DARK CURRENTS


DARK CURRENTS

By

Robert Robinson

Word count: 985

I stare at the painting—a mountain stream dressed in autumn colors— reading the water and planning a cast. My dog presses against my leg and I whisper to her of summer’s promise. The mountains have been silently filling up with snow for months, and the backcountry canyons that I love lie hush and dormant. The headwaters are frozen, in some places all the way across, and the trout are hugging the bottoms of the deep pools in a state of near suspended animation. My neighbors have taken down their Christmas lights, and the dumpsters overflowing with cardboard and colored paper have been dumped. The prospect of getting invited to a holiday meal is gone. Fly-lines have been cleaned, rods wiped down, leaders built, and flies tied. But the trailheads won’t open for another month.

On clear days, cottony clouds hang close on the mountain tops, and I can’t tell where cloud stops and snow begins. The khaki cliffs have reddish brown streaks, but I’m not sure if I see them or just remember them. On the benches, snow and cedar create a black and white landscape. The closer ridges are aviation green, the fields by the house, subzero brown. But snow storms can hide the mountains from view for days on end.

During the perpetual twilight of winter, I look each morning to the mountain’s slopes to gage the depth of snow, and in the mirror to gage the depth of sanity. Come Spring the snows will recede and sunny days will return, but the return of sanity is always a crapshoot.

The wind moans, blasting snow against the window above my desk, rattling loose panes, muffling the ringing in my ears. I can’t sleep and have a four pill headache. The distance between the clock’s chimes seems endless, and the short, dark days go on forever. Afternoon shadows creep toward me from the corners of the room, whispering black laced memories that threaten my mind. The chemicals that balance are thin.

When the days are dreary and short, the dark thoughts come, floating just under the surface. Life’s digestive juices tug at my thighs as I cast waterlogged flies that sink into their murky depths. Out of season anglers who fish the dun waters of the mind must avoid creeling what they catch there and hold the digested fragments of their minds at arm’s length before tossing them, like worn out flies, back into the dark currents to be swept away. Maybe that’s why I’m a dry-fly fisherman: the dry-fly holds my attention on the surface and keeps me from looking too deep and getting pulled under.

Some would say that my obsession with fly-fishing is at the root of this state of mind (clinically known as seasonal affective disorder) that I call the shithouse blues, but fly-fishing actually healed my broken mind and saved my life.

When I told my ex that I wanted to move west to good fly-fishing country, she told me that she didn’t want to leave her friends. It turned out that it was just this one friend that she didn’t want to leave.

One night I was sitting on the edge of my bed staring at the forty-five that was lying on the nightstand. Beside the pistol was a book about a life devoted to fly-fishing, bright mountains, and clear waters. I was only half way through it and decided to finish reading the book. By the time I finished reading, I determined that my soul needed an enema, and that a life dedicated to fly-fishing was preferable to an eternity of cosmic dust. I hand carried the paperwork through the court system, turned everything that wouldn’t fit into the back of my eighteen-year-old pickup into cash, loaded up, and headed west.

I drove straight through, stopping only to gas up and grab cups of coffee. My ex said that I ran away from our troubles, but she wasn’t there that morning the snow covered peaks of the Front Range rose from the prairie floor and I first locked eyes on them, when I leaned forward and gripped the steering wheel with both hands and had to remember to blink and breathe, when I was afraid it was all a dream and the mountains would vanish and I’d wake up back in that urban hell next to her. I wasn’t running from anything, I was running to something—life.

The closer the mountains got the faster I drove. I couldn’t wait to start living that life I had read about. By noon of the second day, I was camped on a creek in Utah, a hundred miles from nowhere, a thousand miles from trouble. Deep in that Rocky Mountain backcountry my flatlander problems vanished. I could breathe again. It felt like home.

Some look on fly-fishing as a metaphysical exercise, as if salvation may be found in its rhythms. I do hope that is true. But I suspect that the sport’s redemptive powers lie in the places it takes you and how they are received and remembered. So, I tuck those colors, scents, and sounds into the pink undigested folds of my brain. They are the floatant that keep my phantom flies of winter dancing on the surface.

When the days are short and dark, and mood is indistinguishable from sky, the puddle of light from my desk-lamp and my memories of shining mountains, sparkling water, and glistening trout hold back the shadows and keep the demons banished to the corners of the room. I stare at the painting on the wall, and Phantom flies tightly wound with hackles of hope dance on sunny streams of memory. I catch and hold shocking colors, feel the sun on aching shoulders, hear living water, and smell mountain air. The gloomy days melt away with the high country snow, and the season cycles.

