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Kings of the Road
The double-taper reality trip.
By Dave Karczynski

F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed a sure sign of genius was the ability to hold two mutually exclusive ideas in one’s head at the same time, believing in them both fully. If that’s true, the closest I’ve come to cognitive brilliance is a July evening five years ago, when my friend Jason Tucker and I pledged to hit the road on a fishing trip at 6:30 a.m.—and then proceeded to pound porch beers till sunrise.

The genius fishing trip in question required a certifiable doozy of a drive—1,400 miles from Ann Arbor, Michigan to Labrador City, where we’d board a de Havilland for the Atikonak River and its hump-backed brook trout. At least, it was 1,400 miles for me. Jason had volunteered to drive and was only picking me up en route. His starting point? Atlanta, Georgia.

Yes, it was madness, a sojourn that should have earned us Master Angler Awards for the travel alone. But in the end it conferred something more useful: a perspective on the differences between driving and flying when it comes to a serious fishing trip. And these differences are not simply matters of time or convenience. The two modes do different things to your soul.

Simply put, the very act of modern air travel pounds a person’s psyche down to a fraction of its original size. You enter the airport, doff your shoes, gut your pockets, and fidget nervously with your boarding pass as five customs agents converge on your tying vise like it’s a detonation device. Once on the plane you must tap a stranger on the shoulder every time you need to take a leak, and for your suffering are gifted a small scoop of nuked pasta. This is all a fine program for alien anthropologists tasked with recording the absurdities of being a human on a congested planet. But if the goal of travel is a freedom commensurate with the angling enterprise that follows, you’re shit out of luck, and no number of airport Bloody Mary’s can change that.

But a road trip is a different story. Rather than suffer a hundred indignities, you rejoice in a thousand freedoms. You ferry across fjords at midnight, eat poutine in gas stations full of taxidermied timberwolves, drink coffee in the shadow of hydro dams so tall they blot out the sun. You count moose between naps, you lose track of time in the long dust plumes of logging trucks on gravel roads wider than a blue whale is long. You stop to stretch and piss when you want, where you want, all the while watching the landscape get bigger and wilder—much like yourself.

In short, rather than shrivel us down, our travel across Ontario, Quebec and Labrador on the open road built us up. And once we arrived at the river there was a sense of having earned the experience: the Atikonak brook trout chomping caddis under alder branches, the landlocked Atlantics chasing down riffle-hitched Muddlers in the riffles, the big pike ripping up one foam mouse after another. And when, after a week of fat fish and northern lights, it was time to go home, still we kept getting larger, and not just because we were puffed up and swollen from black flies, or from eating steaks thick as hockey pucks. No, it was because we didn’t have to travel to an airport, which, after a long week of fishing, scrapes away all the wild goodness you’ve accrued just as surely as a car wash. In the morning you’re releasing a 10-pound laker that ate a streamer in two feet of water, and in the evening you’re standing in line at a Cinnabon. You go from the best of what the world has to offer, to the worst.

But not Jason and I. Not this time. After the fishing was over, we still had the long drive home to turn over memories, reflect on glory and failure, and plan the next trip. And unlike the plane traveler who must conceal or neutralize their hard-won stench, we embraced ours to the point of connoisseurship.

“Old hamburger patty under a summer sun.”

“With overnotes of dairy barnyard.”

“I’m getting a little dried squid on the exhale, if that makes sense.”

Make no doubt about it, we retained our kingly status during the whole ride home. We stretched our 30-hour trip to 40. We sang and laughed until our tears mixed with the fluids weeping from our black fly wounds. We stopped where we pleased, stood leprously in line for coffee after coffee. And then a day and some hours later, on the midnight outskirts of Toronto, we decided it was time for a proper sleep and found a spot at the back of a dimly lit gas station parking lot. Jason called dibs on the back of the CRV and burrowed himself into a cocoon of rod tubes, damp waders and fly boxes, rolling around like a dog in a gut pile until he found a configuration he liked. I popped out for a nightcap of Molson and potato chips before settling into my front seat sleeping quarters. And as I listened to the semis roar by in the distance, I realized that we were not only physically half-way home, we were also at a metaphysical half-way point. I could still smell brook trout slime on my arms and pick black spruce needles out of my hair and beard, could still hear the churn of the Atikonak over the boulders and see the Northern Lights curtained across the sky. But I could also check in on the latest Packers transactions on my phone and cram my belly full of all the finest fruits of civilization, by which I mean Canadian potato chips in all colors of the savory rainbow: Maple Bacon, Montreal Smoked Meat, Scalloped Potatoes, Cowboy BBQ Beans. And that’s when I realized what a proper fishing road trip really is: a gentle double taper of a journey with a transformation at either end. Heading out the tame man becomes wild; heading back the wild creature is tamed. But it’s such a slow process that, for a while at least, the feral creature and the civilized human sit across from each other, staring eye to eye, in the same body. And that’s how I drifted off to sleep that night, on the edge of Ontario’s Fertile Crescent, straddling two worlds and seeing both more clearly than before, sipping my Molson, the window rolled down just a crack, listening to all the life flowing by.

Dave Karczynski
Dave Karczynski is our man on the ground in Alaska. He fears no bear and fishes with an assassin’s mentality. When not plundering his local waters or heading to the north country, he serves as a lecturer at the University of Michigan. Check out more of his work on IG @davekarczynski