Big Sam and the Logjam- Halloween revival...

wadin' boot

Donny, you're out of your element...
WFF Supporter
I had put this story up maybe 5-6 years ago, then I pulled it off, I'm going to put it back up because a story ain't nothing without readers...


Big Sam and the Logjam

Years ago I fished a summer river high up in the Cascade range. The spring that year came early and the snow, for there wasn’t much, melted fast. Grasses went to seed and browned by early June. The only green things were in the high mountains, along the rivers fed by the last of the lower 48’s snowfields.


I was four miles up-river from camp. Thunderheads formed, their great anvils and billows evident above the ridgeline. Along the river bed, alders were wilting, the cottonwoods looked ready for fall. Still, it was good, walking and wading up a long stretch I’d never fished before, and trying, hard as it was, to only fish the way back. I made the bend where the Canyon started, where the gorge and logjams made things impassable to all but water and wind. At last it was time to fish.

I worked my way downstream, picking up small cutts that slashed my foam ant before the breeze intensified. A desiccating downslope Cascade wind worthy of a name like Simoom, Sirocco or Chinook. The least of its miseries were leader knots and hold-your-hat moments. The sky darkened. Presumed they were clouds fat with rain and fresh with threats of sudden flood.

The ridgeline blurred, the sun turned orange and red. Grey clouds tumbled down the ridge like a massive North Shore breaker, down towards the canyon. The air thickened with the scents of burning fir and pine-pitch. Lightning set things on fire, no rain was about to fall.

There were kids up at Thirty Mile, 2001, smoke jumping, working that blaze beyond the Chewach gate. That giant fire came fast into the tinder-filled valley. They sheltered under fire blankets. That’s how they found them, cremated around one another. They were my age. D of I's internal review concluded they were tired, they were in the wrong place, they missed warning signs, spot fires spread ahead of them, the canyon amplified everything along with the spinning winds. All those good intentions and perfect young bodies incinerated in a canyon just like this one. Trouble would come quickly here too.

I had no fire blanket, just a Ramones shirt, ball cap, nylon shorts and some sandals with a mess of felt screwed onto them. I was unprepared. A water bottle, a small pack with terrestrials and streamers, tippet spools, hemostat and sunglasses. Ash now fell with an occasional cinder, red, moving Djinn fast. The air was not good, smoke stung my eyes, rivers of it now flowing out of the canyon, like water only yards higher and rising. Creatures were moving, bounding over the river bed, no fear of me now, their forms became indistinguishable and ghostly.

The winds were blowing hard, the air hot and unbreatheable. There was a river hole in front of me, maybe six-eight foot deep, deep and inviting, it’s boundary a tangle of logs and overhanging bank studded with bird holes. I ran into it, rod in hand, and cursed myself at the stupidity of all of it and then wondered how long I would last.

In the seconds before the flames came, weird vortexes shrieked and roared up above the high water mark some fifty yards upstream. Flames would tornado down, right onto the water. A run of unlucky grasses was suddenly reduced, combusting blue and green. That’s when I submerged.

Grandpa Boot said almost drowning was extremely peaceful. In WWII his aircrew went down on a white capped Townsville Harbor. They were trying to land a Catalina, an oaf of a float plane suited best for tranquility. The plane broke apart, he struck his head hard, submerged into Queensland waters as warm as blood. I wondered if his recollections were colored by concussions, amnesia, benzenes and aviation fuel. He said the harbor waters were inviting, said there was no fear of death. My mother always said he was never the same after that.

That legend seemed absurd now. There’s no peace drowning. Underwater you could hear the sudden expansile shattering of river rocks, the wrench of dense and fine-grained alpine timbers exploding through their heartwood, salvos of matter blasted into the river. The bright hues, if you opened your eyes, lit the corners and jambs of the hole. The river’s surface boiled and hissed. The far wall of the logjam held devil eyes that looked back at me. Those eyes and the bodies beyond them talked, I swear it, they spoke to me.

We’re all screwed now, but you, you’re the worst off. You’ve got lungs, we’ve got gills. We’re going to take pleasure in watching you die. Just as you have taken your joy in hooking us… consider it karma Mr. Boot…oh and Gramps says hello, he looks forward to getting to know you…

Brinksmanship negotiation with these fish devils might lead to my survival. But they assured me, when I tried, that they wouldn’t negotiate with terrorists. They’d gladly watch me die. Similar and other absurdities hit along with a feeling like rats were chewing their way out of my lungs. Drowning is not peaceful, not when the alternative was burning to death. When you’re terrified no flood of memories soothes your mind, instead there's a logjam's worth of absurdities.

