Article by Paul Vertrees
“Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness”
“Social distancing”. It’s a catch phrase we’ve heard daily since the global explosion of the COVID-19 pandemic in recent weeks. It’s a necessary precaution-spending time away from crowds and even expanding physical proximity when spending any amount of time in small groups-and even my employer, our local school district, has made it mandatory. I started to think about social distancing in the broader sense of the word, and realized that it’s really something I do all the time and have for decades, and that there weren’t many life-changing adjustments to be made on my part. This is a story about “social distancing” of the very best kind.
For years I’ve been backpacking, hiking, fishing, and guiding in the tiny, semi-arid canyons close to my home in southern Colorado. One particular canyon runs for some 30 miles, as the creek runs, through some of the wildest country in our part of the state. It includes two Bureau of Land Management wilderness study areas, several sections of state trust wildlife areas, and US Forest Service and BLM lands. Other than one dirt road at the bottom of the canyon, not one road crosses the canyon over its entire length. Not one barbed wire fence is stretched across the creek. There are no permanent structures, and no man-made trails. I had a plan for a long time to complete a solo traverse the entire length of the canyon all in one trip, and recent events provided me the time the reason to get away from everyone for a few days. The trip was on!
Day 1. March 17, 2020. 15 Miles. Happy St. Patrick’s Day! My good friend and fellow fly fishing guide, Evan, picked me up at home at 7:00 AM. I had been up since 5:00 AM, and I suspect he had too. Two days earlier Evan had followed me an hour’s drive south over dirt roads to my friend John’s home. John lives off-grid and secluded about a mile above the top of the canyon, and his property provided me a perfect place to stash my truck for my return drive home at the end of the week.
Day 1 dawned cold, foggy, and wet. The gloomy mood of the morning matched the current sad state of affairs across the globe. Evan and I drove the steep and greasy-slick mud road down to the only bridge at the bottom of the canyon. I was happy to find an empty pullout next to the bridge; I had the canyon to myself! After getting my backpack out of Evan’s truck, finishing my cup of coffee and, snapping a selfie of us that Evan called “The Last Known Photo of Paul Vertrees”, I stepped off on my walk.
I’ve spent the better part of 30 years fishing the creek flowing through the lower section of this canyon. I know every pool, bend, and pocket. Knowing I had a lot of water upstream that I had never fished, I hiked and waded my way past all of the water I already knew, with a goal of reaching the unknown water in time to set up my camp and do some fishing before dark. I was following the exact route that Army Lieutenant Zebulon Montgomery Pike had taken in January 1807, as he explored this canyon and the lands beyond at the behest of President Thomas Jefferson and General James Wilkinson. I clambered over car-sized boulders, hiked through the soft carpets of grassy meadows, dodged cholla and prickly pear cactus, and waded the creek perhaps two or three dozen times. Ten hours and fifteen miles later I arrived at Camp 1 as the clouds cleared and the early evening sun warmed the canyon.
I had planned to complete half of the mileage the first day when I was fresh, knowing that I would wear down daily under the weight of my pack, the increasing ruggedness of the canyons, and the number of creek crossings I would make. At the end of Day 1 I questioned my plan a bit. I was so tired it was a struggle to get through the camp chores of pitching my tent, and gathering wood and water. After my supper meal I spent a half-hour fishing a deep green bend pool upstream from my camp about a hundred yards and caught some feisty ten-inch brown and rainbow trout. My tenkara rod and nymphing line were a perfect match for a lightly weighted double nymph rig. Those trout eagerly ate both a beadhead pheasant tail and a baetis emerger with equal abandon. Seeing and feeling the bend in my tenkara rod made the all of the hard miles melt away. I drifted asleep at dusk, comforted by a warm down sleeping bag and the song of rushing water.
Day 2. March 18, 2020. 8 Miles. Awake at dawn, I fired up my ultralight wood-burning stove, waited for my frozen wading boots and waders to thaw in the heated shelter, and shot a short video to wish my father, Jim, a happy 76th birthday. It would be two more days until I had a cell signal with which to send him the greeting. By the time breakfast was finished, my rock-hard frozen boots were soft enough to pull on my feet. I tore down camp, loaded up my backpack, and stepped off for another day of hiking, wading, bouldering, and fishing. I was moving through one of the highest concentrations of mountain lions in the entire state of Colorado. Farther downstream in the canyon on Day 1 I had stumbled upon the fresh remains of a Merriam’s turkey that had been ambushed by a lion. It looked like a bomb went off, with feathers scattered, and two uneaten, and probably unpalatable, turkey feet laying in the dirt. Not a hundred yards beyond was a well-defined mountain lion track in the faint game trail I was following. There’s nothing that makes me feel more alive than the realization that I am not at the top of the local food chain!
