When the unexpected happens...

  • By: Maximilian Werner

The last time I fished Big Cottonwood Stream was exactly that: the last time, which I can tell you was about 12:14 p.m. on Saturday, July 12, 2008. I hear some anglers keep meticulous records of their days on the water: they record types and times of hatches, water and weather conditions, wildlife sightings, and so on. I’m lucky if I put down my rod long enough to urinate or take a sip of water. So why do I know precisely when I decided I would never again fish Big Cottonwood Stream, right down to the minute? Because the date and time is printed in bold type on my ambulance service bill, which came to the untidy sum of $1,023.13.

Big Cottonwood Stream flows out of the Wasatch Mountains and runs about eight miles from top to bottom. I can be there in fifteen minutes. One would assume anglers would amass in places so close to home, but most tend to dismiss these smaller waters. I therefore find relative solitude, even on a Saturday and on the fringe of the densely populated Salt Lake Valley.

Four miles up I spotted a nice stretch of water. On that particular day, nice meant fishable: Below the stretch, the streambed is a narrow staircase of crags and saw teeth. And a torrent runs through it. Summer was a month underway and in most places the streambed was stacked with muscular water. But my stretch split the flow into two runs, which made it a perfect candidate. I prefer to cover a good deal of water when I angle, so I decelerated and scanned up stream. When I saw I had about a mile of fishable water, I pulled off the road and parked.

The temperature in the canyon was about 10 degrees cooler than down in the valley, but it was still damn hot. The day called for shorts, wading boots, a light oxford, and a hat. The whole summer long I marveled at the sight of other anglers decked out in full attire: chest waders, heavy boots, vests full of gear. The older I get and the longer I fish, the less baggage I have to carry around, the better. This isn’t just true of fly fishing, either. Just give me the essentials and point me toward the water. I once shared my minimalist philosophy with my friend Metcalf who, despite being 20 years older than me, is a spry walking-and-talking fly shop. Metcalf has good manners, so I was a little surprised when he came right out and told me I had it wrong: Then he said there are some places where this much gear is essential.

The young man in me wanted to press him for more information. Which places? But I kept my question to myself, mostly because I knew Metcalf would probably answer it. The extreme of the minimalist approach is fly fishing naked, which despite all its romantic and primal appeal, is not a good idea, least of all during mosquito season or in places where teenagers float down the river on inner tubes and have those waterproof cameras.

I sat on my tailgate, pulled on my boots, put my flies and tippet in my breast pocket, grabbed my rod, and in under five minutes I was ready to have a come-to-Jesus with my trout brothers and sisters. I locked up the truck, stashed my keys and cell phone, and made the short walk to the stream’s edge: At my feet was a deep hole formed by two boulders. Three nice rainbows swayed and drifted to the bottom of the run at the sight of me. Damn. I should have known better than to walk right up on them. That they did not vanish underscored the power of the water below them.

I freed my fly—a size 12 olive streamer—and inspected it for damage. Finding none, I paid out line and rolled it about six feet above the trout. Maybe twenty yards away from me and across the stream, a woman and a teenage boy sat on a table, watching me. At no time is a trout’s speed more apparent than when it is chasing prey. This is especially true when the prey is a minnow. Under most circumstances, it is unusual to witness a trout striking a streamer simply because the streamer is fished deep beneath the water and at a good distance from the angler. In a small stream, however, the entire drama is in full display. I feel a connection with all water, but creeks and streams keep fewer secrets.

After a few moments, the three rainbows seemed ready to resume hunting. My assumption proved correct, but before I could respond, the trout had struck and released my fly. I casted a few more times and then reeled in and walked up the small dirt path that follows the stream. Thirty feet away, I saw a run shaded by the sun-bleached trunk of a pine that had fallen long ago.

Next thing I knew I was face up under water. The sky blurred and the water leapt and rolled as the stream forced me down. I could feel my feet knocking along the bottom. When I planted my right foot and tried to use my right arm, I felt a terrible throbbing. I had to free up my left hand, so I threw my rod like a spear. Before it had even landed on the bank, I palmed a stone deep beneath the water and pushed myself to my feet. Somehow I managed to reach shore. My arm was frozen against my side. I touched it beneath my shirt. No blood, but something was wrong.

