This story doesn’t have an ending yet. But it begins in 1970. That’s when my father was earning his stripes as a district forester in the Lowcountry, slogging through sloughs and swamps, marking timber (and the occasional water moccasin) with bright blue tree-paint. I was eleven years old then, and when you’re eleven years old in Kingstree, South Carolina, you spend a lot of your time fishing and hunting and playing football or Dixie Youth Baseball at the old youth center beside the only rail line in and out of town.
The other guys my age fished with cane poles, or if they were lucky, spinning rods usually equipped with closed- face Zebco reels they bought at McGill’s Sporting Goods. But my father did something different for me. He taught me how to fly fish when I was barely waist high on him.
He made me a cut-down bamboo rod that I could handle with one hand, and he taught me the quiet rhythm of a fly cast, the slow loading of the line until the rod bent like a question mark, then the hesitation in the back cast that unfurled the line across the surface of the water. In other words, he taught me how to let the bamboo do all the work. Though I was big for my age, I still couldn’t
fit into adult-sized waders, so he somehow found (or manufactured or invented) a pair of rubber waders I could slide into comfortably.
Trout didn’t exist among the humidity and mosquitoes of the Lowcountry. In the Black River or farm ponds, there were only panfish and bass and the occasional ugly catfish, so every chance he got, my father loaded us into his white Ford Fairlane station wagon and pointed north, toward the Upstate. By 1970, he’d been fly fishing for over a decade and he’d fallen madly in love with the Chattooga, with the trout that hid under the wild riffles of that mountain river.
We’d park at Burrells Ford, at the bridge that separated South Carolina from north Georgia, slip on our waders, rig our rods, and hike upstream, toward the big bend just downstream from Ellicott’s Rock. Each trip, I would get a lesson in reading trout water. I’d learn how to spot the places where food funneled to hidden trout, places where they might be lying bullet-like in the darker green cuts alongside the rocks. We would slide gently into the water and feel with our feet, and he rarely let me get more than a couple arm-lengths away in the thigh-deep current.
In 1970, he scraped up enough money to buy a little triangle of land just north of Walhalla, three acres on a place called Crystal Lake, a tiny mountain lake just off the highway that led to Burrells Ford. My father had a plan. He wanted a cabin on those three acres, a place that would serve as a headquarters during fishing trips, where he and I could sleep and eat when we weren’t wading in the Chattooga or Chauga rivers.
And remember, this was the ’70s. The A-Frame-style vacation home was the architectural trend of the moment, and my father figured he could build one mostly by himself. He wanted just enough space for family and fishermen. He wanted a porch. And he wanted a few big hooks somewhere to hang his waders. In fact, I remember him saying once that he wanted to fish so much one fall or spring that his waders never dried out completely.
Crystal Lake was by no means large, but big enough to accommodate the rare, reckless water skier. The creek that fed the lake ran just beside the edge of my father’s three acres, and the cold runoff from behind the dam fed a small creek that eventually dumped into the Chauga. In other words, Crystal Lake was smack in the middle of trout territory, and I’d never seen my father more excited. He’d never owned land. He’d never peered into the future before, never imagined an A-Frame and waders dripping on a porch.
For a couple of years, he made trip after trip to Crystal Lake. He cleared pines with a chainsaw and left the nicer hardwoods. He burned bonfires of brush down by the shoreline. He hired a local guy who could handle a dozer and had him cut a road into the site he’d chosen for the A-Frame. The power company come out and sank a creosote pole and ran a new power line through the trees. He found some plans for an A-Frame that my mother approved. He actually pounded stakes at the corners of the invisible house and strung up the shape of the outer walls. And then he got the call that he was being transferred.
My father was moved from the Lowcountry to the State Forestry Commission headquarters in Columbia. All the money and time and energy that he’d planned to spend on the three acres at Crystal Lake were transferred as well, transferred to the task of packing up his family and moving them to the Midlands. He deferred one dream for another. He did build a house on a lake, Lake Murray (mostly with his own hands), and his attention stayed on the job and his high school kids. The three acres on the road to Burrells Ford went wild again. The stakes and the string rotted. The creosote pole was taken over by the oaks and sycamores, and the road to the house became buried under season after season of falling leaves. Sure, we would occasionally go to Burrells Ford to fish. We might drop by the three acres, and my dad would wander among the trees, talking about new plans, new futures. But we were all older then. I couldn’t see him on the end of a chainsaw anymore, couldn’t seem him taking on a new house. The one thing I could see clearly was that look behind his eyes, the one that seemed to say, Don’t listen to me. I’m just dreaming.
It’s funny how time alters people and land. More than forty years have passed since my father cut a road into his three acres, and for forty years that piece of property has turned back on itself, returned to a wild place. My father is 82 years old now, staring 83 down the barrel. A few months ago, he brought me an envelope. It was a tax bill from Oconee County. He said I needed to pay it because I was now officially the owner of his three acres on Crystal Lake. He’d signed away the deed. I could tell he didn’t know if he was passing me a burden or a blessing, but he was giving it to me all the same. I suppose that’s what fathers do for their sons: they pass things along. Like the ability to drift a dry fly across a riffle, or the way to read the bend in a trout stream. Or the three acres they were never able to completely tame.
I’ve been up there a couple of times, hacking through vines and briars. I found the old power pole, a coil of wire still tacked to the top of it. I even stumbled across a couple of pieces of rebar pounded into the ground, survey markers from forty years ago. And I believe I found the old A-Frame site under decades of decayed leaves and scrub oaks.
I have my own plan now. I am going to build something on Crystal Lake. Not an A-Frame. Times have changed. I want something with solar panels and rain barrels so I can recycle thunderstorms that rattle the tin roof. I want a little nook somewhere on the northeast corner so I can write in the early mornings. I’m not sure what I can afford these days, but I’ll definitely have a porch, and on that porch, I’ll mount a couple of large wooden hooks. He and I don’t fish much anymore. He can’t really handle slick rocks and strong currents. But one day soon, I want to drive him to his three acres and ease him into a chair on that porch, within arm’s length of his damp waders.
That would be the right way to end this story.