Monday, May 11, 2020

Seduced By Moving Water

                                               Seduced By Moving Water

Almost twenty years ago, my wife and I began making plans to move from the Front Range of Colorado to the mountains that lay just to the west.  I had moved there from Massachusetts in the late eighties, and spent my weeks travelling around the world installing and repairing various computer-related equipment.  On weekends, I would head up into the hills almost every weekend to explore what I considered to be my new backyard. She was from a mountain community to begin with, but was attending college in the city when we met. When I first arrived, Colorado was in an economic downturn, and getting from the places I lived around Denver to the mountains for the weekend was easy.  But in the early nineties, the economy improved and people began pouring in.  Statewide, Colorado has never really looked back.  Since I got here, the population has doubled from two and a half million to over five, and its supposed to double again by 2050. Now, getting to the mountains from Denver can be quite a hassle, especially at peak times like weekends year-round, and powder days in the winter. 

 My wife was looking to establish a pet boarding and training facility, and almost every weekend we would supplement our outdoor play time with searching for properties that might fill her needs.  As for me, I only had one stipulation – whatever property we moved to had to have a year-round flowing water source, one that at minimum could support a self-sustaining population of trout.  Trout need clean, cold water to live in, so almost by definition any water in which trout can thrive probably sits in desirable surroundings.  I’ve spent lots of time fishing small creeks, and it often amazes me that decent-trout trout can live in a creeks barely wide enough for them to turn around in. 

This “flowing water” metric eliminated a number of properties that would have served her needs, but I held firm.  She would say, “But there’s river right down the road you can go fishing in!”, but living next to moving water was always about more than just fishing for trout.  The ability of trout to live in piece of water is in itself a metric, it shows that water to meet that clean and cold standard. It also means that it will flow year-round, and not dry up late in the summer.  If we were going to be making this big of a move to the mountains, I didn’t want to have to drive somewhere else to get to moving, fish-friendly  water.  It had to be in my front or backyard, even if I could jump across it. 

Why that was so important to me is hard to explain.  There’s just something about moving water of any size that I’ve always been drawn to.  When I was a kid growing up, I’d spend almost all of my free time deep in the New England woods.  The end of my street dead-ended into what seemed at the time to be an infinite forest. It went on for many miles before crossing any roads, more than enough room for a kid to get lost in. This was back in the late Sixties and early Seventies, when most parents weren’t of the helicopter variety. In the summer, we’d go out every morning and on many days not come back until it was getting dark. What we did as kids to fill that time in between was up to us.

  Running through my vast “wilderness” was small stream called Nuisance Brook, which began deep in those woods and flowed north, eventually emerging into the small town I lived in. Nuisance wasn’t big enough to run a shoe mill, but down in town there were lots of trade shops built along it banks.  It was a year-round creek though, and even in the hottest, driest summers there was always some water flowing in it.  Whenever I was out in those woods, we almost always spent some time near the little creek.  There weren’t any fish in it to speak of, but as kids we were often floating model boats in it, or damming it up just to alter the water’s flow, or just splashing around in it.  There was something about that little brook that I couldn’t resist.  At the edge of the woods, when Nuisance came out from its leafy canopy into civilization,  it was dammed up into an outdoor public swimming pool we called the Rez, short for reservoir.  The Rez wasn’t that big, maybe about the size of two football fields.  It had low cement walls on three sides and a sandy bottom, and served as the town pool in the summers.  In the winter it usually froze over, so we ice skated and played hockey on it. 

                                              The Rez in 1954 - Dick Whitney photo

As I grew older, I began to travel further afield in town and began to explore the “big” river upon which my hometown of Southbridge was built, the Quinebaug.  Southbridge is a classic New England mill town, and places like these tended to ruin the rivers that ran through them.  Back in the Industrial Revolution, rivers were both a source of power and a convenient place to dump waste. In the 1950s, the Quinebaug flooded and caused a lot of damage to the center of town, so the Corps of Engineers built what became called the Westville Dam, which created a small lake behind it.  That area became my focal point when it got older, since it was only a fifteen minute bike ride away. The Quinebaug begins in the woods near Brookfield and gets dammed up by a reservoir there, creating a short tailwater that we fished a lot once we got driver’s licenses.  Then the river flows east through Sturbridge, which had some mills but not nearly as many or as large as Southbridge’s.  After passing through Old Sturbridge Village, which is a recreation of a New England village circa 1800, the river goes through miles of deep woods before flowing into the Westville Recreation area. Old Sturbridge Village had a mill pond backed up behind by a low head dam, with a covered bridge running just below it.  Fishing the aerated water below the dam was one of my favorite fishing spots, and tourists would often take my picture from the bridge thinking that I must have been one of the period-appropriate interpreters who work there.   

