High Country Snapshots

Lightning flickers, casting distant peaks in occasional silhouette. Collar turned up, I sit with whiskey in gloved hands, wisps of breath rising, stars shining overhead with icy indifference. The stillness is accentuated by the sound of the river rising through the darkness from the narrow gorge below. I close my eyes, crisp mountain air gently clearing the back of my throat with each inhale. Slowly the knots in my neck and shoulders begin to loosen. It feels good to sit in the open and begin to think and feel and breathe outside the box.

I stand on a boulder jutting out from the riverbank. A large brown trout feeds freely in a current seam up ahead. I tie on large stonefly dry and cast it a few feet ahead of the brown. As soon as the fly settles on the water, the brown moves into position, rises, and inhales it. I set the hook and battle the fish for a couple of minutes before bringing it to my net, admiring and releasing it. Inwardly I smile – 9:30 am, and already the fish are taking dries. It’s gonna be a great day. I fish hard and focused for the next six hours, making my way up another two miles of riverbank, and see neither sign nor sight of another fish.

There is ice in shaded spots along the riverbank where the water is shallow and still. Overhead, between the walls of the canyon, the sky is deep blue as only October can conjure. I sit with my back against a deadfall, watching the river. From up high a solitary aspen leaf flutters earthward like beaten gold, borne on the gentlest of  breezes. It settles softly and pirouettes on the current. I watch until, lost in the shadows, it rounds the bend and disappears from view. I make it my aim for the rest of the day to make my dry fly settle on the water as softly.

All day, in the shaded reaches of the river, not a bug has stirred the air, nor fish come to my fly. I begin to look about for a game trail leading to the road above. Rounding a bend, sunlight pours through a narrow cleft in the canyon wall, spilling upon a gently-moving pool. The air here is alive with activity – caddis bustling from bank to bank, mayflies hovering, midges skating the surface. Toward the head of the pool first one fish then another rises in a current seam. For the next twenty minutes I work the pool, catching and releasing several nice rainbows, until the sunlight leaves and, as if a switch has been flipped, both bugs and fish disappear. I pack my rod away and exit through the cleft toward the canyon rim.

The spruce angles out from the stream bank, a generous portion of its roots exposed to the elements. I sit in the lee of its umbrella branches as the temperature drops and the rain turns to hail. Black clouds obscure the mountains at the head of the valley and thunder rumbles its warning to proceed no further. I open beer and summer sausage and lean back against the tree trunk, wondering how many others, two-legged and four, have sheltered here in similar circumstances. Earlier in the day, as I’d stood on a promontory surveying the lie of the land ahead, a coyote had broken from cover and trotted toward the stream before turning in my direction, stopping, and sniffing the breeze. For several seconds we eyeballed each other across our worlds, then it turned and retreated from whence it had come. Now as the hail churns the water’s surface white I wonder about the first person to set foot in this valley backed up against the Divide, and whether that first coyote had known too to turn and run, that the balance of power had shifted, that a new and fateful presence had entered the Garden.


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