Water and air were indistinguishable in the 90 percent humidity. Gills or lungs, it seemed like either could work on this side of the lake’s surface as I stepped into the canoe and paddled across the small channel. I had beat the local bass fishing crowd but just barely. Headlights drew down on my quiet wake trailing from the boat ramp.
The headlights made a u-turn and swapped ends with taillights as trailer wheels crunched on loose gravel then hissed along the concrete ramp. The coughing ignition and low rumble of 200 horses cut through the quiet mist of an early summer predawn. Blue smoke mingled with fog as the fiberglass beast motored off the trailer and trolled though the no-wake zone enroute to a creek channel where the ponies could gallop. My green canoe bobbed in the wake. As the eastern sky brightened, a succession of outboard adorned metal-flake monsters entered the water. The occupants gave curious glances to the guy with paddle in hand and a fly rod resting on the canoe’s gunwale.
No doubt that I was a curiosity. Who paddles out in a canoe, fly rod in stow, on a lake known across the country for bass tournaments? But I was not out of place. I was out of step, moving at a different speed and to a soft beat often drowned out in our everyday lives.
The roar of pistons faded as sun rays glittered on the shallows. I dipped a paddle into the olive waters of Lake Dardanelle and guided the canoe toward a nearly forgotten place, safe from the big boats.
It’s not a secret spot, most of my bass fishing buddies know about it, but it’s a place that any craft bigger than a canoe simply can’t go. Still, if you don’t know where to look you’ll probably miss it. A thick stand of cattails covers an entrance about the width of a roadside ditch, and even the canoe skidded across bottom as the narrow passage opened into a wide flat. The water depth varied from six inches to maybe three feet with stands of water lilies breaking the monotony. Water and lily pads and that was it. Austere beauty in the surging heat and light.
Lake Dardanelle is a eutrophic body of water. The lake is a swollen section of the Arkansas River, its flow dammed and controlled at the narrows of two ridges, the last upland geography the river will carve through on its way to the Mississippi. Draining lands from as far as Colorado, the river runs warm and brown, heavy with nutrients, at this point in western Arkansas. The richness of the river, for better or worse, is manifest in the richness of life it nurtures. This shallow cove was a microcosm of the lake as a whole. Largemouth bass eruptions from under the pads punctuated the rhythm of gentle slurps from feeding bluegill along the pad’s edge. Channel catfish glided just over the silt bottom with a body form and swimming motion reminiscent of the sharks. Toothy spotted gar gulped air with audible gasps. Despite the throb of interstate traffic less than a mile away and the distant din of outboards on the lake, it was a wild world inside the cove. It was a world not out of place, but it was out of step.
Time was slowed on this hidden water.
I hate cliches and using one so obvious in your work is considered a deadly sin of the scribe, but there’s no other way to say it. Staccato seconds melted into ribbon. It wasn’t magic, and there’s no reference to H.G. Wells or any other work of science fiction here. It was the fly rod and the canoe and the paddle and my lazy, quiet strokes. It was choosing a path less traveled. Mastering time is another way of mastering yourself. Time does not escape us, but awareness of the moment often does, and the blame lies within our deliberate decisions. There is no cosmic clock maker tinkering with gears. There is no work or responsibility stealing your precious minutes on Earth, the grains slipping through glass as we watch helpless. It’s all on you. Yeah, that sounds like Buddhist or New Age or hippie mumbo jumbo, but it also sounds like Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold and Jose Ortega y Gasset philosophy.
Truth defies a label.
Of course I was there to fish, too, and the fly rod has brought an eclecticism to angling that I haven’t experienced since I was a boy: anything with fins is fair game. The delightful problem in front of me that morning was picking which species to pursue first.
The bluegill were eager. A small popper brought half a dozen to hand, an iridescent spectrum reflecting from each as I unhooked and returned them to the lake. Bass were a bit more finicky, as bass are prone to be, but I finally managed to connect with two largemouth. I even sight cast to channel catfish, but the cats shunned my headstands and Clousers. The gar were just as indifferent as the catfish. Roving schools of carp never gave me a chance as they stampeded through the flat, kicking up silt trails long before I reached casting range. It was an Arkansas safari of fish and I had it all to myself. With no watch or phone handy (by design), quitting time was totally dependent on endurance. Only a midday sun and depleted water bottle finally brought the fun to halt.
I paddled toward the narrow mouth as rivulets of sweat poured down my shirtless back and the first tingles of sunburn began. After reaching the main body of the lake, I met a bass angler with the trolling motor on high, exploring every nook and cranny of shoreside weeds with purple plastic. “Any luck?” he asked as I paddled by. I offered my morning’s experience, just a few bluegill and small bass. “Yeah, things are pretty slow,” he replied.
Slow indeed. Just the way I like it.