I learned to row a drift boat by one of the best anglers on the planet. John Dobson is as fishy as they get. He is every bit a better a friend than he is truly the best guide and angler I have ever known. Never will my respect for him, his skilled abilities as an oresman, his incomperable skill as a guide, or his natural abilities as an angler come into question. But today I got schooled!
The Arkansas River is, as I learned today, a "hands on river". It is a boneyard of huge, scary, and razor sharp boulders that are punctuated by simply stupid rapids. I rowed this with my home shops owner, David Leinweber, in the front knee locks and the shops head guide, Greg Blessing, in the back! Prior to today, I've rowed a total of 8 miles of this river...unbenounced to me, they were the only reasonable 8 miles this beast holds. Today we put in where I had previously taken out. I was confident (not cocky...but I can row a boat...I'm a trout guide for goodness sake...I've rowed the Ark before...no problem!). Figured I'd get a chance to show my chops while on the sticks, deepen any trust currently earned as a quality walk & wade guide, and maybe move up a little in our roster. Maybe even be an alternate guide for Taylor.... I'd heard some chatter about both of these guys bringing seasoned guides to tears while floating...but I was good! This was my shot! I'd rowed some storied waters, hooked loads of beautiful fish, and gotten some persnickity (read: "famous") trout bums into some quality fish on some difficult water.
Dave took the sticks when we put in. Greg and I hooked loads of fish (Greg 2:1 for mine...) and the river was behaving well. I grew more confident that my eventual time as the oresman would prove successful...after all, I was going to prove myself on the sticks today, not in the rear knee braces! Dave rowed a few tricky sections through some pretty bony water. My confidence flagged a few times as I began to recognize that I might well have picked a different (read: wrong) line. Finally, in the middle of some froggy water, they resigned the sticks to me. Understand, I never thought I was as good as either of my mates on the boat...but I thought I was passable. I knew I would be able to demonstrate requisite skills and demonstrate a base level skill set and establish myself solidly as a 1st tier guide (assuming as I did that Dave had just rowed the toughest sections...).
When Dave gave me the sticks, he and Greg wondered openly at my ability to row "tea-kettle" rapid. I wondered (hoped!) if they were just psyching me out and pushed forward with an in tact sense of confidence. Both of my "anglers" were catching fish (Greg 2:1) and the river was compliant. We reached a difficult and lean bend and to my joy they both started shouting different lanes and instructions as to how to row this section! Built in excuse if I blew it! Grace of God...I managed, both took some credit....They then began to postulate even more if I could get us through "Tea-kettle"... o.k. Maybe that wasn't my "test" but it was a pretty brutal, sight unseen, rapid so how bad can tea-kettle be? "I'll crush it" I ignorantly professed. It takes even less imagination than my ability on the oars to guess what the river offered up after that. Dave and Greg were kind and generous as I happily (read: scared to death!) rowed toward what I was beginning to imagine the biggest rapid in the world! Understand that the Ark this day was pretty bony so any lean sections were even harder to navigate. I made it through the hardest pieces of water I'd ever rowed (at least sight unseen)...but my confidence was still about 3 river miles behind us and did not seem hot on my heels. We finally approached "tea-kettle". I was shaking like a poodle passing a peach pit. Half convinced we might all die, certain that best case scenario, this would be the last day as a guide for these (now) horrible bastards. There was NO lane, NO channel, not even a remotely obvious path for me to row into! And the rapid at the end looked like it wanted to end my career! As had happened earlier, they both started shouting different lanes, "pull left!" "NO, push right!", "take the left channel!", "bullshit!!! there's no water there! row river right!!!"...that comfort I scarcely remembered from my first 'rapid' was now certainly lost and I stranded us on a cobble bar... I was nearly paralyzed. My boss...my head guide...both befuddled and unsure how we are going to get off of this and into what has now become 'my' rapid. Neither of them offered to take the sticks. My self confidence was about as deep as the bar we were stuck on...much pulling, pushing, both anglers out of the boat...we finally spun off the bar and were within what felt like a milli-seconds committed to tea-kettel. Grace of God, kind river gods.?. I was pointed the right direction, pulled my ass off, kept us off the rock wall that put up a 6 foot standing wave, and found us in a forward floating drift in a little piece of froggy water that defines the bottom of the rapid.
About a 1/2 mile lower, and about 3 rapids harder than any I had ever rowed before...but relatively tame in comparison to tea-kettle, we stopped for lunch. I confessed that I needed a little time off the sticks and they both chuckled and Dave kindly offered me a beer.
A little food, the rest of the beer, and a few minutes on terafirma, and I was again feeling like I was the man! Surely I had just earned my place as a real guide...a true oresman!?! I could happily enjoy some easy casting in the rear knee locks and hooking a few fish! Certainly I demonstrated my chops and was in with the 'in' crowd.?.
We rowed lazily for another 1/2 mile, picked up a couple fish, had a couple good laughs, and entered a hell worse than I had ever imagined! Greg was on the sticks and he didn't flinch! I had never seen a boneyard so hungry and this guy kept shouting out sides of the boat to cast from! This section made my entrance into tea-kettle, the rapid itself, and any other "un-rowable" water look froggy! WTF? Certainly we were about to die and this was some insane false bravado.?. NOPE! That crazy bastard pushed, pulled, and scooped us through a series of rock gardens, rapids, and bony water that made my affair look like a first date on a pond, in a canoe, with your best girl!
O.K. ... He's our head guide. Been rowing complicated water longer than I'd been alive. Maybe it's instinct (all sight unseen!)? I reconcile myself to these myths as Dave is about to get back on the sticks. Dave owns the shop for goodness sake. He doesn't guide any more. He barely even fishes any more. He'll get us to the ramp (now I'm just praying for froggy water!.! this is turning into a f*cking white water expedition...in a drift boat!). Like before when I gave up the sticks, he had a piece of calm water...but it was soon punctuated by a hell that was exponentially worse than what we just rowed! And like Greg, he pointed out (and pointed toward!) fishy seems, holes, pockets, and braids...while paying way too little attention to the sharpest and hungriest boulders I have ever seen. We were hooking fish in insanely complicated water! I caught a one eyed Rainbow (true story) in the middle of a class III rapid! Not because I can fish well...but because my 'guide' gave me a perfect drift, a perfect shot, at what amounted to about a 5 foot slot that (if any fish existed in this section!) should hold a trout!
I'm certain John could have held his own on this day. I know he is every bit the guide and angler and oresman that these guys are. I, however, am simply not...yet! Fly fishing, as beautiful and calming as it can be with a good guide, is a ruthless teacher. I cannot say with any certainty that I would have even survived that float with anybody else. As much as this can be a career of hard knocks, it is a brother(& sister)hood of kind, gentle, forgiving, and compassionate folks. Without guys like these, the art of rowing would be lost, the skill(s) would be dulled, and the joy would be diminished. I'm blessed to have stumbled in front of some of the best this industry has to offer and if we continue to honor this tradition, some day I might be able to show you that 5 foot slot and that odd 18 inch, one eyed 'pirate' fish that punctuated my best day at "school"!
P.S. I would be remiss to not mention that Taylor Edrington is THE man when it comes to fishing the "real" Ark. Check him out at Royal Gorge Anglers and enjoy the ride! There is no argument that he is by far the best guide that exists on this water (and many, many, others!)