There were three sections at Westville that one could fish. The upper stretch looks like a beautiful, wild river, and a dirt road that runs alongside gives good access to cars or kids on bikes.  In the middle section, the river widened, slowed, and formed Westville Lake, really not a “lake” at all. Below the dam, the river began a headlong plunge towards the town and its mostly shuttered mills.  The dam isn’t tall enough to create a true tailwater, and that lower section was pretty wooded and fast. It was tough to fish but you could have it all to yourself.  The middle part saw the most activity by far, and is dominated by bait and spin fishermen. The state fisheries folks put truckfulls of rainbows into Westville in the spring, and if catching stocked trout with powerbait or worms is your thing then it’s a great spot to do that.  The upper part was my favorite.  It moves pretty fast and has lots of pocket water, but you’re more likely to scare a trout by dropping a Mepps or Daredevil on its head than you are to catch it.  However a nicely placed and drifted Parachute Adams will do the trick, and it was on that fast little wooded river that I honed my fishing skills. There are lots of overhanging tree branches in that section, and I left more than my share of flies stuck in them as I learned to cast. 

It was on the Quinebaug that I began fishing in earnest, first as a bait fisherman like my grandfather, and then as spin fisherman, and finally with my first fly rod.  I’m not sure why I began fishing at all. My father wasn’t a fisherman, and although my grandfather did he did so purely to put fish on the table.  He had a tough life, including getting mustard gassed in a Belgian trench in The Great War.  His eyesight was permanently impaired because of it, and he wouldn’t have been able to see a dry fly or anything else floating on the water. My older sister’s boyfriend (now husband) still spin fishes, but once I graduated to flyfishing we didn’t fish together as often. My best friend Chris was the one who really got me to put away my spinning rod and learn to cast and drift a fly. The fishing gene had skipped a generation in his family too.  His father was more of a hunter than an angler, but Chris’s grandfather had been an avid sport fisherman and instilled that passion in Chris, who then passed it to me.  

 From the perspective I have now looking back, I think that the main reason I fished was that it gave me a reason to be next to the river in the first place.  After all, if I went down to the river and just sat there, I’d be a good for nothing layabout.  But if I was trying to try to catch a fish, then now I wasn’t a lazy bastard but a fisherman.  We tried doing other things in the river, like floating it in cheap department store “rafts” or swimming it (both of which had the same end results). But the Quinebaug wasn’t quite big enough to float most of the year, and when it was higher in the spring it was too damn cold.  So fishing became my vice, and it remains so even today. 

Perhaps the way I feel being near flowing water of one type of another is simply a result of the extra negative ions being produced by water in motion.  There is a growing amount of scientific research showing that negative ions have some profound effects on our mood and health. They’re created by water molecules moving through space.  So maybe those intangible good feelings we have being near a river, stream, ocean or waterfall are not so intangible after all.  Maybe its one reason why fishing in a still water situation like a lake or pond is something that I’m just not very into. I’ve always thought that it was because still water fishing is inherently boring, and involves far less skill than fishing in a river or creek, so therefore not as demanding or stimulating.  But perhaps its all those negative ions that we can’t see which draw us to rivers and streams, and makes us feel good even if we don’t know why.
  A river is many things at once. Its an ecosystem unto itself, teeming with myriads of lifeforms both seen and unseen.  Sit alongside the Colorado River long enough, and the number and diversity of creatures that you can see is astounding.  In addition to the obvious ones that capture your attention like bald eagles, otters, bighorn sheep, bears, elk, ospreys, great blue herons, hummingbirds, musk rats and mergansers, there are other smaller forms that you might miss at first, like caddis flies, mayflies, stoneflies, water skeeters, and midges.  For every fish that you see rise to sip a bug out off the surface, there are a thousand more beneath that you will never see. Plus, there are those that you almost never catch with a fly, such as whitefish, dace, and sculpin.  Sculpins are a remnant of our prehistoric past that still live in our rivers today only a few feet from where we stand, invisible. It’s like having a direct link to the dinosaurs. 

