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.


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.


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.


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.


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.