As the moments passed, I became more aware of the pain and the strangeness of it. I knew I needed help, so I picked up my rod and walked back to my truck. The pain crept and intensified. I felt the dripping water and the empty road. I got to my truck and I couldn’t remember where I put my keys. My mouth was dry and sticky. I remembered my keys and opened the truck. I started to panic. I tried to call an ambulance, but there was no reception. Then I remembered the woman and the boy across the stream.

The stream was about 50 feet wide where I had to call across it, so I minced down to the very edge, cursing the slime on the stones I saw there. The woman and the boy didn’t notice me, so I waved my good arm high over my head and yelled Hello. When they looked at me I could see they were puzzled and slightly put-off by my intrusion. I need help, I called, holding my right shoulder. I think I broke my arm. The two looked at each other and then back at me. I called again, this time more urgently, and finally they got up and walked toward a foot bridge I had passed earlier.

Judging by the look on their faces—a mixture of caution, irritation and concern—I must have been quite the sight. The boy approached first. He looked about 18, so I wasted no time in explaining to him that I couldn’t drive my truck and I needed someone to help me get down the canyon. Perhaps to emphasize my point, I looked at my arm and lifted it a little, but then I could not lower it again. Oh shit, don’t move it the boy said. Keep it still. I was unsettled by how the two of them looked at me, but the woman’s expression sent what felt like an electric shock through my body.

If the shock alerted me to the seriousness of my situation, it also prompted me to step up my self-advocacy. Will you call my wife? I felt like I was asking clear, simple questions, but the two looked confused, as if they couldn’t figure out what to do. The woman then asked the boy if his phone worked, and as he looked at it and pushed some buttons, I remember thinking all this was taking too long. Look, I said, I’m afraid I’m going to go into shock. I need to get down the canyon, now. Again the two looked at each other. I started to wonder if I were actually asking the questions, or if I just thought I was asking them. What is the hold up? Didn’t they see that I needed their help?

Finally the woman explained that she had just bought a new car and she was worried my wet clothes would ruin her seats. More than disappointed, I was confused. I needed someone to drive me down in my truck. But I didn’t waste another word on her. I stepped out into the road and waved down the first passing motorist.

A blue van sped past me and then turned around and came back. What’s going on? The man asked. He was balding and his face was sunburned. I told him I thought I broke my arm and I needed help getting to the hospital. Get in, he said, as he cleared away his backpack and water bottle from the passenger seat. The man checked his rearview and then swung around the van and began speeding down the canyon. The woman and the boy just stood there. I remember thinking how pathetic they looked, even though I was the one in trouble. What happened to you? the man asked without taking his eyes off the road. I told him I had slipped and fallen into the stream. I took one look at you and I knew you were in trouble, he said. I asked if I could drink some of his water. He leaned over, picked up the bottle at my feet, and handed it to me.

As I drank the water, I noticed how fast he was driving. Fearing that we were going to get in an accident, I told him I was alright and that he didn’t have to speed. I was lying, of course. I wasn’t alright. In fact, the pain was becoming much more intense and I was beginning to hyperventilate. My anxiousness was compounded when the man would not respond to me and kept speeding. Perhaps I had seen too many hitchhiker horror films, but in my compromised mental state, I was afraid I was being abducted, and I couldn’t imagine how I was going to defend myself with my bum arm. I was completely vulnerable and my life was in the hands of this stranger. I figured this was a good time to try calling Kim.

By then we had traveled several hundred yards down the canyon, where my phone got reception. This was my chance to let Kim know I had been injured and whom I was with in case I was right about being abducted. Once I told her everything I knew about my injury and asked her to meet me at the hospital, Kim asked me who was driving me. I didn’t want to insult (or anger) the guy by asking for his name out of the blue, so I was lucky Kim asked. Although I don’t remember his name, he gave it happily. Because I was distracted by the man’s speeding and my fear of abduction, I had not fully noticed the pain in my shoulder. I tried to reposition my body, but there was no relief. The pain was constant and growing. We were about four miles from the hospital when I felt my mind start to sneak off. I told the man I was losing it and I needed to get somewhere immediately.

