Editor’s Note: This work week seems to be dragging on… so let’s take a few minutes and escape to the mountains, okay? Let’s access an essay by Erik Ostrander from the Tenkara Angler archives. “Home by Tuesday” originally appeared in the Winter 2015-16 issue; I hope you enjoy.
Home by Tuesday
A Memoir of Solo Packing with Tenkara
by ERiK Ostrander
I don’t know the date, but I do know that it’s Sunday. I know it’s Sunday because I have to be home on Tuesday smelling like a rose with clean teeth and a pair of nice pants for a job interview. It’s a job I already have, but they insist on doing it all formal. It’ll be nice to teach for another year. It gives me time to forget what the date is for three months out of the year.
Except when I pick up the odd job here and there.
I just finished a week teaching a Mythbusters science class to a horde of 11 to 14-year-old, self-indulgent, self-centered, and overly hyper kids. My class is fun though. We light things on fire, break stuff, get dirty. You know, all the stuff that your parents never let you do. As soon as the class ended, after five days of high octane “fun,” I packed up the truck and left with the dogs for the mountains.
I know that getting away from humanity is not an original idea, but all I can think about is not seeing any more early-pubescent children. Unfortunately, the parking lot at the trailhead is packed. Truck after truck and cars with window shades are in nice rows along the side of the lot with the hill. The tree side is lined with parallel parkers. I find a spot furthest from the trailhead, back up into a row against the hill, and put my window shade up.
As I begin hiking into wherever my first night stay will be (I haven’t decided yet), my hopes that all those trucks and window-shaded cars were solo packers like myself change to doom and fear as the echoes and screeches of Boy Scouts radiate out from their camps. I try to pass by unnoticed as if their seeing me would validate that I was not alone in the vast area known as the high Uintas Wilderness. Wilderness being the noun that drew me here.
I have a certain amount of trepidation toward this trip, and it doesn’t come just from the Boy Scouts. I guess it’s my own fault. I am packing light with much of the gear coming out for its virgin trip and relying on the bulk of my food to come from fish that I will need to catch. I’ve never been to this particular area and am not sure what I may be getting into. It is also my first time out like this since I’d gotten sick a few years ago. Guinness, my Australian Kelpie, can handle himself, but I’m not completely sure about Wabbit, my new eight-month-old blue heeler puppy. Because of all these reasons, I chose an area labeled on the map as an “area of concentrated use”. It also has a ton of lakes and associated myths that the next state-record grayling could be had in one of the nearby lakes that are less traveled to. Eventually, I gravitate more towards the idea of a lake less traveled to.
The remote lakes are, of course, less traveled to because they have no trail and, maybe, the hike is a deathly hike over granite boulders that grab and bite at the skin of your shins. The number of scratches and amount of blood that can ensue from a hike that boasts of having large fish is of such great amount as to scare off anyone who regularly shows their legs. I show my legs but as a badge of honor and bravery. One guidebook describes the hike to these pristine lakes as, “tricky boulder hopping,” and suggests you should, “not attempt this hike with full packs on. It is treacherous without packs – and downright foolish with them.” Oh, and “full of huge spiders.” I, of course, decide to go to these lakes with full commitment, and for me, full commitment means a pack. No day hikes for me, because what if the fishing was so good that I wanted to stay the night?
I pack a custom Zimmerbuilt pack as lightly as I can. One change of clothes in case I get soaked by rain or an absent-minded fall into an icy, glacier-fed stream. A silnylon tarp covers my bed and the dogs if they so choose. My trusty down sleeping bag of two decades gets smushed down to fill every single extra bit of room in the pack. It’s like my magic Tetris piece that always gets me a thousand extra points and advances me to the next level. The pack is a joy to carry, even though carrying 25 to 30 pounds isn’t really all that fun. Regardless, the craftsmanship of the pack is what bolsters my confidence to hike over miles of trail-less wilderness filled with skin-shredding boulders and angry spiders. I carry on, away from the echoing hollers of troops of Boy Scouts.
