H enry David Thoreau famously called it “the therapeutic value of nature.” The mid-19th Century American philosopher and naturalist based this conclusion on the two years he spent living by Walden Pond in New England.
In his book, Walden, he said, “I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.”
Thoreau’s observations echoed those of his contemporary, the transcendental philosopher and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson. I have a leather-bound copy of one of his early books, Nature: Addresses and Lectures.
Emerson said, “In the woods we return to wisdom and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair.”
I pondered over these Big Thinkers following a fly fishing trip to the wilds of northern British Columbia last October. We were fishing at the small, well-run Suskeena Lodge on the Sustut River, a tributary of the Skeena River.
The great Skeena drainage arguably hosts the largest run of wild steelhead (big sea-run rainbow trout) in North America. It certainly offers some of the most impressive scenery of snow-capped mountains and green forests.
And the sparkling Sustut flows through the core of the upper valley—no roads, accessible only by small aircraft on a gravel strip. You leave behind the congestion and clutter of daily life, and you cannot wade into such a setting without realizing the significance of being out there amid nature’s beauty and bounty.
Studies have concluded that “being out there” provides at least four significant advantages.
The first is stress reduction. We have the opportunity and mental state to decompress from aggravating demands and deadlines. A fine way to accomplish this is to enjoy the solitude and surroundings. (The key is the aloneness, the ability to commune with nature. The shotgun start of a high-powered fishing tournament, although potentially rewarding, is not consistent with the concept.)
The second is a heightened sense of meaning and purpose. Although the humdrum routine of a boring and utterly predictable work-a-day schedule might not do much for self-esteem, being amid a flourish of natural settings is uplifting.
The third is an increased awareness. We get dulled going through the daily motions, but nature can inspire more appreciation for the things around us. Looking around, paying attention, we become more vibrant, more tuned.
Finally, we benefit from increased physical activity. In short, we are not sitting for hours behind a computer or obsessing over a smart phone. Nor are we propped in front of a television. Younger participants, in particular, might heed nature’s final upgrade.
According to Emerson and Thoreau, simply observing helps put us in focus, but I submit that fishing adds to the experience. Well, this is not exactly an original thought; I am borrowing from Izaak Walton.
The English author wrote in The Compleat Angler, 1653, “No life, my honest scholar, no life so happy and so pleasant as the life of a well-governed angler; for when the lawyer is swallowed up with business, and the statesman is preventing or contriving plots, then we sit on cowslip banks, hear the birds sing, and possess ourselves in as much quietness as these silent silver streams, which we now see glide so quietly by us.”
I’m not quite certain what a “cowslip bank” is, or whether one even exists on the Sustut River. Or on the Guadalupe River, for that matter.
But never mind. For more than four centuries and regardless of venue, Walton’s assessment has been spot-on.
I found that same quietness when, as a kid, I fished alone for bluegill sunfish in the Hermann Park Duck Pond in urban Houston. It’s all relative. But, as we become increasingly jaded, the truly wild and awesome places cut through the chaff with more authority.
Fishing does enrich the experience of being out there. The angler is part of the chain of life. The focused predator holding a fishing rod has his casting hand on the very pulse of the water.
I recall one incident during the recent Sustut trip. The sun broke through high snow clouds, briefly highlighting distant peaks and illuminating the tall trees along the far bank. The river ran cold and clear and clean.
The two-handed Spey rod swept smooth and strong, firing a well-timed “snap T” cast at a 45-degree angle downstream. The 90-foot fly line unfurled and the streamer started to swing in the proper manner. It all felt good; I was grounded, centered in the moment.
The swinging line jolted then pulled tight in a thrilling surge as a steelhead snatched the passing fly and turned downstream.
Dacron backing spun from the reel as the determined fish ran. Then it stopped. I began pumping and reeling. The fish held in the deep current and shook its head and refused to move—the signature of a good one, maybe a 15- or 20-pound scarlet-cheeked buck.
The steelhead slowly tired, and the long rod worked it close. The visible fish started shrinking, as they often do over a hungry heart. I guessed the weight at 11 or 12 pounds, about average for the river—but it lived large.
And it was a gorgeous steelhead, boldly minted and without a blemish, as wild as the country to which it returned.
As the fish swam free, I paused to breathe the sharp air and to gaze at the mountains and forests. I lowered my head and mumbled a few words. I was grateful to be alive. And, as so long ago, I was possessed “in as much quietness as these silent silver streams, which we now see glide so quietly by us.”
Email Joe Doggett at [email protected]