Saturday, November 23, 2013

My First Colorado Weekend

                                                    My First Colorado Weekend

In April of 1986 I officially moved from Boston to Denver, but work duties kept me traveling most of the time, usually back on the East Coast.  Every thing I owned was in boxes in my Denver apartment, and would stay that way for months.  But finally one weekend in late April I was able to stay in Colorado for the weekend, and had to choose between unboxing stuff or heading out into the hills. The call of the mountains was strong, and everything stayed in boxes for another week.

  On Friday afternoon I left Denver in a rainstorm, and by the time I got to Georgetown it had turned to snow.  This concept was still entirely new to me, that one could drive west from Denver and then be in an entirely different climate in a half-hour’s drive (of course that’s a two-hour drive most Friday nights now).  The previous night I had watched the TV weather forecast, and it indicated that it would be raining in Denver but nice in the mountains, west of something called “The Continental Divide”.  It seemed improbable, but  I stuffed camping gear, fishing tackle, and skis into the back of my Saab 99 and pointed it west.  As the road rose and the weather grew wetter, I kept thinking that this was a really stupid thing to do.  The driving just got worse as the road climbed, and camping didn’t seem to be too likely.  By the time I got to the Eisenhower Tunnel, there was a half foot of snow on the ground and I was glad to be driving something as good in the snow as a Saab.

  But then I emerged from the tunnel’s west portal and could see the sky for the first time since I left Denver, and there were the makings of a gorgeous sunset!  Scattered clouds, the sun looming high above Buffalo Mountain, and suddenly this had the potential to be a great weekend after all.  When I came down the hill into Summit County, I decided to try and find a vantage point to shoot some photos of the beautiful western sky, but I  the sun was going to set prematurely behind the big wall of mountains in front of me. I needed to decide whether to keep going west straight into the sunset, or try to go around the mountains.  In my haste to leave Denver, I had forgotten my map on the kitchen table.  Not knowing any better, I headed north on Highway 9 to try and get around what I would learn later was called the Gore Range. 

  This was not a smart choice, and the further north I got I began to realize that maybe I should have kept going west on the interstate.  But now I was committed, and  I kept driving north hoping to see some road that might take me west and over the mountains. Finally after about twenty miles, I saw a dirt road that ran downhill to some river I didn’t know the name of, with some small signage on it that indicated it might go somewhere. It was getting late, so I made the turn to see where this road might lead.  It crossed a river, which I learned later was the Blue, and then began to climb up a long, winding grade.  I passed a ranch with some sheep, then rounding a corner almost ran into a large herd of cows leisurely walking across the road, in no mood to be rushed by my little car.  I thought, “I’m not in Boston anymore!, and waited for them to give me room to go by.

  After passing some pretty meadows lined with aspen groves, the road starting going steeply downhill and the canyon walls closed in.  I was beginning to wonder just how big of a mistake I had made by taking this road, when I found myself coming around a bend to see one of the most expansive valley views I’d ever seen.  To my right was the mouth of an enormous, deep canyon, and to my left a wide green river valley far below.  I pulled over to get a better look, and climbed over the guardrail to get out onto some rocks for a better perspective.  The sun was already down below the western ridge, and the colors underwhelming, but the sight I gazed upon below for the first time made an indelible image onto the filmstock of my brain. Then I heard a low sound like steady distant thunder, and looking down into the deep dark canyon saw what looked like a toy train a thousand feet below.  I watched as the train went down the valley and could see the entire thing from the engines up front to the last rattling cars in the rear. The perspective from so far above was almost god-like. 

  I decided to sleep in that spot then and there, and unloaded my sleeping bag and cooler.  There was on flattish spot on the side of the hill that was level enough to sleep on, and that’s where I planned to spend the night.  But looking west, I noticed that the gathering clouds were looking more and more malevolent, and felt the first few splats of rain strike the ground and rocks around me.  Since it wasn’t completely dark yet, my curiosity finally got the better of me and I wanted to see where that dirt road I was on ended up. I got back in the 99 and drove the hill and into the valley below.  The road curved and dipped for over ten miles, crossing the river once.  Finally I came down a steep hill and towards some ramshackle log buildings, and then to a larger building with lights on inside.  I was happy to find a watering hole this far out in the sticks. Having gotten to where I was without a map and in unfamiliar territory, I had no idea where I was.  So parked my car and checked out the old wooden structure I was approaching.  It looked to be at least turn of the century vintage, and maybe older. There was a big deck one had to cross to get in, from which there was a good view of the river below.  I went into the old saloon expecting to see a roomful of people, for judging by the number of cars outside the place was going to be packed. 