I also carry very little food, so I need to catch fish. Oatmeal, Clif bars, rice (or quinoa), and a little fruit leather are the only calories I bring with me… well, at least the only calories I can put in my mouth. I sustain myself on the trout that can sometimes be abundant but are always beautiful in these alpine lakes. A 4.0-meter tenkara rod is my hunting tool of choice. John Vetterli, a business partner and friend, makes some fantastic fluorocarbon furled lines, and a 6.0-meter line helps me get the extra distance I need to drop a little kebari within a couple of feet of that last dimple I saw that just might produce my next appetizer. Presentation is key, and a small foam box of kebari, dry flies, nymphs, and small streamers will almost always guarantee a trout or grayling to bite and make the line sing a beautiful tone.
The hike is arduous. My legs ache from the effort and my lungs burn as they try to soak up the small amount of oxygen that is available at 12,000 feet (3600 m). The sweat falls as my body struggles to stay cool and I help it by splashing water on myself at every stream crossing. The dogs pant under their backpacks, but must be in better shape than I because every bird or squirrel gets chased away. I guess all those afternoons of sprinting after a bright green tennis ball will get you in shape (maybe I should do more than just stand there and give praise when the tennis ball is brought back to my feet). This hike is tough and I’m drawn back to the reality of the challenge with a fresh cut on my shin that drips blood slowly to my sock. I let one of the dogs lick my wound dry and continue on to the lake that boasts, or rather goads me on towards, dreams of big trout.
In the city, I love eating sushi and the raw fish that are often associated with it. However, I like my trout cooked. Trout cooked over an open fire are my favorite, but getting an open fire reliably while backpacking can be quite the challenge. During the late summer, thunderstorms roll in often dumping cold water that saturates anything that could be flammable. Throughout the day I collect fines and stuff them into my pockets to keep them dry or to heat up and evaporate the wet with my body heat. Fire steel and the sharp spine of a knife can throw a hot spark that, if you’re lucky and practiced, will dance on your dry fines long enough to generate combustion. I always try primitive fire starting methods for at least 45 minutes to an hour before giving up. A small splash of denatured alcohol for my cat-food stove helps the next spark to light my fire.
Finally arriving at the lake, I am greeted by a small spattering of yellow lily pad flowers. Beyond the yellow and green floating mass, I see little dimples radiating out all over the lake. The water by the edge is shallow and I can see clearly through the glacial water to see pairs of grayling cruising the water. My pack drops off my shoulders, I unload the dogs, and I stuff my pockets with a line-spool, tippet, and a fly box. My tenkara rod is in my hands as I beeline towards the closest collection of risers. Lillian slides out. Line loops over and cinches tight. Rod telescopes out as the line-spool unwinds line. I already have a small kebari tied on and in under a minute I let my fly go, casting a false cast and shooting my tiny, hackled imposter gently near a radiating ripple. I can barely glimpse a silver, shining torpedo of a fish turn towards my offering and gently take the bug into its mouth. Set! The calm explodes with a staccato tail dance on the water. The colors are like the silky shimmering dress that scantily clads a skinny supermodel. It is sexy. It is stunning. I turn my little grayling’s head and pull it towards me.
The beauty of alpine lakes and their brookies, cutts, and grayling are best described through metaphor. When I fish a lake that rarely gets fished it’s as if I am the only man at the hippest nightclub. It is ladies’ night and all the women are dressed to get the most attention. I am in awe at how they flirt with me, and as I catch fish after fish, I have to decide which one will come home with me. This is every man’s dream.
For now, I am happy. I am smelly, standing in frigid water, socks and shoes wet. I still don’t know what the date is. I have a faint idea it may be Monday, and if I think real hard I might remember to get home by Tuesday.
One of the Tenkara Guides, ERiK Ostrander lives in Utah.