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.

IT’S GOOD TO BE THE GUIDE


IT’S GOOD TO BE THE GUIDE

BY

Robert Robinson

Word count: 1422

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

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

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

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

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

“They taste like crap.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Ballast?”

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

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

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

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

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

“De—De—Dead Man’s Canyon?”

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

 

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

“You’ve scouted it, right?” he asked.

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

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

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

 

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

“What the hell is that?” he asked.

“Life vest.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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.