July 13, 2023I woke to wind buffeting the camper. At least it would help keep the skeeters at bay, despite adding another layer of challenge to the fishing. I drank tea sitting on a bluff overlooking the river, flowing fast and turbid through a narrow canyon below.
Slowly the others stirred to life and joined me.
“I think we should go above the reservoir,” she said. “If anything, it looks murkier down here than yesterday.”
We nodded agreement. I’d fished above the reservoir once before, ten or more years ago. A return would be welcome.
“I think I’ll wet wade,” I said, preferring to tackle the trail in hiking garb rather than waders, and wanting to keep the weight in my pack to a minimum.
Dust devils swirled across the gravel as we drove higher into the mountains. We stopped to drag a fresh deadfall from the road. We slowed for several bike riders heading the opposite direction, looks of grim determination on their faces. After a half hour we gained our first glimpse of the reservoir, studded with white caps, rollers breaking against the dam wall. Snow-capped peaks framed the skyline to the west. I pulled into a turn out and grabbed my phone to take a photo and a surge in the wind caught me off balance, almost setting me on my chuff.
“If nothing else, it’ll be a pleasant walk out and back,” opined the Optimist among us. Spending a good portion of his days on a fishing boat off the Alaskan coast, he came well qualified as a judge of gales and rollers.
The road terminated and we took to the trail leading toward the snow capped peaks. Feeder streams still ran high, necessitating seeking out places to cross where deadfall provided a bridge. The first mile kept to the trees before the trail emerged into more open country where we looked down upon a meadow a half-mile across that tapered toward the mountains.
The river snaked at speed through the meadow, willow and alder growing along its banks. From our vantage point, gentle holding water for fish appeared sparse. While the others elected to fish streamers, taking the need for a dead drift out of the equation I, ever the tragic, elected to attempt to fish with a dry fly.
Despite the wind I managed multiple good drifts close to undercut banks, to no avail. The first time I set foot into the water I regretted not having waders, my lower extremities getting an instant ice-cream headache for my troubles. Standing in one place for longer than thirty seconds invited loosing feeling in one’s feet.
For several hours we leap-frogged upstream, one fish hooked but not landed the sum total of our combined efforts. We sat on a bluff and took a late lunch. Across the far side of the valley a waterfall cascaded out of a rock fissure like a giant white veil. Elsewhere, a second waterfall remained frozen in a shaded crevice high in a granite buttress. Closer to where we sat, movement in a patch of alder along the riverbank betrayed a bull moose, ambling and feeding with the insouciance of one who knows size does in fact matter. Overhead, a juvenile bald eagle battled the updrafts, wings clumsy and uncoordinated, like a teenager struggling with a growth spurt.
By now the lure of the beer cooler back at camp began to outweigh the draw of what lay further upstream. I recalled a place I’d fished earlier, where my inattention had spooked a nice fish from it’s lie.
“I’m going to give that place one more shot on the way down,” I said. “Maybe the fish has come back.”
This time I approached the lie from upstream, wading thigh-deep across a narrow channel to the head of a gravel bar with a few inches of water flowing across its surface. At the bottom end of the gravel bar two flows co-joined, and in that seam the fish had earlier sat.
As I made my first cast, landing the streamer off to one side and letting the current swing it into the lie, I realized my walking across the gravel bar had stirred up muddy sediment that drifted inexorably toward the lie. I had time for three or four more casts before any surprise would be ruined.
Two casts later the rod jumped in my hand in response to an aggressive take. Tip high, I stripped line hard, not wanting to let the fish get into the cut bank or any further downstream. Soon, I held a chunky brown in one hand and slipped the hook from its mouth, to the applause of the peanut gallery.
An hour later, back on the bluff at camp, we sat with cold beer replacing morning’s caffeine.
“Told you it was a great day for a stroll in the high country,” reminded the Optimist.
In that I could brook no argument. [...]Read more...
November 30, 2021The remains of Private Jacob Sattler are laid to rest on a bluff just off the two track as it begins its final descent to the bottomland. A small wooden corral marks off his resting place. Inside the corral a mound of stones denote his aspect of rest, facing toward the first light of morning. A simple headstone reads “Jacob Sattler, Pvt, US Army, May 1881”. Two small Stars and Stripes flutter in the breeze at each end of the corral, and a half-dozen plastic flowers, red, white, and blue, sit next to the headstone.
Little is known of Private Sattler beyond what is inscribed on his headstone. A veteran of twenty-five years’ service in the army, he departed Fort Garland in the spring of 1881 to hunt deer, and was never heard from again. His remains were discovered two and a half decades ago alongside the stream that flows at the foot of the bluff. His death is thought to be the result of a self-inflicted gunshot.