About two miles upstream from Camp 1 the canyon opens up into a large park, and the serpentine creek creates some amazing bend pools, which would prove to be the best pools in the entire canyon. In contrast to the sometimes willow-choked creek edges in the lower canyon, the upper canyon’s big meadows have virtually no vegetation, other than grass, along the edges of the creek. This makes any and all casting very easy. The ten and twelve inch brown trout I caught in this beautiful bend pool would prove to be the final fish of the trip, for reasons I would later discover.
The entire length of the canyon is interspersed with deep and narrow gorges and wide and flat parks. After passing through several of each, I finally arrived at Camp 2. As usual, about a half-hour before my planned stop time, which is based on hours not mileage, I started looking for access to the two things necessary for any camp I set up…wood and water. If I have quality wood for my stove and easy access to drinking and fishing water, it’s a perfect scenario. Sometimes I have to compromise on one or the other, but at the end of Day 2 I had both.
I had to pitch my tent in the wind, which is always a trick. Wind and weather was moving in, and the skies were now back to the moody gray from the day before. After settling in and cooking my evening meal on the hot wood stove, I ventured down to the creek to look for trout. I walked a half-mile back downstream and scrutinized every pool, pocket, and edge all the way back to camp without seeing a single brown or rainbow trout. If they were actually there, none took either my #18 beadhead pheasant tail or the #20 black RS2 trailing ten inches behind it. I spent the time before dark writing in my journal and listening to a Steeldrivers album and a MeatEater podcast I had downloaded prior to the trip. I let the music of the creek sing me to sleep yet another night, with dreams of finding elusive trout the remaining water upstream in the canyon.
Day 3. March 19, 2020. 8 Miles. Dawn found me awake and wishing I had a warm tent. I went through my usual early morning routine of rolling over in my sleeping bag, grabbing my fire kit, and lighting the wood stove without leaving the warmth of my down cocoon. Once I had a roaring fire, I boiled water for breakfast and coffee, and watched the steam rise off my wading boots, which I had hung from the ceiling the night before. I poked my head of out the tent to find an inch of new snow on the ground.
Again I went down to the creek to look for trout, but finding none I decided to tear down camp, load my pack, and head upstream in search of fish, unexplored landscape, and the end of the journey.
After picking my way up through two tight, rocky gorges I again found myself at the opening of a vast park, strewn with a giant alluvial fan. Boulders the size of cars, three-foot-thick cottonwood logs, and pieces of scattered skeletons littered the landscape. I found the front half of a desiccated crayfish exoskeleton at least thirty yards from the creek. This was evidence of a massive water event from last summer, and the power and destruction that flash floods create in this landscape is simply amazing. I finally solved the puzzle of a total absence of trout. The flood had killed most, and washed the survivors downstream to the lower canyon. The debris left ten vertical feet above and thirty yards on either side of the creek bed left no doubt.
I continued through the final tight gorge, narrow enough to force me into the creek to make it through. I hadn’t counted the creek crossings on this trip, but as I hiked I had time to think about the number. An average of five per hour put it at last a hundred. The traverse wasn’t easy at all, but it wasn’t immediately steep. I had gained two thousand feet in 30 miles. However, the final mile was by far the most difficult.
After the final tight gorge, I found a faint rocky path on river left, so faint in fact I nearly missed it. Based on my GPS waypoints, I knew I was on the correct exit from the creek, so I started the slow, painful hike up out of the canyon. Head down, heart and lungs bursting, legs burning, I took one huge breath in for every step taken up. I passed more skeletons, deer mostly and lion-killed. I passed ancient mine shafts that could only be accessed by foot. I cursed myself for taking too much gear. I cursed myself for not drinking more water before the climb. I finally made it up and out of the canyon I had followed for three days.
Once on top, I turned to look north at all the wild country I had just gone through. I felt a sudden sense of gratitude to have been gifted an opportunity to take a trip I had planned for so long. On the final quarter mile to my truck I had already started planning the next long walk. A chance for another adventure in search of wild trout with a tenkara rod, and an opportunity for even more social distancing of the very best kind!
Paul Vertrees was one of the first professional tenkara guides in the US and works as a guide for Royal Gorge Anglers in Cañon City, Colorado. He writes on his personal blog, Tenkara Tracks, as well as various online and print publications.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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