I call them death marches for a reason and when I gave them that name around 14 years ago, it was supposed to be a joke.
With each passing year, the humor seems to fade a little more. The idea behind them is no big deal, it’s just walking. For a mile or so on the shore along a creek or river and another mile or so back in the creek or river. I walk all the time, really no big deal.
This started to change as the walks occurred in more isolated areas. Through woods along the shore that were virtually impenetrable and down rivers and creeks that posed much bigger challenges. I’m determined to continue to do these till I can’t walk any more. Regardless of how much pain it causes.
On June 9th I went on one of these Death Marches. The air was cool,
bugs were virtually non-existent and the hike down the creek turned out to be an ankle buster and then some. Possibly one of the hardest wades I’ve ever done. I took a lot of pictures that day and set aside 33 of them for a post. Would be the world’s longest post. Then, I ran out of words, I didn’t feel like writing anything down so the pictures sat there.
My friend Bob Long, Jr. caught wind of my adventure and was intrigued. Over the next week and a half we spoke and traded email. I sent him a recon photo and detailed directions on how to get to the starting point. Suggestions were made on what to do and not to do. They were very detailed, I thought. I also thought that besides having to come from the south side of Chicago and also being a good 6 years older than me that he might not bother after such detailed descriptions.
He went, he wrote and rewrote things down and kept sending me different versions till I got what’s following. A guest post by Bob Long, Jr. with pictures by me.
Now for sure this is the world’s longest post, you’ve been forewarned. Only seems appropriate that a post about a Death March take on some of the same qualities as the Death March itself.
Any asides I make will either be in bold or in the caption of the photo.
I went to Blackberry Creek with Tenkara fly fishing intentions on my mind. A brand-spanking new, Tenkara rod, some line, a fly. Simple, elegant, read the water, put the fly there, no muss, no fuss.
River rat, Ken Gortowski, aka Ken G on waterdogjournal.com wrote about it: we talked about it too. A cloistered, attractive little creek, barely used, fishy: it all sounded…irresistible – if not sublime.
According to the USGS Real Time Data site for Illinois, Blackberry Creek was running about a foot high even though it had been falling — albeit slowly — for a few days. Not so bad in terms of flow, I thought — I was wondering more about the water’s clarity than the c.f.s.
From when I went to when he went we got a fair amount of rain
I had a walk of about a solid 3/4-to-a-mile from the car to the point upstream where I wished to start fishing. This was far enough in general, but was actually farther than it sounds when decked out in wading gear. It was 89 degrees and humid – normally pretty damn comfy for summer-loving me. I loaded up the fanny pack with my fishing stuff and two 18-ounce bottles of decidedly no longer icy, iced tea. Remember the sweatshirt…
I packed my beat up, falling apart Korkers wading boots (one more season out of them, please), and my strap on Korkers attachment soles to hold the boots together, along with my lightweight, waist-high waders into a plastic shopping bag. I was going to carry these the 3/4-to-a-mile hike across the hot prairie and put them on at the river. I’d wear my light-weight p.j. bottoms, thin socks and gym shoes for the actual walk. Contrary to the CW, I be smart sometimes.
I brought along two Tenkara rods (in case one broke). They collapse so nicely and are so light and easy to tote, how could I not?
I started walking. It was warm yet pleasant in the shade of the parking area. It quickly turned to hot and sunny, and I was soon sweating like a pig. (Being a city boy with no experience with pigs outside of grilling them as ribs or frying them as sausage, I must take this expression at face value, although I have lingering doubts and questions as to why pigs would sweat at all.)
The first half of my walk took me through a old cemetery. I tried not to think of this as omen.
When I was young, invulnerable and eternal, I found cemeteries fascinating. I wondered who it was laying down there; what lives did they lead, having died in 1924, etc. Now that I am two years shy of being a senior citizen, I know who is down there; me. Soon enough — keep walking.
So, I now find cemeteries slightly off-putting and try to keep from imagining that all them there dead people are beckoning me to join them, as Capt. Ahab appeared to be beckoning to his crew to join him in a watery grave as he lay strapped and trapped by harpoon ropes to Moby’s back. I neither see nor hear dead people, and I like it like that.
The graveyard soon ended and I was out on open prairie – butterflies and honey bees over colorful flowers.
