Letter to Susan

by Scott Stouder

Susan Stouder fishing

Watching a wild trout rise to a fly takes your breath. Watching it in a wild river takes your soul. Last summer when I watched both happen to my daughter, it took my heart. And it gave me hope.

I pack our lunches the night before, and gather up gear for both of us. I go to bed excited, wake up at 3:30 and drive up and over the snowy summit, my excitement building – perfect tracking weather. B.J. gets off the train, and it's great to see him.

Susan and I were deep in Idaho's Salmon River country. It had been years since we'd spent time together in wild country. When she was young and we lived together in western Oregon, we spent every spare moment hunting deer and elk in rain-shrouded mountains or fishing in the clear, cold waters of a coastal stream.

I was thinking of those lost years last summer as I watched her brace her feet on a moss-covered rock and strip line from her reel before casting an elk hair caddis into a swirl of river and rocks.

The water from which she was trying to entice a cutthroat trout, like most of Idaho, was a mixture of turbulent current and dark pools. I was anxious that she wouldn't remember where trout live. But the ways of angling and water were deeply set in her muscles. She gently, almost magically, roll-cast the line, picked the fly from the water, completed the arch and set it in the seam between current and calm.

Holding the rod tip high, her eyes followed the tiny feathered speck as it swirled on the current. As I watched her pure concentration it occurred to me how much I'd missed her.

When she was a very young girl, and I was increasingly troubled by my fading hopes for a better world, I wrote her a letter, which I've kept close all these years.

Dear Susan,

How quickly you're passing through the portal years of innocence.

You don't know it, but as you leap toward your teenage years and into a crowded and confused world, I watch and wonder, too.

I watch our urban culture drift from a connection with wildness, and wonder if you'll understand what that connection has meant to my life.

I see your blue eyes sparkle with joy from catching your first trout, and wonder if you'll ever feel the raw, chaotic power of a wild steelhead in untamed water.

I remember the girl huddled close in a winter duck blind, and wonder if you'll ever know the sheer excitement of thousands of ducks and geese lifting in the pre-dawn light from a lonely marsh.

As I watch the bond grow between a young girl and her horse, I wonder if you'll ever be able to experience the freedom and beauty of that companionship in an unbroken world of canyons and ridges.

In your lifetime will wild land and water become so diluted and tamed that what little remains will be crushed beneath the weight of our own good intentions?

As you grow older, will you be able to recognize—and combat—the constant compulsion that seems to drive us to reduce wildness—the heart of land—to interpretive signs and text books?

Will you have the courage, built from experience, to challenge those who would trade pristine elk country for paved roads, salmon for reservoirs and wild trout for sterile water? Will you know the primitive thrill of a bull elk's challenge in the first frozen moments of light or the bone-weary relief of settling into a saddle as the sun slips behind the mountains? Will you learn what being a part of the beauty and grace of wild land and free-flowing rivers has meant to me, to my father, to his father?

Will you take the necessary effort to experience the simple joy of casting a fly to a wild trout?

These are the questions I ask you, Susan. But more crucial is the question I ask myself: "Will I have left you a world where these experiences can still be found?"

Suddenly, in a flash of red and silver, the fly vanished. Susan's reaction was instant. The rod tip came up. The line came tight. And eight feet of laminated technology bent under the weight of a fish that had lived its life in the wild.

Susan's face sparkled as the thick, colorful cutthroat catapulted from the water and propelled itself deep into the current. A small shriek escaped her as she slipped, back-stepped to solid ground and stumbled downriver through rocks and water, following the fish.

I waited while she coaxed the trout toward the surface, waited while it ran and sulked, shaking its head in the river's depths. I watched her bring it to the surface once more and slide it through the rocks until it lay on its side in the shallows.

I started over to help, but she deftly reached down with the forceps and released the tiny hook. Then she laid her rod aside, cupped the trout in both hands and held it in the current for a long moment before opening her hands and releasing it.

When she looked up, I knew that the years we'd been apart were past. I also knew the answer to my troubled question so many years ago. She has a world where the wild can still be found.

Scott Stouder is a field coordinator for Trout Unlimited, an award-winning outdoor writer and backwoodsman extraordinaire. He lives on the edge of the wilderness in Pollock, Idaho.

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