  But when I opened the door, there was…no one.  I bellied up to the bar and stood and waited, and waited, but still the bar appeared empty.  I peered over the behind the bar and saw how easy it would be to pour myself one.  Let’s see, the mugs are over there, the tap is there, hmmm I could just…

  Just then I heard the murmur of people upstairs, and noticed that there was a staircase leading up to what looked like a darkened room above.  I creaked my way up the stairs on the ancient planks and when my head got above the floor level I was greeted by the sight of a roomful of people sitting in folding metal chairs, looking towards a small brightly-lit stage and smiling.  On the stage was a cowboy, (I could tell that because he had the hat, and neckerchief, and a perfectly coiled rope).  He was in the middle of reciting a poem about working hard on a cattle ranch, through all kinds of bad weather, in the company of trusty fellow-ranchhands, a good dog, a sturdy smart horse.  Long nights spent around campfires being serenaded by coyotes, (or the way cowboys say it, kye-yotes).   It was kind of cliché but it was way cool, too.  I had stumbled onto a Cowboy Poetry gathering, something I had heard of but had never been to.  Cowboy Poetry readings don’t exactly dominate the Massachusetts cultural landscape. 

  A waitressy-looking woman went downstairs and I followed, finally able to get a large mug of draft beer.  Back upstairs I found a metal folding chair of my own and stayed for the rest of the show. There were more Real Cowboys like the first, and some also had instruments and sang their poems.  One of the singers had a little cattle dog (also in a neckerchief) who would let out mournful, “Oooh! Ooooh! Ah-Oooohh!!s” at critical moments in the song.  (I think that he trying to sing like a kye-yote).  The highlight for me was the cowboy who recited the entire poem “The Man From Snowy River” verbatim, gesturing dramatically with his arms and making grand flourishes at exciting moments in the narrative.  I was thinking, Boy, you definitely ain’t in Boston no more. 

  That night I drove back up the dirt river road to my spot near the mouth of what I had learned was called Gore Canyon.  The river nearby was none other than the mighty Colorado, and, as I was told by the bartender,  this saloon had been here for over a hundred years.  It was called the State Bridge Lodge and Teddy Roosevelt had stayed here once on the way to slaying large numbers of Colorado fauna.  

  Finally back at my spot I unrolled the sleeping bag and laid it out under the night sky.  Directly above me the stars were blazing, but as I looked west I couldn’t see any stars at all.  There were dark clouds everywhere, it was like being in a black hole, or just outside of one.  But right overhead the sky was clear, so I decided to stay there until it rained, and if the bivy bag couldn’t keep the rain out then I could always retreat to the Saab.  But the sky stayed clear, and I noticed that there was a persistent breeze coming out of Gore Canyon, which seemed to be blowing the clouds away. Before I fell asleep I got to see my first Colorado shooting star, the first of many more to follow in the next two dozen years.

  The next day I drove back to the bar to get a better look at where I was and had been.  The river canyon was beautiful, and once I had a better look around I was ready to see more.  The previous night someone had told me about a long way round back to I-70, and had drawn up a map to it on a bar napkin.  At some point while bundled up in my sleeping bag later I must have had runny nose, for I had used the napkin for an alternative purpose.  It was still readable though, just a bit gross.  I headed west on the first paved road I’d seen in some time to where I was told to turn, and once again was back on a dirt road.  This one went down a hill and met up with the river, which it then followed west.  It was a scenic river valley, with the railroad tracks running between the river and the dirt road I was on.  After a few miles the road crossed the river on a one-lane bridge and climbed up a hill away from it, and up on top I got my first look at some snow-drenched mountains I later learned to be the Flat Tops.  It was beautiful open country, with only an occasional ranch to be seen.  The road dipped again and went down a steep hill where it crossed the river over another small bridge, and for the next few miles I followed it along the prettiest section of the canyon I’d been on yet. The canyon walls on the right were shades of pink and yellow, and on the left they were bright red.  I began thinking of looking for a spot to camp and wet a line, and when I saw some orange, yellow and red rock hoodoos on the opposite hillside and thought that it looked to be a good spot to stay. 

  There was a little dirt trail that went down towards the river which I thought the Saab could handle, so I followed that down.  Unfortunately the railroad tracks were there as well, and they prevented me from getting too close to the water’s edge.  I got out and walked around a bit, astounded by how dramatic the cliffs looked.  In subsequent years I would spend a lot of time in southern Utah and got to see lots of country like this, but to eyes raised on softer eastern mountain ranges, this all looked like the surface of Mars by comparison. I took some photos of the area and scrambled down to the river, but decided to look for a spot to camp elsewhere since only (but ideal) spot that I could see was across the river. 

  I got back in the Saab and kept driving, stopping a lot to take more photos along the way.  Along the way I saw a couple of dirt roads that went off into the hills, but they all lead away from the river and I wanted to stay near that.  A few miles from the area with the colorful cliffs I saw the first few houses I’d seen in awhile, and thought, What a great place to live.  Eventually I got back to I-70, and camped out that night near Tennessee Pass on my way back to Denver.  But I never forgot the Colorado River Road, and over the next 17 years went back often to camp and fish.   For the first fifteen years that I lived in Denver I spent many weekends loaded up with skis and fishing rods and camping gear, and then later mountain bikes and an inflatable kayak, exploring the mountains of Colorado and deserts and canyons of Utah.  But over the latter years more and more often I found myself spending the weekends in the area above and below the State Bridge Lodge.  There’s lots of public land with free camping all around, some of which is walking distance to the bar. 