To the left of the prairie was a solid, impenetrable wall of deep, dark woods. Inside there – somewhere – ran Blackberry Creek. I sure hoped.
I was told to look for the big, lone tree outside of the left field fence of a high school baseball field. Way off in the distance, partially blurred by heat shimmering over native Illinois prairie grass, lay yon tree. Just behind this tree and to the right would be a little bitty trail in the wall of the impenetrable woods.
I also distinctly remember saying look to your left as you approach the lone tree. Nothing about going past it, nothing about going anywhere right.
There I’d find the entrance to the magical kingdom of Blackberry Creek. “You can’t miss it,” Ken G insisted to me.
Oh yes, I can.
I’ve learned, one man’s “can’t miss” entrance (you could drive a truck though it) is another man’s “barest hint” of an entrance (if that truck is a Tonka toy).
I walked to lone tree, and after four false starts at what looked like they could be itty-bitty trails, but instead turned out to be thicket death traps, I found the trail. “Yea,” I thought wanly. And not a moment too soon as I was getting pooped, hot and sweating like…
I sat in the shade and put on my feather-weight, waist-high waders, but kept on my gymmies. I would put on the Korkers – which weigh like a-pound-and-a-half each — at the river.
I could neither see nor hear nor smell the creek, but Ken G and Google Earth satellites swore it was in there – so who am I to doubt both The Sage of the Woods and NASA? 10 yards into woods the trail petered out into an “abandon all hope of going unpoked, unprodded and unstuck by God Knows what, and proceed at your own risk, mainly by sliding downhill on your ass, as this looks as good as any other alleged section of woody paths.”
It was 60 feet of a 30-degree slant down to the bottom of the ravine.
No one mentioned down. No one mentioned ravine.
Gym shoes don’t do down; cleats do down. (I think Ken may have made note – in passing – about going down a hill a bit.) If he had gone the right way… I imagined Arnold Schwarzenegger sliding down that steep path in “Predator.” I probably looked more like a middle-aged Oompa-Loompa bouncing downhill to a face plant.
I came out of my slide on what I can only think of as private property, what with freshly mowed grass, a manicured pond, a picnic table and some chairs in the midst of a forest. I just knew there were a couple of red dots criss-crossing my chest.
“Got another one, Ma.”
I expected sounds from “Band of Brothers” or “Saving Private Ryan” at any moment: shotgun blasts, M-16 rounds, the distinctive rat-ta-tat of a Maschinengewehr 42 machine gun, mortar rounds, bullets zinging by, lead striking the ground and churning up divots of earth. (I do have quite the imagination.) My pace quickened towards a clump of high grass that looked like the type that borders water. Another 40 yards and I found the creek; a mere sliver of a river. I thought it would be wider. I sat at the water’s edge and put on the wading shoes. I tied my gymmies to my wading belt.
I was by flowing water. My pulse slowed; my mind quieted; my breathing became deeper. I was sitting on the edge of an exquisite, flowing water Shangri-La – a picture perfect, shallow, rocky, winsome, winding creek with a gently arching canopy of trees and lush grasses along the banks.
I could see text book riffle-run-glide-pool structure. It was an isolated creek away from everyone and everything. It was mine and mine alone.
My joy was tempered by my being so pooped. I was sweating even more profusely, something had stuck me in the butt on my slide, and I was looking at a four hour wade back to the car. All I really wanted was some ice tea, a cool bed and a nap. I can always fantasize about fly fishing for smallies; dreams are often better than the real thing.
I opened and set up my brand new, 12-foot, 7:3 action, Tenkara Fly Rod (it’s a beauty) and attached my furled tapered leader, some tippet and a newly tied white, bead-headed woolly bugger. I was ready for freddie.
Though one-foot higher than when I last visited this water (fishing far downstream from where I now was) it would still be a marvelous wade and fish even at this current flow, I thought. If the water was clear. Unfortunately, it wasn’t clear. The visibility was 3-to-6-inches at best. At…best. It was going to make wading a bit more difficult because – with this poor clarity — I wouldn’t be able to see the many “rocks that roll” in such waters. I’ve good balance, but I’ve learned not to be all arrogant about it as opportunities to gain humility and an ER visit abound. There is always a round, mossy rock with the name of one’s ankle waiting for everyone out there somewhere.
