Eucalyptus, Boy vs. Steel, and a Bug
It was the 1970’s and I was on the verge of adolescence, an especially hard time for me. As I clambered down the cliffs of this coastal river, in the hunt of the elusive steelhead trout, I thought for sure this was the end. Rocks gave way splashing into the rushing river thirty feet below, it was just a matter of time before I was washed to sea. I was probably ten and my imagination was running wild. Looking back over four decades it was about half the distance my young imagination conjured up and the river crawled fighting to escape to the sea. If I fell, survival was likely. But the dark water seemed like an abyss, I was terrified. Thank goodness for the humongous Eucalyptus trees and their tentacles that hugged the cliffs of the San Lorenzo River. Their roots acted as a natural staircase but also doubled as a springboard into the river. The aroma of a eucalyptus tree and the crunch of the leaves below will always be special to me as the sensations hurdle me back in time. A time that seemed so simple and special. A time I miss. A feeling that perhaps can be rediscovered in a new way. One can not understand the values of these special moments until the descent of life offers a pause to reminisce. My memories of fishing with my Dad stay with me today.
This period offered a time that I wish all future generations could experience. With no computers, cell phones, social media, and video games just around the corner, It was a time where distractions were minimal, values of the past thrived and the world was “out there” to explore. I feel fortunate to be in the generation that bridged these different worlds but find myself looking in the rearview mirror as my life matures. Before dawn, my Dad and I crammed our gear into a 1960’s era VW bug and inched our way over “ the hill”, as it was known, on Highway 17 to our destination of many outings. The San Lorenzo River began near the summit of the Santa Cruz Mountains and toppled its way to the Pacific Ocean through the beautiful redwood forests, ideal spawning grounds for the Steelhead sea-going trout. Over the years we would explore from the upper gorges to the mouth where the ocean and the river converge, where the trout transition from the saltwater of the sea to the freshwater of the mountains, back to their home, unless we caught them, we were on a mission.
As a child I would sit on the banks of a river and wonder where rivers start, where did all this water come from, even to this day I am on the hunt for this beginning of life. But this trip took us to the mouth of the San Lorenzo in Santa Cruz, the end of the river. I was ok with that because the word was “they are in”. “Word” is old school for information distributed through a network of human beings, unlike today where you click and believe everything you read. Dad relied on his network of fisherman, the seasons, and the recent rainfall. This still works. But back to the Bug. The good old VW engine revved as the clutch was pumped again and again and the gears engaged, oh the days of manual transmission and the sound of a VW engine. She didn’t go very fast but there was something about the sound of that engine, the smell, and the cracking upholstery. HIghway 17 would drop us into the town of Santa Cruz and I knew we were close because right at the entrance was a burger joint. Every time I would look to the left and lick my chops. Maybe this trip we could stop on the way home. It wasn’t always the case but I kept quiet and my hopes alive.
We would arrive on the East side of the river. The creaking of the Bugs doors opening and the crunch of the eucalyptus leaves underfoot were sounds that were music to my ears. Did I mention I get car sick, the winding roads of Highway 17 about made me hurl every damn time, but the sea, the river, and the trees were medicine. One whiff of the aroma of the euycalyptus blended with the salt air meant we finally arrived and my stomach began to settle. We peered down the cliffs and out to the ocean only yards away. The report was indeed accurate. The recent rainfall had burst through the sand dunes opening the gates for the Steelhead to return home. The river channel hugged the Eastside cliffs and slowly tapered up to the sand beach of the West bank. The sun began to rise at our backs illuminating the historic roller coaster beyond as the opposite bank became lined with the silhouettes of the fly fishermen. They seemed to appear like ghosts, one at a time, with the shadow of the cliffs concealing their identity. The sight of a roller coaster would almost always entice a child of my age, but it never did, I’d get sick anyway. Instead, I knew what it was like to hook a seagoing trout and those steelies were laying in the channel waiting for their breakfast.
Gazing towards the roller coaster with the river below the fly fishermen began their dance. The shadowy men in a row began their casts and it’s as if they were in harmony with one another. A concert and I was the conductor perched above. Down the procession, each cast landed one after another with what seemed perfect sequence, the lines would retract in a beautiful arc, pause and then return gently presented to the target. The drift would begin and the ghosts would follow their cast as it glides towards the sea. Then you heard it. “FISH ON”. That was the rule. If one of your brothers hooked a fish it was your duty to strip in your line to allow the fish to run freely not to get tangled. When steelhead run it’s like nothing else in the world of fishing. The power, distance, and time that they fight within a river environment are remarkable. Meanwhile, we are standing on the cliff, not fishing. So all the more motive to repel down the cliffs of death.
