Winter Blues: A Eulogy

I fear winter. It hasn’t always been that way though. What I like about winter is sleeping under a warm quilt, the feel of frosty air on your face and a cup of hot chocolate around the fireplace. It is time to get together with family and friends, exchange gifts and reminisce about the good times.

Although these feelings remain as season highlights, they are masked by what has been taken away from me during the coldest and darkest time of the year. Winter is the coldest time, not because of air temperature, but because winter is when people near and dear to me are taken away. It is the darkest time because news of their passing always seems to come at night. And with each passing year, winter has become less a season of celebration than a season of trepidation.

I was awakened to hear of my Grandpa Harry’s passing on a dark winter night so bitter that an inch-thick sheet of ice plated my bedroom window. The news that Dad died was delivered a few weeks short of the longest night of the year, when raw sleet pounded frozen pavement. More recently, on a cold blustery night, a dear friend took his last breath. I was getting ready for bed when the phone rang. “Who could be calling this time at night?” I asked Nancy.

I picked up. “I’ve got bad news,” Ken said. My heart sank and I took a deep breath, anticipating what came next. “Duane quit breathing and they had to take him to the hospital where he died.”

The news was not entirely unexpected. Duane had been battling ALS for over a year. However, a recent visit suggested he would be around for a long time. We ate lunch together, shared some laughs via text messaging (he was hooked up to a respirator) and watched the 1974 crime-spree cult classic, “Big Bad Mama.” Mutual admiration was shared for what Angie Dickinson displayed in her prime. I promised to return and watch a football game that showcased his beloved University of Washington Huskies.

I had prepared myself for the possibility of Duane’s passing. Being prepared, however, doesn’t mean that you experience less pain and suffering. It merely dampens the initial shock. The end result is the same. A person that you love and respect has left this earth. They are no longer around to hear your stories, exchange opinion on matters of mutual interest or challenge your beliefs. Another difference is you are obligated to speak of their existence in past tense.

It should come as no surprise to those who know me that my strongest personal connections transcend to the fishing experience. Of those individuals taken from me in the winter, Grandpa Harry passed down his love for stream fishing. Dad kept the door open for me to pursue the sport with a passion that continues today. You could say fishing is in my genes. Duane rarely fished in recent years, but he critiqued many of my fishing stories. “You need to add more sex,” he would almost always say.

Duane and I have a long history. We worked side-by-side as technicians during aquatic monitoring studies of the Hanford Reach in the 1970s and later on research related to advanced turbine design for salmon passage in the Columbia and Snake Rivers. We backpacked in the Wallowa Mountains. We argued politics (his main interest, not mine), the relative merits of “U-dub” versus “the Beavs,” and smoked an occasional bowl of (then) illegal weed, usually accompanied by the acoustic blues sound of the band Hot Tuna in the background.

Duane also directed me to my first steelhead on the Hanford Reach. “Ringold is a good place to start,” he said. “Most people fish out of a boat, but I’ve seen anglers casting from the bank. I’ve never caught one though. In my humble opinion, steelheads are a myth.”

I’d had previous experience catching steelhead in the Walla Walla and Rogue Rivers. I both cases, I either tossed a spinner or dragged a worm along the bottom. Despite Duane’s humble opinion, I elected to try for steelhead in the Reach. Approaching a shallow riffle downstream of the Ringold irrigation canal, I saw a steelhead roll at the surface. Two casts of a nightcrawler later and “fish on!” I still remember Duane scoffing at my good luck when I told him about my catch.

Duane’s favorite fish were bullhead catfish. I remember sitting by the edge of the road with him and his Dad, Roy, casting into a shallow backwater pond near the Burbank wildlife refuge. His other favorite location to fish was Sprague Lake. Bullhead fishing is often described as a “quiet sport,” one where you have time to think about your problems independent of the problems of the world. I suspect the relaxing part of the experience appealed to Duane the most. Similar to my older brother Daran, Duane preferred to let fish “come to him.”

I had occasion to catch several brown bullhead this past year. Knowing how much Duane liked to eat them, I always took one home for him. Preparing bullhead for the dinner plate is a worthwhile challenge. You gut them, make a sharp incision behind their head, break the backbone and pull the head back towards the tail to peel the skin back; all the while avoiding their sharp spines. The result is a red-meat carcass that you roll in a mixture of salt, pepper, flour and corn meal and fry in hot oil until crispy. You can fork the warm meat from the backbone, or let the fish cool, hold it with your fingers and imagine that it’s a chicken thigh.

I think of my Grandpa Harry every time I hike up the South Fork of the Walla Walla River and cast for rainbow trout. I think of Dad every time I cast for surfperch on the Oregon Coast. I will think of Duane every time I catch a bullhead catfish. I might even take one home and fry it up the way he liked best. That way I’ll remember him more.