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.

PRIORITIZE


PRIORITIZE, PRIORITIZE, PRIORITIZE

BY

Robert Robinson

Word count: 1,243

Of the many skills that must be mastered in fly-fishing, the most important and useful is the skill of prioritization, an attribute that, once honed, can be used in every aspect of life to ensure proper balance when allocating time and finances to the pursuit of the sport.

Correct prioritization, achieved through the application of logic after a review of the facts, is quite useful in the acquisition of the best in sporting equipment, without which fly-fishing cannot properly be pursued.

Let’s say you find yourself in need of a new fly rod (cost: $1,500.00), but it has been brought to your attention that your house is in need of new shingles (cost: $1,500.00). Using the fundamentals of prioritization, the proper priority can quickly be determined. First, review the known facts surrounding the case in question: (a) The roof is not currently leaking, and rain is not forecasted for the immediate future. (b) You will need the new fly rod for fishing long before the roof actually starts to leak. (c) The new fly rod will greatly enhance your ability to catch fish, which can then be eaten, increasing your capacity to provide for your family (a circumstance that can be pointed out once the roof does start to leak). Logical, right-minded thinking should now justify the purchase of the fly rod and place it at the top of your list of priorities.

Similarly, let’s say your wife’s car is leaking oil, and the cost of the engine repair would impact your bank account in such a way as to make the purchase of a new fly-tying vise prohibitive. The application of logic after a quick review of the facts should put things in perspective: (a) The engine repair can be moved lower down your list of priorities by simply instructing her to add a quart of oil to the engine when the level gets low. (b) At some point, she will be adding oil frequently enough to make periodic oil changes unnecessary. (c) This cost savings can then be applied to a new tying desk, as well. This method of prioritization can be used in acquiring most all angling accoutrements. In fact, this method can be used to place just about anything into proper prospective.

Say you’ve been asked to pick up a gallon of milk on your way home from work, but when you get to the store you realize that you only have enough money for that six-pack you’ve been thinking about since noon. Again, review the facts: (a) You know you will need the beer long before you get hungry and need a bowl of cereal. (b) You know that you can go longer without food than you can water. (c) You know that beer is 90% water. The priority of your purchase should now be clear.

The other thing you need to pursue the sport of fly-fishing is time, and prioritization is even more useful in securing that valuable commodity.

Work is often the most formidable obstacle to having the proper amount of time available for fishing. Having no control over the perceived notions of importance others may have, you may find yourself working for a guy who expects you to cancel a fishing trip just because things get a little hectic at work, a guy who puts profits above the happiness of his employees, a guy who is—and not for lack of a better word—a jerk. Quickly review the facts: (a) You were looking for a job when you found that one, so nothing from nothing leaves nothing. (b) Nobody lies around on their deathbed wishing they could spend one more day at work. (c) The extra time you will have on your hands after you’re fired can be devoted to fishing. By applying this line of reasoning, the correct course of action can now be taken with a clear conscience.

Social gatherings are another big drain on fishing time. Many of these will be in-law events that are obviously low-priority in nature (such as reunions, anniversaries, birthdays, and holiday dinners). Quite often these events can be avoided by feigning illness or simply lying your way out, which can be justified by, again, a review of the facts. (a) They never liked you anyway. Remember how your mother-in-law shook when she kissed you at your wedding? And how it reminded you of the Corleone kiss of death? (b) People like that don’t die, so you’ll unfortunately have many more opportunities to attend in-law events in the future. (c) Your absence will be looked upon favorably by most everybody concerned; however, there may be those whose judgement will be clouded due to their close association with these people. Note: When prioritizing in-law events, positive outcomes have a much greater probability of success once all hope of domestic tranquility has been abandoned. Prioritizing social events involving your immediate family can be a bit trickier, requiring more in-depth analysis of the facts.

For example, your daughter is getting married and has unwisely chosen a date for the wedding that conflicts with opening day of trout season. A review of the facts will quickly put things into proper prospective: (a) You know the divorce rate is currently at 75% (give or take), and from personal observation, you suspect it’s likely to go higher. (b) This is probably just one of your daughter’s many weddings, so you can go ahead with your fishing plans with the understanding that you will attend one of her future weddings. (c) She never liked you anyway.