Underwater, the fire front moving overhead, I didn’t last long. In perhaps a minute I surfaced, and what I sucked in was worse. Imagine that burn like your very first deep drag of a cigarette only far hotter and more menacing. Furnace air. Almost immediately I was up again, coughing and hacking and sucking in still more. It didn’t work. Submerged again, I opened my pack underwater, sucked in what air it might have trapped, tried to bite open a bubble float for the air inside, things got blurry, the underwater root wads turned into snakes, writhing towards me. That and bigger eyes looked at me close. It’s true, monsters live in the big logjams.


And then something fantastic and strange, a hand grabbed me, pulled me with a fistful of twisted Ramones, pulled me onto the back of a raft. Someone laughed and said something unintelligible and next thing I knew a mask was on my face and I breathed sweet clean air. Someone had saved me, and with the foresight to keep my flyrod and salvage my pack.

My legs dangled over the edge of the raft, my body lay like a prize fish. There was a dude-like man of indeterminate age and massive girth sitting on a platform he’d lashed on with bunjies and duct tape. Bearded, wild looking, big and round, decapitated milk jugs in either hand, dipping one in now and then to steer this craft, eyes on the horizon, downstream.

“Welcome aboard, stranger. Name’s Big Sam, and this here’s my rig…”

He held out a fat hand and I took it, soft and neutral like a giant ball of carp dough.

“That leading edge’s a bitch innit? Saw you making your way up and figured the shit would come down and trap you. You’re one lucky mofo.”


He pointed back to my refuge, the log jammed hole, once a mess of whitewashed timbers a good three-four feet above water now almost flush with the waterline, smoking, still burning and breaking up with an unyielding current. Time must have passed. In this burnt heaven there’s no white tunnel, no coming into the light, no choir of angels. Instead a marshmallow fist pulls you out of a primordial river of waters and fire.

My ass struck river rocks below through the base of the raft, those pains sharpened my observations, confirmed I was alive. I traced a stretch of almost kinked garden hose from the mask on my face back to the boat, straight into the raft’s air bladder, joined-in with a mound of duct tape. There’s me and him, milk jugs, the pipe, my pack, this mask and the rod. We move through a landscape seared and unreal, smoking with spot fires and odd areas devoid of damage, sword ferns, alpine fir saplings, old rotten stumps, high-water zip lines, cages suspended below rusted wheels, wires supported on steel trestles. Gone was the wilted beauty I had moved through hours before.

“Fire’s ahead of itself. And us.”

The winds had died, late cinders were repelled by the raft, they snuffed in the river. Those tiny coals made little hisses like baby garter snakes fresh out of their hibernaculum.

“Last you longer if you put a kink in it when you’re not breathing.”

I nodded my head, bent the hose, sucked the clean cool air.

“Hold this a second” He passed me the milk jugs.
“You mind if I try this?”


Big Sam picked up my flyrod, sighted it, tuned it in degrees to his satisfaction, then rummaged a little in my pack. He found a yellow hopper, snapped off my Chernobyl ant and hooked it to my hat brim. He tied awkwardly, like a noodle-fingered kid with a rope board and a book of scout knots. He drew his effort tight with yellow teeth.

All of him was the color of Teanaway clay. Beneath his train-conductor overalls he wore a T-shirt that read “It’s alright girls, don’t cry now, I’ll be right back.” I saw his cracked river-salvage flip-flops, different colors, rubber wishbones between his hairless toes anchor his footing as he stepped out of the raft and onto slippery boulders to some other improbable perch. His leaving the boat left no shift in weight, my butt was still anchoring us fast on gravels.

He swished the flyrod like a noob Zorro and said “I like this thing, it’s got a good balance to it.”


When he stripped line, the click sounded sick, the arbor scraped its housing, and there was too much line wound too loose on the thing anyway. It pulled out all sloppy and bumpy, a right-hand-retrieve which in certain righteous and retentive/orthodox circles might condemn a right-handed fly fisherman like me to fishless purgatory. If you look close, the backing’s spotted with mildew. Backing that, truth be told, was never needed. After all, Cascade mountain fish don’t get big.