With my wading staff in hand, I got my sea-legs and began to cast; to get a feel for this delicious new rod; to get a feel for the close quarters, a feel for the drift and flow, to feel the fly moving in the current. I hooked a five-inch bluegill in fast water. I hooked a spunky chub another few feet away. Letting the fly swim just under the surface of a glide I hooked a frisky, red-eyed 8-inch smallmouth.
“Tenkara!” I yelled triumphantly.
The rod snapped in half, five sections down from the tip.
WTF? It just snapped. What? No. I hit nothing, I nicked nothing. It had never been used. It simply snapped. At the very start of the journey. WTF-squared? (Now you see why two rods.) You know how you stare at something sometimes? Like, no this can’t be? What just happened? Huh? WTF to the 10th power…! Oh boy, was this gonna’ be a long day, a long wade.
I picked up the leader from the water and hand lined in my now docile 8-inch smallie (I think it was sniggering at me.) I took the line off the top part of the rod and stuffed the remaining half of the rod in the waist band of my fanny pack. I took out my second rod, another brand, and rigged it up.
Now, of course, I am spooked. I don’t wanna’ break another rod (I don’t have a third). It is a bitch to fish in fear; of every fish, every branch, every twig on every branch, just the thickness of plain air.
I quickly admitted: Tenkara is simply not practical for such waters. There is just no room to overhead or sidearm cast. That gently arching canopy of trees had morphed into a twiggy-woody-branchy tangle of Giant Deep-Sea Squid tentacles reaching down to engulf me.
I could only flip, pitch, dapple the fly or whatever; there was simply too much overhead and overhang. Well, duh, I’ve only been saying this endlessly for nearly 18 years.
I sensed and accepted that things had gone downhill on me. I thought of an expression I know: “just because things go bad doesn’t mean you have to go with them.” It offered comfort. Some comfort. A little comfort. A double shot of Southern Comfort woulda’ been better though.
Oh well, the car was a long way downstream, and downstream beats climbing back up the ravine. Time to keep on keepin’ on. Keep on truckin’.
Oh, and it hadn’t cooled down. I expected that being on a stream at the bottom of a ravine under a canopy of trees would be cooler. It wasn’t. I thought I sensed a bit of mist. It was steam rising from my head. The only difference between the heat of the sun-baked prairie up there and the sauna-like conditions down here, was that up there, there was a breeze. A hot breeze, mind you, but a breeze nonetheless God-dammit.
As was said before – and will be said again – the long walk from the car, the journey through the jungle, the struggle with the rod, had me sweating like that visit for an audit by IRS the first year after you decide to do your own home-business taxes. And it was to remain as such. I never, ever cooled down, and was coming to realize I was never gonna’ cool down – possibly ever again in life.
I was a wet noodle the whole damn time. Sweat in my eyes, in my mouth, down my back. The towel-like doo-rag under my straw hat needed to be wrung out every 15 minutes. No. I was even wetter than that, and limper too. I was as wet and limp as you are after a really big orgasm and ejaculation. How’s that for wet and limp, huh?
So, I continued my journey downstream. The water wasn’t deep, nor treacherously fast. It was just that – even with wading staff in hand – I was trying to watch where my rod went, how the fly was drifting, and where my feet were stepping. But, I was slipping on rocks a’rollin’ all the time.
Mind you, the water – the creek — was marvelous in terms of structure; pool, run, glide, riffle. If it had been clear I would have known exactly where fish and change in depth were. It was simply the color of Miso soup without the scallions. I couldn’t concentrate due to the Tenkara Rod tip, the leader and the fly were now catching on everything catchable, and a few things that weren’t.
I caught no more fish. None. Not one. Zilch. Nada. Two small smallies, one panfish, one chub.
A fish – any fish, a crayfish dammit — would have been balm on a wound, but, nope. Not to be. And, the water was getting dirtier going down stream. How’s zat? I saw no stained rivulets feeding into the creek.
I hit two deep pools. They would have been moderately deep pools with 12 inches less water, but not today, not with waist high waders on. I had to break down the rod and portage – twice. The gently swaying grasses and trees at the start of my wade and turned into a “Heart of Darkness” tangle of jungle. I picked up some deer paths and followed them along the river’s edge through only semi-impenetrable undergrowth.
