You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.
-William Blake, Proverbs From Hell
Author’s Note: I wrote this several years ago, when my brother and I were struggling to adjust to adulthood. I was a new father, my brother an unmoored fishing addict. He’s a father now twice-over, myself three times. I’d like to say that we’ve both grown up a bit since this was written, but it discusses formative experiences and challenges that still haunt me at least.
The ritual started for my brother and me about twenty-five years ago. We were just boys.
Dad woke us before dawn, tore us out of our mother’s arms, and piled us in the back of a van full of game meat, fishing gear and booze.
My father’s best friend John drove, veering from lane to lane all over the highway.
John stood six feet tall, had olive skin, and looked like he could be George Clooney’s crazy uncle. He’d owned a Porsche and a small prop plane. He’d wrecked a motorcycle and tore up his face, and he hid the scars with a thick wooly beard.
John carried the planning of the trip on his shoulders. He had killed a bear and drank staggering amounts of beer. He was quick to anger, lumbering, seemingly dangerous. He smoked discount cigars in bulk, turning his graying beard brown around his lips. His huge hairy-knuckled hands were knotted from work, corded with veins and muscle.
We reached the north coast of Lake Superior by sunset, clouds hanging low over a shoreline haunted by bears and wolves. Moose flickered past along the side of the road, standing seven feet tall at the shoulder and weighing half a ton.
We pulled into White River at dark, a desolate stopover rail town in the middle of the Canadian Shield, surrounded by harsh country, thick trees, thin soil and marshland. It was the launch point for our trip to a wilderness lake my family had fished for 30 years, since back when a man might fish with big wobbly spoons tipped with trailing nightcrawlers.
There is no road access to the lake, so we loaded our gear aboard a small diesel train called a Budd Carr. The rail line runs between White River and Sudbury, Ontario. We had a mountain of gear, food and booze and instead of riding in the passenger cars, we piled in on top of our coolers and boxes in the cargo hold, and started drinking Molson lagers from white cans.
I still have a photo of us from our first trip, standing in that cargo hold. I’m sucking on a convenience store cigar, hat sideways and look like I need slapped across the mouth. My brother is wild eyed, sun-burnt already, only nine with a hat on backwards and a beer tilted to his lips.
I’d never been anywhere so remote. No phones, no cars. And I’d never seen men behaving wildly. I’d never been around men away from women.
Together, the four of us got drunk and placed bets on the biggest fish. The Canadian wilderness flowed past and we knew we would be hooked into huge fish before sundown.
My brother and I were lazy kids, raised in a lazy time.
But this trip thrust us out of Saturday morning cartoons and sugary cereal into the world of men, beer and blood.
We brought enough food and alcohol for a party twice our size, and when the train stopped on the southern tip side of the lake, my brother and I carried it all down from the tracks to the boats on our shoulders, cigars clenched in our teeth, and running back up the hill to get the next backbreaking load while my dad and John watched.
We carried John’s boat box last, the casket. It’s a wooden crate, about four feet long with reinforced sides, rubber feet and a big padded top. When he dies, John instructed us to tie his body down to the box, float him out into the lake and fire flaming arrows into it.
John and my dad had grown up trolling for walleye, methodically filling stringers and deep frying fish.
But my brother and I had been exposed to Larry Dahlberg’s early VHS cassettes, and the men humored us and took us with our whippy fly rods into the back bays of the lake. The results were life altering. We transformed from a couple wanton Midwestern boys torturing any small animals we could catch by any means possible, into fly fishermen: boys torturing increasingly larger Northern Pike with eight-weight fly rods.
The Northern Pike is a snake-shaped fish, rippling with muscle, with a flattened snout bristling with large, conical teeth. The fins are set back close to the tail, designed for powerful bursts of speed. Camouflaged in dark olive with yellow bean-shaped spots, pike lurk in thick cover and shadows, waiting to lunge out and inhale any moving thing smaller than a house cat.
