fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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the view’s better from the passenger seat

It seems that I don’t drive distracted.

About a month ago, Willy and I loaded up at his house and left just before 7:00 a.m. and headed east, skipping from one highway to another, toward Toms Place, Calif., the annual fall destination for the club’s Eastern Sierra outing. It’d be my fourth. Along the way we’d be travelling through the Sierra foothills and Yosemite*, stopping at the Crowley Lake Marina for a quagga mussel inspection of Willy’s Bay Ranger.

Over the last eight-plus years I’ve had multiple opportunities to drive Hwy 120, up along scrubland bordering Priest Grade to where the highway becomes Big Oak Flat Road and winds through the sparse foothill woodland surrounding Groveland and much of the roadway, then finally rising into heavier stands of conifers — more correctly a lower montane forest — before the Yosemite entrance station at about 5,000 feet. My past trips encompassed ambitious one-day, 225-mile fishing trips with stops to cast a line at four or five different creeks or rivers as well as motorcycling over Sonora and Tioga passes shortly after opening, when snowdrifts 10-plus feet high line the high-country portions of the road.

It’s a fantastic road trip, to be sure, but on this drive I found that the view was very different from the passenger’s seat of Willy’s Cadillac Escalade.

The motley crew that would comprise the 2011 DVFF Eastern Sierra Trip.

The road welcomed us with limited traffic, and only a few miles of road construction slowed our progress. Anyone who’s driven through Tracy, Manteca and Oakdale — perhaps headed to Two Mile Bar or Goodwin Dam on the Stanislaus River — know that there’s plenty of nothing to look at. It’s here that the road seems to drone on between orchards and field crops, time seems to slow and I’m thankful that the highway is now three lanes through Tracy, once a bottleneck no matter the time of day.

It’s outside of the appropriately named Oakdale that the oak woodland takes hold. The oak trees and an occasional gray pine break up the monotony of the now golden grasses. Then there’s the always subtle shock of the “girls, girls, girls” sign that appears out of nowhere, perched above a rundown hotel and shadowy outbuilding truly in the middle of nowhere, all of which is enclosed by a substantial not-so-ornamental iron fence. That sign is also a landmark signaling the last mile or so before the right turn toward Yosemite.

The history of the Sierra foothills comes to life driving through Big Oak Flat and Groveland in the form of vacant stone buildings adorned with iron shutters and doors that recognize the danger of fire during the hot summers. Jeffery, Yellow and Ponderosa fight for space between buildings. The road here barely allows the passing of two motorhomes, forcing life to slow to a crawl. Not necessarily a bad thing.

As we approached the national park border the density of the forest was more imposing than my long held impression resulting from occasional glances from the driver’s seat. I’d seen these trees before, but details now stood out. A thick green canopy blocks any view of the sky and despite a distinct lack of branches from the ground to a few feet above the average man’s head, there were so many trees that the concentration of trunks cut the range of visibility to a couple hundred yards. As the miles slide by, the undergrowth grows lush.

More than just a stop to hit the restrooms, the Big Oak Flat entrance to Yosemite marks the start of a big change in vegetation and terrain. After another half hour and a left turn toward Tuolumne Meadows, Western Juniper, Red Fir and Lodgepole Pine dominate the view, indicators of the upper montane forest. Meadows of unreal green — in essence nature’s sponges for snowmelt — occasionally come in to view, edged by skunk cabbage and corn lily. In another hour, slabs of granite and collections of boulders begin to replace meadows.

Then, unexpectedly, the view opens up to vast expanses of what I’ve always known as granite and that, in all of my limited travels, seems to be the unique calling card of the Yosemite high country. A less brilliant white, I’d later learn that it’s actually a mix of granitoids and in many cases leans toward granodiorite, which is darker, almost moody and reflective of the changeable weather. It also marks the march into the subalpine forest as one nears 9,000 feet in elevation.

This day was clear and the only distraction was a fuel gauge needle too close to “E” for comfort. Since I tend to measure distance by time instead of mileage, I guessed that the gas station in Tuolumne Meadows would arrive at least a few comfortable miles before the needle was pegged. I grimaced a bit with each incline and hoped I was right.