  In addition to a river being an intact, thriving ecosystem, there are also the benefits that all that fresh water provides, nourishing crops, animals, and humans.  Forty million people in the southwestern United States depend on the Colorado River for drinking water.  Sitting beside the river watching it flow past, it can overwhelm the mind thinking about where each of those water molecules may end up. Some might end up watering tomatoes in the Imperial Valley that will be on the dinner table in December.  Other molecules may end up dazzling tourists on the Las Vegas strip as towering displays of water at the Bellagio.  Yet other molecules travel deep under the Rocky Mountains to end up on the other side of the Continental Divide, filling toilets and pools and nalgene bottles and running east towards the Gulf of Mexico.

  Then there is psychological effect of thinking that this aquatic strand inexorably flowing past connects melting snowfields a few miles away to the Pacific Ocean 1,200 miles distant. The powder snow that I am skiing through in February gets magically transformed into the water we drink and swim and paddle and fish in come August.  Snow is the gift that just keeps on giving all year round to almost everyone in the southwest in one way or another, in every month of the year. 

The flows of a river are also somewhat analogous to the lives we all lead.  Like a fish in a river, we live in a world that seems to be constantly moving forward in time, and yet within that flow of time we can all make decisions within that realm.  A trout can decide to hold on the left bank, or on the right bank, or travel upriver or down.  Or they can just hold very still on the bottom, safe from predators and waiting for bugs or smaller fish to drift past.  They can choose a difficult but more interesting and rewarding existence and cover many miles, or none at all.  In the same way, we can venture out into the world and hop on planes or boats or bikes or cars and go wherever we want, but we are still bounded by the ecosystem we inhabit, in this case the one we call “earth”.  Like a trout, we can make day to day decisions that influence what we do and where we go. But ultimately we are all part of the same grand flow of the world’s progress, which keeps rolling on with or without us.

The Hindus have a saying that one never steps in the same river twice.  The river may look the same, but the water is different each time and so are you. One could take a thousand photographs of a fast moving river, and every photo would be slightly different.  Maybe this is why I can sit beside a river for endless periods and never get tired of it.  It’s a constantly changing scene, and no two glimpses are exactly alike.  And that’s just what one can see with eyes, the thriving lifeforms just beyond your view and your feet multiply that variety a thousandfold. 

Even in the winter when the river gets a layer of ice over it, it still has magic.  Looking out into my backyard in February, its easy to forget that the river is still there and flowing past. The snow in my yard seems to just keep going beyond its normal border at river’s edge, and looks flat and white until it gets to the other side. My normally small yard seems to be as big as a snow-covered football field. Most winters, I’m able to clear off a large enough patch to play hockey on, and skating along the frozen river I become twelve years old again, back on the Rez. But beneath that white expanse, the river lives and breathes still.  On cold December nights, when the river water changes state from liquid to vapor and rises from the cooling river to form fog, those water droplets cling to the bare branches of trees and freezes there.  For an hour or two each morning, all of the trees along the river look like upended chandeliers glistening in the sunshine.  That same sunshine soon melts those icy tentacles and the scene becomes normal.  But in the early morning light, the entire river corridor looks like it comes some computer-generated fantasy world.

My wife and I ended up carving out our existence not on some small spring creek or other minor tributary, but on the Colorado River itself.  Of course each one of those small feeder streams that are connected to the Colorado are every bit as important as it is.  They still have the negative ions of the big river and the teeming ecosystems that the Colorado does. If I “only” had Red Dirt Creek or Nuisance Brook flowing through my backyard, I’d probably still feel just as entranced by their burbling, playful waters as I do by the bigger river’s.  But being next to a flowing body of water makes me feel more connected to the rest of the planet than any high speed internet connection ever could.

