Matt Dickerson: Memories of wilderness and a father’s legacy
I was sitting in an alpine meadow beside a small river in southwestern Wyoming when the familiar yet mysterious sound triggered the childhood memory from Maine. It was definitely the sound that made the connection. The two landscapes themselves bore little in common with each other.
The Wyoming setting was over 7,000 feet in elevation — higher than even the highest point in the entire state of Maine — with steep hillsides dominated by western pines rising up from the narrow river valley to peaks over 10,000 feet above the level of the sea. The river tumbling down that valley was not much wider than twice the length my fly rod. The native fish swimming in that small river were Colorado River cutthroat trout, while in another small river just a few dozen miles away over the next divide swam native Snake River Fine-Spotted cutthroat. Herds of antelope ranged the open grasslands where wagon trains had traveled the Oregon Trail a century and a half ago. Elk, cougars and grizzly bear roamed the woods.
Maine’s Allagash River, by contrast, meandered through thick, rainy, boreal forests of spruce, dotted with myriad lakes, ponds and marshes. Forget trying to reach across the Allagash with even my longest fly rod; even at its narrowest point, I could barely have thrown a rock across it, and I couldn’t have come close to casting a fly across its width. Native brook trout swam in the river, and sometimes chased my streamer flies that imitated the native smelt. From time to time a big togue (also known as a lake trout) moved up into the river from the lake below. The nearest so-called “mountains” were little more than bumps on the flat landscape. The only bears patrolling the woods were black bears. Though caribou, cougars and wolves had roamed that landscape two centuries earlier, the wolves and caribou were long gone, and if cougars have indeed returned they are still few and sparse — and they weren’t there 45 years ago, in the days to which my memory took me.
The sound that brought my thoughts back from the meadow in Wyoming in 2016 to a primitive wilderness campsite in Maine in 1972 was the call of an American bittern: a “loot galoot” that sounded to me more like a big bullfrog than a bird. I remember years of sitting beside our tent, listening to the call coming across the water from somewhere along the nearby shore, before I ever actually caught a glimpse of the well-camouflaged wading shorebird, and then slowly learned to spot them in the tall grasses. Some 45 years after first hearing it, the sound became a connection for me between the landscapes and native cutthroat trout of the northern Rocky Mountains and those of northern Maine as I worked on my book “The Voices of Rivers” and more recently on “A Fine-Spotted Trout on Corral Creek.”
What brought my memory once more to the Allagash and the “loot galoot” of a bittern was my father. He recently made a permanent move to Vermont, selling his longtime home in rural Massachusetts to move in with my wife and me. My memories of the Allagash will always be associated with him. It was from my father that I first came by a real love of fishing, of camping, and especially of the beauty of wilderness and wild creatures. He was the one who told me the sound I was hearing was a bittern and not a bull frog, and helped me learn to spot them motionless in the grasses; that the mournful call echoing across the lake at night was a loon and not the howling of wolves; and that the siren-like whistling coming down from the skies above the river was the “winnowing” call of a male Wilson’s snipe. At the time, the rivers near our homes in southern Maine and later in Massachusetts were too polluted for loons or bitterns, or for osprey or bald eagle. I had to go to the Allagash to see them. Or to hear them.
And so I went. And I kept going. I started as a child going with my father, who did all the cooking and camp preparation, and who ran the small outboard motor on our canoe while I just fished and played, and who taught me not only how to fish but how to practice a wilderness ethic of caring for the land and respecting the creatures that were bringing us so much delight. For the first decade or so, I only got to go every three years in rotation with my two older brothers. Later, as a young adult, it became an almost annual trip — still with my father, but often also with brothers or close friends. I gradually took on more responsibility for cooking and running the outboard motor. As my interests began to include fly fishing in addition to the traditional trolling techniques preferred by my father, we adapted our approaches and techniques: my father was just happy to be in such a beautiful spot with his kids, even if he wasn’t particularly interested in the fly fishing part.
And later still, as a father, I continued the tradition with my sons, two of whom had the privilege of going with their grandfather, who could now pass on to them the wisdom and knowledge he had spent years passing on to me.
Even now, though it’s been years since I’ve been back there with my father — and though it would be a challenge to get him there again — the sound of a bittern, no matter where I hear it and how far removed from the rivers of northern Maine, still brings me back to my time with my father on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.
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