There is a River

By. C. Thomas Cloer, Jr.

“Let’s go

to Thompson River; my rod and creel are already in the truck,” he said with a strain in his voice that revealed his weakened state.
“You think you can make it Dad?”
“I can make it if we go at a slow pace, and you don’t start that fast-walking like you’re going to a coon dog that’s treed.”
“We’ll take our time,” I said. “There’s no talk of thunderstorms this evening in the Jocassee Gorges. We’ll walk downhill to the river and then fish back toward the Muster Ground Road. I’ll get my stuff and we’ll get gone.”

That particular scenario had been repeated in one way or another every compatible day for nearly 50 years. Dad and I most likely fished more miles of southern mountain trout streams than any father-son duo ever had. Our trout fishing covered many states, including Alaska, and parts of Europe. No place on earth, however, was ever more satisfying than the Jocassee Gorges on the Blue Ridge Escarpment. This portion of Pickens and Oconee Counties of South Carolina includes some of the wildest, most spectacular rivers left in the eastern United States. The Eastatoe, Laurel Fork, Whitewater and Thompson Rivers are just a fraction of the trout streams included in this scenic area.
But of all the streams, Thompson was always Dad’s favorite. The river had been a calming and rejuvenating influence on several generations of our family. My great, great, great, great grandfather came to upper South Carolina in the late 1700s and purchased land when it became available for settlement on the Keowee and Toxaway portions of South Carolina. My ancestors owned part of what is now Devil’s Fork State Park.
The Thompson River’s enormous pools and majestic waterfalls continue to mesmerize us and entice us back to its frigid, laurel-shrouded cascades week after week, year after year, generation after generation.

“The news is bad — really bad,” Mom had said to me privately a month earlier. “Six months to a year; the cancer spread before the kidney was removed.”
I stood stunned and hurt. “Doctors don’t always know,” I muttered for lack of anything sensible or reassuring to say. It was hard, no, impossible for me to imagine a time when that soothing, paternal presence that had accompanied my fly-fishing jaunts since preschool would cease to be. It was also impossible for me to envisage Dad as anything but a virulent, muscular body of energy jumping from rock to slippery rock while casting his fly with olympic-type accuracy.
“How I love these old mountains Tom,” he said as we walked toward Thompson River. “I bagged my first buck in 1933 right over that mountain there. I shot him while standing by a campfire in the old South Carolina Fields.”
I could hear the Thompson roaring in the canyon below. “We better not go as far as usual,” I said while worrying that my comment would remind Dad of his plight.
“Let’s go down to where the bobcat pulled the turkey into the cliff and just left his wings,” Dad said with the tired voice that served as a disconcerting reminder that things may not be as warm and wonderful as this particular August afternoon in the Jocassee Watershed made it seem.
The Jocassee Watershed in Pickens and Oconee Counties is one of the most unique places left in the United States. The forests in this remote portion of South Carolina are teeming with wildlife such as whitetail deer, black bear, ruffed grouse and Eastern wild turkey. Some of the rarest plants, such as the Oconee Bell, flourish here.
This region is where the Blue Ridge Escarpment plummets 2,000 feet to the Piedmont of South Carolina in five to 10 miles. This abrupt transition is largely responsible for the abundance of waterfalls. The Jocassee Watershed even today is a virtual wilderness where one can walk for days without encountering a paved road. The Embayment Gorges, where the southeast flowing rivers and streams cut deeply into the Blue Ridge Escarpment, contain scores of rare plant species, even more than the Great Smoky Mountains. This diversity of plants is largely related to the wet climate generated by moist air masses from the Gulf of Mexico clashing with the high east-west escarpment. Pickens County is a unique place!
Dad, having been involved in sawmilling all his life, would notice and point to the towering beech, hemlock, and basswood giants that we encountered along the way. He was largely responsible for saving these giants in the Whitewater Gorge because of a suggestion made to a very close friend, a Duke Power official, many years ago. Duke Power owned the land, and this Duke official, Mr. Ron Bost, happened to be an avid trout fisherman and revered my Dad. While he and Dad walked between the lower and upper Whitewater River Falls, Dad had suggested how wonderful it would be if this portion of forest containing these giants be preserved forever. His suggestion was heeded, and this awesome wilderness remains, with all its deciduous giants still stretching to glorify heaven.

