Steelheading near the Oregon Coast
Steelheading near the Oregon coast

Flying High

A lifelong fisherman gets his first taste of the hard stuff.

Steelheading near the Oregon Coast

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

THERE’S A FLY SHOP next to our offices that I visit during work emergencies. Recently, while pacing there, I mentioned that I was traveling to Oregon in hopes of subduing my first steelhead, the anadromous rainbow trout native to the Pacific coast. “Careful,” said a friend who works in the shop. “You can’t party with heroin.”

The warning was typical of the jargon-slinging endemic to this store and, for that matter, every other fly shop in the world: bravado that’s so painfully awkward it makes you smile and leave. So that’s what I did.

I arrived in Portland on a cold Thursday with my friends Ben and Anja and steered our rental to the town of Sisters, 20 miles north of Bend. Ben and I rose in the dark (Anja slept in, then scouted the local brewery) and met our guide, who was chugging coffee, vacuuming a cigarette, and hosing off his driftboat near the town’s fly shop. It was then that I grasped the wisdom of my friend back home.

Our guide, Steelhead Joe—his moniker, not mine—was in the midst of a severe bender. He had slept a combined six hours in three days, during which he’d rowed 60 miles in pursuit of steelhead. He was a father of two and a former golf pro in California who’d moved to Oregon four years earlier, caught a steelhead, and fallen hard. He now spends more than half the year fishing the Deschutes, where, between July and November, some 50,000 trout commute. They swim up the Columbia River, bypassing two dams before hanging a right at the Deschutes en route to their spawning grounds in forking mountain streams. Hoping to meet the fish halfway, we loaded up, cranked Alan Jackson, and drove 100 miles to our put-in. It was 4 A.M.

Steelheading is not like other fly-fishing, which is about as athletic as throwing darts. The fish hold in deep, rocky water, and you raise them by swinging flies in front of their faces, often using a 13-foot spey rod, which requires a technique entirely different from trout fishing. Wading is a hazard, casting difficult. Then there’s the strike. The first tug of a steelhead feels slight, as if a child were pulling your finger. There is a pause. Then a jackhammer pulls your arms downward and a silver log shivers along the river surface.

I know this because on the 24 miles of green water we covered that day, we hooked ten steelhead. Ben landed four, including his first, a 12-pound fish. I lost my first four, with predictable effect on my nerves. In the evening we dodged jet boats burning past us from the mouth of the Columbia and approached our final hole. There, the fish were in riot, and the laws of probability evened out. I felt a tug, then the anvil. The fish, a wild, four-pound male, tail-walked, then was kind enough to allow me to pull it in.

Sunday we picked up some friends and headed to the Metolius River, a gurgly spring creek, where we splashed amid spawning kokanee and occasionally cast for small trout. Meanwhile, Steelhead Joe was back on the river, partying with heroin.

Steelheading trip for two from the Fly Fisher’s Place ( $225 per person. Tip: $50. Fishing license: $31.50. Sandwich fixings: $16.50. Two nights’ worth of burgers and beer from Three Creeks Brewing, in Sisters ( $55. One night at the Sisters Motor Lodge ( $90. One night at Camp Sherman, on the Metolius River (877-444-6777): $16. Total: $484

Back in the Day

My parents used to take us ten kids tramping along the Texas coast on a shoestring. They were on to something.

The family in Myrtle Beach
The family in Myrtle Beach (Joe Spring)

1979 in South Padre

1979 in South Padre 1979 in South Padre

2010 in South Padre

2010 in South Padre 2010 in South Padre

IN THE WINTER OF 1979, my parents, grad students at the University of North Dakota, possessed a rusted Chevy, $6,000 in combined salary, four children under the age of six, and a serious need for a vacation. So they drove 1,400 miles south, to Texas’s Padre Island National Seashore, which they had discovered in a travel brochure. We landed a dune’s hop from the ocean and spent two weeks doing anything that was free: playing football, reading, taking the Port Aransas Ferry back and forth across the Corpus Christi Channel five times. High railings let us roam the deck. As a four-year-old, I might as well have been sprinting across a spaceship.

It was the first of many such jaunts. When the expenses worried my mom, my dad would quote Dostoyevsky: “Some beautiful, sacred memory, preserved since childhood, is perhaps the best education of all.” Travel trumped everything, including school pictures.

The family changed. We grew to ten kids: Francis, Joseph, Margaret, Mary, Matthew, Arthur, Rose, Joan, Paul, and Thomas. The mantra stayed the same. We drove to Massachusetts in a converted ambulance painted purple. We sputtered to Lake Louise in a Volkswagen Vanagon that became a makeshift clinic after we all contracted something like giardia. Mechanics in four different states rebuilt the carburetor of our converted airport shuttle van on a trip to South Carolina.

