Saturday, October 8, 2011

Final Chapter - Farewell from Once and Future Fly Fisherman

I’ve waited awhile since the end of my fly-fishing odyssey to write the coda to my blog.  I needed some time to assemble my specific memories into a gestalt, and now I’ve done that, more or less, having  just spent ten days basking in the sun in Provence and Paris and reflecting on the recent past.  (The picture above was taken in an ancient fortress at La Baux, southwest of Avignon.)  The result of my reflection is this post, the final chapter of Once and Future Fly Fisherman.  Maybe there will be a sequel someday, but for now, this is it.

My great American journey started in Pennsylvania on May 20, and ended where it began almost four months later, on September 10.  I piled up over 16,000 hard, mostly back-road, miles in Excalibur, my trusty ¾-ton Chevy Silverado.  I visited 30 states as far-flung as Florida, California, Alaska and Wisconsin.  I spent an abnormally large amount of time all by my lonesome, mostly holed up in a little Northstar truck camper with the ridiculously grandiose name of Camelot.  I also enjoyed a large and much-appreciated amount of time with old friends and family scattered across the country.  Even so, I wasn’t able to see everyone I wanted to see, giving me an excuse to return to some of the towns I had to speed through or bypass.

And I fly-fished.  Boy did I fly-fish, to the point that I feel like a fly rod is now a natural extension of my right arm, practically part of my hand, like a long, powerful and very flexible finger.  I deployed a dozen different fly rods of varying sizes, and almost as many reels.  I fished in salt water and fresh water, in flowing water and still water, in warm water and cold water, in shallow water and deep (well, relatively deep) water, in wide water and skinny water, in clear water and muddy water.   I bushwhacked through willows and nettles, stepped in cowpies and sunk in mud-holes up to my thighs.   I skinned my knees and bumped my head and inadvertently went swimming a couple of times.  I fished with tiny, drab mayfly imitations, little fuchsia-colored worm imitations and gargantuan, sparkling, multi-colored streamers.  I caught hundreds of trout – brook, four kinds of cutthroat, rainbow and brown; dozens of bass – largemouth and smallmouth; scores of salmon – silver, chub, pink and even a stray king and a sockeye; numerous panfish – bluegill, crappie, and several kinds of sunfish; redeye (rockfish); grayling; gar; three kinds of shark – blue, mako and leopard; surf perch; ladyfish; and tarpon.  There were probably a few other species I’ve forgotten about offhand.  I caught the smallest pinfish ever hooked and landed on a fly.  I had to admire the audacity of that fish, attacking a streamer that was more than twice as long as itself and putting a bend in my rod all the way to the boat.  It was less than an inch long, but with a glint in its eye like Clint Eastwood, pulsing with sound and fury.  I released the pinfish like I released 99% of the other fish I caught – long may it swim!

The trip didn’t go exactly as planned in all respects.  I had planned to drive to Alaska but instead I flew there from Montana, opting not to spend another 6,000+ miles alone in the truck.  I also cut the trip short by about a week.  I had hoped to sojourn to New England in the final week of the trip, intending to terminate my fishing activity in Maine, but the region was hammered with two major storms and suffered record flooding just before I  was scheduled to arrive, so I reluctantly diverted myself toward home eight days before I was scheduled to return.  There was a silver lining – I had finally grown homesick by early September, and it was quite pleasant to return to the arms of my loving wife, sleep in my own bed and hug my three cats.  I had also planned to haul my bike, a kayak and an inflatable pontoon boat throughout the journey, but I abandoned them in Memphis less than a month into the trip after concluding that the hassle of towing a trailer over long distances exceeded the benefits of having the extra toys.

The most common query I’ve gotten since my return is whether the trip was everything I expected it to be.  The answer is that it was almost exactly what I expected it to be.  I anticipated seeing plenty of gorgeous scenery and catching a large variety of fish, and I did.  I expected to hang out with old friends and to enjoy lots of quiet time – “me time,” to use the current vernacular, and I did.   I didn’t expect to have an epiphany, to be visited by angels or to suddenly acquire new skills, and I didn’t.   But there were times when I felt as spiritually awake as I ever have.  I experienced many more ecstatic moments than I normally would in a comparable period – the natural result, perhaps, of spending so much time doing whatever I felt like and having very little direct responsibility.  It was a very simple life.  I generally went to bed when I felt like it, got up when I felt like it, ate what I wanted to eat, basked in fresh air and sunshine almost every day, and wandered through every kind of exotic landscape our great nation offers.  If I couldn’t be happy doing all that, when could I ever be happy?  Let me be clear – I was very happy.  So much so that my friend Joe Fleming, whose San Diego home I stayed in for a few nights in late June, voiced a frank observation  (probably shared by many other friends I encountered along the way) that my expressions of happiness were “insufferable.”  I could see his point.  But I’m glad  if I inspired envy in some people.  If I gave them incentive to beat a path to their own bliss, then I achieved some small accomplishment.

Did I learn anything?  I probably learned something but I can’t readily recall anything profound.  My experiences on the road, and my feelings about those experiences, reinforced several notions that I already had when I started.  I wrote about many of those in this blog along the way.  Among the more notable of them were:  wherever you go, there you are (i.e., you can’t run away from yourself); it’s okay to be alone; it’s good to connect with your surroundings spiritually and not just sensually; and ice cream is my favorite food.  Oh, and despite what the famous 20th-century novelist Thomas Wolfe postulated, you CAN go home again.  Finally, I relearned relaxation.  After I retired last October, my mind didn’t immediately make the transition from its prevailing state of tension and simmering anger that accumulated during 30 years of working in an environment where expectations of my performance and availability were exceptionally high, but on my journey this summer I crossed over to a much calmer place and I’m pleased to be there.

