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In the spooky purple shade of late afternoon, when I was tired from the hike in and a day of wading and fishing, when it had that abandon-all-hope-ye-who-enter-here look to it, the bend had always seemed like a good place to call it a day. But the unexplored has magnetism—like that abandoned house on the block when you were a kid—and the bend, cut by water and time, pulled at me.
No doubt it had been fished, but probably not by many. I checked the upper end several times over the years, but it hadn’t looked any more inviting than the lower end, so it went unexplored. At least by me. But I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing something. It looked like a tough place, though, and the BLM map confirmed it.
I checked the map several times, looking for an easy way in; there wasn’t one. The map showed stretches where the canyon narrowed, along with flats that were probably choked with willows. The map also showed several cricks dumping into the main branch from side canyons; on paper the place just looked fishy. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and determined to sack up and see how far in I could make it.
By taking the left fork at each confluence, I’d circle the mountain and come out on the dirt road a couple of miles above the trailhead. No way to get lost—at least in theory.
It wasn’t fear of the unknown that made me stop and turn around all those years; it was not knowing if I still had what it takes to get in and out of places like that. The other thing was, I didn’t know if the fishing would be worth the effort. Oh, I could’ve asked around, but I didn’t want to draw attention to a potential honey hole.
The bend didn’t look spooky in the morning light. On the right side, the slope was covered in Alpine and Douglas fir down to where the mountain scrunched its toes into a cliff. The steep left side was crowded with aspen and crags that jutted through the canopy like the broken teeth of a rock monster. A lone pine stood where the slope turned scree and dived toward the thick willows that lined both sides of the creek every chance they got. The creek bounced off the face of the cliff and boiled out through the willows, angry at the sudden change in direction, so wading up the creek had never been an option. It looked like the best way in would be picking my way through the broken teeth on the left, so that’s what I did the morning I headed in.
Every year I hear about people falling off trails, having to be rescued or recovered by helicopter. I always wondered how the hell that could happen; as I looked down at the creek from the hillside, thinking I’d gotten myself ledged up, I knew how it could happen. People fall from cliffs all the time around here. It’s unforgiving country—unforgiving of stupidity, miscalculation, unpreparedness, and hubris. I should confess, though, there’s been several times it must have been looking the other way in my case.
I’d foolishly worn hip waders that day, which caused every foot placement to be accompanied by a corresponding pucker. What kept me moving forward was, once I got high enough, I could see an easy way down—if I could just get to it. I squatted and studied the hillside. I still couldn’t see around the bend, so I didn’t know how much creek I could fish once I got down. The thought of how to get back out hadn’t crossed my mind yet. It never does when you’re in that got-to-get-in-there mode. You’ll get out—you don’t have a choice.
I made it to the creek, found a fishable pool, and played with a riser until it took an Elk Hair Caddis. Catching that little cutthroat took the pressure off and justified the hike in. I couldn’t spend much time at any one spot; I’d calculated that it would take me at least eight hours to circle the mountain, but I’d have to hump it.
I hit three beaver ponds in quick succession once I got clear of the fast water at the head of the bend, making the obligatory casts at each before heading up the slope to get above the willows so I could see what lay ahead.
I’d suspected the banks would be lined with thick cover. And I was right. From my vantage point, I could see game trails crossed the creek at several spots, and it looked like I’d be able to make a few casts at each crossing. It’s ok to follow game trails on the flats; it makes getting through thick cover a little easier. But you never want to follow game trails up the slope; elk, deer, and moose have four legs and can go where you can’t—and game trails never lead back to the truck.
I traveled and fished like that for about three hours until I spotted a bench above where two creeks merged to form the one I was following. Getting above the willows so I could make better time, I headed for the point of land above the confluence.
The right fork looked better for fishing, but I needed to go left to keep heading in the direction I needed to. . . . So I took the right fork and wound up catching a couple of nice cutts. I pool-hopped along until the creek took a hard right into a side canyon.
The sound of whitewater rumbled from the canyon, and through a gap in the willows all I could see was churning foam and a series of falls and plunge pools. I headed up the slope so I could glass the canyon with my binoculars.
The steep slope on the right was covered in a thicket of willow, scrub oak, and young aspen. A meadow lie farther up on the right, sprinkled with wildflowers—yellow Heart Leaf, white Yarrow, blue Lark Spur, and bright red Indian Paintbrush—and dappled in those grassy greens that give the illusion the sun is shining on a cloudy day. I’d be able to move easily through it, but I’d have to cross the creek to get there, and there was no crossing this little fast mover from what I could see. Above the rapids on the left was a fifteen foot cliff. A row of aspen lined the rim, and if I kept the aspens between me and the cliff, if I could find a way down on the other side, I’d probably be OK—too many ifs. Even if I made it I didn’t think I could come back out the same way. And with the creek too high and fast to cross, the only way out would be a tough pull straight over the ridge. I was too tired for all that; so I turned back, found a good sittin’ rock, and thought about stripping down and soaking in one of the plunge pools. I’d come back later in the summer, when the flow would be down and I could make the crossing.
I found a stout beaver cut and used it to spike my way to the top of the ridge, stabbing, leaning, pulling forward, stopping to get my breath, topping out in a stand of aspen. The dirt road lay below, and I watched diesel trucks belch black smoke as they struggled up the valley with their camp trailers, taking the Homo oblivious to their weekend wilderness adventures, complete with flat-screens, cold beer, hot showers, and gray water; some people never peck through their climate-controlled aluminum shells, never see what’s around the bend. Somewhere off to the right I could hear the distant, irritating sound of an OHV and remembered what an old elk hunter once told me—“Them four-wheeler riders ain’t so bad . . . once you gut ‘em.”
Snow dazzled on the far ridges—there’s never enough nowadays. I shaded up awhile, wondering at the detours, sidetracks, and restarts that put me under those aspens, looking at snow in July, with another canyon to explore.
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