© Robert Robinson 2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

LAST CAST


LAST CAST

BY

Robert Robinson

Word count: 1,087

I awoke to the sound of fat rain drumming on the roof of the camper shell. The heavy taps became a wall of sound that wrapped around me and I burrowed deeper into my warm sleeping bag and drifted back to sleep.

It’s the sudden silence of the storm’s passing that next wakes me. I crawl out onto the tailgate and look down the canyon at the thick column of rain about a mile away. Farther down, the disturbance squats on the mountains like a blank canvas and spiring Alpine firs punch through here and there—unfinished sketches. The upper end of the canyon is bright, green, and fresh. Ghost-clouds hang draped against the vivid green mountains like fat on a mother-in-law. The fishing will be good now. As I begin stringing my rod, I strain to smell the perfume of the pines and hear the canyon’s silence, but years of welding dulled my sense of smell, and silence now is the echo of nine-pound double-jacks pounding stubborn steel. It’s enough for me to know that the scent and the stillness are there. I remember.

I remember the first time a trout stream stole my soul one cold, rainy day in North Georgia, and the ten-inch Brown that took my fly when I had fallen down in the creek and was being baptized into a new life. I was cold, wet, and happy. I had found something, something that I wanted to be a part of, something that would come to define me; so, I keep coming back to be re-defined, re-baptized. There’s a beginning and an end to everything, though. There will be a last hike in, a last fish caught, and a last cast. I was with Ed when he made his last cast.

Neither of us knew it was his last cast, but the signs were there. He needed my help getting into his waders that morning, and I watched, helpless, as he fumbled with his tippet and fly with stiff, swollen joints until he finally asked for my help. He leaned on me as we moved up the river, his weight frail, light, and we made frequent stops so he could catch his breath. I had to net and release that last Brown for him. I thought Ed was too good to die. I think he was too good not to. Two weeks later he was gone.

They say you shouldn’t dwell on the past, but you think about the things you know, and now there’s much more past than there is future. So I think about Ed, and the others who are gone. Like the young man I took fishing because he needed help and taking him fishing was all I could think to do. I’d hoped fishing would help him as it had helped me. I stood behind him and held his hand as I showed him the roll cast.  A few months later, he rolled his car.

I think about my old friend who called me one night lonely and depressed. He needed to go fishing. We talked about wild country and clear water. We talked about special places folded deep into the backcountry and made our plans. He decided to go to sleep and never wake up instead.

The hike in is tougher than it used to be. As I top the hill, I hear somebody chopping wood in the distance, or is it the sound of distant drums? I listen closer and realize it’s the sound of my heart thumping in my chest. Below me, a meadow filled with wildflowers of every description and color stretches all the way to the creek.

I try to imprint the scene on my mind and go for the pack of anti-acid tablets in my pocket, remembering that a nurse once told me that everybody who came into her emergency room with a heart attack had a pack of them in their pocket. I chew on the tablets and wonder if the scalding in my chest is my retirement plan, or the two jalapeño-laced gas-station corn-dogs I had for supper last night. It doesn’t matter. I’m too far into the backcountry now and whatever is going to happen will happen without any more help from me. Besides, doing the purple polka on a tapestry of wildflowers doesn’t seem like a bad way to go. I can think of a lot worse—Visiting Angels spoon feeding me as I cast to the rising cutthroats in my mind and tapioca dribbles onto my chin. I decide to push on across the creek and up the next hill to give the arteries a good flush.

I think about a life lived giving up no hostages to the pursuit of fortune, choosing only to work just enough to keep a roof over my head and take care of my dog. Radio talk show hosts point accusing fingers at me. I dropped out, didn’t row hard enough when the Pharaoh wanted to waterski. I wanted to stay in bright mountains and explore Thoreau’s premise that one’s surroundings reflect the depth of one’s character. I doubt they do; the empty beer cans I see laying around suggest that character is not reflected by surroundings. Perhaps character isn’t something you bring to these wild places. Maybe it’s something you find here.

I can see the wooden footbridge, first built by the CCC, now maintained by the forest service, and that last steep hill above it that I use as a benchmark to let me know how I’m doing from year to year. There’s a stand of Aspens just beyond and a waterfall where I want my ashes scattered after I tip over.