He rests in a place of great beauty. Looking west beyond his headstone, the valley tapers as it curves towards the south. A small stream cuts its course back and forth across the bottomland, in places reflecting snatches of silver from the sun overhead. The ground rises steeply from the valley floor, lifting towards mountains topped with stands of dark timber and in the distance, glimpses of snow dusting the otherwise bare peaks of the San Juans. To the east the stream tumbles through a narrow gorge at the foot of the bluff, disappearing from view then re-emerging where the terrain widens, the slope of the countryside hinting of plains beyond.
Closer inspection reveals the footprints of modern-day intrusion upon the landscape. A couple of dirt roads score the earth’s surface. A small cabin and a cluster of cattle pens sit in the distance, and although I stand alone today, this valley is something of a playground for hunters, anglers, ATVers and hikers. We celebrate the peace and quiet and apparent solitude which provide a break from our busier lives yet once we’ve had enough leaving for our creature comforts involves little more than the turn of a key.
Author and mountaineer Robert Macfarlane posits that mountains, and by extension the natural world, exist contemporaneously in two separate planes, one the fact and sum of their physical reality, the other the values and perceptions we ascribe to them both as individuals and collectively through shared cultural values. To some the relationship to this countryside was looked at through the lens of partnership, the land viewed as a nurturer and provider. To others the lens was one of confrontation, the land a place of danger and wildness to be conquered, moulded, and exploited.
Twenty five years of service that included the Civil War and the conquest of a frontier that while wide open and beautiful, but equally solitary, harsh, and indifferent, able to turn violent and visceral in the blink of an eye. For some, once the threshold was crossed, there could be no going back to life as it was before, no unseeing of what had been seen, no staunching of what had been cut open.
I wondered of Private Sattler’s relationship to these lands, and the valley in which he elected to die.. Who knew what his eyes would have witnessed over those twenty-five years of service. Sanity and survival would likely have depended on equal parts luck and smarts, and if either ran out……
I hop back in my truck, continue down the road and establish my camp next to the creek. That night, coyotes howl in the far off under a sky immense, cold, and silent, the same sky that Private Sattler would once have gazed upon, a sky as capable of engendering as much a sense of dread as awe, of anger as acceptance, of despair as succor. [...]Read more...
September 30, 2021Despite the overnight dousing, next morning the river still ran clear. We breakfasted, broke camp and I volunteered to row while the others fished, the morning cool, the canyon still in shadow. Churning whitewater interspersed languid banks overhung with tall grasses dipping into the current, where a patient drift would sometimes yield a fish rising to a dry fly.
“The tail-out of this next rapid is a great one to nymph,” said Mort. “Pull over below. You should fish it.
I eased the raft onto a narrow strip of sand backed up against a cliff face that angled out towards the river. While the others sat on the sand and opened beer, I rigged a rod for nymphing then walked upstream toward the run. A broad fan of whitewater narrowed toward the far bank, creating a trench with several distinct seams of current, slower and more shallow in close, faster and deeper further out.
I started first with lighter weight, adding more as I worked into the faster water. I quickly became absorbed in my task, my sole focus the indicator and mending the line to prevent it being dragged by the several current seams of differing speed and direction. Several times I set the hook to what I imagined a strike, only to pull up flies encased in river weed.
Beyond where I felt safe wading a large flat boulder sat subsurface. Had the river been lower, it would have provided an ideal platform on which to wade out to in order to access the deeper, faster seams toward the far bank where the larger fish no doubt lurked. Instead I targeted multiple drifts around the boulder and twice hooked into fish that darted deep then leaped, thrashing and silvery in the daylight, and twice slipped the hook.
So entranced by the river and its nuances, I hadn’t noticed the dark clouds rolling in until a rumble of thunder caused me to look skyward. Soon a light rain began to fall and I retreated to the beach where, in the lee of the overhanging cliff face a lunch table had been set up. I built a hearty sandwich then stood and ate as curtains of rain played swirling patterns upon the river’s surface. After half an hour the rain eased but then a change came over the water, at first turning a chalky green before tea-colored then chocolate milk with heavy slicks of debris – pine needles and cones, juniper berries, sticks and twigs and anything washed down out of side canyons upstream that had borne the brunt of the cloud burst.
From the river, now thick and turbid, rose the scent of mud and juniper. Small trees bobbed in the current and the beach on which we stood began to shrink as the water level rose.
“Must have hit hard in one of the side canyons,” someone opined. “We only caught the edge of it, I guess.”
