Fly Boys


Fly Boys, Part II | Fly Boys, Part III | Photo gallery

I've lied to my several thousand bosses at ESPN, and the chief editor guy at ESPNOutdoors.com in Arkansas, who for some unknown reason actually approves these stories, and anyone else at work who cares about "liability issues," because on assignment for my last story, "The Ice Kings," I nearly killed myself.

I tell them I'm doing volunteer work with abandoned puppies … or some such thing. Puppies, little kids and playing golf always seem to work.

Instead, I'm in the office of my butt-replacement doc.

And I'm trying to come up with a believable story for Dr. Mac, who also tends not to like hearing about what I do to his perfectly good hip replacements. He's touchy that way.

"So what did you do this time?" he asks. To-the-point, board certified. Normally I have at least five minutes to decide on a story. He must be on to me.

"I sort of kinda fell," I reply.

Dr. Mac pauses, unnerved that I may be telling something like truth.

"You kinda fell?"

More like, I took a header into a snow bank. "Yeah," I say. "Sort of."

"How?" he asks.

At this point I would advise Blue Cross employees to skip ahead a couple of paragraphs. For your own sake.

"I tripped over Lake Champlain," I explain. "Slipped on some ice doing a freakin' freezing ice fishing story. Walked out a shanty door, slipped. Both feet, and your new hips launched over a couple beer kegs, between a 4-wheeler, through a 5-gallon white plastic container of smelt (which, by the way, are pretty stinky fish) and banged head-first into a snow bank with your hips flaying away in angles you pretty much said would not be very good for me.

"Saved my camera, though."

It's at this point that Dr. Mac usually rubs his head and wishes he had more partners to see idiots like me. But not today.

"No kidding! You fish?" he says, only he uses an unprintable, four-letter synonym for "kidding." It's why I love the guy — all that fancy M.D. talk.

He pulls out his cell phone and shows me what must be hundreds of pictures of the fish he's caught. I reserve my believing for only those I see him holding, since I've gotten to know fishermen and their … descriptions.

"I love to fish," he says. "In fact, in a month or so I'm going to one of the greatest rivers for Atlantic Salmon fishing, the Miramichi River in New Brunswick, Canada. You should come."

I'm moving my legs back and forth now in the hopes it jogs his memory that he was the one who actually put them back on. It doesn't. I limp out with all the details of the upcoming fishing trip, and his expert, 14-years-in-college opinion: "Quit screwing up my legs."

After telling the story to the editor guy in Little Rock, he gives me these detailed, management-trained instructions: "GO!" And I'm remembering it all now, tracing my steps to this point, because it's 6 a.m. or so, and I'm on a pit stop along the Mass Pike headed to the outback of Canada. I have just noticed the urinal to my left, where a clown in full clown-suit regalia is peeing next to me.

With his red nose blinking.

Road Trip

We are halfway through a 12-hour drive. Destination: The Black Rapids Salmon Lodge on the Miramichi River in New Brunswick. Until yesterday I had no idea you could drive to New Brunswick, or where it even is.

Mapquest tells me to take I-95 North until it ends. Then turn left.

Riding shotgun in my minivan is Dr. Mac, who has been telling me he likes to fish. A lot. "I dream of fishing, and about the Miramichi River," he says. This from a guy who started, and is the commander of, the 947th Forward Surgical Team that just spent nine months with Special Forces on the front lines in Afghanistan.

"Every war we have ever fought we always lost 10 percent of those guys because they were too sick or injured to be safely moved," he tells me. "I started the Forward Surgical Team — 22 people, with four surgeons the rest nurses and medics — to save those 10 percent guys on the front line. We did that by going to the place where most of the combat was taking place and operating on the troops on the front line."

The 947th did it by turning an old goat barn in the mountains of Afghanistan into the most forward medical unit in the war zone.

We stop at the Governor's Restaurant in Bangor, Maine, where I sit across from Ron Ripps, another Orthopedic Surgeon from Connecticut (I sense they are ganging up on me) and his son Noah.

"My father took me on annual fishing adventures and now I'm continuing that tradition with Noah," Dr. Ripps says.

Noah: "And I plan on continuing that tradition with my daughter, as well. Can't wait to fish with her." Nice touch I thought.

Ron: "Fishing takes me to beautiful places, gorgeous scenery, it's exciting, challenging. The actual catching of the fish is not really the most important part of it."

Mac nods while eating his Fishermen's Platter.

We head north, Mac with me in the minivan following the Rippses in their SUV. We pass the snow-capped Mt. Katahdin and an enormous stand of white birch trees that Ron points to, which of course makes me jam on the brakes, thinking there was a cop around.

An hour later we do reach border cops on the way into Canada. Mind you, I'm driving up to these guys in a minivan with a Hula Girl stuck on the dashboard, never the best way to introduce yourself to law enforcement.

With my Gargoyle shades, backwards ESPN baseball cap and politically incorrect hair, Mac gives me five-to-one odds: "They won't let you in."

I roll down the window and Mac, fearing what I may say, jumps in and after some inexplicable talk about salmon and the fish being stuck behind ice, actually gets us in.

Then come trees, more trees and signs in French. What I think is cheap gas — $1.09! — is really per liter, and I am horrified to learn how many liters the freakin' minivan holds. We pass rivers and lakes, some frozen, some not, then even more trees, a statue of a moose with an orange cape over it so it won't be shot, lawns on fire (burning grass here must be easier than cutting it), an overturned and rusted-out car, kids walking in the street and more kids hanging out in the Tim Horton's parking lot…

"Turn here," Mac says, pointing at two muddy ruts between trees. I would have happily, had there been a "here" there.

Bump, scratch, bump, bang (dear Toyota Financial Lease guys: please forget this part of the story 12 ½ months from now) — I hear a loud scraping noise from where the muffler should be, then we mud-slalom downhill and screech to a stop on a bunch of tiny rocks that someone decided could imitate a parking lot.

"God, I love this place," says Mac. I open my eyes, adjust my cap and see through my dust/mud splattered windshield a gray-haired man and four dogs (none of which turn out to be formally his, but since he feeds them they don't seem to want to leave). Behind him sit a couple of log cabins, a wide expanse of non-burnt-up grass leading down to a fast-flowing river of blue, framed by huge, dark green pine trees among dentist-white birch trees.

This is the Miramichi. I now understand the stuff of Mac's dreams.

Fly Boys, Part II | Fly Boys, Part III

Don Barone is a feature producer for ESPN. Other stories of his are available on Amazon.com. You can reach him at Don.Barone@espn.com

For more information about The Black Rapids Salmon Lodge you can go to www.miramichiblackrapids.com