I must thank all those people who put up with me during my trip, folks who variously housed me, fed me, entertained me and fished with me.  In no special order they were:  my parents Eldred and Topsy Wolfe (Memphis); Bill Nelson and Lara Merriken (Marathon, FL and Los Angeles); Seymour Singer (San Diego); Therese and Joe Fleming (San Diego); Eric Laun (Los Angeles); Kathy and Byran Jensen (Las Vegas); Chip and Julie Walter (Meeteetse, WY); Bob and Julie Bushmaker (Butte, MT); Buck Boehm (MT and IA); Carl and Karen Thompson (Ames, IA); Dave Thompson (Delavan, WI); my father-in-law Carl Martin (Walnut, IA).  Thanks also to the many wonderful people I met along the path, and other friends in many places who followed my blog, stayed in touch via e-mails, checked out my videos on YouTube and otherwise coddled me from afar.  I love you all.  Your company was the ultimate highlight of the trip.

Most of all, my deepest gratitude goes to Trish, whose generous, independent spirit and unwavering support enabled me to indulge my adolescent regression in spectacular fashion.  I am very fortunate to be so tightly wed to her, and so free, at the same time.

Here’s the main thing I’d like to leave you with:  as Louis Armstrong sang so soulfully, it’s a wonderful world!  I’m very glad to live in it and I hope you are too.  Happy trails!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Days 105-111, September 2-8, Iowa to Wisconsin

I'm home now, safe and sound on Drumbore Farm in PA.  Before I compose a final wrap-up about my summer-long trip, I want to cover in this post the last social and fishing stops I made before my return.

After the events in my last post, Trish joined me at her father's house in Walnut, IA shortly before Labor Day.  All of the in-laws came to town for an afternoon party on the 4th.  To tell you the truth, I was getting homesick by that time.  But I had one last hook-up scheduled with friends, and I didn't want to forego the opportunity to see them.

The friends, in this case, were Carl Thompson and his brother Dave.  I've known Dave longer than any other continuing friend except for Dave Loebsack, a U.S. Congressman from Iowa.  Representative Loebsack and I met when we were both freshmen at Iowa State, residing in Ayres House in Larch Hall.  We became roommates as sophomores at the same time Dave Thompson matriculated at ISU and moved into Ayres House.    A few years later I moved into an off-campus house with three other former Ayres House residents - Dave Thompson was one of them.  Through him I met his older brother Carl, with whom I later resided in another house while I was still attending graduate school in Ames.   The adventures that Dave, Carl and I had over the years we lived together, and for many years afterward, cemented a relationship that we've actively maintained over four decades.  But it had been too long since we were last physically together.

On Labor Day I drove to Ames (Ames was a full-on nostalgia trip in its own right) to have lunch with Carl and his wife Karen - Karen is another long-time friend.  Fortunately their oldest son Greg was visiting and I had a chance to chat with him for a short time.  In the early afternoon Carl and I climbed into Excalibur and carved a crooked path on quaint byways to southwest Wisconsin, stopping in Platteville for the evening.  Carl's youngest son Joe attends college in Platteville.  We took Joe out to dinner and wound up spending the night in the driveway of the old house in which Joe resides with several roommates.  The situation reminded both Carl and me of our time living on 119 Beach Avenue in Ames, way back when.  It was fun to sit around a backyard campfire with Joe and his roommates, conversing into the late hours.  A couple of the roommates were English majors, as I once was.  Talking with these kids about poetry and novelists and other subjects that don't come up in my day-to-day life in PA transported me back to my twenties.  It was exactly the kind of experience I craved.

Classes started on Tuesday and our new young friends disappeared quickly, so Carl and I snuck out of Platteville right after breakfast, landing that afternoon at Castle Rock Creek near Fennimore.  Carl hadn't fly-fished for many years but he gave it the college try, and before long we landed several solid brown trout.  Castle Rock Creek is a pretty little spring-fed stream that flows through numerous lovely farms nestled in a deep, narrow valley.  Countless other cliff-lined valleys that surround and connect to the one we were in combine to form a latticework through the Driftless Region of Wisconsin.  The Driftless Region is an area surrounding the adjoining corners of Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota - an area that avoided the glacial scrubbing subjected to most of the upper Midwest in the last ice age.  This unique regional geology is a blessing to fly fishers because the rivers and creeks there are cold and clear enough to support healthy populations of trout, which is why we were there.  Many thanks to Trout McGee, a fly-fishing blogger like me (and a much-better photographer than me).  He was very kind to point me in the direction of Castle Rock, which is roughly in his neighborhood.  He knows the Driftless Region well.

That evening Carl and I set up Camelot in a private, deserted campground on the banks of an improved portion of the stream, directly beneath the gray cliff that gives Castle Rock Creek its name.  There we found numerous trout rising to a variety of hatching flies late in the evening.  The evening passed too quickly, but not before we caught several chunky browns.  Under a burst of starlight and a waxing gibbous moon we made a campfire, enjoyed a steak dinner, and debated economics, investing theory and related topics well into the night.  Here's a look at the scenery in which we found ourselves (remember, you can click on the pictures to make them larger):

The next morning we tried to catch a few more fish but we didn't get it done.  It didn't really matter.  We decided to leave Castle Rock and head for Delavan, WI to meet Dave.  Shortly after we launched, we stopped in a little pub for lunch.  The young waitress there was an unusually flirtatious and attractive gal, but Carl and I are far too old and much too married - we moved on, feeling pleasantly flattered by her attentions the rest of the day.  Around 3 pm we rolled into Delavan, joining Dave in his lake house there.  What a great afternoon and evening!  Dave has a neat little Bayliner on the lake and we took it out for a spin on a superlative late afternoon, kicking up a big wake in the shadows of lakeside mansions until sunset drove us back to shore.  That night Dave prepared a succulent Italian dinner.  We reminisced about the past, watched videos of Dave's talented boys playing guitar and sax and competing in track, talked about our present lives and generally enjoyed one another's company as we always have.

I've had this kind of wonderful experience many times this summer, reacquainting myself with old friends.  When we saw each other, in some cases after several years apart, it felt like we had just been hanging out yesterday.  Friendships that sustain themselves that way are the best kind.  If I'm glad about any single recurring theme of my trip this summer - more than the fishing, the amazing sights and my immersion in nature - it was the camaraderie of friends and family I spent time with along the way.  I love them all.