The family changed again. Francis moved to Montana. Matt flew to China with the Peace Corps. Rose jumped to Peru. I traveled to small tropical islands to chase turtles. Then, two years ago, all ten of us convened again, standing around my dad in a Minnesota hospital room. He lay unconscious before nurses pulled the plug. It’s the only time I can picture him still. Even when he read, he rocked back and forth.

So, this year, given the opportunity to take $500 for a weekend, I knew where I was going: Padre Island. What I didn’t know was who to bring. My siblings and I can’t go to Denny’s for under $500. I picked the three younger brothers who’d never been there before—Thomas, Paul, and Matt—and Matt’s wife, Julie. They were poor, in school, and in serious need of a vacation. On Friday we landed a dune’s hop from the ocean. Saturday we played football on the beach. Sunday we headed to Worldwinds outfitters, on the Laguna Madre.

Flatwater and wind blasting in from the Gulf make it the perfect place to learn how to windsurf. Matt and I signed up for lessons. Paul and Thomas took off in kayaks. Julie said she’d watch. Parlaying the wind into speed never happened, except when occasional gusts catapulted us forward.

We piled into Julie’s Pontiac and headed 20 miles out of the way to the Port Aransas Ferry. On the drive I pictured dolphins riding the bow, pelicans eclipsing the low afternoon sun. Then we arrived, rolled onto the deck, opened our doors, and saw the opposing blacktop landing—three minutes away. Thomas asked, “We drove 20 miles out of the way for that?” We laughed and drove home.

EXPENSE REPORT Groceries: $100. Four fishing licenses: $64. Pier access: $8. Four rented fishing poles: $20. Shrimp, for bait: $5. Two nights’ camping at Padre Island ( $16. Two kayak rentals from Worldwinds ( $40. Two windsurfing lessons: $120. Total: $373

Magical Thinking

The secret to surviving a road trip gone awry? Just pretend.

Pack the Baggage with Care
Pack the baggage with care (Photograph by Hannah McCaughey)

Truchas, New Mexico

Truchas, New Mexico Truchas, New Mexico

Taos Pueblo

Taos Pueblo Taos Pueblo

MY HUSBAND, Stephen, and I, in a rare moment of spontaneity, had decided to skip town with our one-year-old son, Wyatt, and our dog, Biscuit. Stephen and I aren’t exactly experts on traveling with a little guy, but we did our best to avoid all potential booby traps in the war zone that is family travel by setting up some basic guidelines. Number one: The destination had to be easy to reach and could not involve large public spaces, such as an airport. Two: It had to welcome not only little kids but also hairy four-leggeds—even in the nonsmoking, non-360-views-of-the-dumpster rooms. Three: We needed a balcony to help pass the hours of inevitable stuck-in-the-room time. Four (important): A kiddie pool, which would serve as our base camp during 85 percent of Wyatt’s awake-but-not-eating hours.

That’s a lot of rules. But we found a destination that satisfied all four: Taos, New Mexico’s luxe El Monte Sagrado resort, which, serendipitously, offered a screaming online deal. Soon we were zooming north with a little naive optimism and a lot of baggage.

I’m learning there’s a lot of fantasizing involved in parenting, and not just the running-off-to-Paris-with–Javier Bardem type. I’ve become so adept in my imagining that some of the details of our weekend are hazy. I have some vague memory of driving the High Road to Taos, passing through alpine meadows with the snowcapped Truchas peaks in the background and the new Mumford & Sons CD turned up. But I also hear a small child screaming his nuts off in the backseat. I can see us eating blue corn pancakes in the hotel’s restaurant, but that image is conflated with a recollection of projectile vomit. I can see myself mountain-biking the South Boundary Trail, between Taos and Angel Fire, with the wind whistling through my helmet, but that’s tangled up with visions of me running back to the room with a writhing kid at arm’s length in pants looking as if they’ve been dipped in chocolate. There’s me and my son in a snuggly embrace by the pool, but the vision morphs into me being repeatedly slapped in the face by my own sunglasses. Did I slip away for a hot-stone massage at the spa, or did we throw rocks into a used Starbucks cup for an hour? Was there a reservation at Joseph’s Table, the most coveted eatery in Taos? Or was Saturday night spent holed up in the room, eating peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and wrestling with our nap-deprived, lunatic son to put him down for bed? Does it matter? No. What matters is that we tried to travel as a family, and we made it home alive.

Two nights at El Monte Sagrado: $350. Nonrefundable dog surcharge: $75. Lunch at Antonio’s, in Taos ( $20. Peanut butter, jelly, bread: $11. Breakfast burritos at El Taoseño (taos­ $13.50. Tip to the chambermaids (double, due to lingering diaper smell): $10. Total: $479.50

Mr. Softee

Nothing could derail the ultimate southeastern paddling trip—except a dandy travel partner.

Boneyard Beach, Bull Island
Boneyard Beach, Bull Island (Photograph by Wilson Baker)

Jimmy, the Iron Man

Jimmy, the Iron Man Jimmy, the Iron Man

“SHOULD I BRING my scarf?”

