Year of the Raven: An Interview with Author, Mark Gardiner

Year of the Raven
Year of the Raven is a new book from author, Mark Gardiner, and follows Gardiner as he takes on the Raven River for one year. Gardiner recently took time to interview with The Venturing Angler:

Year of the Raven
is unlike any other book that I can think of. It follows a journey on one river over one year. Why such a commitment to one river?

I’m sure lots of people fish mostly one river; I probably fished the Bow River 80% of the time in the years leading up to Year of the Raven. But the Bow is fairly large, and fishable over quite a distance. Like many Calgary-based fly fishermen, when the stonefly hatch was on, I fished the Crowsnest. When I could take a few days off I fished everything from obscure British Columbia lakes to the blue-ribbon Montana rivers, and even made trips to the Northwest Territories for grayling and arctic char.

I had lots of memorable experiences, although I often wondered if I’d come to the wrong place, or arrived at the wrong time. I had my ‘go to’ spots, but I was rarely completely sure that, “I know what’s going on here.”

The Raven wasn’t just one river, it was one small river. A stream. It was an exercise in narrowing my focus. I hoped to see more by looking closer. I thought, “If I spend an entire year on that few miles of that small stream, I’ll really master it.” (Cue: laughter on the part of the river.)

While focused on one destination, Year of the Raven is in fact a journey. How would you characterize this journey?

The book is a story about self-analysis; I think many fly fishermen can relate to an introspective aspect to our sport. Another aspect of the sport I wanted to describe was our love of metaphor; as a group we tend to see the outside world in fly fishing terms, and to project the cares, concerns, and life-lessons from the outside world onto the specific challenge of catching fish.

I might be writing too much into the sport, but I don’t think I’m alone in taking a profound intellectual pleasure — almost making a moral judgment — in/about the ‘simple’ act of catching fish. As such, my successes (or often, failures) on the stream changed the way I thought about myself on any given day. And, in the end, the journey was one of self-acceptance. I didn’t master the stream as much as my ego.

Why the Raven?

Although I was far from an expert, I’d reached a point in my development where when I went fishing with my friends, they’d say, “What’s Mark using?” or “Even Mark didn’t catch much.”

I’d been to the Raven a couple of times; I’d been completely stumped, in spite of the fact that I had heard the results of electrofishing surveys and knew there were not only lots of fish in there, there were lots of big fish. One friend of mine who had volunteered to help on an electrofishing survey told me, “I saw fish that you’d hardly think could even turn around in such a small stream!”

I knew it was more challenging than any of the other places I fished and was sure it would be a learning experience. In hindsight, I am not totally sure I was ready for it!

Although the browns that dominate the Raven were originally hatchery fish, they’d been reproducing naturally for generations; they were wild, wily, finicky eaters, and the water was often very clear. I wanted the challenge, and to know that if I caught fish, it was because I’d done everything right, not because I was lucky. I suppose there was an element of conceit to framing that challenge for myself at the beginning of the year, but I was quickly humbled by that stream.

Would you recommend that other anglers give a year’s worth of attention to one river?

One of the beauties of fly-fishing is that we literally immerse ourselves in our surroundings. The nice thing about spending an entire season in one place is that you really see every phase of the season. If you chase the big hatches within a day’s drive, you might always find yourself in rising fish, but miss seeing fish change gears from one hatch to another, or miss the challenge of cracking the code when it’s not at all obvious what (if anything!) the fish are eating.

And you just take that “grass-is-greener/maybe-I-shoulda’-gone-to-some-other-spot” agonizing right out of the equation.

What drew you to write about your fly fishing ventures?

People who didn’t fish often told me it seemed boring, or that “they’d tried it” and found it boring. “What on earth do you think about while you’re out there all day?” they’d ask. I wanted to prove that, in fact, there was a lot to ponder and pay attention to.

And, although I fictionalized my job, during that year I was working as a copywriter in a marketing department, helping some really unlikeable people make a lot of money selling a very crappy product. I wanted to write about something I loved and believed in. (Much of Year of the Raven was written at work, on the company’s dime. They’d look into my office and see me tapping away on the keyboard and think, “That Mark is a really dedicated employee…”)

Your passions are fly fishing and riding motorcycles. Are there similarities in these pursuits?

Although they’re outwardly very different, one of the key similarities between fly fishing and motorcycle racing are that both require (and develop) mindfulness. You have to be in the moment. Notwithstanding the comment I made earlier about introspection, I am as focused on a dead-drifting fly as I ever was on the race track.

Both sports are full of arcana; racing motorcycles involves mastering details of suspension adjustment, jetting carburetors, and a very considerable amount of fine motor control on the part of the rider.

Some time after writing Year of the Raven, I reached the apex of my motorcycle racing career at the Isle of Man TT. That race, which takes place on 37+ miles of public roads, is widely acknowledged as the most challenging (and dangerous) motorsport event. (You might conclude that I’m a sucker for punishment or at least drawn to challenges that almost certainly a little too big for me!)

Several miles of the TT course travel up a winding wooded valley, right alongside the Neb, which is a trouty little stream. And there are several bridges over other nice streams. A couple of miles after the start, the first bridge is at Braddan church; ‘braddan’ is the old Manx word for salmon. I studied the course for months before racing on it, often riding the lap on a bicycle, so I was traveling at a speed that allowed me to look those streams over. Maybe some day I’ll get back there with a fly rod…

To check out more on Year of the Raven, please click here.

And to check out Year of the Raven on Kindle, please click here.

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