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.

ROUGH CANYON


Rough Canyon

By

Robert Robinson

Word count: 1,568

Long before reaching the mouth of the canyon, I begin catching glimpses of the river. I strain to see past Farmhouses, through cotton woods, and over willows, trying to judge its color, level, and promise. Once in the canyon, I snatch glances while negotiating the twists and turns of the canyon road, a road designated on the map as a two lane, but that’s either an outright lie or somebody’s idea of a joke. It’s open range, so I keep my eyes peeled for cattle, trucks pulling horse trailers, and mounted cowboys who greet me with level, no-bullshit gazes and a nod.

The turnouts are big enough to park a truck, but give you the feeling that the whole cha-cha could slid off into the river—a 30- to 100-foot drop depending on where you park. As far as angler’s access, I just walk back and forth along the road looking for a way down till I finally take the plunge at a spot I’ve rejected at least once as too risky.

I first fished here thirty years ago. A river guide told me about the place, and I drove half the night in a driving rain to get here. Arriving in the wee hours, I found a turnout, laid down on the seat, and went to sleep. I woke to find I was parked in a slide area. I saw it right off, because of the big yellow sign I was parked next to that read “SLIDE AREA.” I stood in the rain, looking down at the river, wondering what I’d done to piss that guide off.

I seldom see other anglers here. If I see anybody it’s usually climbers. They call it bouldering and come from all over the world to climb here. Even if you don’t come here to climb, if you fish here, you end up climbing boulders. The climbers come equipped for climbing, with climbing shoes, rosin bags, and even a pad they lay down under their climb to break their falls. The angler does his climbing in waders and fishing vest, juggling his rod from one hand to the other as the situation dictates.

The boulders often have well-placed hand and foot holds that look easy enough to scale, but you usually find a sheer drop-off on the other side with no way to go but back the way you came. Going down is harder than going up, and I’ve had to toss my rod down into the willows in order to free up my hands.

Some of the boulders are in loose piles that shift under your weight, presenting the potential nightmare of getting trapped between shifting rocks. There are pitfalls—places where deadfall collects that look solid, but aren’t—that hide holes six- to eight-foot deep.

The color of the water is a striking aquamarine, and I’ve been told the color comes from the heavy limestone content. Deep bend-pools are separated by stretches of fast water that are deceptive as to depth and power. But the river’s cobblestoned bottom offers good footing, except next to the bank where a thin layer of silt collects during runoff, making the rounded stones slick as a gut.

The volume of water depends on the needs of local farmers and changes from day to day—where you crossed yesterday may not be where you cross today or even later the same day. The DNR web-site has a disclaimer: “Fishing can be hazardous in the spring when large volumes of water are released from the reservoir—anglers should exercise caution.”

A friend of mine was sitting on a rock, casting to risers, when his foot slipped off and he was dragged into the water. His waders filled and he was pulled under and swept downstream. He managed to grab a rock and crawl out, ripping his waders to shreds in the process. I could see the fear in his eyes and hear it in his voice as he told the story a few days later—he refuses to fish here alone now.

Choosing which rod to string up is based on wind. Unlike back east, the wind is always a factor when fishing in the west. I’ve found rods made with a Phillipson taper work best in windy conditions. I also favor a rod that is long enough to keep my fly above the willows. A nine-foot six-weight with a Phillipson taper has the length to keep me out of the willows and the stones to buck a stiff head wind and land the occasional hog that you run into here.

Today the willows are swaying to a light breeze, but there are no guarantees it will stay like that. The wind here changes, going from a whisper to a 20-knot gale, from gusting up the canyon to down the canyon, in a heartbeat.

Pulling on my hip waders, I’m struck by the raggedy-ass vision I must present to the young climbers. They’re more like memories of waders, providing none of the functions normally associated with the item, being worn merely for the footing gained by their felt bottom soles. They’re the old canvass waders, made when men were men and preferred waders made in the USA. They started out chest waders, but ended up hip waders after I cut them down one night in a fit of genius that seemed like a good idea at the time. In spite of my almost daily efforts to repair them, they leak profusely. But they are noble waders—each hole, splotch of sealant, and blood stain obtained honestly by crawling into casting position, climbing over rocks, and busting brush in pursuit of trout.