I distinctly remember telling him numerous times not to go into the woods, for any reason. Did that a few years ago. It was one of most God awful experiences of my life. 100 yards in and I wanted to die.
As I went rumblin’, bumblin’, stumblin’ along the waist high grass, I spooked a fawn not two feet from me. It jumped two feet high in one direction: I jumped three. Didn’t see that that comin’.
Yes, I admit it; I screeched like a girl. A six-year-old girl. “Oh c’mon God. A heart attack too? C’mon man.”
I was getting stuck, poked, prodded, scraped, stung. Stung? Bugs? So, that’s what those intense buzzing sounds meant. I wondered, but feared to stop and investigate? I needed to get back in the water.
“Really?” I thought. “Really? This is fun?” “Ten-fucking-Kara” I yelled at the leaping fawn crackling his way though high grass and fallen trees to wherever.
I knew, just knew, there were some big, 20-pointed, male deer – antlers sharpened – quietly watching me from the grass, waiting for me to stumble, waiting to gore me in the ass when I was down. “Explain that, Mr. Fisherman.”
Damn Greg Larson cartoons.
Then, of course, my Korkers wading boot attachments, the ones holding my boots together, decided to detach themselves – repeatedly. Six times. Yep. Six. Times. Why the “F” not?”
This required stopping, sitting, bending, getting a leg up across the other so I could reach the laces, and struggling to refit and retie the damn things while I – apparently giving off a really strong and heady mix of carbon dioxide and fresh blood – was fighting off increasingly aggressive flies, mosquitoes and some mystery red and black, big-assed flying bug with a huge profile and a really ominous buzzing sound.
Ok, now I am fishless, frustrated, and feeling dry-fucked with nary a kiss nor lubricant.
Still, I must say, when the sunlight penetrated the canopy, it was actually a very pretty place; a picture perfect, fly fishing and wading stream.
When it didn’t however, it was a dark, brooding, Grimm’s brother’s Hansel and Gretel slog through a deep, dark, “the-nightmare-before-Gran’ma’-and-the-Wolf eats you” tale of terror. (I now know where I’ll bury a body, ne’er to found, should such a need arise.)
The rod that broke – the one I was going to send back to the manufacturer for analysis, repair, replacement or reimbursement — came loose from my belt, and fell in the river at my feet.
It was only in 16-inches of water. But, I was too pooped to pop, and I knew if I bent over and tried to grab it, or chase it down stream, I’d do a face plant in the water and – being of the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” age group – I’d drift aimlessly, and helplessly downstream, eventually to settle securely – tragically — under some damn log.
“Fuck it,” I said as I watched the cork-handled rod floating slowly away. So…slowly…away.
It wanted me to give chase. It wanted me to come after it. It taunted me “you need me for proof of the break,” it said, “to get your money back,” knowing a set of getaway riffles – where it could pick up speed and stay just out of reach — was just inches away. It wanted me try for it; to take a header, to make an ungainly splat as if I’d made a bad dive from the three meter board. It wanted me dead; under some fucking log.
Oh God, I just noticed; my mouth was dry. I mean, dry. How dry was it? It was as dry as an 80-year-old virgin’s cootchie. I chuckled at that one. My last laugh before death?
I had tea in two bottles in my waist pack, but when I stopped to try to open them, the flies and mosquitoes and that big, red and black mystery bug with ominous buzzer said “You stop to drink, we stop to drink.” I’d better drink while wading. Keep moving. Keep tripping over rocks that roll. Damn those fucking screw tops with the shrink-wrapped, un-openable plastic wraps around them. Damn them. I guzzled my tea. I got half in my mouth, half on my face. Hey, you try to guzzle all dainty-like while stumbling down a stream with gathering hordes of buzzing cannibals calling your name.
I felt I was in some stinking WWII, Burma jungle, dysentery-infested stream with Merrill’s Marauders. Didn’t they film some scenes in “Indiana Jones and the Blackberry Creek Fiasco” here?
