The Palouse River canyon was formed during the catastrophic Missoula Floods between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago, but today all is calm on the river in the soft morning light. We see a mule deer on shore, limping through the brush. We take note of mergansers, coots, a harrier hawk, Canada geese and magpies. The naturalist identifies the call of a canyon wren and we visit nests abandoned by cliff swallows.
I take all this in. I smell the sage, examine the beaver dam, admire the cattails and am delighted to learn that Daffy Duck is a scoter – a sea duck. This naturalist knows a lot about many things.
Most of all, I find myself fixated on the outboard motor and the wake behind it.
Being dressed and sitting anywhere by 8:45 a.m. is not natural for me. I like the night, and am fairly slow and stupid in the morning, even on those rare occasions when I am up, dressed and out the door. First, I think I'm staring at the outboard because I am in my morning daze. This annoys me. I purposely turn to the nearest hillside and snap a picture or two. Then my attention is drawn back to the outboard motor once again.
Suddenly it hits me: I'VE DRIVEN A BOAT!
I have, many times, on boats with an outboard much like the one I've been staring at on this morning.
Daddy liked to fish -- no, he loved to fish – and we owned an outboard motor that hung in our garage. Many of our family vacations were spent at lakes, mostly in southern Missouri. Lake Wappapello. Lake Killarney. The Lake of the Ozarks. I’ve been fishing in all of them, and sometimes, Daddy let me steer the boats we rented.
I was better at steering than I was at baiting hooks. Daddy taught me how to safely handle a hook, but I didn’t want to touch the bait. If we were fishing with minnows, I’d wrap the tiny fish in a tissue before putting it on the hook. Because the tissue obscured the hook, most often I would pierce the minnow repeatedly, and it would bleed all over the tissue. I refused to touch a worm, wrapped or not.
Daddy put up with all this, and we both were thrilled the day I caught three crappie on one nightcrawler.
We spent so many weekends at one family-owned lodge in the Ozarks that the owners featured a picture of Daddy with his catch on their brochure. When he wasn’t fishing with the family, Daddy was off on a weekend trip with his fishing buddies, most often on the White River in Arkansas.
I grew up eating fresh trout back when you ate a slice of Wonderbread with every bite of fish, to enrobe any stray bones you may have swallowed. It was Daddy who taught me to efficiently debone a trout one night after I had complained more than usual about all the bones.
“The bones hold the fish together,” he said. “If there were no bones, there would be no fish.” He also tried to teach me to savor crispy, cornmeal-encrusted, fried fish tails -- but that didn’t take.
At home, I was always served a fish with the head removed, which was also my mother’s preference. A few years later, on a rare non-fishing vacation in Colorado, we were served trout with the heads on. Mom showed me how to cover the head with my napkin, saw it off with my knife and slip the head under the coffee cup, all without ever looking the dead fish in the eye.
I still do that. Sometimes, I warn my server.
Another moment on the river cruise involved fish, or at least artistic expressions of them. Riding on a tour bus, heading for the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center in The Dalles, Ore., we learned that some years ago a fellow had been released from the local jail to make metal sculptures of fish to decorate one side of a bridge in town. When he finished the work, the man disappeared.
Later, he was caught and returned to jail, and his sentence was extended. Then a city official decided metal fish sculptures should grace the other side of the bridge as well. The metalsmith was released once again, and promised a shorter sentence. He made the sculptures, including a beautiful pair now on display at the Discovery Center, and he disappeared once again. Then the tour guide told us that rumor has it that the metalsmith is now a tour bus driver.
How’s that for a great fish tale?
I don't believe the end of that story, but I remain delighted that an early morning cruise on the Palouse River brought back fond memories of my days driving boats in Missouri lakes. I don’t fish now – don’t ask me.