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I had the trailhead to myself that morning as I strung my rod and prepared to head out. I stared at the poncho rolled up behind the seat of the truck—I have found those times when you stare at something and your mind goes blank to be harbingers of trouble; I once went blank staring at a miniskirt and wound up getting married—but the robin-egg blue sky was clear; besides, the trail down the creek was rough, more of a game-trail than a footpath, and anything I could do to lighten my load would be to my advantage.

The little tailwater creek left the small reservoir and meandered for a couple of hundred yards across a meadow before dropping into a narrow canyon. I had fished there a few times, but I had only made it down the creek about a mile and a half to where the footpath spiderwebs; sometimes wandering up the steep slope to disappear over the ridge; sometimes ending abruptly on the precipitous hillside, leaving you ledged-up with no option but to slide back down to the creek on your butt. The slopes are sparsely covered in sage-brush, Scotch thistle, and tufts of Johnson grass. Much of the creek is lined on both sides by shear outcrops that in several places stretch across the creek to form a series of small four- and five-foot waterfalls, each with plunge-pools that hold fifteen- to eighteen-inch cutthroats. I took the risky game-trail detours around the deep pools to keep from spooking the fish, crisscrossing the creek several times on the way in and not giving much thought to the return trip; I would be fishing and wading my way back, and the little waterfalls all looked climbable.

When I had made it in about twice as far as I had previously been, I sat down to rest for a few minutes before I started fishing. The several ninety-degree turns the creek took and the depth of the canyon limited my view of the horizon, so when I noticed a bank of brilliantly white, puffy clouds coming over the ridge they were already on top of me. Weather can change quickly in the mountains, sometimes so quickly that your ears pop. I knew all of that, but the fluffy clouds didn’t look threatening, and if it did rain the chances were that it wouldn’t last long and would blow on by.

I took off fishing and was having a good day, catching four and five nice cutts at each hole. I had been fishing for a couple of hours before I thought to check the sky again. I could still see the white clouds, but now there was a lower layer of cadet-gray clouds that looked wispy and disorganized. I knew I should pick up the pace and start thinking about getting out of there, but every pool I came to had trout rising all over the place and I couldn’t pass up casting to them.

I hadn’t made it far when a gust of cold wind caused me to look back at the rim of the canyon. The white clouds were gone and the wispy gray clouds were on top of me. A third layer of densely packed gunmetal-blue clouds were rolling in fast and low, with purpose. Deep, distant thunder grumbled, and puffs of dust sprang up on the hillsides where rain drops big as horse turds began to fall. I had a clear picture in my mind of the rolled poncho behind the seat of the truck.

I reeled in and started up the creek as fast as I could waddle in my waders. An ear splitting crack just above and behind me caused me to crouch down on the balls of my feet. I could smell ozone and feel electricity in the air. That’s when the bottom fell out and in an instant I was soaked through to the skin.

The felt soles on my waders filled up with mud, leaving me with not enough traction to stand upright on the muddy trail. I squatted on the bank for a few minutes hoping the storm would blow over, but it settled in right on top of me. Rivulets of water ran down the hillsides turning them to mud. The creek rose dramatically and turned the color of latte. I could no longer see to wade around the deep pools and my mud caked waders made scaling the rocky waterfalls impossible. The only place I could get a foothold was in the thick stands of willows. I took shelter under a rocky overhang until the streams of water rushing down either side of it made me realize that it could wash loose and come down on top of me. By now the wind had picked up and the temperature had dropped enough that I was shivering in my wet clothes. The wind blew up and down the canyon, changing directions instantly, and at one point the rain turned to sleet that blasted and stung my face and hands. I had to get back to the truck before the sun went down or dying of hypothermia was a possibility. I did have three ways to start a fire with me in my survival pack, but there was no way I would get a fire going in this downpour.

I tried moonwalking along the trail, but after taking a couple of hard falls I took to the thick willows. When I would come to the end of one stand of willows, I would crawl on my hands and knees to the next stand. My glasses fogged up and made the going even harder, as I couldn’t tell where I was in the canyon, or how far I had left to go.

I finally reached a spot in the canyon where I knew there was a four-wheeler trail about a hundred yards up the slope. I would have to crawl up the hill, but the trail would dump me out on a good gravel road about a mile from the truck. I tossed my rod ahead of me and then crawled up to it using sage and tufts of grass to pull my way up the hill.  When I topped the ridge on my hands and knees, I found that I was able to stand up and move along the trail as long as I stayed in the middle between the muddy ruts. I got to the truck just as the light was fading, covered in mud, soaked to the skin, and shivering from the cold.

I take a zip-lock bag full of dryer lint soaked in white gas with me now, and cleated waders are now next to the poncho, rolled up, behind the seat of the truck.

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