The East side of the Sierra Nevada mountains. (Photo courtesy Fed Glaser.)

My concerns were alleviated by the sight of the sapphire-blue waters of Tenaya Lake, probably one of the most photographed bodies of water within the borders of Yosemite National Park. The beauty of Tenaya belies the fact that it’s a barren, fishless lake. Thankfully, I knew it was less than 10 miles to the Tuolumne Meadows gas station, one of the few Chevron stations with a mini-store that offers rock climbing equipment for sale and rent. We’d done alright so far. It was 11:00 a.m., putting us on schedule to stop for lunch in Lee Vining.

This time the appearance of Tuolumne Meadows and its namesake river was a far cry from a visit in June with my brother and one son. The river was no longer near flood stage; the water had receded and the meadow was again grass. Lembert Dome loomed above us, sheer peaks watched from the southeast and the now fishable Dana Fork of the Tuolumne River teased us from alongside the road. Soon we reached Tioga Pass station and began a descent that would take us past Tioga and Ellery lakes, and into Lee Vining Canyon.

This 9-mile stretch of road harbors the majority of my childhood memories of family vacations. Scattered about are small meadows dotted with small stands of Lodgepole and other pines, and laced by small streams with small, willing wild brook and brown trout. Tioga Lake recalls a day of crazy fishing, when my sister, brother, dad and I stood on rocks a few feet above the lake casting spinners and watching the (stocked) rainbow trout chase our lures, only to strike at the last minute.

It all changes after Ellery Lake. Sheer rock is the predominate feature. Only small plants and hardy trees cling to crevices. Only on the canyon floor, the eventual destination of Lee Vining Creek after its exit from Ellery Lake, offers any great expanse of green. The Eastern Sierra high desert — a Pinyon pine-Juniper woodland — begins near the canyon floor, offering a stark contrast, beautiful in its own way, to the forest passed through to get there.

We had about 12 more miles to Lee Vining and sat down for lunch on the patio at Bodie Mike’s Barbeque just after noon. With the seasoning that comes with eating out-of-doors, we dug in, enjoying the view toward Mono Lake between bites. It was a quick drive to Crowley Lake Marina to surprise the marina attendant with a bone-dry boat. It took longer to affix the tag than conduct the inspection.

A few minutes later we tucked our stuff into the cabin to find ourselves with more time than expected on our hands. The afternoon sun was still well above the mountains to the west. We were there to fish, so took a short stroll to the nearby Rock Creek to cast a few flies.

Rock Creek isn’t too big, but usually heavily stocked and fished just as much. Willy and I split up. I would find a few rising fish willing to strike my offerings, but the kicker was Willy’s first fish — his first post retirement trout. A not-too-shabby brown trout of about 14 inches.

We spent a bit more time casting to rising fish, next to the opposite shore, of course. A few took our offerings, fewer were landed, but it was good to spend a few hours getting the “skunk” off before dinner.

Looking back, it was a good start to what would be a trip that was great for reasons I didn’t expect.


*Not through Yosemite Valley, however. The road to the valley dead ends near the Happy Isles Visitor Center. Hwy 120 passes the valley and heads through the high country and Tuolumne Meadows, then over Tioga Pass.


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what we saw last week… (2011-10-26)

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cruising Alaska, part five: Victoria, then home

At the Empress Hotel in Victoria, B.C.

Cruising, for most people, invokes images of passengers in deck chairs with umbrellas drinks in hand.

That’s not the case with me. At least not yet.

For me, when in port there’s sightseeing to be done and the bustle that arises from acting every bit the busy tourist.

But one unique aspect about a cruise vacation is that — though already having “wound down” away from everyday life — one can take time to wind down between ports.

That’s what we did the day after leaving Skagway. We were at sea, steaming toward Victoria, B.C. Without conscious thought, we made it somewhat of a quiet day. Almost winning a passenger trivia game in the morning, a leisurely lunch, and time spent in a hot tub with a view astern to the ocean; a quiet pause in the closing days of a superb vacation.

