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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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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