There’s a cosmic order, or balance if you will, to the life events that present themselves for our attention that can often be maintained by simply doing nothing. I call this self-prioritization, a process in which situations are simply ignored until the natural selection process allows one to rise to the top of the priority list before action is taken. This method works well with domestic situations, which, if ignored long enough, very often resolve themselves (a process called self-resolution). A case in point would be the time I was preparing for a three-day float-trip.

I was packing my gear when I detected an atmosphere of crop-failure permeating the room and turned to find my girlfriend standing there with her arms crossed tightly over her breasts and her foot tapping like a jackhammer. Note: This particular body language is indicative of a situation that cannot possibly get worse. Your best course of action at this time is to move forward with your plans in the hope that the situation will resolve itself during your absence.

I said, “I thought you were at work.”

“We need to talk,” she replied.

“What about?”

“US!” she said, thrusting her index finger in my direction.

“I’m good. . . . Hey, did you see what I did with that spare 4-weight line?”

Just before dropping into the canyon and losing cell-service, I texted her, telling her I was looking forward to having our talk when I got back and reminding her the next day was garbage day and she needed to haul the can down to the road. I returned home three days later to find she had moved out and the situation (whatever it was) had resolved itself.

Warning: While the methods of prioritization discussed here are indeed useful, they should not be employed by anglers with moderate- to low-levels of testosterone.

© 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.

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.

ANGER MANAGEMENT


AUTHORS NOTE: I had an editor tell me that I was getting too depressing, so I thought I’d lighten up a bit.

ANGER MANAGEMENT

By

Robert Robinson

Word count: 1616

Appleton has issues. I’m not talking about his cursing and fist shaking when I jump ahead of him to get to the good bend pools, or conveniently leave my wallet at home when it’s my turn to buy breakfast or gas. At those times, I patiently point out that these are behaviors all seasoned anglers engage in, which in the name of friendship must be overlooked. I’m talking about tin-foil-hat conspiracy theories and repeated attempts on my life.

When his fly got hung in the top of a pine tree, I watched with concern as he climbed to the top of a boulder, balanced himself on one knee, used his other leg as a counter weight, and stretched out to make several grabs for the fly. If he slipped, he was looking at a twelve-foot drop into the crick.

“Big fish—behind rock—jerked it—out of—his mouth,” he explained between lunges for the fly.

“Big fish? Where? What rock?”

“Rock—at—head—of pool,” he grunted between grabs.

My immediate concern was for his safety, and as my fly settled gently behind the rock I called out, “You almost had it that time. You just need a little more stretch. . . . Just . . . a little more . . . stretch,” I said between casts.

I’d like to take a moment to clear something up. I deny Appleton’s accusation that I was responsible for his fall. He slipped off of that rock when he lunged for my throat as I was showing him the big fish I had just landed.

Lately he’s been concentrating on conserving tippet material by tying knots with ridiculously short tag ends that take twice as long to tie and require magnifying glasses and tweezers. The other day as we were stringing up our rods I found a long forgotten roll of tippet in the recesses of my vest. That fat-happy glow of the well-stocked angler washed over me.

“Hey, check it out,” I said. “You’re in luck. I just found a whole roll of 6x.”

“It looks old,” said Appleton, looking at it over his magnifying glasses. “I don’t think they even make that brand anymore.”

“Couldn’t be more than ten years old,” I said, blowing the lint off of it.

“I think that stuff has a shelf life.”

“Huh? Naw, that’s just if it’s been in the sunlight. This has been in my vest,” I explained as I unselfishly handed him the spool.

Appleton’s allegation that it was old, brittle tippet material that caused him to lose those three twenty-inch cutthroats is false. He was setting the hook too hard. I tried pointing this out to him at the time, but he refused to listen and kept lunging for my throat.

Another sign of his descent into madness is the reesty, scruffy, Duck Dynasty look that he thinks is so cool. Unlike Appleton, I like the people I kiss. His wife was unaware of what was causing the whisker burn until I pointed it out to her. She then initiated a dry spell that lasted until Appleton resumed daily shaving. I’d just like to say that when my fly got tangled in Appleton’s chin whiskers on a back cast, it was an accident. His shouts alerted me to the situation, and by leaning back, raising my rod tip, and ripping the fly from his beard I was able to quickly free him up so he could resume fishing. When I kindly thanked him for the whiskers that made my Adams ride nice and high in the water, froth dribbled onto the bare spot on his chin as he lunged for my throat.