Sunshine greeted us the next morning in Victoria, where what is regularly referred to as “High Tea”* awaited at The Empress Hotel. More accurately, The Empress refers to it as “Afternoon Tea.” To be polite, I’d practiced the proper pinkie curl.

Gwendolyn’s little finger would be curled under and away from the heat of the cup which might otherwise inflict a burn on her delicate skin. The little finger would never be arched upward. Arching would be deemed a sign of extreme arrogance. Should you know of moments extreme enough to demand an arched pinkie, contact us immediately.
— from The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde

There was a remarkable consistency to the extraordinary knowledge imparted by tour guides and bus drivers we met during this trip, and our driver in Victoria was no exception. He filled our nearly hour-long drive to, in and around the city with history, trivia and pop culture references. Soon enough we disembarked in front of the impressive Empress Hotel.

Above the commoners' side entrance to the Empress Hotel.

The 103-year-old hotel near Victoria’s waterfront can’t be missed, and there’s a story that for many years it did not have sign out front because of local sentiment that anyone who didn’t know it was The Empress shouldn’t be staying there. It is an imposing structure that’s hosted kings and queens and a fair share of celebrities.

Wondering if we weren’t worthy of a public arrival, we entered through a side door to find the Tea Lobby. With everyone seated on sofas upholstered with richly patterned chintz or in wing back chairs, our hostess set about placing tiered stands stacked with traditional tea sandwiches, pastries and cakes. Our starter was a bowl of big, tasty blueberries, certainly not an everyday occurrence for me, but something I could get accustomed to. Our cups were filled with The Empress’ tea (a blend of teas from Kenya, Tanzania, South India, Assam, Sri Lanka and China), and though I’m not a big tea drinker, it was tasty (and fun—how often does one get to say “I’ll take two lumps” without ending up with a headache?).

I don’t pretend to be a gourmand but found great pleasure in the tea sandwiches and cakes served at The Empress. Even the cucumber and watercress sandwiches were good. My personal favorite was the smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwich. Our gastronomic climb up the stand found a second tier filled with some of the best-ever fresh scones and preserves, and ended with the top tier’s assortment of light pastries. It was all good, but I was left wondering how such dainty sandwiches and pastries could be so filling.

We’d have another day at sea before arriving home, and there’d be whales, porpoises, and a special dessert courtesy our maître’d. But Victoria was the last big “hurrah” for me on this fantastic trip.

A last sunset at sea…


*It’s interesting to note that what’s often referred to as “High Tea” (in the U.S. at least) may in fact be “Low Tea” or “Afternoon Tea”, and I’ll bet that most of my six readers didn’t know that there were two types of “Tea.” Gleaning the Internet will tell one that High Tea ttraditionally was a working-class meal served on a high table at the end of the workday and comprised of heavy dishes (such as steak and kidney pie, pickled salmon, crumpets, onion cakes, etc.). Afternoon Tea or High Tea was more of an elite social gathering with assorted snacks and tea. But in the end, who’d really want to go to “Low Tea?”


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the parent’s 50th wedding anniversary weekend

My parents celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary last weekend. They didn’t want a big bash, but wanted the family to get together. And, for the first time in quite a few years, we gathered, with my wife and I, and my sister and her family, flying from San Francisco to Seattle-Tacoma International. Being short on vacation time it was a quick trip for us, flying up Friday and leaving Sunday.

The reason we all gathered in Duvall, Wash.

It was the type of low-key celebration that is more common in my immediate family (except, maybe, for my brother). It started Saturday morning at mom and dad’s house with a get-what-you-want breakfast. There was a lot of catching up and joking around. The nephews got reacquainted.

About mid morning, dad presented mom with an anniversary gift; a communal effort that brought together a heartfelt quotation chosen by dad with a cross-stitch put together by my wife, with the matting and framing coordinated by me. Yes, tears glistened in mom’s eyes, and dad’s voice crackled during his presentation.

That afternoon, in typical Konoske fashion and joined by my wife’s parents, we continued the celebration with a hearty “main meal.” (I’d call it either late lunch or early dinner, as the rest of the family well knows by now.)