Northern Pike spawn at ice-out, moving into shallow flats to release and fertilize eggs. They are day-time feeders, and unlike a lot of other fish, pike bite best when the sun is high in the sky. My brother and I specialized in targeting post-spawn pike in marshy bays with light colored bottoms where we could target the four-foot long brutes. Dad and John cheered us on.
On that first trip, we spent the next seven days catching fish on every cast, buzzing around in a handmade wooden boat on a huge wilderness lake our father and John had fished together since the 1960s, quaffing mass quantities of Canadian lager and eating our weight in deep fried walleye fillets. We played poker with the men we loved the best every night until the generators kicked off, ate beans from a can, and smoked cigars until our teeth turned brown.
When we returned home, our mother hugged us stiffly at arms length, as if she didn’t recognize us.
We repeated the trip every year after that. We recreated it down to the last detail so that every single aspect of the week – the fishing spots, the meals we ate, the stories we told — all became ritual. The lake became our anchor-point in a shifting world where we were losing traditions.
Our parents moved out of the house we grew up in, they bought a fake Christmas tree, our great-grandparents died and we stopped seeing our once-a-year relatives.
But that lake never changed. We knew every log and rock on the shoreline of that 25-mile lake.
Every year we dreaded the return home from Canada. Not because we wanted to stay. We were physically beaten at the end of seven days: long hours on the water fighting weather and fish, nights spent drinking and marathon eating, a few fitful hours of itchy sleep. No, we dreaded what my brother and I called The Curse of Canada.
Each year we returned to face a new horror, which usually involved our mom ferreting out some secret item under the pretense of cleaning: a failing report card, a journal entry about the neighbor’s amazing rack, the satanic lyrics I’d written for my heavy metal band, a pack of cigarettes, or a pack of condoms.
In later years, the curse’s targeting shifted from our mother to our girlfriends who either cheated on us, or found out we had cheated on them during that week.
We chalked it up to a cosmic tradeoff. No amazingly perfect event could occur (a week-long Bacchanalian fish orgy) without some acute and terrible Karmic balancing event.
We could not pinpoint where the curse would strike, as sometimes it struck both of us, or how the curse would manifest. The not-knowing was the worst of it.
After the initial shock of discovery, the end result of the curse would be to move our lives forward.
Looking back on the curse now, every seemingly terrible event pushed us toward the men we would become.
Every week we spent in Canada was a rejection of video games, and passivity. The trip immersed us in a culture that valued killing animals for food, telling stories, drinking heavily. It taught us to love days spent with men chasing a goal. We climbed into a boat and did something: Navigated a 25 mile lake, located and caught fish, cleaned a stringer of walleyes. There was a satisfaction in doing these things well.
But as we grew older, a true curse that will follow us for the rest of our lives built on the horizon like a June thunder storm.
We had our first glimpses of the curse through John. He would plow through the 14-hour fishing days with near unstoppable energy. But he seemed so tired at night. Yet, he popped sleeping pills and blood pressure medication to keep his frantic body down for a few hours. He’d wake before dawn and make coffee, clomping around the cabin in boots, chomping a cigar in his teeth, trying to wake the world.
John’s mantra: Everything to excess. Garlic marinated pork loins roasted on open fire pit grills, glazed hams steamed in the oven all day, homemade salsa, peanut butter stuffed pretzels, a giant Ziploc of frozen Bear Stroganoff. He grew figs, roasted peppers, butchered game, made wine.
I love food, because of John. I cook almost every day, channeling his energy and trying to recreate the meals we had.
I drag friends into my kitchen to drink beers and tie flies over a greasy, spicy chili made of roast pork, stout and poblano peppers. Or pastas with sun dried tomatoes and hand-made gnocchi. Invariably, my companions bring more beer than should be consumed in one sitting, and we consume it anyway.