  Ten years ago my wife and I moved to a spot two miles downriver from the heart of that red rock canyon.  I run fishing trips right through the most beautiful section, and my shop and takeout is right in my backyard.  I've been up and down that road thousands of times now, but it still sometimes knocks my socks off just soaking it all in.  Even after several hundred river trips, its still a magical place that I never get tired of experiencing.  What's even better is taking others on it for their first time, and reliving my first exposure to it in the process.  It’s a place that I was somehow just drawn to, as if by some larger unseen force.  I knew it was meant to be not long after we bought our place here, poring over the USGS maps left behind by the previous owner.  The name of that spot in the middle of the canyon was "Jack Flats", and I thought, I guess I was meant to be here. 



Saturday, November 16, 2013

   Finding Home                       
  I live beside the Colorado River, on a thirty-four mile stretch of road appropriately called the Colorado River Road. At the downstream end, the road meets Interstate 70, and the river its confluence with the Eagle.  At this confluence, the river turns west and flows into Glenwood Canyon and to points further southwest, including Moab, Powell Reservoir, and the Grand Canyon.

  But upstream of the interstate, the river is still small enough to wade across in early winter, and it remains a mostly wild and untrammeled place.  The lower half of the river is flanked by a handful of large ranches, and the upper half by BLM land, neither of which seem to be in any imminent danger of development. Our place is roughly in the middle of the two.  We only own six acres, but they’re pretty diverse, with two along the river, and four across the River Road.  Of the remaining four acres, two are flat enough for my wife to run her horses and cows, and the other two are up on hills which afford the livestock a place to explore and to have some nice views of the Flat Top Mountains and the river below. 

 I love living here next to the river, for in so many ways being here is really a dream come true.  I’ve always loved oceans and brooks and rivers, for water that is dynamic and moving and alive just stirs something in my soul that a mere lake, no matter how large, cannot. Beside a river, I feel a connectedness to everything that the moving water touches from the snowcapped peaks above the valley to the desert canyons that the river eventually carves.  With an ocean, I feel connected to the entire rest of the world.  When my wife and I were finally ready to get ourselves away from the noise and bad air and traffic of Denver, we looked through many river valleys before settling on this one, but we made a very good choice.  My only stipulation at the start was that we had to live near a creek at a minimum, one large enough to sustain a year-round population of trout.  It didn’t have to be big enough to float a watercraft through, although that would obviously be a major plus. 

  At first we looked along the Colorado River valley west of Glenwood Springs, which is near where my wife Terena is from.  But in recent years, the ramped-up amount of gas drilling in that area has really spoiled what having an interstate highway through the middle of it already didn't.  Almost anywhere you stand between Silt and Parachute, multiple numbers of drill rigs can be seen, especially at night.  If you buy land there there’s no guarantee that some day Encana or Halliburton trucks won’t be driving across your property to access a drill pad in the middle of it. Then since most of Terena’s clients come from the Roaring Fork valley we looked up there, but anything near moving water, let alone the Roaring Fork River itself, was prohibitively expensive.  Finally we turned towards the Eagle River valley, which is growing rapidly and would have numerous job opportunities for me, and a lot of potential dog clients for Terena.  But as with the Roaring Fork Valley, anything near the Eagle River is very expensive, and there’s the perpetual distant hum of I-70 to listen to.

  And so we ended up finding a place along the Colorado River, in the place I was hoping to be in all along.  It was a stretch of river and road that I had first stumbled upon in the first weekend road trip I had made when I first moved to Colorado many years earlier. In the years since, I had made many more forays here to camp and fish and float the whitewater sections further upstream in the area around State Bridge.  Before it burned down, the State Bridge Lodge had been a favorite spot for my wife and I to reconnoiter for weekend getaways. 

  When people see our place for the first time, they usually marvel at how beautiful the surrounding area is, and how lucky we are to have found such a great spot.  They'll often ask how in the world we were able to find a place to live in such as this one.  Not only are we right on the river, but we have no immediate neighbors, there is county open space across the river that can't be developed, and our backyard view is dominated by a colorful rock formation five hundred feet high called Sleeping Indian Mesa.  Terena is able to run her business from the house without ever going to town, and it serves as a great place to run a float fishing business out of for me. 

  The wheels started turning for all of this back in 2002, when Terena began taking classes to learn how to write a business plan.  She had the idea of starting a school for dog trainers, but knew that she would need to know more about running a business at that level than she knew at the time.  The business plan she wrote was so well done that would eventually win an award for it from the Small Business Administration.

  Then in mid-year, I got laid off from the high-tech job I had, right on the heels or returning home from what was probably the most successful business trip I'd ever had.  Two large projects that had been on going in California were finally signed off on by the customers, which would allow the company I was working for to finally bill them for it.  Terena and I decided that this was the time to get out of Denver and to relocate our lives in the mountains, which is where we had both wanted to be all along. 