He false cast, negotiated some free-spooling without looking, and that hopper landed in an eddy full of smoking debris. He twitched it, and sure enough, something big took it, the line went tight and Big Sam gave a chuckle like a hungry man in front of a fat bowl of delicious steaming oats, syrup in one hand, cream in the other. My backing moved fast into the river, and in a matter of minutes Big Sam tailed an arm’s worth of a massive redside in his submerged hand.

“Betcha didn’t think this ole river held fish like that..."

He winked. I shook my head.

"Well Mr. Boot, it turns out the smoke and the debris in the water will turn a trout some. Gases heat the fish and the water around it, minerals dissolve in it, and when those fish suck it down some, their sides light up like some champion fish from the heart of the Snake, the Crooked or Hell’s Canyon... You been there?... You ought to go there someday… You know how to make steel right? It gets quenched and annealed…”

He winked again, chuckled more. I nodded. He didn’t stay long at the hole, pushed us off and we made our way to the next run, and sure enough he cast and another fish took the hopper. These fish were twice as big as any I’d ever seen here.

“Boot, Every ten years or so fires come down through that Canyon, they burn out the scrub, and the big ones know they’re screwed. They know that for the next six months, they have to move on. Instinctually they stock up on what’s good for them. So this here, in the heart of the furnace…”

He holds up the hopper.

“This here is what they come to think of as bar-b-q, and they see this as a feast, a last supper…”

He gestured over the river, there were all manner of sick bugs on the surface or just a little submerged in the water. And everywhere that should have held fish had them sucking down a sickening smorgasbord of half-dead creatures who’d had the same idea as me- get in the river or you’re gonna die, but weren’t so lucky.

“And they’ll make their way downstream to where the water’s good again, to the Columbia mainstem, maybe all the way to the Pacific. And they’ll wait a season or so to come back up. Maybe they’ll move up some other better trib for a year, and then they’ll return, that’s how they get to be old and fat like me…”

Well anyway we floated that four miles like that, I watched him fish, but couldn’t move well enough to try my hand. I got enough wind up to ask him questions and tell some stories and laugh a little, and I came to know Big Sam more and it wasn’t long before we were floated into camp.

“I believe this is where you left off.”

“Hey Boot?”
“What?”
“Take this silver dollar up to Mountain High and buy yourself a cup of mud. Tell Maggie or Glenn or Al that Big Sam sent you and that he sends Eric his biggest hug.”

He tossed the coin and I caught it, put it in my pack by some fly grease. And when I turned again, he’d vanished downstream into the smoke and mists that drifted with him. My truck was mercifully untouched, a handwritten note trapped beneath the wiper blade:

“Saved your truck, couldn’t save your camp.----------County VFBG. Call us to report you’re safe. We'll be back on....”


They’d left a number and I called in when the signals returned on the drive out home. I never stopped at Mountain High. The roads and traffic were tough, there were delays, vehicles and all kinds of folks moving in to calm the fires, choppers thudded and sirens wailed. I was breathing poorly and didn’t need any coffee…

I though about Big Sam a lot after that, but commitments and young sons took me away from ever getting back up there to thank him. I told no-one about him, least of all my wife. I was ashamed that I’d put myself into a situation so finite, I felt stupid in so many ways. Three years later though I made my way back upstream to the canyon and fished those waters again, late October, in a year when the big rains had yet to come. I looked for Big Sam, even called out once or twice, but alls I heard was the sounds of the water, the new forest, or meadows now absent of summer hoppers click-clacking.

Saplings were busting up strong out of the still blackened ground and the river was running clear again. There were fish, they were small and hungry and it was more the memories of the day several years prior that I ended up fighting. Then I saw an improbably late hopper fly down and screw a landing right on a logjammed pool and a fish of some consequence sucked it right down, a glint of redside. I searched for my own, rummaged through every pocket in my pack but failed to find the hopper Big Sam took. I found his coin though, and made note to stop by Mountain High on the way home.

Twilight was coming up on the Cascade Crest when I pulled into the burger joint. I made my way in and a pretty lady came up to take my order. Her nametag said Maggie, just like Big Sam said. I felt like a fool but I pulled the silver dollar from my pocket.

“I’d like a coffee, black please.”

I laid the silver dollar down.


“This here’s from Big Sam, he said that you guys knew him.”

And then the lady’s jaw fell open and she got real quiet and pale and swallowed hard.