If I couldn’t get to the hospital, perhaps the hospital could come to me. 911, what is your emergency? I told the dispatcher what had happened and I thought maybe I wasn’t making any sense because then she asked me if I had hit my head. I said I had hurt my arm and was wondering if an ambulance could be sent to pick me up. Ok, sir, then you need to pull over. I really wasn’t thinking clearly, which is probably why the dispatcher not only reminded me that I had to pull over, but that the ambulance wasn’t going to find me otherwise. Pulling over was out of the question and I told her as much. The whole time this was going on, I watched the man and I could see he was stressed, so much so that he would run red lights at my request. I was just about to slip off into some unknown room of my being when I saw a fire station. I knew firefighters were trained paramedics, so I asked the man to take me there.

I felt a little better knowing I would soon be in the hands of the paramedics, but I was still in turmoil. On the one hand I felt a powerful need to self-preserve. On the other, I was tired and I didn’t want to be responsible for myself anymore. I wanted to check out. The man parked the van in front of the fire station’s open bay door and hurried around to my side. Let me help you with that, he said, referring to my seat belt. I then slid out of the van and approached a couple of firefighters who had just climbed out of their truck. Can you guys help me? I asked, on the verge of collapse. A big burly guy stepped forward. Why don’t you sit over here? he asked, as he lead me to the fire truck’s bumper. I asked if they weren’t also paramedics and the big guy explained that the paramedics were actually working the accident they had just left. But don’t worry, he said. We’ll get you taken care of.

In the meantime a couple of other fire fighters came around the other side of the truck with their first aid equipment. Are you hurt anywhere else? one of them asked. As they looked me over I watched their faces for any sign of serious concern. Either I was going to be okay or these guys were cool customers because I didn’t see a trace of worry. Let’s get off your shirt and see what we got. The fire fighter was about to use his scissors to cut off my shirt when the man who had driven me down intervened and helped me remove the shirt without destroying it. Far from being a threat, he was not only very helpful; he was also protective . . . of my shirt. Thanks, man, I said, wilting with guilt for having ever doubted his kindness.

After the firefighters examined me and took my vitals, they asked me to gauge my pain on a scale from 1 to 10. I said I was about a 6 and that it was getting worse. Do you want us to call you an ambulance? the burly guy asked. I said I did and they called it in. As chance would have it, an ambulance was close by and a few minutes later I was lying on a gurney looking up a wild-eyed young man who watched me as if at any moment he expected me to code. He and the driver loaded me into the back of the ambulance and prepared me to drive me a little over two miles to the hospital. Wild eyes tried to help me comfortably position my arm, which he did with the aid a large tourniquet, but comfort simply wasn’t possible. I could hear the ambulance driver bullshitting with one of the firefighters, and I tolerated it for a minute, but that was my limit.

What are we waiting for? I asked. Nothing. We’re ready to roll. How is your pain? Wild eyes asked, I assumed, in an effort to distract me from the fact that we still weren’t moving. It‘s the same, I replied, annoyed. Finally the driver got in and we headed toward the hospital. Wild eyes tried to converse with me, but I was not in the mood for small talk. I know he was just trying to keep my mind off things, but it took everything I had to manage my pain and anxiety. We had been on the road for a minute or so when I realized I didn’t hear sirens. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew this ride was costing me. I didn’t know how much, but I knew it was going to be a lot, and so By god I better get sirens was my thinking. And besides, wasn’t that the whole point of taking an ambulance in the first place, to get to the hospital fast? And aren’t sirens what makes that speedy transport possible? I thought so, which is why I put the question to Wild eyes: Aren’t you going to light em’ up?

I think I had actually heard the phrase “light em’ up” in a scene from Apocalypse Now. Although at the time it seemed perfectly applicable to the situation at hand, Wild eyes looked at me as though I were speaking another language. Light em’ up? he asked. Yeah, you know, the sirens, I said, using my left index finger to signal toward the roof. His face opened in recognition and he smiled. Oh, right, he said. Good, I thought, Now maybe I’ll get some results. He wrapped the tourniquet wrapper into a tight square and slipped it into the garbage. We only use the sirens in life-threatening emergencies. They’re known as Alphas, and those are the calls that get top priority and the sirens.

