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Ghosts and Mayflies

by Captain Jim Barr on 03/28/20

Long before becoming a fishing guide I used to fish freshwater, almost exclusively. Mostly for trout, but for largemouth bass and other warm water species, and mostly with a fly rod. I preferred to fish by myself, not because I was antisocial but because I enjoyed the solitude, probably not unlike many other fly anglers. There was just something about being in the woods by myself as I often bushwacked to remote waters in search of not only the peace these environs offered but also because I liked to fish water that didn't get much angling pressure. It was always an adventure, I loved adventure and still do.

As a kid we lived in the country, often near a stream or lake, and in the 50's and 60's my parents thought nothing of letting me go off for the day to fish, hunt woodchucks with my .22 caliber rifle, trap muskrats and search for arrowheads. Things were a lot different then than today. These days it seems there are just so many wackos that steal children, molest them, or the kids themselves find getting into trouble way too easy. Trust has been compromised.

My childhood days of ranging far and wide from the house on these sometimes day-long excursions carried forward into my 40's and 50's. On the backside of business trips I would often solo backpack with my flyrod into some prettty wild-ass places, most often in the mountains of northern and southern California, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico.
I thought nothing of being in the backcountry and solo for upwards of a week at a time.

I often encountered some weird things when alone for days on end. Let's not call them ghosts, instead I'll call them apparitions or spirits. At times they were clearly visible, other encounters were more like a "presence". No, I wasn't dehydrated and experiencing hallucinations (the halluncinations were mostly in my college days, and I'm not going there.) These were different and left an other worldly kind of impression. Never were they scarey per se, but all of them stopped me dead in my tracks, sent chills up my spine and caused the hair on my arms and neck to spring up.

My very first encounter:
My mother's family owned a ranch in the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming. My family would travel there every summer. My father would return to Ohio after two weeks to return to work. My mother, brother and me would stay for a couple of months until my father returned to bring us all home in time for the start of school. The McCormack's were a big family, my mother being the oldest of five children, the youngest being my aunt Jeanne, who at the time of this story had just graduated from high school. Jeanne loved to fish and she often took me with her during that summer of 1955. There was a small stream that wound through my grandfather's property that he used to pull water from with a pump tractor to irrigate his alfalfa fields. That muddy stream which was not much more than an irrigation ditch was loaded with trout- rainbows and browns. We used worms that aunt Jeanne would dig from the cutbank at the streams edge and we would use broken sticks tied onto fishing line as bobbers to keep the hook from snagging on sunken brush, barbed wire and pieces of discarded farm equipment that created a peculiar kind of cover (almost urban) for trout. The rods we used were $5 fiberglass specials bought at the feed store in Story, the next town over from Banner where the ranch was. It was pretty basic fishing but we caught big trout! Jeanne knew that stream like the back of her hand. When not doing chores, riding fences and taming horses, she was fishing, and always by herself.

Later that summer after my family returned to our home in Ohio my aunt was competing for the rodeo queen title in Sheridan, Wyoming when she was thrown off her horse and killed, as my grandparents watched from the grandstand. I was seven years old when I watched my mother melt after she took that fateful phone call from her father who broke the news.

The following summer my family again vacationed on the ranch. In the interim from when Jeanne died and when we arrved that following summer, my grandfather had built a small shrine in the backyard of the ranch house where he and my grandmother would often sit and reflect on their lost daughter. It was all very sad.

One day I asked my mother if I could go down to the creek to fish. She was apparently confident that I knew how to get around down there so she let me go off by myself. It was while I was on that stream that day that I saw my aunt, as clear as day, just upstream from me, fishing by herself. I ran back to the house and told my mother what had happened and as you might guess, she didn't believe me.

My grandfather was a tough son-of-a bitch, a US Army infantry veteran in WW1 who fought in the Argonne Forest). He was a no nonsense guy who by day milked cows by hand, mended wire fences, rolled his own cigarettes while driving his tractor, and irrigated his fields with a shovel. He was the original Marlboro Man. But after dinner he would sit in his overstuffed chair and play his violin, a nightly ritual before bedtime. I could only imagine the things that played through his memory as he sat in that chair most every night deep in thought as he played his music. Although his exterior was rough, battle scarred, plagued by advancing arthritis, and sunburned from hours in the fields, he had a heart of gold I think and was always very good to me, and he was approachable.

I told him about seeing Jeanne down on the stream earlier that day, and I braced myself for his response. He looked me square in the eye, smiled and told me that he and my grandmother saw her all the time.

This was my first encounter, but over my life I have had many others, some with my deceased parents and others with strangers, many times while on my solo adventures.

?Don’t call me crazy, call me blessed.
It's now mid-July of 1994, the peak month for fishing the Hexagenia Limbata mayfly hatch on the Wood River, a gorgeous sixteen-mile serpentine trout stream situated in southwestern Rhode Island. The Hex hatch brings out the biggest trout that make this stream their home, and it also brings out the most diehard Rhode Island and nearby Connecticut fly anglers. The downside (considered by some anglers) is that the emergence of these giant mayflies (also referred to as the Giant Michigan Mayfly) doesn' t get going until about 8:30pm. You can catch the big trout during the nymph stage but the real fun is fishing the hatch as the mayflies emerge onto the surface, and dry their wings in what's called the Dun stage.

The Wood River is relatively small water and it's at the Barberville Dam (see photo) where I would start my adventure. In order to get to one of the prime spots to fish the emergence from a canoe (particularlly on a weekend evening)- one has to get on the water considerably before dark to stake out the water you intend to fish.
Whenever I fish this water from a canoe, I want to do it solo, there just isn't adequate room for two anglers both casting fly rods, particularly on this narrow stream lined with heavy brush and overhanging trees. Casting needs to be accurate and quiet as the trout are very spooky as the hatch begins. They become less so as the evening progresses into complete darkness. During a pitch black night when the mayflies are flying into your eyes, ears and mouth and the trout are smacking the surface, casts need only be 15 feet or less. Leaders on your floating line are only 3 feet long and once darkness falls you don't ever see the take, but when you hear a trout smack the surface and you think that noise is near where you think your fly is floating, you pick up and some of the time there's a connection and you're off to the races.
As I noted in an earlier article most anglers don't like to fish in the dark, they feel intimidated, and when fishing from a canoe, in the woods, in complete darkness where you literally cannot see your hands in front of your face, being comfortable in these environs comes as a result of experience, confidence and time on the water.

It's a weeknight, very muggy, a heavy cloud cover, and there's light rain in the forecast. Perfect. I'll have the river and the trout all to myself. I pack two short fly rods, a box of Hex patterns, a head lamp, a bottle of bug dope, a rain jacket, a life preserver, a small anchor, a length of rope, two paddles and I strap down my canoe on the roof of my 4-Runner and I'm headed for the Barberville Dam. These days there is a parking lot at the dam large enough for a few cars requiring only a short carry across a lawn onto a dock where you drop your canoe and load it with your gear. In 1994 you parked your car down aways from the stream and just off the road. You then hoisted the canoe onto your shouders and carried it 100 yards through heavy woods, dense brush and over a stone wall to finally get to the water's edge just above the dam. Then you returned to the truck to get your gear. You did all of this while it was still light when you were launching, but on the return trip after fishing, it's completely dark and being so close to the dam, the pucker factor sets in as you carefully land the boat, and then haul it up the embankment after which you remove all the gear and start ferrying it back through the woods to the car. A pain in the arse, but typically well worth the effort if you've caught some nice trout.

It was well past midnight when I decided I'd had enough. I had been eaten alive by mosquitoes, and was beat but had caught some memorable rainbows and browns. It was now starting to drizzle, a breeze was picking up scattering the mosquitoes and in the distance I could hear the rumble of thunder, sure signs of a gathering storm. Clearly it was time to go as I had several miles of downstream paddling to get to the takeout at the dam. There were no other boats or people on the river, no lights in any of the remote cabins, just the sound of thunder as a cold front approached from the west.
I strapped on the life preserver, turned off the headlamp to regain what little night vision there was and started to paddle downstream.
Halfway through the return to the dam, the wind picked up significantly and the frequency and proximity of the lightning strikes increased. Clearly I should have left earlier but I was in it now and just needed to be careful to not overturn. I paddled close to the bank so if I did capsize I could probably wade to shore but would likely lose my fly rods in the process. The going was difficult as the wind was gusting and blowing the canoe off course but in time I started hearing the water going over the dam, I was getting close but now my concern was overshooting the takeout and going over the dam.

