Thursday, June 16, 2011

Fantasia in Minor Pain

I'm laying face down in the mud, my body wracked with pain, the weight of my pack seeming to push me further in.

I should have told them."\

I'm nearly blacking out from the pain.  I hear footsteps, and shouting.  My friends heard me fall.  Help is on the way.  They pull my pack off and roll me over.  I can remember questions, just not what they were.  I'm on the verge of passing out.

I really should have told them.

What I had neglected to tell my friends, was that this morning I had fallen outside of our base camp and pulled a quad.  The pain at the time was excruciating, but what could I do? We had driven 1500 miles, planned for how long, fretted and packed, wheedled our spouses and kids and girlfriends, finagled our jobs and bosses, for this trip.  And now I was lying in a muddy drainage, at 10,000 plus feet with an injured leg?  I've always been able to walk it off, push through, drop a shoulder and make an opening.  This had NEVER happened to me.
Sawyer (left) and Braxton, my saviors this trip

Now, seated in the grass, grimacing in pain, there was no hiding it.  I fully expected the trip to be off, for us to camp there and hike back out in the morning.  I was wrong.  What we did, foolishly, was soldier on.  My right leg was useless.  I could walk after half an hour, barely, with the aid of my trekking pole.  So Braxton and Sawyer were assigned to ferry my pack. 

Fast forward.  I'm high on a scree slope.  Really it's an avalanche chute.  Why is it so much easier to quarter uphill on mountains?  I'm high above the valley floor, and the altimeter on my GPS says 10,800 feet.  Down below me I can hear Keith.  After working his way up toward me, and me angling down to him, we meet.  Keith is gassed.  " I can't ever do this again" he says.  " I don't understand it".  I do. We're in our late thirties, we've hiked 2,000 vertical feet wearing 60 pound packs for the last ten hours, and the paucity of oxygen is kicking our cans.

We push on.  The Walsh brothers have already made one lap.  Keith and I have seen no sign of them.  We finally top out on a house-sized granite escarpment, and then... the pain is gone.  There is a beautiful lake, calm, surrounded by peaks.  We've made it.  That reverie didn't last long.  The light was dropping fast.  Keith and I set up camp, silently, ears straining for any sound of our friends.  The last 500 vertical feet of the canyon we've come up are the crux of this hike, steep, filled with avalanche chutes and choked with boulders.  After my experience coming up, my fear is that darkness will catch them on one of those avalanche chutes.  I can't imagine the terror and discomfort of a night spent on those rocks.  Just when the light is failing, we hear footsteps.  They're back, safe.  That's all that matters.
Keith with a dinner fish

We ate a quiet and hurried dinner- we were all exhausted, and turned in for the evening.  Our sleep was punctuated by something going bump in the night- it turned out to be the largest porcupine I had ever seen, chewing on Keiths pack.  Other than that I slept well, and as usual awoke before everyone the following morning.

I rolled out that morning, grimacing in pain.  I made my coffee and popped some ibuprofen.  My first aid kit consists of hockey tape and ibuprofen.  Whatever happens to you in the outdoors can either be treated by those two items, or you need to be airlifted.

I wandered down to the edge of this beautiful lake we were camped on.  It was late August, but dirty snowfields wrapped one side, the rest ringed by darkly green spruce and lodgepole forest, the lake itself a shimmering blue green, surrounded by an amphitheater of Rocky Mountain peaks, and there, right in front of me, cruising slowly, are two cutthroat trout, one green, the other a garish red, both highly speckled.

I hurried back to camp as much as one can with a bum leg.  I set up my new 5 weight travel rod, tied on some sort of wet fly- was it a Mickey Finn? and went back.  Two trout, about 15 inches long are cruising toward me.  I cast about 5 feet in front of them, and the race is on.  In another moment I'm holding my first ever cutthroat trout- green back, red sides, heavily peppered, fat- one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.  I quickly released it and moved on.

