THE DONNER PARTY


Author’s note: In 2015, twenty-one people lost their lives in Utah to flash floods–in one day.

THE DONNER PARTY

By

Robert Robinson

Word count: 1178

 

When I topped out, iron-gray clouds lay heavy and full along the southern horizon—and south was where I wanted to go.

I pulled into a turnout and watched the storm advancing up the valley, shutting off light, shuttering the outside world. Without sun dazzling the fall colors, the mountains turned black, brown, and earthy as the storm moved in and squatted; gossamer clouds hung in the saddles and then rolled down the slopes until the mountains vanished. Rain curtains formed a gray wall that extended across the southern end of the valley; beads of water formed on the windshield, grew fat, slid down, and cut paths through misty film; windows fogged; and I sat in blurred isolation listening to the rain tap, tap, tap the roof of the truck, drumming out any chance that I would get in some fishing that day. I wiped a hole in the window fog and watched a dense, gray sky turn gunmetal blue and slowly expand across the valley. The rain went from hard to steady, a steady that means it’s settled in.  This wasn’t your normal quick-moving, high-country storm; it had a forty-day-forty-night feel to it, so I decided to cut my losses and head for the top of the canyon and home.

Three years before, a wildfire raged through the canyon, and although much of the ground cover had returned, it remained badly burn-scarred and vulnerable to flooding. The gate used by the Forest Service to close the canyon road was open, but dropping into the canyon that day was like driving into a tunnel. Heavy clouds hung low, shrouding the canyon rim, and water cascaded down the canyon walls, forming creeks where there shouldn’t be any. As I got farther into the canyon, rivulets of water became spouts of red, gravely mud, and each time I passed one of these falls, I wondered if I was lucky to make it through or if I should turn around and get the hell out of there. A group of cars passed me heading back up the canyon, and I soon found out why.

About halfway down I came to a washout. Large boulders, logs, and a layer of mud about a foot deep blocked the road. I had four-wheel drive and thought I might be able to move a log or two and a couple of the smaller boulders and pick my way through, but I decided to turn around and follow the group I’d seen heading up the canyon. I rounded a bend and spotted the group of cars circled up like a wagon train. They waved me down, so I pulled over and rolled down my window to see what was up.

One of the guys came over and said, “Hughes canyon’s blown out.”

“North Hughes or South Hughes?”

“North.”

“No way through?”

“No. Mud’s three-foot deep, with lots of logs and boulders. . . . Have you got any food?”

I thought it a bit early in the ordeal to be worried about food, so I asked, “Is there a medical emergency?”

“No. . . . It just looks like we’ll be here a while,” he replied.

I had some power bars and a couple of packs of cheese crackers . . . so I told him no.

Then I noticed the men were all wearing black pants, white shirts, and black ties, and the women were wearing prairie dresses and blue and white ribbons in their hair—fundamentalists, clannish, self-righteous, possibly even dangerous. I was a Gentile; thus, a prime candidate to be sacrificed for the greater good. Images of the Donner party flashed in my head, and I figured my best chance for survival was to get away from these good people, head back down the canyon, and see if I could pick my way through . . . before they started drawing lots.

I got back to the washout, moved a couple of logs and oil-pan-crushing rocks, put the truck in four-wheel drive, and weave my way through. I was thinking I’d tell the state bulls about the Donners once I cleared the canyon and could get cell service when I came to another washout. This one was much bigger; there was no way to get through. In the distance, I could see two more washouts and a guy standing by a truck in the middle of the road at the last one. I waved to him and he waved back. Another truck pulled up, turned around, and headed back—going for help I hoped.

I thought about making my way back to the Donners, but I figured they were probably already barbecuing children, so I stayed put, waiting for help to arrive.

The rain started up again much harder than before, so I backed to the top of a hill to get clear of the washout. At the mouth of the canyon, clouds layered in increasingly darker shades of gray moved in low, hiding the ridges, adding to my feeling of isolation.

Thunder rumbled, and lightning cracked somewhere on the ridge above me. I was looking up the washed-out side canyon when a red wall of water came churning around a bend, smashing and undercutting the outside wall before swinging back to the center of the canyon floor. Unseen boulders rumbled as the wall of muddy water surged through the little canyon picking up everything in its path. Chunks of canyon wall sluffed into the torrent and bushes and logs rode its crest. I’m not sure if I felt the ground shake, or if it was the roaring-locomotive sound that I felt. I watched pine trees fold into the thick, red pudding and car-size boulders roll into the road.

Fear produced by raging nature is different from any fear I’ve known. The terrifyingly unavoidable; relentlessly methodical; unimaginably swift power was paralyzing.