I made the four hour wade back to the car in 2 hours and maybe 30 minutes. This including hangups, snagups, rocks-a-rolling ankle twists, stopping to retie shoes, portaging, attempting to pee (Damn you prostate! I need a stream, not some tinkles. I’m in a hurry! I need to get me out of here before some mosquitoes peck my pecker, dammit). I was fucking flying downstream. I ached: everywhere. I was breathing like Jabba-the-Hutt. I was sweating like… You know the drill. I had my Korkers in my hand by now – I’d given up retying. My soaking wet gym shoes were hanging off me, my face was scratched up and red as a beet, my head was still steaming, and I was both glassy-eyed, and wild-eyed at once.
But, I made it. The walk-out point. I crawled out. I crawled up the little hill, through the last – please God please – of the thickets, and I was in the clear. The car was but a mere 75-yards across a now muddy lot that had been dry and firm when I left. Without the Korkers attachments the soles of both of my wading boots had come loose and flapped like tongues as I waded. The last two hundred yards of river, I had pushed more water than a coal-laden river barge. I tried to lift my feet, but “them times were long gone.” They would only drag the stream bottom. Now, on muddy land, they only shoveled up clumps of mud and grass with each dragging step across the lot.
I had become an earth-mover. Oh Lord.
I had to pass a car full of kids and a man and a woman. I tried to pull myself together and look…somewhat civilized (or less savage). They rolled up their windows and hid down out of sight on the seats. Normally, I’d have been embarrassed, but I didn’t have it left in me. I did not look at them as I passed by with my Quasimodo shuffle.
Still, I fucking made it.
I took off everything but my underwear. I was sitting on the back ledge of the car, rear hatch up. The car with the man and woman and kids stopped in front of me. They actually stopped and stared at me.
“How was fishing? Anything?”
Really? I thought. I look like this and You got nerve to ask me that?
You know how you can be so tired, or so drunk, you can hear the words in your brain, but they come out a groveling, grumbling, slurring, growling, mushed up, cotton-mouth, high-pitched yawn of sound. That’s how the words sounded in my brain. I don’t know what I said out of my mouth.
“Well, better luck next time,” said the man apparently quite capable of understanding “slur” – the kids were still huddled down fearfully in the backseat.
I drove home in my underwear. The windows down, the air conditioner on. It started to rain. The temp dropped from 84 to 64 in a few miles. The windows up, the heater on. Then all the wet in the car increased the humidity and every window fogged up. The windows down, the rain in, the air on, the heater on.
Home. My legs cramped up all fucking night long — not just the hammies and the calves — but my thighs, the inside of the thighs, my shins, behind my knees, my toes. All…at…once. I was expecting butt and groin cramps too, but Allah favors the Truly Wretched.
I am 63 years old, dammit. I am in pretty good shape. But, I am 63 years old dammit, hoping I get to see 64. One day I will remember that and learn to stop pretending I am some 40 year old, Lewis & Clark wannabe on a lark.
In the end, Tenkara still lives for me. But, I’ll save it for the wide open spaces and the unobstructed runs, glides and broken water pools of the Kankakee and the Fox during the low water months of July and August. I’ll be the one off-shore; way off shore.
I will return to Blackberry Creek too. In the fall. However, next time I will bring the 5.5-foot, lightweight, G. Loomis spinning rod, the Producto plastic lures, fresh maggots, some 3-inch, smoke-colored twister tails and 1/16 ounce jigs, some small-bladed jig spinners (gold, silver), a small surface crankbait, and a small crayfish crankbait and a couple of little soft worms for wacky rigging (unweighted, it works for larger fish in small-stream, quiet pools near current flows).
Next time, I’ll also bring the bug spray in a can and as an I.V. I’ll have some brand new Korkers wading boots. (Come to think of it, an army-surplus flame-thrower would be nice too.) The temperature will be in the 70s. I’ll start in the morning so I can take my time wading with no fear of sunset and “the ominous sounds that come from the woods in the dark and the blood sucking bugs” pushing me on.
I’ll get some fish. I am sure that the high water has brought many panfish, bass, crappie and spunky chubs up stream and they will take up residence in those luscious pools, glides and runs and along those marvelous current flows. And, I’ll have Ken G with me.
Ain’t fishing fun? Actually, yes it is. Wondrously so.
Barely alive with five pounds of water-loss,
Bob Long, Jr.
Couldn’t figure out where to put the last of the pictures.