  Our trips to the mountains that summer took on a new rationale.  It was no longer just about camping and floating rivers and four-wheeling, but also about finding a new place we could call home.  Since Terena had roots in Garfield County having grown up in New Castle, we started there.  But the Roaring Fork valley was very expensive, especially along its waterways.  Eagle County along the I-70 corridor was also pricey, plus neither one of us was crazy about being close to the highway.  We looked west of Glenwood Canyon, but the river there was often off-color and the fracking boom was already taking hold there.  Horror stories were already beginning to emerge about people getting their drinking water ruined by drill rigs, and of rigs being put up on people's land without their having any say in it due to not owning the mineral rights. 

  So that left the lower Upper Colorado River, and area that I had known and loved for sixteen years. One weekend I got up into the mountains a day before Terena, and had spent it really checking out the valley with a more critical eye than I ever had before.  There were only a handful of properties for sale, but all had issues.  They would either be on the wrong side of the road or railroad from the river, or wouldn't have the room for horses that she would want to have, or would be more or bigger than we could afford.
  But then rounding the corner, I spied a perfect little ranch on a bend in the river with a huge stripey rock formation behind it.  I thought, "Too bad that's not for sale, that one would be perfect!".  Only when I got to the bottom of the hill and saw the driveway to it did I see the "For Sale" sign.  I added that phone number to my notebook and took some pictures of it.  It had several outbuildings and what looked like living units, an arena, fencing for horses, and irrigation.  And of course, it was right on the Colorado River.
  I showed it to Terena the next day, and she agreed that it looked pretty good, but her first priority at the time was getting involved with the potential purchase of the private land surrounding Sweetwater Lake, not far away. Someone she knew was trying to purchase it, and would slice us off a parcel if they did, but that negotiation was stalling.  The property that I found was more expensive than were hoping to pay, but once we locked in on it, Terena was able to redo her business plan and make all of the numbers work, primarily by increasing the amount of dog boarding we would do.  By raising some money from some investors, and by dipping into my still-good credit resources, we were able to pull it off, and in January of that year we began moving our stuff from the Front Range up to our new place in the hills.

  In October of 2002 Terena and I had gotten married, but instead of a honeymoon we put all of our time and financial resources into trying to pull off this whole change of life move we were contemplating.  Negotiations with the owner of the property we wanted to move into were tricky, but it got done. Our initial payments to the owner were stiff, but it was a lease-to-own arrangement and whatever we paid in rent would be applied to the eventual purchase of it, which we were hoping to do once our businesses got off and running.  In addition, we spent a lot of the money she had raised getting the place ready for the dogs we would have boarded there, and for the apprentices who would be living there.  This involved putting up a lot of fences, and cleaning up the three-unit apartment building and wiring it up for the internet.  By April we had moved out of our house in Denver, and were up at our new place full time.  My old place had been rented to a lesbian couple who would eventually wreck it, which would lead to a bad time for me the following year cleaning up their mess. But up in the mountains life looked promising, and we spent all our waking hours getting everything ready for students and dogs. 

  In June of that first year, Terena had an unusual experience.  She was driving down to Glenwood Springs on a hot, sunny day, and as she was getting on the on-ramp to I-70 she noticed an upraised hand in the tall grass.  Curious, she pulled over and got out.  She found an older man in the grass barely conscious, bile coming out of the corners of his mouth, weakly saying, "Water….water…".  Her first thought was that he was some homeless crackhead on a bender, but having a big heart she wasn't going to just leave him there, or call 911 to let the cops deal with it. So she got some water from her van, gave it to the old man, and revived him.  Once he was able to sit up and speak, she found out that he was hitchhiking to Glenwood, and gave him a ride. 

  Along the way, she learned that he was not a substance abuse, but a once-independent business owner who had Parkinson's Disease.  He lived up the river from us, but his disease had progressed to the point that he could longer drive.  Now to get to town, he used his thumb instead of his truck.  He also mentioned that later in the fall, he would be moving to an assisted-living facility because he was getting to the point where he could no longer take care of himself, and that he would be selling his house. 

  When I got home that evening, Terena told me about what had happened with the old man whose name was John. It was an interesting story, and we didn't think too much about it at the time.  When we would ride our bikes that summer, we would usually go past his place on our way up to the canyon and would hope to see him around to say hello.  But he never seemed to be there, and his place was a bit of a mess.  The house he was living in was one that he had built himself, racing against his terrible disease to get it finished while he could still work on it.  But in the end the Parkinson's won, with the place about 90 percent finished. 

  By September, Terena and were starting realize that we were losing our own race, that of getting paying students into our new dog training school by the time our startup money and my credit ran out.  We had potential students interested, but since we weren't accredited by the state they could not get student loans.  Getting accredited by the state was also an expensive and involved process that we hadn't adequately factored in.  I bought a boat to start building a float fishing business, but there were lots of permits that I needed before I could start making any money at that, as well as lots of gear to buy.  The good news was that there was more boarding business to be had than we realized, and so our dreams were still alive, but where we trying to make them happen was just too expensive. 

