Wednesday, May 30, 2012

"We Keep On," They Say

A fire was roaring in Gila National Forest. We saw evidence here, over seven hundred miles to its north. Smoky haze filled the air, which was more than enough to drive canyon residents away from their coffee and papers, down to the corner store on highway 72 (which runs the gamut from Coca-Cola to fishing licenses, paper plates to instant rice -- with a post office and veterinary clinic to boot). It’s the headquarters of all happenings: accidents, road conditions, lost dogs, power outages, pay phone. And the place for reassurance that our homes would not shortly be up in flames.

The smell was faint, but it was there -- as if my friend at the top of the ridge was grilling breakfast. I wouldn’t put that past him, but it turns out it was just thousands of acres of New Mexico charring to a crisp. Fired up winds sucked up the continental divide with all the power that my old vacuum has lost; and the front range was hazy, like the Norlin Quad on the 20th of April.

Now, Jay always says to let the weather tell you what to do, to tell you where to go. Play the hand you’re dealt, he says -- not what you’d like to have been. When you’re given a full house, don’t pine for four of a kind. He seldom makes plans of where to fish more than a day ahead of time and sometimes changes the morning of. Although, I should be clear that this is not ficklery of a fair-weathered soul; rather, it’s the simple fact that on a moody, overcast spring day, the midges will be popping off the Big Thompson, and the bass fishing will be, well, not so good. Sometimes, we go purposefully towards the bad weather. But sometimes not.

Let's go!
A few days after the fire started, the weather turned – a forecast falling from the upper 70s to 60s, and 80s to 70 in the flatlands. Although less smokey, the fire and the wind continued -- in the end, bringing danced for rainclouds. However, my parents were visiting (Jay’s sister Eva was, too), and we had promised them some warmwater fishing, a little bit of the Midwest, a little bit of home here on the high prairie. My sister Erica had even given up a day of crimpy highcountry boulders for it. And so we packed and loaded up three fly rods, two spinning rods, a bag of snacks, and a Banjo.

And we went with the plan.

As we walked to the pond, the wind blew harder, and my hat off.  “Aw, it’s always worse on a ridge,” Erica encouraged -- trying to stay positive, trying to be more like mom...a never ending storehouse of optimism. We all hoped that when we got to lower ground we’d be sheltered a bit. But my hope is always tempered with just a pinch of doubt. The good sort though, the sort that keeps you fully awake.

And watchful.

The water was cool, numbing to wade – about as useful to our cause as a fart in a mitten – and still, the wind blew. Hard. But we all leaned into it and kept on. After all, that’s what Blocks do, I’ve always been told, we keep on. And I’ve also always been told that hard work will, in the end, be will pay off. I’ve always believed the former is true, the latter remains, however, experientially only an ideal. My dad always told me that there are never excuses for quitting, going back on your word, or stopping when the going gets hard. You put your head down, dig in your heels, clench your teeth, and you pull. You do your best because you never know when it will be required. Life has a way of testing us, I’ve found.

My mom Sue, with a Green Sunfish.
And the weather has a way of proving itself right. No bass for you, the pond snickered, hour after hour. We all heard it -- above a few carp caught, and my mom’s giggles over the self-indulgent bluegill and green sunfish nabbing out from rocks for her fly. Yet we stayed -- because of stubbornness, and because of curiosity – which, I believe, you’d find to be the largest part of a fisherman’s brain if you were to diagram in bright colors according to thought patterns.

And then suddenly, nearing the end of the day, nearing the time when you put on the fleece you packed for the just in case of Colorado weather, and nearing the time when your stomach starts to rumble you home -- the wind stopped, dead in its tracks from tiring us out. Hatching bugs and feeding fish began pimpling the surface, as if it had in an instant entered adolescence.

And as rods bent, faces turned upwards with grins and hollers and whoops.

And I smiled, knowing that hard work does pay off in the end.

At least, sometimes.

My dad Bryan with a very nice bass!

It had a large mouth...

Eva -- with a big grin. And bass too.

"Oh hey!" Erica caught "a miniature fish!"

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Good Day, Blue Sunshine

Among fishermen, thank yous most often come in the form of new water – the sort that is given code words and whispered about in back rooms. Maybe a cup of flies from time to time, too. A reciprocal nod of the head. A treat when we’re about to bonk, and the sugar rush keeps us going. Keeps us giving, with a little more faith in humanity. At least, those members who fly fish (the rest really might be a lost cause, as you’ve always suspected).

