The Lake

As lakes go it is not particularly impressive, rather an elongated pond with an inflow at one end and an outflow at the other feeding a small power station further downstream. Getting there takes little effort, the noise from the highway a half mile distant occasionally audible when the breeze isn’t just so, softly sighing through the pines. Yet it is a lake that holds special memories, of one daughter catching her first fish, and the other her most in one day.

“Let’s go up there this morning,” she suggested over breakfast. “I’ll need to be back by noon.”

Forty five minutes later we stood in the morning sun on the rocks along the foreshore. Patches of weed dotted the lakebed along the shallows, and fish circled in lazy, elongated beats, foraging into the gentle current from the inflow, then circling back toward the outflow before resuming their quest toward the inflow again. A thin film of pollen lay on the surface, and occasionally a fish would rise up and sip a morsel from just beneath this film, dimpling the surface but not breaking through it.

Bushes and taller pines grew right to the water’s edge, and I reminded her to keep her back cast high to avoid snagging her line. For the next hour the fish remained aloof, like a Parisian shopkeeper feigning ignorance of the English language. For the most part they completely ignored our offerings, occasionally swimming vaguely toward the fly as if to feign interest before turning away again.

Two women walked along the far shore toward the trailhead beyond the lake, their dog sniffing the undergrowth along the way. A Jeep drove up to the parking lot, then turned and disappeared back down the road, the occupants evidently unsatisfied with what they saw. An intermittent breeze blew across the lake, ruffling the surface. In the center at the deepest part, a bright orange bobber floated, impervious to both wind and current.

Finally, success. Tying on a fresh nymph behind my dry fly, I cast it out and watched as it sank in the clear water, settling suspended a few inches from the bottom. A passing fish turned to inspect it. I watched as it next opened its mouth. The fly disappeared, and as the fish turned away I gently raised the rod tip, setting the hook.

“Try one of these,” I said as I tied the same pattern onto her line. After twenty casts, nothing, not even a passing interest. I shrugged. “I don’t know what these guys want. Whatever they are eating, it is small and I have no bright ideas. Time to think outside the bun.”

“Cheeseburger?” she inquired as I selected a particularly gaudy dry fly.

“Exactly. Enough of trying to catch them with this foo-foo gluten-free tofu.”

She cast out once more. A fish rose off to the right.

“Pick it up and cast toward that rise.”

She did so.

“Now, give it a twitch.”

The fly disappeared in a boil and she set the hook, holding the rod high while stripping the line. A couple of minutes later she released a lovely rainbow.

“What time is it?” she asked, smiling.

“Time to head back, if noon is your deadline.”

I cut off our respective flies and we reeled in our lines.

“Thanks Dad,” she said. “That was fun. I like this place.”

I had to nod agreement.

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How Much To Tip Your Guide?

Ever since society evolved to the requisite level of sophistication where someone could call themselves a fishing guide without being laughed out of the village, and someone else accumulated sufficient goats and grain to trade some for a day on the river, questions revolving around tipping have plagued and tormented anglers.
How much is enough? How much is too much? Is it too big? Is it too small? Will my guide curse my name, laughing at my inadequacy as soon as I leave the parking lot? Should I have saved some cash for my wife’s birthday instead of unloading my wallet like that?

Years of guiding have helped me develop a foolproof ten-step formula that will leave your guide happy, your ego intact, and hopefully also leave you with enough money left over for a dozen roses for your Better Half’s big day.

1: Your guide shows up on time, as neat and presentable as living out of the back of a pickup and occasionally being forced to forage in the Safeway dumpster for food will allow. $50.*
*A little steep, I hear you ask, for merely turning up, somewhat disheveled and a little abrupt? Think again. After all, with guides we are not dealing with normal accepted standards of hygiene, grooming and etiquette. And who knows? Maybe one day some of that $50 might make it past the liquor store to be spent on a razor and soap.

Would you tip this man?

2: You expect your guide to tie on every fly and untangle every ‘wind knot’ you serve up all day. Add $20

3: Your preferred method of dealing with every tangle it is to shake your rod vigorously in the misguided expectation that the two weighted nymphs, split shot and indicator will remarkably untangle themselves. Realizing that your rig has now come to resemble a tennis-ball sized cluster of rigging tightly fastened to the end of your rod, you hand it off to your guide, saying “Huh, looks like I tangled again.” Add $50.

4: Your buddy tangles. Your guide eases the boat to shore beneath the shade of an overhanging cottonwood to help your buddy, but you just can’t stop casting. You turn in your seat and, despite the fact that every guide you have ever fished with has told you fishing the middle of the river is a waste of time, especially river you have just drifted over, you decide ‘What the heck’ and cast one out there. Except, the flies never make it to the water. That’s because they are stuck twenty feet high in the cottonwood you are sitting under, whose overhanging branches are tickling the back of your neck. Add $50.

