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.

 

 

 

 

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.

THE IZZAK WALTON ANGLING SOCIETY


THE IZAAK WALTON ANGLING SOCIETY

for the ABOLITION of DOMESTIC CHORES

By

Robert Robinson

word count: 1,399

The domestic chore is a tool of enslavement—an ancient evil first used by Mesopotamian women to keep their men from going fly fishing—which is, sadly, still much in use today. Of the many nefarious forms domestic chores take—painting, cleaning gutters, and roof repairs, to name a few—the most egregious by far is yard work. With its gardening, weeding, trimming, raking, watering, and mowing, yard work alone can keep the unwary angler off the stream for years at a time.

I first became aware of the potential danger of domestic chores one morning as I was resting on the couch, sipping beer, listening to the comforting sounds of my wife getting ready for work. She came into the room and stood over me with fists on hips and the look of a hard drought on her face, telling me in no uncertain terms that there would be no more fishing until my chores were done. With that, she handed me an unreasonably long list of chores and stormed out. I checked the calendar to make sure it wasn’t April Fool’s Day, grabbed another beer, and began planning my day. While looking over the list, it occurred to me that there was a good chance for a caddis hatch on the river that day. I figured the best thing to do was go check on that hatch before getting sidetracked by chores.

After the divorce, I realized just how much fishing time had been wasted on domestic chores and threw that yoke off entirely. In no time at all I had healthy stands of sage, thistle, dandelion, morning glory, and tumbleweed—hardy perennials that require virtually no maintenance. The only problem I ran into was with the tumbleweeds. They tumbled . . . on to my neighbor’s well-manicured lawns . . . spreading seeds, hate, and discontent. But the benefit of having more time to devote to the life-enhancing pursuit of fly fishing far outweighed those concerns. My married neighbors, however, remained shackled to their garden tools and lawn mowers; it was heartbreaking to see their sad faces as they toiled away when I laughed and waved to them on my way to the river. I spent many a sleepless night contemplating their plight.

I had long been aware of the spiritual nature of fly fishing and how the rhythm of the rod put you in tune with the rhythms of God and nature. With my liberation from domestic chores and more time devoted to fly fishing, my spiritual growth had been remarkable. I felt divinely inspired to spread this “good news.”

I formed the Izaak Walton Angling Society for the Abolition of Domestic Chores (I.W.A.S.A.D.C.) and began holding meetings in my garage to plan my neighbor’s emancipation. My success in gathering converts to the cause was met with much wailing and gnashing of teeth from their wives—further proof that my message was divinely inspired. I took it as a sign.

Finding myself liberated from gardening duties but still in need of fresh produce, I began going to the farmers market. I found it much cheaper than gardening, and the time saved by not having to plant, weed, water, and harvest was much better spent working on my spiritual progress through fly fishing. I would go every Saturday morning, load up on a week’s worth of fruits and vegetables, and be on the river by noon. The only problem was the cost to my Saturday morning fishing time; however, once I began preaching my gospel of liberation, that problem quickly resolved itself. The neighbor’s wives began greeting me in their driveways by throwing tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, and summer squash. Thus making my trips to the farmers market unnecessary, freeing up my Saturday mornings for fly fishing. Which I took as a sign.

My relationships with my neighbor’s wives followed parallel downward trajectories, starting with the first time I took their husbands fly fishing. The wives noticed a correlation between their husband’s enthusiasm for fly fishing and their dwindling bank accounts, and although I had done my best to minimize the financial impact by selling some moderately used, outdated equipment to their husbands only slightly marked up from cost, I was blamed.

As fly fishing became more and more central to their spiritual growth, my neighbors began sneaking off with me at every opportunity to go fishing, missing at times what their wives termed “life events,” such as, anniversaries, graduations, birthdays, and on one occasion, a mother-in-law-funeral—though to be fair, we did swing by the cemetery that day to pay our respects and show off that 24” cutthroat to Castretti’s brother-in-law. Indeed, their dedication to their spiritual growth had been commendable. I was eventually banned from holiday dinners, barbecues, and all family functions when one of the wives overheard me giving some much needed marriage counseling.

When Liddelberry told me his wife had insisted they go vegan, I listened in horror to his tale of life without cheeseburgers, bacon sandwiches, and three-meat pizza. I could tell by his sunken eyes, hollow cheeks, and shallow complexion that he was already in a weakened state and in immediate need of my expert intervention.