Sometimes we are the thankers; sometimes we are the thanked. And sometimes, we vicariously receive both – through a dirt path leading through yucca plains to cattle pastures, watered green by a stream running through.

With a raccoon in the cattails, and bull snake swimming towards the bank, and redwinged and yellow-headed blackbirds channeling Kodály in the reeds. With an osprey’s meal, ready and waiting for him around 3:30 p.m. As if he’d made reservations. With the smell of black angus grazing northward and the light moving on west. 

And with bass – naïve and eager -- in the warm beginnings of their summer.  

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Mountains in May; or, On Homewaters

Sunday, May 6th, 2012 -- 6:30 a.m.

The hummingbirds have arrived. Something of a to-do in the canyon. They're harbingers of spring, coming
earlier than the wildflowers, living on pine sap drippings from woodpecker and sapsucker holes until they bloom. Later, come June. The broad-tailed scouts flew in yesterday afternoon, buzzing past my ear like miniature fighter jets on a mission, and so they are. In the basement I dug out the nectar feeders, filling them with the usual sugar water at a ratio of 1 to 4. The chains from last year have disappeared (basements and dryers both have a way with that) and so white parachute cord will have to work for now.

Only minutes back inside, the scout is back. I’ve always wondered how they locate the feeders so quickly. Their smell is next to nil, I’m told, but their sight is focused and farther than ours. I imagine their vision as a spotting scope, honing in on the plastic red bottomed white tipped flowers which never empty. They must think it’s magic.

The mountainsides of the canyon are like an unfinished puzzle right now, late spring. Groves of aspen are beginning to green outside the cabin windows -- but farther up, the nights are too cold yet, and the colors change piece by piece. Frame by frame looking like a paint card sample -- dark greens at the bottom, light greens and nude towards the top. My great grandmother always had card tables in her living room, set with puzzles in varying degree of completion. She was always working on them, always trying to find the right pieces. On visits south to Kansas City, we would all try to help and find the right pieces too. I hated it. I hated that even when you did find the right fit, you could still see the lines. The finished picture wasn’t smooth -- edges were bent and peeled over from trying again and again, left hand corner pieces were tea stained (from where she kept her cup), and awkward predetermined lines made things fit into the bigger picture. A piece in the puzzle, a cog in the wheel. I didn’t like those lines.

I guess I still don’t.

But I do always keep in mind that the finished picture is seldom ever smooth.  

I’m a homebody, and I hope (as I’ve been told is true) that a bit of the nature of the rod maker goes into the rod, and that it will love its homewaters as much as I do.  “I don’t travel or fish to ‘get away,’” John Gierach once wrote, “because my life at home isn’t something I need to escape from.” I always want to raise a glass of hard cider -- hear, hear! -- after reading that... I know exactly what he means, for I escape to home...not away. Perhaps my small homewater trout aren’t as flashy as big browns on the Blue, or impressive as over caught rainbows on the South Platte. But they are home. And that counts for something...or at least it does for me. Homewater counts -- for the secrets told, and the familiar skin. The places you know to go. They they hold the stories -- and the histories of season upon season, piled up like autumn leaves over the winter, keeping you warm and the fire going.

And anyway, I’m not lacking in good homewaters. In fact, I’m rich -- although I didn’t know it at first. When I bought this cabin, I wasn’t a fisherman. I had no idea that a south branch of a favored trout stream ran just to my north. But now, I know -- and that, is where I wanted to go with my rod -- a small stream of home.

Yet in the past few weeks, the record low snowfall in the mountains has begun to melt, running off and into our streams. Record high last year and lasting well into July, this year’s will be done well before that. But a few days before the planned first day out, it decided to begin in earnest, and the Denver Water Board let out overflow from Gross Dam. South Boulder Creek’s CFS shot up, as if a dying person had come alive on a heart monitor. Beep beep beep. A low snow-pack still creates high waters, and my little dream fell, shot down. And I was tired of waiting.

“Well, hey...why don’t we go to Brown’s...” Jay suggested the evening before, “ would be a noble place to break in your rod.”

. I thought. hmmm...maybe...

Brown’s Cabin
-- a place existent in as much our fantasies as reality. Dating from the 1870s, it’s a largely forgotten piece of what remains of a Swedish immigrant’s private life, now on public land.

