This is one of my favorite personal narratives from a talented student. One of the literary essays we read in College Composition is “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell. Matthew read that and remembered a similar event that has stuck with him. Here is his poignant story:
Just about a year short of being a “real man,” my father and my brother invited me on a week-long canoe trip up in the mountains of Maine, close to the border of Canada. My brother, Cameron, was part of the boy scouts and because I had done some community work designing the troop’s neckerchiefs, the Scoutmaster, Doug, asked my brother if I’d like to come. I was hesitant to give him a straight yes or no when they asked me to go, mainly because I wouldn’t know anyone going besides my brother and father.
Plus I wasn’t sure if I wanted to sacrifice a week of my summer to a canoe in the smoldering heat while listening to the sound of pre- pubescent boys squeaking their words at me. Out of guilt for not spending enough time with my brother and father, I agreed to go. I thought it might be a good experience to have before they forgot that I was an existing member of the family, rather than some sort of specter that haunted the fridge.
We packed our bags and set out on the road for a three-hour drive through the great scenic state of Maine. Mountains, old antique shops, road kill: They had it all. We drove up and down hills so steep our ears popped. When we finally got to the base campground, we got everything unpacked and set up our tents. We were on one side of a dirt road next to some docks and a lake that led out to the river we’d be setting out on in the morning. On the other side of the road were rows of RV’s and mobile homes people towed up there for their definition of “camping.”
The sun had sunk pretty low by the time two young men pulled up in their truck with a canoe rack hitched behind them. They got out and headed over towards us for some introductory conversation. One was not more than two years older than I was with a freckled face and red hair; the other was in his late twenties, much taller, and had a clean-shaven face ready to be filled in. These two were our river guides for the week.
The taller and older of the two extended his hand towards Doug and the rest of the adults chaperoning the trip and introduced himself as Seth, and the other, a little less confidently, introduced himself as Skylar. They all talked about the drive up, the troubles they had understanding some of the directions, and the types of snacks they got for their kids at the gas stations on the way up.
After a quick meeting about our plans for the morning, I retreated into my tent for the remainder of the night to write in my journal about a girl I liked. I felt a little like the odd man out. After all, that’s what I was. I was not a Boy Scout, and they had all been to campouts before where they had already formed their bonds. So, for the first night I sat in my tent writing and drawing bears while I heard the sounds of my brother and his friends laughing about dumb things each had been saying in hushed tones. They didn’t realize, however, that the tents were not soundproof. The adults, along with myself, could hear every typical inappropriate conversation one would hear out of the mouths of a group of fourteen or fifteen year-old boys.
I woke up the next morning to see their red embarrassed faces after the adults had told them how they kept them up with their chatter. Not one of them had anything to say that morning as they bashfully ate their breakfasts. I couldn’t help but smirk to myself at the end of the table as I ate my poorly prepared Boy Scout breakfast.
After breakfast, we packed up camp and hauled our canoes to an opening in the trees by the river where we would be taking off. My brother and I threw our gear in our canoe and started pushing into the water, my brother hopping in first once the bow was half in as I pushed behind jumping just before my feet touched the water. We took up our paddles and started rowing. We were off on our adventure, and for the rest of the week we would mostly be rowing.
The next day we left early and rowed gently down the stream. All of the canoes were always close enough that everyone could talk and laugh as we went along our journey down the river, and the man my dad had paired up with was named Pat. He was the father of the scout named Quinn who only ate raw meat because he thought he was part wolf.
Pat was boasting about his younger days when he owned a fishing shop with his brother in the Philippines as he cast his line behind him, making sure to avoid any scouts. I listened to his stories of fishing as I stirred the water beneath me, glancing over occasionally as he passionately spoke. Eventually everyone had grown tired of his rambling and began their own side conversations. I hadn’t noticed their exodus from the one-sided conversation and continued to politely listen and smile as he uncomfortably directed his stories to me.
Once we made it to our next checkpoint, he showed me a few of the tricks he knew on the shore. I slowly got a hang of the cast form and technique for luring fish with a slight jerking motion of the wrist to make it look like the lure was swimming like a tiny fish. I even managed to catch a few small ones on the beach.
The next day was a beautiful one. We got up, made the routine breakfast, packed, and set back out on the river. I had been talking a bit more to each of the scouts by this day, and they seemed to like me. They all started treating me with less and less awkwardness and more like their big brother. As they got more comfortable with me, they looked to me for leadership. I settled their childish disputes of who had to do the dishes and things like that, and eventually I played card games and told them about my experiences with girls. They sat in awe as I told them stories, far from the adults, in a packed tent with a lantern hanging from a hook in the center. I became an idol to each of them. That’s when I realized that most of them didn’t have older brothers; that’s why they were scouts. I felt like Peter Pan among the lost boys.