The descent to the river is normal—I bust my ass once—and I head for the tail of a particularly productive pool. I move into position, false-casting and feeding line until I think I’ve got the distance and promptly dump a tangled mess into the middle of the pool, putting down all the fish in the lower half. I pick out the wind knots, take a deep breath, and angle forward until I’m in-line with the face of a giant boulder that makes up the whole left side of the pool, finding the rhythm of the rod as I move. This time I manage a respectable presentation.

My Adams lands gently at the head of the pool, riding high on sparkling grizzly and brown hackles. The current carries the fly into the slower water and spins it into a back-eddy. I make an upstream mend at the same time the fly disappears with an audible gulp. Raising the rod tip to set the hook, I get that ol’ familiar feeling that I’m either too fast or too slow—until I feel the weight. I take a moment to watch the rod work, its ripened wheat color throbbing against the dark green of a Ponderosa Pine—sweet.

The fish makes a run upstream, turns back at a rocky fall, runs past me into the fast water at the tail of the pool, and dives for a sunken snag by the right bank. I turn my rod reel-up and manage to turn the fish back into the fast water midstream. The trout, tired now, lets me guide it onto a rocky point below. It’s a beautiful 13-inch cutt, and I take a moment to admire its colors before releasing it, telling it how wonderful it is and how glad I am to see it. Watching it disappear into the depths of the pool, I feel a sense of loss.

I find a spot where I can eat lunch, scan the river for rising trout, and watch for thunderheads moving in over the canyon’s lichen stained rim. The weather turns fast here and can go from a sunny 50 to a snowy 30 degrees in a matter of minutes. The weather changed so fast on me once that my ears popped. It started with a light drizzle, turned to pounding sleet, then driving snow in the time it took me to walk 500-yards. By the time I had my rod down, the snow was 4-inches deep. The slopes are covered with house size boulders; scattered stands of willow; tufts of grass; a mix of ponderosa pine and cedar; and loose clay that becomes slick when wet, making felt bottom waders worse than useless. It’s a narrow canyon, so when you see a storm peeking over the rim, you need to un-ass the area and start climbing out.

After lunch, I move along casting to risers until I see a place to make my climb out. I zigzag up the slope, finishing the climb on hands and knees by tossing my rod above me, crawling past it, and reaching back to pull it forward. I reach the road exhausted. The truck is a white speck in the distance, and I know if I focus on it, it will seem like I’ll never get there, so I look down at the river.

I see fish lying in pools overlooked, reasons to come back. And I will come back to this rough canyon. I’ll come back because it’s hard, and it’s only in the hard places that I find the wild. I’ll come back to convince myself that I still can, because each time I come away just a little unconvinced.

© 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.

Provo Girl


PROVO GIRL

By

Robert Robinson

Word count: 1,392

Most mornings on the Provo are foggy—at least that’s how I remember them. It was the kind of fog that feels wet and cold on your cheeks, a dense, snug fog. I fished the river many times when fly fishing was new to me, but there are ghosts in the fog now, at the edge of sight.

I was in the middle of a ninety-nine day fishing trip—I don’t remember now why I didn’t make it an even hundred—fishing eight- to twelve-hours a day, staying in the river until it seemed like the banks were moving instead of the water. Thirty-years ago, I fished with more urgency than I do now that I live in the Intermountain West and good trout water is only a thirty-minute drive in any direction. I fished hard, couldn’t get enough of it. I was so focused on trying new techniques and catching fish that I sometimes failed to see the beauty around me.

It was a Spartan expedition. I slept on a small mattress in the bed of my truck under a camper-shell. I had a propane heater, camp-stove, and lantern; a cooler that I restocked once a week with black bread, black forest ham, and black Irish beer; my books, journals, fly-tying kit, and fishing gear; and a couple of changes of clothes.

I made friends with Mike, the owner of a convenience store in the canyon where, when I got reesty, he let me use the shower and bathroom in the back of the store. As a way of thanking him I took his twelve-year-old son fishing every Saturday.

The road through the canyon was a tortuous two-lane then. One of the businesses that thrived in the canyon was a quaint restaurant called The Chateau. I would have breakfast there a couple of times a week, and when the cold and sleet drove me from the river, I’d retreat there and sit at the counter shivering until the hot coffee and clam chowder warmed me back from the edge of hypothermia. The waitress was from back East. She had bounded around the country until finally landing there. When I asked her why she ended up on that river, in that canyon, she said that God had told her to come there. And I believed her.