This cabin, a reminder that I am new. Others have called these hills home long, long before. Yet we all chose these high valleys and harsh canyons for perhaps the same reason: evidence that we were here. And that we lived. We fought. We lost. And sometimes won. We chopped wood and made supper. We were hardy, and pound for pound strong. We sipped coffee on a wood planked porch. We loved it here. And we made love here -- on and to this land -- we who survive its winters. And whoever lived in that cabin did too. In midsummer, with faces sweat streaked in dust -- like glue lines and glitter -- after digging potatoes.

Here is their tombstone, and I visit often. Re-imagining a different epithet every time, like the choose your own adventure books I read in grade school.  

We call it Brown’s Cabin, named for all that it holds -- wild brown trout. Wild brown trout who have developed an affinity for small bugs, shirking the stereotype of aggressively large eaters in their odd little world. No one knows how or when they got there, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that they are there and that they are just down the road.

I look at the stream flows again.

“Maybe Brown’s is trying to tell us something,” Jay says looking over my shoulder, as if she has the power to start the snow melting.  

But you see, perhaps she does. For Brown’s Cabin has developed a personality. She has, if you will, been given a soul. She was built from living fibers by a pair of living hands, and somehow, that breath remains. And yes, I know I hold unrealistic views on inanimate objects, and I impose my feelings upon them. But I was that little girl whose childhood was filled with talking animals and trees, dryads and naiads, and the knowledge fairy tales give us that things (and people) are rarely as they seem. I read of possibilities, and believed that what you don’t see can, in fact, happen. Perhaps it was because my sister often talked of wormholes and string theory, and I wanted to find one and crawl through to another world, preferably with talking animals. But I was no scientist. Rather, I had been given an imagination, and I used it.  

I still do.

And here now, if we use soul as description of one’s qualities innate to them, one’s character, traits, identity -- Brown’s has one, no doubt.

And I think my rod has one too. It was built from living fibers by a pair of living hands...and my breath remains.

For we all want waking, don’t we.

“Yes...”I look back to Jay, “I think we should go to Brown’s.”

10:00 a.m.

We pack our gear and throw on a few extra layers. The sun is bright, but not warming -- still shining a flat sort of winter light. Pasqueflowers are beginning to bloom and Banjo runs ahead on the trail down; he always stops before he loses sight of us though, waiting for us to catch up. We’re quiet for the most part, Jay and I, yet when I look over -- he’s smiling, every time.

Once we reach the pond I rig slowly, with a fly I’d tied over the winter. That was the pinnacle before, catching a fish on a fly I’d tied myself. However, I aim to raise the bar today.

“We’ll see how it is on still water...” Jay says, still smiling.

Yes, we’ll see...(although I have no doubts).

I take a deep breath, and cast...

And cast.

And it feels familiar, like home.

And I look up to the cabin, out west where clouds have moved in, crowding the valley like the subdivisions cities try to squeeze in wherever they can, equally as cold. The sky has run out its space, and so the heavens have come down dropping the temperature, and I shiver, giving my feet a stomp. I can’t feel them. I can’t feel my stripping hand either, but it remembers -- thank god, it remembers where to go and what to do.

And soon, I hear a splash and see Jay’s rod bend...he kneels and Banjo runs over as he always does, asking for a sniff, nuzzling you’ve done well.

At least one of us won’t go home skunked

“You know, I don’t think this is going to happen today...” I sulk.

“Keep on” Jay says. Keep on...

And I do, thinking back to the stonefly -- to that good sign.

The sky continues to darken with the coming storm, and the wind stops. So do the trout. Brown’s calms and hunkers down. Yet there is still a crack in the door, I find -- just in time -- suddenly there is weight, and the rod bends, giving through and through with life, with the beating heart at the end of the line.   

As we walk out, up from Brown’s, through sparse snowflakes beginning to fall, Jay looks over, his hands stuffed into his pockets until he’s hunchbacked, and I shrug. What can you do...the mountains in May. ..

What can you do indeed.

But then again, the mountains in May is where my rod has just caught its first trout. And so I smile, letting snowflakes fall on the tip of my tongue.

6:54 p.m.

I look out the cabin’s window as the snow starts falling harder. Big, ploofy flakes, looking like a flock of pelicans are overhead and have just eaten marshmallow fiber for dinner. The aspen grove’s greenhorn hearts bleed for summer, for days when the snow will stop falling and they won’t shiver anymore. And come those days will, if ever so slowly.

“I’m thirty-six and I’m still amazed by spring.” Jay says, looking out the window too.

