A while back I found myself at an event that featured a lot of really exciting films about fly fishing across the planet. Before the movie, I was talking to a fellow fly fisherman when he asked, “Have you seen the films this year? I saw them in Portland. They are really fun – not like last year when they beat us over the head with environmental issues.”

We finished our conversation and I went on to enjoy the films. There were lots of jumping fish, bent rods and high fives with victorious anglers tossing cold beers to each other. All fun stuff. But the evening left me with an uneasy feeling. None of the films featured the typical long dull periods of quiet where fish are not rising, where anglers untangle knots, or when anglers finally stand humbled at the end of the day, staring into a river that refuses to offer up any fish.

And then there was the comment from that guy before the films started that kept rising lazily to the surface of my mind like a trout slurping midges –“They are really fun…beat over the head….” It got me thinking, just what is “fun” with a fly rod?

In this state of reverie, I realized that some of my favorite times on the river are the long moments when the riffles refuse to yield a fish, when I find myself watching chickadees in the pine trees or a caddis fly crawling on a willow leaf. It’s also when I notice the tattered plastic hanging in the willows and little pines sprouting in the shade of the big pines on south slopes, or maybe the plastic bottles, syringes and flip flops stranded in the log jams, and the gaping Combined Sewer Overflow pipes jutting into the river, reminding me that when it rains again, the city’s raw sewage and PCBs will come flowing into our river.

Then when there is nothing left to do but sit quietly on a rock, fun quietly reframes for me. Fun becomes a connection to the Spokane River, and that connection includes contemplating the willows, chickadees, PCBs, otters, raw sewage and even the politics that shape our beautiful river. It’s all part of the experience and “stoke” I get from this connection.

Whether you are fishing or rafting on the river; mountain biking, walking dogs or running the trails; or even watching an angling film festival, it’s an opportunity to connect with the river in a deeper way. Experiencing the river like this, when that sense of being separate from the whole of the river dissipates, there is no being “beat over the head” when confronted with the sometimes harsh realities and uncomfortable politics that are a part of enjoying the rivers and other wild places we care about. The only real beating we will take is if we have our heads stuck in the sand.

By all means, high five your buddies and whoop a little too loudly in your victories while you’re out there on the river. But don’t disregard the boredom, the bugs, the sewage, the simple beauty and tough issues. Nor the calls to action to lend your river a helping hand when the time comes. It’s just another way we can find connection to the place we live. Get out there and paddle, fish and swim and also learn about PCBs and pick up some plastic. After all, it’s all part of the fun!

Jerry White Jr. learned to fly fish at a young age and has been exploring Northwest rivers by boat and on foot ever since. In 2014, he signed on as the Spokane Riverkeeper, turning his lifelong passion for our local river into a full-time job.