August 30, 2021
Lake Hartwell, which straddles the Georgia-South Carolina line, shimmered in the 90F Southern sun. I felt the perspiration flow as I fumbled with the spinning reel and rod Sandy had given me as a wedding present 43 years ago to the day, August 26. It was our anniversary. I was standing at the end of the fishing pier at Lake Hartwell State Park. She was back at our cabin, enjoying the air conditioning. I tried a few casts toward the Georgia side.
We thought we’d do something different for the big day. She had found the “camper’s cabin” on the state parks website. South Carolina state parks typically rent cabins for three nights to a week. Only at Lake Hartwell were the cabins available for two nights, all we wanted. The camper’s cabin is four walls, two windows, and a roof. It does have an air-conditioning unit, but no kitchen or bathroom—you use a community bathroom 100 yards up the road and cook on a charcoal grill or bring your own equipment. The only lighting is a bare bulb mounted in the ceiling. We didn’t think of bringing a lamp.
We made the trip eventful: we drove the previous day to Whitewater Falls, the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi. Our daughter Marie drove up separately with the grandsons. The falls, off U.S. 130 just across the state line in North Carolina, truly are spectacular. From an observation platform they appear to cascade from a rocky ridge to a deep gorge, throwing off a graceful, ghostly spray. Marie is homeschooling the boys because the state has blocked school boards from protecting schoolkids by requiring masks. She had them bring their sketchbooks. They sat on the platform and sketched.
Our next stop on the tour, my idea, was the Walhalla Fish Hatchery. Sandy went along without much enthusiasm, Marie declined. We drove south from the falls on 130 then headed west for a few miles to U.S. 107 for a while to rutted, pitted Fish Hatchery Road, which winds down a mountainside through thick forest. The hatchery sits along the rushing whitewater Chattooga River, which forms the border between South Carolina and Georgia.
We parked in an empty lot and followed a winding path to the hatchery gate. There it was, twelve concrete “raceways” in which swam hundreds of thousands of brook and rainbow trout, separated by size. We walked the full football-field length of the raceways, inspecting the trout as they darted through the narrow troughs.
The place was silent. A sign told us that the hatchery was staffed by a fisheries biologist, three technicians, and a part-time assistant. But we saw no one, we were alone. Employee lunchhour? A billboard described the hatchery’s work. The trout are separated by sex until they’re bred. The fingerlings are cultivated to nine to 12 inches. Some 500,000 fish are released in the state’s rivers and lakes each year.
Sandy showed polite interest as I stared down at the hordes of swimming fish, but I sensed this was not a pre-anniversary outing she would have chosen. Soon she stopped trying to hide her impatience. I got the hint. After I took a quick stroll to look at the rushing Chattooga, we headed back up the twisting mountain road.
Why in heck did I want to visit the hatchery? I had not caught a trout in a local stream since I was a teenager. Eleven years ago I took my son fishing in Canada’s Northwest Territory. We hauled in fifteen-pound lake trout and northern pike. That was then, this is now. But the fish hatchery is here, one of those places you—scratch that—I need to see. Probably only once.
The cabin was reasonably comfortable. On anniversary morning we hiked the park’s sole nature trail, one uphill mile, rocky and rooted, leaving us perspiring and panting. We needed insect repellent. We got in the van and headed out of the park then south on I-85 looking for a grocery store. Immediately we were in Georgia. The first exit took us out to the boondocks. We drove around aimlessly. I thought: this is how we’re spending our anniversary? The second exit was Livonia. We found a restaurant for an anniversary lunch, then headed into tiny, sunbaked Livonia and found a store. It then was in the 90s. We fled back to the park.
I moved to the other side of the pier, drew the rod back behind my head and cast again, maybe thirty feet. The lure plunked on the surface, I let out some slack, then reeled. The lure bounced along easily, no fish interest. The late August sun beat down on the lake, the heat radiated up from the surface.
I looked across the water to the distant Georgia shore, a dark silhouette in the afternoon glare. I could make out a couple of speedboats, just dots, moving along the shoreline. I looked down at the water, and back at the catwalk up through the woods. I felt no hint of a breeze, not a leaf swayed in the treetops. How hot was it?
I guessed it didn’t matter. We had chosen to be here for this quiet milestone. The heat had been the same on the wedding day, when the Tennessee sunlight collided with suffocating humidity, me in my suit, Sandy in her wedding dress, the guests all nicely fitted out, gasping as they stood waiting on the steps of St. Mary’s Church in downtown Nashville
I recalled the two of us talking, a night or two ago, about those who are no longer with us, parents, brothers, cousins, my former boss. The two priests who officiated are both long gone. And here we are in the northwest corner of South Carolina four decades and three years later, with four kids, some medical close calls, and many lessons about life behind us.
I smiled as I thought of the fish hatchery visit. Who does that on an anniversary trip? I paused with the rod. The line hung limply into the pale green water, undisturbed. I reeled in, wiped my forehead, removed the lure from the line, closed the tackle box, and drove back to the cabin. In the morning we headed for home and, we always like to believe, on to the next anniversary.