                                                      Jack Bombardier

                    Photo from the amazing Headwaters River Journey museum in Winter Park

Thursday, April 23, 2020

                               Watching For Risers In A Changed World

Last night I ended my day as I often do, out in the backyard watching for risers. Sixteen years ago, through a combination of luck, timing and perseverance, my wife and I were able to buy a house on six acres of land beside the Upper Colorado River. Living next to the river is something I’ve never regretted or taken from granted. Even in the high water years that we’ve had to form sandbag walls to keep the water out, buying a house next to the Colorado River is one of the smarter things in life that I’ve done. I can honestly say that I have the best backyard of anyone I know of, and its hard to imagine living anywhere else. After many years of travelling all over the world, now it’s hard to go any further from home than the nearest ski hill.

Now that its April and the river has warmed up, the fish are becoming more active. Even with the absence of bugs, most of whom have yet to hatch, in the waning hours of light the odd fish or two find something worth sipping out of the surface film. When they do, they create a visible rise form which betray their presence. Some evenings, I’m content to just watch the river flow slowly past, and don’t feel the need to grab a rod to try and fool it’s denizens. Other times, I can’t resist the urge to grab my little three weight to make a connection to the fish.

I’ve heard variations of the theme that a fisherperson goes through several stages in their angling career. When one first begins fishing, they just want to catch a fish, any fish, by any method possible. Then, as your technique and knowledge improve, you want to catch a lot of fish, and begin to count the amount of fish you get in an outing. Whether a day of fishing is considered successful or not can hinge on what that final number is. At some point, once you’ve caught enough fish in your life, you begin to target the larger fish, and size becomes the metric of what is considered a good day of fishing. Note that the amount of time an angler spends at each level depends entirely on him or her. A sizeable proportion of my fishing clients are still on levels Two or Three, and are all about the numbers. I try to accommodate them to the best I can, for they pay a lot of money being out here stoking their passion. If I can nudge them up one level while they’re in my company all the better, but either way as long as they’re happy then odds are so am I. When you’ve got enough grip-and-grin shots of yourself on your phone cradling some kype-jawed brown trout, or a morbidly obese rainbow, you advance to the next stage. This next step of an anglers progression involves deliberately increasing the degree of difficulty in some way. This might involve catching fish that either smart, or spooky because they get lots of pressure and aren’t easily fooled, or feed in lies that are hard to cast into, or are just difficult to get to at all.

One of the nice things about being obsessed with trout is that they don’t generally live in ugly places. They love clean, clear cold water, and in the Rockies that often means headwater streams. A fair bit of shoe leather might need to be worn out to get to these fish. But the higher you go, the dumber they tend to be, and you might begin regressing back down the size/difficulty of the catching chart. The fishing experience begins to be more about your surroundings and overall experience than your ability as a Master Angler. This is the level I’ve been stuck at for a few years, though I used to think that it was the highest one, the pinnacle of the fishing experience.

Yesterday with my evening chores finished, there was still some daylight left setting over the big rock formation across the river. I decided to go down the to the river's edge, and look for risers. When we first moved here, my riverside spot used to be a bunch of big rocks that jut out and form an eddy behind it. There’s often a trout there in the seam, but its hard to cast into due to the dog fence immediately behind. Then, eight years ago I took advantage of a low water year to build a small dock that sticks out over the river. It’s a great spot to watch for risers from, with a commanding view and plenty of room for a backcast. Last year, I put in a chairlift and that’s become my primary Looking For Risers spot. Its very comfortable, and once seated you can’t help but gently swing back and forth in it. If I close my eyes, I can imagine that I’m going up the Pallavinci lift at A-Basin, which is an identical chair to the one I’m in. Conversely, when I’m A-Basin going up the Pali lift, I can pretend that I’m in my own backyard, and the breeze in my face isn’t coming off a 10,000 foot mountain but off the Colorado River. 

