We drove west toward the setting sun, which was disappearing into a heavy cloud bank. The put-in was only a few minutes’ ride from our campsite, but we spent it mostly in silence.
“I’m kind of nervous,” I said at last.
“Me too,” JT answered quickly, as if he had been thinking the same thing, or had been about to say it himself.
Both of us had night fished before, and are accustomed to the weirdness of a nighttime river. But neither of us had ever done anything quite like this.
It wasn’t that the trip we were about to begin was particularly dangerous. We had floated it earlier in the day to make sure it was passable. In a few spots, it almost wasn’t, even for my small canoe — nobody has been through with a chainsaw, maybe ever. There are trees and logs to haul over and scrape under and carry around, and some just under the surface waiting to spill us.
But if we paddled slowly and remembered the deadheads and sweepers we had seen that morning we would be fine; the canoe had proved responsive to our paddles and we had proved able in our joint handling of it in tight spots. We had digital and analog navigation aids and extra batteries for our LED lights. And eight-weights.
Still, a twinge of apprehension. Maybe actual fear. We knew that once we let go of the bank and began moving downstream on the black slick, it would be many hours and miles of severe darkness and skilled maneuvering before we could rest. We also knew there would be no occupied structures nor any public roads to offer an escape along the way — which is of course a major part of the reason we were there.
The stream is legally navigable, as the ancient saw-cut logs in the deep holes prove, but narrow, and choked with wood: cedars and white pines generations dead, petrified in the icy water. Its course is nothing but switchback corners, bottomless holes, and undercuts; it is far too deep to wade in most spots and the banks are high and unclimbable anyway. It flows cold and clear and in the daylight glows with a strange greenish glacial tint. The tract of prehistoric seafloor it carves across is now a river bottom of cedar, willow, and marshy meadow, undeveloped and unwelcoming. No manicured banks or cabins with porch lights; just a few old foot bridges, some wrecked, to break up the wet wilderness.
Rumors of big trout in this region and previous foot expeditions around its margins had led to this idea, and the land-that-time-forgot atmosphere of the place haunted us, so there we were. Just after sundown with rainclouds mustering and distant lightning silently flickering, we carried the fifteen-foot aluminum Grumman Aircraft Eng. Corp. double-ender canoe through the head-high grass and lowered it several feet down to the water. I handed down to JT our rods, packs, and paddles, and we neared our event horizon. The current, irresistible as gravity, was about to take us somewhere black and unknown.
We let go of the grassy bank, allowed the magnetic water to draw us downstream, and in an instant left behind the road bridge and the car and the easy way back.