His eyes opened wide with excitement. ‘Grayling,’ he said, as if whispering the name of the holy grail. We don’t fish, so it was hard to share his enthusiasm, but we tried.
We’d been trudging along a muddy path hoping to get access to another part of the Rautas river. It’s a sort of personal challenge, to get to see as much of local rivers as we can. Many are hidden and inaccessible, so seeking out obscure paths used by people who go fishing is the only way. This path turned out to be, predictably, not only muddy but swarming with biting insects, which is normal for the time of the year. On the other hand, there are degrees of insect concentration, and this was a particularly dense one.
The man telling us about fish was head to toe in protective gear – protective not against weather, but insects. He also wore glasses like goggles, covered on the sides, because insects often go for the eyes. And he was smoking a cigarette, despite having to carry gear and tread carefully around muddy holes.
He surveyed us like creatures that had emerged from the bog. Rolf’s muddy trainers – no boots – and my pair of shorts. Clearly, we weren’t familiar with this path. Rolf asked him about the fish he caught and he gave us a list, with additions about relative difficulty in catching, and occasional cooking tips. He told us about catches he’d made. It was a variation on ‘the one that got away’ fisherman’s traditional tale. He was just sharing his enthusiasm for fish – fair enough.
We complained about the insects, and he agreed, commenting that in a two hours’ time there would be even more of them – ‘that’s when they really party’. He had a dogged, determined look about him. That’s how you have to be, if you regularly walk this path in the summer. I realised the cigarette smoke was there to keep insects at bay.
He was curious about us of course. Why would we be there, struggling through mud and mosquitos, if it wasn’t to fish? We tried to explain we were interested in the river. His blank expression indicated polite disbelief. He asked if we were looking for berries. Although we said we weren’t, he gave us an update on the state of berries. The much treasured cloudberry, he said, was completely tasteless this year – just water. The warm weather had come at the wrong time, he said. Cloudberries out in the fjäll area might be better though, because they matured a few weeks later.
‘Ah yes,’ joked Rolf, ‘you say that to stop us picking them!’ The warning wasn’t necessary though, because with this number of insects, and the predicted insect rave happening in just a couple of hours, there was no way we were going out now looking for berries.
The man continued along the path towards his beloved grayling, cigarette dangling from his mouth, and we beat a retreat in the opposite direction, heading for the protective shell of the car.
We delayed a berry picking outing for a couple of weeks until we thought the insect count had gone down. As usual when we are here in August, we headed out to the fjäll area to look for cloudberries. We know a place where there are usually quite a few, and we enjoy wandering around – picking, tasting, the thrill of the chase. We wondered if this year we would discover the fisherman had been right, and even these berries were watery.
The cloudberry has a gorgeous pale orange yellow colour, and that’s what your eye is searching for among the mass of early autumn colours spreading over the earth. But wandering around the cloudberry area there were none to be seen. Maybe half a one here or there. Sometimes you know someone has been there before you and swooped them all up, but no-one can be quite this efficient. We deduced that the berries were not watery, as predicted, this year, but absent.
Finding the berries, though, is only part of the pleasure. The carpet of different plants that is spread over the ground is a pleasure in itself. Soft mounds of burnt-orange coloured moss, bright green blueberry plants, pale green grasses, and the occasional spread of tiny red leaves. The smell is even more stunning, a warm sweet smell of autumn. Instead of picking berries I got out my camera. I found a particularly colourful spot and focussed in on a billowing hill of autumn colour.
When I got home I looked at the image. Proud and bold in the middle of the picture, there it was. The one that got away.