On Wednesday I dropped Carl off at the Milwaukee airport so he could fly back to Ames, and then started for home.  More about that next time.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Days 100 - 104, August 28 to September 1, Lake Icaria, Iowa

You may recall that in early August I spent several days with one of my oldest friends, Buck Boehm, helping him improve his fly-fishing skills in Montana.  This week I’m in Iowa, where Buck resides, and we’ve been back at it together, trying to catch some fish.  In this case, largemouth bass rather than trout have been our targets.

I had hoped to fish more than I have while I’ve been in Iowa the past several days.  I graduated from Valley High School in West Des Moines and I have three degrees from Iowa State University in Ames.  I started my accounting career in Des Moines, working there for seven years before Trish and I moved to New York and eventually to Los Angeles and Bucks County, PA.  I had some of my earliest bass and bluegill fishing experiences, including experiences with a fly rod, while in graduate school at ISU.  So I have a major soft spot in my heart for Iowa.  As I’ve journeyed around the country, I’ve looked forward to revisiting Iowa and fishing here.  The problem has been that the best fishing opportunities here are on the lakes, and a boat is almost a necessity to exploit those opportunities.  On Monday I was able to borrow a kayak, but then a storm rolled in that night – rain and wind nixed my fishing plans for Tuesday.

But on Wednesday the sun came out and I drove from Walnut to Corning, Iowa, which is near beautiful and uncrowded (at least during midweek) Lake Icaria.  Driving through the rolling hills of southwest Iowa, I felt like I was moving through a modernized 3D version of a Grant Wood painting.  As in Wood’s art, there were stylized fields of tall corn and beans flowing up and down the hillsides, dotted with white farmhouses, red barns and gleaming silos.  The modern elements in the scenery included dozens of towering white windmills, courtesy of the 21st century drive to develop clean energy.  I was strangely comforted by their presence and had no doubt that Grant Wood would have happily incorporated them in his paintings if they had existed then.  When the wind farms in the area were first proposed, I thought they would be eyesores, but in fact they are quite dramatic and seem as if they have been there for centuries, like the wooden windmills of Holland.  As I write this, back in my father-in-law’s home in Walnut, I can see from his picture window a trio of tapered blades spinning in a crisp south wind striking a distant tower.  It’s quite beautiful.

When I arrived in Corning at noon Wednesday, I surveyed the dining options in downtown and selected Kay’s Kafe as the place to meet Buck, who arrived soon after I did.  Among the local farmers who wandered in to have lunch with friends, we consumed some hardy farm-style cooking before heading for nearby Lake Icaria.  On the way out of town I noticed the building in the picture below:

That scene brought back a lot of memories.  The bank in the picture is one of dozens for which, early in my accounting career, I supervised the performance of “Director’s exams” and audits.  It’s strange now to think about how my colleagues and I spent our summers traveling around to little towns like Corning to work in these little banks.  On a typical day in such a place, we might work late for one or two evenings so we could get ahead of schedule and create short days later in the week.  On the short days we often played golf at a local course, and almost always we searched out the best little caf├ęs, and sometimes lounges, in the area.  We had a lot of fun together, to be sure.  Many of the folks I worked with then remain my friends today.  None of us will forget the crazy things we did while on the road on those sweltering days in the heartland, surrounded by cornfields.  We could almost hear the corn growing as we lay in our beds, sweating out the hot nights in mom-and-pop motels.

When Buck and I left Corning, we soon found that the Lake Icaria campgrounds with electric hookups were fully occupied with RVs.   The vast majority of the RVs were void of people – their owners had set up these rigs to hold their places pending arrival of their families on Friday for the Labor Day weekend.  We decided to park Camelot in an empty non-electric campground, which afforded us considerable privacy, a nice breeze and excellent evening shade.  Once we established our campsite we went to the marina, rented a roomy aluminum jon boat and began exploring the lake.

The guy who ran the marina wasn’t particularly forthcoming with useful fishing advice, but I had come equipped with a map that I obtained on the internet showing the contours of the lake bottom and the location of underwater structure, including brush and rock piles.  I had a notion that bass could be found near the brush piles just offshore of sharp points, and that’s where we started.  Fortunately, I guessed correctly.  I’ve watched enough bass-fishing TV shows to know that shad patterns often work well for bass in the heat of the summer (the temperature was about 90 degrees when we started out), so I tied on one of those.  In short order I caught a fat largemouth.  Here he is:


If the expression on my excessively hirsute face appears to be somewhat pained, it may be because I just plopped my rump on an aluminum boat seat that had been absorbing the heat of the afternoon sun.  But that was of little consequence to me – I was just glad to have figured out how to catch bass after hearing nothing but “slow fishing” reports about Icaria and other western Iowa lakes.  The fishing definitely wasn’t slow by ordinary bass-fishing standards.  Within a couple of hours I caught three more bass of similar size to, or larger than, the one in the picture, and brought another one to the boat before it threw the hook.

Buck was trying other techniques, including live worms that he acquired in Adel that morning, but after a while he tied on a shad lure similar to mine.  Before long he found himself pumping on a big bass that he yanked out of deep brush.  As we were mutually rejoicing, Buck’s reel suddenly detached itself from his rod.  He had little choice but to drop the rod and reel in the bottom of the boat, grab the bare monofilament line and start hand-lining the fish, hillbilly style.  As I laughed heartily, Buck succeeded in bringing the big bass to the side of the boat.  Just when we thought the fish was his, it made a sudden leap, splashing Buck with green water, pulling the knot loose from the lure and finning away post haste into the depths from which it had come.  All we could do was laugh.  That’s fishing.