I pause and strain to see through cloudy eyes and prescription glasses the distant ridge tops. I know the breeze that cools my brow through my sweat stained boonie is pine scented, and the sounds of the creek sculpting the narrows and diving over the falls drown out the double-jacks in my head. I think I hear voices and turn expecting to see somebody but see only the rings of a rising trout below. Something about the shadows under the firs takes me back to my great-grandmother’s kitchen on some long ago Saturday morning. I stand on a hill overlooking the creek, silhouetted against the cadet gray sky, poised between past and present. Lost friends will fish with me again today, here, where place in time do not exist.

© Robert Robinson 2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and <flyfishingthehighcontry.com> with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

THE ENVIRON MENTALLY-CHALLENGED


THE ENVIRON MENTALLY-CHALLENGED

By

Robert Robinson

Word count: 1,028

I had been thinking about that place all winter. It’s my hiding place. I don’t go there to hide; I keep it hidden, tucked away in my mind. It’s where I go when my world starts to suck and I don’t like what I see in the mirror. It’s a place nobody can take away from me. It’s where I’ll have my ashes dumped when I buck out—there, at the old wooden footbridge, where I always stop to rest and take it all in. In that canyon, I do a lot of looking in—and up.

Cottony clouds light up a harsh blue sky and pile up at the rim of the canyon. The ridges are topped with a mix of Aspen and pine and the steep green slopes leading up to them look, from a distance, like well-manicured lawns and are easy on the mind. At the tree line, the wind shimmers through the Quakies, and in the trembling shadows their white trunks are highlighted by dark green pines.  Closer, the slopes turn gentle and are dotted with rocky outcrops stained black and rust by lichen, so uniform that you have to look hard to see that they aren’t the foundations of ancient castles. On one formation, a lone pine has found purchase and its shade looks inviting. Down by the creek, purple sage and blue, yellow, and white wildflowers cover the meadows between the scattered stands of willow, and the banks are cut deep in places by sparkling spring-fed rivulets where light glints from the sun-dazzled bottoms of empty beer cans.

I have been preceded by those whom I (in an attempt at being politically correct) call the environ mentally-challenged, or for those nature lovers who pride themselves in the ability to rattle off the Latin names of animals, bugs, and fauna, the inviron ideota.

When I hike into remote areas and stumble upon piles of empty beer cans, worm containers, pop bottles, and dirty diapers—which are never empty—I start hating people. Based on the number of times this happens, it would be easy to come to the conclusion that the environ mentally-challenged far outnumber people who respect the environment; however, there is no way to tell, because people who travel through the wilderness with respect don’t mark their trails with trash. They leave no evidence of their passing.

I added an empty trash bag to my accoutrements for a few years until I found myself lugging full thirty-gallon trash bags around and still not making a dent. The trash seemed to increase as if I were the victim of some kind of curse, like that Greek god who had to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity, only to have it roll down the other side when he reached the top. I gave up on the idea of singlehandedly cleaning up the world.

Most of my journeys into the back country involve fishing for trout. I feel like an intruder and sometimes wonder if I should confine myself to observation, foregoing any interaction with the trout, and just enjoy the beauty and solitude. But that would put me in a camp with people who think that human beings aren’t part of the ecosystem and that we just showed up last week. Besides, I like holding living colors in my hand—and releasing them. The difference between humans and other inhabitants of the planet is we have the ability to choose how we affect the environment. Sadly, many choose to affect it negatively, or they just don’t give a tinker’s damn.

When I began finding piles of empty spinner-bait packages with plastic bags clearly identifying them as coming from the gas station just up the road, I suggested to its owner that he un-package the spinners at the time of purchase and securely hang them on the environ mentally-challenged’s lower lip, and to his credit he seemed in favor of the idea.

I sometimes find empty beer cans stacked neatly in the shape of a pyramid. When I come across these monuments to ignorance I’m reminded of the construction companies that I sometimes work for that operate on what I call the pyramid principle, i.e., if you get enough primitive people together you can build anything. When enough alcohol has been consumed so that building a pyramid out of empty beer cans seems like a good idea, you should stop drinking. You could find yourself explaining why the shore patrol found you lying naked on a sidewalk in Bangkok with a rubber chicken tied around your neck—and that’s all I have to say about that.

Some litter seems not only to be acceptable but sanctioned by the Forest Service. I’m talking about the paper-plate-signs you see stapled to trees, taped to road signs, and propped up with rocks on the sides of the road. Curiosity led me to follow one such set of signs marked “Hick’s Reunion” for eight miles, finding when I got there that the sign was indeed apropos.

