Monday, August 8, 2011

The Ether

A dead soldier stands sentry over the wilderness.

I've never really come to grips with the real estate I can somehow manage to cover while I fish, especially in the backcountry where I can't just hop on the road when I'm done and walk back to the car in a matter of a few minutes.

Out here, everything's relative. Time. Distance. Weather.

The ether.
It's as if I enter a time warp. Minutes become hours. A day dies a quick, painless death when I'm armed with a fly rod. A stream's meanders can stretch for miles before I snap back to reality and realize that I'm a long ways from where I started.

But that's the backcountry for you. It's seductive and magnetic. One more bend. One more riffle.

One more cast. Always one more cast.

It'll sneak upon you.
So when I returned to a more conscious state on my most recent sojourn into the wild and came to grips with the fact that I had no idea how far I'd walked, and that the trail I'd ventured away from hours ago was somewhere "over there," it was too late.

Sunny Rocky Mountain skies had turned dark, and the way out was going to be a slog through a thunderstorm. I could just feel it. The thunder that had occasionally penetrated the ether of my fishing to let me know that something was happening, but that it was happening somewhere else, was now tapping me forcefully on the shoulder to tell me that it was happening here, now. And it had been joined by lightning, with scant seconds between the two.

But, yes, I made one more cast.

And as I watched a fat wilderness west slope cutthroat rise and take a gawdy Chernobyl without a second thought, I was glad I did. As the big fish gushed into the current and fought hard against my 4-weight, I was thrilled that this battle would mark the end of my day in the wild.

Worth "one more cast?"
And as I carefully slid the native trout back into the cold, clear water, I instantly regretted my decision to make that last cast. The next blast of thunder arrived less than a second after the flash of lightning, and I watched awestruck as a tall, fire-dead lodgepole exploded into splinters not two hundred yards across the meadow from where I knelt in the creek. Fat, cold raindrops fell instantly, turning the smooth run of the stream into a rain-pocked mess.

And there I stood, soaked to the bone, my fly rod pointing to the heavens.

Christ. Time to go.

The rod went from one piece to four in seconds flat. Seconds after that, I was out of the water, working my way through a head-high maze of willows in the general direction of the trail that would take me out of the backcountry and to the relative safety of the car parked God-knows-how-far-away.

But, if you've ever tried to move quickly across a high-country meadow lining a mountain stream, you immediately understand my dilema. First, it's the aforementioned willow maze. You push your way through more than you actually navigate with a plan. You pick a direction and do your best to stick to it, hoping against hope that you don't end up where you started. Then it's the soggy bottomland muck. Fetid, black earth literally sucks you in and pulls at your feet, threatening to take whatever footwear you happen to have on and funnel it straight to hell. Throw in the rain–the blinding, cold, wind-driven rain that screams from the sky accompanied by the occasional pellet of hail–and getting where you need to go becomes a challenge befitting reality television, minus the Big Balls and the cannon loaded with shaving cream.

Oh, and the lightning. I mentioned the lightning, right?

Flash back about 30 years to a warm lake in hot and sticky east Texas. Cue the "Wayne's World" squiggly lines and the funky music ...

The skies are a deep slate gray, and it's pouring rain–a regular "gully washer." I'm running across a pier, spinning rod in hand. 

The storm snuck up on us as we cast light-tackle Beetle Spin lures along the boat slips for bream and crappie. The catching had been stellar, and it was tough to admit that it was time to head back to the car for the drive home, but Mom had given us the signal, and with the rain starting to come down, we were in no position to argue.

We arrived at a covered boathouse, happy to be out of the rain, if only for a moment. A short span of pier remained between us and the car, where my parents waited for our arrival, the trunk open for our fishing rods, and the backseat passenger door ajar, ready for us. 

"I'll go first," I said to my little brother. The car was barely visible through the downpour as I began my sprint. I remember the first couple of steps. And the flash. I don't remember anything after the flash.

I do remember waking up... the rain wasn't as heavy as it had been ... before I found myself sprawled out across the wooden pier, my charred fishing pole a good 20 feet away and my shoes ... where were my shoes? 

So, yeah... lightning and I ... we have a little history.

I'd be lying if I told you that fateful moment all those years ago wasn't on my mind as I slogged my way across that Montana meadow in search of the trail that would lead me out of the wild and out of the downpour. I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't the least bit worried about a repeat performance that might end a little differently than it did all those years ago, when riding home in my underwear while sporting an impressive fever was only damage I managed in incur. A lightning strike out here could easily end with me sprawled out in the mud, a medium-well feast for the next grizzly that saunters by.

I'd also be lying if I told you I screamed and panicked a bit as the next bolt of lightning and the accompanying blast of thunder shook the mountainside just above me. It was more of a muted grunt followed by a low moan, and an adrenaline-fueled state of chaos.

So, when I finally stumbled across the trail and was able to move largely unimpeded by willows, mud and those hidden funk-filled holes in the meadow that act like leg-hold traps, I made pretty good time. I hiked with a purpose, flinching slightly at every crack of lightning and every blast of thunder. The storm was my penance for lingering too long in the wilderness, for making that last cast.

When I thought I might be close to the trailhead and the parked car, I reached into my pocket for the keys and started pushing the "unlock" button on the fob. After a few hundred yards along the trail, which was now channeling rainwater and acting like a small creek itself, I saw a pair of blinking tail lights and felt a sense of embarrassing relief. The car. Rubber tires. A roof. Satellite radio.

After quickly tucking my fly rod into its case, I ducked into the front seat and started the vehicle. It hummed to life, defying the downpour outside. I switched on the wipers. Turned on the heat.

Then I grabbed the little digital camera from my pocket and flipped it on. There, in megapixels, I relived a day on the water I'll not soon forget. Embarrassed at letting my mind run unchecked, I instead focused on the big cutthroats captured on the memory card.

And I got lost again. Storm? What storm?

I got my last cast in. Let it rain.


  1. A great post! I enjoyed every word of it and can relate to some similar past experiences of my own.

  2. Really nice. And there is always "one more cast"...even with the chance of impending doom.

    Great read as always.

  3. Great Post! I've fished the South fork of the Frying Pan, I know that medow you speak of. Differnt location but the same! Very Nice

  4. Just glad I made it out alive to tell the tale... Thanks for the kind words.

  5. Excellent post! Very well written and I was captivated from the start.

    (Nice cutts too!)

  6. You're the first guy I've come across who has survived an incredible encounter like this.Thank God you've made it,and thanks for the post,really interesting read.Like the way you can "mix and match".
    I'll be back.
    ( No I'm not a Californian politician/thesbian)

  7. brilliant post chris. i think it was worth the risk.