“I got a good strike! He didn’t get the fly just right,” Dad said as he pulled off fly line and cast again upriver to a deep current flowing beside a huge fallen hemlock.
“There, I hooked him!” Dad said, as a hefty brown trout jumped in the air and shook feverishly trying to dislodge the fly.
“Keep him; we’ll fry him up along with his daddy that I’ll catch in the next hole,” I chuckled.
Dad turned and smiled an uncharacteristically tired smile, his eyes having lost the gleam and sparkle they once contained when he talked about how his mother’s folks intermarried with the Wolf Clan of the Cherokees. His mother had been an ardent lover of these wild rivers. She had taught both of us so very much about living, laughter and love. She caught more mountain trout than most hatchery workers would see in a lifetime. As I watched Dad ahead of me in the Thompson, I thought about Grandma and how she, Dad, and I had spent so much time on rivers trout fishing, camping and belly-laughing. Now Grandma was gone, and it was just Dad, me, and the river.
“That’s a rainbow Dad, and a nice one my man!” I called as he pulled a blood-red rainbow from underneath a boiling cascade surrounded by dog hobble and mountain birch. “You caught him precisely where we caught a rainbow last time.”
“You may need to help me here a minute,” Dad said as he was forced to cross the river in a fast current. I reached and grasped his hand, a hand with a definite tremble now developing, a mountain man’s calloused hand that had helped me across many different currents in many different rivers, literally and figuratively. Now, our roles had reversed. Grandma was gone, and Dad was lifting his hand, not to help, but to be helped.
I felt a wave of melancholy sweep across my chest as Dad walked ahead, his small profile so clear in the river as the sun’s rays revealed touches of Autumn already appearing on the edges of the maples and the buckeyes. A few poplars showed leaves that were already turning yellow. Autumn and winter were imminent, literally and figuratively.
“What is that?” I called as I hurriedly waded upstream to Dad. His fly rod was bent doubled, and moved wildly from his left to his right. Dad eased his net in the river and lifted a writhing trout.
“It’s a brook trout, Tom, a daddy to some of those you missed on that small fly of yours,” he laughed.
I had always contended that bigger flies caught bigger fish, and Dad knew it. But I had changed to a smaller fly precisely because I had wanted to catch a small brookie, a rare opportunity that soon could be more common in the South Carolina Mountains. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources is working feverishly to save this precious resource. The brook trout demands the purest, coldest water of all, and Salvelinus Fontinalis simply has a rough time competing with brown and rainbow trout, and with any siltation in his living room.
I was still trying to catch such a brookie as Dad and I came near the Muster Ground Road that crosses the Thompson. An enormous culvert or tunnel allows the Thompson to flow underneath the Muster Ground Road. I was at the lower end of the culvert where the water empties into a nice pool. I was trying to catch a brookie when I looked up to see an image that will remain forever etched in my memory. Dad was at the far end of the tunnel and was emerging into the bright sunlight. There was total darkness between him and me, an area into which I could not see. But I could see him emerging into the blinding light at the other end of the dark, cold path. From his profile, one couldn’t detect that he was 78; he could’ve been 18 or 38, restored to a healthy, muscular, athletic, ridge-runner.
The metaphorical meaning of that image struck me so hard I fell against the side of the culvert. I was overcome with undiluted grief; tears flowed as I heaved softly. My eyes burned until I could not see. I leaned against the cold culvert’s side and wept there ‘till I regained my composure. Dad could not hear me because of the river, nor could he see me because of the darkness.
I walked on through the upper end of the culvert and Dad was sitting on a log upstream from the culvert.
“You know what you did? You grand slammed, caught all three species of trout. You caught brown, rainbow, and brook trout,” I said with counterfeit enthusiasm. “I bet you are the only man in South Carolina this week who can claim that accomplishment.”
Dad and I poured out our trout on a cold flat rock, and began a ritual that he, Grandma, and I had done together thousands of times. We admired the catch, and we bathed in the bountiful beauty of that precious moment. Dad and I then made eye contact and reached for each other, his rough sawmill hands caressing the back of my head as gently as a mama panther licks her kitten. He held me tightly as I did him. We both knew this sacred ritual would cease this very day in the Jocassee Gorges for Dad and me as a team. It would never be repeated between us, and it wasn’t.

Dad died shortly after this, our last trip to the Jocassee Watershed together. I died too, at least part of me did. I will never be the same. It’s so different now, now that Grandma and Dad have gone. Now, it’s just me — and the river.
I went back to the Thompson soon after burying Dad. I dragged my old brogans along, only half-heartedly casting a fly. My surroundings didn’t enthrall me in the usual way. The coming of autumn in a mountain river normally put me on an emotional high, but not this time, not this autumn. When I came to the last set of high waterfalls in South Carolina under the Muster Ground Road, I stopped at the base of the falls and sat for half an hour or more just looking upriver. As I sat, I looked up to the top of the falls and thought for a millisecond that I saw Dad looking down at me with the gleam and sparkle again in his eyes. He had his fly rod and his hat full of flies. I thought I saw the laurels shaking far to the side, and Grandma peered out of the thicket and waved for me to come on. She was going around to get above the falls. I wiped moisture quickly from my eyes and stood up abruptly for a better look, but there was no one there.
I sat back down against a rock, reached in my old fishing vest pocket and pulled out a little green book of Psalms that had been given to me once as a gift. I turned and read one of the few things that had brought me any veritable peace since Dad left. I read: There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God. . . Psalms 46:4.