The second book in the Cal Claxton mystery series, Dead Float, will appear in July. I should probably explain the title. Dead float is a term used by fly fishermen to describe the perfect drift after a cast, when the fly moves with the water without the slightest wake, mimicking an insect that has surrendered to the river. A dead float promises a violent confrontation, particularly on the Deschutes River during the salmon fly hatch, where it takes the form of a shattering strike from a hungry fish who’s launched himself from the bottom of the river.
I’ve been fishing the Deschutes for the past 16 years and had the pleasure of returning recently for a three day float trip, the kind described at the beginning of the book. It got me thinking about this experience and why it was so compelling that it inspired a complete novel. And inspired, I was! The first draft of the book was so shot-through with fishing scenes that my critique group finally asked if I was writing a mystery or a fishing book.
One of the most pristine rivers in North America, the Deschutes starts on the eastern slopes of the Cascades and flows north in the high desert, cutting its way through a magnificent river canyon before emptying into the Columbia River. Native rainbow trout abound there, called desert redband trout, or “redsides” to insiders. Lined with alder, cottonwood, and hackberry trees, and festooned with wild flowers, mock orange , and saw grass, the river traces a continuous oasis through the desert. The beauty of the river is framed by rugged basalt cliffs that rise up to 1500 feet on either side, and skies are busy with osprey, bald eagles, hawks and all manner of song birds.
Despite the natural beauty of the surroundings, I’m always aware of certain tension. The beauty is starkly impersonal. The river can be a feast for your eyes, but it can also swallow you up in a quick and very unpleasant death. I’ve been waist-deep in the swift current, fishing up-river in a smooth seam, only to look over my shoulder at a stretch of whitewater behind me. I’m reminded that one slip on a slimy boulder can spell disaster.
The night sky in the river canyon never fails to astound me. The pinpoints we call stars in or anywhere near our cities and towns become dinner plates of blue-white light that you half-expect to cast shadows in the camp. I make it a habit of getting up during the night to gaze at the stars. Magnificent, awe-inspiring, but at the same time, I become aware of the callous indifference the stars hold for us, that we’re mere specks of cosmic dust in the greater scheme of the universe. Beautiful, but unsettling.
There’s the fauna, too. Take the rattlesnake in the picture, which was sunning on a rock after a swim in the river. I counted 11 rattles on that fellow, and thrilled at the intricate, bead-like pattern on its back. When it slid off the rock, it essentially vanished into brush that I would soon be walking through! And standing in my clunky wading boots with my drab waders and vest on, I felt like a clumsy outsider, too. I may be here, I thought, but I don’t really belong.
That sense of foreboding as the flip side of beauty was something I was trying to capture in Dead Float. So, I suppose it’s fair to say that nature, in her most pristine state, was my muse, the idea that beauty can thrill us and scare us at the same time. The ying and the yang, the stuff of all good mysteries.