  So we began to think about Plan B.  My house in Denver was rented out so that wasn't an option, but considered trying to rent some where cheaper or even moving in with her parents in New Castle.  Neither option was that appealing, and in the few months we had been there we had really grown to love the valley we were in and the river we were living beside.  At some point, we thought, what about John's house?  We rode our bikes over there one day and looked at his place with a far more critical eye than we had before.  For the first time, we walked around the back yard and tried to visualize it with dog fencing and a boat ramp.  It wasn't that hard to do.  There wasn't any room for Terena's horses, but the property across the street seemed to be John's as well, judging by all of the piles of out-of-code electrical components that were over there.  John had been an electrical contractor back in the day, and had several rusting trucks and trailers over there with his business name on them.
  Finally it came down to trying to buy his place or moving in with Terena's parents until I could get back into my house in the big city we had been so glad to put in our rearview mirror.  We tracked down John, and then his realtor.  The real estate economy in Colorado was very strong back then, and particularly in the mountains, and this was waterfront property so it wouldn't be on the market for long. 
  John had just moved into his new digs at a nursing home in Rifle when we were finally able to get ahold of him, but he remembered Terena and the kindness she had showed him on that day in June.  Being a bachelor, he wasn't in need to squeeze every penny possible he could out of the place.  In the end, we were not only able to buy the house from him, but he sold it to us for less than the appraised value, and he carried the financing! It shows how karma can work its way around, sometimes in unexpected ways.  Terena did a good turn for someone,  and ten years later its still paying dividends off for us.
  We felt very grateful to John, and tried to show it in the time he had left.  My father passed away that year, and in some small way I transferred the attention that I might have shown my father onto John instead.  The job I had took me into Garfield County occasionally, and I would stop by to say hi to John and see how he was doing.  Not so long before, he had been a strong and proud and independent man, and being trapped in a nursing home was miserable experience for him.  Cleaning up his home and property proved to be a formidable task that took the better part of a year, but every now and then we would come across something interesting.  Once we were going through some VHS tapes and found one labled, "Alaska Trip".  Curious, I put it in the machine to watch it and found that it was of John and some friends fishing in Alaska not too many years earlier, back when his disease was in its infancy. Just before Christmas, I took the tapes and an extra VCR over to the nursing home and hooked it all up for him.  Then we spent the next couple of hours or so watching the tapes together.  In the darkened room, I could see the glow in his face as he looked twenty years younger, seeing images of himself as the strong healthy man he once was.  For a short time, he was no longer the helpless old man that I knew, but the man who had hiked into the Grand Canyon, and who had bicycled through Europe, and had fished for salmon in Alaska.  In one sequence, he hooked a nice big Chinook and as he brought it to net, his old friends congratulating him. I looked over at him in the warm light of the TV and saw tears streaming down his face, and knew that in that moment he wasn't sick anymore. He was back in that Alaskan river once more, wet and cold and happy. 

  When people see the life that we've managed to carve out for ourselves here, and wonder if its possible to do something similar for themselves, the answer is yes.  But it takes a lot of luck, and for lots of things to fall into place that you may or may not have any control over.  Three years after we bought John's house, Terena's parent's bought the original ranch that we had leased, and having her family a mile away has added yet another dimension to our life here. Her ninety-year-old grandmother also moved up to live in one of the ranch units we fixed up, so Terena got to be a part of her grandmother's life for her last seven years. 

  Our life here is not perfect by any means, for we are not perfect people and our relationship even less so.  But the place we live in is as perfect as one could ever hope to find, and knowing that makes dealing with the day to day grind of scratching out a living much easier to deal with. I owned two homes before we bought this place, and each one was just somewhere to be until the next stage in life came along.  Living here, there is no "next place" to come, this is it, we are in the place we were meant to be.  I hope to be here forever, but if for some reason that doesn't come to pass I'll always be grateful for the opportunity to have spent the time I have here, and to have been able to share it with others. It’s a special place that works itself deep into your marrow and into your soul, and I feel very lucky to have been able to call it home.

   Fishing Without Fish                                                                                                      

  Last night I got home a little early, with enough time left to do some chores and still have a little bit of light left in the sky afterwards.  It was a very mild and still evening for November, and almost warm considering that the previous week, the first few snows of the year had dusted our yard.  The river out back looked pink and flat enough that I thought there might be a trout or two sipping midges out there.  So I took my little seven foot three weight rod out of my shed, and walked to the end of my dock to see if there would be any tell-tale rings out there betraying the presence of brown trout.

  I stood there on the edge of my dock for awhile looking for risers, and saw none.  But I was so taken by the scene I forgot that I was supposed to be fishing.  The sky was lit by some very high clouds catching the last rays of the setting sun, and were very pink.  The river before me had long been cast into the shadow of the large rock formation across the way, a five hundred foot high fin called Sleeping Indian Mesa.  In the summer, as soon as the edge of that shadow makes its way from the far bank over to mine, rising fish can be seen just into the edge of the shadow, following it across the river. 

  But tonight there were no riseforms, just mellow water with only the faintest amount of ripples and little spinning eddies to it.  Usually I don’t bother to cast dry flies without there being fish obviously feeding on top, but it’s not a firm rule.  I’ve caught many a small brown trout in my backyard just after sundown, and even when I don’t it gives me a good excuse to just stand by the river for ten minutes. 

