Sixty Times Around The Sun

It seemed an appropriate way to celebrate the completion of my sixtieth journey around the sun. I’d rise early, head to the mountains, and then with a pack on my back hike to a lake a friend had told me about, located a couple of miles inside a wilderness area. I’d spend the day alone in the high country, reflecting on life, time’s passage, and the contradiction that is the length of the days but the brevity of the years.

The road towards the lake ran straight as an arrow shaft, through the heart of a landscape dotted with silos and center pivots, the scent of wet rabbit brush heavy in the air. To the east a range of mountains rose up off the plain like a wave frozen mid-break, the peaks shrouded in sullen, multi-colored clouds. In the opposite direction, more mountains smudged the horizon, patches of snow capturing the first rays of morning.

I turned west and in what seemed like the blink of an eye the plain was left behind and I found myself driving through steepening countryside clad in pine and budding aspen, the river that accompanied the highway flowing a deep green, filling its banks. After a time I turned off to follow a gravel road that became more potholed the higher it climbed until it ended at a trailhead. On the tailgate of the truck I sorted my pack for the day, stuffing waders, fishing pack, extra clothing, lunch, snacks, water filter….. I shouldered my load and set forth upon the trail.

The first mile saw a series of steep switchbacks through pine mingled with groves of aspen, the ground underfoot a damp carpet of rust-colored leaves, the air still dank and fresh with the cool of morning. Next came a succession of small meadows where the trail skirted their perimeters to avoid swampy centers, alive with the chorus of raucous frogs. Here too the viewscape opened to reveal near vertical cliffs of glacial-carved granite with snow still covering any slope with a northern aspect.

My mind wandered as I hiked higher toward the cliffs, from marveling at the sonorous pounding of a small woodpecker on the trunk of a dead pine nearby, to the implications of the greater—but not necessarily better—part of this life now in the rearview mirror.

The final ascent to the lake was made through snow and a stand of aspen with trunks colored olive green. At last I stood upon a promontory and looked out across the lake, shallow in the foreground and deepening towards the far shore where pines crowded close to the water, the terrain then rising steeply to where a waterfall cascaded from a crevice high in the granite wall beyond.

A rustle of brush and movement close to my left startled me from my reverie. A golden eagle lifted off from the undergrowth ten yards away, flying directly toward me as it gained steerage before turning, revealing fully its mottled underbelly and wingspan before sweeping low across the lake. Heart still racing, I watched for as long as I could as its form receded, blending into the light and shadow of the far shore.

I sat and watched the lake. A breeze picked up, stirring the water’s surface. In a shallow bay near the outlet a weathered beaver dam breached the surface, and I made out the silhouettes of a couple of fish cruising close to shore. So far, so good I mused as I began assembling my rod, keeping a keen eye on the fish.

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What’s lost, and gained

We paused to refuel and rehydrate at the foot of the final ascent towards the lake. A furrow in the snow among the trees denoted the course of a stream. In two places its waters were exposed, flowing sparse and crystal-clear over a rust and tan bed that seemed to glow softly in the surrounding white. A fallen log lay across one of these patches of open water, across its topside a winter’s worth of snow accumulation shaped by the elements into the form of a breaking wave, frozen in time.

“What have you got to eat?” she asked.
“The food I brought for myself,” I replied. “You?”
“I want to see what you’ve got first.”
I rolled my eyes and showed her my selection of energy bars, and she chose out her favorite.
“I knew you’d have one of these,” she smiled.

We ate in silence, each mentally preparing for the aching calves, burning thighs and over-taxed lungs that would accompany the next half-mile of trail.

“I usually put my head down, just focus on the ground right in front of me, and count off a certain number of paces—one hundred, two hundred, five hundred, whatever—before looking up again. Other wise it seems you never make progress. Same when I’m grinding my way up a long climb on my bike. My breathing gets into a rhythm, and it seems to go by quicker.”

“I’m the same,” she said, “except I sing a song to myself.”

We re-fastened our packs and began the ascent, one foot in front of the other, the snow crunching softly beneath our snowshoes, the fluctuating tightness in my calves and shortness of breath a reliable barometer of the changes in gradient of the trail
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“It’s like quarantine,” she observed as we trudged. “If you look too far into the future, the end seems a long way off. I’m trying to take it one day at a time, one step at a time.”

I knew she was missing that part of her life, the camaraderie of her housemates, the interaction with professors and fellow students, the clubs, the vibe and bustle of the city. It meant making the effort to get out and move, breath fresh air, and return home with muscles tired but mind rejuvenated all the more important.

A quarter hour later, we stood at the foot of the final push, presented with a choice. Beyond the ridge line in front of us sat the lake. A prior hiker had broken a trail that switched back and forth to the top, or we could take the direct route, shorter but steeper.

“I vote we go for it,” she said. “I’d rather get it over and done with.”

