All of us had found something in the echo of flowing water that couldn’t fit into a syringe. This was very thing our fathers each tried to teach us when we were young that none of us listened to.
Natives believe that eagles are the only animal that can fly high enough to cross into the spirit world. Their whole bodies are considered holy. Feathers are only given to someone who had done a great deed. The rules for handling feathers are similar to the American flag. They can never touch the ground, should never be hidden away. They should be displayed as a reminder of how you got it. A reminder to keep your mind and spirit clear.
Tom and I pulled in to the Abol Trading Post alongside the West Branch of the Penobscot in Maine, the last place for fuel on the old logging road. We opened the doors and stretched, legs locked and achy from a ten hour drive.
It was my first long trip; long lunch breaks to local streams, suicide runs upstate, overnights and long weekends in the bed of trucks were mainstays now for me and three other friends. The four of us collected years of clean time off drugs together on riverbanks, exchanged overdoses and dirty needles for may-fly hatches and fish tales. All of us had found something in the echo of flowing water that couldn’t fit into a syringe. This was very thing our fathers each tried to teach us when we were young that none of us listened to. The very thing my father tried to teach me with years spent fishing, hunting, and an obsession with native peoples, cultivated with bow making, flint knapping, and endless myths and histories. This trip was just Tom and I, the other two friends unable to get off work.
Tom went inside to pay for gas; I walked down to the bridge to see the river.
The people of Piscataquis County in Maine are few; it is one of the two counties east of the Mississippi that meets Frederick Jackson Turner’s requirements for frontier country, having fewer than six inhabitants per square mile, but the rivers and ponds are so plentiful that even the name Piscataquis is the Penobscot word for “at the river branch.”
The water was clean and quiet but wide, overlooked by tall pine trees and Katahdin, the north most point of the Appalachian Trail. Climbing the mountain was taboo to the Abenaki and Penobscot people, for the spirits that dwelled there were considered dangerous, resentful and envious of mortal man’s ability to die.
I scanned upriver for cuts, runs, riffles and deep holes and thought of the salmon that once swam from the sea to here, 70,000 or more each year in upwards of 50, 60, 70 pounds. So plentiful that they were easily fished with spears from the riverbanks or high rocks. If I stared upriver until my the eyes began to strain, I almost made out their ghosts, a fixed stare and spear in hand, the smell of smoked fish and tanning hide in the summer wind. Today, fishing for sea run salmon is illegal on the Penobscot, even to the remaining natives of the Penobscot Nation. In 2013, 324 returned from the sea, and it was still the greatest, and only, remaining Atlantic salmon run in the United States.
All that’s left is a subspecies, still Salmo Salar, but changed. Most average about 12 inches and are no longer anadromous, stuck and locked between the now defunct dams made to supply water to what were once the largest paper mills in the country. Locked for so many generations that they have forgotten the fish ever went to the sea, but still prized by fly fishermen for their strength and taste. My dad had fished for them in the 1970s when the road was first opened by the Great Northern Paper Company, and later took Trout Unlimited groups on trips here for many summers. I was here with Tom to do the same.
This section of the river was too wide to fish, too much water to cover and not enough clues as to where the fish would hide. Tom closed the gas cap. “Where we heading?”
“Up to the Dam, the water’s too big here. We’ll start on top and work our way down. My dad marked a bunch of different pools to check out on the way,”
We got in the truck and drove alongside the river and the tall pine trees for a few more miles, unfolded maps and books in my lap.
“Take this right. This should bring us right to the top,” I said, and he did.
The truck climbed the steep hill. We parked on the side of the dam and got out and walked towards it, looked at the water as it flowed over the cement, out of place against the cuts through the rock, the deep gorge of loose dark rock and the trees. The Penobscot people said Gluskabe, ‘the man who created himself’, made this river when he killed a greedy toad that swallowed all of the water of the land to use it for himself, setting it free to flow to the sea. He then made the Penobscot people from the mud of the same riverbank we stood near.
I turned and looked to the lake behind me only a hundred years old, and pictured how the waterfall must have looked before the dam was built. These waters flow to meet the East Branch to form the main steam and continue to flow down towards the ocean, past the remnants of the four old dams first built in the 1830s.
“Well, we can’t get down there,” Tom said and pointed down the steep ocky embankment.
“Yeah, I guess not.” There was a long pause, and we both stood there as the wind blew. “How long have you been clean for now?” I asked.