Buck and I capped off the evening at our campsite with a bottle of Spanish wine and a couple of ribeye steaks that we cooked to perfection over a campfire.  We talked into the wee hours, reminiscing about old times and old friends, discussing poetry and music and philosophy, and in general reinforcing the deep connection we’ve had with one another for almost 40 years.  It was another marvelous time on a glorious evening in Iowa, much like those we enjoyed decades ago.  The novelist Thomas Wolfe famously said that “you can’t go home again.”  But the fact is, you can.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Days 95-99, August 23-27, Wyoming to Minnesota to Iowa (Outer Limits)

Consider this a blog post from the Outer Limits.  As much as at any time since I left Pennsylvania in mid-May, I feel that I may soon have an alien encounter.  This feeling started on Monday afternoon when, after departing Chip and Julie’s cabin in Meeteetse, I crossed the Bighorn Mountains and guided Excalibur into eastern Wyoming.  At the crummy little town of Moorcroft, which has sort of a witchy-sounding name, I took a side road that I’ve never traveled before, and by evening I was gazing at Devils Tower.  You may remember Devils Tower from the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” as the place where Richard Dreyfus and a bunch of other soulful characters were summoned by aliens who communicated with humans via bright lights and weird (but now iconic) musical themes.

I always thought Devils Tower was situated on a relatively flat plain and could be seen from far away.  Perhaps that is true if your point of view is from a certain direction, but from the Moorcroft approach you don’t actually get a good view of the tower until you’re a few miles away, after much winding along bluffs and criss-crossing the lovely Belle Fourche River, which creates a green and serpentine valley beneath red-walled cliffs.  The base of the Tower sits in a depression near the river.  As the Tower came into view and I began to appreciate its large dimensions, I pondered whether I had been summoned there.  It looked like a place that aliens might decide to visit, and I thought it would be pretty exciting to be there when that happened.  That assumes, of course, that aliens don’t carry viruses that will destroy us like those carried by Europeans into the New World, as Stephen Hawking has suggested.  In any event, I soon determined that I must not have been summoned by aliens because I drove on by without feeling any unusual  gravitational attraction.  I would have stopped to take a picture of the Tower but the sun was shining from the wrong direction through a smoky haze and my photo would surely have been disappointing.  I’m sure there are many excellent pictures of Devils Tower to be found on the internet by those who care to Google it.

Not far beyond the Tower I drove up and a long ridge and into a patch of National Forest close to the South Dakota border, found a campground on a small lake, and set up Camelot amidst a few families whose rowdy kids were polite enough to settle down when darkness fell.  I had peaceful sleep and rose early to witness the sun lighting up the cliffs on the west side of the lake, trout rising here and there, and two deer moseying by my back door.  I was soon on my way, slowly winding my way down dirt roads back to the main highway.  The winding was slow primarily because of all the cattle on the road.  Something I’ve learned about National Forests in countless hours traveling through them this summer – most of them, especially in the west, contain a remarkable number of open-range cattle.  I don’t know how the ranchers track them all down at the appropriate times, but I guess they do.

Back on the highway as I crossed the South Dakota border, I came upon a large owl perched in the middle of my lane.  It wasn’t the first time I’ve encountered large raptors in similar positions, but historically they’ve always flown away the moment they spotted me approaching.  But the owl held his position.  Behind the wheel of a three-quarter ton truck with a loaded camper, I had the distinct advantage in this game of chicken.  Perhaps the owl divined that I am not the type of person who willingly runs down exquisite creates of air and darkness.  Perhaps the owl was Merlin (see “The Sword in the Stone” by T.H. White, or the Disney movie of the same name).  O maybe he was an alien.  Or just stupid.  Whichever it was, I spared him, swerving across a yellow line to avoid him by inches.  Quickly reentering my lane, I glanced in my rearview mirror and saw that the owl never moved except to swivel his round head and continue to gaze at me with ultimate dispassion.

Before I started my trip last May, I had a pretty good idea about my general route, which was dictated in part by plans I had made with friends and family to be in certain places at certain times.  I’ve taken an odd detour here and there between known meeting sites, but by and large I’ve known where I was headed.  Not so during this period between the fly-in from Alaska and my next rendezvous with Trish in Iowa on September 2.  I decided on the flight from Anchorage to Missoula that I would aim generally east when I arrived there.  While in Meeteetse I formed the idea of spending some time in the lake country of Minnesota.  But when I stopped for gas in Belle Fourche, South Dakota, I suddenly felt the pull of North Dakota and turned north.  Was it an alien summoning?  Not likely.  More likely it was that a glance at my map showed some highlighted areas that I didn’t know existed.  I think I know my geography pretty well, especially U.S. geography, including the locations of most national parks.  But somehow it had escaped my attention that there’s a national park in western North Dakota named after Theodore Roosevelt.  Which is logical, I learned, since Roosevelt grew up in that part of the country.  The “badlands” that appear throughout this region of the country are prominent in western North Dakota, and I decided to get a look at them.

When you gaze upon something like the crazy crayon canyons that envelope the Little Missouri River, throwing a long, colorful scarf over the National Grasslands and vast ranches in the surprising state of North Dakota, it’s easy to understand how such an environment might shape the mind of a young man like Teddy Roosevelt and influence him to become one of the earliest champions of natural conservation and our National Parks system.  After taking a look at the dynamic landscapes in the park named for the Rough Rider President – bully! – I decided to camp at the nearby Little Missouri River State Park.  As the sun set shortly after my arrival, lingering behind an orange ribbon on the western horizon, I popped up the walls of Camelot to view the vast canyon that formed under cliffs only ten yards or so from my windows.  It was so dramatic and unfamiliar – another alien sight.  As night took control of the skies I turned my binoculars to the heavens to observe the jewel-like double star Albiero and other wonders standing out in the Milky Way.  Except for the stars I could detect no lights save one situated on a bluff beyond a far wall of the canyon.  With my binoculars I could make out glistening blue and white lights on a manmade tower that appeared to be part of an oil or gas facility, which are common in the area.  If my imagination were stronger than my slavishness to reality, I would have seen there a spaceship, ready to launch into the clear cosmos above.  It certainly looked like a night view of the launchpad at Cape Canaveral.  The highway that is supposed to cross the canyon north of Killdeer and west of the park was closed.  That highway leads to that bright site across the canyon.  Was it really closed due to flood damage as reported?  Or had the government quarantined the site as it did Devils Tower in “Close Encounters?”  You be the judge.