I nodded, and we took the straight approach, scrambling on all fours the last few yards until we stood atop the ridge and looked down on the frozen expanse of the lake. Across the far shore the ground rose steeply again, above tree line, to the spine of the Continental Divide, the distant snow fields overhung by several ominous-looking cornices. Mottled grey clouds blotted out the sun, flattening the light and speaking of an impending storm.

We descended to the shore of the lake and drank once more while the dog cavorted about on the flat ground. Three quarters of the way across, a dark patch in the ice gave the first hint of spring’s thaw, of light at the end of the season’s tunnel. The wind blew, as ever, but not with the same bite as in the the heart of winter.

I called in the dog off the ice, and took in the view one last time—such time and place retains memories more special with no other person in sight. We turned our backs and began the descent from the ridge.

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We’re All Getting old

I cut a generous chunk of summer sausage from the log, sliced it in two again and handed him one of the pieces. My fingertips, pinched from the cold and slick with grease from the sausage, struggled to find purchase on the wrapper of a cheese stick, so I took the knife and, mindful of clumsiness, carefully slit a hole in the wrapper and began to devour a late river-side lunch.

Rain fell steadily from a heavy sky, the tops of the canyon walls shrouded in mist, the south facing slopes a striated mosaic of rock, snow and pine. I shivered several times as I ate; the sausage, a second cheese stick, a protein bar, and the last of a travel mug of hot chocolate.

“I’m surprised it’s taken this long for the rain to turn to snow,” I remarked, noticing the rain drops making a heavier, slushier sound as they settled on the raft. The downpour had started not long after we’d launched, several hours past, from the foot of the dam upstream. Light at first, for the last couple of hours it had increased in volume and intensity.

He nodded, continuing to stare out across the water toward the far bank. “I wish I knew what the heck the fish were eating.”

Earlier that morning in the fly shop, the guy behind the counter had enthused at the day’s potential, the overcast sky a portend of a great day’s fishing, sentiments we’d agreed with at the time. “The streamer fishing should be great, and look out for blue wings and midges coming off too.”

Now we stood wet and bedraggled mid-afternoon along a saturated river bank, proof if ever it was needed that, despite all the collective angling wisdom in the world, the angler is only ever half of the equation. Caveman had brought a brown and a cutthroat to the boat, while I was yet to feel the rush of my line tightening to a fish.
Remembering another jacket buried at the bottom of my dry bag, I gratefully added the extra layer. This plus the fresh fuel in my belly began to works its magic, shivers lessening and feeling returning to my fingers and toes.

“You fish for a bit,” I said. “I’ll take the oars.”

“Thanks,” he replied, mock sarcasm in his tone. “Any ideas on what to throw?”

“You’re asking me? Unless you’ve got a kitchen sink on you, I can’t think of anything else.”

He stood and prepared to step into the raft, a distance of three feet from bank across to boat, both slick with precipitation. He hesitated, changing angles of approach before placing a hand on my shoulder to steady his passage across, laughing as he went.

“A younger me would have just stepped across that without thinking. Now look at me. I’m getting old.”

As I too clambered clumsily into the raft, I thought of our younger selves, of how we’d have stepped across easily, of the twenty five years we’d been running rivers together. How many rivers, how many miles, how many fish, how much laughter since those times? Certainly, we were younger back then, sleeker and more agile. Certainly too, we’d spent days on rivers colder and wetter than this.

Despite, or perhaps because of, my creeping infirmity, I felt a deep gratitude for that moment, for being on that river, surrounded by so much beauty, in such company. Another thread, woven into the tapestry of friendship and life, another tale to recount when perhaps the recounting of tales will be all we have left. Until then, I’ll keep crawling, scrambling, tripping and cursing—whatever it takes.

I turned the boat midstream and pulled on the oars, out into the current once more.

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Toward the Summit

The snow yielded softly underfoot as we walked up the steady incline of the pass. Ahead the dog ran free, following her nose first up a south facing slope largely clear of snow before crossing down into a grove of trees where she was forced to bound through drifts chest-deep, all the while a smile on her face as bright as the day.

“I’m hot,” she said, not words usually associated with my wife in the month of January. “Even my feet.”
“It is a gorgeous day,” I agreed. “I don’t even have a thermal top on, and I’m sweating some.”

The road turned to the north and for the next quarter mile we walked in shadow, the snow deeper and softer, the air noticeably cooler and the light taking on a bluish hue. Somewhere in the distance a flock of jays squawked from a hillside bathed in sunlight, otherwise our footfalls and intermittent conversation were the only sounds to break the silence.

Having each been born at the beginning of a new decade, years ending in zero hold extra significance. While age is but a number, and clocks and calendars a fleeting attempt to impose our structure and control on something called time, still commencing a new decade of life brings pause for extra reflection.