Over the years I’ve come to accept trash as part of the wilderness experience. That is until last year when I came upon a thirty-pack’s worth of empties in one of my favorite remote canyons. The camp site was fresh, and I stood there looking around with clinched fists wanting to kick somebody’s ass. I didn’t see anybody, which was a good thing, as getting into an altercation with somebody that has the strength and determination to hump a thirty-pack that far probably isn’t a good idea. I was sitting on a log, staring at the pile of empties, wondering what could be done, when it hit me. While aluminum beer cans, plastic pop bottles, and disposable diapers are not biodegradable, the environ mentally-challenged are. The compostability of the environ mentally-challenged/compostus imbecillus increased my estimation of their overall value dramatically. I had an idea for an environmental awareness initiative based, not on catchy slogans, colorful posters, or cartoon caricatures of forest creatures, but on aluminum baseball bats—Aluminum, for the ease with which it can be wiped clean of trace evidence.

© Robert Robinson 2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and <flyfishingthehighcontry.com> with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

THE SURVIVOR


THE SURVIVOR

BY

Robert Robinson

Word count: 1,202

There wasn’t another angler in the canyon that day, and had I known how close the fire was and how fast it was moving, I wouldn’t have been in there either. I know I was the last one in there before the fire moved through, as I had to pass through a roadblock on my way out that night and they weren’t letting anybody else in. I got some strange looks from the Rangers that morning as I was stringing up my rod, but a Ranger had assured me the night before that the main canyon was in no danger.

The fishing that day was fantastic. I wouldn’t have pestered those trout had I known they only had hours to live—had I known they would slowly suffocate from the ash and silt that turned that clear mountain stream the color of chocolate milk. At noon, I sat on the bank and ate my PB&J sandwich as ash from the fire fell around me and the sting of wood smoke made my nose run. It was the eerie orange hue the canyon took on and the spooky silence that finally made me pack it in and head for my truck. It took another seven days for the fire to burn through.

The devastation came later, when subsequent rain storms sent flash floods and debris flows raging down the burned out side-canyons, blowing out the road, silting the creek, and choking the fish. The logs and boulders that washed down the mountain—coupled with the human efforts to keep the road open—changed the course of that creek forever. I doubt if I could even find the spot where I ate my sandwich now. When I called the Utah State Biologist, he told me it would take decades for the stream to recover, and it wouldn’t happen in my lifetime.

The fire had started from a lightning strike on the left fork and had moved down the creek and into the main canyon, leaving the upper section untouched. About a month after the main canyon burnt, I hiked into the headwaters a couple of miles and fished my way back out without seeing the first sign of a fish. The bottom of the creek was coated in ash about a quarter-inch thick—the fish had suffocated.

I thought about that creek all winter, so as quick as the snow came off I hiked in there to see if the spring runoff had flushed the ash out. The stream was running clear and the coating of ash was gone, but there still wasn’t a sign of life in the water.

I had given up on finding any fish and was walking along absentmindedly dapping my fly ahead of me when I got a rise to my Adams at a deep bend-pool. I got a good look at the trout and figured it to be around eighteen-inches long. The biologist told me that there were no plans to restock that drainage until the ground cover had grown back enough to stop the mudslides and debris flows from choking off the stream, so I knew that fish was a holdover from before the fire, a survivor.

That summer the area was hit hard by drought. The stream became a trickling ghost of itself. I hiked in there four more times that summer without seeing another fish. I couldn’t see how the big fish would survive the low, warm water, let alone the meat fishermen that descend on the high country to clean out the pools when the water gets low; after all, this is Utah by God, where the people were told by a prophet of God to profit by the land and they damn well do.

That next winter I spent a lot of time wondering if the big trout had died. I figured either some worm soaker or the drought conditions had finished the big guy off, but I wanted to find out, so as soon as the trail opened up that spring I hiked straight to the bend pool where I had last seen the big fish.

I broke the hook off a #16 Adams; I just wanted to say hi without adding to the big guy’s problems had he somehow managed to survive. I was startled when I got a rise on my first cast. Wanting to be sure it was the same fish, I spent some time casting different flies and watching the rises until I was satisfied that it was him. On one of the rises, I clearly saw the bright red slash under its gills and I laughed out loud, delighted it was a native Cutthroat. I fished the creek for a couple of miles above and below the pool without seeing another fish. After that, I started leaving my fly-rod back at the truck.