“Well, that’s fishing done for today,” I observed, and began the process of breaking down my rod. I reached into the drag bag tethered to the raft and withdrew a beer, blowing the muddy water from the rim of the can before opening it. Creation at work, I thought, as I looked out across the river to the cliffs of the far bank where slender waterfalls had begun tracing familiar paths stained with the watermarks of previous downpours dating back who knew how far.
We reached camp early, pitched tents then lined our chairs along the river bank and watched the desert flow by. [...]Read more...
November 18, 2020Following a fifteen degree night in a twenty degree sleeping bag, I wake to a frozen five- gallon water jug, and the realization that I may have chosen the coldest place to camp in the entire valley. Kicking the jug frees up enough water to brew a cup of tea, then, like my dog on the living room rug on a winter’s day, I position myself in anticipation of where the sun will first reach.
After breakfast I take to the trail downstream. The creek bears all the hallmarks of a low water year—sparse save for the occasional deeper pool, a layer of reddish silt covers the bed, swept clean only where seams of current are concentrated. The water flows gin-clear, and I stop from time to time as I hike to spot fish, for reassurance. They seem few and far between, but seeing even one or two gives me hope that my day may be fruitful. Thin ice shelves have formed overnight, and the fish I do see hold station beneath these, watching the open water. My hope is that, as the sun rises higher and the day warms, the ice will disappear.
The canyon narrows the further down I hike, and trees grow heavy to the water’s edge. Although the trail shows ample sign of having been well used—ATV and bike tracks, boot and hoof prints—I encounter nobody. From the south a small stream, little more than a trickle, is frozen in place, the boulders over which it flows cased in ice. Many places down here will not see direct sunlight for the next several months.
I come upon a clearing where a small meadow opens out, and the transition from dark to bright, the reflection of light off one boulder in particular, brings with it the onset of a migraine. The angry amoeba behind my eyeballs grows bigger and brighter and more jagged, morphing its shape and color. I lie down next to the stream. Using my pack as a pillow, I slip into a half doze as the amoeba does its thing. Van Gogh drove himself crazy, not to mention half blind, trying to paint the sun, and I wonder at the effect on my state of mind if I made it my life’s mission to try and accurately paint in words the sound and soothing of gently running water.
The worst of the headache passes, and I begin to fish my way back upstream. I catch a couple of lovely brook trout, including one large for the stream, with a gaping mouth colored black on the inside of its jaws. I work one pool for a good half hour, trying to tempt a couple of sighted fish with a variety of flies. The closest I come is when one half-heartedly follows a hopper for a few feet, then turns back to its station. I wave the white flag after losing two flies into the same overhanging branch in consecutive casts.
Upon my return, I decide to relocate camp to higher ground, further from the sound of the creek, but to a place where I calculate the sun will reach me earlier, and linger longer. The effort is worth it, my fly rod miraculously survives being shut in the tailgate of my truck, and I sit in the last of the day’s light among the watchful eyes of a small glade of aspens, long since stripped bare for the coming winter.
Whiskey warms me, and I reflect that November might mean cold nights and frozen water jugs, but it also means deserted campsites, and solitary streams. [...]Read more...
September 25, 2020The stream flowed, a succession of riffles interspersed with oxbow bends, meandering across hayfields green with the last cut of summer. The valley through which it ran narrowed toward its head, beyond which the the terrain rose steeply, covered in pine forest.
A gravel road kept to the east side of the valley and we drove until a sign announced public land. Here nature reasserted herself and the stream’s course was marked by willows that grew thick and tall, crowding the water’s edge.
The wind, having left no obvious imprint on the fresh-mowed hayfields, coursed through the willows, bending and flexing them before it. Fishing in wind, while challenging at the best of times, becomes more so on small water with narrow banks crowded with vegetation.
“Don’t get emotionally attached to your fly,” I warned as we assembled our rods on the tailgate of the truck. “You’ll lose a few in the bushes with this wind, it’s just the way it goes.”
We dropped down an embankment, located a gate in a barbed wire fence, and walked to the stream. True to the season, its riffles ran shallow and bony, the only significant depth to be found where water, flowing into a bend, had carved a channel—the sharper the bend, the deeper the cut. We bushwhacked downstream, staying inland to avoid spooking any fish, negotiating old beaver dams riddled with connector channels, and a dried up portion of creek bed which soon led us back to the stream.