  We’ve lived here for ten years, and in that time I’ve spent a lot of time in the backyard along the water.  But it wasn’t until I built my dock two years ago that I really had a good central place to admire the river from.  Its not much of a dock, its only ten feet long and six wide, but it cantilevers out over the water by a couple of feet.  Sitting in an Adirondack chair watching the river flow by, it feels like sitting in a raft, only higher.  The dock was made out of used, repurposed wood, and I don’t expect it to last forever, so the only cost I incurred in its construction was for the hardware bolting it all together.  The year before I built it, the river rose to height two feet above where the dock is now, and when that happens again the dock will become a raft.  But in that year, the water had been the highest it had been in twenty years, and it had been twenty more before that since the last big water.  So I figured twenty years would be about what both the dock and I have left, and I’ll take twenty of both if I can get them. 

 I remembered the rod in my hand, held the tip out over the water, and began stripping out line.  It was a rod expertly crafted by my best friend, and rigged with a long leader and two flies.  The point fly was a size 16 Adams with a little orange parachute, and the second dropper fly two feet away a size 18 elk hair caddis.  The Adams was probably a little too big to duplicate a midge, and there hadn’t been reliable caddis hatches on the river in the past three summers, ever since the big water.  But both flies float very well, and I didn’t particularly care whether I caught anything or not, so I started making short casts upstream.  The water flow was so flat that I could easily follow the progress of the flies as they floated downstream, and would mend out line after they passed me to float them a good ways down. 

  The sky grew deeper and deeper pink, with the chin of the sleeping indian creating a solid dividing line of black in the water.  I’d cast upcurrent into the black, note the location of the flies landing on the water, and keep a close eye on them.  When they’d land into the dark water, they would appear as little pinpricks of light, like two new stars in the watery firmament.  When the flies passed  the dividing line from dark to light, they would now look like two black specks in a undulating sheet of glowing pink bed covers. Then as they continued their voyage downstream, the flies would hopefully drift over the nose of an unwitting little brown, and get taken. 

  I kept my eyes and ears tuned to the periphery of the scene hoping to hear some other fish that I might cast towards, but there were no fish rising this night.  But it was fun drifting the flies further out each cast, and getting a longer drift each time.  The water was so flat that getting those flies to drift a long way didn’t require much on my part, just an occasional flip of the line.  Suddenly I heard a small splash downstream to my left, but instead of a riseform I saw our local muskrat swimming upstream towards me.  I held very still, and he got closer and closer until he was only twenty feet away, at which point he rolled forward and dove into the water with great flourish, his upstretched tail disappearing last like a submarine periscope.  The muskrat swam around for a minute or two in the very water I was trying to drift my dry flies in, and then swam off to go ruin someone else’s fishing. 

  Now that the muskrat was no longer making waves in it, the water’s surface grew smooth again.  I resumed my casting knowing without doubt that I absolutely no chance of catching anything in the few remaining minutes of light I had left.  And it didn’t matter.  The mere doing of the thing was enough, and no small terrified trout had to be dragged out of its aquatic paradise by a sharp hook in it’s mouth for my moment to be complete. Trout tend to live in beautiful places, and give the rest of us reason to share those places with them. Of all the joys and benefits of fishing for trout, perhaps that’s the best one.  They need clean, clear, cold water to thrive, and to find that you generally have to be higher up in watersheds.  The higher up you go, the less developed it tends to be.  Of course, the tailwaters found below dams and the fisheries they create are the exception to that rule. But even those can be unexpected and special, like finding trout in the Grand Canyon or the on San Juan River, in the middle of deserts where no trout would otherwise be. 

  If a person were to simply walk up to a pretty stream and stand there beside it for an hour or three, or stand in it, doing nothing, you might think that person a little daft.  But to do the same thing only with a fly rod in hand, makes you crazy, but a sportsman. Warm water fishes don’t always live in ugly places, but they often do.  Trout rarely do, and that’s a major reason to pursue them.  By seeking them out, we go to where they live and just being in their verdant neighborhoods is good for the soul. 

  When my wife and I moved up to the mountains from Denver ten years ago, I had only one non-negotiable stipulation as to where our future property would be.  It had to be adjacent to a moving body of water that held a year-round population of trout. River, brook, or stream, it didn’t matter, if it were good enough for trout, it would be good enough for me. That it ended up being along the Upper Colorado River was only a bonus, but I could have been just as happy on the Crystal or Brush Creek or the Eagle.  

  I kept making longer and longer casts further out into the river, but it was almost dark and those two little flies got harder to see.  Thirty feet of line is about all I can manage with that seven footer, but its all that's needed to reach the main current.  The flies remained unmolested, but staring at them in the now-purple twilight was mesmerizing.  I began to wonder if mind-altering chemicals ingested in college might still be clinging to dim corners of my brain.  There were no trout to be had on this fine evening, but it couldn’t matter less.  Right in my own backyard I have a portal into a very different place than the one constructed and inhabited by man.  It is the natural world, the real world, a reality that preceded our “taming” of it and one that would long outlast us.  Standing out there on the edge of my dock is to be able to feel and touch that reality, and know that it exists.  The magic is there all the time to see, all we have to do is to open up our eyes and minds and hearts to it. 

