A Cold Flat Tops Morning

The river below me reflected the blood red of a dawn sky, the countryside through which it flowed still a formless indigo. Propped up on one elbow, still buried inside two sleeping bags, I lay and watched as river reflected the fleeting transition of the sky overhead—red to orange then pale yellow then pewter—and the first rays of sunlight brushed the granite peaks beyond.

Overnight the wind had dropped, and with the calm had come the cold. I reached for my water bottle and, discovering it frozen, retreated to the warmth of my crib, only to be thwarted a few minutes later by the nagging of my bladder.
Pleased to have made it through the night, I rose and communed with a nearby pine tree, then stuck my boot several times into the side of my five gallon water jug to break the ice and pour sufficient into a pot for tea.

Back inside the camper the burner hissed gently while I added another layer of clothing then, steaming mug and map in hand, returned outside to sit in a camp chair. The next half hour was spent alternately watching the sunlight creep its way toward me down the mountainside opposite, and restudying the map I’d pored over last night under lantern light, confirming in my mind that the plan I’d hit upon then was still as valid as now, in the growing light of day.

The water below me, on the map called out as a river yet in reality little more than a robust stream, could wait for tomorrow. Memories of a previous trip to this part of the world several years ago had turned my mind’s eye upstream, higher into the mountains.

Then, I’d hiked several miles up into the wilderness area. The trail first skirted a reservoir then cut deeper into the high country. There, this same water that flowed below camp was little more than the width of an irrigation ditch, flowing skinny over dark cobbles with the occasional calm pool. The fish that day, a combination of neon brookies and vibrant cutts, had been alert and spooky yet willing to take a dry fly presented with subtlety. Late in the afternoon I’d turned back at a place where the countryside steepened and the stream became a series of falls tumbling through a narrow, snaking ravine tangled with deadfall. Would the stream fish as well this time as then, I wondered, and what lay up country, beyond that ravine?

I loaded a skillet with bacon and hash browns and, back in the camper, prepared my pack for the coming day: extra clothing and first aid at the bottom, waders and boots stuffed next, small chest pack with a single fly box and a couple of spools of tippet, knife, reel, water filter, and a lunchtime beer, leaving enough room in the top for a lunch I’d throw together last thing, and strapped to the outside a rod case containing my two-weight.

Few aromas in this world can compete with that of bacon sizzling in cold, high country air. Returning to the grill I cracked a couple of eggs into the skillet and placed a tortilla over the lot to warm for a few minutes. The subsequent burrito, liberally drenched with hot sauce, was soon engulfed, washed down with the dregs of my tea.

The sun, by now fully clear of the ridge tops, bathed the day with the promise and melancholy of fall. Stands of bare aspen stood stark among needle-pointed fir, while patches of snow from the season’s first storm lay watery on the ground. I looked toward the distant mountains and, pack cinched snugly, began to hike up the trail.

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There’s Nothing Decent Up Here

The last shades of pink and orange faded from the mountain tops, and silence settled over the forest about us. We hung waders and boots to dry, then I set a pot of canned stew on the burner while Cave squeezed fresh lime for the margaritas. The liquor began to melt away the ache in my muscles, and we spoke of the day, of the beauty of a brook trout’s markings, and the guilelessness of a high-mountain cutthroat when tempted with a dry fly.

Nothing Decent

From the corner of my eye, movement—a white orb bobbed up the hill towards us, upon closer inspection a stetson, softly glowing in the last light of the day.

“You fellas got an axe?” the newcomer asked without preamble. “Looks like it might get chilly tonight.”
We’d noticed his arrival in the meadow below upon our return. I’d wondered briefly at the power of the human herding instinct. Hundreds of square miles of public land about, and he’d chosen to set up within a stone’s throw. I looked beyond him to his camp below—truck, trailer, ATV, expedition tent, full camp kitchen including overhead lamp, firewood stack… Some salesman at Cabela’s had just met his monthly sales target.

“Sorry mate,” I replied, “we’re not doing a fire. Makes it harder to see the stars.”

He stood and looked slowly about, as if to satisfy himself as to the veracity of my response. While he stood, all boots and buckles, his hat continued to glow white in the lingering light of the day. He pushed his jacket back off his hip to reveal a pistol in a holster. He tapped the grip with his trigger finger and continued.

“You guys see any blue grouse up there? That’s what this is for. I see any, I’m gonna get me some.”

“Huh. I didn’t know there were any around here.”

He noticed our waders, drying from the rope we’d strung between a couple of trees. “How’s the fishing?” Without waiting for an answer he continued. “I was up this way in the spring, May sometime. It was OK. Didn’t catch anything decent.”

