November in the High Country

Following 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.


Of Wind and Willows

The 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.


On Top of the World

The 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.


Sixty Times Around the Sun: Part 2

So 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.


Sixty Times Around the Sun

It 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.