At times Appleton’s tantrums seem to be tied to his loss of memory. When he thought he’d left his wading shoes at home, I watched him search in vain through his bag of gear and the back of his truck. I tried to help by asking, “You’re sure they’re not in your bag?” and, “Did you look under the seat?” This caused him to retrace his steps the first few times, but my well intentioned efforts to help eventually seemed only to irritate. “They say the memory is the first thing to go,” I good-naturedly pointed out. “They’re wrong,” he whispered through clinched teeth as the muscles in his neck began to twitch. “The first thing to go is the smartass.”

With Appleton relegated to fishing from the bank, I was able to outdistance him for the first time since we had been fishing together. It was heartbreaking to look back and see him   standing there looking dejected and abandoned. My eyes welled with tears as I waved and disappeared around a bend in the river.

Appleton’s reaction to finding his wading shoes under my duffle bag was, in my opinion, over the top, and his charge that I hid them in order to gain some advantage is totally unfounded.

One of the things that got left behind recently was a water bottle. Well, to be more specific, Appleton’s water bottle. I saw him set his bottle on the cab of the truck just before we set out, but I didn’t think it worth mentioning at the time. He didn’t notice it missing until he saw me take a cool, refreshing drink from my canteen after our hot three mile hike. I coughed and charitably told him that I would be glad to share my water with him, but I thought that I was coming down with something. Luckily, Appleton relies heavily on my considerable knowledge of outdoor survival techniques and I was able to advise him that he could safely drink from the crick by straining the water through his teeth.

Thirty minutes later he expressed some regret at neglecting to bring along emergency toilet paper. Fortunately, I had some and told him I would be happy to share with him. I tore off one square of the paper and was handing it to him when he did this rapid movement thing with his eyes and lunged for my throat. It was when he broke concentration to make the attempt on my life that he had what we now refer to as “the accident.”

In the interest of being fair, I should tell what happened to me last week. While in the middle of the winter doldrums, I decided that ordering a new fly rod would be just the thing to lift my spirits, but after the initial excitement upon its arrival, I found my boredom replaced by an overwhelming itch to take it fishing. It would be another month before winter released its hold on the high country, but I figured that I could make a quick run up the canyon during a break in the weather and put the new rod through the paces.

It took five phone calls, a promise that it would be a quick trip, and assurances that we wouldn’t go in uncertain weather before Appleton agreed to go with me. I picked up Appleton that morning and he immediately started whining about how cloudy it was and how he wished he’d worn another layer of clothes. “You checked the weather reports right?” he whined.

“Huh? Oh yeah, we’re good to go.”

“It looks socked in up top,” he sniveled.

“We won’t stay long. If it turns cold, I’ve got an extra coat behind the seat you can use,” I reassured him.

It was an hour and a half drive up to this section of crick that I thought would be the perfect spot to put the new rod to the test. I parked the truck into the wind, jumped out, and began rigging up. I pulled the rod from its tube and removed it from the rod sack. I slipped the tip section onto the butt section and checked that the guides were lined up. I seated the ferrules and turned to get the reel—I couldn’t find my reel bag. I went back to the cab of the truck and looked on the seat, behind the seat, and under the seat . . . nothing. I went back to the tailgate and stared at the pile of gear. I had a clear mental picture of the reel bag sitting by my tying desk where I had put it months ago after cleaning fly lines.

By that time, Appleton had rigged up and was a hundred-yards down the crick and it was starting to snow. The wind was picking up so I had to shout, “I’M GOING HOME TO GET MY REEL!”

“What the . . . COAT!” he shouted back.

I cupped my hands and shouted into the wind, “OK THEN. I’LL BE RIGHT BACK.” And if I hadn’t gotten stuck behind that snowplow on the way back I would have made good time.

Luckily, I spotted Appleton on the side of the road in my headlights. I noticed with interest that he’d developed a twitch in his left eye that caused ice crystals to pop off his eyebrow and float down to rest on, and no doubt give some relief to, his cracked and bleeding lips. He was strangely silent on the way home, and it wasn’t until I told him that I thought the snow that had drifted onto his shoulders made him look Christmassy that he became agitated and lunged for my throat.

Appleton rests quietly on most days now, but remains delusional and continues to blame me for his lack of angling skills and questionable woodcraft; however, I will not abandon him in his hour of need—as soon as he’s released, I’m takin’ him fishing.

© 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.