I caught a couple of more fish before breakfast, but hurried back to camp when I heard movement.  After breakfast I crossed the creek to the adjacent beach.  The lake was dead calm, the water very clear, and everywhere I looked cutthroat were cruising, singly or in pairs.  I caught a couple more fish, but most swam past my fly without looking, or rushed towards it and then veered off at the last moment.  After a few fly changes I tied on a small white gnat of some sort and got consistent success.

This day was one of the most magical I've ever experienced.  I'm gasping for oxygen at this altitude- 11,300 feet, surrounded by gorgeous vertical peaks.  Everything smells of water, spruce and moss.  The sun is shining, I'm catching dozens of fish of a new species.  What do you do in a situation like this- stare at the peaks, stare at the beautiful lake, or go hog wild on the fish?  I slowly made my way around the lake that day, my progress made slower by my painful leg.  About halfway around I switched to a black gnat, and this was what they were looking for.  I went from hooking up on every tenth cast, to hooking up on every cast.  It was right after this that puffy, innocent looking clouds drifted in and lightning rocked, the thunder rolled, the rain poured, and I was trapped under a particularly dense spruce, awaiting the storms passage. When it subsided I made my way back to camp.

We ate dinner together- trout was on the menu.  Keith had caught some just for the occasion. It was- delicious. We had waited an extra hour for dinner, as the passing storms had created a downdraft, the lake we were camped on was situated at the neck of a vast funnel of peaks.  After the rain abated, the wind blew 60 miles per hour, for about half an hour.  I live on the Great Lakes, I know my wind speed.  It was fierce.

The Walsh brothers- Braxton and Sawyer, had hiked 1000 feet up to another, smaller lake, and over dinner they decided to share a revelation.  "We found some kind of den, with piles of poop, and all kinds of bones, and half eaten deer and elk".  This kind of announcement at dinner tends to end other conversation.
"Where was it?" I asked.
"Right there, under those rocks", said Sawyer.
"Right there? Or up there by the lake?"
"No, there" he said.

The rocks in question were three hundred yards away.  There was a lion in camp.  It changed the dynamic of the trip.  For instance, that night when I felt certain urges, I fought them as long as possible, lost some sleep over it, and only ventured out when I could take it no longer.  The next morning when I crossed the creek to fish at the wide beach I no longer felt comfortable- I was now only 225 yards from the den.  Was this thing watching us?  Would a mountain lion recognize that I was limping?  I was after all the weak one in camp, the straggler.  They pick off the weak and injured, right?

Braxton had been distinctly unwell- mild nausea and headache- classic altitude sickness (again, my fault, as it was likely brought on by the extra exertion from ferrying my pack).  But my leg was feeling better, and part of the plan had been to cross over the top of this drainage, at 13,800 feet, and into the next one and back down to where we had started.  So this day we decided to hike up the creek feeding the lake and and see if we could top out on the ridge.  It was an incredible hike, with fantastic views, another gorgeous lake, and cutthroat in the creek, but in the end none of us made it to the top.  Braxton was too sick, my leg was too sore, and the altitude, the verticality of it all, and sheer fatigue got me.  Keith and Sawyer made it a little further up, but when puffy clouds again drifted in we made our way back down, through these amazing green chutes, across awesome rocky abutments, descending 2,000 feet back to camp, just as the next storm struck.  That evening the wind blew 70 miles per hour, and it did not let up for 2 hours.  We finally huddled behind a large boulder and made our dinners, but the conversation was muted- we couldn't hear each other.  A tree actually blew over in camp while we ate dinner.
the upper lake

It all came to a head then- my leg, Braxton's altitude sickness, the wind, and the unspoken fear of that creepy den just up the hill.  When I had fished that morning, I continually looked over my shoulder.  We all felt it, as if the mountain itself didn't want us there.  We decided over dinner to end our trip early and head down the next morning.
we hiked 1500 feet down this chute, then back to the valley floor to camp

Why was this the greatest trout fishing trip of my life?  Because it had it all- a classic road trip, the camaraderie of friends, danger, pain and hardship, a team working together for a common goal, fear and false alarms (the porcupine came back and woke us up that last night as well), but above all, I remember those fish.  They were beautiful, fat, and healthy, protected by their Rocky Mountain fastness.  This trip was about more than trout fishing, it was about living dreams, discovering yourself and learning what me and my friends were made of.

