November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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On The Run/CNF

beginning

Benjamin Burgholzer photo.

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On the Run

by Benjamin Burgholzer

 * * *

I watched the way the railroad tracks and the power lines seemed to move and flow in perfect unison beside the road. The way each progressed, advanced, and continued without pause.  The way they laid perpendicular to the rolling waves of an incoming twenty-eight foot tide. The way they lay parallel to the untouched snow-capped volcanoes on the far bank of the Inlet. I wondered if anyone was on that opposing bank, watching the cars pass.

We drove south on the narrowing road between Anchorage and Cooper’s Landing, the two towns connected by roads only 60 years prior to build a gas pipeline that lay between the mountains. We drove until we saw the bright blue glacial waters of the Kenai River for the first time, full of things we could not see but thought we could find there.

Cooper’s Landing: named after the miner who found gold there in 1848, had a population of 21 at the turn of the century. 20 miners and 1 of their wives. Now the population has grown to 368, many of whom are guides, fishermen, and outdoorsmen that are guaranteed a gold rush every year between June and September when the salmon return home to spawn.

We pulled into the first fly shop we saw. Crowded and busy. Banners of every major fly fishing company that covered a large portion of front of the log cabin styled building, the first of eight with this same look in a two-mile stretch of road. The parking lot was almost full. We pulled into the last two spots and walked inside, discouraged from the days without a fish up north, hopeful for the trip south.

An employee was there to greet us as we swung open the door. He was young with a lengthy beard that smelled like wet cigarettes. Every piece of outdoor clothing he wore was expensive and unused.

“How you all doin’ today?” He smiled and nodded as he spoke.

“Ehh just came from up north. No Kings anywhere, so we headed down here. Where are the fish?” Sean asked.

“Yea bummer about the Kings. 30-year low. But the fish are everywhere man, this is the Kenai.”

“What’s the best place to go for salmon?” I asked.

“Sockeye? Oh they’re gone man. You just missed the first run. Where were you last week?”
“New York. What do you mean they’re gone?” I asked.
“Oh shit man New York? That’s craaazy far,” he leaned back when he said crazy. “I could never live in the city. But yea the Russian was averaging about 200k a week all last week.  The late run won’t start up for about another week or two. How long are you here for?”

“We’re not from the city,” I said

“About another week or two,” Larry said.

“Oh. Bad timing bros. You can catch ’em in a boat pretty easy if you hit the lake. I think we have one more drift boat still open for this afternoon, if …”

“Wait, some should still be around then I would think, no?” Sean interjected.

“Well yea. But no, not really. The fish counter is up by the top of the river, so by time those numbers come through it’s already too late to catch any of them. They’re all in the Upper Russian. You can check it out but there’s a fuckload of bears up there. There’s trout everywhere if …”

“How many bears is a fuckload?” Sean asked.

“A fuckload.” The guide laughed. None of us were laughing. “Well I mean, there are four of you so you’d probably be okay if you wanted to go check it out. You got bear spray?”

“Probably? Yeah we do, but…” Danny said.

“Yea, just don’t get in their way. You dudes will probably be fine.”

“…don’t get in their way?” I repeated.
“Yeah man,” He nodded for too long. “You boys know there’s plenty of places to trout fish if-“

“Yea. We know. We can trout fish back home.” I said.

“There’s trout in New York City?”

“We aren’t from New York City,” I said again.

“Oh. Well we’re having a big sale on trout rigs, guides, gear, flies, whatever you need we …“

We walked out of the shop with the employee still speaking.

“What do you all want to do?” Larry asked.

“We might as well go check it out. There’s gotta be some fish around,” Sean responded.

“Check what out?” I asked.

“The Upper Russian,” Sean said.

“And what about the bears?” Larry asked.

“Fuck the bears,” Danny smiled.

I thought of a grizzly story told to me by a stranger on a cold river bank in February while we waited for the sun to come up.