“I’ll have ten years in December. You?”
“Fuck. Three in December. Both of us are the 23rd remember?”
“Yeah, I remember.”
“I don’t even know what you used to do.”
“I almost died from cocaine and ketamine when I was 16. I had a seizure and blacked out at a party. Someone found me and called an ambulance.”
“You never told me that.”
“Yeah, I guess there’s no reason to really.”
“Is this your first big trip?” Tom asked
“Yup, well longest at least for sure.”
“Awesome, yeah this is a good amount of days dude. You come back different from a long trip. New way to live brother.”
“Yeah. Why don’t you ever talk about the addiction stuff?”
We both got in the truck, sat down and shut the doors.
“Because it’s all the same mess when you really look at it. It doesn’t matter anymore. It doesn’t have a hold on me like it used to.” Tom started the truck, and I said nothing.
Climbing the mountain was taboo to the Abenaki and Penobscot people, for the spirits that dwelled there were considered dangerous, resentful and envious of mortal man’s ability to die.
The river was narrow there, some ten feet across – a perfect distance to cast, a perfect place to stand with a spear.
A mile down river, we walked on the wide dirt path. There was high grass on each side of the trail. The sound of crickets, red squirrels chattered in the summer heat and the legs of our waders swished against each other. At the bottom of the hill was the power plant, one of six on the river to create electricity for the mills. The trail wrapped around a chain link fence on both sides and above our heads. I dragged my fingers on it as I walked.“You see that sign?”
Caution: Rising Water Levels
If siren sounds leave river immediately
I nodded. “I just don’t get what you mean by it doesn’t matter anymore.”
Tom didn’t answer, and we rounded the corner.
The trail turned steep up a rocky path, loose rocks and small jack pines with roots that bulged from the ever narrowing trail. We climbed to the top with careful, slow steps, and paused when we got to the top. The other side of the hill was nearly vertical and made of loose rocks of various sizes and shapes.
“After you,” Tom said with a grin, and I crept down sideways slowly, tested each rock before I shifted my weight onto them. We took our time and eventually reached the bottom of the embankment and each stood on a large rock. The river was narrow there, some ten feet across – a perfect distance to cast, a perfect place to stand with a spear.
We both tied on grasshopper patterns. On the first cast, a fish grabbed the fly and exploded from the water, took off in an iridescent surge airborne six feet or more, tail and head flailed in the air so strong and fast as the wings of hummingbirds as the water sprayed off and created a mist of small rainbows. Between jumps, it dove deep to try to swim around rocks or back into holes, ripped line from the reels, then forced its way up into the air again and again until it was exhausted on the shore.
Both of us hooked up every few casts for a few hours. A few more hours, and fishing had gradually slowed. My focus shifted from the gorge and the flow of the river.
I drove over the River Street Bridge over the Passaic River in Paterson and looked out onto the water. The way it cut and flowed through tires, metals, old cars. The dirtiest river in America. The air smelled like heroin on a humid day. There was always someone fishing from the bridge, leaned up against the railing, careful casts made in between traffic. I picked up the phone to tell him I’m close. “Wait in the dead end til 2:30,” he said. I looked at the clock, 2:04. I turned onto the road and drove up the hill towards the dead end. 2:10. I turned and saw the fence wrapped around the blacktop, the basketball courts. Two kids chased each other as their fingers dragged through the fence.
The words of a friend were always in my head: “You gotta stop going to that dead end dude…we got fucking shot at last week down there. We shorted him twenty bucks and drove off and he unloaded on the fucking car.”
I turned off the car and left the keys in the ignition. The summer heat rose from the pavement, the buildings, the sidewalks. The sounds of children, shouts, laughter, and the stream of cars coming and going made the air feel thicker. I lit a cigarette and took a long drag and exhaled as if the smoke could hide what I was doing there in the bad part of a bad city every day with a sad, anxious look on my pale sick face. I looked down at the dried blood on my shirtsleeves, my jeans. I looked at the clock. 2:30. I heard the bell ring from the school down the street.
I heard a door open and a woman walked out with her young child. A cigarette dangled from her mouth. Her young son ran past my car and into the crowd of children, small footsteps and sneakers and heavy breathing. Our eyes locked. She shook her head and never blinked as she exhaled and flicked the rest of the cigarette in my direction.
