Monday, March 7, 2011



(Part two of Taking Time Out)

It was quite a contrast from how this same park felt 40 years ago when my family often camped in it. No camping allowed now, but back then campers of all sorts were packed in like a game of pick-up sticks thrown down from a being in the sky. Boats would be lined up and down the bank, tied to anything that would hold them still or just drug up on the gravel so far they could not float away. A couple dozen kids wandered between campers and boats and old men fishing, exploring all of the sticks and rocks and creatures within ear shot of their parent’s voices, waiting for the call to come back for dinner, hoping it would not come for some time. I was one of those kids. Maybe I still am, as I had stopped to buy food, but still had more important things to do than eat.

I studied the river bank as I has not been here for some time. The boat ramp, a simple slab of concrete poured into the surrounding gravel parking lot was probably invisible to most that pass by these days. There was no sign or buoy to designate its’ presence. It just existed as it had for decades, even before the huge dam a few miles upstream had been constructed. This ramp was here before the “new” Drakes Harbor fine and fancy ramps and dock. It was here before the many other new ramps up and down the banks every few miles now. This used to be “headquarters” for local river activity but was now almost abandoned for working uses like the nearby “swinging bridge”.

That single lane wood planked highway bridge has long been closed to truck and car traffic and is just a novelty now, for pedestrians to stroll across and observe the river traffic below. Designed by an amateur named Joe Dice who helped with many bridges in and around Benton County, it has been replaced by sophisticated bridges designed by sophisticated engineers. Most of its’ kind are long gone. I notice the litter of ropes hanging toward the water off of the support cables under the bridge and wonder why there are no boats tied to them, with someone fishing out of them as I have seen so many times before.
Modern day postcard image of old and new bridges at Warsaw, Missouri

I see several cars meeting each other as they cross that new sophisticated concrete bridge high above the park, and I wonder how frustrated would those drivers have been if the old bridge was still the only way across. When I was young I watched my dad slow down and stop as we approached these single lane swinging bridges. The crown in the bridge suspension system made it so that you could not see the other end of the bridge as you approached. The only way to know if there was a vehicle coming to meet you was to stop and look to see if the bridge cables were moving or swinging from the vibration of a vehicle driving on the wood plank floor. On rare occasion two vehicles would still meet somewhere near the middle of the bridge and one would have to back out of the way off of the bridge, sometimes a tense few moments. Eventually electric traffic signals were installed on this old bridge and some others like it.

I had a flashback to newspaper headlines in the local paper about a heavy tractor trailer rig falling through the floor of the bridge, putting it out of service for many days. I saw and heard stories about this and other similar bridges several times. One in particular stands out in my memory as a husband and wife in the truck both drowned in the river together. Remembering this tragedy for strangers I never met, I stop and say a prayer for them and their families while staring at the cold river water rushing under the old bridge. I hear the voice of my great uncle reminding me to “always respect the river.”
Old postcard image of a different bridge near Warsaw, Missouri
(The bridge had collapsed due to the weight of cattle crossing it)

I parked my old truck slightly up the bank from the boat ramp and just past the big rock so I would be out of the way, even though I was currently the only person in the whole park. My grandmother used to tell me “Manners always matter.” Looking at the litter on the river bank I surmised not everyone heard that message quite the same way I did.

I grabbed my tackle box, a tub of worms, and two fishing rods from the back of the truck and walked down a well worn path to find just the right spot to sit a while. I had probably 35 or 40 different lures in that box, but I am my father’s disciple and believe as he often said “there is no bait better than live bait.” I threaded fat night crawlers onto hooks and cast both lines out into the river. I took the most relaxing breath of the day. I had made it just in time. It would be getting dark soon, as the daylight hours are short in early March.

As I settled into my surroundings and looked around I wondered how many times I had seen kids fishing off the nearby rocks, how many times I had seen them swimming there too. How odd that I was alone in a place where I knew thousands of people had been before. I could almost hear the children laughing and screaming. I know that one biggest rock serves as a landmark for lots of people.

