Sports

Matthew Dickerson: The success and/or failure of a father-in-law

MCKENNA DICKERSON IS radiant with excitement as she shows off the fish she caught below a waterfall on Alaska’s Tanalian River last month while her father-in-law, Matthew Dickerson, stands by with a net. Photo by Peter Dickerson

I have a confession. Although all three of my sons have gone on fishing trips with me from time to time, none is especially interested in fly fishing. If I bring one of them with me somewhere wild and beautiful — a national park in Alaska or Wyoming, for example — and put a fishing rod in his hands, he may employ it for a little while in the pursuit of whatever fish happens to be in the river. They have all done so successfully from time to time. Two have even managed to catch a fish in a state in which I have not caught a fish. But none of them really has a passion for angling.

In short, I have failed as father.

On the other hand, this might not be so much a confession of my failures as it is a boast about my successful parenting. Are my sons missing out on a lifetime of delightful experiences: learning to see the world in a unique way, experiencing beauty, and being able to look forward to an endless array of challenges, while also growing in patience and learning to be attentive? Or have I succeeded in sparing them a lifetime of endless expenditures and frustrations: always “needing” more equipment, freezing various body parts in miserable weather, walking around in leaky waders, slipping on river bottoms, dealing with frustrating knots of tangled line and stubborn fish refusing to bite, and always having to be patient and attentive?

The answer is probably the latter of these, but I’ll leave it to my readers to decide. Nonetheless, I will say that my heart was recently filled with delight when two of my sons and daughters-in-law joined me for my last couple of days in Alaska. Having them there with me was itself enough cause for delight. However, I particularly enjoyed it because the youngest of them — my newest daughter-in-law McKenna, a graduate of Middlebury Union High School and Saint Michael’s College — responded to my offer to take her fishing with actual enthusiasm.

Readers of my previous column may remember that earlier in the summer, while I was teaching a writing class in Alaska, I had already introduced my students Kira and Tuesday to fly fishing. Both had caught their first fish on a fly: Kira a grayling and Tuesday a rainbow trout. I had also put a fly rod in the hands of another of the students, Josh, and gotten him onto his first fish on a fly; he successfully landed both a Dolly Varden char and an arctic grayling. I’m sure I was almost as delighted as my students were at their successes.

But it’s different and even better when it’s my own child. Or, as the case happened to be, my child-in-law. I had just connected with my sons and their spouses at the Farm Lodge in the remote village of Port Alsworth off the road system in the middle of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. I had returned via float plane from three nights camping in Katmai National Preserve, where I had persevered with patience and attentiveness the challenge of fishing for stubborn fish in the midst of miserable weather with leaky waders and surrounded by bears. My sons and daughters-in-law had come back by boat from a night in a historic National Park Service cabin. We connected at the beach as I got off my plane. At my casual mention of the possibility of fishing, McKenna’s face lit up. She immediately went to her cabin for her credit card and returned a minute later to the little store at the lodge to buy a 24-hour fishing license.

After dinner that evening, we all set out on the 20-minute walk from the lodge down the gravel airstrip and along the lakeshore to the mouth of the Tanalian River. The Tanalian flows down out of the glacier-fed waters of Lake Kontrashibuna and into Lake Clark. The river is about as cold as one would expect a glacial river in Alaska to be. Since McKenna doesn’t yet own any leaky waders, I left mine in my cabin out of solidarity with her, and we wet-waded in our sandals and shorts. I found a little eddy of water just out of the current where she could drift some flies without having to cast too far. For a little while, I helped her hold the rod and get the rhythm of casting. After we drifted a nymph along the bottom several times without a hit, I switched to a dry fly: a little imitation of a caddis fly tied with elk hair.

Fish started rising for the fly almost at once as we drifted it along the seam of the current. Soon — with some help from me casting the fly, controlling its drift, and then setting the hook — McKenna had her first fish: a beautiful Arctic grayling. I let go of the rod and let her play the fish, while I got my net. After she had led the fish out of the current and into some slack water, I was able to net it for her. The siblings applauded and snapped photos from the shoreline while McKenna held the fish a moment before releasing it.

A minute or so later, a friend with me on the trip needed help downriver. I told McKenna to wait, and left her so I could help my friend. When I looked back upriver a minute later, McKenna was casting on her own. “Wait,” I almost called out. “I’ll come help you!”

I was too late. Standing a couple dozen yards away, casting all on her own, McKenna got into another fish. No father-in-law help had been needed. As big as her smile was on her first fish, I think it was even bigger now. The icy water and numb legs didn’t even seem to bother her.

The next morning we headed out on a three-mile hike up toward the top of the Tanalian River to a famous waterfall. McKenna’s license was still good for most of the day. Water was running high below the falls, and the huge plunge pool was boiling in turbulent green and white foam. Of all the water reachable by wet wading from the near shore, only a single little patch of water 20 yards long and 10 yards wide was calm enough to fish.

Once again McKenna was out in her sandals and shorts enduring the numb legs and casting a fly. Again, I gave some instructions, and helped her get her fly to drift without drag in a tough, turbulent, and confusing current. Again, she hooked a big fish with some help and then landed it on her own. And, yet again, the moment I turned my back and went to shore for something, she started fishing on her own without help — and hooked a quick succession of several fish. In the turbulent current, these grayling proved a little harder for her to keep on, but eventually she brought a couple to net without help.

And as I looked at my daughter-in-law’s big smile, I realized I had doomed her to a life of misery. I might as well go out looking for a pair of leaky waders and order four or five catalogs of fly-fishing gear for her. “You should start with this equipment,” I’ll tell her, as we open up the catalogs and begin perusing. “A mere several hundred dollars and you’ll have what — to your inexperienced eyes — will seem like the bare minimum of necessary equipment to get you started.”

She’s only a novice, of course. It might take her a year or two before the truth sets in: she will never have all the equipment she needs, and no matter how numb her legs were in the Tanalian River, if she takes up fly fishing she’ll always be able to discover more and better ways to be miserable. I may have failed as a father, but I’ve succeeded magnificently as a father-in-law.

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