The cliff seemed so high and precarious, especially to my young life that I didn’t want to lose. Meandering down the mountain goat switchbacks the earth would crumble and the stones would launch down the cliffside, back and forth until we landed on the level and stable ground along the edge of the river. I knew where I was going. My favorite spot to the left, downstream towards the railroad bridge. We were so close to the ocean that I could see waves breaking on the horizon beyond the railroad trellis above. The trail stopped before the railroad and no one seemed to ever fish on the other side, I wondered why. The tides would rise and drop as they have done forever and my spot would sway in unison. At the moment the tides were forcing me higher on cliffs but soon enough I would be perched on a level bank that rapidly dropped into the channel, the Steelheads highway. They knew this was the beginning of a journey, one they have done before. The Steelhead Trout, unlike the Salmon, ascend to their birthplace miles and miles towards the summit to procreate only to turn around and make the identical journey years later.
Two steel posts projected out of the water at mid-tide near the bank, this is how I knew I was in the right spot. The steel was rusted and decaying for what seemed like a hundred years. I probably wasn’t far off. Likely a relic of the railroad days, the pioneers reached the coast and the railroad followed. These two short pillars must have only been three feet apart and three feet out of the water, they were my gauge on the tides and the flow of the water. As the current shifted in the opposite direction, upstream, I could see the subtle trails of the water reflect off the surface in the shape of a “v”.
Perched on the ledge I reached into the cooler and retrieved the bag of frozen anchovies, the bait of choice Dad brought along. I carved the smelly fish into sections, pierced my hook, and cast it into the river. Once plopped into the abyss, my two steel friends would call out and measure my cast to the current telling me if my bait was placed safely. The wait began. Fishing is my only outlet to truly release and intently focus. As a grew older my attention, my mind, my lack of attention and voices overtook me and sent me on a turbulent adventure, my youth. I survived and now look towards the second half of my life and am discovering myself again.
Fixated on my line as it entered the water for even the slightest movement my mind would wander. I was scared, I didn’t know what life had in mind for me. The current split the steel columns creating a “v” shape pointing to the mountain, I knew which direction the elusive flow was traveling. I knew that if the Steelie picked up my bait there is a pretty good chance she will swim opposite the current, it could be either way depending on the “v”. I had to keep my friends, the steel columns, in my sight. They would let me know.
Steelhead are elusive, just ask any fisherman that’s worked the Northern Coast of California. Some days you get none and others may be one and two if you are truly lucky. I waited. The sun began to rise, illuminating the San Lorenzo’s demise into the ocean, the Beach Boardwalk came alive and the ghosts of the West shore slowly disappeared. They arrive before dawn, retreat, and return at dusk, where they go I wondered. I waited. The day grew on and the fish have yet to sniff out my bait. The sun moved its way across the sky hour by hour towards the West. I cast and recast. I waited. Even I knew that a high-sun is not conducive to good fishing so I relaxed but with a keen eye on my line. Hour by hour the sun eventually tucked itself behind the roller coaster and the temperature began to drop. With dusk came hungry fish. It was time to sit up and sharpen my view. The Western horizon in the distance began to glow and the orange aura spilled onto the cliffs lighting us up for a brief time. The shadows began to inch their way up the cliffs as the sun was engulfed into the Pacific, this was the sign. The ghosts began to re-emerge, one by one with the sun at their back. They seemed to retreat and return just in time, I never saw their faces, only their silhouettes, early and late. The rhythmic casting began just as before.
Perched on the now shadowy cliffs the columns seemed to take on a silhouette as my mysterious friends across the river, just two black projections. I peered into the water towards my line upstream of the storied steel. The reflection on the water from the setting sun perfectly illuminated the penetration of my line into the black water. This was the time. I glanced at the steel columns to gauge the water flow and the “v’ had now changed direction. The river flows both ways. The “v” now points to the mountains. The tide was returning as it has for thousands of years. Weighted down to the bottom my line remained still with a “v” of its own in harmony with the steel columns. I thought this looks like a flock of migrating birds high in the sky reflected onto the surface of this stream. I wondered how a river could flow for such a long time. The fly fisherman in the distance continued their dance, in silence as I now stood ready for action.