DARK CURRENTS


DARK CURRENTS

By

Robert Robinson

Word count: 985

I stare at the painting—a mountain stream dressed in autumn colors— reading the water and planning a cast. My dog presses against my leg and I whisper to her of summer’s promise. The mountains have been silently filling up with snow for months, and the backcountry canyons that I love lie hush and dormant. The headwaters are frozen, in some places all the way across, and the trout are hugging the bottoms of the deep pools in a state of near suspended animation. My neighbors have taken down their Christmas lights, and the dumpsters overflowing with cardboard and colored paper have been dumped. The prospect of getting invited to a holiday meal is gone. Fly-lines have been cleaned, rods wiped down, leaders built, and flies tied. But the trailheads won’t open for another month.

On clear days, cottony clouds hang close on the mountain tops, and I can’t tell where cloud stops and snow begins. The khaki cliffs have reddish brown streaks, but I’m not sure if I see them or just remember them. On the benches, snow and cedar create a black and white landscape. The closer ridges are aviation green, the fields by the house, subzero brown. But snow storms can hide the mountains from view for days on end.

During the perpetual twilight of winter, I look each morning to the mountain’s slopes to gage the depth of snow, and in the mirror to gage the depth of sanity. Come Spring the snows will recede and sunny days will return, but the return of sanity is always a crapshoot.

The wind moans, blasting snow against the window above my desk, rattling loose panes, muffling the ringing in my ears. I can’t sleep and have a four pill headache. The distance between the clock’s chimes seems endless, and the short, dark days go on forever. Afternoon shadows creep toward me from the corners of the room, whispering black laced memories that threaten my mind. The chemicals that balance are thin.

When the days are dreary and short, the dark thoughts come, floating just under the surface. Life’s digestive juices tug at my thighs as I cast waterlogged flies that sink into their murky depths. Out of season anglers who fish the dun waters of the mind must avoid creeling what they catch there and hold the digested fragments of their minds at arm’s length before tossing them, like worn out flies, back into the dark currents to be swept away. Maybe that’s why I’m a dry-fly fisherman: the dry-fly holds my attention on the surface and keeps me from looking too deep and getting pulled under.

Some would say that my obsession with fly-fishing is at the root of this state of mind (clinically known as seasonal affective disorder) that I call the shithouse blues, but fly-fishing actually healed my broken mind and saved my life.

When I told my ex that I wanted to move west to good fly-fishing country, she told me that she didn’t want to leave her friends. It turned out that it was just this one friend that she didn’t want to leave.

One night I was sitting on the edge of my bed staring at the forty-five that was lying on the nightstand. Beside the pistol was a book about a life devoted to fly-fishing, bright mountains, and clear waters. I was only half way through it and decided to finish reading the book. By the time I finished reading, I determined that my soul needed an enema, and that a life dedicated to fly-fishing was preferable to an eternity of cosmic dust. I hand carried the paperwork through the court system, turned everything that wouldn’t fit into the back of my eighteen-year-old pickup into cash, loaded up, and headed west.

I drove straight through, stopping only to gas up and grab cups of coffee. My ex said that I ran away from our troubles, but she wasn’t there that morning the snow covered peaks of the Front Range rose from the prairie floor and I first locked eyes on them, when I leaned forward and gripped the steering wheel with both hands and had to remember to blink and breathe, when I was afraid it was all a dream and the mountains would vanish and I’d wake up back in that urban hell next to her. I wasn’t running from anything, I was running to something—life.

The closer the mountains got the faster I drove. I couldn’t wait to start living that life I had read about. By noon of the second day, I was camped on a creek in Utah, a hundred miles from nowhere, a thousand miles from trouble. Deep in that Rocky Mountain backcountry my flatlander problems vanished. I could breathe again. It felt like home.

Some look on fly-fishing as a metaphysical exercise, as if salvation may be found in its rhythms. I do hope that is true. But I suspect that the sport’s redemptive powers lie in the places it takes you and how they are received and remembered. So, I tuck those colors, scents, and sounds into the pink undigested folds of my brain. They are the floatant that keep my phantom flies of winter dancing on the surface.

When the days are short and dark, and mood is indistinguishable from sky, the puddle of light from my desk-lamp and my memories of shining mountains, sparkling water, and glistening trout hold back the shadows and keep the demons banished to the corners of the room. I stare at the painting on the wall, and Phantom flies tightly wound with hackles of hope dance on sunny streams of memory. I catch and hold shocking colors, feel the sun on aching shoulders, hear living water, and smell mountain air. The gloomy days melt away with the high country snow, and the season cycles.

© 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.