Those trout are relatively safe up there- I know that if I go back, it will be relatively the same.  No one will ever pave a road up to there.  Most streams don't have that advantage. I've done a little work this spring with the local Trout Unlimited chapter doing bank restoration.  Just a handful of volunteers, a couple of hundred tree seedling and some grass seed.  When I first fished that spot it was sand all the way to the rivers edge, but there's a firm berm of grass growing there now from past efforts.  That's all it takes.  That lake, high in the Rockies, has it's remoteness, the altitude, a whole forest of boulders to protect it.  The rest of the waters in Trout Country need Trout Unlimited.  We need this, I need this- water that soothes and comforts, water full of native fish, a pristine environment that we can melt into.  Whether it's a death march up a mountain to challenge ourselves, or a relaxing evening on the river, we need Trout Country, and all that that entails.  We need Trout Unlimited.  I say that as a proud Michigander.  I say that as a fly angler.  I say it as a human being.

We hiked out the next morning.  It only took six hours.  Braxton felt better immediately, thus confirming my suspicions of altitude sickness.  The rest of the trip was amazing- new friends and new adventures.  I'm still in contact with the friends I made on that trip.  I want to go back- badly.  But we can't ever go back really can we.  Each trip is different, a new adventure.  I'm waiting to write it.

This post was intended to be my entry into the Trout Unlimited writing contest.  Who wouldn't want to go to Montana to fish and blog?  I believe I have too many unknowns in July to commit to going, but wanted to write the post anyway.  I hope you enjoyed it.


  1. absolutely riveting and amazing~ I couldn't not get to the next paragraph soon enough! Well done my good friend and always, keep up the great work!!
    tight Lines>>>

  2. Great post and story! One of the best posts I read in a while. Thanks.

  3. "environment to melt into" and "we can't ever go back really can we" -- brilliant writing, this post. Your "furious working" paid off. Thanks for writing this story, and I too can't wait for you to write the next one...

  4. Beautiful images and a great story. Nicely done.

  5. Really great story, sounds like an adventure not to be forgotten. It's funny what we'll do just to chase a few trout. tape is always in my bag as well :-)

  6. You are absolutely right...once in a lifetime experience....busted leg, catching trout, getting sick, what could be better? Awesome post!

  7. Thank you all for commenting. I'll have to set up a frequent commenters rewards points system or something- a free dozen flies for every ten comments. Ha! But thank you all for your kindness. I may rework this story at a later date, but I was in a hurry to post it in time for the TU contest, then decided not to submit it- conflicting engagements.

  8. An amazing journey to tackle for sure!! That altitude thing isn't funny to newcomers...If you make it to CO. this summer for the Frenzy...I promise we will not hike 2000 vertical ft! (at least I won't) Wow...kudos.

  9. Awesome read! Fishing up in those mountains sounds like a different world compared to down here in Florida.

    I think I'll stick with the flatness and gators (you can keep those mountain lions).

  10. Good story man. I really enjoyed it. Love that last picture.


  11. That makes me want to do the same thing. I love high mountain lakes like that. However, the one I use to fish with my grandpa, I never felt the threat of a mountain lion, but now I wonder if we should have worried. Someday I hope to get back to that lake....but never see a mountain lion.

  12. great stuff. It brought me back to a similar trip of mine in the Bear Tooth Range. The altitude sickness, the endless day hiking, mesmerizing scenery, dangerous storms, trout. All of it. Thanks and good luck!

  13. There are few things that are as good as a retreat to the wilderness..... Unless your gear breaks, or you get sick, or the weather is crap most of the time. The great pictures and stories that we treasure from these trips, are priceless, if even to ourselves. Thanks for sharing your adventure.

  14. So reminiscent of a trip I took many lifetimes ago. It is something that I will never forget and neither shall you or anyone else who reads this.

  15. Wow, Cofisher, thanks. I hope I still have a couple left in me, minus the face in the mud. I'd love to sit down over a cup of coffee and hear some of your tales. Maybe I should just pick through your archives.