Private Sattler

The 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.


After the Flood

Despite 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.


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.