She strung her line through the guides, then I took the rod and tied on a dry fly. We’d fished a couple of lakes earlier in the summer, but this was her first time on moving water in years. Moving water means more demand on an angler’s attention—drift, drag and line control require constant coordination, keeping hand and eye continually occupied. This in turn leaves less time for contemplation of the existential void that can be part of still water fishing, where a fly often sits motionless and unassailed, alone on a vast, featureless plane, for as long as one can stand to look at it.
Her first cast blew into the bushes on the left bank, the second into those on the right. I sensed a narrow window of opportunity to catch a fish before a return to a game of gin rummy back at the camper would garner greater appeal. She cast again.
“I aimed over there, but the wind blew the fly over there.”
“Try and compensate. Aim a few feet from where you want the fly to land, and hopefully the wind will take it there.”
She did so, and the wind dropped, landing the fly in the bushes again. I detected a sag of the shoulders.
“This is some of the most technical fishing you’ll ever do,” I encouraged.
Gradually she got into her groove until perhaps every second cast landed somewhere on the water. I encouraged her to see the drift through those times the fly didn’t land where she intended.
“The fish doesn’t know that wasn’t where you were aiming.”
The wind continued to surge and swirl, and a couple of flies were lost to the overgrowth, yet the fish remained reticent to the good drifts.
Finally, a break. We came upon a bend in the stream where a portion of beaver dam had blown out. What had previously been a still pond was now a broad pool with a gentle current seam. Standing on the remains of the dam, and with the wind now directly at her back, she laid out a cast to the head of this pool. Several drifts went unanswered before a brief swirl around the fly announced a take. She set the hook, and a short while later we released a brown trout back to its world.
“Finally,” she smiled.
I too felt a weight lift from my shoulders, as guides do when the first fish is landed and released. I congratulated her on her tenacity.
“Your turn,” she said. “I’m going to watch for a while.”
For the next half hour we took turns fishing our way to the truck, all the while the wind showing scant sign of abatement.
“Well,” I said, “we could keep going on further upstream, or head back to the deck of cards,” knowing I’d be happy with whatever her answer might be. [...]Read more...
June 25, 2020The first rays of light angled up the mountainside, bathing the trunks of the pines in a golden hue. On a level patch of ground we paused to admire the sunrise and drink from water bottles, then pressed on uphill. For a time the trail followed a small stream whose course, rocky and root tangled, tumbled the mountain’s fall line, straight and true.
The trail then began to switchback across the spine of a ridge, the trees becoming more sparse and stunted, gnarled by the elements as we gained elevation and approached tree line. Here too the trail became looser and more rocky, a result of greater exposure to the combined effect of time, wind and water.
A lone tree a quarter mile ahead, silhouetted against the early morning sky, stood out. “Let’s take a break there. We should get a good view of how far we’ve come, and how far still to go.”
Upon reaching the tree we slipped off our packs, sat, and rummaged for snacks. The ground below us immediately fell away into a steep couloir that funneled toward a distant bottleneck, heavily treed. Behind our backs the trail continued to climb, traversing across the couloir toward a saddle that sat beneath the peak that was our ultimate goal. “Looks like we’re about halfway there,” I commented. “How are you guys feeling?”
For my daughter and her friend, it was their first fourteener, for me, only my second.
“Tired,” came the reply, “but we’re ready to keep going.”
I pointed to the saddle. “That’s our next stop. From there, the end is in sight.”
The downside of hiking in trees is sometimes it is difficult to gauge progress, one bend in the trail looking like the next. Being out in the open has its own similar drawback. After a half hour of trudging, the saddle appeared no closer. Heads down, we traversed the couloir, still patched in places with snow, a series of steep switchbacks towards the top.
Once on the saddle, the peak seemed close enough to touch, until the sight of a hiker half way up—a mere speck against the horizon—put the scale of the mountain into perspective. We sat on the trail for one last refueling stop, each exchanging stories we’d heard of mountaineering disasters, Everest traffic jams and time spent in the death zone. A group of hikers approached from below. I advised my daughter to move off the trail. “Let them step over me,” she replied, referring to the dark side of mountaineering.
The final ascent resembled a half hour on a stair master set to ten, a scramble up a jumble of boulders, following the path of least apparent resistance. Finally we sat at the summit, settled in the lee of a couple of boulders to shelter from a brisk wind that blew from the west. Far below to the east, town appeared as a mere smudge in the light of early morning. To the south, the highway cut through the heart of the San Luis Valley, the Sangres a thin dark razorback separating one valley from the next.
I checked the time. “Hard to believe, on a normal morning, you’d still likely be sitting around in your pjs, drinking coffee.”
“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said my daughter, her friend nodding in agreement. This, from a couple of ex professional-level ballerinas. “But the most satisfying,” she continued. “I see how this can get addictive.”