That summer I realized fly-fishing was just an excuse. It wasn’t the fishing for wild trout that kept me coming back to that place, it was the place itself and the way the shadows made it seem like every day was Saturday, it was the sounds of the creek probing through the narrow canyon and the wind fluttering the quakies, it was the anticipation in the cumulous clouds that formed strong shapes and peeked over the rim of the wounded canyon. All too often that summer those clouds quickly massed, turning from fluffy white to gunmetal blue, thundering, flashing, dumping deadly rain onto the burn-scar, sending a wall of water and debris down the canyon that left boulders the size of cars and mud six-foot deep on the main road. Heavy equipment was brought in to clear and repair the washed-out road, and D-9 Catts were left sitting overnight in the middle of the creek. What was once a blue ribbon wild-trout-fishery became the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.

The shadows, sounds, and drama of the clouds had always been there, but I hadn’t noticed. They were new to me now—and fragile. The ease with which that ancient canyon had been destroyed scared me, and I felt small. The pursuit of wild trout that first drew me to the high country seemed insignificant. All these years I had been missing something, and now some of it was gone, but the big Cutthroat had survived, and in that I found hope.

I hiked in there several more times that summer with my dog, Touch, to check the stream conditions, and I saw a few guys in there fishing, but they never stayed long. Then one day Touch and I were taking a break on our way out when this guy and his young son came up the trail. I asked how the fishing had been and the boy proudly showed me the big Cutthroat he had strung on a willow branch. As he held it up for me to see his dad beamed, “It’s his first fish on a fly-rod, and he caught it all by himself.”

“Yeah, and it was the only fish we seen all day,” the boy added, grinning from ear to ear.

I grinned back and said, “That is a nice fish.”

© Robert Robinson 2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and <flyfishingthehighcontry.com> with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

SKUNKED


SKUNKED

By

Robert Robinson

Word count: 1,077

I’ve had fifty fish days. I’ve caught twenty-four inch cutts on gossamer tippet with a four weight bamboo rod. I’ve pounded ’em up to my own hand-tied dries when there wasn’t a fish rising for a hundred miles. I’ve floated big rivers and fished high-country headwaters and caught fish. I’ve been trapped by late spring snows and dodged summer lightning. I don’t have anything left to prove.

Anyway, that’s the kind of smoke I was blowing the other day when Appleton called to get a fishing report.

“That bad huh?”

“I couldn’t get a rise if I doped my fly with Stink Bait.” I told him. “I even thought about running a dropper.”

“Whoa! Don’t do anything you’re going to regret.”

“Look,” I said, “maybe we’ve gotten too hung up on the catching part. I mean, fly-fishing should be about the inner man, not how big or how many fish we catch. It should be about communing with a well-crafted fly-rod, finding the rhythm and poetry in a delicate cast, letting the beauty of the mountains and the sounds of the stream cleanse your soul. . . .  You know, rediscovery. . . . Getting back to nature? . . . You still there?”

“. . . Who else have you been talking to?”

“Nobody.”

“Good. Call me when the fishing picks up.”

Appleton was one of the first to go with barbless hooks. He became unpopular with the river guides when he tried to get the local fly-shop to go barbless. I’ve even known him to break the hook off and fish with an impotent fly when he got tired of catching fish, just so he could see the rise. He’s caught up in the corporate rat race now, and it’s hard to get him out if the fish aren’t biting.

I often get skunked when we fish together. I usually have the place scouted and let him take the lead as we head upstream, so the fish are spooked by the time I come along. Sometimes I’ll catch up to him and he’ll be sitting at a nice looking bend pool that he’s saved for me. He’ll point his rod at the hole say, “Let’s get the skunks out of the boat.” I don’t think he really wants me to catch a fish; he just doesn’t want to be seen with a guy who isn’t catching fish.

After Appleton hung up on me, I realized the danger I had put myself in. Word could get around that I’d zened out, shaved my head, and was wandering the backcountry wearing a loincloth and sprinkling ashes. My solitary life-style and the ensuing lack of . . . let’s call it female companionship, would be blamed for my moral decline. There would be a meeting; I would get voted off the island . . . or worse. The last time my friends thought that I’d spun out, one of them tried to fix me up—it was love at 425 pounds.

The next day I had a twenty fish day and was able to abandon my new religion and start wearing pants again.

It’s in the early spring, between the first warm days and the big runoff when I usually get skunked. The creeks are running high and off color, and the trout are hugging the bottoms of the deep pools in a state of suspended animation. You can catch them if you bump them on the nose with a Copper John or Pheasant’s Tail, but I’m stubborn about using dry-flies. I figured that since I was a fly-fisherman, and thus a member of the most hated demographic among fishermen, becoming a dry-fly purist, the most hated demographic among fly-fishers, would be a natural progression.