A cold gust of wind blew some trash between me and the river. It was an empty plastic bag. I don’t know if it was my Boy Scout training, hearing the voices of another generation, or my Native American heritage, but without thinking I grabbed that bag. I filled it with empty food wrappers, old bits of fishing line, empty and not quite empty pop cans, gum wrappers, cigarette packages, and other unidentifiable pieces of trash that had been left there, blown there, or floated there. I emptied it into the garbage can about 50 yards away three times. It was good exercise for the old heart, for both the one I have in my body with a little stent and the one I have in my soul with some little patches. Unfortunately it was not enough exercise to keep my body warm. I walked back to the truck to get my heavy coat. I decided that the folding chair and battery powered lantern would go with me to. It was almost dark.

Dusk and dawn are my favorite times of day. It is so with many of nature’s creatures as it is a time when the world is busy with creatures of both the day and night often moving about at the same time. I sat in my chair and enjoyed the symphony of birds, wind, and water noises surrounding me. I saw turtles swim off the dead tree they had been basking on. I watched a raccoon make its’ way along the bank scavenging for supplies. A heron waded along the bank near me looking for something to eat. I had been so still and quiet and it had been so focused on the river that only a few yards from me did it realize I, one of those annoying human trespassers, was present. It squawked at me and hurried past, but stayed not too far away. A good omen for me, because if the heron like to fish here, there is good fishing here.

Just as the sinking sun was starting to make the waves and ripples on the river turn many colors one of my fishing poles fell off the rock it was propped against. I picked it up to find that a fish had hooked itself and was ready to be reeled to shore. Feeling the life on the other end of that line was something I hadn’t experienced for far too long. The fight was far too short. “It’s just a drum,” as my dad would have said. “so boney and hard to prepare, not fit for us to eat.” It was pretty small too, less than a pound. I took it off the hook and chucked it up the bank toward the heron. No squawking, no thank you, but the heron took his dinner as he found it. I opened my Oscar Mayer Lunchable and began to eat the sad little crackers and pieces of “meat “and cheese products. I washed them down with a small bottle of Welch’s 100% grape juice. I ate slowly and thankfully.

Eventually I caught a 3 pound channel catfish. I put it on a stringer to keep it for a later meal with my wife. After dark I decided to try out a lighted bobber I had received in my Christmas stocking. I’d throw it upstream and watch it float downstream over and over, entertaining myself by aiming at various ripples or twigs that were floating by. On one such pass I caught a 12” crappie. The last time I cast out that bobber a 3 pound bass it the bait just as it hit the water. It was a ferocious bite and startled me. I was a little stunned as I fought to bring in that fish. I landed it and was admiring it when I noticed the lighted bobber floating down the river. The bass strike was so violent that it had knocked the bobber free from my line. I put the bass on the stringer with the catfish and crappie.

For some unmeasured time I sat silent, reverently watching the bobber slowly float away, feeling grateful for the joy of the day’s experiences, feeling full. I hoped that a kid or another old man would find my lighted bobber and put it to good use someplace downstream. so that it would not become litter. I watched as constellations of stars rose into and across the night sky. It was too cold for an old man to be comfortable, but that same cold had kept the park quiet and private, just for me that one night. Eventually I cleaned the fish, leaving the parts I did not want for the raccoon or others right there on the river bank.

That was an interesting stringer of fish. Not the most impressive for sure. It probably doesn’t seem to most folks like me or the heron or the raccoon had that great a night. That is not true. I believe all of the two legged and 4 legged animals, and all of the other creations of my higher power are my relations. That night on the river bank we heard a great chorus equal to any I ever heard. We saw a great show. We took communion together as our higher power watched over us and provided for us, experiencing no less of a miracle than I’ve witnessed in any mass or church service anywhere, anytime. I continued along my journey feeling well fed.

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