Beginnings contain more than an intention. When we start on something new, we bring to it our history, or memory, and culture. We add to it our desire and we imagine what might be. We peer at the horizon and dream to see what might be there, but we can never truly know. Beginnings are that too – they are possibilities, only some of which become real. In his wonderful book Invisible Cities, the writer Italo Calvino imagines Marco Polo entertaining Kublai Khan with stories while the two men play chess. One story begins; “The man who is traveling and does not yet know the city awaiting him along his route wonders what the palace will be like, the barracks, the mill, the theater, the bazaar.” When he arrives, he finds a different city.
Like me, Marco Polo was an Italian of Venetian descent, a wandered on water and land, a person who, when he saw the griffin carrying the tablet the Lord delivered to Saint Mark, paused. I am partial to his Travels not only for their beauty and imagination but because they were written as if each word were a stage of the journey. At times, you never quite know where they will lead. Sometimes we move in straight lines or at angles. At others we move on tracks adjacent to the ones we had planned, a step removed from some other possible reality. Sometimes the paths intersect, at others they diverge. We might even come full circle.
I felt that same wonder the day I first fished from a kayak. To say it changed my life would be an understatement – it may have freed it in some elemental way that escapes language. To float and paddle, to sense the world moving under and around and through you, to bond with the air and water in that way lifted some planetary weight that was on me. Few moments can compare to it. Only love, or the birth of a child, or the euphoria of ritual and revelation, or some chemical magic might exceed it, but not by much. Sitting and standing in that kayak was like nothing I had ever known or felt.
The kayak is pictured in the photo above. I was a younger man then, on the edge of a great trip. The swamp behind me is down east – it is known as Core Creek, an antediluvian maze of moss-covered cypress, owl nests and gar. The kayak is a Jackson Coosa, fresh from the factory. It was a Drew Gregory signature edition, with custom colors along the blue end of the spectrum. It was a beautiful boat to look at it. For years, I had resisted peer pressure from friends who were fishing in the Carolina Yakfish tournaments, but I had cracked the previous year.
It was a warm spring day and the White Bass were running in the Haw River. My friend Joe Angelcyk won that Coosa when he won the AOY title, and since he had two, he suggested I give his new rig a try. So I did, and we went out and clobbered some fish. The Coosa is a river boat, and still the best one on the market. I didn’t know any of that at the time. I only knew that I was free.
Jump ahead nearly one decade. I speak at length with Richard Penny and Chad Hoover, I talk to ex-Jackson Fishing Team manager Aaron Stiger, I review options with friends and fellow anglers. The topic of discussion is a simple one: making Henry a member of the Jackson Fishing team. I took my time, as I always do. A traveler must choose his paths well. Every step we take precludes others, but with each step, I felt closer to that first day when I fished from that Coosa.
2016 KBF National Champion Matt Ball got me on the phone around this past Christmas. He was working a night shift, and he walked me through what it meant to join the Jackson team. Everyone in the world of kayak fishing knows Matt not only as a great angler but also as a man of profound faith and humility. He leads us in prayer at tournaments and prays for us. We call him “The Preacher.” Listening to Matt, I am often reminded of the Book of Genesis, which is the most lyrical and fantastic of the Bible’s books, depicting a world filled with extinct angels and lost cities. It is also the most water-filled book, from its unforgettable first paragraph through the great story of Noah; later still, its genealogies feel like they sprung from the Great Flood, tribes of peoples who were given a second world and a new start. Matt’s voice carries their current cadence, in my mind.
After months of discussion, I decided to officially commit and become a member of the Jackson Kayak Fishing Team. It is not an honor I could take lightly or in haste; I don’t rush in among fools.
I fished for three seasons in that Jackson Coosa. I earned my stripes as a tournament angler in a Jackson boat. I trusted that boat to carry my life and my dreams. That is no precious cargo, but it’s all I have.
My path to this moment feels like another of Calvino’s stories from that book. In it, Marco Polo describes his visit to another imaginary place: “In Esmeralda, city of water, a network of canals and a network of streets span and intersect each other. To go from one place to another you always have the choice between land and boat…”
Our paths in life are many and I chose a boat that day many years ago – a Jackson. Like Marco’s, my paths “span and intersect each other,” as all our lives do. They begin, they cross, they return, they start over, they end. My journey has taken me back to a Jackson Kayak, where I am happy and grateful to join the team and begin a new chapter in this journey, one that feels familiar, like seeing a new map of an old place where I used to live, knowing I’ve come full circle by moving in a straight line.