I told him to get 6 cases of beer and four cartons of cigarettes and go home and put them by his favorite chair. Then I told him to strip down to his skivvies, sit in the chair, drink beer and smoke cigarettes, throw the empties on the floor, and crush the cigarette butts out on the carpet. “Don’t shave, bathe, or go to work,” I advised. “After about three days, she’ll leave. Then you can clean the place up, take a bath, and eat all the meat you want.”

So it came as no surprised when my message of liberation from domestic chores was met with robust, organized resistance.

One night at the garage, I was passing the collection plate when one of the congregation spoke up, “I thought this money was for beer and chips.” To which I replied, “Yea verily.”

“This ain’t beer, it’s Old Cincinnati,” said Wheedlemire. “How’s come we’re drinkin’ Old Cincinnati and you’re drinkin’ Guinness? . . . What’s that noise?”

“Sounds like somebody’s got a loose fan belt,” I said.

I looked out the window and reported, “It’s just a bunch of women carrying torches and garden tools.”

Peeking out the window, Henman shouted, “IT’S OUR OL’ LADIES!”

“Fear not, brethren,” I said. “We have nothing to fear from these women if we stand united in our convictions. Somebody hit the lights . . . brethren?” When I turned around, the brethren had vanished, having fled out the side door.

The women marched in single-file and informed me that their husbands would no longer be allowed to “come out and play,” as they put it; there would be no more garage meetings, no more consuming alcoholic beverages without adult supervision, and no more fly fishing when there was work to be done. Furthermore, I was to stop filling their husband’s heads with nonsense about freedom from domestic chores, which they called “duties.” In short, I was to cease and desist. I was horrified and filled with righteous indignation at such heresy. I pointed out that fishing, especially fly fishing, was a holy pursuit essential for spiritual growth, and that their husbands were following in the footsteps of the Apostils. I told them to “let my people go fishing.” . . . But I think it was when I said something about fly fishing for Jesus that things got ugly.

They threatened legal action, property damage, and bodily harm: they said they would report me to the authorities (apparently there was some outdated law still on the books concerning property upkeep and bringing down surrounding property values); burn down my garage (a particular focus of their anger for some reason); and stomp a mud hole in my butt. Their bulging eyes, rage-flared nostrils, and crazed grins danced hideously in the flickering torchlight, and I longed for the good old days—when heretics were burned at the stake.

All great spiritual leaders and thinkers have, at some point, been persecuted and had their movements driven underground. I was to be no exception. . . . I took it as a sign.

© 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.

NOWHERE IN PARTICULAR


Author’s note: I’d like to thank everybody for their support. Your likes and comments are a source of inspiration.

NOWHERE IN PARTICULAR

By

Robert Robinson

Word count: 1,383

I leaned against the tailgate, watching the Sun expose the flatlands below, wondering if I’d miss any of it. I’d breezed through Denver in the wee hours, instinctively not wanting to add to the feted and festering flotsam that collects along the Front Range. I was heading into the mountains; away from humidity and sweat; away from those who lean on the brass bull and are defined by profits and stuff; away from those who would happily sell their mother’s soul for a quart of beer and a twenty-rock—they are “the others,” and I wouldn’t miss them. I wouldn’t miss home either. I’d never had one.

I’d attended fifteen different schools in five states before quitting high school to go into the service, so when people asked me where I was from, I’d answer, “Nowhere in particular.” I’d owned property and lived out of my truck, been married and gotten divorced, played the game and dropped out. The only thing that had been a constant for me through it all had been fly fishing.

It was fly fishing for wild trout as much as a desire to put distance between me and the flatlands that drew me to the Inner Mountain West; the final destination of Hemmingway, and the refuge of Wallace Stegner, Edward Abbey, and Harry Middleton—interminable drifters and seekers who’d found something out here in this bigness that reminds you to be small.

Hemmingway found a shotgun—perhaps his ego wouldn’t compress. Middleton found people living on the fringe of society who cared for him, a beautiful woman, and a blind trout. Stegner and Abbey found purpose in a love of land that sucked them into causes and battles. Stegner fought the damn dam builders and retreated to Vermont to die; Abbey stayed and continued the fight until his death; and Middleton took his memories back to Alabama, county garbage truck no. 2, depression, and a brain hemorrhage. The common denominator then was death, and I wondered if that’s what I would find among these wind scoured peeks. I’d come to catch wild trout in stream gouged canyons and hold God in my hand. I found a land in trouble.