“Yo,” a kid barely 13 years old with dead eyes hidden under a low hat that knew my face, knew my car, knew my plates, leaned into my car with an outstretched hand, a bundle of glassine bags of heroin with colorful stamps in his hand. He was just a child, a boy. I thought about what I was doing at that age. Video games, baseball, trying to talk to a girl without getting nervous, while he was playing with guns and selling dope to white kids from the suburbs. But here I was on his block. Academic probation from a shit community college, the money for a degree, $20,000, that was mine when I turned 18 all gone up my nose or in my arm. Another $12,000 in debt. My idea of a true friendship and love was someone who spotted you on a $5 bag when you were broke as long as you paid triple for it tomorrow, my self worth less than nothing.
The dope in my hand I watched him walk away dressed in red and black from head to toe. Even his bookbag was gang colors.
I started the car. How many of these people, whether buying or selling, would make it off this block alive? How many will die over a promise made to them that they could make money enough money to leave this block, leave this city, that binds them here instead? How many people come here every day? How many of the cops are paid off so they never come to this part of town, or when they do the dealers know first? How many people live here their whole lives and never make it out?
I drove back over the bridge and pulled into a parking lot to load the syringe. I found one of the few veins left that wasn’t collapsed or too painful to shoot into, felt the skin pop and pulled back to reveal the small burst of blood, pushed down, and forgot about the kids or the block or myself, slumped over in the seat of my car.
… felt the skin pop and pulled back to reveal the small burst of blood, pushed down, and forgot about the kids or the block or myself, slumped over in the seat of my car.
We fished until it was too dark to see, and then headed back to the truck, the moon bright in the sky.
“Imagine what the sea run one’s are like?” Tom said.
“The sea run Atlantics.”
“They’re ripping out all these dams you know. Trying to fix the run.”
“Yup. The Penobscot people are buying the dams one by one and knocking ‘em down. Even got backing from the government in a lawsuit against Maine about the paper companies destroying the way they survived for thousands of years, and won. First time anything like that has ever happened. Two got knocked down so far. The run could come back in the next twenty, thirty years.”
“Would be sick to have ‘em come back.”
We fished until it was too dark to see, and then headed back to the truck, the moon bright in the sky.
“Do you still think about the shit you did at all?”
“Not the way I used to.”
I thought about the cold stare in that boy’s eyes that day on the block as we walked.
“Well, what changed?”
We walked the rest of the way in silence, and when we got back to the truck we set up the tent in the parking lot. Tom was asleep in minutes, but I couldn’t sleep as I struggled to figure out what it meant to be changed enough that my past meant something different.
The next day after two hours of dirt logging roads with three foot deep potholes and wooden bridges so old and worn that each required inspection, we pulled into the three building town. The town consisted of a trading post, two cabins, and a sign that read:
Welcome to Kokadjo Population: Not Many
Another few miles down the road, we saw a turn off and the trail that lead to a pond.
Tom turned off the truck and left the keys in the ignition.
“You coming?” Tom asked.
“Yeah,” I grabbed my gear and closed the door of the truck.
We crossed the street and headed to the well groomed trail. A makeshift boardwalk had been made out of trees laid sideways across the mud every few feet that lead for about a half mile. The trail grew wetter and swampier as the closer we got to the pond. At the end of the trail were two canoes, both upside down, one new and numbered, the other old enough and rotten that the paint had faded into a stale gray. The entire canoe bent backwards, spine broken to fit the curve of the small hill it was laid on.
“Hear that? Eagles.” Tom pointed out to an island in the middle of the pond.
“Think anyone’ll mind if we borrow this canoe for the afternoon?” he asked and smiled.
“I’m sure they would let us use it if they knew us.”
The wind blew and rippled the water on the pond. There is a Penobscot legend that said Gluskabe hunted ducks in ponds like this one with his bow. One morning the wind was so strong that whenever he took a shot, he missed. He grew frustrated and went home to ask his grandmother about the wind, the weather, and the day.
“Gluskabe,” she said, “Each day the great eagle Kisosen opens his wings to create each day, closes them to start each night. The eagle Wuchowsen flaps his wings to create wind and the weather.”
“Where do they live Grandmother?”
“They live far up north atop the mountains above us. Why do you ask grandson?”
“I was just wondering.” Right away Gluskabe left the village to head up north to find Wuchowsen. After many days of climbing, Gluskabe found the eagle atop a stony peak overlooking the same pond he fished in, flapping his wings in a fury and creating great storms.