Due to the aforementioned road closure, I had to backtrack south through Killdeer, ND in the next morning in order to proceed east.  Again I did not have a clear vision of my next destination, but when I stopped for gas I inspected the map and noticed that north central North Dakota is heavily spotted with lakes.  Again, something I didn’t know about this state – much of it was once covered by the same vast glacial lake that also covered most of Minnesota and Wisconsin.  When the ice age ended, the receding glaciers scoured out countless lakes and ponds in this area.  I didn’t figure that out until this evening, but I had a pretty good inkling of it as I drove around Lake Sakakawea (a reservoir that forms where the Missouri River and the Little Missouri River join) and northeast to Devils Lake, passing numerous smaller lakes and ponds along the way.  I was greatly surprised by the amount of wetlands in North Dakota.  Previously I had only visited a small corner of the state, and I pictured the rest of it as a sprawling, semi-arid prairie.  Much of it is a sprawling prairie, in fact, but the mostly-manicured  grasslands host a wide variety of crops and are crawling with combines and hay-balers, and most remarkably are punctuated by so many bodies of water that I was rarely out of sight of one or more.
Among the most common of the crops I saw, and certainly the most beautiful of them, were sunflowers.  All along my route from the southwest corner of the state to the northeast region, great fields of sunflowers light up the prairie.  In the mornings, their hundreds of thousands of faces uniformly peer up at the low sun like rows of gleaming satellite dishes receiving transmissions from distant planets.  As the sun rises higher their chins fall as if they are satiated with light and heat and wish only that the cool evening would arrive.  Trish and I have grown several varieties of sunflowers and we admire them, but our little groves barely hint at the glory of hundreds of acres of these majestic beings all crowded together sporting open and hopeful stares, waiting to be transported.

I had thought of camping at Devils Lake but the prairie wind was steady and stiff from the south (coincidentally, perhaps, the Neil Young album “Prairie Wind” qued up on my IPod), and the lake’s waters were frothy and overflowing their banks.  The effects of the abnormally wet spring are still very evident throughout the region.  These conditions made Devils Lake unappealing so I drove on for another hour or so to Turtle River State Park, just west of Grand Forks.  In the park office I ran into a couple from Alberta who had made the same decision for the same reasons. I am camped near the Turtle River as I write this.  Camelot is enveloped in thick trees because the park sits just inside the transition zone where the western prairies, which were once carpeted by great buffalo herds, give way to the creeping northern forests.  The trees are bustling in the strong breeze, but Camelot is well-protected.  I look outside and see the wide ribbons of diffused light painted on a black canvas by the spiral arms of our galaxy.  Somewhere up there are other creatures, I believe.  They could be denizens of distant planets, or angels, or cherubim and seraphim perhaps.  Something is out there . . . in the Outer Limits.
Post-script.  I didn't have a good internet connection when I wrote the post above, and fishing on the Turtle River is not a good option in the summer, so I decided to drive into western Minnesota on Friday.  Late in the afternoon I settled into a campground in Lake Shetek State Park in the southwest part of the state.  The park is lovely and sits on a beautiful lake, the largest one in southwestern Minnesota.  Unfortunately the best campground is closed for improvements, so I was directed by the park office to a campground that is wide open on a windy slope.  I patiently ignored the neighbors sitting outside their very large RVs and cackling until well after dark.  When I got up this morning the neighbors were still sleeping, so I took a long walk around the park and the lakeshore, including a stroll across a causeway to Loon Island, which is part of the park.  The causeway to the island was constructed by a WPA crew back in the mid-30s, during the height of the Great Depression.  Say what you will about the efficacy of government stimulus programs, but if you spend much time in our nation's parklands, as I have this year, you have to appreciate all the great stuff that was built by government workers back in that era when other jobs were very hard to find.  It's impressive that after 80 years, so much of what the WPA achieved is still enjoyed by many Americans.  The WPA constructed some really cool things, and it's unfortunate that too many of them are now falling into disrepair.
There were no aliens in western Minnesota as far as I could tell.  I drove down to Iowa after my park walk this morning, passing near Sibley and the highest point in Iowa.  I read somewhere long ago that the highest point in Iowa is the site of a hog lot.  That's possible but it looked to me like just another cornfield with no visible swine.  Honestly, it was hard to make out which spot exactly was the high spot.  It's not really tall relative to its surroundings - it just sits in a part of the state, right on the border with Minnesota, that is generally higher in elevation than the rest of the state.  The Des Moines River originates near there (in fact, at the aforementioned Lake Shetek) and flows southeast across the entire state, which gives a pretty good clue about elevation patterns in Iowa.  Curiously, and not by my design or with any forethought, I have driven by the highest points in several states during the past week.  No aliens at any of them, at least none that I could see.  Not counting myself. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Days 91-94, August 19-22, Missoula to Meeteetse via Beartooths

I'm not a big fan of delayed gratification.  Like just about everyone else, I prefer to have what I want when I want it - i.e., right now.  However, reality dictates that most of us must earn what we get - the rest of us hire really good political lobbyists or are just plain lucky.  So I spent 30 years working very hard to build a retirement fund and start fishing as much as I wanted to.  It was a gamble because I could have died of stress-related diseases or some other malady or accident before I reached my goal.  But I looked at life like an actuary or a top-tier poker player might - that is, the odds of payoff looked pretty good if I took the long view.  I embraced the delayed gratification approach whole-heartedly.  Eventually the payoff happened and I'm now fly fishing to my heart's content.

