CLARK FORK — We crossed the river bridge and then headed west before climbing out of the frogwater lowlands at Derr Island near Clark Fork.
The man had said headwaters.
Meadows, he said, with trout under the banks like grass pike.
Eighteen inches he said, and the phrase, “all day long” was used along with a single word:
“Hoppers,” he said.
He said this one day in the heat of late summer, and changes come daily in North Idaho, meaning that any heat we felt in August is a long time gone.
We headed up anyhow partly because of the nip in the air and the clouds that nudged in us the memory of autumns too early and too short, just as North Idaho summers don’t provide us with enough time to prepare a basket much less eat what’s in it.
The road switched back as we climbed out of the valley and offered at its edge a dirt berm instead of Jersey barriers to prevent mishaps. This was akin, in a way, to a silk scarf around a bull riding arena.
We looked back often, or down, at the valley pocked with water holes and the big Clark Fork River sliding slowly as a heavy-laden missionary, so near the redemption that Lake Pend Oreille affords after the long trek out of Montana.
The road climbed through trees and places where trees had been before it skirted a ridge. It cut banks and edged clearcuts where we stopped and looked back again.
The trees got smaller and skinnier. The understory opened to mossy sponges and low berry bushes, from fir, cedar and tamarack, to tamarack and pine, to stands of lodgepoles you could throw a football through.
Then the sky became bigger and we dropped again in elevation. Intersections in the road left question marks.
This was a result of road signs shot off posts by har-har ingrates with scatterguns who turned the mountainous backroads into a no-man’s land of “where to?”
Then the road scissored and dropped and the forests thickened and the road narrowed, and grass grew in the middle.
Scent swirled up genie thick and wild as fog. It said water, seeps, small trickles, bugs and fry.
It said moss and decomposition.
Ferns, single-celled slime molds and liverworts.
Then we hit bottom.
Right here, I said. This is where the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River begins.
We stepped outside and the dog snapped at bugs and shot into the stream, crossing, chasing scent.
It was farther down where we unlatched fly rods and picked fake insects from boxes, and where we waderless, wearing sandals and shorts shot the dry fly hooks into pools and let them float under the grass that heaped over stream banks.
It was 45 degrees, but we wouldn’t be long, we said. It was too cold to be fishing out here too long, so we would just fish to that bend.
That was the plan.
The river was narrow and the sky was a cauldron watching us move slowly upstream casting.
“There’s one behind that clump,” I said. Or, “That run might hold a fish.”
That is how we worked.
The dog followed alongside on the bank. Its fur was wet from the water that was cold as an after-dinner drink.
The water sluiced over rocks that shimmered as clear as bathroom tile, and then the wind started.
Casts were thrown off.
Rain followed. It pelted the water, and the grass in the meadows leaned against the ground while the small, narrow river rose up as if hackled.
We’re going back to the pickup, she yelled.
She yelled this from over a gravel bar, but it was difficult to hear her voice through the squall. Her mouth moved without much sound because of the wind and rain, and I had just hooked the first fish.
OK, I yelled back. Fish on!
In the mountains, weather has the propensity of a drunkard.
Its mood changes with a salvo-like frequency.
The storm had me wondering why I hadn’t packed a chainsaw to clear from the road the trees that might blow down.
I had caught several cutthroat by then, the kind that are almost spotless except for the specks behind their dorsal fin, and just as the stream squirreled into a stand of timber the sun popped out turning the rocky bottom a golden amber.
I unhooked a fish that shot into the grass that hung over a cut bank like the chain pickerel we used to call snakes as kids.
From there it poked a nose out watching the surface for fat caddis to float by before they popped off into the air like helos from across the mirror of a flowing flight deck.
A while later I backtracked toward the road, sloshing water, fighting the urge to keep fishing. Wearing yellow, Hawaiian shorts, a wet sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off, feet leaden and cold, and teeth wanting to chatter I slogged by a camp of bow-hunters whose campfire crackled.
They wore Filson wool, boots, mitts and woolen hats. Drinking beer from brown bottles they watched us pass, the dog and me:
A guy in shorts, fly rod and wading sandals after hours upstream in wind and rain followed by a shivering dog.
Catch anything? They asked.
Cold up there?
Not so bad. Cold down here?
Oh yeah, they said, but not anymore.