I’m not sure how to respond. I’m suiting up to paddle to Bull Island, a 5,000-acre barrier island and wildlife sanctuary on the outskirts of Charleston, South Carolina, with a buddy from back home, Jimmy. But ever since we met in the Atlanta airport for our dirtbag reunion tour, a 100-mile trawl through the salt marshes and palmetto trees between Charleston and Savannah, Georgia, it’s become increasingly apparent that Jimmy and I have gone our separate ways.

First, Jimmy deplaned wearing designer jeans and a button-down shirt and carrying a bag full of legal briefs for his job as a power-suit lawyer in New York. Then he refused to camp and, invoking a constant need for wireless Internet, booked us at a resort with valet parking and immense bottles of moisturizer in the bathrooms. Now, as we’re about to set off, he prepares to shawl up.

I talk him down and we push off. The paddle to Bull is relatively easy—or should be—but an encounter with a friendly porpoise nearly sinks our plans. “You sure it’s not an orca?” Jimmy asks. Once ashore, though, we seamlessly execute a seven-mile round-trip hike to Boneyard Beach, a tangle of dead oak trees bleached white by the sun and salt. In five hours on Bull, we see exactly two people.

But then, back at our boats, the wind shifts and three-foot swells erupt over the incoming tide. We need to paddle back through them. On our first try, waves crash over our decks, taking Jimmy with them. I steady his kayak until he situates himself in the cockpit and is able to push off again. He bobs in the roiling water, screaming as he paddles across the three-mile estuary. Near the opposite shore a fisherman comes out of his shack to find out what in the hell is going on. “Oh, hi,” Jimmy says, realizing he’s the one screaming. Eventually I catch up with him and we continue back to the landing.

We hop in the car and head south—in every sense of the term. But then a funny thing happens: Jimmy’s BlackBerry battery dies. We actually start talking. And reminiscing. When we pull in to Savannah, I care less that he still insists on a downtown hotel and oysters. It’s the good old days, only six times as expensive. After dinner, we spend the night barhopping; in the morning, we tour Savannah’s 19th-century mansions. Halfway through the afternoon, perusing a chocolate shop, I realize my flight leaves in three hours. It takes four to get to Atlanta. “Damn,” Jimmy says. “Wanna get shrimp and grits?”

Cheese, bread, Snickers, and Chili Cheese Fritos: $24.29. Kayak rentals: $96. Starbucks: $8.39. *Optional and ill-advised traveling-with-a-New-York-lawyer overhead toll (beach resorts, four-star restaurants, etc.): $493.93. Extra night in an Atlanta Best Western after a missed flight: $72. Total: $694.61

Weekend Wise

Two for the Road
You know that travel cliché that says “it’s about the journey, not the destination”? Whoever said it must have ridden a motorcycle. When I take my truck, hours of driving separate me from the backpacking, mountain biking, or boating. But on a motorcycle, the adventure starts the second my feet leave the ground. Plus it’s cheap: All it takes is a $100 bill in my pocket and a 500-mile loop of pavement. And when the riding’s done, I feel completely justified splurging on a great meal and an extravagant hotel, preferably within spittin’ distance of a river. Done right, the motorcycle weekend ends up like the time I checked in to the high-end Sorrel River Ranch, outside Moab, after a day of riding through heat, wind, rain, and two states’ worth of spectacular landscapes. All I had the energy to do was sit on the porch overlooking the Colorado River, drink beer, and watch the sun set on the red rocks across the water. And then, in the morning, throttle home.


Junkin’ Your Trunk
I’ve heard a lot of people push trail mix as the ideal driving food. The rationale: Gorp contains no oils that are hard to pronounce and is less apt than chips ending in the suffix “-itos” to turn your car into a rolling Superfund site. But a person should preach what he practices. And when driving to bike, fish, or hike, do I fill Harriet, my ’94 Accord, with peanuts? No. I go with Fritos, Snickers, and beef jerky. I do this because I’m driving, not climbing Denali. Because life is short. Because the trans fats will be worked off once I park. And because, when Harriet starts smelling odd, I can stick an orange peel in the fan vents and turn up the air conditioning, which, on occasion, still works.


Hot Boxing
Stripping off a wetsuit on the side of California’s Pacific Coast Highway with bottle caps threatening my bare feet—that’s when I most appreciate my Rubbermaid Roughneck Storage Box. I can stand in it and pull off my suit with dirt-free feet. Once that wetsuit is in the tub, I just put the lid on and stick it in my car without sand filling the lining of my trunk. It’s safe to say I have an irrational attachment to these plastic safe-deposit boxes. Go into my gear room and you’ll find tub after tub: one for headlamps and stoves, one for goggles and gloves, one for bike pedals and helmets, and one that’s always empty. Because you never know when you might need to leave town for the weekend.