“This is the place, a real lucky spot,” Dad said. “I’ve never shown anyone.”
The banks of Spine Creek were silted with pebbles and the water ran quickly, but it didn’t look deep enough to be a hidden gem of a fishing hole.
“You’ve got to see it in June. We’ll come up around the end of school, when the water’s pink with salmon.”
My father knelt in the pebbles, cupped his hand in the water. He let the water run through his fingers, like a gold miner in an old movie. “You’d swear the water was pink,” he said again, “pink as a girl’s…” he stopped and looked up at me, standing at his side. “Well, pink.”
I was twelve then, in October. There had been a few snowfalls, but nothing heavy yet. And this trip, with the car packed full of fishing gear was the kind of thing Dad normally did on his own. When he asked if I wanted to go along Mom beamed and I nodded readily, figuring she had hounded him on my behalf. I crouched at his side as he dried his hand on his jeans.
“Watching those salmon run, it’s something else. They’re moving with a purpose we’ll never know, kid. Never.”
Then he looked off into the water, or maybe the trees on the other side of the creek. I felt the rocks below my feet, rolled them back and forth under the soles of my shoes.
Finally he stood back up, said, “If anything knows how to run it’s them,” in a voice so quiet I was unsure he had said anything at all.
Dad set up the tent and unpacked our sleeping bags. He built a fire and made us some hot cocoa. “Come up here in June,” he said, gesturing with a tin mug in his hand. “Bring a girl. Not just any girl, the one you know you’re going to marry.”
My cheeks flushed at the thought. I hadn’t even kissed a girl yet.
Dad ran one hand over the other, feeling the divots and cracks time had dug into his palms. “Bring a girl up here in June and fall in love,” he said.
In the morning we split a Butterfinger and tried to skip rocks across the creek. My dad mentioned the run a few more times, emphasizing that we would be back. I tried to figure out what he did at the creek on his own. We clearly weren’t there to fish. But mostly I was just happy to spend time with him. He worked in Anchorage and often stayed there during the week, rather than drive the hour south to be at home with Mom and me.
I was seventeen the next time I visited Dad’s secret spot at Spine Creek. It was on a camping trip with my girlfriend, Julie.
Dad left my mother before school ended the year of that first trip. I think it was a relief for my mom, in a way. There was no more waiting. By the phone, or the front door. No more trying to balance single-motherhood during the week and Dad’s weekend visits.
Mom never told me the reason he left, but often said it had been the “right thing.” But I’ve never seen how leaving like that could be right. I didn’t hear a word from him until my next birthday, and even then it was only a message on the answering machine when I got home from school.
My father had been right about one thing though, the run. Julie and I pitched our tent just a few feet from the creek’s edge and sat on logs watching the salmon fight their way against the current, flashes of pink and silver flowing through the water like an echo of the northern lights. I could see then the seeds of my dad’s departure had been long in the making. That his retreats weren’t just physical, but mental, too. And that his admiration for the salmon was for their ability to pick a direction and fight with their whole life force to travel that course.
I’ve asked myself time after time why he ever brought me to the creek. Why after twelve years he decided to bring me to his secret spot in the world. Had he been trying to tell me something? Trying even to tell me he was going to leave?
But maybe it really was about the fish. Maybe he had found a little piece of magic in the way the salmon swam the Spine in packs so large all you could see was the flash of their scales. Maybe all he wanted was to pass that on. To give something permanent and beautiful to his son before he left.
As I looked at Julie and thought about the implications of her own departure I knew I had instinctively brought her to the Spine for a similar reason. And that my dad was finally passing on the moment he had wanted to give me years ago. I stood, took Julie’s hand and led her to the creek-side. I reached into my pocket for the ring I’d bought the week before. I couldn’t help thinking of my father, the way he said he could feel the past and present washing away with the salmon, racing to lay their eggs. Running, to start the cycle again.