Trish and I were talking about this topic while at the airport in Anchorage.  We agreed that if we were to die tomorrow, we would pass in a state of fulfillment.  If misfortune should happen to us, we hope everyone we know will realize that.  I don't mean to sound morbid.  We hope that we will have several more decades of life together.  But no matter what else happens, all the effort we put in was worth it.  There's a lot of merit to the "live for today" argument, but I feel it's wise to play the odds and delay receipt of most of life's rewards.  I used to advance that position with the young people who worked with me in our accounting firm.  I believed it and I still do.  I love the song by Cat Stevens (aka Yusuf), "Father and Son."  It articluates the two life approaches quite nicely.  The son desires to live for today, while the father counsels patience and hard work.  The dialogue embedded in that song might have been a conversation between my father and me when I was young.  In the end I think my father, and the father in the song, were right.

What made me think about delayed gratification was that I had to practice it when I was fishing on the East Rosebud River in the Beartooth Mountains of south-central Montana yesterday.  After catching up on sleep in Missoula Friday after a redeye flight from Anchorage, I drove to the East Rosebud south of Roscoe, MT Saturday and set up Camelot in a quiet campground in a spectacular canyon mouth.  The canyon walls lead up to the highest mountains in Montana, including the tallest - Granite Peak.  The headwaters of both the East Rosebud and the West Rosebud originate on the slopes of those mountains, eventually combining and flowing north to the Yellowstone River.  The walls of the lower canyon above the campground are steep and craggy, places where you might expect to see mountain goats in the krummholz.  I didn't actually see any goats, but they may well have been there somewhere, hopping around on narrow ledges and preparing to shine in the next morning's sunlight.  Here's a view of Camelot and my evening campfire:

When I arrived Saturday evening I caught a few trout within sight of Camelot, so I decided to rise early Sunday and fish for a few more hours before departing.  My strategy was to hike down the road for a mile or so, then fish upstream.  A salient fact I hadn't remembered was that the road veered away from the river in that direction, so that by the time I left the road for the river, I found myself trekking through a broad field of 5-foot-high pines and a lot of underbrush.  It was difficult.  When I finally made it to the riverbank, I realized that the entire section of river from where I stood to the campground flowed down a relatively steep grade.  The river was basically one long rapid through that stretch, almost unfishable.  I then had little choice except to return to the road and the campground, which meant I first  had to hike back through the thick pines and a massive tangle of old fallen logs.  I started thinking about delayed gratification about them, and kept thinking about it for the rest of the morning.

Sometimes you choose a course and it's a dead end, but if you remain patient and strive to find a better course, the end result may be the desired one.  When I eventually made it back to the campground and stepped into the quieter waters near there, I soon located numerous rainbows and browns willing to rise to a carefully presented elk hair caddis.  In short order I caught a dozen or so trout, captured some nice video on the GoPro camera, and was back on the road in Excalibur by noon.  Here's a peek at the gorgeous East Rosebud River and the canyon from which it emerges:

Early on Sunday afternoon, Excalibur charged into nearby Red Lodge, MT, which was jammed with tourists, and started the climb up the steep grade of Highway 212 - the Beartooth Highway - into the mountains.  I've traveled on many a scenic American byway in my time, but it's hard to think of one as breathtaking as the Beartooth Highway, which tops out at an elevation of almost 11,000 feet.  From Red Lodge, the drive is exhilirating and vertiginous.  The narrow road hugs the steep slopes above Rock Creek Canyon in a maze of switchbacks.  Evidence of dangerous rockfalls lies around every hairpin bend.  High up on the plateau among the high peaks is a calvacade of small lakes and tumbling brooks emanating from large snowfields that remain unmelted even in late August.  After 60 miles or so, just east of the Matterhorn-like Pilot Peak and the northeast border of Yellowstone National Park, the Highway intersects with the Chief Joseph Highway above the Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone River - another amazing stretch of road.  On this occasion I took the Chief Joseph Highway east toward Cody, WY, stopping along the way to ponder the rough majesty of the Sunlight Basin, a place where you can see impossibly deep canyons in several directions and spectacularly tall, sharp-ridged peaks in other directions.  In the late afternoon I climbed another set of switchbacks up and over the slopes of a spur of the Absaroka Mountains and down to the highway that led me into Cody.

Now I'm in Meeteetse visiting my friends Chip and Julie.  You may recall from one of my posts of several weeks ago that Chip had an accident while working on a new deck at his place, breaking a leg and a wrist.  Although he's still wearing braces to protect his injured limbs, the healing process is going well and he's hobbling around effectively these days.  Enough so that we decided to take a picnic and a canoe to Upper Sunshine Reservoir west of Meeteetse and attempt to catch some trout for his smoker.  Catch them we did.  Upper Sunshine teems with cutthroat and cuttbow (cuttbows are rainbow/cutthroat hybrids) trout of all sizes and is lightly fished by comparison with most lakes of comparable productivity.  While Julie read a book on shore in the shade of the car, Chip and I prowled an island in the middle of the lake, soon capturing eight meaty trout, including two beauties that measured over 18" in length.  Here's Chip, holding the largest one:

As you know, I release the vast majority of fish that I catch.  I subscribe to the philosophy that a trout is too valuable of a resource to catch only once.  But there are some places where, and times when, keeping and eating fish makes perfect sense.  The fish we buy in supermarkets and restaurants doesn't magically appear there like the fish that Jesus conjured up to feed the multitudes that came to hear him preach.  The fish we consume are captured and killed before they arrive on our plates.  I think it's a good idea for all carnivores to be directly involved in the process of capturing (or raising) and killing their own meat at some point in their lives instead of always just removing it from a cellophane wrapper at home or sticking a fork in it in a cafe.  When we obtain our food directly from its wild sources like our ancestors did, we gain an appreciation for it that is impossible to gain any other way.  The same is true for eggs or vegetables or fruit or herbs or anything else we eat, and the principle doesn't apply strictly to carnivores.  Supermarket produce cannot easily surpass the taste of produce taken directly from one's own garden or orchard or barnyard, and in any event there's something special about knowing exactly what was involved in the journey from simple seeds to the complex organisms that go into our mouths and sustain our lives.  Animal, vegetable - it's all life, all part of the same chain in which humans are another link.  That's one of the simple realties that weeks in the wild remind me of so poignantly - realities too easily unnoticed when hidden under the veneer of civilization.

