“We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
John Steinbeck – Travels with Charlie
Late in the year, after the Alaskan fishing season’s end and my return to Minnesota, I received a call from my new friend, Ron. He’d heard that I was organizing a fishing trip to Argentina, and wanted to join the group. “There’s just one thing,” he insisted, “We have to go to Chile for a week, too.”
“I don’t know, Ron,” I hesitated. “It’ll be tough to pull that off so late in the game. I’ll have to find out if there’s room for us at the lodge, and organize our travel arrangements, and we’ll have to get to Puerto Monte, and then to Chaiten…”
“You’ll figure it out,” he said. “I’ll only get down there once, and I don’t want to be that close to Chile and not fish there too.” What could I do? It was supposed to happen.
I’d been in Argentina, fishing on my own, for two weeks prior to the group’s arrival, and was at the airport near San Martin De Los Andes to meet them when they landed. Ron couldn’t have been in better company; the other five in the group were all from his generation, also from the Midwest, and had fished the same rivers. Because of their age, I imagined that the week ahead would be relaxing and a bit slower-paced than most. I was wrong.
We hadn’t lost sight of the airport before all six of them were rummaging around in their tackle bags, making what preparations they could for the evening’s fishing within the cramped quarters of the van. Had there been a bit more space, I’m certain that they would have been in their waders when we arrived at the lodge. As it was, they were going through their fly boxes, examining each other’s work, commenting on this tie or that, and trading them like baseball cards; reminiscent of a bunch of little kids on the bus to summer camp.
When we arrived at Estancia Quemquemtreu, my old friend and mentor, Jorge Trucco, greeted us. The old guys were all very polite, but didn’t waste a lick of time with cocktails and tapas; they wanted to fish! Roommates were decided upon, gear unpacked, and rod tubes gathered up in record time. “I thought you said these guys were here to take it easy,” Jorge said under his breath, as the group, led by Ron, charged past us to get outside, assemble their favorite rods, claim a guide, and hit the water.
The evening’s outing, on the pretty little spring creek that winds its way through the estancia, necessitated quite a bit of walking. In the Argentine custom, we fished until long after dark and dinner was late. Ron looked exhausted from the ordeal, and it became obvious to me that he was going to have some problems with so much time on his feet. “I know what you’re thinking,” Ron said after dinner, “just get me into a boat where I can sit down once in a while and I’ll be fine; it’ll be just like fishing out of an old Au Sable river boat.”
Ron fished in Argentina, as he had when he was a young man in Michigan, from a drift boat. Every day one of the group would join him, and by week’s end, everyone agreed that he was as good a drift boat fisherman as they’d ever seen. The days sped past, and soon Ron and I were saying goodbye to our little group at the airport. We watched the jet disappear over the mountains and then drove in silence to San Martin for lunch. Without his new friends, Ron seemed a bit deflated, perhaps even a little introspective. Lunch seemed to help, however, and by the second glass of wine his spirits had rebounded. Discussion turned to our week in Chile, and the next leg of our journey, an overnight bus ride to Puerto Monte “I’ve always wanted to take a bus across the Andes,” he said cheerfully.
Yeah… I can hardly wait. I thought to myself.
I was tired as we boarded the bus in San Martin, but Ron, who had pushed himself harder than anyone else in the group, was totally exhausted. He fell sound asleep and was snoring softly, before we climbed up the road and out of town. He stayed that way until we stopped at the Argentine customs post on the border with Chile. “Bob!” He whispered hoarsely, waking me up. His eyes were wide with fright.
“I can’t move,” he said. “I’m all seized up!”
“I’ll be alright if I can just make it to the floor and stretch out,” he said, beginning to rock back and forth like some Holy Roller in the throes of a trance. The other passengers on the bus were beginning to stare.
“Ahhhhg!” He screamed as he finally rolled out of his seat and tumbled onto the floor, writhing and moaning.
A crowd began to gather. Wide-eyed children scrambled over one another and up the back of their seats for a better view. One frightened woman scooped up her young son and hustled him away, lest he be possessed by the same demon.