“Grandfather, why do you flap your wings this way? You do not care for your children. You have made it so we cannot hunt,” Gluskabe told him.
Wuchowsen laughed and said, “I have been here long before man, and I will speak and do as I please.” Enraged Gluskabe grew large and after a great fight bound the eagles wings and threw him into a rocky gorge. He returned home to hunt and found the ducks gone, the air growing stale, and the pond drying up because there was no rain. He went back to his Grandmother. She knew what he had done, and shook his head when she saw him.
“Will you never learn? The wind brings the clouds which gives us the rain and the wind to wash the Earth and make it clean. We cannot live without the wind. You must set the eagle free.”Gluskabe then went to the gorge and uncut only one of the eagle’s wings, which is why there is only wind and storms at certain times.
We each grabbed the canoe from either end and slipped it into the water. Tom already up front I stepped in with one foot and push off with the other, then paddled and watched the ripples in the water spread out away from us. I paddled on the right side, then the left, back and forth until we had enough momentum. I placed the paddle across my lap and floated towards the small island of high pine trees. I heard no engines in the distance, no sounds from nearby roads or highways, just the sound of the canoe cutting through the water and a small, cold feeder stream towards the east that flowed down from the nearby mountains and into the pond. Tom began to cast as I paddled, both of us quiet.
As we drifted closer to the island, I saw an eagle nest, large sticks built in a circle that held both mother and child, still in its newborn black but fully grown. Both sets of eyes had seen me long before I had seen them, and no doubt wondered what I was doing in their pond. The young eagle jumped from the nest, flew and circled the perimeter of the pond, the mother soon to follow, and both never took their eyes off me.
‘Hear that? Eagles.’ Tom pointed out to an island in the middle of the pond.
Both sets of eyes had seen me long before I had seen them.
The wind blew as we got close to the banks of the island.
“I think I’m going to go fuck around on this island. There’s gotta be some feathers there.”
“Feathers? I’ll come get you later, I came here to catch fish brother,” Tom said as I crept out of the canoe and onto the island. He paddled away.
The island was a boneyard, their boneyard. Mice and the bones of other vermin, pieces of other birds, detached wings and tails. Fish bones and skulls everywhere, all picked clean, some old, cracked and grey, some bright white, flies still clung to the last scraps. Bones and body parts high up in the chunk of dense trees, pieces of something dead on every branch between the canopy and the pine needle floor. The mother flew around and landed back in the nest right above me screeched. The baby circled an ever widening perimeter. A perfect place for a nest. A perfect place to raise young.
The wind blew harder now. The brush and the trees were so dense and so thick that I crawled on my hands and knees to look for feathers. I thought of natives coming here in the dead of night in quiet canoes to keep their supply of eagle feathers secret from the rest of the tribe.
All I wanted was one. Any feather, any size, anywhere. I began to cover every inch of the island, scan it, sweep it, not leave until everything was covered, but found nothing as I crawled over more than half the island.
I hit my knee hard on a rock and flipped on my back as I grabbed my knee.
The pain stopped. I sighed, and I looked up. A small feather hung on a small branch above me. A small fluffy plume. I grabbed it and scanned the surrounding area. More plumes, larger now. I smiled as I held them in my hand and looked around me. I was stood in the middle of a group of larger body feathers, some three or four inches in length on tree branches of different lengths. I crawled again, ducked under blueberry bushes and pushed through the brush and found three secondary flight feathers. I put them all into my pockets. To my right were two juvenile tail feathers in a bush. Below the bush on the ground, nearly vertical, were two primary flight feathers side by side almost two feet long.
I paused with the two feathers in my hand and looked around me. The feathers, the island, the pond, the eagles. I realized every moment, some unbearable and some beautiful, from that dead end street until right there on that island, had somehow brought me here. That the thing I had found in the echo of flowing water could sustain in a way no chemical ever could, and only because I knew what it meant to be empty could I know what it meant to be full.
I ran to the bank and shouted to Tom from across the pond, held the two huge feathers in each hand and waved them in the wind. Tom yelled back at me with a hand in the air.
That night we made a small fire by the riverbank, the wind still strong. Head quiet with the sounds of the night, I felt the ghosts dance around me with the smoke, their arms covered with feathers and spread like wings. All of them wore carefully crafted head pieces. Their drums beat to the pulse of the earth, and chants in foreign tongues mixed with the ancient smoke in the air, an eagle dance in celebration of the unbound of wings and another dam undone.