Again, the delayed gratification principle comes into play.  It's much more expedient to buy processed food than to participate in the food creation process - instant gratification is great.  But one of the best things about delaying gratification is that the ultimate rewards often seem much sweeter when we finally obtain them.  Perhaps it's the extended period of hope and anticipation that causes that result, or perhaps it's our tendency to cling to the more puritanical notion that something is not worth as much if it is not earned.  In any case, one's sense of appreciation and gratitude is heightened when rewards come with a price.  That's what I believe.  Let me know what you think.

Tomorrow I depart for the upper Midwest.  It will take a couple of days for me to get to the lake country of Minnesota.  I'm sad to have to put the rugged vistas of the Rockies in Excalibur's rear-view mirror, but it's time to see new places and fish in unfamiliar waters.  This will be the final leg of my journey, culminating in Maine before I return home to Pennsylvania in just under a month from now.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Days 83-90, August 11-18, Alaska

I tried not to set my expectations too high.  But I now know it's hard to set your expectations too high when you travel to and fish in Alaska.  However high they are, it's likely Alaska will exceed them.  The scale of the wilderness, the quantity and size of the sport fish, the unfettered grandeur.  No wonder Sarah Palin raves about it.

I'm not going to say much in this post.  I'd rather just let a sample of pictures and video speak for the experience Trish and I had in this crazy place.  Many thanks to Adam, Jason, Jake and Mary and all the great staff at Wilderness Place Lodge for an unsurpassed vacation.  I'm glad those three grizzlies that brushed up against our cabin one night didn't decide to come inside - that might have been a  bit too interesting.

Here's a video that encapsulates our fishing experience.  It would take a much longer one to really do the job:

Here are a few pics:

Well, that's a taste.  Tomorrow we're taking a sight-seeing drive to Seward before we fly out of Anchorage late in the evening.  We're both taking redeye flights - Trish to Philly and me to Missoula where I'll continue my tour.  It will be hard to top Alaska in the next month, but I'll give it my best shot.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Days 79-82 , August 7-10, Butte MT to Missoula MT

Moose were on my mind.  As I gingerly made my way down from a gravel road and through a marshy meadow to the Middle Fork of Rock Creek west of Anaconda, MT, I was thinking about the two bull moose I'd seen the past few days, including the one that casually sauntered by Bob and Julie's back door when I was at their house near Butte last week.  The meadow I now found myself walking in seemed like prime moose territory and I wondered if moose cousins were nearby.  I've been wanting to ask someone with expertise but I never remember to ask when the experts are available - how do moose react to bear spray?  Adversely, I hoped. Bear spray was all the protection I had besides my not-so-fleet feet and a flimsy fly rod.

Fortunately a moose never showed that day.  I've been thinking a lot about wild animals lately.  After all my travels this summer I must be exuding a different vibe than I normally do.  A Dr. Doolittle sort of vibe, perhaps, because it seems wild animals are beginning to enjoy my presence.  In the campground near the aforementioned Middle Fork, a chipmunk joined me as I sat in a camp chair by a campfire after a long afternoon of fishing and dined on gourmet cheeses and fancy table crackers.  I tossed the friendly and adorable rodent a cracker and he scurried right up to my feet, incautiously nibbling as he sat high on his rear legs looking me with what I interpreted as a fraternal stare.  Then there was the quartet of ducklings that followed me down the banks of the upper Big Hole River northeast of Wisdom as I cast my fly line over their heads to small rising trout.  Whenever I moved upstream a few steps, they swam alongside, and whenever I paused to cast for a while, they closed their eyes and took a short nap.  I'm not sure where their mother was - perhaps flown away forever - but they seemed to bond on me.  Here they are, waiting patiently for my next move:

I've seen a great many bald eagles this year, and a few golden eagles.  None were so spectacular in flight as those I saw on the Big Hole the evening of the same day I took the picture of the ducklings.  As the sun sank behind the ridge near my primitive and private campsite on the river, a mature bald eagle flew downriver as if in a desperate hurry to be somewhere.  He was almost out of my sight when he entered a thermal updraft.  Suddenly he began to rise and circle until eventually he was so far above and beyond that I could no longer distinguish his majesty in the distant sky and clouds.  When I turned my attention back upstream and across the river, two golden eagles appeared above the trees, also circling.  One of them occasionally dove at the other, but the passive one seemed unperturbed by the attentions of the aggressor.  The behavior did not appear to be violent, but was more in the nature of courtship.  As they continued to circle, joining and separating repeatedly and eventually passing over my head before returning to the other side of the river and beyond the trees, I was reminded of one of my favorite poems by the great American poet Walt Whitman, "The Dalliance of the Eagles."  Check it out if you haven't read it, or even if you have.  You can Google it right now and it would be well worth your effort.

Here's a look at Camelot (my Northstar truck camper, mounted on Excalibur) with its top popped up, perched on the banks of the Big Hole, and a shot looking upriver from the campsite with clouds reflected on the shimmering surface of the river:

Out here in Montana, at times on my own, I am enveloped by raw nature.  The flora and the fauna, the vast blue skies and thunderous dark clouds, the infinite mountains.  It's almost unreal, and more entertaining than television.  In "Travels with Charley," John Steinbeck sang Montana's praises.  I think his depiction of the grandeur of the state was disappointingly vague, but I certainly agree with his general sentiment.  It's an amazing state.  If Henry David Thoreau had come to Montana he'd have forgotten all about Walden Pond.  The state's license plates should say "The Transcendental State."