Wild eyes seemed very pleased with his answer, and I guess I was too, but only because it meant I wasn’t in a life-threatening situation. That makes sense, I said. He nodded and made a funny smirk, as if to say “People ask silly questions all the time. It happens.” How is your pain now? I asked him if he were also using the 1 to 10 scale. He said he was I told him I had since climbed to an 8. Do you want some morphine? If there was one time in my life when I actually needed morphine, this was it. Then Wild eyes explained that he’d have to administer the drug intravenously. No thanks, I said, imagining him trying to insert the needle into my vein as the ambulance bounced along. But a blanket would be nice.

Apart from not having on a shirt, my legs were damp with creek slime and my shorts were soaked. I was shivering on a hot summer day. We can manage that, no problem, he said as he pulled out a blanket and covered me foot to neck. ETA: two minutes, he said, looking at his watch. Good deal, and then I leaned back and closed my eyes and tried to think happy thoughts. Instead I prepared for the possibility of surgery and rehabilitation and no more fishing for a long time. Luckily those two minutes were short ones. The driver backed into the ambulance bay and he and Wild eyes rolled me into the ER, where I passed several other people who, judging by the looks on their and their loved one’s faces, were in various states of disrepair.

I made eye contact with one guy in his thirties whose wife and children stood by him as a nurse unwrapped bloody gauze from his thigh. He nodded at me and I nodded back and I hoped he was going to be alright. A couple of minutes after I had been rolled into my room, a nurse came in and asked me what happened. The pain made it hard to concentrate, but she see seemed a little sad and genuinely interested and pretty in a maternal sort of way so I did my best to respond to her questions. So you’re a fly fisher, huh? I said that I was and then she asked where I fished and I said All over Utah. She told me that she and her 17 year-old son live in Park City and that he spent his free time fly fishing the Provo below Legacy Bridge. I told her I knew that stretch well and that her son had good taste in rivers. I found myself wondering about the kid’s dad and if he fished with his boy. Then Kim showed up.

The first thing I noticed was how pretty she looked when she was worried. If a face’s meaning is stratified, we usually perceive the most immediate information first. What happens after that depends largely on how well we know the face. I could see that Kim was clearly concerned, but the subtext of her face was also clear: It was a mixture of What would I have done without you? plus I told you never to fish alone plus You will never fish alone again. She stopped at the foot of my bed. How are you doing? Mouth open, teeth clenched, eyebrows raised, as if her whole face were asking the question. She looked at my arm and said Oh. I looked at my arm and back at her: I’m okay, I think. Kim came around to my side and put her hand on my leg: Are you sure? Then the doctor came in and it was time to get down to business.

So did you catch anything? he asked, looking at my chart. He was a young guy, maybe 35 tops, and he was wearing a newly pressed doctor’s coat that evoked the sails of a small ship. I didn’t, I replied, regretfully. The gravity of the situation had become apparent: Not only did I manage to get busted up, I also got skunked. Insult to injury? he asked. Definitely. Wild eyes had since returned and he and the doctor stood on opposite sides of the bed and discussed my arm. You’ve got a complete dislocation, the doctor said. Yup, Wild eyes quipped. See how the whole arm is dropped? Wild eyes was looking at me, but the doctor said Yes, see the void? Again, the doctor was looking at me, but Wild eyes replied Yes I do. They were referring to the sinkhole where my shoulder had once been connected to my body. The doctor put down the chart. Ok, so there is an easy way to do this and a hard way, he said, as he placed his hands on my wrist and forearm. If the easy way works, you’ll be out of here within 30 minutes. Here’s what we’re going to do. . .

The doctor asked Wild eyes to use his hand to stabilize my shoulder. He’s going to hold down your shoulder as I slowly lift your arm. The doctor’s lips were slightly pursed and Wild eyes looked like he was about to run a race or light fireworks or something. It’s going to hurt, the doctor continued, but the second it pops into place, the pain will all but disappear. Kim squeezed my hand. Are you ready to do this? the doctor asked. I nodded and said yes. Then I looked at Kim. It was like I was a kid again, turning away from the needle and instead looking at a familiar face. I watched her watch the doctor. I studied the map of her face and I felt lost. I searched for a path out of there, but I could not find my way.

Maximilian Werner is a writer and an educator who lives in Salt Lake City. His story “Anglers Ball” took second place in the 2008 Robert Traver Fly-Fishing Writing Award contest. His book, Black River Dreams, will be published this fall by Barclay Creek Press