Caveman, who up until this time had been keeping counsel with his margarita, studiously ignoring the intrusion, looked up at him for the first time, fixing him with a stare known to silence a barroom. I was grateful we were only on our first marg. Wars have started over less. “What’s decent to you?” he asked.

The stranger shrugged, holding his hands a vague distance apart. “You know…decent.”

“You’re right.” Cave gave him a “bless your heart” smile. “There’s nothing decent up here.”

“Well, wish we could help with the axe,” I intervened. The stew was beginning to bubble in the pot, and I lifted the lid and gave it a stir.

He touched the brim of his hat, bade us a good evening, and turned, heading off downhill.

Cave drained his marg and reached for a beer from the cooler between our chairs. “Nothing decent,” he chuckled, scratching his chin and shaking his head.

A few minutes later, we heard the thud of an axe, a few minutes more and a generous tongue of flame reached into the night from the meadow below us. We ate in weary silence, each replaying the day according to his perspective, and turned in with the darkness, content to leave the dishes for morning. Somewhere out in the night, coyotes yipped and howled, and I thought of Tex, curled up in his tent, fumbling under his pillow for the safety catch.

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A Hole The Size Of Texas

The smooth face of the earthen dam spans the gap between two flat-topped mesas a half-mile distant, the mesas pockmarked with snow on their northerly aspects. From the bottom of the dam issues the river, flowing in a series of braids and riffles that then come together to form a fishing hole the size of Texas. The river reflects metallic beneath an overcast sky, and in the early light of a cold Sabbath morn, the faithful are gathering.

Among the patchwork of tussock lining the bank one angler sits cross-legged, contemplating the intricacies of tying knots with cold fingertips and translucent tippet. Next to his rod on the ground rests a generous pack – it seems he has few other plans for the day save what lies immediately before him.

Already in the water, an angler works the vee between two braids, standing upstream of the confluence and nymphing tight and close into the turbulent water below him. He moves with the sure-footedness and animation of youth, changing his position in the river without aid of a wading staff or need to look where next to plant his feet. Suddenly his rod tip bows. He lets out a stifled victory yell then, angling his rod toward shore, splashes his way across the braid into calm water, where he proceeds to play the fish until it fills his net. With a fist pump he kneels in the shallows, gently removing the hook and line from fish and net before scooping a gentle hand under his catch and releasing it back to the river.

A man and two women, clad in waders, beanies, and jackets, and each clutching a child and fly rod, emerge from a clump of willows onto the rocky shore of one of the braids where they stand, taking in the scene. A ubiquitous yellow lab follows them, tail high and tongue lolling. After a couple of minutes discussion, they decide to cross the braid to the same calm water and small beach where the young angler still kneels, checking his line for abrasions. Halfway across the braid, one of the women, an infant strapped to her chest in a carrier, slips on the slick rock and falls backward, half sitting, half kneeling in the flow, which threatens to sweep her off her feet. The man quickly passes his rod to the second woman then reaches to grab the first. For perhaps thirty seconds they teeter mid stream before the woman regains her balance and stands, infant dry, and they complete the crossing.

Oblivious to the predicament of the family, the young angler looks up from checking his line to see another fisherman, having watched him land his fish, and displaying little awareness and less understanding of etiquette, taking advantage of his absence to wade across and stand right where the young angler had until recently been casting. This interloper quickly unstrings his rod and begins to cast, with much enthusiasm but little apparent technique. The young angler shrugs, and turns to speak with the family.

While the interloper froths the water, a lesson is taking place on the far bank. One fisherman, beanpole straight, instructs his diminutive sidekick on the intricacies of the tension cast, letting the fly rig drift down below him then flicking it upstream again with an economy of movement. The taller one bends in an exaggerated stoop as he intently stares after the indicator as it floats downstream. The diminutive one then tries, tentatively but with a look of earnest concentration.

“I’m ready,” says Caveman from the bow of the boat, where for the last several minutes he has been contemplating a series of knots of his own. I sit up straight in the seat and haul on the anchor rope. Several more anglers arrive on the far shore as I ease the boat back out into the flow, to join the faithful on a cold Sabbath morn where four braids of the river come together to form a hole the size of Texas.

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Riding the Rainbow

The tires rolling across fresh snow made a muffled chirp, reminiscent of the soft trill of a flock of grebes, floating on a northern California lake. I thought of that lake, of that most recent summer, and of how quickly the seasons themselves roll, one seamlessly into the other.