5: You think that dropping your backcast every now and then and putting a cone head woolly bugger into the side of your guide’s head is just one of his or her occupational hazards. Add $50.

6: You bring beer. Subtract $20.

7: Your idea of beer is Coors Light. Add $20.

8: You bring your shapely wife / girlfriend and insist she fishes from the front of the boat in that bikini she bought in Cabo last winter. Subtract $20

9: You bring your shapely wife / girlfriend, but install her up the back of the boat in waders, while you hog the front all day in your board shorts two sizes too small. Add $50

10: As you can see, the formula has many variables. Some days will require an abacus and construction calculator to tally, and your vest is already bulging with twenty pounds of extraneous gear that you have no earthly idea when or why you bought it. So for those without an advanced degree in accounting, here is what you do. Before you leave the shop in the morning, look deep into your guide’s eyes, slip him or her a C note or two and say something like “I’m sorry in advance for whatever happens today. Let me know at the end of the trip if this doesn’t cover it. Oh, and what kind of beer do you like?”

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Run Coyote, Run

I climbed the small knoll to get a better view of the land ahead. The meadow in front of me was a patchwork of yellow, rust and green. No longer than a mile, a quarter-mile wide, it appeared shaped like a teardrop. A thin line of willows zigzagged across it, growing where the stream flowed its course. Several small beaver ponds reflected the brooding grey of the sky overhead. Thunder rolled once more, this time closer still.

Before the storm….

The storm that had been threatening on the far side of the Divide now spilled over into the valley. Low-slung clouds fingered down toward tree line, ghosting through the tops of the Engelmann. A single cloud detached from the mass and sagged ground-ward, shrouding the upper end of the meadow from view. The air temperature dropped noticeably. I turned to descend the knoll and seek out shelter when from the corner of my eye a blur of movement caught my attention.

A large coyote broke cover from the trees at the meadow’s edge and trotted leisurely across the grass with a distracted, sideways gait. I stood still, hoping my position downwind would keep me from being detected. Suddenly it stopped and turned in my general direction, nose high, sniffing the breeze, searching for the source of its discomfort. From a hundred yards, our eyes locked and we both stood motionless, eyeing each across the distance. After thirty seconds, the coyote turned and loped with urgency back to where it had first appeared, looking over its shoulder from time to time as it went before disappearing into the gloom of the spruce.

Fat raindrops were now spattering the hood of my jacket and thudding into the soft earth around me. A little way ahead a solitary spruce angled out over the stream. By the time I crawled under the umbrella-like shelter of its branches, the rain had turned to hail, pounding the surface of the stream a milky grey and accumulating in mushy clumps in the crevices and hollows of the meadow’s grasses. I unbuckled my pack and leaned back against the trunk while thunder rolled and my breath misted the cold fall air.

I broke a chunk of summer sausage, the same some cheese, and chewed in silence, feet dangling over the stream. On all sides of the meadow, the ground rose steeply like a giant amphitheater, the spruce its audience, packed close, silent and watchful. Standing atop the knoll before the hail came, I had been trying to imagine what it would have felt like to have been the first person to stand and take in that view, the little valley and its meadow so perfect and vulnerable, sheltered by the steepness and immensity of the mountains surrounding it.

What thoughts went through that person’s head, what motivation to be there in the first place? Somewhere to hide, to commune, a place to die, a place to make a stand or stake a claim? Did he or she marvel at its beauty, as I had, or was their intent more calculating — a place to unearth riches or harvest beaver or board feet of lumber? Or did they simply groan “Dammit, not more ****** mountains!”

And what of the first coyote? Had it known instinctively to turn and run, like its counterpart just had, sensing a shift in the balance of power, sensing that its world had irrevocably changed, that a new and dangerous serpent had entered the Garden? I wondered how many creatures in the past, two legs or four, had sheltered under this same spruce, how many other eyes had watched them, indeed were watching me, from the darkness of the surrounding forest.

After half an hour, the storm showed signs of lessening. The clouds still glowered over the mountain tops, rumbling their warning, but the hail had lightened to rain. I stuffed the remainder of my lunch in my pack. Deciding against continuing upstream, I crawled out from under the spruce and turned downstream away from the storm, leaving the coyote to its peace.

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Ruby Canyon Revisited

We pushed the boats away from the beach and into the flow. For a time, river and interstate ran side by side—two worlds, one a monument to humankind’s rush toward the future, the other a testament to the virtues of patience and persistence. After a half mile the river turned south into a wide canyon, and we left behind the noise and bustle of that other world.