The return downhill took as much time as the up, in many ways more physically demanding. I took frequent breaks, sitting in shade where available while my climbing companions took their time behind me, alternately laughing, singing, and asking how much further to go. Three tired hikers eased in to my truck at the trailhead, my daughter and her friend marveling at how someone three times their age could kick their butt on such a hike.
I marveled the same thing myself until, two mornings later, I got out of bed to discover someone had removed both my femurs overnight, causing my quads to buckle under the strain of my weight and my legs to move in jerky spasms of their own volition as I tried to walk a straight line. For the next couple of days, coherent bipedal movement became something problematic, especially walking up or down stairs as the climb’s exertions finally caught up with me.
But through the discomfort, one thing still rang true. The experience was addictive. [...]Read more...
June 3, 2020So far, so good—the day had proceeded according to plan. I’d left town early, hiked several miles into the mountains in the cool of morning, had a close encounter with iconic wildlife, and now I sat on a knoll overlooking the lake I’d come to fish, watching several large cutthroat trout cruise the shallows.
I reasoned the hot, uncomfortable feeling emanating from my feet inside my boots as the after effect of the arduous hike. I’d worn these hiking boots for years, without issue. As I sat and rigged my rod, keeping half an eye on the movements of the fish, surely I thought, the discomfort would diminish.
The fish cruised close to the lake’s narrow outlet, where over time the current had stacked a tangle of logs, now bleached by the elements. An occasional zephyr swept down from the mountains, churning the lake’s surface for a minute or two, but when the air settled the fish still maintained their station. Rod rigged, I stood and walked cautiously down towards the water’s edge then, keeping a respectful distance, unfurled a cast toward where two fish swam leisurely, seemingly unaware of my presence.
The instant the fly touched the water, both fish, and two more I hadn’t noticed, turned and darted straight for the center of the lake’s deeper reaches, leaving a trail of stirred sediment in their wake.
Tough audience, I thought. I retreated back to the higher ground and sat, waiting to see if they’d return. A few minutes later I located another, close in, working its way toward me while keeping to a deeper channel next to the bank. I decided to set up an ambush.
I moved down and cast my fly right on the edge of this channel, twenty feet ahead of the fish, and waited. As it approached, I gave a little twitch of the rod tip, imparting a slight motion to the fly. Ignoring my offering, the cutthroat swam past and stopped right in front of me, turning slightly and seeming to stare straight at me, mouth and gill plates working rhythmically as it moved water through its gills. For a few seconds we stared at each other. It was difficult to escape the feeling I was being mocked, or admonished, or both. The fish then turned and retraced its path. I cast once more, landing the fly a few feet ahead of it, and was treated with the same disregard.
Very well, I’d take my talents to the other side of the lake, where hopefully the locals would be a little less cultured. I refastened my pack and headed for the far shore where the trees grew close and snow still lay in their shadows. The water here was deeper, and several fish lay beyond a drop off where a small stream flowed in to the lake. Crouching low, I cast onto the stream where its waters merged with that of the lake. The fly drifted with the current, and one by one each fish moved out of the way as it floated toward them, then resumed its station once past.
I began to pay more attention to the pain in my feet. The extra half mile of hiking to get here from the far shore had set them aflame. I thought of the first aid kit sitting in the back seat of my truck, that I’d told myself I likely wouldn’t need. I consoled myself with the thought that the discomfort was greater when hiking uphill, and the bulk of the return hike would be down.
For the next half hour, I continued my battle of wits with the fish at the stream mouth. Multiple changes in flies, angle of approach, at one stage standing in plain sight a mere rod length from them, dancing a nymph inches from their faces—nothing would induce a take, or even a flicker of interest save the energy expended in moving out of the way.
The angle of the mid-afternoon sun told me it was time to leave. I broke down my rod and began what turned out to be a two hour hobble back to my truck, all the while imagining the twin delights of slipping off my boots and sipping the cold birthday beer I’d left under the back seat….or had I? I now remembered the beer, sitting in the fridge at home, left behind in my haste to make an early start to the day. Through the pain, I laughed. I’d wanted a memorable experience to celebrate my 60th, and been given exactly what I’d asked for. [...]Read more...
May 20, 2020It 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. [...]Read more...
April 30, 2020We 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
“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. [...]Read more...
April 1, 2020I 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. [...]Read more...
January 29, 2020The 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. [...]Read more...
December 4, 2019Fire 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. [...]Read more...
November 18, 2019The 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. [...]Read more...
May 24, 2019The 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.
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. [...]Read more...
February 12, 2019The 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. [...]Read more...