This isn’t new ground. Jim Harrison, patron saint of fly anglers everywhere, ate a gross of oysters in one sitting and gave himself gout. I’m fifty pounds overweight, on a crash-course with late-onset Type II diabetes that has killed every man on my father’s side of the family before their 65th birthdays, going back several generations.
My brother and I are binge-drinking alcoholics. Not in the shaky hands, bottle in the desk drawer, can’t keep a job kind of way, at least not yet. But we’re both over thirty and on any given night, could be getting our teeth punched out in a bar in some rotten fishing town. I’ve spent most of my marriage on the ropes, grinding my teeth, hugging my side of the bed, because I can’t fish over 100 days a year anymore.
John initiated us, a man in a primal state — strong and dark and unfettered. He flew and crashed a hot air balloon. He was kicked out of Arizona State, the biggest party college in the Southwest. My brother and I spent the last twenty years trying to live up to his stories.
We understood we were likely taking years off our lifespan with every drunken, tobacco choked night. But who wanted to live through those last few feeble years anyway, dripping piss down the side of your leg in a catheter, couch-bound and bitching about Cleveland sports teams?
Better to die at 45, drunk and sun burnt, in a beautiful woman’s arms, with a knife in our backs in some tropical country.
We committed to catching fish and public drunkenness. We took a week-long vacation and turned it into a life philosophy.
The plan worked, until it didn’t.
Two things happened at once. Our dad’s heart wore out, and I became a father.
One winter the doctors broke open my dad’s sternum and patched his heart because the replacement insulin had worn his organs out faster than expected.
This man with bright red hair and a boy’s smile was our steady constant.
He paid our way to Canada, ran the tiller on the boat, and watched with bemused restraint as my brother and I dove headlong into debauchery.
He wouldn’t say shit if he had a mouthful, as the saying goes, about my brother and I acting like idiots well into middle age. He didn’t say anything, likely because of his role in our path to delinquency.
But I realized our safety net had started to fray, and my body reacted physically.
I heard the clock ticking in the walls, felt my own death coming when my father got sick. I listened to the sound of my pulse thrumming in my ears when I lay drunk in bed. I spent several nights in an emergency room with stuffed lungs and a hand on my heart, trapped between the bed and the ceiling. I felt my teeth dissolving, moles bleeding, all of my life leaking out. And I was afraid.
There’s nothing exciting to say about temperance.
Nobody wistfully remembers mom’s sugar-free pies. No one tells stories about that night all the guys came over and sipped half a light beer. But nobody writes songs about the 35-year old who gets angina walking up a flight of stairs, or feels sick and lightheaded tying a pair of boots either.
I can’t turn off the insidious cravings for nicotine, alcohol, and pasta. Every cell in my body screams for me to put something in my mouth that will kill me. For the past twenty years, the very idea of who I am as a man is wrapped up in excess.
Everybody deals with it. And somehow, we live.
For my boy’s sake, and mine, I struggle to choke down cruciferous vegetables, drink green tea, eat fish oil pills. I swear off drinking every few weeks, and fall off the wagon in shame. My wife says a man never knows what is enough, until his wife tells him it’s enough. So I try to make her happy.
But come June, I’ll be standing in the front of a wooden boat in a shallow bay with a couple of feeder creeks, and I’ll be way too close to a forty-inch pike. I’ll only have a few inches of line hanging out the tip of the rod, and this alligator-sized creature will be nuzzling my fly with its snout, maddeningly slowly creeping after it. The pike’s gills will flare, and it will suck in the sexy black rabbit strip and then buck out of the shallows for the deeper water, dragging the boat.
My brother will eventually reach down and grab the forty-inch fish by the gill plate, remove the hook with a fluidity of movement reserved for humans performing an activity they were born to do, and neither of us will spill our Molsons in the chaos.
I’ll re-enter the real world after a week in Canada and fart loudly at a restaurant with my wife. I’ll crave alcohol and nicotine in the mornings. And I’ll try to drag my bloated, wind-burnt, bug-bitten carcass back onto the wagon, thankful that my wife and son will have me back.