Columns of rain now appeared between me and the mouth of the canyon. Thunder crashed, skeletal fingers of lightning stabbed down in all directions, and the air smelled of burning ozone. Logs, trees, and thundering boulders came brawling out of another side canyon behind me, and I was now trapped on my little high spot in the road.

Finally, I spotted the flashing yellow lights of a front-end loader worming its way through the logs and boulders as it cut a path toward me. I warned the operator about the Donners, and, following the path he’d cut through the washouts, headed for the mouth of the canyon. Just as I popped out of the canyon, the heavy clouds dumped everything they had; the only place I’ve seen rain come down that hard was along the Gulf Coast.

The flooding that day was regional; a trailer park and several homes were destroyed down on the flats—it was a big deal. It took the road crews a week to clear the canyon road. I never learned what happened to the Donner party—I hope they were rescued before hunger drove them to desperate measures.

© 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.

 

 

 

 

ROCKY MOUNTAIN PASTEL


LEFT FORK DIARY

BY

Robert Robinson

Word count: 1,299

May 22: spring in the high country. I’m hiking into the headwaters of the left fork of what was once—until the fire—one of Utah’s blue-ribbon trout fisheries. It’s a pilgrimage I make every year in the spring as soon as the trailhead opens, to see if I can; and in the fall just before it closes, to see if I still can. It’s a magical place, where sunlight plays with the aspen’s flickering shadows to suggest perpetual Saturday mornings. It’s a place where layers of bullshit get scraped down to the raw meat of character, and you can find yourself coming up short. It’s a place that dispels vanity by requiring me to look up at ridges I cannot reach. It’s a place where I stop, look around and say, “This, this is where I want my ashes dumped when I buck out.” And they will be.

I’m just upstream from the burn-scarred section that was closed for two years because of flash flooding that followed in wake of the wildfire. When I called the state biologist to see how long it would take for the watershed to recover, he asked me how old I was, and then told me it wouldn’t be in my lifetime.

The fishing sucked after the fire raged through. I hiked in about a month after the fire when the trailhead was closed; I needed to see the damage for myself. A layer of ash covered the bottom of the creek, and it was that ash that sucked oxygen from the water and killed most of the fish.

There are patches of snow on the far ridges today. Grasses are starting to green up, and the high quakies are starting to leaf out, while those closer to the creek remain skeletal. Willow branches are turning maroon, juicing up, coming out of hibernation. It’s the time just before wild flowers bloom, when the dominant colors are yellows of dandelion and purples of blue sage. Blue sage isn’t truly blue—it’s light green and silver mixed with the gray of dead stems, a blend that gives a purple tint from a distance.

I’m the first one in this year. I crossed a snowbank, and the only sumbitch tracks were mine. I’m breathing hard by the time I top the ridge overlooking the main branch of the creek. There’s a flutter in the front of my shirt—I hope it’s a cicada. It’s important that I make it all the way in, unimportant if I make it halfway out. I’d rather do the purple polka up here (if that’s what’s in the cards). It would be better than the alterative—rotting away in hospice, picking at bedsores and bad food, wrestling with bedpans and visiting angels with bad attitudes. Dying well is the best any of us can hope for.

The fire exposed rock formations and boulders I never knew were there; the ridges along the creek are covered with them. From a distance some of the crags look like quarried stone foundations of ancient fortresses. You have to get close to see they’re natural and not manmade.

There’s a rock I always stop to sit on. It has patches of black, reddish brown, and dusty green lichen. Some of it looks fuzzy and soft, but I don’t touch it to find out. I don’t want to damage it. Who knows, it may have been trying to grow here for a thousand years. I worked up a sweat on the way in; the wind is chilly now that I’ve stopped.

I saw bear scat on the trail. I’m not positive, but it looked like the pictures that came up on Google. Anyway, that’s what I choose to think. I saw one in here last year hauling ass over the ridge—nothing runs like that but a bear. I thought a lot about bears when I first came here, not so much now. I no longer bother hollering “bear” when busting through thick cover; I find it intrusive—not to the bears, to me. Ending up bear scat doesn’t sound so bad when you think about it; it would be kinda like having your ashes scattered—only with moisture.

I head above the feeders looking for clear water, but find the creek fogged up, bank-to-bank high, and running fast. There’s no chance of wetting a fly today, so I head back to a familiar spot to eat lunch.

