Carry Me Back to Virginia
When I told Judson a few months ago that I was going fly fishing in Virginia with Holly this summer, he stopped me and said, “Oh my God, Nicole, I know what you’re thinking. Lower your expectations right now. You aren’t going to catch anything. It’s hard. Brad Pitt will not be there. If you’re happy to stand in a river and enjoy nature, then that’s fine.”
He knows me too well. I’m glad he told me this, because, of course, I was imagining myself catching on quickly and deftly learning to cast and catch gigantic, 50-lb fish with ease.
But standing in a river sounded enchanting, too.
The drive to Virginia was about 5 hours due to ridiculous bumper-to-bumper traffic on 95 South in Maryland/Virginia. Later, my dad would tell me that traffic was always bad in that area, though no one seems to know why. My GPS took me through an EZ-Pass express, which chopped a few minutes off my trip and incurred a number of fines. But Holly was messaging me photos of her in a backyard with beer in a coozie, and I figured a few fines were worth it.
Fireflies and Tying Flies
Once I arrived, she greeted me in the road and led me straight to her father’s backyard. He was there drinking with a guy who introduced himself as Brian, and then her father stood up, hugged me, and said, “We’re gonna have an adventure tomorrow!”
Holly got me a beer from the fridge and a chair outside. At 7pm, it was still light out, and I can imagine no better reward for a 5-hour drive than sitting with my bare feet in Virginia grass, sipping a cold beer, talking about tying flies and fish species with Holly, her dad, and their friend.
I thought it couldn’t get better – until fireflies emerged and lit up the backyard, and Holly and I went to catch some like we both had when we were younger, and her dad produced a Mason jar with a lid that was already punctured with holes. Could it get any more perfect? (Yes, if you count the two fireflies that began mating after we’d trapped them in the jar.)
The night concluded early with pizza and watching the start of A River Runs Through It to prepare for the next day’s adventure. A disgusting alien-looking camel cricket sprung out from under the couch, so Holly sprayed it with Repel and we placed a glass over its gruesome corpse. Life was good.
Holly slept on a cot and I slept on the couch; between the slumber party and the fireflies, it felt like being a kid again. This was a feeling that would persist throughout the next day when we got milkshakes at Carl’s to celebrate our fishing expedition.
Friends of the Rappahannock
The next morning, I awoke to laughter and the smell of coffee, which is the best way to wake up. We went down to the Rappahannock where her father works, and off-roaded in a van down to the river where we put the canoes in. I hadn’t realized there would be canoes, so immediately the journey got more exciting.
Holly and her father, Woodie, took one canoe while I shared mine with Alyssa, a sharp, intelligent gal whose knowledge of bird life was as impressive as her knowledge of the river.
As it turns out, the Rappahannock is as fun to play on as it is to pronounce. It was exhilarating. The second we paddled out from the shore, the world came alive and all signs of civilization ceased. Power lines were replaced by towering green trees, the sound of engines by the occasional rapid, and idle chatter and cell phone alerts by birds and the slosh of water lapping the front of the canoe.
What made the experience even better, though, was the tangible passion that Woodie and Alyssa had for the area, its wild life, and its waters. Conversations often broke off (and resumed later with equal vigor) with gasps and an exclamation of, “Up ahead around 2 o’clock – a blue heron!”
“We spotted two sturgeons here recently,” Woodie said at one point. “Humans drove them away a hundred years ago and now they’re slowly coming back.”
“Nature finds a way,” Holly said, citing the wisdom of Jurassic Park.
Eagles, red-tail hawks, turkey vultures, cormorants, kingfishers, turtles, tadpoles – the river was definitely alive, and so were our guides.
They talked about it all: how a dam was blown up 14 years ago and now there are new species of bass in the river; land easements that open camping and the river to the public; how, up ahead, Union soldiers made a bridge of pontoons and crossed into Fredericksburg, commencing a battle and marking the first time the US Army launched a contested amphibious attack on its own soil.
It’s marvelous enough to canoe on a river, but when you have two people sharing their knowledge with a joy that is contagious, it becomes an entirely different – and more remarkable – experience.
Of course, paddling was only one aspect of the trip. Fly fishing was the other, and I was itching to try it. Holly had been doing it since she was 12, a fact that was evident in her ability to snap fish up from the river with her eyes closed. Her casting was graceful and seemingly effortless. At one point, we looked over to find her standing on a bolder, casting her line over the river with a beauty that would’ve made an Olympic ribbon dancer envious.