By now I had measured the distance between the “v”s hundreds of times. I knew that the second that distance changed a fish may be courting my bait. My “v” began to become erratic and eventually disappeared. I glanced to the left and the steel column “v” had not changed. My heart began to thump and I returned my gaze and my ”v” was gone, my line remained, but then something unusual happened, my “v” changed direction and there were now two, directed towards each other. Then it happened. My line abruptly lurched and took off, I mean speed off like a freight train. It was my turn I screeched with my high ten-year-old voice, “Fish On”!. I reared my fishing rod back, set the hook, and kept tension on the line. All taught by my dad. The sound of my reel screeching was like music to a fisherman’s ears. I was now one. The fish took off to my right upstream against the tide towards the ghostly anglers. I could barely hold on as she lurched and lurched but then picked up speed. The drag of my reel just kept singing as my skinny arms were now put to the test. The second I thought I might run out of line a stillness ensued over the fight. My line began to slack and my heart began to sink. Was she gone? What did I do wrong?, all that waiting, casting and recasting, changing bait, all thoughts in seconds. I kept my rod up and began to reel in my line, spin after spin more line returned to my reel. Sadness began to circle me. That was my chance. Still facing upstream my line became even more slacked which seemed strange since I was reeling and reeling. I couldn’t seem to get the line in fast enough and then resistance, again. It felt sluggish and then realized it was probably the weight at the end of my line I finally caught up with. It wasn’t. I lifted my rod higher, reeled harder, and then hit a wall. My rod bent down on its own and once again the battle was on. I must have hooked her good and she turned around headed for the sea. Even at ten years old I knew this was a big fish. As the Steelie attempted to return home she crossed in front of me and sped off. I kept the pressure on, I thought I lost her and didn’t want that feeling again. This time was different, we danced back and forth with shorter bursts against the dueling tides, reeling in with spurts of my drag screaming out at me. This was fishing, a sport I would embrace my entire life. What seemed like hours was only minutes. At some point, the fish is supposed to tire but I was wondering who would be first, me or the fish. Out of my peripheral vision, I saw my friends the steel columns downstream towards the sea, the direction my fish was going. With the varying tides, the columns were deeper into the water and I quickly realized they may not be my friends. It’s as if my line was a magnet to the steel. It took one final burst towards the sea and my line wrapped the columns, my friends, and snapped. My line dropped as did my soul. I was devastated. I was going to prove, to my dad and the ghosts beyond, that I could do it. “FISH OFF!” I envisioned the fish bolting towards the ocean with a hook in her mouth and line streaming behind. I later asked my dad what happens to a fish that gets away. Part of me was happy she was back with her family.
The sun was gone as were the ghosts. It was time to claw back up the cliffs to the warmth of the VW Bug heater and the thought of returning home added to that warmth. But there was one more mission, I was starving. Back we went through the town of Santa Cruz with smelly anchovies wafting about. As we buzzed our way through the town I knew we were close to climbing the mountain to home because I could smell it. Here it comes, the burger joint on the right. As we approached I learned to keep quiet and tapped into my superpowers to have the Bug take a life of its own and make that hard right towards burger bliss. I braced myself for the downshift and hard turn as the entrance was approaching, it didn’t happen. I slouched back in my seat and peeked at the sign in the rearview mirror. Maybe next time.
The ascent over the Santa Cruz Mountains in the Bug almost felt as if we were climbing Mt. Everest. The old reliable beetle just puttered along. The summit was always a good measure for a ten-year-old to know how far we have traveled, plus this was the turn-off every year to cut our Christmas tree down. I knew it well. Down we went, the Northside of the pass towards home. Once in a while dad would take a shortcut through the town of Los Gatos and down a windy route called Quito Road. Windy roads and I didn’t get along and I wondered why he chose to go down the road of a car sick hell. Was I in trouble for losing the fish? I held it together. The steering wheel would crank left and right back and forth while simultaneously shifting the gears. I couldn’t wait to be in that seat. We ripped around a corner and to my amazement saw a tire shooting out in front of us. In a split second, I realized the tire was ours, shot out like a cannon on my side of the Bug. We proceeded to drive on three wheels. Dad shifted and cranked the wheel to avoid the many trees and we came to a stop, safe. It could have been awful.
It was good to be home. I reflected on the day and asked. “Dad, who are all those men on the other side of the river” and he replied, “Billy, I didn’t see anyone”.