The gradient of the two-track became steeper as it wound up the tapering valley, into the clouds that ghosted through the pines, their tendrils trailing like wispy fingers through the boughs. On a steeper pitch my rear tire spun out on a patch of ice, unseen beneath the mantle of fresh falling snow, forcing me to dismount. I laid my bike down and took the water bottle from its cage. The valve had long since frozen shut, necessitating unscrewing the top. I drank a few sips then stood, and listened. No sound, save the soft murmur of the stream that ran next to the road. Somewhere close a tree creaked against its neighbor, creaked powerlessly against the inevitable. Nothing really dies, I thought, that same tree composed of elements present at the very creation of time.

A soft breeze sighed through the trees. The snow eddied and swirled. The forest stood silent and stoic, indifferent to its beauty. My back began to feel the chill as my sweat cooled. I realized I needed to keep moving up hill, toward the trail. I came to a stream, frozen over, and picked my way across, gingerly from snow-covered rock to snow-covered rock, using my bike as a crutch, the sound of the water gurgling from beneath the opaque veneer of ice.

At the trailhead, I leaned my bike against a fallen log, placed hands on knees and gasped for air, trying to restore the equilibrium between my muscles’ demand for oxygen and my lungs’ ability to deliver it. Taking a chocolate bar from my pocket, I bit off a chunk, thinking one mouthful would suffice, underestimating the craving for calories and sugar that physical exertion in a cold climate creates. Next thing, the wrapper lay crumpled, empty in my hand. My stomach, like a dry sponge, soaked the sustenance. I shivered. Time to move on.

The trail formed a thin ribbon through the forest, laid up and down according to the contour of the land. I rounded a blind corner where, years previous, an early-morning encounter with a bear had given me an appreciation of the speed with which such animals can move, and the role blind luck plays in survival. On the dryer, south facing slopes, dense pine gave way to stands of scrub oak, their rust-colored leaves hanging limp, awaiting the next breeze to shake them loose and settle them to their final rest.

For several miles the trail so wound. Fallen trees criss-crossed a frigid stream, the snow gathering on their topsides standing out like searchlights in the gloom. Finally I reached a junction in the trail and turned downhill toward home, gravity now my friend. Here the trail was less well defined, the snow concealing its landmarks. I followed it in part by instinct, in part recalling its course from those seasons when it is laid bare on the forest floor. Not another soul around, the soft hiss of the bike’s tires on fresh flakes my only company. The snow began to pick up its intensity, and soon my tracks would be covered over, and once they were gone, had I really even passed this way at all?

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What’s It All About?

Traveling thirty miles down a gravel road generally rewards one with a degree of solitude. So it proved as we crested the final ridge and dropped down into the valley to find the little campground free of habitation, human at least. From up high the serpentine course of the stream could be traced by the stands of leafless willow that grew in clusters along its banks. The valley narrowed upstream to the west before elbowing south, where the peaks of distant mountains, dusted with the season’s first snow, mingled with sullen storm clouds.

Ostensibly we’d come to fish the stream, but for me the next few days would be as much about drinking hot tea in the silence of early morning while the sun slowly worked its way down the mountainsides to an icy camp. It would be as much about the aroma of bacon quietly sizzling on the griddle, of a lunch-time beer sipped with feet dangling in the stream, of margaritas and the Milky Way, and of being in a place where a cell phone is as relevant to an angler as a bicycle to a brook trout. It would be about burrowing deep into a warm bag on a frigid night, of the howl of a distant coyote and the purl of the stream overlaying it all.

We set up camp on a small ledge that offered a pathway down through the rocks to the meadow and stream below. From this vantage point we could observe a portion of the stream—a slow, elongated pool that quickened into a riffle and turned down-valley at the foot of the ledge. After dunking my dried-out wading boots in the water to soften the leather, I returned up the path to the ledge and sat, taking pleasure in the ritual of donning waders, cinching boots, choosing a rod, freshening tippet, and sifting through my fly box even though, in my mind, I’d decided three days ago which fly I would start out with.

The sight of a fish rising in the pool below, intermittently but with the persistence of an active feeder, heightened the anticipation.

“Did you see that?” I asked. “That’s got your name written all over it.”

He nodded. “Ah, mate, you’re too kind.”

“Not really. I just want to have a good laugh when you set the hook too quickly and miss it.”

I pulled my attention from the pool to upstream. For at least a mile it zig-zagged its course before the valley dog-legged out of sight toward the mountains to the south, the pull of what lay beyond growing stronger by the minute.
I rummaged through the food cooler, stuffing some cheese and crackers and a couple of energy bars into one of the pockets of my hip pack. I guessed the time as close to noon, and didn’t expect we’d return to camp until after the sun had dipped below the horizon. By then, I knew, my lower back would be aching gently from walking several miles over uneven ground, my legs would be weary, my best friends Advil, my camp chair, and margarita cup.

“Well, mate, shall we?”

He stood, slipped on his fly vest, and grabbed his rod.

“Yes,” I agreed, “it’s time.”

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