“A friend told me, for her, turning fifty seemed a bigger deal than sixty,” she said. “How did you feel at fifty?”
I tried to remember back that far. My sister, nephew and a friend had traveled from New Zealand to stay a few days and help celebrate. I recalled the joy of their company more than any feelings of regret or foreboding regarding the milestone.

“I read somewhere that your forties are the old age of youth, and your fifties the youth of your middle age,” I replied. “I still feel pretty young at sixty, but next decade I’ll be turning seventy. That seems old.”

“I do feel wear and tear on my body,” she said, “living with certain aches and pains.”

I agreed. Despite regular stretching, a certain amount of lower back ache is my constant companion. As the saying goes, if I’d known I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.

Once again, my mind turned to that me, thirty years ago, arriving in the Arkansas Valley for the first, and I’d assumed only time, a pack on my back, and no clue the path would lead to us walking side by side up this mountain pass, talking about the vagaries, fears and challenges being parents and of growing old, together.

My heart filled with gratitude, for her, for life, for contemplating the future, for remembering the past, but most importantly, for the here and now, of the warm winter’s day, and the soft yielding of the snow beneath out boots.

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Another Day, Another Season

Fire had swept through the landscape several years past, and the stream’s course was a tangle of deadfall that regularly turned navigating its banks into an exercise in precarious balance, scrambling, and contortion. Other times required leaving the stream altogether for higher, flatter ground where stepping around and over the fallen trees became easier, before again dropping down to fish a conducive spot.

I didn’t mind these interruptions to the day’s flow, reveling instead in the challenge of such close-quarter fishing and the feeling of solitude, of being alone in the high country on a day when air and sky sounded a note of caution, of a season drawing to its close and, more urgently, a storm on its way.

Terrain and gradient conspired to create long stretches where the stream flowed fast and straight, forcing me to cherry pick where I fished, looking for places where beavers had slowed its course, their dams creating ox-bow bends interspersed with clear, silent pools. In this quieter water cutthroats would lie like ghost zeppelins against the finely silted pebbles of the bed, while along the margins of the stream smaller brook trout would hover, never straying far from the security of undercut banks, overhanging vegetation, or submerged tangles of logs and branches.

Casting accurately to these latter lies required luck and delicacy, combined with the mindset to not get emotionally attached to my fly. Multiple were lost to any combination of branches, snags, and poor technique, sometimes on successive casts. Interspersed with these frustrations came several fish, including one memorable brookie, its vibrant orange belly contrasting against mottled topsides of dark, smokey grey, and the inside of its mouth revealed black as night as I drew it to me and slipped the hook from its jaw.

Further upstream a log fallen lengthwise across the water had created a uniform, steady pour-over with a small pool below, heavily overhung with willows. Kneeling amongst the undergrowth, I rolled a cast out into the center of the pool, and a cutthroat, long and fat, rose guilelessly from the depths to sip it from below. My two weight bent nearly double as I brought it to shore, released it then rolled out another cast. Five times in the next six drifts, other fish rose to take the fly, pulling briefly against the hook before swimming away.

Surely that first cutthroat, large as it was, couldn’t have bent out the hook? I reeled in the line to discover that, in the process of releasing the first fish, I’d twisted the body of the fly one hundred and eighty degrees. Not only was the hook floating wrong side up, the tail of the fly covered the point, enabling the fish to slip off. One side of me regretted the lost opportunities, yet another acknowledged I’d still enjoyed the best part—watching the rise, watching the take, and feeling the fish on the end of the line. Fly corrected, I cast several more times, only to learn I’d outlived my welcome at this particular pool, as no further fish were tempted.

Shortly beyond this place, the terrain steepened, the stream flowing through a steep-sided cut dense with trees that had escaped the fire’s reach. I sat against a fallen log and took a late lunch, deciding upon my next move. Somewhere above this gorge sat the lake feeding the stream. If the day yielded nothing further, I’d like to set eyes on it. I knew a trail loosely followed the stream in the same general direction.

Judging sufficient daylight remaining, I found and took to the trail as it switchbacked into steeper country, away from the stream. These higher elevations had also escaped the fire’s reach, and the trail led through stands of pine, the ground they shaded muddy from recent snow. To my left a waterfall cascaded several hundred feet down the near vertical aspect of a granite cliff, a thin white veil against the hard grey of the rock. Gradually the gradient of the terrain lessened and the trail worked its way back in the direction of the stream, still flowing through the same steep-sided ravine.

Cresting one last rise, I at last looked down upon the lake. Long and narrow, its distant shore curved from sight against a backdrop of fir and snow-dusted granite. Drifts of ice pockmarked its surface, and a scattering of bleached logs clogged its outflow. The trail continued along the southern shore, the promise of more stream beyond to fish. I looked at the lowering sky, now darker and more threatening, and decided against continuing. Snow was on the way, and what lay beyond the lake would have to wait for another day, another season.

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