Each morning I drove to a vantage point above the river where I would build a pot of coffee and watch the Sun slowly reveal the river below. Sometimes the river would be hidden, and I couldn’t tell if I was seeing fog or looking down on clouds. I felt suspended, reluctant to move and break that spell. On those days, I would sit silently sipping coffee until the Sun burned off the mist before I strung up my rod and headed down the slope. Yes, God would tell people to come there, to that place. It was a place that people would need, a place that could heal.

One cold, wet afternoon, I stood in stinging sleet marveling at the way the banks seemed to flow by as the current tugged at my thighs and washed gravel from under my boots. I was contemplating the delicate balance of chemicals that separate the sane from the rest of us as I took a pull from my, then, ever-present flask. (This was before the pain in my side forced me to rethink the hard-drinking lifestyle of my outdoor heroes, before I concluded that the outcome could well be shoving a shotgun in my mouth and going atomic, a la Hemingway.) I was beginning to get the shivers, so I started busting through the willows, headed for my truck and some of the Chateau’s hot chowder and coffee.

When I popped out onto the trail, I was surprised to see a small car parked there. The windows were fogged up and I figured it was a couple looking for privacy, but as I got closer I could hear sobbing coming from inside.

It was sobbing that, whether you’re the one doing the sobbing or the one hearing the sobbing, shakes your soul. The sobs were punctuated by exclamations of “Oh God!” and “Please!” They were the sobs of a young woman and they had their usual effect on me—I stood frozen to the ground, helpless and confused, wanting it to stop.

I was a young man then, still operating on the grammar-school rhetoric that little girls were made of sugar and spice and everything nice. I still thought it my duty to rescue damsels in distress. This was before that kind of thinking had me leaning into a few left hooks, before holding a door open or calling a woman a lady would get you branded a chauvinist, before I embraced the loss of feminine mystique and began preferring the company of a good Retriever.

I noticed a pile of cigarette butts under the driver’s side window as I approached. I knocked on the window and asked if everything was ok and if she needed help. The window rolled down to reveal a pretty young lady. Her short black hair—not today’s short, where gender is called into question, but more of a 1920’s bob—was pasted to her lightly freckled cheeks and forehead. Bitter tears rinsed mascara from her hard blue eyes.

“Are you ok? Do you need help?” I repeated.

She asked me if I had a cigarette, so I dug a fresh pack from my coat pocket and handed it to her, telling her to keep it.

Her backseat was stacked with clothes and household items and it was obvious that she was living out of her car. “This isn’t a good place for you. It gets cold up here at night,” I told her.

“I have blankets. I’ll be fine,” she replied.

“No, I’m talkin’ blue-ass cold,” I said. She smiled at that, and I would have done anything to keep that smile on her face.

An empty potato-chip bag and Coke bottle lay on the seat next to her, so I asked if I could get her anything from the store. She thanked me but said she would be ok. “Look,” I said, “I know the people who run the store up the road. If you need anything, go there and get it and I’ll take care of it.” I pulled a twenty from my pocket, handed it to her, told her to get something to eat, and headed for my truck.

I stopped at the store and told Mike about the girl and asked him to run a tab for her in my name.

I checked on her the next day and saw that she had organized her things and her clothes were now neatly folded in the backseat. Every time I checked on her, I could see her making progress. Later that month, I noticed a newspaper on her dash and could see she had circled places for rent, too, I noticed some brochures from the local college. She had a plan.

She often joined me for morning coffee and we’d sit on the tailgate of my truck, smoke cigarettes, and watch the valley unveil from the fog’s blank canvas.

The last time I seen her, the car was empty and she was taking care of herself, fixing her hair, wearing makeup. We talked for a long time that day. She told me she had found a job at a high-dollar restaurant and was going back to school and that she had rented an apartment. When I went by the store that night, Mike handed me a twenty that the girl had left for me, and I knew then she’d come that day to say goodbye.

They widened the road into a four-lane a few years later; the Chateau, the little store, and the place where we talked and laughed went away. A sadness comes over me when I pass through there now and think of that dusky-haired, blue-eyed girl.

Our last conversation was one that I look back on with regret, punctuated by long pauses that left me feeling like something more needed to be said, a conversation that stays on replay when I sit alone on the banks of a high country river, wrapped in a cold, cozy fog.

© 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.