After the service and the cemetery, the tears and thank-yous. After that sound of the shovel stabbing into the pile of October dirt. After… after. My brother and I went fishing. Dad moved to this place for the fishing and now he’s buried at Canoe Ridge Cemetery, not 10 miles from that first stream.
South Bear Creek is a rushing little rill nestled snugly into the brushy, northeast corner of Iowa. It runs alone for about five miles, visited only by the bubbling springs that feed it and push it until it meets North Bear Creek somewhere between its fifth and sixth miles. These frigid springs are the source of South (and North) Bear’s 50° Fahrenheit bite. This toothy cold makes South Bear habitable for its main attraction: trout.
The first time I came to South Bear, I was nine years old. It was June; I had just finished fourth grade. My parents had just divorced. That June day, my father, my brother and I drove nearly three hours from Iowa City to Decorah, the town nearest South Bear. We dropped off our gear at the campground in town and stopped at a bait shop to refit the rods John and I had been using all our lives.
“Fishing in a stream for trout is different from fishing in a river or lake,” Dad explained. “The water in the stream is so clear and shallow that they can see you up on the bank. We also have to get you guys some thinner line, maybe two-pound test… those browns can see the six-pound on your rods now and won’t touch your bait.” Dad grinned, a strand of blue fishing line in his teeth.
John and I exchanged looks—Dad had gone off the deep end of a trout stream. When we were all outfitted with our lighter filament and strange baits like grasshoppers and salmon eggs, we piled into our little beige Fiat. I pressed my face against the window, taking in the trees, curves, and bare limestone that adorned the 14 miles of blacktop and gravel from Decorah to South Bear Creek.
After twenty minutes of tongue-coating dust on sinuous, up-and-down country roads, we pulled into a small gravel parking lot behind what looked to me like a church but was really—a sign described —a meeting hall for Highland Township. I didn’t know what a township was and I didn’t ask. I stood behind our car and looked around. Before me was a vast green spread of well-kept turf, across which yellow butterflies fluttered and grasshoppers hurtled. Buzzes and chirps flew back and forth across the meadow. The church, or whatever it was, stood behind me, on the parking lot’s far side. In front of me, on the distant end of the green expanse, was a small, white, modernish house, looking down across the lawn from its perch atop a small hill.
A lush growth of trees and brush spread up and out behind the house, marching up a hill that took up most of the view to my right. To my left, a small line of willows and tall flaxen weeds, shot arrow-straight from the parking lot, along one side of the emerald field, until a place in the distance where the trimmed lawn gave way to the more feral grasses and weeds. At that point, South Bear took a long, meandering turn away from the grass, the timbered bluff, the parking lot and the house. Dad pointed the tip of his rod in that direction. John and I followed close behind with our own fishing gear.
We walked on a worn little path through waist-high weeds, the kind that scratch at bare legs and leave them itching for hours. As we walked, South Bear murmured quietly to us from behind the stand of willows and box elders. It sounded fresh, cool, coercive. I think it taunted Dad.
We moved through the cutting weeds for another quarter-mile before we crossed a small plank bridge traversing a grassy little spring that bubbled through the weeds beneath a layer of watercress.
“This spring is clean enough to drink from. It comes out of that bluff over there.”
I’d never seen a spring before and was fascinated for as long as Dad let me. Soon, he pointed his rod’s tip again down the path along the edge of the young trees. On the other side of the little bridge, the trail widened and the trees to our left grew in size as the weeds on our right gave way to saplings and then midsized poplars and elders. I looked back toward the spring, now a hundred yards behind, and could no longer see our car.
Now, we were beneath a canopy of branches and leaves. We walked within the treeline’s generous shade for just a few minutes before we burst out on the other side, into another meadow that led to a second tree-lined turn in the stream. This time to the north. I groaned. John groaned. We looked at each other’s reddened legs and then at our father. He was nowhere to be seen. We turned around, looking up and down the path, and finally, John pointed out Dad’s Jacques Seeds cap bobbing among the weed tops to our left. We walked toward it.
About ten feet from where Dad’s cap was, John and I came abruptly upon a steep, grassy bank, eroded away by years of rushing water. I saw South bear for the first time. Dad was tying a hook onto his line at the edge of a widening in the stream, where the water was clear and gurgly, fed at one end like the heart is fed by a vein and emptied at the other narrow end by an artery to the holes downstream, the direction from which we had come.
The bank was anchored here and there by large chunks of limestone that had tumbled at some unknown time from the bluff that rose towering above the creek’s far bank. The sandy-brown streambed was streaked with brackish vegetation that waved through the clear, fast water. Fish darted in and out of the leaves and vines.
“Those aren’t trout, they’re suckers,” Dad told me when I asked why he didn’t cast in the direction of the fish. I watched him toss his wispy blue line gently into the burbling at the hole’s upstream end. The sky overhead was riddled with gossamer streaks of cloud. The sun was sleepily warm. Grasshoppers filled the weeds and air above them. After about an hour, we moved upstream from the first hole and didn’t leave ‘til six hours later. The trout eluded our lines that first day.
And that last day.