Friday, October 4, 2013

The River Is Perfect!

To All My Fishing Friends,

   Its been an up and down couple of months, but I'm happy to report that the Upper Colorado River  is finally in great shape! The level has dropped and the clarity is really good, and watching the trout eagerly chasing streamers is great fun, even when they don't quite catch them.  (Sometimes I'd almost rather just miss a fish on a streamer than catch one on a nymph).

  So anyway, it looks like its going to be a condensed fishing season here on the Upper C.  Since August, it seems as though we never got more than a couple of days in a row without rain.  The river would just start to clear, and it would rain a little and turn it red again.  Since the ground got so saturated it wouldn't take much to do the trick.  Late in the year, I even lost my ability to check out the river clarity in the backyard, since the irrigation headgate on Red Dirt Creek blew out for the second time, and now it's crimson waters run directly into the river about mile above my house. So to check on what the river is looking like through the canyon, I have to go a mile upstream (above Red Dirt) to look. Right now, both above and below Red Dirt it looks great.

  Due to all the off-color water we've had, the trout have had trouble getting good meals and look a  little skinny.  They don't seem too interested in nymphs, and there haven't been many mayflies or caddis rising, but they sure seem to want a nice big meal in the form of a small baitfish.  Autumn Splendors, Zonkers, and Woolly Buggers (purple or white) do well.  Since the trout are both horny and hungry, I like to toss a two streamer with one brown and yellow rig for the hormonal fish and a smaller, unweighted white fly trailing that for the hungry ones.  Either way you're covered!

  Last night we got our first little bit of the white stuff on the ground, and before you know it the lifts at A-Basin will be running again.  But things are supposed to warm up this week again, and here at the relatively low elevation of 6,200' we should have another month or so of great fishing before its time to break out the old Volants and head for the slopes. If any of you reading this want to get in some good fishing before than happens let me know.  The leaves have just started to change this week and so there should be two more weeks of that to help dress up an already colorful float. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Of Droughts And Floods

                                         Of Droughts and Floods

Anyone who has been watching the news lately is aware that sections of Colorado's Front Range have been devastated by floods over the past week.  The news footage has been truly astounding, with roads, bridges, and homes washed away.

  I had several friends and family members calling to see how we've been making out here along the Colorado River, thinking that perhaps we've been affected as well.  Well we are just fine, thank you.  Not only have the heaviest of the rains been concentrated on the eastern side of the Rockies, (and we're on the west), but the Colorado River has numerous dams upriver which help control the flow long before its comes our way.  In fact, 60% of the water that should be flowing past my backyard ends up being diverted to the Front Range by what are called "trans-basin" diversions, which is engineer-speak for the Front Range stealing our water.

  In a drought year, which is what this was until about two months ago, this water pilfery is a bad thing.  It results in less water for our fish and for our farms.  When things get wet though, suddenly dams are not the enemy after all.  During the winter of 2010-2011, we had a year for snowfall that can still bring a smile to one's face just thinking about it.  There weren't any huge storms, but it seemed as though every night another 2"-3" inches fell, all winter long.  It was a wonderful winter, with epic ass-deep powder all the time.  A-Basin was not only open until the 4th of July, the conditions were actually pretty good until then.  But then came spring, and the other shoe had to drop in the form of all that snow needing somewhere to go once it melted.

  The water managers who manage the dams from Denver Water,  Northern Water and the Bureau of Reclamation did a bang-up job that spring using the water management function of the dams to keep folks downstream from getting flooded.  In June the water flowing past my house peaked at 12,000 cfs, and was over 10,000 cfs for over two months.  At that level, my backyard was a part of the Colorado River for that entire time, but my house still stands.

  Conversely, in dry years like the last two, by restricting flows by capturing run-off in May and June, it ensures that come August and September when rivers that don't have storage upstream become a trickle, the Colorado is still running strong. 

  This year's anticipated late summer trickle never materialized, thanks to a monsoon pattern that started in July and has yet to let up.  For the past month, weather forecasters have been saying that the monsoon pattern is about to let up, and drier weather on the way, and for the past month forecasters have been wrong.  Even this week, the dry weather was supposed to start on Monday, and its rained on Monday, Tuesday, and today.

  So far though the only result in the wetter pattern has been to put the river off-color, which means cancelled fishing trips.  This means lost income, but compared to what folks in Boulder County and along the South Platte drainage are dealing with, I'll take it.

  On Sunday I went north to fish the Yampa, thinking that the water below the dam would be clearer than anything around here.  It also gave me a chance to peer into the future, to see what kind of water was coming my way from the upriver.  The following day I was supposed to be doing my first paid float in two weeks. The following is the email I sent to my client that evening...