            “Yea them grizzly’s ain’t no joke. You’re supposed to shoot them in the shoulder blades, cripple ‘em, cuz a 1200 lb, 8 foot, wounded sum bitch won’t stop looking for who hurt them ‘til they find it, destroy it. My first time we got dropped in way north, buddy a mine flies, no roads up there, no towns, nothin’. First day we dropped in we go out and see a little male ‘bout 7 ft, 800 pounds, a little guy, in this tall grass ‘bout 200 yards out. Kept poppin’ his head up, goin’ back down. Musta been eatin’ somethin. Poppin’ his head up, goin’ back down. My buddy kept sayin’, “Wait for him to get out of that grass and turn sideways or you ain’t doin’ shit.” After ‘bout two fuckin hours watchin’ that sum bitch pop up and go back down I said fuck it, took a shot when he was popped up with the .450 and baboom!”

He was holding his hands like a rifle pointing it at me, faking the recoil with every shot.

“Watched a chunk of ‘em fly out his back the size of a softball and he didn’t even flinch. Just stood up a little taller and started sniffin’ round with that nose a his. I put another shot in em. Baboom! Right in the lung this time. He gets back down, I take him for dead but stay there waitin til he comes sprintin’ out that tall grass and goes back up on his back legs, sniffin’ ‘round. Baboom! Other lung this time. Sum bitch saw that shot, took off runnin full speed towards us tryn real hard to figure out right where we was at. Baboom! Fourth shot, gut shot, didn’t even slow that sum bitch down. Baboom! Fifth shot, finally got that sum bitch in the shoulder and he rolled out. Paced it out later, that sum bitch only had ‘bout 50 yards to go fore we was lunch. We found some slugs in his skull too, all healed over and whatnot from god knows when. Hope that sum bitch was lucky as us. Had meat for years off that sum bitch.”

“You know how many grizzly bears is too many grizzly bears? One fucking grizzly bear is too many grizzly bears, I don’t …” Larry said.

“Let’s just walk up from the Lower Russian and see where we end up and take it from there. We can’t fish the Kenai here without a boat anyway, the water’s too big, and I’m not paying for a fucking boat,” Danny said.

We all agreed and got back in the vans.

We drove a few more miles in search of a place to park and hike down to the river. ‘No Parking Any Time’ signs dictated that we pull into an access point of the Russian River. We waited in the line of cars until we got to the information booth.

“How ya’ll doin? That’ll be ten dollars per vehicle per 12 hours.”

“Ten dollars just to park? So we gotta come back here in 12 hours and pay again? Is there anything for cheaper if we decided to stay longer?” I asked.
“We can charge you all at once if you want, but you can’t sleep overnight though unless you got a campsite, but that’s extra too. No sleeping in vehicles here.”

I grumbled and handed over the money. We drove through the labyrinth of campers, 5th wheels, and RV’s. Families, children, retired couples, tourists. The spectacle of it.  We drove through another packed parking lot until we saw two spots.

People were everywhere. Some in waders, some with strollers, some with cameras. All there for the salmon, but for different reasons. We suited up. Waders, boots, rods, reels, vests, packs, polarized, pliers, knives, bear spray, cameras, zippers, snaps, and clicks.

“It’s fucking insane how many people are here,” I said, but nobody responded.

We followed the small mass of people to the trailhead. We were welcomed by signs warning of bear sightings. Signs with maps. Signs of warning about littering. To ease our adventure down to the river was a platform of aluminum stairs with aluminum railings. We followed the stairs down until the trail split and lead to a boardwalk made of composite wood that lay parallel to the river in both directions. We paused there, all confused and looking for a way into the river. The banks were closed, blocked off with mesh netting and signs every few feet in each direction stating “Closed for Revegetation. $500 fine.” The sign detailed a description of the ecosystem and the importance of the river bank for the insects, the smolts, the fish, the bears – something the Haida people had been telling their children for millennia, something we ignored.

Down the boardwalk were people standing, smiling, cameras ready wearing designer clothes watching the people lined up shoulder to shoulder fishing.

“This is fucking bizarre,” I said.

“What do you mean?” Danny asked.

“All the fucking people.”

“Yea but we’re in fucking Alaska. This ain’t the Ontario Tribs anymore…”

I thought of my father’s bedtime stories of Alaska.

“We got flown in on float planes from Anchorage. Thing was a tin can. Nobody was there with our group except the guides, the bears and the fish. I had a King take my whole fly line! Everything! Easily in the 50+ lb range. A few times these natives came flying down river in their boats shooting guns off in the air”

“I swear to god you don’t listen to fucking anything anybody says.”