In my fly-fishing infancy, I’d become frantic when getting skunked. The level of panic seemed to be in direct proportion to the amount of money that had been spent on stuff. I had the best in sporting equipment, and I still wasn’t catching fish. I looked marvelous, but I obviously needed more stuff.

Back then, when my skill didn’t match my equipment, I’d fish for twelve hours at a stretch without seeing a rise. I fished like that for three days once in a pouring rain, stopping only for short breaks to crawl into my tent, where I poured. On the afternoon of the third day, I found myself standing in the middle of a muddy creek with my nose running, cold, wet, holding a bleached-out, six-inch German Brown in my pruned fingers, thinking what miserable specimens we both were of our respective species.

Nowadays, early spring fishing really is more about getting into the mountains, shaking off shack fever, and picking out the wind knots that form in my head during the winter. When you hike for an hour to get to a stream and find it running high and muddy, you can turn around and hike back out, or find a good sittin’ log and enjoy the scenery. I don’t pass up a good sitting rock or log when the fish aren’t biting. I know I can tie on a nymph and catch fish, but that’s not what I had seen myself doing all winter. I look around more, and wonder what I missed while I was pawing for answers in my fly-box, or squinting at an aquarium net. I think it’s because I can go fishing whenever I want to now that my attitude changed. I can always come back and try again tomorrow. Most people can’t do that, and I remember that sense of urgency, being limited to a Saturday every now and then, or one week in the summer.

I’ve never been a lip ripping, don’t make me take my pants down, trophy-trout hunter. I’m satisfied with my little high-country cutts, so on those fishless, early spring days, I find myself going through the motions just to get the kinks out of my cast, watching young Stoneflies crawling on my leg and only thinking about changing over from an Adams, just happy to be alive and still able to make the hike in. In a few days the streams will run clear and the fishing will be as good as ever, so it’s not bad sitting in the Sun, warming the knotted muscles in my shoulders, and thinking about the good day I’m having doing no harm. Not bad at all.

© Robert Robinson 2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and <flyfishingthehighcontry.com> with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

BACK IN THE SADDLE


This is a rewrite of “Saddle Up” I was asked for.

BACK IN THE SADDLE

By

Robert Robinson

WORD COUNT: 1,336

I turned onto the dirt road, trying to remember the directions I had been given. A right fork, a left fork, a bridge, a sheep camp, and something else had been mentioned.

The sheep camp didn’t surprise me, this being sheep country, but using one as a landmark seemed dodgy. I was pretty sure sheep camps moved with the herd. I was wishing I had written the directions down when I spotted the sheep camp coming up on the right. The sheepherders had a horse down on its back with its legs sticking straight up in the air. One herder was holding the horse down, while the other was attempting to shoe the horse. All participants seemed to be in distress, and all were sweating. I mentally checked off sheep camp.

The road looked good, but I knew that could change and it could become nothing more than a glorified game trail just around the next bend. Adding to the pucker factor, I was dragging a horse trailer with my horse, Red, who was bouncing back and forth and threatening to throw us off the road.

I was to meet up with my friend Cody for some camping and fishing. Cody was a cowboy; not the boot scootin’ feather in the hat Nashville kind, but the bull strong, hog ugly, snuff dippin’, bulldog a wild horse and never spit kind. Cody belongs to a subculture of fly-fishing that considers the horse a requisite accoutrement to the sport. Cody and his brothers sold horses and took great pride in matching horse to rider. They had experienced horses for inexperienced riders, inexperienced horses for experienced riders, and for people who don’t like to ride, they had horses that didn’t like to be rode. Cody had spent most of the winter convincing me that in order to get into the really good fishing I needed a horse, and that I needed to buy that horse from him.

I found his camp: An old truck, horse trailer, and tent situated in front of a huge fire pit. Although it was noon on a hot day in July, Cody was standing by the fire drinking a beer. I have noticed that no matter how hot it is, if you build a fire, people will stand around it, an oddity that probably dates back to the dawn of time deserving further study. I hobbled Red, setup my tent, and moseyed over to stand by the fire. After some small talk, we decided to saddle up and ride over to the creek and do some fishing.