“That’s a lucky silver dollar there. You know that right, one coffee ain’t ever worth a silver dollar…. You know I haven’t heard that name for a while either. Where’d you see Sam?”


“Wasn’t recent. About three years ago. He pulled me out of the canyon with that fire. I got stuck up there. He fished me out. Saved my life.”
“Three years?”
“Yep, ‘bout then I reckon.”


She looked a little stunned, turned back to my coffee, Teanaway Mud, today’s brew, and I began to second guess myself, wondering if the waters under this bridge were deep and treacherous.


“Big Sam’s been dead fifteen years.”

She pushed the coffee towards me, small serpents of steam rising off the top.

“How’d you mean?”
“Well my two boys, and this is a while back now, when they were small, my two boys Al and Eric were floating your river there. Eric… there’s no good way of putting this… he’s special.”

She held my gaze long enough for me to figure he was retarded or sick or something like that.

“He doesn’t have words. Some folks call him simple when they’re trying to be kind, but he’s not. He’s mine. Anyways Eric and Al were floating the quiet stretch of river, they did that all the time, inner-tubes, high summer, like all the kids up here. But they went too far and Eric got stuck in a downstream logjam. And the other one, Al, he had it all figured, always does, and told Eric to climb up and hold on while he’d run for help.”


“Eric was too little though, not the kind of kid you ever leave alone like that. Al ran to get some help, but by the time we all got down to the jam we couldn’t see him.”

"That was the hardest hour of my life." She took her time now.
“Anyways, Sam got wind of it, he always did. Kinda simple himself really, he lived up in the hills in a shack and came down when he needed a sack of sugar, coffee or some flour. He loved his cheeseburgers.

‘First name basis with Squatch and the last of the Cascade wild men’ my husband says.

He came floating on down the river in that raft of his. Shouting out for Eric, even before we told him what was going on, sorta like he knew.”


“He had a soft spot for my boy. You look old enough to know a boy like Eric got no friends but his kin. He loved Eric like one of us. And I loved Sam because of that."

Maggie began to tear up, pulled herself together, wiped her nose on her sleeve. Age had been kind to her. She had wisdom and empathy mixed into a resilient beauty.

“Anyways, seeing him gave us all some energy and we all got to shouting again. He asked Al where he last saw Eric and Al pointed into that logjam. He got out of that raft, lifted his arms up, and dove into that nest. That giant fat man disappeared in there. Ten minutes pass then out the back side of the jam Al shouted for us.”

“There was Eric face up, floating. We pulled him out and started pushing on him and shouting him and slapping him and damnit if he didn’t just sputter up a bunch of water and suck in his air. Why my boy was blue and all, but he was living and breathing and in a matter of minutes he was pointing back at the mess of logs, tugging my sleeve and pulling me towards it, like there was something still there that we had to get. Which of course there was."

"We tried all manner of ways of getting at Sam but night came and we had to leave. And my Eric didn’t want to go. I saw my boy cry that night, and that’s the only time I ever saw him do that for anything other than doctor’s needles and a broken arm.”

“There wasn’t one of us willing to go under for him. Sam had told us before, he didn’t know how to swim, and, this may sound cruel, and I’m going to burn in hell for admitting this, but no-one can rescue a fat man who can’t swim from beneath a logjam.”

She pushed the silver dollar back to me.

“You keep this. I got my own. Every now and then some stranger comes in here telling me they’ve seen Big Sam, pushes a coin like that my way. And I believe them, and I know it’s his way of saying he forgives me and Glenn and all the rest of us for failing him. And don’t think I don’t wish him back every day, that man saved my boy…”

She got all quiet and I made my exit after squeezing her hand. I put that coin right back where it had sat all these years, in my fly pack, where it sits to this day beside some hoppers. I’ll never be caught dead fishing a summertime Columbia tributary without some hoppers and my silver dollar.








Story Backbone and notes:

I first heard this story, obviously in a different form, as Tom Waits sings it in “Big Joe and Phantom 309.” About a hitchhiker that thumbs a ride from a ghost driver. Waits’ version is a cover of Tommy Faile’s original sung by Red Sovine. I’ve long been haunted by those kids at Thirty Mile and all the smokejumpers that got sent places they couldn’t get out of.
 
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Cruik

WFF Supporter
Great as ever. God, I love hearing a local tale. I've had a streamside daydream myself about sheltering from a fire in a logjam.
 

