A year ago, the group of us met on the Penobscot River, eager to celebrate a rejuvenated fishery, and to spend time among like-minded fly fishers.
Some of us had met each other before; others hadn’t. But on that glorious June day in Old Town, that didn’t matter: We all exchanged greetings and introductions, then waded into the Penobscot River, hoping for the best.
It had been nearly 150 years since anyone had caught striped bass or shad that far up the river, but thanks to the Penobscot River Restoration Project, the removal of two downriver dams had opened up ancient habitat to those seagoing species.
On that day, remarkably, they returned to the river, and we were there to witness their migration and catch a few stripers and shad.
On a recent Saturday morning, at my urging, that same group returned to the river. Pete Douvarjo came up from Sedgwick; Dee Dauphinee and his son, Hazen, came over from Bradley. John Kirk drove upriver from Winterport. I made the quick hop from Bangor. And Cheryl Daigle, who recently took a new job in Connecticut, drove back to Old Town for the day.
The goal: Enjoy the river in a reunion of sorts. Catch up. Share tales. Try to find a few fish.
And this: Recognize the changes in all of our lives over the last 12 months, and celebrate our ability to get back together in this special spot.
Things change, sometimes drastically, and sometimes for the worse. It was comforting, then, to step into that same river, surrounded by the same people. To take a fly rod in hand, and to fish.
“This is cathartic as hell,” Douvarjo said as we sat on large rocks, watching some of the others fish. “I’ve been stuck in an apartment for the last six months, doing basically nothing, since we had that fire.”
Nobody was home when Douvarjo’s house caught fire on Dec. 14. The town fire chief arrived at the house just before Douvarjo’s wife, Sandy did, and likely saved her life by stopping her from entering the burning building.
Douvarjo said the only reason he’s still alive is that he ended up behind the firetruck heading toward the blaze.
“That firetruck was going 20 mph. There was black ice,” Douvarjo said. “[That’s] the only reason I’m still here.”
After the fire, Douvarjo battled unrelated back trouble, and has been largely inactive for half a year. Finally, physical therapy paid dividends, doctors decided surgery wasn’t necessary, and his back felt good enough to test with a few casts.
“It’s amazing how life can change in a heartbeat,” he said, softly. “Something happens, and it can all go to hello, just like that.”
Then he smiled.
“But here we are, right?” he said. “Another year.”
John Kirk’s life has also changed over the past year. His daughter graduated from college, and his youngest son from high school. The company he works for was bought by a larger, national company, and he’s becoming acquainted with “corporate America” for the first time.
The other son — like his dad — is passionate about skiing and fly fishing, and is pursuing both in Montana.
“I wrote my last child support check last week,” Kirk said with a chuckle. “I’d rather pay child support than college tuition, but that’s OK.”
And through those changes, along with other, more personal challenges that he’s been facing, fishing remains a soothing presence in his life.
“There’s always [fly fishing gear] in the car,” he said. And about once a week this spring, he finds time to put it to use.
Daigle arrived late after driving up from Connecticut, and stood on a sandbar, taking photos. She worked intensely on the Penobscot River Restoration Project, and still owns a house a few casts up the hill from where we stood.
She organized last year’s fishing outing here, and rose early in order to make the drive back.
She won’t be working in Maine any longer, but the river remains precious to her.
“It’s so good to see you all back here,” she said, beaming.
For me, it was great to be able to be here at all. In December — about the same time that Douvarjo’s house was burning down — I had a stroke, and ended up in the hospital.
My recovery has been smooth, but a few deficits remain, and my confidence in my physical abilities has been diminished a bit. This day, in fact, marked the first that I’d pulled on my waders and walked into flowing water in months.
I did so gingerly, placing one foot carefully in front of the other, paying particular mind to the rocks and current.
But I fished. Again. Finally.
Nearby, Dee Dauphinee caught striper after striper, smiling at his successes and celebrating those of the others who caught fish.
“All I need now is a few bluefish,” he said. “Not that I’m getting greedy or anything.”
His children are also growing up; a daughter graduated from high school, and his son, Hazen, will graduate from college this year.
The biggest change in his life, however, is professional.
“After [writing] three books and a lot of trying, I finally got a couple of [literary] agents on the hook and signed one,” he said. “I’ve been writing full-time for three years now and doing OK, but hopefully this next book’s going to give me a little more street cred.”
On this day, though, the writing can wait.
This is a day for other things. Conversation. Celebration. Fishing.
“Somebody said you can’t step in the same river twice, because the river’s always changing,” Dauphinee said, paraphrasing Greek philosopher Heraclitus from memory. “But the river’s still the same, too. It’s very paradoxical.”
Then he summed up the day for all of us.
“It doesn’t matter what happens in our lives,” he said. “The river’s still flowing. So that’s exciting. And the stripers keep coming back, apparently.”
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke