s College students McKenna Poppenga, a junior Art and Design major with an Environmental Studies minor, and Peter Dickerson, a senior Art and Design Major. 

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