Morning calm

Here, time had whittled away the sharp edges of the landscape. Wind and water, its chief agents, had burnished the rock to a smooth, polished surface that glowed deep red and orange in the late afternoon sunlight. In silence we drifted past a cliff face, long and high as an ocean liner, its surface scarred and pitted. Birds had made themselves at home in some of the deeper recesses, streaks of white guano betraying their location, while elsewhere clusters of mud swallow nests clung like barnacles to the undersides of larger overhangs.
Colorado Hilton

Up front of the raft, my daughter and her friend sat, feet dangling in the river, taking in the surroundings and occasionally commenting on some item of passing interest, while from the second boat a hundred yards downstream, snatches of conversation drifted lazily across the water.
Letting go

I shipped the oars and opened a beer, letting the boat pirouette slowly at the whim of the breeze and current, drifting a quarter mile per rotation. Perhaps it was coincidence, but the natural inclination of the raft was to float with its bow quartered upstream, as if looking back over its shoulder, back from where we had come.

Twenty five years had passed since I’d first, and last, floated this part of the Colorado. Then thirty years old, all my worldly possessions fitted into a back pack. I had a six month visa stamped in my passport and a plane ticket on to London.

It appeared a strange, almost alien landscape to me then — parched, ancient and vast, requiring of its inhabitants a thick skin and a slow metabolism. The river itself was broader and more voluminous than I had previously encountered, and silty red. At night an endless sky would light up in flashes of dry lightning. Most striking of all however, once one sat quietly and listened beyond the murmur of the water and the song of the wren, the chirp of the crickets and the croak of the toads, was a great overarching silence that lay across the landscape like a soft blanket, a silence which, if one paid attention, made mockery of life’s strutting, sound and fury.

I looked again at my daughter, marveling at the miracle of her being, a creation in every measure as confounding and beautiful as that through which we floated. Her presence brought home to me the passage of my own time, the rounding of my own edges, the emergence of my own pits and scars. Mistakes had been made along the way, but looking at her, here and now, how could there be regret?

“Hey My Guy, is it OK if we jump in and swim along next to the boat?” she asked.

“Of course,” I replied. “I was planning on pushing you in at some stage anyway.”

Little by little, first feet then knees then thighs they lowered themselves into the water, finally releasing the raft and floating free, borne along separately, the subtleties of the current pushing each their own way.

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The Accidental Angler: Rainbow’s reward

It is my least favorite climb. Not because it is the steepest—it isn’t—or the longest—not so. Rather, for its duration it keeps the rider—if your name is Hayden Mellsop at least—at the upper limit of what can be pedaled, without having the decency to actually get too steep to where I can justify walking, and not feel like I have given in. Riding a single speed bike, without the refuge or benefit of gears, doesn’t help.

The Reason Why

Yet this past year I found myself huffing the gravel road that winds up Bear Creek to the Rainbow Trail more times than ever before. Some climbs start out steep, then mellow as they progress. Some are interspersed with regular lung and leg recharging downhills. Bear Creek just keeps going, getting steeper the higher it goes until, just before the summit, it twists the knife one last time, saving for last the steepest pitch, the name of which decorum prevents me from disclosing in this forum.

You hope for recent rain, which dampens the dust and solidifies the loose rock into something resembling a firm, traction-yielding surface. You hope for a tail wind. You hope for a succession of vehicles ascending the road at the same time, providing the perfect excuse to stop for a breather as they pass. Sadly, such occurrences are few and far between.

There is a small meadow near the top that catches the morning sun. Here is the place to dismount, collapse on the ground in a heap, and metaphorically at least, pop the champagne cork of victory over gravity. Ahead lies the reward for all the exertion—six miles of some of the best single track riding in the valley. The trail winds through a combination of pine and scrub oak, rising and falling with the contour of the land. Toward the end, up a short, deceptively steep slope the trail crests onto another small meadow.

A panoramic view of the valley spreads out before you, town in the foreground, a glimpse of Buena Vista in the middle distance, and defining the western perimeter, the Sawatch Range running all the way to Elbert and Massive at its northern reach. At this point the effort exerted to date becomes worthwhile—time for another dismount, time to sit, stretch and, depending on the season, sip cool water or hot chocolate, savor a snack and contemplate—both this place we live and our place, collectively and individually, as part of a greater whole.

As arduous as the effort expended to get here, balance is found in the anticipation of the coming downhill, the return to the valley floor. Several options present themselves, from road to routes not appearing on any map to trails with inspiring monikers like Blood, and Guts. It is somewhere around now, with legs quietly burning from the exertion, endorphins coursing, that the memory begins to play tricks. What was a couple of hours ago my least favorite climb has now become, with the benefit of hindsight, my favorite.

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