But last night, I was really more interested in what the fish were doing, and since the view is better from the dock I put a plastic Adirondack chair there and sat in it. The waning clouds above rock formation the had taken on a bright pink salmon color, in stark contrast to the clearer bits of sky which were still blue. The river just beyond the dock slows due to the widening of the channel, but there is distinct current in the middle. From that thalwag, bubble lines form and curl away, and beneath those microcurrents are sometimes fish. At first I thought I would want a rod in my hand, but the longer I sat there, cold beer in hand, the less necessary it seemed. The fish weren’t rising, but that was fine, they didn’t need to. Just being next to a force as powerful and unyielding  and beautiful as the Colorado River was enough. Then I began to sense that I has attaining a level of fishing than the one I’d been at, one that I didn’t even know existed. It was a kind of fishing nirvana, one that lies above and beyond actual fishing, a higher and more evolved state of being. Being able to look out over water you know must have fish in it, without having to put a pointed hook in their mouth to appreciate it, was very liberating. If my knees were flexible enough, I might have sat cross-legged like a budda to see if waves of light would emanate from the top my head. 

But just when I was feeling like an enlightened spirit, there was a distinctive little splash out in the water. Out of the corner of my eye, a swirl formed and in an instant was gone. I tried to ignore it, and to keep the Oneness Of All Things in mind. As I began to slip back into the state where there was no me, or the world around me, but that everything was all just the one thing, there was another small splash!, and another swirl. It’s hard to be an Enlightened Being with fish rising fifteen feet away. I closed my eyes so that I would not have to see the temptation, and just listened to the wind, and the gentle lap of the water on the dock pylons, and the distant call of Canada geese. Surely it was just one fish I had seen rise, and it must of moved on. I opened my eyes again to the splendid scene, and then right in front of the dock, maybe ten feet away, a trout came up and sucked something off the surface exposing his whole dorsal fin in the process. It was enough to knock me down one evolutionary rung, back to Unmotivated Predator. I got up and went over to the chairlift to get my fishing rod. The rod is attached to the back of the wooden frame my A-Basin chairlift hangs from, and is kept ready for action whenever the mood strikes. It was handmade for me years ago by my oldest friend, the one who introduced me to fly fishing forty-five years ago. It’s gotten pretty weathered by spending seven months a year outside, but I’ve also caught more fish with it than any other rod I own. Every April, I rig it with a ten foot 6X leader attached to an Elk Hair Caddis, with a small hi-vis BWO pattern connected to the caddis by a 7X leader. Those two flies are what I usually keep on it all year long, and if they make it ‘til October they’re usually beat up looking. Because I crimp the barbs, I usually don’t have to handle the fish. I just get them as close as I can to the bank so that I can see them, and then drop the rod tip to let the line go slack so they shake themselves off.   

Having a rod this handy only five feet from the river’s edge makes it possible to quickly transition from watching for risers, to trying to fool the lovely creature who is performing the rise. Back out on the end of my dock with rod in hand, I played out some line, made some false casts to get the flies out over the water, and began to cast, mend, and repeat. Cast, mend, and repeat. Whatever fish had been rising seemed to have gone, but the just the act of fishing felt like therapy. Cast and mend, cast and mend. My beer was beside the chair, so I sat back down and finished it, rod across my lap. I was beginning to evolve again when there was another rise, this time out in the middle of the river near the current. I stood up and peeled out a lot of line, making as long of a cast with that little rod as I could, dropping the flies just this side of the moving water, right in the bubbles. Once I blinked I lost sight of the flies, for they were very small and it was getting dark and they were very far away. There were no splashes that I could see in the purple light, so I stripped in a bunch of line and tried again. Now it was so dark I couldn’t even pick up the flies when they landed, so it was purely Ray Charles fishing. Then, with my flies and line thirty feet out, there was a rise ten feet away from my feet, under the belly of my line. My first response was a low expletive, but then I could only laugh. So much for Enlightenment. If that trout had a middle finger to show me, surely that would have been it. I pulled the line back in, secured the flies to the rod, and said one last Good Night to the river and everything that depends on it.

Backyard fishing is something I do most evenings when I happen to be home, even if only for a few minutes. Being at home is something that we all doing more of now in the strange new world of “social distancing”. Because of that, I’ve been spending more time here than usual. This should be the time of year when my winter job of delivering propane slows down, and my summer occupations of taking people float fishing or doing shuttles for those floating themselves ramps back up. This usually leaves me time for spring skiing, and I typically spend lots of time doing that. Most Aprils, the weather is warm enough that only light clothing is needed to ski, and the base thick enough that the conditions are great. But this is not a normal April in Colorado or anywhere else in the world. Ski slopes are empty of skiers, and my downhill gear is still stuffed into my rocket box waiting to be used again. I can’t bear the thought of putting it away for the year,which I don’t typically do until June. Since it appears that the resorts are not going to reopen this year, I had held out the hope that I could still drive to Loveland Pass and do the hitchhike/ski thing there. But I’ve heard that even that isn’t being allowed, and that cars are not permitted to park at the bottom switchback where skiers emerge.