“It’ll be alright in a minute, ahhh… oooh” He gasped as he stood shakily, and regained his seat. “Gracias,” he said, nodding to the crowd of dumbfounded and concerned onlookers. “Muchas gracias.”
“Are you OK?” I asked, as the gathered throng began to disperse and we all filed off of the bus and into the customs building.
“I should have been doing my stretches every morning,” he said hobbling into the border station. “I’ve forgotten to do them with all of the fun we’ve had.”
“I’ll try to remind you from now on.”
There were whispers and nods in our direction as we waited in line to have our passports stamped. “Proximo!” The Argentine customs official announced to Ron, who stood in front of me.
“What’d he say?” Ron yelled. His hearing aid was acting up again.
“You’re next!” I hollered back.
“Pasaporte, por favor!”
“What’d he say?”
“He wants your passport!”
“Oh, my passport!” Ron patted his shirt pockets, and then turned his pant pockets inside out. “I know it’s here somewheres.”
The customs agent rolled his eyes in officious loathing and started tapping his foot loudly. “Oh yeah, I know where it is, I keep it hidden in my money belt!” Ron yelled. “Now let’s see,” he mumbled as he unzipped his pants, reached through his fly, and started to root around.
The official stepped back with a look of fear and disgust on his face, and the crowd from the bus rushed up and gasped at each of Ron’s renewed attempts to unzip the hidden pouch.
“Por favor, Senor!” The agent shrieked in falsetto.
“What’d he say?” Ron shouted, doubled over in his effort to pull the passport free. “I’ve almost got it!”
“There, I’ve got it!” He announced triumphantly, as he thrust the passport at the little customs official. The men in the crowd gasped, and women shrieked and turned away, shielding their children with their bodies.
Ron looked back at me proudly. “I found it. I knew it was there.”
The official mumbled something unintelligible, backed away, and looking as if he had been handed a diseased rat, he gingerly took the passport between thumb and forefinger and stamped the appropriate page.
“I knew it was there all along.” Ron said, self-satisfied.
We passed into Chile without further incident, and had a lot of empty seats around us for the remainder of the trip.
Several hours later, we arrived at the airport outside of Puerto Monte only to discover that the flight to Chaiten had left an hour earlier, and that there were none the following day. I was wondering which hotel to book us into, and what I could possibly do with Ron for two days when the ticketing agent walked up to us. “Senor White?”
Ron pointed at me and it felt like an indictment. “Si?”
Where upon the agent spewed out several sentences in rapid-fire Spanish.
“Pardon, Senor. Hablo Casillano muy pocito. Hablan Ingles?” I asked hopefully, exhausting half of my conversational Spanish.
“Si Senor,” he said, and then mockingly switched to English. “There is a telephone call for you. Follow me please.”
I walked over to the counter and picked up the phone. “Bob, where the hell are you guys?” The owner of the lodge said. “We’re waiting at the airport in Chaiten. Did you miss the plane?”
“Yeah, sorry about that… any ideas?”
It was decided that we should charter a small, private plane to fly us to Chaiten. Because all fishermen travel with way too much gear, there was no way that both of us, and all of our bags would fit into the plane. Actually, it did all fit, but the worried face on the pilot as he looked at the tires and calculated his weight and balance, prompted an offer on my part to unload my duffels and have them follow the next day. The pilot seemed relieved.
With all of the bags, minus mine, piled into the back of the plane, and Ron and I crammed into our seats, we roared down the runway (all of it), finally lifted off, and turned to the south for the next leg of our journey toward Lago Yelcho.
We flew with a tail wind the whole way, overflew the airport to land from the south, and on our final approach descended over the wingless hull of an old DC-3 that lay in the middle of the neighborhood where it had crashed. There was a stovepipe jutting out of the fuselage at a crazy angle and the kids playing in the gardens waved. As we passed over the pilot dipped his wings in response.
We taxied up to the owner of the lodge, who was waiting with his crew of guides next to several trucks. The pilot climbed out and stretched with some relief. I was about to climb out and do the same when I heard Ron moaning. He was doing the Holy-Roller-Rock with his eyes closed in concentration. I got out of the plane, as quickly as possible and tumbled onto the tarmac. “Ahhhhg!” Ron bellowed, as he launched himself out of the door and landed in a heap on top me.