I nod. Still amazed, that from under four feet of winter’s base snow, raspberries, peonies, wildflowers, and hummingbirds will and do return. Still amazed how life can turn on you (for good and ill) when you least expect it, and that come tomorrow morning, the clouds will have lifted and the snow will have stopped. Darkness will have passed into light with no eulogy.  

And yes, in the end still amazed that there will be brown trout rising, just down the road.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Songs in the Dark and a Stonefly.

Sunday, April 22, 2012 - 5:00 a.m.

Faith, Tagore states in a letter my grandmother sent me a few years ago, is the bird that sings when the dawn is still dark. The note is penned in her usual felt-tip. Bold. Sure. Straight lined printing that gives away her days before marriage and five kids, her days as a school teacher. The cross of my grandmother’s Ts always trestle up to the H, yet her Ys and Gs are straight tailed. A graphologist could tell you more, I’m sure. All I can tell you is that they’re the lines which make the letters that form the thoughts a matriarch whose line is of faith, and of the confidence that light will come, day by day (even when you don’t believe it will). And even when you can’t believe, you still, somehow, can have faith, because it’s our tradition, my grandmother says, it’s how we’ve found our way. Those are words from a mind unfoundered, from a steadying hand. And in those, if nothing else, I can believe.

I have that note from my grandmother still, and every year come spring, with the American Robin’s frilly clucks and the Mountain Chickadee’s minimalist quarter tones, I awake to that quote, real-time. I awake to that steadying hand as I put my bare feet on the wood floor, and walk on...holding tight.

There’s a glaze of ice covering my windshield -- like the flaky frosting on donuts I remember eating at Gerda’s Bakery, sneaking a first bite before we’d completely left the awning with the old German woman herself painted on, before we were back out on 52 Street walking home. Canyon nights are still cold, still wood stove worthy. The windshield, a reminder that while I might be done with spring, she, is not done with me. She’s only just starting. Light evening rain turned morning ice -- she winks over her cold shoulder as she walks in the door.
But the light does come, eventually -- and when it does, it warms and melts and grows.

8:59 a.m.

The morning is still and silent. Lake Estes, glass -- until a black lab jumps in, doing what he was bred to do, not knowing why. A few men cast spinning rods from shore, and there are rises.

Frank smiles, making coffee and rubbing his mustache, “You brought the reel seat...right...?”

“Right,” I say, “I did...” digging around in the pack I had checked and double checked, even stopping the car a few miles from home just to double check for it again.

Frank slips the hardware on the spalted crabapple for  

It fits, and I look down, remembering steel wooling and applying Formby's to it nightly, back when snow blanketed the ground in feet, and the woodpile was still well stocked. Already, I think, already we’ve a history. Already, I have memories attached, indexed, filed away -- for the next cold winter when I need to pull them out and be warmed.

“I’m drinking too much coffee,” Frank says, stirring in some sweetener.

“I already have...” as my stomach feels it. The lightness of butterflies and something about to happen.


Out in the garage we begin fitting the reel seat. Measuring. Lining up. Does that look straight to you?  -- like a spotting scope, I look through the guides -- because you’re going to be the one fishing it, you know. Oh that’s right....I am. And riddled in, we talk -- about craigslist and no-shows, about the great feeling of getting rid of stuff (that curious chameleon of a word).

“The ping-pong table is going today...” Frank says, “Brian and Hal are coming to pick it up.”

“Hal the dipping cabinet maker?”

“Yep...and his son.”


And soon, there’s the stop of an engine, slams of truck doors, and a knock. The ping-pong table’s ride is here.

Frank is busy muddling with 5-minute epoxy. “Hold this” he says, handing over my rod, straight up and down. “ wife always got onto me for not saying please...but sometimes there just isn’t know?”

I laugh. “Exactly. And anyways, it’s implied.”

“Important stuff goin’ on over here, guys,” Frank says to Hal and Brian and his son, having just walked in, “hang on a sec...”

I stay holding my rod, the glue drying, as they load up the table -- laughing and tying it down -- and after a few minutes they come back in -- Brian, carrying a rod tube. A Granger, whose wraps he wants to match on the rod he’s making with Frank. “Those used to be white...” Brian says, pointing at the wraps, colored with age to yellow instead of gray. Hal leans over and laughs, “I can’t tell the difference, anyhow...I’m color blind! Had to completely trust Frank’s judgment when I was making mine!” I chuckle too, not only because it’s truly funny, but also because Hal has one of the best laughs in the world -- genuine, full, infectious. 