The log is an old friend; I’ve polished it with my ass many times over the years. The tree fell long ago, its bark long gone, its color a long-dead gray. Big black ants crawl on it, and I take note—I’m always evaluating an insect’s worth as trout food. There’s a dead owl tangled in the jagged remnants of the roots and I check it for usable feathers—I’m always evaluating a dead bird’s worth as fly-tying material. Its wings are pulled back, legs thrust forward, frozen in time. It must have impaled itself diving on a mouse that lives in the log. Its death was sudden. It was a lucky bastard.

By the time I saw the creek was running high and muddy from runoff and unfishable, the hike had become a matter of pride. Even though I won’t fish today, I don’t consider it a dry run. I’d have still come. I’d come here a thousand times in my mind on those twilit days of midwinter, when snow pecked at the window above my desk, when the dog didn’t want to go outside, when spring was a fantasy. It’s not about the fishing—not here anyway.  Right now you’re thinking, “Yeah, yeah. It’s the places not the fish. We get it.” But if you live long enough to get as good with your fly rod as you think you are, when you break off the hook because the deception is the real victory and laugh out loud at a missed rise, you’ll start to satisfy your thirst for wild with the wild beauty around you. Fly-fishing will become the excuse, and your fly rod will keep you from heading off empty-handed and having to explain to your friends why it’s not about the fishing.

The trail out is tougher than it used to be. Well, it seems tougher. I’ve run into guys up here who didn’t look like they’d make it out, and I wonder if I look like that now. I’ve got a system—I stop at the top of every rise to get my breath and let my heartbeat get back to normal. It gives me a chance to look around.

I stop at the top of one rise to get my breath and spot a hummingbird sitting on a naked aspen branch. He’s here early; he’s been thinking of this place all winter, too. He’s dressed iridescently to the nines—green hat, purple tie, white vest, and blue tails. We’re close; if I reached out I could touch him, but neither of us finds the other threatening. A stiff wind ruffles his feathers, he bobs in the wind, and I speak to him. I thought about that and decided it was a good thing. Thirty years ago I’d have questioned my sanity, but I talk to trout—why not hummingbirds. Maybe I spoke to him to cut through the high lonesome, maybe I’m more aware of them now, maybe I’m just slower on the trail. I feel brighter inside when I see hummingbirds. I wear red bandannas in summer to attract them, and their sudden appearance never fails to clear my arteries. I once had one land on my finger. I wonder if I’ll get any credit for that at the pearly gates.

© 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 BEND


THE BEND

By

Robert Robinson

word count: 1,386

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.

© 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.

IT’S GOOD TO BE THE GUIDE


IT’S GOOD TO BE THE GUIDE

BY

Robert Robinson

Word count: 1422

The economic collapse of ’08 forced people all across the country to launch cottage industries. My neighbors were no exception. They went from peddling eggs and honey to selling chickens and bees, giving riding lessons to selling horses, raising alpacas to selling real estate. My first entrepreneurial venture was in herbal medicine.

While walking in the back pasture one day, I noticed an abundance of rabbit pellets. I figured I could sell them to my aging friends as an herbal remedy for dementia, or as a dietary supplement for raising IQ. They looked nutritious; were definitely organic; and the rabbits were wild, so manufacturing costs would be zero. With the right marketing strategy, I’d be in the chips in no time. I test-marketed the “smart pills” on my ol’ buddy, Appleton.

I gave Appleton an ample supply of smart pills with instructions to take 12 pills three times a day, cautioning him not to exceed the recommended dosage: “You don’t want to get too smart too quick. Being a genius is a huge responsibility.”

When I called to see if he needed more smart pills, he said, “I don’t think these pills work. I’m not feeling any smarter. As a matter of fact—”

“Yours is a tough case. We may have to up the dosage.”

“They taste like crap.”

“I think they’re starting to work. Besides, you can’t come off them cold turkey. You have to reduce the dosage slowly over several years,” I explained.

My career as a river guide started about a month later, when the FDA took the short sighted position that rabbit pellets had no nutritional or medicinal value, abruptly ending my career as an herbalist.

I was casting about for my next entrepreneurial venture when I remembered the half-finished plywood johnboat in the barn. I figured with the judicial application of some caulk, nails, and duct-tape I could have the boat shipshape in no time and hire out as a river guide. It sounded easy enough; the river would do most of the heavy lifting, and I already had plenty of excuses as to why fish aren’t biting.

I talked it over with my friend Spider, of Spider John’s Bait Shop, who sells beer, bait, gas, bootleg Sunday-liquor, and uncertain hotdogs that fossilize shortly after purchase and double as crawdad bait. He said I could use the bait shop as a base of operations as long as I kept his name out of it.

We decided I should make a trial run to get a feel for the river and test the durability of the boat and equipment. “You’ll need ballast,” Spider told me.

“Ballast?”

