It's hard to stay inside in October, that most bittersweet of months. On days when wind and rain are stripping leaves from trees and plastering them like bloody handprints on the ground, I'm grateful to be dry and warm at home. I'm glad for the freshly split and stacked firewood in the garage and the coffee pot in the kitchen and the winter's reading already piled on the shelves beside the fireplace. But I'm soon pacing, watching for signs that the sky will open and the weather break. The year is going down in flames, and I don't want to watch it through a window.
I spend many of autumn's short days tramping through aspen stands, hunting for grouse and woodcock, or fishing for steelhead and salmon in rivers where we can see the fish holding deep in the pools like pods of submarines awaiting orders to advance. And when the weather clears -- when the sky turns brittle blue and the wind shifts to the south for the last time, bringing warm, fragrant air from the Gulf of Mexico in a reprieve known mysteriously as Indian summer -- I load my canoe on the truck and head for a river.
In October the rivers around here are mostly abandoned, though the dams and access sites are crowded during the salmon run, and elsewhere you'll see an occasional angler or paddler on a final outing before winter comes. The weather will soon be monumentally uncomfortable, but for a few days you can paddle in shirtsleeves and sneakers. The air has been cleansed by cold and rain, and the low sun cuts through the woods like daggers, pinning your attention to little things. The breeze smells like apples and nuts and faintly of burning leaves. Your perceptions are sharpened. You see and hear better than you did in summer and are too alert to the passing hours to be profligate with them. You might have squandered the summer, when the days stretched out one after another and it was possible to think they would never end. But nobody can squander October.
For me, the month is often distilled to a few unforgettable moments. Such a moment occurred last year when a friend and I floated a section of tag-alder lowlands along the upper Betsie. It was late in the month, the days still warm but the nights so cold they skimmed puddles with ice. The sun was gone that evening, the sky darkening, the river below us shimmering with tarnish stolen from the western horizon.
We had been fishing in a half-serious way, drifting with the current and casting bright streamers to the riffles, hoping a salmon or steelhead or brown trout would strike, content enough when they did not. Just as we entered that uncertain zone between dusk and dark, three things happened simultaneously: A salmon weighing at least twenty pounds arched silently from the surface of the river below us and hung in the air; a woodcock fluttered from the tag alders, cocked its wings, and shot upriver toward us; and a pack of coyotes began yelping just beyond the hills beside the river.
A moment is a hard thing to capture. It's elusive and stubborn and impossible to predict. Just when you think you've got one nailed down it blends into other moments, and instead of a memory as crisply defined as a jewel's facet, you have nothing but a vague recollection. But that moment on the Betsie was finely etched. It was magical and absolutely unexpected, vivid as a dream, so memorable that it might come
The salmon reentered the water with a crash that sent spray to the banks, the woodcock passed overhead and disappeared upriver, and the heartbroken sobbing yelps of the coyotes faded. My friend turned to me and said, "Whoa! Too much nature."
He was joking, of course. We can never have too much nature. We barely get enough as it is.
It was nearly dark by then and we still had a few bends to go before we could get off the water. We pushed on, the evening getting colder and darker by the minute. Ahead of us the last traces of daylight smudged the sky and lit the surface of the river with a beckoning glow. We could have gone on all night. We could have followed the river all the way downstream into winter.