Strange Trails

Essay by Brittany Aäe

Far out past the astral plane

I cast you back from whence you came

Cosmic ash and blackened brain

I call you by your ancient names

Lord Huron

By 7 AM I had my coffee in my left hand while the right deftly worked both stick and wheel, navigating heavily washed-out spare Forest Service roads that had me seriously considering trading for a truck upon my return to town. During my repeated pilgrimages to these burned, numinous highlands near home I’d already blown my suspension on washboard taken at an eager pace and cracked my windshield on some effluvia tossed up by my excited tires. It didn’t matter––I’d reserved the day for a long wander after a night spent under smoke plume and stars. When I could feel the air grow thinner, I pointed in the direction of a hidden lake about which I’d heard but never seen.

Late summer in the Okanogan is a slow dance with high country trees barely holding on to green, wishing the song won’t end but knowing soon the snow will dampen all sound save for a high-pitched whine of the north wind leaning on nude branches. As such, I spend more time sleeping on the ground, touching stone, and casting flies in September than any other time of the year––and these hallowed highlands will be some of the first claimed by the cold white so I had to prioritize our goodbyes.

Brittany Aäe - Strange Trails - View

I had intended for the day to be a rest day from my career as a mountain athlete; I was inappropriately kitted out in a cut-off tee shirt and corduroy skirt over my bikini with Chacos on my feet––it is a good thing my fishing gear resides in the back of my Subaru from May through October. All I had by way of directions to the lake was a general heading from an unremarkable summit and the promise of hogs swirling in the cerulean to tempt me onto sage, dry grass, huckleberry, and cobble off-trail. Undaunted by the prospect of brush scraping up my shins, a chance meeting with wolves or moose or ptarmigan, or the dust staining my feet, I plodded to the saddle where the trail ended, and the guesswork began.

I became curious about the more-than-human with whom I moved, employing a new means of navigation, scent and temperature. Sneaking up a muddy draw scored with the tracks of moose, likely the individual who watched me from above my camp the night before, I began to sniff at the air. On this day, perched on the edge of seasons, the wind had begun its shift into winter patterns. Instead of hot air seething up from a triple-degree valley, heating the highlands, what rippled through the stunted pines was cool and breathed by the forgiving north.

I trod this finger of forest for a short time, remembering the grouse I’ve harvested from this generous grove over the years, then began to sense an increase in humidity in the air at the tip of my nose and, allowing this hint of moisture in the golden highlands to lead me, the breeze refocused itself into a steady flow coming from the west-southwest. I noted a screed ridge rising about 500 feet above the forest which gave way to larch dressed in their finest chartreuse––the vibrant moment before warm tones of autumn.

Brittany Aäe - Strange Trails - Flower

There was no human trail here, all bare and definite; instead I wove together an array of game trails which made great sense of the subtly terraced scrubland between granite boulders and whose population of kinnikinnick transferred their dew to my dusty toes making mud in my sandals. My mind’s considerable processes had shut off somewhere near where I left the trail behind at the col and, in place of anxious thoughts ruminating and planning, intuition took over.

Humidity meant lake, focused wind funneled through col meant a basin, the steepening ground underfoot and force of stream flowing off to my right indicated proximity to headwaters. Then came the smell, you know the one that comes in the sweet aftermath of releasing a trout, the one that clings to your hands even after several rinsings in cold tarn water? That smell, that distinctly fishy one of scales and depths and algae, hit my face in a planar manner as it shuttled down the basin and I could see the lip of the hillside up which I climbed.

In that moment I realized I had found the lake using no map, no thought, no directions, no friend accompanying me to show me which way to go, and the anticipation sparkled in my chest. Upon breaking the ridge I spied the water, held in the dish created by a rounded battlement of grey stone oriented to the summit of a nearby peak and dammed by the larchy peat I’d just ascended. I pulled up a log and observed the activity on the surface of the water: trout after trout disturbed the steely water in girths certainly exceeding the strength of my tippet.

Brittany Aäe - Strange Trails - Lake

Brittany Aäe is an endurance coach and creative based in unceded Mətxʷú and Sinixt territory. When she’s not running, climbing, or skiing, you can find her making flies dance at the fishing hole near her little cabin in the woods. Web: Magnetic North

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Tenkara Angler Magazine.

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