Mike,                                                                                                                       9/15/2013

  I just got back from a fishing trip to the Yampa tailwater below Stagecoach, which took me upriver from where I live. This morning the river didn't look too bad, there was about a foot of visibility.  Not quite fishable, I don't go with less than two feet (at least for a trip you're paying for). 

  13 miles upriver at Catamount, there was still a couple of cfs coming in at Catamount, and two feet of visibility above the bridge.  So I though, well if it doesn't rain again today, and it dries up above Catamount, then we might be fishing Monday. 

  On the way back from Toponas, I headed south towards a black sky.  Once over the low pass between McCoy and Toponas, it started to rain. When I got down the river, I could see it was bright red.  There's a bit of red rock upriver and it must have rained hard up there.  So then I followed the river down, and it was red until just above the Catamount bridge.  From there I could see the leading edge of the plume, marching downriver from McCoy.  That two feet of visibility was just about to be eclipsed by several miles of bright red silt. 

  The river cleared up again for the next several miles again, until I got to Pinball and the red rock canyon I usually float through.  It must have rained there too, all of the cliffs looked like the elevator in "The Shining", with blood red liquid just pouring off them in crimson waterfalls.  All along the river I counted at least twenty different red rivulets pluming into the green water.  The size of these alluvial fans would vary in proportion to the size of wash it was at the mouth of.

  By the time I got home, the river still looked pretty decent, even better than it looked this morning.  That's because I was looking at the morning's Catamount water, this afternoon in my backyard 13 miles away.  I told my wife about what was coming our way, and ten minutes later it changed from green to red.

  So needless top say, fishing's off tomorrow.  The good news is that the extended forecast looks good.  We're supposed to at least four days off in a row without rain this week, and all it takes usually is three days to get decent again.  It should be good for by this weekend, right up until when it starts to rain again. 



  So as you can see, the Colorado River is a rather dynamic and volatile ecosystem, and in wet years a rather unreliable fishing venue.  When its on, there's no river I'd rather ply my boat upon, but when once it goes off-color,  it takes a couple of days for it to clear and heal itself.  Over the ten years I've lived beside it, I've gotten pretty good at predicting its moods, but its kind of like a marriage that way.  Just when you think you know what's coming, some rain shower fifteen miles away rears its head like an email from an ex that your wife reads, and all bets are off!

Introduction To My Blog

                                                          Jack's Mountain Blog


  My name is Jack Bombardier, and this is my new blog.  I haven't done this before, so it may not have a lot of bells and whistles to start with, but presumably I'll get there.
  A quick Bio - I am originally from Massachusetts, and moved to Colorado when I was twenty-five.  Since I'm now fifty-two, I consider myself a "semi-native" Coloradan since I've lived slightly over half my life here. From 1984 until 2002, I was a Field Engineer traveling all over the US and the world working in the hi-tech world of design workstations.  Then for my next company I worked on drum scanners and imagsetters in the electronic pre-press industry, and then in my final position I was in the semiconductor business working with equipment used in the manufacture of computer chips. It was a fun ride while it all lasted, and I got to see many places that would have only been pictures in a magazine for me.

  But then late in my career, I met a Colorado mountain girl and that changed everything.  Travel was no longer about going to somewhere interesting, but more about who I was leaving behind to get there, and that took a lot of the fun out of travel.  When I got laid off in 2002, right after finishing the most productive business trip of my life, we stuck with our plans to get married that fall and moved to the mountains a couple of months later.

  My wife Terena is brilliantly smart as well as physically hot, and our original plan was to start a dog trainers school. She created a business plan that won the award for Best Business Plan handed out by the SBA that year, and we were on our way.  For my part, I was looking to create a business combining two of my two passions, fishing and rafting, by starting a guiding business, focused on doing trips along the Colorado River which is where we moved.  Ten years later, that is basically what we're doing.  We moved from our original venue that we were leasing to a place a mile upriver that we own, and the focus of her work shifted more towards boarding and training dogs than to training people, but we are basically "living the dream". Of course the "dream" has turned out to have a lot more twists and turns than we could have imagined back in 2002, but navigating the unexpected is what constitutes living.  A life that merely follows some predetermined script or series of bullet points would not be one worth living.

  So what will my blog will be about?  Basically, it will be about doing things, and then writing about it.  I've always been a Doer, and I've always liked to write. So much in the way that I've combined fishing and rafting into a Float Fishing Business, I'm going to combine an active lifestyle and a knack for stringing words together into a Blog.  Or at least that's the idea.  Whether it will be something that anyone but myself will want to read I can't say.  But the things that I'm interested in that I may want to write about at some point include (but are not limited to) fishing, skiing, hockey, driving, sex, travel, music, as well as popular (and unpopular) culture.  I also spend far too much time wondering about the nature of what we perceive to be reality, and why we are here, and whether we are spiritual beings made up of tiny little balls of energy that transcend space and time, or just meat. 

  I hope that over time, these blogs will be funny, insightful, informative, and profane, maybe all at the same time. I promise that I'll try to never be boring.  Life is too short and fleeting to waste time on being bored, there will be plenty of time for that when you're dead (or maybe not).

  You can find out more about my fishing operation at