White River National Wildlife Refuge
Southeast Region
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Refuge Haunts

by Matthew Conner

YCC employee Ashley Randall falls out of a canoe with Taylor Fox hanging on the side. Credit: USFWS

YCC employee Ashley Randall falls out of a canoe with Taylor Fox hanging on the side. Credit: USFWS

Many years ago I was hired as a park ranger at a small historic site in western Montana . After announcing to friends and family that I would be moving, someone gave me an old copy of Norman McClains, "A River Runs Through I t" as a going away gift. "A River Runs Through I t" is a story of a family growing up in Montana and spending much of their time with fly rod in hand. I had read this book before and I remembered one of the things it was known for was the significance of the first and last sentences.

When I opened the book and read the first sentence I then recalled the theme of the entire book. The first sentence read, "In our family, there was no clear distinction between religion and fly fishing." I was tempted to flip to the back of the book and recall the significance of the last sentence, but I contained the urge and instead read the book from the beginning to the end that night. I read the book and when I came to the last sentence I paused, took a breath, and read, "I am haunted by rivers."

I honestly did not remember reading the last sentence before and I sat bewildered at the meaning of these words. So often "haunted" is considered a negative implication with visions of strange events and energy. I fumbled this sentence around in my head for a while and eventually it fell out of my conscious thoughts.

Three years later I found myself sitting on our couch in Montana looking at my infant son and wife taking a nap. We had only recently come home from the hospital and both of them were exhausted. I decided to give them some peace and quiet, so I slipped out of the house and walked down to the river with my fly rod.

As I made the first cast I realized it had been several days since I had been fishing, and for me that was a long time. I felt re-energized and after landing a few trout and feeling at complete peace I remembered the words, "I am haunted by rivers." It had been more than three years since I had thought of those words, but it was then that I understood the true meaning of this sentence. Haunted in this instance referred to a rivers ability to be permanently burned into your thoughts in the form of memories from past fishing trips with friends and family and in the present and future as it beckons you to return to the same spot again.

Just as I am haunted by the Clark Fork River in Montana , I am reminded and beckoned by White River National Wildlife Refuge. For instance, I can not walk the champion tree trail and not think about the 2007 Youth Conservation Corp that built this trail with me. Every step I can hear their voices and see their faces as we cut our way through briers and brambles in 100 degree heat. When I arrive at the end of the trail, I am reminded of one of the YCC employees saying how she hopes some day she can return with her child and show him/her the trail she built with her own two hands. And from this day forward, I will never be able to travel Lagrue Bayou and not hear the echoes and shouts from six teenagers as they attempted to canoe from Weber to Jacks Bay .

This week marks the last week of the 2008 YCC summer program. Last year Deputy Manager Steve Reagan started a tradition of taking the YCC on a canoe trip to celebrate the work accomplished and to give the youth a chance to experience the refuge. I was not on last year's canoe trip as I was visiting friends and fish ing back on the Clark Fork River in Montana , but this year I was leading the crew on a very slow trip down the bayou.

I was hoping to use the trip to explain the significance of warm water fisheries and engage in some wildlife observation. However, within seconds, all wildlife was warned of our presence and ecology of the bayou seemed hardly significant when faced with the dilemma of a sinking canoe.

The first canoe flipped not more than a hundred yards from our starting point and as a second canoe attempted a rescue, they turned over as well. I had decided not to be paired up in a canoe and as luck would have it, we had an o dd number for the trip. This meant I was able to use my kayak instead, and I found the maneuverability of the vessel to be very handy when intercepting motorboats.

When I heard screams followed by a large splash, I would paddle my kayak around the next bend to warn on-coming boaters of the obstacles ahead. Six teenagers in upside down canoes must be a strange site as every boater that passed by stared in amazement at the debacle before them.

I kept my distance to avoid being pulled over and because I wanted to see how the group would work together in righting canoes and offering assistance. The crew all helped each other out and even switched who they rode with half way down the river. Despite the heat and being waterlogged, everyone had a great time and I was able to witness a group of teenagers come together and work as a team after a long hot summer of working on the refuge.

I can only hope that some day each one of them will be beckoned back to the refuge to visit. If they return and find themselves on Lagrue Bayou, I hope they too will hear the echoes of that trip and remember the friendships they made. Hopefully they will leave this summer with a better understanding of the refuge and some new work skills. I like to think that the refuge staff has demonstrated good work ethic and the value of teamwork. I hope these values learned and memories made haunt them for years to come in a most wonderful way.

Last updated: September 10, 2008