I met people able to strip mountains of their beauty for profit and leave with their hubris intact. I met people who’d lived here all their lives, looking up at the mountains every day, never bothering to go up there. Those that did go left a trail of beer cans, worm containers, and dirty diapers, striding through the land with a total disregard for anything but self. I couldn’t go deep enough into the high country to escape corporate America, illegal gillnet operations, and the glint of empty beer cans. The federal government claimed some of the high ground, creating national forests, parks, and monuments in an effort to preserve as much of the land as they could. But the flatland politicians don’t like that, and they’re making moves to declare that land state land; their corporate buddies will pay big money to develop, drill, dig, and cut their way to greater wealth. The scars of scraping, digging, and over-grazing mark their trails, and blue exhaust hangs in the high-country canyons like fat on a bishop. They are embryonic gods, put here to “prosper on the land,” destined to rule over their own planets and galaxies.

It took a while for my obsession with fly fishing to become more about the places it took me than about catching fish, and it wasn’t until frantic bumbling turned to quiet competence, until manic passion gave way to quiet reflection that I started looking around. The passage of time etched into the khaki sandstone cliffs highlighted my puny life span, leaving me with a profound sense of my nothingness. The power that formed these mountains was hard to comprehend. These sweeping valleys surrounded by snow covered peaks outlined against a hard-blue sky made it impossible for me to think that I mattered, and I doubted if any of society’s petty doings mattered.

I’d come west from the east, where impressive things are built, brick by brick, by people. But no earthmover, no economically enslaved civilization could build these mountains. The cliff faces told of their violent birth, the boulders in the valleys, of their constant change. No, people could not build mountains, but they could destroy them.

The mountains are under assault from corporations, environmentalists, outdoor enthusiasts, and ranchers—Corporations want to mine, log, and use the water for their cooling towers; environmentalists want to restrict access; outdoor enthusiasts want more access; and ranchers need to graze and water crops. And people need jobs.

All sides are convinced of the moral superiority of their respective positions, believing the other side to be either moon bats, incapable of reasonable discourse, or robber barons, bent on the destruction of nature in the name of godless capitalism. There’s some truth to both viewpoints, but neither side will own those inconvenient truths—half-truth is more easily embraced, as whole truth is always messy. There are no all-satisfying solutions to any of this. It’s a cluster.

The biggest fights in the West are over water. There’s a saying out here: “Whiskey’s for drinkin’, water’s for fightin’ over.” It’s possible to be beaten or even murdered over water—it is the Wild West, after all—and everybody has a dog in the fight; old recluse fly fishermen included. The steely-eyed, quietly-moral westerner is a myth; a man’s word means the same thing here as it does anywhere else—absolutely nothing. So instead of honorably tradin’ lead, these battles are mostly fought with money and lawyers; the lawyers being the big winners. The losers?—wildlife, forests, and people. I realized the hopelessness of it all when I attended a function put on by a local conservation group.

I looked around the room and it was obvious these well intentioned geriatric hippies didn’t have the money to fight protracted legal battles, and short of going to the state capitol and setting their ponytails and beards on fire, they were unlikely to garner much attention to their cause. The guy we’d come to hear speak wasn’t Edward Abbey, and as far as ground forces, well, there were no Haydukes in the crowd. The big money concerns are consolidated, the environmentalists divided, and ranchers in the West have never been able to agree on the color of scat. But they aren’t the mountain’s only enemies; natural enemies can be just as destructive, and the forest service’s trial-and-error methods of management—mostly errors—leave the mountains ripe for devastation that takes a generation to recover from.

There’s nothing sadder than hillsides covered in the dead brown and quiet gray of beetle-killed pines. Add drought and you have a forest of powdery tinder primed for storms that bring little rain but plenty of lightning. Fires rage for weeks, leaving burn-scared canyons, ash covered streams and bristling forests of blackened sticks. After a fire, the runoff sends walls of rocks, mud, and debris into the valleys, blowing out roads, choking off creeks, killing fish. They bring in heavy equipment to repair roads and open up streams, creating more problems. Seeing a D-9 Catt sitting in the middle of what was once a blue-ribbon trout fishery, leaking hydraulic fluid and oil is—well.

I’d come to the mountains to fish for wild trout and found refuge and a sense of purpose. I found quixotic battles, passed down by fallen legends, waiting to be fought. And I found indescribable beauty. For the first time in my life I noticed the wonderment around me. I caught myself looking up a lot, watching the wind whip ribbons of ice crystals from snow covered peaks, and when that arctic air washed into the high valleys, I felt a cleansing—down deep. I understood why ancient people held mountains sacred. I would never have figured that out on the hot, muggy flatlands, and I knew I’d done good by coming here. I also knew I could no longer stand on a mountain, looking down, feeling smug. I now had an answer for the question, “Where ya from?” I wasn’t from “nowhere in particular” anymore. And it no longer mattered why I’d come.

© 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.