I followed Cody up a trail that soon lead onto a narrow ledge overlooking a 100-foot drop. I was glad when the trail took a hard right and headed up a steep grade, but just as I was making the turn Cody’s horse shied at something, spooking Red, who took off going backwards as hard as he could for the edge of the cliff. I jumped off and got Red stopped just before he stepped off into the abyss. I walked Red up the slope until we were at what I considered a safe distance from the drop-off before remounting.

When I caught up to Cody, he was sitting in front of a pile of deadfall beyond which was a little meadow that sloped down to a thick stand of willows. I could hear the creek gurgling below.

Cody eased his horse through the deadfall with me right behind. I had almost made it through when Red made four long jumps out into the meadow and started to buck. He bucked a couple of times, then setup into a spin—tossing me out of the saddle. I landed hard but managed to keep ahold of the reins. Cody was sitting there looking rather relaxed considering what had just happened. He was leaning forward on his saddle horn and looking bored. I knew the “cowboy way” demanded that I get right back on and as I put my foot in the stirrup I asked Cody, “How did I look?” To which he replied, “Good for the first couple of jumps.” . . . I climbed back aboard and as quick as my butt hit the saddle Red went into another spin, flinging me off again. As I was about to mount up again, I noticed a dead tree limb stuck under Red’s back cinch. I pulled the limb out and was tightening the cinch when Cody said, “We ain’t going to get much fishin’ in if you and Red don’t quit messin’ around.”

“We’re good now.” I told him, and we headed on into the creek bottom.

We crossed the creek over to an island where we hobbled the horses, strung up our rods, and took off up the creek, taking turns casting to pocket water. We caught five or six trout apiece until we hit an open flat where two creeks came together. After agreeing on a time to meet back at the horses we split up; Cody took the right fork and I took the left.

Fishing alone has its drawbacks. The main one being that should you get into trouble, you’re on your own. Fishing alone in bear country can be a little spooky, something that you have to get your head around. I had decide long ago that I would rather get eaten by a bear than lay around dying of some terrible disease; besides, on this trip if anything got eaten it would be the horses, and after the crap that Red had been pulling, I was down with that.

I had managed to cover a lot of ground when I realized I would have to hustle to get back to the horses by the appointed time. When I got back to the horses, Cody wasn’t there yet, and it was only after I had my gear packed that he showed up. Cody said we needed to reach the main trail before it got dark.

We were mounted and had begun to move off when Red took three giant leaps forward, landing us in the middle of the stream. I looked over at Cody, who was resting on his saddle horn, looking bored, and said, “I think this bastard wants to buck again.” “Just take the hobbles off,” he told me. I dismounted into two-foot of water, which filled my boots, and felt around until I had the hobbles unbuckled. It was now pitch black. We crisscrossed up the slope searching for, but not finding, the trail. At the top of the hill Cody took off with such an air of confidence that I asked him if he had found the trail. He said, “Yeah . . . but not yet.” We reached what looked like a meadow and as we started across Cody told me to watch out for old down fencing and piles of barbed wire that could be laying around.

Cody had just hollered back that he had found the trail when I heard the ping of wire. I pulled Red up, dismounted, and began running my hands over his legs trying to see if we were tangled up in barbed wire. In the darkness, feeling down his back legs, I found that both of Red’s hind legs were standing in a coil of wire. Working blindly in the dark I was able to get us free.

As we made our way back to camp we passed campfires here and there, but Cody said we should give them a wide birth, as the firelight would ruin the horses’ night vision. I didn’t know that horses had night vision, but I was glad to hear it and assumed Red had stepped into the coil of wire for the hell of it.

When we got back to camp, we cared for the horses and Cody sat me down by the fire, handed me a beer, and began giving me some much needed instruction on horsemanship.

© Robert Robinson 2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and <flyfishingthehighcontry.com> with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

SPRING CROSSING


SPRING CROSSING

BY

ROBERT ROBINSON

Word Count: 1,243

I stood looking at the snowfields above me with a bad feeling in my guts. Where the swollen creek cut its way through, the snow was four-foot deep; I’d never get through. I’d just get wet if I tried, and staying dry was a priority now. Technically it was spring, but a guy could still get toe tagged winter kill up here. The slope leading up to the snow-banked ridge above me was gushing from every rat hole. The whole mountain was a sieve. I looked back at the tree line from which I had emerged and started thinking about gathering wood for a fire and spending the night. I could split a power bar with my dog Touch, bank up a fire, and wait until the wee hours when the runoff froze again. We could cross the creek then, when it  would be at its lowest, but we’d still have a five mile hike to get back to the truck—and we’d be wet. . . .  I’d screwed up. Ignoring the deep snow I could see on the ridges above me, I’d entered an area bordered by water on all sides during the spring melt.