Rod tube made by Hal Powell.

As they pull away, Frank admires his newfound space, noting: “I can’t let myself fill that back up with stuff.” We finish fitting the reel seat, and Frank fits the hardware for the reel. We weigh it, 3.25 ounces, and I make a tag for the tube sock.

“Now...” Frank says, “let’s go cast it.”

I secure the reel -- which had been curiously waiting to be found in the glove box of a white Ford Ranger on Valentine’s Day, “Yes, Erin...that’s for you.” -- I smile back, and pull line forward and through the guides. Then I take it in my hand for the first time -- for the first time, complete, with no more steps to be done. And like so many other things in life (so many important things), when it comes to the moment, it’s a blur. Time doesn’t stop, music doesn’t play, motion doesn’t slow, and legs don’t curl up cutely like Meg Ryan’s during first kisses. Life goes on, with or without you, at its own pace and with its own timing -- often, in spite of you; and often, with you trailing awkwardly behind -- and so you must always, at all times, keep a watchful eye on it as you would an opponent, Annie Dillard says.

Stripping line out in a double haul, taking my time, waiting on the backstroke -- there -- I let it go, into the wind. And the rod responds, shooting out line with an accurateness and ease I wasn’t fully expecting. It feels effortless. Natural. Sure of itself and its limits.

I aim for a small stone in the driveway. Yes. I am very, deeply, in love with this thing.

“Your turn,” I nod towards Frank.

“Kind of loads itself, doesn’t it.” he smiles, laying a cast. “People argue you need a fast action rod for wind, but I think it’s just the opposite...”

I nod...I know what he means now. I had just felt it too.

And as I watch Frank cast, I think back on these past few months. I think on how they’ve in many ways been like that bird before dawn. Waiting, watching, harmonizing in the dark. Having faith in Frank and sandpaper and glue; and confidence in my hands. Knowing that the sun will rise, and line will be strung through the guides I’ve wrapped on, but all the while not being able to see the horizon. Yet then, suddenly, there’s light enough to see what’s been in front of me all along.  

“Now, don’t be afraid to fish it....and fish it hard.” Frank says, “remember, we’re rodmakers, we can fix it if it breaks!”

I grin. “Oh, I’m planning on fishing this very hard.” And driving back south -- more quickly than perhaps I should -- I’m still grinning. I have a cane rod in the backseat, and I’m taking it home. 

4:00 p.m.

I honk. Banjo barks. Jay whistles off the back mountain where he’s clearing spring fed pools which run through the draw. After he washes his hands, we walk out to the south meadow -- and standing side by side, Jay gently takes the rod from my hands. His eyes glisten, beginning slowly with one false cast -- looking back at me. Oh Erin...he And picking the line back up, he double hauls line almost the length of the meadow -- asking everything, it gives.

“That’s a fine casting rod....a fine casting rod. I’ve held no better.”

Now, I’d thought about what it would feel like to cast my rod. I’d a notion of how it would be. But I’ve discovered today that I could never have imagined what it would feel like watching Frank and Jay cast it. I’ve learned everything about making it from Frank, and everything about casting it from Jay. And to watch these two men take my rod in their hands -- the cane I’d split and flamed, the taper I planed and sanded, the cork I glued and shaped -- and to watch them smile and nod in approval....there are no words for that.

Or at least, I can’t find them past the lump in my throat...   

Yet as I watch Jay continue to cast, aiming at small pines that will surely be Christmas trees 
for someone in a few years, I realize that this rod already feels like an old friend. Like one I’ve come to know over years and years. Inside and out. And so this day doesn’t feel as much of a beginning as I thought it would -- because really, it isn’t -- I’ve been started now for awhile. And this rod, it’s something I’d count myself lucky to have been a part of -- even, should I die tomorrow and never feel it give with the weight of a fish. Each step has been enough in and of itself. Each step has been one of faith, one of confidence, one of patience, and sometimes frustration. Yet I'm left with the feeling that I’m the lucky one.  

Which is how it should be.

Then, after Jay picks all the pine needles out of the meadow’s pockets, up and down, down and up, we stand still -- in its middle. Silent. Both looking down. And a brown stonefly lands on the collar of my flannel, hatched from the small stream across the road. Jay smiles, “that’s a good sign...”

And I smile back.
Still, with a lump in my throat.