“Hmm?” I said, half serious, half joking.

Danny shook his head. “I asked you if –”

“Fish on!”

Our four heads snapped up river to a girl in hip boots fighting a fish, with a 9mm strapped to her chest and bear spray on her hip.

Dozens of people started snapping pictures of her as her boyfriend netted it for her.

“See, there are fucking fish here. I bet we could squeeze in. Just like upstate back home with all these fucking people, huh?” Sean said and smiled.

“Much fucking worse. Let’s keep headin’ up river. These spots are locked up and the water sucks anyway. I don’t want people watching me all day either,” I said

Much fucking worse. We’re in fucking Alaska,” Danny said, shaking his head.

We walked upriver on the boardwalk, paused from time to time to peer into the river, occasionally seeing someone with a fish or two on a stringer.

“The Upper Russian’s looking better and better,” Danny said over the sound of a young couple’s designer stroller rolling on the boardwalk.

I shook my head as they passed.

“What’s the problem now?” Danny asked.

“Let’s just head upriver.”

 

danny's picture

 Danny’s picture

We walked upriver until the boardwalk turned from composite wood, to hard rubber, to dirt. Thick enough for all of us to walk beside one another, then thin enough that it required single file alongside the river. The trail held tight on the side of a steep embankment encased in small pine trees and shrubs. We all stopped to fish at different spots we thought would hold fish, each with different preferences. Sean and I had just fished a spot and seen nothing.

“Thirsty?” he asked.

“Yea.”

We filled our Nalgenes and stepped out of the water to Steripen it and drink. Every river has its own taste, and the two of us always drank from every river we fished in.

“Pretty good, sweet almost,” he said.

I nodded. “Cold as hell, too. Reminds me of the West Branch back home,”

He nodded.

We drank in silence and watched Larry and Danny, who were looking into the water and pointing from the bank a little bit upriver. I felt some pebbles hit my feet and looked down. A few more landed there between us. We looked up and saw more, larger stones roll down the embankment and stop at our feet.

“Where are they coming from?”

Sean shrugged. “Can’t really tell with all the brush and the small trees up there.”

We watched another group fall from a cluster of bushes.

“I don’t see …”

A full-grown female grizzly peered around a group of small trees right above us at less than ten yards.

We backed up slowly, fumbling over our feet, each other, and bear spray.

The bear paused. Looked at Sean. Looked at me. Then started coming down towards us.

We turned and started walking quickly, making sure not to run and yelled, “BEAR BEAR”

“Do we spray the thing?”

“Not if we don’t need to,” I said.

Danny was still facing the other way. “Don’t fuck aroun … oh fuck.”

Larry took off upriver.

Danny took out his camera and started taking pictures as we passed him, the bear following us on the path, slow and calm but persistent.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Sean asked as we passed them.

“Once in a lifetime, dude,” Danny was laughing.

“Get the fuck in front of us you moron. We have the bear spray,” Sean said.

“Don’t see any cubs,” I said between footsteps.

I could hear my pulse beating in my ears.

We headed up river and tried to walk slow enough to not be prey, but fast enough to gain some distance. Up and down small hills, valleys, and corners, hopping, tripping, stumbling over rocks and ruts and breathing heavy until we couldn’t see the bear anymore. We stopped to catch our breath.

“Anyone still see the fucking thing? She just seems curious I think,” I asked.

“You know how many curious fucking grizzly bears is too many curious fucking grizzly bears for me?” Larry asked.

As soon as he spoke, the bear rounded the corner, her pace quickened from a slow walk to an almost run.

We kept moving but she was moving faster.

40 yards.

35 yards.

30 yards.

“We gotta cross the river,” I was out of breath. “She’s just going to keep coming, she has nowhere else to go except this trail.”

Everyone agreed, and we all jumped in. The water was too fast, too strong, but there we were ankle deep, knee deep, waist deep, chest deep. Slowed steps. Anchored steps. Your feet are your eyes in a river.

I shuffled beneath the current. Searched for rocks, stumps, holes, snags. I looked around. All of us held our backpacks and rods above our heads. I felt some water creep in the back of my waders, cold as it fell from the middle of my back to my feet.