“Are you shadow-casting, Brad Pitt?” Woodie called to her. Whatever she was doing, it worked.
As for me, I thrilled to learn the basics, and Woodie was a patient, precise teacher. By the end of the day, at our last stop, I had a few nibbles on my line. More importantly, as he taught me to let a little line off with my left hand each time I cast my rod forward, I finally found the easy rhythm of casting and pausing on a back cast before letting the line go. My last few casts landed my fly way out in the river, to the applause of my encouraging teachers.
Holly caught a few fish off the front of their canoe without landing her hook in the nearby trees, which was impressive to me – and something I wasn’t quite ready to try. By the end of the day, I’d hooked some river willow, a cherry tree, and my right thigh.
“You’re not learning if you’re not drawing blood,” Woodie told me.
I laughed along, though I’m still convinced I might have tetanus. I felt bad losing one of his flies to the cherry tree, especially after learning about the art of tying flies. And it really is an art. They are vibrant and intricate, with sweeping feathers and the occasional iridescent thread or diaphanous tint. Woodie explained that fly fishing is an all-season sport, as fly fishers spend the winter indoors, tying flies.
I hope that cherry tree appreciates the little bling I left it.
Near the end of our 8-mile paddle, we pulled off to the right bank in a rock quarry to tie down everything in the canoe in preparation for one final rapid, ominously christened Iron Ring.
“We’re gonna shoot the chutes!” Woodie exclaimed in a way that triggered excitement and terror simultaneously.
For one, the name of the rapid sounded like some rusty torture device out of Game of Thrones. And though it was only a Class 2, I was prepped for what to do if the canoe flipped or I fell out and got carried off by the river.
Luckily, due to Alyssa’s expertise, nothing fell out and we flew over it with a flutter of excitement similar to what you’d get on a roller coaster. Later, we were told that the water levels couldn’t have been more perfect that day. This made sense, as Alyssa and I often spotted rocks directly in our path and glided over them without so much as a scrape.
FXBG = Freaking Awesome
We returned the canoes, but the day wasn’t over yet. Though Holly and I were both exhausted from a day in the sun, we joined Woodie, Alyssa, and some friends at a rooftop bar in Fredericksburg called Vivify. I would’ve loved to explore the other ale houses and restaurants in town; it’s a compelling reason to return. And though we were tired enough to go home, we decided a short walk around town could also be fun.
Fredericksburg is rich in American Civil War history. Again, Woodie elevated what would have been a decent, interesting walking tour to another much livelier, more enjoyable level. I already felt like I was walking through a history book, but his knowledge and enthusiasm made me feel like I’d gone back in time and was actually there.
Holly and I walked up and down the same steps that Abe Lincoln and his son Tad had when they’d visited. We touched the bricks in buildings established in the 1800s, glimpsed the same church steeples present in Civil War photographs, and paused in awe and mild horror at an auction block still standing on the corner of a wide intersection.
We walked past a quiet graveyard where a number of Confederate soldiers were buried.
“Union soldiers were buried in national cemeteries, but Confederate soldiers weren’t allowed to be buried there,” Woodie explained. “So lots of small cemeteries like this one were created.”
“I don’t know how Fredericksburg doesn’t have a ghost tour,” Holly mused as we pressed our faces up against the metal bars of the cemetery gate.
I don’t know, either, but I know who would be the person to lead them if they did.
Our tour concluded with milkshakes from Carl’s, malty goodness under a marbly southern sunset.
In the morning, we dined at Mason-Dixon, a bangin’ breakfast joint serving up southern staples like biscuits and gravy, cheesy grits, and maple smoked bacon. I’m not exaggerating when I say I didn’t eat anything else that day apart from a banana. I think I’m still digesting.
We spent the morning flitting between battle sites, Chatham house, and a cool museum in town that had just opened an exhibit on the Rappahannock, including a section devoted to fly fishing and featuring some of Woodie’s own reels.
Have I mentioned that I’m addicted to fly fishing now?
It was hard to leave Virginia and that warm southern hospitality, all the history, and the excitement of hanging out with Holly, but New Jersey was calling me and I only had a few days left there before heading out for my next adventure.
Categories: United States (USA)