Nothing lasts forever…
If you have ever floated the Chehalis River between the Independence Valley near Rochester, downstream to the town of Elma, you can’t miss the hand-built shacks, typically wooden or tin, or in some cases, a galvanized silo top, constructed to house winter steelhead fisherman. If you look closely, usually near an existing shack, you will see scattered throughout the willows and alders that line the bank, an old tin roof, perhaps a weathered piece of fiberglass sheeting, or if you are really lucky, an old rusty wood stove covered in decaying leaves and wild blackberry vines. These once original, custom made shacks, just like the Old Timers who filled punch card after punch card decades ago, don’t last forever. My dad was one of these Old Timers, and just like his shack, age finally got the best of them both.
Born in 1929, dad was part of what they called the “Silent Generation.” They say the folks in this generation got their nickname from their no-nonsense, keep your mouth shut and work, demeanor. I would say that it is a fairly accurate description of my dad. Kids growing up during the Great Depression went without, plain and simple. He told stories of his deprived childhood in Iowa, not out of pity, but more in a matter of fact way. A random piece of cardboard was a treat to them. Some quick work with a pair of scissors and Walla! New insoles for their shoes. An old work boot often took the place of a toy train or truck. Their imagination, most of the time, was their best friend. As for dads work ethic, his stories of tacking up entire teams of horses and plowing fields all day at 8 years old, pretty well sums it up.
The act of fishing and hunting was driven more by the need for food, than it was for sport. In the fall, the men of the family would hunt all day, collecting up cotton tails, squirrels, pheasants and any other small game they could find to bring home for supper. Once home, the quarry would be deposited in the large sink in the canning kitchen, where his mom would clean and prep it for the roasting pan. He told the stories so often that it was like I was there at the dinner table. His mom would quarter everything, then flour and brown it before stacking the meat into the old enamel coated roaster. All that was left to do was pour in a quart of fresh cream, bake for a couple hours, and dinner is served. The cream, mixed with the browned flour, made a wonderful gravy and the meat was so tender that you needed a slotted spoon to find it as it had fallen from the bone.
O.K, I got a little off-track here, I can’t help it, they’re great stories. Anyway, back to the Chehalis River. Dad fished most weekends, well before I was ever around, but gave it up for a period of time during my childhood. Just like people change, the river changes over time as well, and in doing so, it can cause the productivity of a certain “hole” to drop significantly. Sometimes it changes back for the better, other times not. This can explain why some shacks are abandoned over time and left to be taken back by the river or the surrounding landscape. In the case of my dad, it was a combination of the river changing, the shack deteriorating, and life getting busy that created a decade long pause. After he retired, he started fishing again but without a good hole. We bounced around a little before catching a break and landing a great spot. With permission of the landowner, we constructed “dads shack,” as it would be called for the next 25 years. The shack was a simple design. Treated 4X4’s for the corner posts and small fir poles were used as purlins to hold up the galvanized metal roof. Two sides of his shack were also sheets of metal roofing and the back was an old tarp. The tarp was by design as it would allow the flood water to freely flow through the shack, keeping it from collapsing. The front, facing the river, was wide open except for the two dirt steps, framed in with treated 2X6’s. An old fuel barrel, turned homemade woodstove, sat against the downstream side of the shack. With high water finding its way into the shack most winters, a floor would be difficult to maintain. Instead, the natural dirt floor worked just fine. Rounding out the shack was a couple of retired kitchen frying pans from home, hanging on the wall and an old metal Folgers can of water heating on the stove to wash your hands. Staying true to the Great Depression era stereotype, every piece of material used to build his shack was previously used elsewhere, nothing was bought new.
Dad and I enjoyed many great years of fishing down on the river, but it wasn’t until my boys were old enough to go that the real fun began. When I say old enough, I mean like 3 or 4 years old. Like my brothers and I growing up down at his old shack, my boys were affixed to the shack with a length of rope tied around their waists, just long enough to reach the rivers edge and grab their poles. If you can envision the tangled mess you would have with two puppies tied to a single post, then you can certainly understand the work it took to keep two boys from tying themselves in knots. Worse yet was the trip hazard they created that I had to tip toe around any time I rushed to the rods to hook a fish. I don’t know who enjoyed the fishing more, my dad, or the boys. He always had plenty of snacks to keep them busy and his witty sense of humor had them laughing most of the day.
Over time, like usual, the river began to change, and the shack, much like my dad, began to show signs of wear. The boys got to enjoy the last four or five years of “Papa’s” steelhead career. At around 84 years old, dad hung up his gear for good. The boys and I still fished, but it was never the same. The shack needed repaired, but I didn’t want to rebuild it. It was “dads shack,” not mine. Without ever talking about it, the kids and I chose to let the shack go with dad. We still make it down there now and again, but life gets busy. Soon “dads shack” will be taken over by the eroding riverbank or an alder tree or two that has succumbed to a windstorm. Nothing lasts forever and much like the shacks of years past, my dad to is gone. When my brothers and I went through his fishing gear after he passed, I never took a single hook. For me and my boys, we had the memories, and that was more than enough. Rest in Peace, Old Man. You really left your mark on all of us.