When the stories about the coronavirus were first emerging from China, and it became apparent that it was going to find its way into the United States, I didn’t think it would affect my lifestyle that much. But then our last men’s hockey league game got cancelled, and coming off of two wins in a row that hurt. On a Friday I went to Aspen and skied Ajax for the first time in thirty years, and stopped an hour early thinking I’d save my legs for the next time, not realizing that the “next time” might be eight months away. The next day would be the last time that chairlifts would run in Colorado for the season. Even with everything happening all around, I didn’t think my fishing business would be very impacted. After all, what could be a healthier and more stress-relieving thing to do than to go fishing? I thought that other than the clients who might not be able to fly in from wherever they live, it wouldn’t affect my business that much. And to a point, that has been true, the local rivers have seen more early season fisherpeople than ever. The ice wasn’t even off the river yet when I started seeing lots of anglers standing in that cold water, hoping to hook some drowsy fish. For the first couple of days after the lifts closed, local fly shops had a huge unexpected bump in business from out of towners here for the skiing that they could no longer do. But once they got out of town, that business evaporated. Going fishing only works for self-directed folk, and not for those who might otherwise have hired a guide. Once you insert a guide into the equation, you now have to think about the guide’s truck, or the guide’s boat, or the lunch the guide prepared for you.

I also assumed that I could still do shuttles, and that might even be busier than normal. But once social distancing became the norm, it became apparent that driving other people’s rides were off the table, too. After all, a person’s car is their personal space, and as germed-up by them as anywhere can be. Would I want to go into other people’s personal space, or ask my drivers to? And would these potential clients want us in theirs? The answer was obviously no. There are plenty of guide’s rigs that I hated to drive in last year, before the pandemic. Though some guides (like me) keep their trucks clean and free of personal items, some appear to be where the guides eat, sleep and procreate. Having to drive vehicles that have cigarette butts and trash on the floor, or uncapped Gatorade bottles half-filled with saliva and tobacco juice bouncing in a cupholder is  unfortunately common. Practicing personal hygiene does not seem to be at the top of many guide’s to-do list.

And yet through it all, the Colorado River just keeps flowing by, unaffected and unaware of the changes happening above its waterline. The fish and the geese and the eagles and the gophers and the magpies and the deer and the otters don’t care either. Yesterday morning my wife and I were in our kitchen looking out the window at the river and saw some splashing. A merganser was out there not practicing social distance guidelines, juggling a decent-sized trout in its beak. The trout looked too big to swallow, and it shook itself free after a short battle. In our backyard, the only “flattening of the curve” is from the stomachs of the wild neighborhood turkeys, sitting in the grass waiting for their next helping of sunflower seeds. The “hot spot” here is found sitting on the chairlift in the afternoon, when the sun is low enough to reflect off the river into your face as well as warming it from above. There is no “emergency shutdown” for the river that can be ordered by any politician, it is way beyond the concerns such insignificant creatures such as ourselves. 

Colorado’s namesake river just keeps moving slowly past 24/7, 365 days a year (366 this year), year after year, as it has for at least 290 million years. Back then, the only creatures on the planet that weren’t fish were called tetrapods, and their footprints can be found next to the water only a few miles upriver from here. The tree of life has many branches, but at the trunk can be found tetrapods. Every day I’m surrounded by the rocks and cliffs along the river valley that are millions of years old, which help to keep our short-term worries in perspective. Not only is the lifespan of a single person a mere blip in the big scheme of things, so too is the entirety of all human existence. We’re all here on this spinning blue and green ball for just a short time, geologically speaking. We live, we love, we suffer and laugh, we play and toil, and too soon we’re gone. And through it all, the river just keeps flowing past, whether we are there to appreciate it or not.