“Yeah, something to represent the weight of the sports in the boat, so you can see how the boat handles the rap . . . uh . . . faster water.”

“Oh . . . ballast . . .  dead weight, I gotchya, I’ll use Appleton. But you know the river, Spider, maybe you should go with me,” I suggested.

“It’ll be better if you use Appleton. You have life vests right?”

“Life vests? Oh, I figured I could make some out of duct tape and old Styrofoam coolers.”

“Yeah, it’ll be better if you use Appleton. Put in at Big Hole and I’ll pick you boys up at Last Chance. If you make it that far, just look for my old red truck. Don’t go past Last Chance or you’ll wind up in Dead Man’s Canyon, and it can be a little rough. There’s no way out of Dead Man’s except through Red Canyon, and it’s even rougher.”

“De—De—Dead Man’s Canyon?”

“Yeah, it’s right after Dead Man’s Rock and Dead Man’s Chute. Don’t worry. Just look for my truck and pull in there.”

 

“It’ll be a breeze,” I told Appleton over the phone the next day. “All you gotta do is sit back, enjoy the scenery, and fish.”

“You’ve scouted it, right?” he asked.

I figured it would be a waste of time scouting the river, seeing as how we were going to go down it anyway, so I said, “You bet. We’re good to go. Spider told me where to put in.”

“Spider? What’s he got to do with this? That SOB still owes me five bucks for some flies I tied for him.”

“Well, there you go,” I said. “You can hit him up when he picks us up at the end of our run. You’ll get a nice, relaxing float trip and five bucks to boot. Come to think of it, that SOB owes me five bucks. I’ll tell him to bring our money when he comes to pick us up. I’ll pick you up in the morning.”

 

I got Appleton seated in the front of the boat and handed him one of the homemade life vests.

“What the hell is that?” he asked.

“Life vest.”

“That ain’t no life vest. I ain’t wearin’ that.”

“Suit yourself,” I said as we shoved off.

We drifted along lazy-like for the first couple of miles. Appleton fished, while I worked the boat. But watching somebody else fish is like going to a topless bar when you’re horny. I soon had a rod strung up and we were both catching some nice cutts. We were so busy catching fish that we never did see Last Chance, the red truck, or Spider come to think of it.

By the time I saw the water boiling around Dead Man’s Rock it was too late; the river had us in its clutches and we were headed straight for the rock at a pretty good clip.

Appleton turned, grinned, and said, “I told you them pills ain’t workin’! Gimme one of them vests!” It was a disturbing grin—his lips were peeled back from his clinched teeth like a mule eating thistles—a grin normally associated with psychotic monkeys. I handed him a vest and grinned back as we spun into the chute bisected by Dead Man’s Rock.

We kissed Dead Man’s Rock passionately as we went by, and I lost track of Appleton until he popped to the surface like a cork when we entered the flat water below the rapids. I was surprised at how well the life vest was holding up and made a mental note to check with Spider about selling them out of the bait shop. “Hang on, buddy! I’ll save you!” I shouted. To which he turned, grinned, and struck out for the bank. Appleton is a surprisingly strong swimmer when properly motivated—he almost made it.

He was obviously disorientated, swimming away from the boat like that. It took everything I had to grab him and haul him halfway back into the boat before we were sucked into lower Dead Man’s Chute. I chalked his cursing, scratching, and biting up to drowning-man’s panic and was finally able to pin him down against the gunwale with my knee just as we dropped into the plunge pool below Dead Man’s Fall.

By then we could hear the roar emanating from Red Canyon, and Appleton’s on-board antics had become an element for concern; his mental stability had begun to deteriorate—the monkey grin now seemed permanent—he became delusional, claiming that I was somehow responsible for our predicament, and his frantic attempts to exit the boat were causing us to take on water. While I’m widely known to be long suffering, caring, and compassionate, my patience had worn thin, so I beached the boat so he could regain his composure.

Appleton took off across the sandbar like a striped-ass ape. Realizing his escape was blocked by the sheer cliffs of Red Canyon he began hopping up and down in frustration. I’d had just about enough, so I informed him that if he didn’t calm down he would have to be restrained for the remainder of the trip. That’s when he—still grinning—picked up a piece of driftwood and advanced on me with what can best be described as a bughouse shuffle.

Now I enjoy hate-and-discontent as much as the next man—as long as it’s not focused on me. It was my success in channeling his anger by pointing out that it was Spider who’d failed to meet us at the takeout, Spider who’d endorsed using him as ballast, and Spider who’d suggested the trip in the first place that encouraged me to give up river guiding in favor of my latest venture—psychiatry.

 

© 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.

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.

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