Jack was a bit of a bastard, really, but he had a soft spot for birds, chipmunks, and his beloved mountains. He also had a soft spot for me. And though he died many moons ago this month, but he’s still with me every day.
by Tamia Nelson | April 14, 2018
Originally published in different form in different places in other years.
He died nearly half a century ago this April, at the age of sixty-five. It wasn’t an easy death. He “died hard,” as folks used to say. I won’t kid you. He was no saint. He was a bit of a bastard, in fact. Still, he had his reasons. He packed a lot into his sixty-five years. He raised three kids on little or nothing. A fourth, his youngest son, drowned one winter when he broke through the ice on a local lake. What with one thing and another, he never had an easy life. He lived through two major wars, several diphtheria epidemics, and a depression — and that wasn’t all. But he never lost his love for his mountains.
His name was Jack. His last name doesn’t matter. He didn’t have much use for last names, to tell the truth. He started guiding when he was little more than a boy. If the state required guides to be licensed then, he didn’t care, and no one else did, either. By the time he’d grown up, the state had dropped the requirement altogether. They’ve put it back now, of course. You have to pass a multiple-choice test. Some guides even get degrees in wilderness recreation and outdoor education. Jack would not have been impressed by their diplomas and certificates, however. He was a “show me” kind of guy. And he lived in the woods all his life.
He liked to fish, and he always managed to fill his creel. This was before the days of catch-and-release, and back before acid rain began to kill the brookies. Almost back before daily limits. Limits didn’t matter to Jack, anyway. He knew all the rangers, and he knew they wouldn’t follow him back into the alder hells and spruce jungles where he went to hunt trout.
It’s not like he killed all he could catch, however. He took what he wanted for the skillet, and he helped his “sports” — no guide had “clients” in those days — get what they wanted for their den walls. And then he made them put the rest back. He didn’t need a law or a cop to tell him what to do. He lived on the river, after all. And he knew he’d be coming back to fish another day.
He took his sports out during deer season, too, though his heart wasn’t really in it. He hunted for the pot, to be sure. Everybody did. But he preferred fishing to hunting. “You shoot a doe by mistake,” he used to say, “you can’t put her back.” (Nowadays, we all know that you have to kill does to maintain deer populations at maximum-sustainable-yield levels. This knowledge came late in Jack’s life, however. He never killed does.) Once he even hunted bigger game, helping the state cops track a murderer who was running loose in the Adirondacks. They bagged him, too.
Jack wasn’t a full-time guide. He had a “real” job selling heavy equipment to local towns. But I didn’t get to know him until he’d quit. He didn’t retire from guiding, though. He just got a little more selective. He was never idle. When he wasn’t in the woods or fishing, he gardened. Or he watched the river, taking note of the comings and goings of all the life in and around it, right through the circle of the seasons. Jack was what folks called a “lookin’ man.” He could sit and look at the river for hours. If he’d been a reading man, he’d probably have said he was something like Thoreau’s “inspector of snow-storms and rain-storms.”
But he wasn’t a reading man. He didn’t have much use for most books, in fact. Or for girls. At least he didn’t have much use for girls in his mountains. There was usually a girl half his age around his camp, in fact. Sometimes two. They came and went with the seasons, just like the wildlife and waterfowl, but they never got between him and the river.
I was the first girl to do that. Ours was an awkward meeting. I was a teenager, interested in hiking and climbing and fishing. I thought he could teach me something. He thought girls belonged in the kitchen and the bedroom and nowhere else. And he didn’t give up easily. But neither did I. In a little while he was taking me back into some of his favorite streams. My apprenticeship had begun.
I learned a lot in those years. About fishing and hunting and making a fire in the rain with one match. And about the difference between appearance and reality. Jack didn’t look like much. He shaved only often enough to leave a stubble. He wore barn boots in all seasons. He smelled — stank, really — of woodsmoke, citronella, and stale sweat. And he was as gnarled and twisted as a summit spruce.
He wasn’t any better at the social graces. Jack just wasn’t a “people person.” He was a man of few words, and most of those were profane, obscene, or scatological. He didn’t remember birthdays or send holiday greeting cards. And he liked to be alone.
For all that, I’ve never met a better woodsman, canoeist or angler, or a more humane man. Not everyone would agree, of course. When the Adirondack tourist boom started heating up, Jack would often come out of the woods at the end of a long day to find that some campers had pitched a tent on his lawn, between his cabin and the river. When this happened, he woke them up and ordered them to get moving. Some went quietly. Jack helped them pack and told them where to find the state land down the road. Others, however, were a little slower to catch on.
“Didn’t think anybody lived in that old shack!” they’d say, gesturing toward Jack’s home. Then they’d smile ingratiatingly and add, “We’ll be gone in the morning, OK?” And when Jack didn’t say anything, they’d smile at him again, say goodnight, and get back into their tent.
Jack would wait a minute to give them time to settle down. Then he’d jerk the stakes out of the ground, haul their tent down to the river, and throw it in, with the tourists still in it.
None of them ever camped on his lawn again.
Nope. Jack just didn’t have good people skills. But he was a humane man. He left berries and sunflower seeds in his garden for the chipmunks, even when he didn’t have money for coffee. He’d stop traffic on the state highway to let a mother duck march her brood across the road safely. And when he hunted or fished, he took pride in killing cleanly. A single shot, a single sharp rap on the head, and the job was done. He gave up trapping, too, though the money came in mighty handy. On the day his son drowned, he went down to the coroner’s office to identify the body. The look on his son’s frozen face stayed with him on the drive home. He started thinking about all the muskrat and beaver he’d hauled out of winter ponds. And he thought about his son’s last minutes under the ice.
The next day, he threw his traps in the river. And that was that.
I said Jack wasn’t a reading man, didn’t I? Well, that’s only half true. He had a good library of field guides. He gave me one on the day I caught my first big brookie. It was a copy of Henry Hill Collins’ Complete Field Guide to American Wildlife, and it was my most treasured possession right up until a fire destroyed it.
By that time, though, Jack was dead. The gallons of whisky and thousands of packs of Lucky Strikes had done their work. At first, he just got sick. Then he stayed sick. Soon he couldn’t take any more sports back into his mountains. He was still a lookin’ man, though. One winter, after I skied full tilt into a big maple tree, shattering my leg, breaking my nose, and cutting up my face, I was laid up for months. Jack wrote to me almost every week, telling me about the progress of a spring that I could only see from the window of my room
Finally, he got too sick even to sit and watch the river. I saw him just once more, but I’m not going to write much about that. I’m not even going to think much about it. He’d already “gone under the ice” when I visited him in his hospital bed. By then he was working hard at dying. He had no time for anything — or anyone — else.
No. I’d rather think of him standing in the bow of his battered old Grumman, casting a Wooly Bugger into a hole under a snag on some nameless Adirondack stream, whispering curses at the stupid fish who wouldn’t strike. Not a nice man at all, really. A bastard, in fact. But one of the best men I’ve ever known. And my grandfather.
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