“You’ll never win a fight against a river,” Dad cupped his hand and shouted as he watched me at twelve years old struggle to get to the opposing bank of the Pennsylvania stream.

I heard the splash of someone falling and turned sideways to see Sean half submerged, tripping, stumbling, drifting downstream. He corrected himself just in time, spitting water. The bear kept coming.

You always gotta go to the other bank huh? Can’t ever just stay put anywhere,” he said, shaking his head as I made it to the shore.

“There’s too many people over there,” I shouted back.

20 yards.

15 yards.

10 yards.

We were all at mid-river or better when I heard a girl scream. We looked upriver to see a girl in hip boots had fallen in and was drifting downriver towards the rapids on her back. Her boyfriend just stood there, too shocked to do anything. She still had her rod in her hand.

In one smooth movement as she was about to pass by, Danny threw his stuff on the shore, grabbed her rod and held her there as she dangled in the current.

“Don’t let go,” he told her.

“I need some fucking help here,” he yelled, teeth gritted. Larry was already on the other bank.

Sean and I forced ourselves upriver, and grabbed her too. The bear was even with us now, watching from the bank with her feet in the water as we dragged the girl to shore.

“Thanks for the fucking help, Larry,” Sean said.

“I told you mother fuckers I wasn’t fucking with any bears. I want as much river as possible between me and that fucking thing,” he pointed, “Besides, you three had it under control anyway.” He smiled.

We all stood on the bank, most of us wet and dripping. The bear paused to look at the human spectacle across the water. She sniffed, her nose undulating in the air. She took two more steps into the water. We all started yelling, clapping our hands, throwing rocks. She stood there and studied the splashes that each rock made beside her. One splash hit her nose startling her, and she wandered her way up to the next big pool, walked onto a rock and jumped in belly first. She submerged for several seconds, and then popped her head back up, shaking her head free of all the excess water. She dove back under again and again, above and below, and swam back and forth from bank to bank. She splashed her front paws into the water whenever she pleased as she stood on her hind legs in the deep pool. We all watched and smiled and snickered until she walked out of the water with a fish, shook off, and headed back upriver on the path, the fish still in her mouth.

“All that and the bear just wanted to go for a swim,” the girl’s boyfriend had worked his way down river.

We all laughed, but the girl didn’t.

“You think the locals have a name for her?” I asked.

“What? Why?” Danny said.

We parted ways and the four of us continued up river and fished that same slow deep pool the bear had swam in, and we all caught our first Alaskan salmon there after all the fishless days up north. We made the trip back to the vans and cooked salmon on a fire and ate and talked and laughed beneath the midnight sun until we were too tired to stay awake.

The next morning when we went back there was a new sign on the trailhead alongside the others. A female grizzly was shot and killed ¼ mile up river from where we were. The bear had gotten too close to tourist and his kids on the trail, and he killed her with a .45.

 

***

 

A few twelve hour passes later, the fishing at the Russian had come to a standstill. But we were still there walking the boardwalks and dodging tourists.

“I really can’t stand in this one fucking place anymore. Who else wants to leave?” I said.

“Ehh, I kind of like it here, honestly,” Sean said.

“Yeah, me too. Feels like home with all these fucking people around don’t it?” Larry said.

“Yeah. I know it feels like home. C’mon, the fishing’s dead anyway. We need to get low by the ocean and wait for ’em to come in,”

“Yea you’re probably right I guess, but I do like it here. It’s like Pulaski on Columbus Day weekend with better scenery,” Danny said.

The three of them laughed, but I didn’t.

It took some more convincing, but we finally got back to the vans and headed further south to Soldotna towards the mouth of the Kenai to wait for the second run to hit. Any day the run would go from 2,000 or 3,000 a day, to well over 300,000 per day for four days straight, and trickle down to 2,000 again after another two weeks. At 2,000 a day, you’d be lucky to witness a few get caught on a chunk of river as far as you can see in either direction. By day three of 300,000 a day, you can catch them with your hands. A month later, you would never know they were even here.

We stopped at a fly shop when we got to Soldotna. I ran in to ask for info about local spots.

“How you doin’ today?”

“Well, and yourself? There any free access points on the Kenai?”

“Sure are, but I hope you don’t mind crowds and tourists,”

“We just came from the Russian, so we should be alright,”

He smiled. “This river makes the Russian look like a desert island. Where you from anyways?” He handed me a small map with the free access points circled.

