Friday, July 1, 2011

The Backcountry: Leave it Like it is

Casting to native trout at timberline.

I learned to fish in the creeks and beaver ponds of Colorado’s high country, pulling nuggets of wisdom from willing grandfathers who believed time spent with their grandchildren should be time spent outdoors.

These two men introduced me and my brothers to the wonders hidden high in Colorado’s mountains. Together, they wandered with us through the Rockies in search of wild trout in wild places. They stood over our shoulders and watched us cast. They coached us through our failures and they celebrated our success. They taught us to take a breath now and then and look around. They taught us to appreciate the places wild trout called home.

They are special places, indeed.

Last week, I went home again. I journeyed across Colorado and revisited some of the old haunts my grandfathers shared with me and my brothers. I cast a fly to the progeny of the trout I first caught as a child, marveling at how similar things were three decades ago, when my grandfathers still lived.

But, then, the backcountry doesn’t change much, so long as it’s left to its own devices.

The product of being left alone for thousands of years.
Sure, things change over time. A fire might blow through, or a tree might fall across the trail. But on the whole, if it functioned 30 years ago, it functions today. That is, if we haven’t gone and messed it up.

As a kid, I remember bouncing up a gnarly dirt road along the shoulder of the Continental Divide high in Colorado’s south-central Rockies. My grandfather’s old Ford Bronco slowly climbed over jagged rocks, hugging the mountainside all the way to a secluded trailhead. There, we’d park the rig—I remember my grandfather walking slowly around the truck, demanding silence as he paused by each tire. Listening for that tell-tale hiss and hearing none, we’d load a couple of backpacks and hit the trail.

And, while the ride up the mountain was truly exhilarating, the adventure really began when we started walking the trail into the wild. A couple miles or so of steep climbing at altitude would put us in a lonely meadow bisected by a quiet, meandering stream. Not many knew of the creek that flowed from a timberline spring and swelled with cold, pure snowmelt. Most continued to follow the trail, content with a different destination in mind.

But not us. This was our destination.

There, beneath the 14,000-foot mountains of the Collegiate Peaks, we’d slowly make our way to the water and the wary trout that swam there.

This was the first place I remember catching a cutthroat trout. My grandfather called them “natives,” a tip of the hat to the fish that belonged in these out-of-the-way waters. Even then, three decades ago, he knew there was something special about these trout and the place they called home.

Last week, I traveled that same road, crawling my way up the rocky biway until snow slowed my assault. From there, I got out and started walking. And I walked. Wearing a pair of wading sandals, I climbed over snowbanks and followed the road as best I could until I got the to the trailhead.

And then, my feet blocks of ice, I walked some more.

Getting there is half of the experience.
Finally, I broke through the trees and there, spread out before me, was that very meadow. In my mind’s eye, I could picture my grandfather crouched along the creek casting his old bamboo fly rod to rising cutthroat trout in this wilderness where snow hung on through summer, where elk grazed among the short grass and where the sky is so impossibly blue. This was his reward for the journey up the mountain, for the walk through the woods.

And the cutts were there, too. No imagination necessary. I spent the afternoon casting to these remarkable fish that have managed to hang on through brutal winters, and survive in skinny water … for centuries. Here, in a place that takes a little effort to reach, lay a treasure for all willing to make the investment and then make the cast.

Sure, the backcountry changes. But, if we leave it like it is, it also stays the same. And I’m grateful for that—one day, if I’m lucky, I might get to take my grandchildren to this quiet little meadow. I might get to stand over their shoulders and help them cast to wild fish in a wild place.

And I might get to tell them to stop casting for a minute and look around at the wonders the backcountry shares with those willing to visit it on its terms.

“Take it in,” I’ll say. “This is the way things are supposed to be.”


  1. Beautifully done. There's nothing like "back country", be it the Collegiate Range, the Appalachians, or the obscure salt marshes. May they forever be left like they are.

    Can't wait to walk that "trail into the wild" with you soon.

  2. I think he did this just to tease us. :) I love the wisdom of past generations. Checking for air leaks to fix before a long day's hiking and fishing - that's brains right there. I'd have come back to find a flat and been frustrated at having to change a tire in the dark. Your grandfather sounds like a wise and generous man. Is it July 23rd yet? :)

  3. Amazing piece. "No imagination necessary"...but it fills mine when I'm away.

  4. I liked this piece, very much, so thank you very much for that. Great inspiration as I contemplate my own backcountry trip this week. mike

  5. Great Post. I hope my grandchildren someday speak so kindly of me. It is great to hear that the wilderness you once roamed as a child is still untouched by mans industrious hand. Always love it when nature remains just how it always was. Good Stuff. Nice pics. Hope you didn't get frostbite:) Tight lines....

  6. Nice piece. Let the wild be wild.
    Got my TU hat in the mail today. Thanks again.

  7. Thanks for that wonderful piece. God Bless fathers and grandfathers for teaching us to appreciate the beauty. Thanks also for reminding me in touching way, why I love Colorado and what she has to offer.

  8. That was a lovely piece, thanks for sharing.

  9. It takes a wonderful long time to read such prose mate!
    The mind wanders... the mind wanders...
    Well done and thank you :)