The thermometer had read twenty-nine degrees that morning as I drove up the canyon. It was the time of the year when one side of the road was showing the green-up of spring while the other side was a scene from a Christmas card, with snow still hanging in the trees and covering the ground. I had stepped across the little creek that morning.

We had hiked around to the back side of the reservoir, me casting out to the edge of the ice, Touch swimming out to the splashes of my Wooly Bugger. The day turned gorgeous and warm and I started to think that I’d overdressed.

At noon, I hiked up a slope and found a log in a little meadow where I sat and ate my peanut butter sandwich. I gave Touch a dog biscuit and we stretched out in the sun and took a nap.

Long before we got back to the little creek we’d crossed that morning, I heard it. The latte colored creek was now out of its banks and raging. Where I’d stepped across it that morning, it was now twenty-yards wide and chest deep. A rush of adrenalin hit me, and I was ashamed I knew the color of latte. My only chance to get out of there before nightfall was to head up stream and hope I could find a place to cross. It would be a steep climb, and if I couldn’t find a place to cross I’d wind up spending the night. I started to think I’d underdressed.

I had a survival kit on me; a first-aid kit with a couple of power bars; some bullion and instant coffee; and a bag of dryer lint with a couple of ways to get a fire started. I had one of those old army canteens with the metal cup that I could boil water in. As long as I stayed dry I’d be ok. I took my jacket off and tied it around my waist to keep from sweating and started the climb. We headed up the creek looking for a spot to cross until we were above the timberline and found our way blocked by the deep snow.

On the way up I’d spotted a pine tree that had been washed into the creek and had wedged between two high cut-banks. That down pine would be my best chance to get across. I still had two hours of daylight to make something happen. As I headed back to the down tree, I began working out a plan.

I figured I could cross on the upstream side of the tree by bracing against it and inching my way along. I’d use my jacket to make a bundle for the stuff I didn’t want to get wet, and if I got to the middle of the creek, I’d throw the bundle on across so I’d have both hands free to finish the crossing and get up the steep bank. Once I got wet and had thrown my bundle over, I would be committed to the crossing; I wouldn’t survive the night wet without a fire. I had one problem: The banks were too steep there for Touch to climb up. Touch is a Chesapeake Bay Retriever and she’d rather swim than walk, so I wasn’t worried about her getting across, I just needed to find a place where she could climb out. It would have to be close to the tree so I could start across quickly or she would try to get back to me. Getting her to cross without me wasn’t a problem. I could throw anything over and she’d go after it.

I took down my rod and tied it into my bundle, praying that if I perished in the crossing, whoever found my high-dollar bamboo fly-rod wouldn’t be a bait fisherman. Leaving the bundle at the down pine, I walked up stream until I found a place to send Touch over. I took my shoulder bag and slung it across and Touch jumped in and started after it. I hot footed it back to the tree, grabbed my bundle, and slid down the bank next to the tree into waist deep water. The force of the water slammed me against the tree and I could feel the gravel washing away under my feet. I started thinking that this wasn’t a good idea. If I lost my footing, I’d be swept under and held down by the tree and drowned. I had to go with it now though. If Touch seen me retreat, she would jump in to get back to me and she would be swept under the tree. We would both drown then, as I would go in after her. That would be an automatic reaction. I mean, it’s not like rescuing a spouse, significant other, or fishing buddy, where you have time to assess the risk and go find a rope—she’s my dog.

The water was chest deep in the middle of the creek and I only stopped for a second to sling my bundle on over. After my hands were free, I made it the rest of the way across and clawed my way up the bank. I was covered in mud and soaked from the chest down.

The temperature would drop as soon as the sun went behind the mountain and I figured that we had about an hour of daylight left. We were still four miles from the truck, but we could make it in good time by jogging and power walking. I poured the water out of my boots, gathered up my gear, and headed down the mountain. About half way back to the truck my feet started to hurt; wet socks and slip on ditch boots suck for hiking. I managed to make it back just after the sun went down. The temperature had already dropped thirty degrees, and when I pulled my boots off, I had several blisters the size of silver dollars on both feet. I started the truck and sat there with my head on the steering wheel waiting for the heater to warm the cab. I looked over at Touch and said, “We got lucky this time girl.”

© Robert Robinson 2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and <flyfishingthehighcontry.com> with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.