As I mentioned above, I fished one afternoon on the Middle Fork of Rock Creek.  Rock Creek proper is a famous and popular fly-fishing stream that originates in the Anaconda Mountains southwest of Missoula and flows north to the Clark Fork River.  When I left Butte on Day 79 I decided to explore the obscure headwaters of Rock Creek, including the streams that flow into and near Moose Lake.  Bouncing along the gravel road in that direction, I was at first discouraged by the fact that there were miles and miles of fencing separating me from the beautiful water of the Middle Fork.  Here's a typical stretch of the Middle Fork, looking down from the rough road:

My patience was rewarded, however.  A few miles downstream from the Copper Creek Campground and Moose Lake, the fence mercifully ended when I crossed a cattle guard.  That's when I assembled my fly-fishing gear and wandered into the moosey-looking meadow.  That afternoon was to be one of the most pleasant I've spent on my entire journey so far.  Sadly, I didn't pack any of my cameras into the meadow, not even the one in my Droid smartphone.  I thought I might catch a few small trout in the inviting water, but the fish I actually found far exceeded my expectations.  They were fat, healthy Westslope cutthroat trout up to 17" (several in that class, and not many small ones) that rose to large dry flies.  Every deep channel around every bend of the creek held one of those beauties and there was not a soul in sight all afternoon, not even a moose.  At times I felt like I was living in a dream, it was so perfect.  If I wasn't so much hairier and older, and less chiseled, I would have looked just like Brad Pitt in one of the most rapturous scenes from "A River Runs Through It."

That evening I parked Camelot in a quiet campground among a tall stand of lodgepole pines and firs.  The trees shaded me from the next morning's sun, so much so that I didn't awaken until 10 AM.  I had considered spending more time on the Middle Fork and its tributaries, but due to the late hour I departed soon after waking and began driving the long circle north and east around the Anaconda Range and south into the Big Hole Valley.  There is an unmarked section of state-owned land there that Bob Bushmaker told me about.  My campsite, just a few feet from the water, had a long view of the Big Hole River, with no other people in sight in either direction - just ducks and eagles. I fished there for several hours but could only get the attention of a couple of small trout.  Admittedly I went about the fishing in a half-hearted way because I was too busy drinking in the surroundings and the solitude.  I had planned to cook dinner on a campfire, and there was a convenient ring of stones quite near Camelot for that purpose, but a row of black clouds soon swept in from the south and I thought it prudent to stow my gear inside just before a downpour began.  I shrugged and went to bed early.  It had been a fine day.

The next morning I built the campfire I had intended for the prior evening and used it to cook Italian sausage and eggs for breakfast.  There was still no one around.  It was very pleasant to watch the steam rise off the glassy surface of the slow-moving river while I ate.  I took my time the rest of the morning cleaning and reorganizing some of my gear in preparation for the next leg of my trip, which begins tomorrow.  The rest of the day I drove under gorgeous skies south of the Anacondas, turning west at Wisdom and passing the Big Hole National Battlefield.

In a previous blog I mentioned the plight of the Cherokee Indians who were herded from the southeast U.S. to Oklahoma, and of the Cheyenne Indians who were butchered by George Custer at the Washita River.  I can't now go without mentioning that among the greatest of travesties committed against Native Americans was the harrassment of the Nez Perce Indians by white settlers and the U.S. Army in the 1870s.  To make a long story short, the Nez Perce (the name is French for Big Nose) were a friendly tribe (very helpful to Lewis and Clark, for instance) that lived primarily in western Idaho and eastern Washington.  As often happened in that era, white settlers encroached on their lands and the Nez Perce were corraled into tighter and tighter spaces.  When a group of young braves grew weary of their treatment and fought back, a "war" was launched.  Chief Joseph had no desire to fight, and instead decided to lead the entire tribe to safety in Canada.  The ensuing exodus was epic on the scale of the Jews migrating from Egypt in the era of the Pharoahs.  Unfortunately, the U.S. Army was not content to let the Nez Perce disappear into Canada, and engaged the Nez Perce on several occasions during the tribe's long and arduous journey over and around dozens of mountain ranges in Idaho, Montana and northern Wyoming.  But Chief Joseph was unable to part the mountains so his tribe could pass and then cause the mountains to fall on the Army, as Moses had done when parting the Red Sea and destroying the Egyptians.  One battle was fought near the headwaters of the Big Hole.  Chief Joseph was wily and his tribe escaped with relatively few casualties, as it was to do in subsequent skirmishes with the Army.  After taking a very roundabout course the Nez Perce trekked north through central Montana to a point only miles from the Canadian border.  On the eve of the tribe's escape to freedom, the Army finally mustered enough force and strategy to stall the Indians and compel them to return to a small reservation in southeast Washington and languish.  "I will fight no more forever," Chief Joseph famously said, no doubt with large teardrops falling down his handsome and war-weary cheeks.

Sorry for the digression, but that story gets to me every time I think of it.  I have been reminded of it dozens of times travelling in Wyoming and Montana, generally following the route of the Nez Perce in reverse.  Not even the Indians who tried their best to cooperate with the European invaders fared well in the American Holocaust.  It's hard for us today to conceive of the fact that tens of millions, and by some estimates hundreds of millions of people were wiped out in the genocide we called "Manifest Destiny."  The silver lining is that I get to go fly fishing where the Indians once fished and hunted, and I say that with all the gritty sarcasm and facetiousness that you can imagine.

Anyway, like the bubbly newscasters who describe nightmarish events in one breath and then smile and laugh about the weather in the next, I return my attentions to the lighter side of life.  After passing the Big Hole National Battefield, I negotiated a couple of steep passes north of the Beaverhead Mountains (part of the Bitterroot Range) near the Idaho border, criss-crossing the Continental Divide for perhaps the 20th time this summer.  I dropped down into the gorgeous Bitteroot River Valley, pausing briefly to make a couple of calls when I finally had cell phone reception and to gawk at craggyTrapper Peak southwest of Darby, MT.  Then I was on to Missoula, which is where I am now, all packed and ready to fly tomorrow to Anchorage, Alaska where I will hook up with Trish.  On Friday morning we'll fly a float plane to a lodge at Lake Creek northwest of Anchorage, there to find a trio of salmon species eager to eat our flies.  We'll be gone for a week, so you may not hear from me again for a while.  When you do, I hope to have some truly riveting video and pictures.