I switched the headlamp on and studied the shoreline for the takeout, as I continued to gently paddle now getting very close to the dam. At last, there was the spot, a three foot apron of sand, just below a muskrat den opening, next to a big oak tree at the water's edge. I put the canoe broadside to the embankment, stepped out and grabbed a low branch with one hand while holding the painter tied to the canoe with the other. Terra Firma!

In short order I pulled the canoe up the embankment being careful to not dip the stern into the water. It was now raining hard but I could have cared less. I might as well been in my living room. It was a successful fishing outing and a great adventure. I packed up all my gear and made my way back though the woods, over wet and exposed tree roots, over the knee high stone wall, through the heavy brush to the truck. Now the canoe.
Back through the jungle to the canoe. I reoriented the 16 foot canoe around some trees and hoisted it onto my shoulders. My headlamp was slightly askew so I didn't see the exposed tree roots. I tripped on a root, but was able to momentarily keep my balance as I was being pitched forward by my momentum. My left shin struck a small boulder, the canoe lurched to the right and as I fell hard to the ground with the canoe on my back, with the carrying yoke pinning my neck and head to ground. My right cheek got jammed into the dirt and gravel, my arms were ahead of my body and wedged between the stern seat and sole of the canoe. Pain coursed through my entire body, I was under the boat and I could not move. My headlamp was now focused on the dirt just ahead of my eyes as I watched a procession of red ants, not five inches from my face carrying leaf matter back to a hole in the ground. (Despite the pain I found that rather interesting actually). I was probably in that position for five minutes which seemed like an eternity. I tried several times to move my arms, to reposition them and try and push the boat off my back, but I could not free them. I felt powerless. The pain still raged in my legs, arms and back. I wasn't paralyzed but I was completely immobile. There was no sense in crying out for help, after all it was probably 1am and it was raining and still thundering and lightning.

I tried a third time to get the boat off my back but it wasn't going to happen. I lay in the dirt for probably another five minutes and tried once more, but this time it was different.
I know that it wasn't my power that allowed me to get free, it was like something magical had just happened. The boat was featherlight, I easilly rolled the canoe away from me and was able to very slowly gather some strength, so I could get onto my knees. Immediately in front of me was a tree, maybe 18" in diameter. While on my knees I hugged the tree to steady myself as I slowly pulled myself up the trunk. As I was almost standing erect, not five inches from my face was a large see-through plastic envelope nailed to the tree that came into view that contained a photograph of two guys smiling at me. It startled me and I pushed away from the tree and as I did so I could see an array of multi-colored plastic flowers that bordered their photograph, along with a cross and an inscription, and with my headlamp now aligned properly I could see that this was a memorial to two guys who died just months before in a canoe drowning accident at the dam.
Chills shot up and down my spine. I wasn't frightened, just taken aback by all that had just occured. I later learned about their accident.

The following is an excerpt from American Whitewater, a non-profit organization that reported what had happened to these fellows, who in the
(not the actual tree)

strange ways of life and death may very well have helped me that fateful night.

Wood River near Acadia, Rhode Island: March 26, 1994
SUMMARY: On Saturday, March 26th tragedy struck a group of paddlers on their annual canoe trip down the Wood River in Rhode Island. Domenic Valleta was killed when he got caught in the hydraulic at the base of Barberville Dam. In the rescue attempt Paul Valliere was also killed and a third man was hospitalized.
DESCRIPTION: The Wood River is a local moving-water stream popular with Rhode Island paddlers. It was swollen from recent snowmelt and rains. this river trip was an annual event for the six men who survived; for the two victims it was their first run. Both men had some paddling experience and were wearing life vests when the incident occurred.

Don’t call me crazy, call me blessed

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