In 1997, Nova Scotia fly fisher Patrick Donoghue fired up his new word processor with built-in HTML code and created his very own website with internet provider Eastlink.
"It was a log book of my fishing experiences for that year," the veteran angler says. "It only had two photos."
Anyone wanting to see those photos had to wait patiently as they downloaded line by line. The speed amazed him: so much faster than the thin, blue Aerogram airmail letters he had relied on to stay in touch with family in England after immigrating to Canada in 1965. (He couldn't afford long-distance calls.)
This fall, Eastlink pulled the plug on its web-hosting service after realizing Donoghue was one of fewer than 50 remaining users.
Jill Laing, spokesperson for the Halifax-headquartered telecommunications company, says demand for the service declined substantially since 1997, "given the variety of other web options now available."
"There have been no new sign-ups to this service in several years," she said in an email. Eastlink is helping former customers download their sites, or move to a new host.
Losing touch with old internet friends
It marks the end of an era that internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch calls "Old Internet People" in her book Because Internet. These are the first wave of people who built their own websites with HTML code in the 1990s and typed in the entire URL: no searches or social media links for these pioneers.
For Donoghue and the small global community he built around fly fishing, that meant typing in http://users.eastlink.ca/~dryfly/anecs.htm. But going there now takes you to the dreaded "404 Not Found" graveyard.
"I just thought, How am I going to contact these people that when they go to my site, it will say 'site not found'?" he says.
McCulloch notes Old Internet People are old in years online, not necessarily senior citizens. "Because they generally went online before most of their friends and peers, they were interacting with strangers," she writes.
"They were all ahead of their time, excited about the possibilities of technologies, and highly motivated to learn how to use it."
Indeed, Donoghue published his website to update family on his life in Canada, but it quickly turned into a hub where people he didn't know offline gathered to talk about trout fishing, learn new fly patterns and enjoy photos of the wildflowers he saw en route to the rivers.
"I also encouraged other fishermen to tell their stories and included them on the site. All fishermen love to tell stories," he says.
A rough little river
He's fished many rivers and can't name a favourite. "It's like the old saying: you never step into the same river twice. A river is always new."
But the Woodens River is close to his heart, and close to his home in Seabright, N.S. "It's a rough little river. It's not particularly pretty, but it's an interesting river."
Climbing over boulders, slipping on sunken logs, he'd delight in finding an old trout hiding in a new spot. "I like to step into the trout's environment, or the salmon's environment. You just feel a part of it."
Many of his website friends were inspired to visit to Nova Scotia. "I ended up guiding — unpaid — people from Nebraska, from B.C., from Ontario. It just grew."
The world of the Old Internet People started to fade in the 2000s with the rise of ready-made blogs and social media accounts. Some of the pioneers switched, but others "just kept puttering along in their familiar internet byways," McCulloch writes.
Donoghue kept puttering along. On Jan. 1, 2011, he updated his site to report little snow on the trail to his local fishing river. "We came across several icicle formations that were quite unusual. [One] reminded me of a cow's udder."
He still used pretty much the same software as he launched his site with in 1997.
Even before Eastlink killed his site, he knew the end was coming. "I guess it's pretty obvious by now that this fishing log is on its last legs," he wrote earlier this year. "For those of you who have followed this log for the past 21 years, I thank you. I hope you have enjoyed it as much as I've enjoyed writing it."
Donoghue says he was at first angry with Eastlink for ending the hosting service he'd relied on for more than two decades, but he accepts it was a business decision. Still, it was jolting to see something that had been his for so long suddenly vanish.
He found a way to port the entire site to a new host. Today, you'll find him at NSDryFly.ca. He hopes search engines will eventually pick it up and his old internet friends will get back in touch.
Meanwhile, he'll be heading back out on the river to see what the trout are up to. These days, he doesn't step in. "My legs just won't handle standing in the river for very long," he admits.
But his wife, Pamela, took up fly fishing a decade ago.
"I love watching my wife fish," he says. "I love watching anyone fish, actually! It's being there, being in the woods, being on the river, listening to the birds, coming across an old toad, or a pool full of pollywogs. Just being there."
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