“Ahhhhg!” We both howled, trying to disentangle ourselves.
The guides dropped the bags they were unloading from the plane and stepped back, mouths agape, and the lodge owner rushed to help us. “Just me,” I said, wincing in pain. “Leave Ron on the deck, he needs to stretch”
The drive along the Rio Yelcho toward the lake was breathtakingly beautiful. Chile is as lush and green as Argentina is arid, and children walked along the road using giant stalks of what looked like giant rhubarb leaves as umbrellas. Chile was in perfect balance with Argentina and I had to admit that I was glad Ron had talked me into the trip. We pulled off of the road at the top of the lake, near the terminus of the Futalefu River, and transferred into small motor launches for the final leg of the journey to the lodge on Isla Monita. The pier at the lodge is carved from a single, enormous beech tree that had fallen into the lake perhaps before I was born. Tied to it were any number of beautifully hand-crafted punts. “Each of the men builds his own boat,” Don, the manager said, noticing our admiring gazes. “They’re all crafted with just a few simple hand tools and the guides are very proud of them. Perhaps this is why the Chilean guides prefer to be called Boateros.”
Ron eyed up the punts the only way he knew how, by comparing and contrasting them to his beloved AuSable River drift boats. “These will do just fine,” he said with a wink.
The evening light was soft as each fisherman left the dock with his own guide to fish until after dark. The boateros dispersed in different directions, silently pulling their oars and easing the boats between the reeds in a gentle rasping that had, over the years, rounded the gunwales and polished them smooth.
Eventually the boat would enter a small lake within the expansive reed beds and the casting would begin. The trout, mostly browns, and a few brookies, were feeding heavily on dragon and damselflies. They’d often arc out of the lake to intercept the big flies that cruised over the water hunting midges. I had few dry flies big enough, and made a mental note to tie some for us once my bags arrived. As it was, I was soon out of any dries big enough to interest the fish, and switched to small olive wooly buggers as an imitation of the dragon fly nymph.
The fishing was good, and it would have been easy to focus only on it and forget where I was. To do so, however, would have denied the beauty of the fiord-like valley with enormous southern beeches clinging precariously to the mountainsides, often leaning out over the water as if to refute gravity. The distant ranges of even higher mountains held hanging glaciers that glowed pink and orange in the lowering light of dusk.
Ron, who had been chosen by the senior guide, was the last fisherman to return that night. It was well after dark, and I was lost in thought, silently smoking a cigar, when the gentle bump of the boat’s bow on the log announced their return. “How’d you do?” I asked quietly, not wanting to disrupt the calm of the night.
“Did you run out of big flies?”
“Naw… I never go fishing without a box full of big Michigan caddis. Do ya suppose they hatch here too?”
There was no need for an alarm clock on Isla Monita that week. Ron woke us early each morning when he rolled out of bed and painfully stretched his back. It was troubling to have my first cup of coffee while listening to the struggles of my old friend. When he eventually emerged from his room ready for another day there was always a smile on his face that spoke of contentment and peace.
We each fished with our own guide that week, coming together only for lunches of roasted lamb, sausage brochettes, grilled fish, salads, and wine. The senior guide, who was called Abuelo by the others, must have felt a certain bond with Ron, as they were inseparable. They shared their lunch every day, and though they knew no common dialect, often laughed over some joke or story that they somehow communicated through the collective language of old fishermen.
At the week’s end, when all of the baggage and fishermen were loaded into the lodge’s motor launch, the old guide insisted on rowing Ron across the wide lake in his small boat to start him on his journey home. “Vaya con Dios,” Abuelo said at the landing where they parted. Both of the old men nodded in resigned acceptance.
Ron died of cancer within the year, and I believe that his friend, the Abuelo, knew. The Abuelo was absent when I returned the next year.
I took a snapshot of Ron one day at lunch, there’s a flower in his fishing hat, a glass of wine in his hands, and a twinkle in his eyes. It hangs over my desk in tribute to my good friend… and as a reminder to me that every single day of our lives should be lived to its fullest.