We eventually rowed ourselves into a tighter area of the river that had much more vegetation, where fish could easily swim and not be taken away by the river’s current. There weren’t any good spots to pull the boats up on, so we just tied them to trees and climbed up this dirt and rock wall that was used in the past as a sort of natural staircase. After I set up my tent, I began fishing, not expecting much. I borrowed one of Pat’s lures and didn’t use bait. I cast and reeled in a few times, using the motions Pat taught me, the lure reflecting through the green murky water as I towed it through. It was almost strange how calm the water had been there, yet I knew there was so much happening underneath.
I felt a nibble and immediately jerked my rod so the hook would properly puncture the mouth of whatever I had on the line. I quickly realized this fish was not like any of the other bite-sized fish I had been catching that week. This fish was the king of the river. It was a nine-inch brook trout, bigger than any brook trout Pat had ever seen. The rod had bent a good 120 degrees as I wrestled this fish for its life. I saw the dark silhouette of its immaculate body as I pulled it closer to me and farther from its domain. My rod was on the verge of snapping when I finally got it out of the water; it was thrashing and splashing everywhere. I held it over the boat as I hauled it up. The line snapped, sending the fish to the floor of the canoe. It wriggled and sputtered about the boat as I tried to get a hold of it, its body still slippery from the coat of murky water. I grabbed a towel and grasped it firmly, and as I took the hook out, Seth looked over the top of the dirt stairs and shouted to the scouts, “Looks like Matty’s eatin’ good tonight boys!”
Immediately all 15 or so of the scouts ran over along with the parents to glance over the edge down where I was standing in the canoe with the trout wrapped delicately in a towel in my hand. I could feel his body rise and collapse, gasping for air. I wanted to put him back in the water as soon as I caught him and watch him slip back under the protection of the clouded water where he belonged to the river and the river belonged to him. I looked at the scouts as they peered back at me with anticipation. Waiting for me to say or do something with the exhausted fellow. I swallowed deep and said agonizingly what they wanted to hear, “I’m gonna eat him.”
They all went berserk as the adults smiled at their barbaric chanting of my new nickname, “CAPTAIN TROUT! CAPTAIN TROUT!”
They proceeded to take their chanting farther from the cliff where I was no longer in their view and could regretfully kill this fish for their amusement. I had never taken the life of anything bigger than a spider, and here I was about to slaughter a full-grown brook trout with my Bear Grills survival knife my dad got me for the trip.
I gently rested my hand, putting the trout on the seat of the canoe and pulled back the towel, past the gills, where I made an imaginary line that would end his life. I looked into his dark marble eye as I rested the knife across his shimmering body. “What a beautiful fish,” I thought. I pictured him gliding through the water with such mystery and momentum, without a care in the world. I thought of how he might have thought nothing could hurt him, before this, and in that moment I still had a chance to put him back in the water. I still had time. No one was watching, and I could make it seem like he got away from me. His chest was still rising and falling, slower now, showing his quickly draining life. I could just toss him over…but how could I bring back nothing to the lost boys? How could I lie to the scouts that looked up to me? I couldn’t. With one last glance of life the fish gave to me, I took.
The blade, short and feeble, didn’t cut through him easily like I hoped it would. No, it was painful; the knife barely made it through his whole thick body. As I sliced through him like an old tire, his mouth opened wide as if he were trying to scream. Expression of anything but regret left my face. Slowly, I slid his head off to the side, with his contorting jaw as a trail of blood followed my knife. I then turned his stomach toward me and sliced him down the middle exposing his innards. I could see everything that once gave the fish life, so I ripped them out too. When I was done, I looked down at the awful mess I had made. There were guts all over the chair with blood still covering my knife while the trout’s head stared at me, still moving his mouth. I drove the knife down through his eye to make his questioning stop, and with an angry motion of my arm, thrusted the blade outwards to the river where the head plunked into the water like a rock.
When I brought the “cleaned” fish up to the campers, the excitement had already faded. Now I had to cook him. We had no breadcrumbs, so my dad gave me pancake batter to use instead. I put the fish on the grill and cooked him, then dished him. By this time, I was not hungry. My stomach was noxious, and I couldn’t picture him without the rest of his body. I took two bites and passed him off to my dad. I slumped into my tent, while everyone else enjoyed my first and last catch.