2kayaker

Active Member
I had put this story up maybe 5-6 years ago, then I pulled it off, I'm going to put it back up because a story ain't nothing without readers...


Big Sam and the Logjam

Years ago I fished a summer river high up in the Cascade range. The spring that year came early and the snow, for there wasn’t much, melted fast. Grasses went to seed and browned by early June. The only green things were in the high mountains, along the rivers fed by the last of the lower 48’s snowfields.


I was four miles up-river from camp. Thunderheads formed, their great anvils and billows evident above the ridgeline. Along the river bed, alders were wilting, the cottonwoods looked ready for fall. Still, it was good, walking and wading up a long stretch I’d never fished before, and trying, hard as it was, to only fish the way back. I made the bend where the Canyon started, where the gorge and logjams made things impassable to all but water and wind. At last it was time to fish.

I worked my way downstream, picking up small cutts that slashed my foam ant before the breeze intensified. A desiccating downslope Cascade wind worthy of a name like Simoom, Sirocco or Chinook. The least of its miseries were leader knots and hold-your-hat moments. The sky darkened. Presumed they were clouds fat with rain and fresh with threats of sudden flood.

The ridgeline blurred, the sun turned orange and red. Grey clouds tumbled down the ridge like a massive North Shore breaker, down towards the canyon. The air thickened with the scents of burning fir and pine-pitch. Lightning set things on fire, no rain was about to fall.

There were kids up at Thirty Mile, 2001, smoke jumping, working that blaze beyond the Chewach gate. That giant fire came fast into the tinder-filled valley. They sheltered under fire blankets. That’s how they found them, cremated around one another. They were my age. D of I's internal review concluded they were tired, they were in the wrong place, they missed warning signs, spot fires spread ahead of them, the canyon amplified everything along with the spinning winds. All those good intentions and perfect young bodies incinerated in a canyon just like this one. Trouble would come quickly here too.

I had no fire blanket, just a Ramones shirt, ball cap, nylon shorts and some sandals with a mess of felt screwed onto them. I was unprepared. A water bottle, a small pack with terrestrials and streamers, tippet spools, hemostat and sunglasses. Ash now fell with an occasional cinder, red, moving Djinn fast. The air was not good, smoke stung my eyes, rivers of it now flowing out of the canyon, like water only yards higher and rising. Creatures were moving, bounding over the river bed, no fear of me now, their forms became indistinguishable and ghostly.

The winds were blowing hard, the air hot and unbreatheable. There was a river hole in front of me, maybe six-eight foot deep, deep and inviting, it’s boundary a tangle of logs and overhanging bank studded with bird holes. I ran into it, rod in hand, and cursed myself at the stupidity of all of it and then wondered how long I would last.

In the seconds before the flames came, weird vortexes shrieked and roared up above the high water mark some fifty yards upstream. Flames would tornado down, right onto the water. A run of unlucky grasses was suddenly reduced, combusting blue and green. That’s when I submerged.

Grandpa Boot said almost drowning was extremely peaceful. In WWII his aircrew went down on a white capped Townsville Harbor. They were trying to land a Catalina, an oaf of a float plane suited best for tranquility. The plane broke apart, he struck his head hard, submerged into Queensland waters as warm as blood. I wondered if his recollections were colored by concussions, amnesia, benzenes and aviation fuel. He said the harbor waters were inviting, said there was no fear of death. My mother always said he was never the same after that.

That legend seemed absurd now. There’s no peace drowning. Underwater you could hear the sudden expansile shattering of river rocks, the wrench of dense and fine-grained alpine timbers exploding through their heartwood, salvos of matter blasted into the river. The bright hues, if you opened your eyes, lit the corners and jambs of the hole. The river’s surface boiled and hissed. The far wall of the logjam held devil eyes that looked back at me. Those eyes and the bodies beyond them talked, I swear it, they spoke to me.

We’re all screwed now, but you, you’re the worst off. You’ve got lungs, we’ve got gills. We’re going to take pleasure in watching you die. Just as you have taken your joy in hooking us… consider it karma Mr. Boot…oh and Gramps says hello, he looks forward to getting to know you…

Brinksmanship negotiation with these fish devils might lead to my survival. But they assured me, when I tried, that they wouldn’t negotiate with terrorists. They’d gladly watch me die. Similar and other absurdities hit along with a feeling like rats were chewing their way out of my lungs. Drowning is not peaceful, not when the alternative was burning to death. When you’re terrified no flood of memories soothes your mind, instead there's a logjam's worth of absurdities.

