Ed Sniece walks the river road like his daddy and grandfather before. Some days he strides along, taking much of the waterway for granted, lost in thought or trailing the distant calls of a pileated woodpecker pair.
After the first rains of autumn he often lingers, searching for a spawning bed or where the stream laps under and around a hollow stump that stretches its gnarled trunk from the riverbank. Salmon and trout have thought themselves hidden there, for generations.
But the steelhead don't run like they did before, when Ed, as a lad, watched schools so thick they shoved each other onto gravel bars. Ed and his siblings would pick up the stranded fish, pick them up and toss them ahead to deeper waters. Of course, they had their long-handled spears back then, too, for lantern light salmon hunts in tidewater.
This particular damp, fall day, Ed ducks beneath a tangle of willow to lean against an alder where a logjam covers the river; twenty-five feet across and twice as long. Drift piles his dad had called them. And they were double-edged swords: a quick way to scramble over the river to the other side when the water was high; a quick way to drown when someone slipped between the shifting logs.
Before his daddy's time, when grandfather cruised the woods and the great-uncles chopped the big trees down, the river was dammed, not far east of Ed's place. After the Second War the lumber company blew out the dam, cattails reigning there now.
In those halcyon days of logging restrained only by the terrain, Ed knew that drift piles were a rarity. Young men, less skilled than choppers and millwrights, were employed to keep the occasional drift of cull logs and large branches broken apart, so hundreds of freshly sawn logs could ride the force of a freshet downstream to the boom and the mill itself.
For a half hour Ed stands his ground in the shadows, letting the willow thicket scratch his neck. Once he could smell the salmon coming; now, just the rushing water lifting the faintest hint of mud from his nostrils. He waits, to spot a fish, a single one. Though his vision isn't hawk-eyed as it once was, nary a steelhead passes.
Time slides on while the mind is apt to idle or slink back. Ed's great-uncle, Fin, had started out breaking drifts apart when he was scarce twelve or thirteen. Corkscrew boots and a long, steel-hooked pole proved the tools of the trade. His grownup sister, Lil, warned, “You don't know how to swim.”
“Don't intend to need the skill, sister,” said Fin, a boy then, sprouting near six feet, prone to pie, but stuck between string and bean. He'd never fill out.
“Fin they call me, not Irish,” he informed strangers who jumped to conclusion, “Finley for full; Highland Scots by heritage.”
Ed always chuckles at the mix in his ancestry. The Snieces were Normans in origin, blown across the English Channel by the fair winds of William the Conqueror.
“Sniece,” Ed is fond of saying. “Rhymes with a piece of pie. Any way you slice it, still Sniece.”
Out in midstream, something silver and pink flashes by in a blur. “One,” he counts aloud then flips open his pocket watch. “One in forty-two minutes.”
The watch has passed down from Finley. If there'd been more ancestral hands on it, Ed wasn't aware, but like all his kinsmen he'd wound tight the memory of his great-uncle's fate.
For weeks, or was it months, Fin had hopscotched from shore to jam, prodding logs free from underwater rocks and snags, sinkers neither man nor boy could spy in the murky depths. Then a November day, not long after Halloween, and a week or more of rain swelled the river; they let the dam open and a thousand logs rushed westward with the tide. Redwood four, five, six feet wide and two or three times as long ran a watery stampede.
Young Finley stood on the bank just the other side of Slaughterhouse Gulch, parrying the first logs that stuck in the riverbank. Whether it was he or the pole that slipped no one knows, but off the slippery shore he went, left hip scraping peeled sap. Under like a cork with too much weight. Didn't let go his pole they say.
Fin couldn't swim, but he darn well had learned how to hold his breath. The current swept him under, but he swung that pole against the logs above like a man trying to beat the rapids. And in a minute, maybe two, he propelled himself out front of those logs, rose like a denim-backed fish and gulped a lifetime's fill of fresh air.
Tidewater shoved him down once more. He spun himself toward an open light, remembering his sister's words, “Even a non-swimmer can dog paddle under water.”
He lost the pole in the last flail and sprawl, but he made the south shore with a lunge and crawl.
Ed's aging hands flip the watch open again. An hour gone and just the one glimpse of a fish bound upstream. He smiles at the punch line of Great-uncle Fin's tale. How he'd have gotten out from under those logs sooner if he hadn't had to swim through thousands of steelhead headed the other way.
A Great Blue Heron alights on the opposite bank. Ed backs slow and easy through the willows, whispering, “River's all yours.”
Ed Sniece walks the river road like his daddy and grandfather did. Some days he stops at a particular spot. Other times he trudges homeward flooded by thoughts of those who trod before, until he glances over at a swamp of cattails. Then he shakes his head and mutters, “I've gone too far.”
(The original Sniece story can be found at: malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com.)