“New York.”

“Damn, you’re far from home. I could never live in a city like that myself.”

“Same here. Thanks for the map.”

“Welcome. Good luck against the tourists, and the fishing, too.”

I walked out.

The spot that was closest was by an old airport runway. Rows of massive RVs lined up the entire runway. We found a spot at the end by a beat up RV and a pickup truck and walked down to the river on a paved sidewalk that lead to another aluminum boardwalk with stairs descending to the river. I stood there atop the stairs. Here the crowds were thicker, the boardwalks short with platforms full of people with no interest in anything except the spectacle of it all. The banks on either side of the river were blocked off with neon orange meshing four feet high with the same signs of warning about stepping on the banks. People in the water and out of the water yelled because they caught a fish, because they lost a fish.

Sean and Larry ran down the steps, the aluminum clanging beneath them, to fight their way into a spot. I stood there leaning against the railing and watched the circle of birds falling from the air and diving into the water to feed. Tucking their wings and diving nose first, then emerging again and flapping, dripping water. Danny was last to the river and stood next to me.

“What the fuck are you staring at?”

“Just watching this fucking mess.”

He shook his head and headed down the steps.  I stood there watching the birds. Hiding behind polarized lenses from the way this place made me feel that same choked decay I feel in cities, shopping malls, in crowds. Hiding with my hat low from how I thought I shared this feeling with three friends, but learned that I didn’t.

“How’s the fishing been,” I asked a man coming back up the stairs.

“You should have been here a few days ago. Couldn’t stop hookin’ ’em,” he said, as he passed.

I said nothing and went back to watching the birds each take turns to circle, dive into the water, some returning with fish, some with nothing.

An older gentlemen with a fly rod slung on his shoulder nearby must have overheard his statement.

“Nah, you should have been here 30 years ago. Alaskan fisheries are in a state of complete collapse, don’t let anybody fool ya. Where you been fishin?”

I told him about the Kings up north, the list of all the closed rivers, the boardwalks, the pavement, the tourists.

He looked me in the eye while I spoke, nodding with a smile of recognition.

“You know you used to be able to walk into most of those rivers all summer and catch any species. Those days been gone for awhile now. Only us old guys know about that. You notice how every third day seems to get real slow?”

I hadn’t.

“That’s cuz they let the three mile nets out in the ocean every third day. You look close and the ones you do catch here will have net marks and cuts all over em. The only ones that make it through are cuz somebody on the boats fucked up one way or another. ”

“Is there anywhere to go with less people?”

“Not that I know about nowdays. I’m too old to be hikin’ into spots anymore. I come down here from time to time to watch the show. Think about things. Usually just makes me wish I hadn’t come. Won’t be long ’til the real push comes through though. It’ll be easier to deal with. Just keep watching them birds until then. Sure are something aren’t they? Fish better than almost all these stupid tourists. Best of luck.”

I smiled, “Thanks.”

I walked down the steps to take a few casts. The three of them were fishing shoulder to shoulder, in carefully synched up casts. I walked above Danny.

“We’ve hooked a few fish here,” he said.

I said nothing.

I stood staring at the five foot wide plot of river I had to cast in. The orange mesh that covered the river bank. The “No Trespassing” signs that marked the river upstream. The people everywhere with brand new gear who were there for the novelty. I took a few casts. Every other cast someone from above snagged my line. Snagged on someone’s hooked fish from up river. The mesh behind me. One of my friends. We stayed here for four more days, my friends fishing while I fished long enough to be reminded why I was spending more time not fishing.

On the fifth morning, I asked Danny for the keys.

“You have your cell on?” I asked Danny.

“Yeah, why?”

“Because I’m getting the fuck out of here,”

“Where exactly are you fucking going? You haven’t even fished in fucking days. That’s why you’re miserable. You’re in your goddamn head too much, ruining it for yourself,” Danny said.

“This place is already fucking ruined. Just shut the fuck up and give me the keys. I didn’t come here to hang out with fucking tourists in a salmon theme park. Call me if it finally pops.”

“Whatever dude.” He threw the keys at me. I got in the van and starting driving.