Underwater, the fire front moving overhead, I didn’t last long. In perhaps a minute I surfaced, and what I sucked in was worse. Imagine that burn like your very first deep drag of a cigarette only far hotter and more menacing. Furnace air. Almost immediately I was up again, coughing and hacking and sucking in still more. It didn’t work. Submerged again, I opened my pack underwater, sucked in what air it might have trapped, tried to bite open a bubble float for the air inside, things got blurry, the underwater root wads turned into snakes, writhing towards me. That and bigger eyes looked at me close. It’s true, monsters live in the big logjams.


And then something fantastic and strange, a hand grabbed me, pulled me with a fistful of twisted Ramones, pulled me onto the back of a raft. Someone laughed and said something unintelligible and next thing I knew a mask was on my face and I breathed sweet clean air. Someone had saved me, and with the foresight to keep my flyrod and salvage my pack.

My legs dangled over the edge of the raft, my body lay like a prize fish. There was a dude-like man of indeterminate age and massive girth sitting on a platform he’d lashed on with bunjies and duct tape. Bearded, wild looking, big and round, decapitated milk jugs in either hand, dipping one in now and then to steer this craft, eyes on the horizon, downstream.

“Welcome aboard, stranger. Name’s Big Sam, and this here’s my rig…”

He held out a fat hand and I took it, soft and neutral like a giant ball of carp dough.

“That leading edge’s a bitch innit? Saw you making your way up and figured the shit would come down and trap you. You’re one lucky mofo.”


He pointed back to my refuge, the log jammed hole, once a mess of whitewashed timbers a good three-four feet above water now almost flush with the waterline, smoking, still burning and breaking up with an unyielding current. Time must have passed. In this burnt heaven there’s no white tunnel, no coming into the light, no choir of angels. Instead a marshmallow fist pulls you out of a primordial river of waters and fire.

My ass struck river rocks below through the base of the raft, those pains sharpened my observations, confirmed I was alive. I traced a stretch of almost kinked garden hose from the mask on my face back to the boat, straight into the raft’s air bladder, joined-in with a mound of duct tape. There’s me and him, milk jugs, the pipe, my pack, this mask and the rod. We move through a landscape seared and unreal, smoking with spot fires and odd areas devoid of damage, sword ferns, alpine fir saplings, old rotten stumps, high-water zip lines, cages suspended below rusted wheels, wires supported on steel trestles. Gone was the wilted beauty I had moved through hours before.

“Fire’s ahead of itself. And us.”

The winds had died, late cinders were repelled by the raft, they snuffed in the river. Those tiny coals made little hisses like baby garter snakes fresh out of their hibernaculum.

“Last you longer if you put a kink in it when you’re not breathing.”

I nodded my head, bent the hose, sucked the clean cool air.

“Hold this a second” He passed me the milk jugs.
“You mind if I try this?”


Big Sam picked up my flyrod, sighted it, tuned it in degrees to his satisfaction, then rummaged a little in my pack. He found a yellow hopper, snapped off my Chernobyl ant and hooked it to my hat brim. He tied awkwardly, like a noodle-fingered kid with a rope board and a book of scout knots. He drew his effort tight with yellow teeth.

All of him was the color of Teanaway clay. Beneath his train-conductor overalls he wore a T-shirt that read “It’s alright girls, don’t cry now, I’ll be right back.” I saw his cracked river-salvage flip-flops, different colors, rubber wishbones between his hairless toes anchor his footing as he stepped out of the raft and onto slippery boulders to some other improbable perch. His leaving the boat left no shift in weight, my butt was still anchoring us fast on gravels.

He swished the flyrod like a noob Zorro and said “I like this thing, it’s got a good balance to it.”


When he stripped line, the click sounded sick, the arbor scraped its housing, and there was too much line wound too loose on the thing anyway. It pulled out all sloppy and bumpy, a right-hand-retrieve which in certain righteous and retentive/orthodox circles might condemn a right-handed fly fisherman like me to fishless purgatory. If you look close, the backing’s spotted with mildew. Backing that, truth be told, was never needed. After all, Cascade mountain fish don’t get big.

