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.


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.