I looked on a map of every major road that could possibly lead to the river. Every side road. Every street. Every dirt road. Always the same. Public accesses overflowed with people. Private property signs. No river access signs. No trespassing signs. Private plots of land owned by lodges. Different parking rates for every chunk of river. Different rates per person, per rod, per boat. Always with people fishing shoulder to shoulder, always at a price. Eventually I was at the mouth of the Kenai at the Cook Inlet, walking the beach, picking up rocks. Watching the veins of water flow from tidal pools out into the river, out into the sea. An eagle flew overhead and dipped into the water to grab the remnants of a salmon fillet that had drifted downriver. I rounded the corner of the sand dune and saw the dip-netters for the first time. During sockeye season Alaskan natives are allowed to stand in the river with large nets often five feet wide on handles well over ten feet long that they keep submerged until the sockeye which consistently run up the shallow banks of rivers, swim into it –  a practice shown to the first settlers by the Haida and the Karuk people.

 

dipnetters

Dip-netters. Benjamin Burgholzer photo.

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The dip-netters were lined up on either side of the river stood in perfect silence. Many families sat on the beach beside each other, passing off the net from time to time with a dedication at 2 pm on a Wednesday with the salmon run at a low that spoke of a need for sustenance rather than experience. I sat there in the sand and watched them, my head the quietest it had been the whole trip.

Hours and a half tank of gas later, I went back to the runway and parked the van next to the same beat up RV. I took off my waders and sat on the tailgate of the van staring at the dirt.

“Where your friends?” A shirtless man and his dog emerged from the RV.

“Down there,” I pointed towards the river.

“Makes you feel crazy don’t it? Fishin’ by all them people all day not movin’ or nothin’.”

“Yeah, couldn’t take it anymore,”

“Jim Norton, Arkansas,” he said with an outstretched hand.

I told him my name and where I was from.

“You from the city?”

“Nah,”

“Good. But hell, I live 100 yards from that god damn shit show, and I don’t go down there ‘til the numbers get crazy. Fuckin’ tourists. Hell man, you best off tryin’ to meet people til it pops. Make connections for next time. Everybody up here knows somebody who flies. Plenty of rivers off the road system only a few people have even seen, I reckon. You hike deep enough up north you can probably name a peak after yourself, too. Ain’t nothin’ like it. I tell you, first time I came up here I did all that touristy shit, too, with my brother man, but I met some people that stuck in my head man. Told me stories. Most of it was probably damn bullshit, but it stuck anyway.”

I laughed.

“Few years after that same brother dropped dead at 43. Heart attack. I was workin’ at some shit steel mill. I got to thinkin’ and said, what the fuck am I doin here? I ain’t dyin’ of no heart attack in goddamn heart attack in Arkansas from workin’ like a goddamn dog to make somebody else rich. Sold everything I owned, got on a plane, been here since. Bought this RV cheap, bought this truck cheap. Piece by piece you make this place your own. Started up a mining business up north past Fairbanks that I run most of the year, right now’s the off season. Fish and hunt when I’m hungry. Got the dog here keepin’ me compny. Fix up some houses when I need some extra loot. Anyway, cheer up mother fucker that river’s about to pop off any day now and you’ll be catching so many fish you won’t give a goddamn ’bout any of those tourist fuckers anyway.”

I laughed again. “Thanks.”

“No problem.” He walked back inside the RV and shut the door.

Later a pod of 93,151 sockeye entered the river. Followed by 247,084 the next morning. Another 215,636 that night and 117,785 the following morning.

“Are you done complaining now?” they all asked when I got back.

“Yeah,” I said, lying behind a pair of polarized glasses with my hat low.

We haven’t fished together since.

***

Everyone was sleeping by the time the plane took off. I sat looking out the window as we ascended above Anchorage in the half-lit night of the Arctic, looking at the perfect rows of city lights from the air. On the other side of the inlet were the volcanoes, their snow capped peaks now hidden by the clouds. I wondered if anyone was on that opposing bank, watching the lights of the plane overhead and what Jim and the dip-netters were doing. And I wondered how many places are left unframed and untouched and how long they could stay that way.

* * *

About the author:

Benjamin Burgholzer is a creative writing graduate student at Binghamton University interested in writing, fly fishing, and anything involving the outdoors.