He false cast, negotiated some free-spooling without looking, and that hopper landed in an eddy full of smoking debris. He twitched it, and sure enough, something big took it, the line went tight and Big Sam gave a chuckle like a hungry man in front of a fat bowl of delicious steaming oats, syrup in one hand, cream in the other. My backing moved fast into the river, and in a matter of minutes Big Sam tailed an arm’s worth of a massive redside in his submerged hand.

“Betcha didn’t think this ole river held fish like that..."

He winked. I shook my head.

"Well Mr. Boot, it turns out the smoke and the debris in the water will turn a trout some. Gases heat the fish and the water around it, minerals dissolve in it, and when those fish suck it down some, their sides light up like some champion fish from the heart of the Snake, the Crooked or Hell’s Canyon... You been there?... You ought to go there someday… You know how to make steel right? It gets quenched and annealed…”

He winked again, chuckled more. I nodded. He didn’t stay long at the hole, pushed us off and we made our way to the next run, and sure enough he cast and another fish took the hopper. These fish were twice as big as any I’d ever seen here.

“Boot, Every ten years or so fires come down through that Canyon, they burn out the scrub, and the big ones know they’re screwed. They know that for the next six months, they have to move on. Instinctually they stock up on what’s good for them. So this here, in the heart of the furnace…”

He holds up the hopper.

“This here is what they come to think of as bar-b-q, and they see this as a feast, a last supper…”

He gestured over the river, there were all manner of sick bugs on the surface or just a little submerged in the water. And everywhere that should have held fish had them sucking down a sickening smorgasbord of half-dead creatures who’d had the same idea as me- get in the river or you’re gonna die, but weren’t so lucky.

“And they’ll make their way downstream to where the water’s good again, to the Columbia mainstem, maybe all the way to the Pacific. And they’ll wait a season or so to come back up. Maybe they’ll move up some other better trib for a year, and then they’ll return, that’s how they get to be old and fat like me…”

Well anyway we floated that four miles like that, I watched him fish, but couldn’t move well enough to try my hand. I got enough wind up to ask him questions and tell some stories and laugh a little, and I came to know Big Sam more and it wasn’t long before we were floated into camp.

“I believe this is where you left off.”

“Hey Boot?”
“What?”
“Take this silver dollar up to Mountain High and buy yourself a cup of mud. Tell Maggie or Glenn or Al that Big Sam sent you and that he sends Eric his biggest hug.”

He tossed the coin and I caught it, put it in my pack by some fly grease. And when I turned again, he’d vanished downstream into the smoke and mists that drifted with him. My truck was mercifully untouched, a handwritten note trapped beneath the wiper blade:

“Saved your truck, couldn’t save your camp.----------County VFBG. Call us to report you’re safe. We'll be back on....”


They’d left a number and I called in when the signals returned on the drive out home. I never stopped at Mountain High. The roads and traffic were tough, there were delays, vehicles and all kinds of folks moving in to calm the fires, choppers thudded and sirens wailed. I was breathing poorly and didn’t need any coffee…

I though about Big Sam a lot after that, but commitments and young sons took me away from ever getting back up there to thank him. I told no-one about him, least of all my wife. I was ashamed that I’d put myself into a situation so finite, I felt stupid in so many ways. Three years later though I made my way back upstream to the canyon and fished those waters again, late October, in a year when the big rains had yet to come. I looked for Big Sam, even called out once or twice, but alls I heard was the sounds of the water, the new forest, or meadows now absent of summer hoppers click-clacking.

Saplings were busting up strong out of the still blackened ground and the river was running clear again. There were fish, they were small and hungry and it was more the memories of the day several years prior that I ended up fighting. Then I saw an improbably late hopper fly down and screw a landing right on a logjammed pool and a fish of some consequence sucked it right down, a glint of redside. I searched for my own, rummaged through every pocket in my pack but failed to find the hopper Big Sam took. I found his coin though, and made note to stop by Mountain High on the way home.

Twilight was coming up on the Cascade Crest when I pulled into the burger joint. I made my way in and a pretty lady came up to take my order. Her nametag said Maggie, just like Big Sam said. I felt like a fool but I pulled the silver dollar from my pocket.

“I’d like a coffee, black please.”

I laid the silver dollar down.


“This here’s from Big Sam, he said that you guys knew him.”

And then the lady’s jaw fell open and she got real quiet and pale and swallowed hard.

“That’s a lucky silver dollar there. You know that right, one coffee ain’t ever worth a silver dollar…. You know I haven’t heard that name for a while either. Where’d you see Sam?”


“Wasn’t recent. About three years ago. He pulled me out of the canyon with that fire. I got stuck up there. He fished me out. Saved my life.”
“Three years?”
“Yep, ‘bout then I reckon.”


She looked a little stunned, turned back to my coffee, Teanaway Mud, today’s brew, and I began to second guess myself, wondering if the waters under this bridge were deep and treacherous.


“Big Sam’s been dead fifteen years.”

She pushed the coffee towards me, small serpents of steam rising off the top.

“How’d you mean?”
“Well my two boys, and this is a while back now, when they were small, my two boys Al and Eric were floating your river there. Eric… there’s no good way of putting this… he’s special.”

She held my gaze long enough for me to figure he was retarded or sick or something like that.

“He doesn’t have words. Some folks call him simple when they’re trying to be kind, but he’s not. He’s mine. Anyways Eric and Al were floating the quiet stretch of river, they did that all the time, inner-tubes, high summer, like all the kids up here. But they went too far and Eric got stuck in a downstream logjam. And the other one, Al, he had it all figured, always does, and told Eric to climb up and hold on while he’d run for help.”


“Eric was too little though, not the kind of kid you ever leave alone like that. Al ran to get some help, but by the time we all got down to the jam we couldn’t see him.”

"That was the hardest hour of my life." She took her time now.
“Anyways, Sam got wind of it, he always did. Kinda simple himself really, he lived up in the hills in a shack and came down when he needed a sack of sugar, coffee or some flour. He loved his cheeseburgers.

‘First name basis with Squatch and the last of the Cascade wild men’ my husband says.

He came floating on down the river in that raft of his. Shouting out for Eric, even before we told him what was going on, sorta like he knew.”


“He had a soft spot for my boy. You look old enough to know a boy like Eric got no friends but his kin. He loved Eric like one of us. And I loved Sam because of that."

Maggie began to tear up, pulled herself together, wiped her nose on her sleeve. Age had been kind to her. She had wisdom and empathy mixed into a resilient beauty.

“Anyways, seeing him gave us all some energy and we all got to shouting again. He asked Al where he last saw Eric and Al pointed into that logjam. He got out of that raft, lifted his arms up, and dove into that nest. That giant fat man disappeared in there. Ten minutes pass then out the back side of the jam Al shouted for us.”

“There was Eric face up, floating. We pulled him out and started pushing on him and shouting him and slapping him and damnit if he didn’t just sputter up a bunch of water and suck in his air. Why my boy was blue and all, but he was living and breathing and in a matter of minutes he was pointing back at the mess of logs, tugging my sleeve and pulling me towards it, like there was something still there that we had to get. Which of course there was."

"We tried all manner of ways of getting at Sam but night came and we had to leave. And my Eric didn’t want to go. I saw my boy cry that night, and that’s the only time I ever saw him do that for anything other than doctor’s needles and a broken arm.”

“There wasn’t one of us willing to go under for him. Sam had told us before, he didn’t know how to swim, and, this may sound cruel, and I’m going to burn in hell for admitting this, but no-one can rescue a fat man who can’t swim from beneath a logjam.”

She pushed the silver dollar back to me.

“You keep this. I got my own. Every now and then some stranger comes in here telling me they’ve seen Big Sam, pushes a coin like that my way. And I believe them, and I know it’s his way of saying he forgives me and Glenn and all the rest of us for failing him. And don’t think I don’t wish him back every day, that man saved my boy…”

She got all quiet and I made my exit after squeezing her hand. I put that coin right back where it had sat all these years, in my fly pack, where it sits to this day beside some hoppers. I’ll never be caught dead fishing a summertime Columbia tributary without some hoppers and my silver dollar.








Story Backbone and notes:

I first heard this story, obviously in a different form, as Tom Waits sings it in “Big Joe and Phantom 309.” About a hitchhiker that thumbs a ride from a ghost driver. Waits’ version is a cover of Tommy Faile’s original sung by Red Sovine. I’ve long been haunted by those kids at Thirty Mile and all the smokejumpers that got sent places they couldn’t get out of.
Bravo! The spirit hand that pulls people to safety is an experience that people do report. I was lucky enough to be part of Heli-Tack crew working fires in the Methow area the year after the tragic 30 mile event. Thankyou, Mr. Boot!
 

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