At Sunday morning mass, mom and dad’s marriage was blessed at Holy Innocents Catholic Church, with the family in attendance. It was nice, and like our parents, low key. After mass and before some of us had to leave, we enjoyed too much breakfast at Duvall Grill.

But I do think I heard something about mom being up for sainthood.


Below is a slide show of photos from the weekend, or you can visit the album here.

https://picasaweb.google.com/s/c/bin/slideshow.swf


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cruising Alaska, part four: Skagway

There’s something about getting off the beaten path that brings about a certain type of inventiveness. That’s not to say that city folk don’t have their fair share of ideas. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that when left to employ natural resources, interesting things happen. Skagway’s just such a place. The ship docked in Skagway that morning under overcast skies. The ocean astern was steel gray. A later departure time for our shore excursion allowed for a lingering breakfast.

Our decision on a Skagway shore excursion was predicated on setting aside time for walking around town. So, to ensure we’d have the afternoon to explore, we chose the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway summit excursion, a 20-mile ride to the 2,865 foot high White Pass summit. The WP&YRR was built in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush — ironically completed after the Gold Rush was finish — as an alternative to the trails climbing almost 3000 feet in just 20 miles. The narrow gauge railroad was a cooperative project that brought together American knowhow, British money and Canadian labor.

Headed toward the summit.

In a vintage coach car we passed through the east side of Skagway and began a climb that would take us past Bridal Veil Falls, abandoned trestles, Inspiration Point, Dead Horse Gulch and broad vistas looking back on Skagway and down to the Skagway River. The trees and bushes were painted with a blush of fall colors. Leaving the forest behind, we entered the alpine zone and arrived at the summit, our halfway point and the only point of the trip that entered Canada. The hard beauty of the summit was accented by trees dwarfed by a short growing season and heavy snow. Summit Lake seemed to kiss the edge of the railroad bed.

Fall color in the railway bed.

Then it was time for the “Summit Shuffle.” We were instructed to stand up, grab the back of our seat and pull it towards us, reversing the direction of the seat, then move to the opposite side of the aisle, guaranteeing that everyone would be have a new view for the ride back to Skagway. A neat trick. Just as remarkable was every passenger’s good natured approach to switching seats.

It was clear that on this trip we’d be laying groundwork for a return, as we soon accepted that our trip on the WP&YRR would one of those excursions that’d be repeated. Now knowing that Skagway isn’t a large town, next time I’d opt for the full-day 67½-mile WP&YRR trip to Carcross, Yukon.

The first sight to greet us after disembarking near town was that of pink salmon, stretching from bank to bank and filling the Skagway River. It’s one thing to see a few salmon heading upstream, or someone else’s video, but it’s another to see enough fish, hundreds of salmon, give reality to the old timers’ expression that “one could walk across streams on the backs of salmon.” I spent some time in awe of this sight, so stunned that I didn’t once wish for a fly rod in my hand. …well, maybe once.

The main part of town is a bit of a walk past what is probably one of the smallest immigration stations I’ve seen, the WP&YRR station and WP&YRR rotary snowplow #1. Downtown Skagway still has that small, frontier town feel, albeit with the obligatory stores focusing on cruise ship passengers (jewelry and souvenirs). If you ignore those tourist traps, there are some interesting local shops, including a yarn store that required a stop for the wife for a gander at qiviut (kee-vee-uh’ t) yarn. However, the price of this qiviut — the soft wool lying beneath the long coat of the Arctic muskox — made me wonder if it was laced with some of that Yukon gold (nearly $100 for 1 ounce!).

Skagway Brewing Co. appetizer.

But well within the budget, down near the end of 7th Street sat Skagway Brewing Co. Now, I’ve been scoffed at for usually refusing to drink, much less pay for, relatively flavorless beers. It’s a principle that serves me well and often leads to pleasant surprises. Skagway Brewing’s signature ale, Spruce Tip Blonde, was one such surprise.

We decided on lunch at the Skagway Brewing Pub, and started with an appetizer flight of the only-available-in-the-Pub beers: Prospector Pale, Chilkoot Trail IPA, Boom Town Brown, Blue Top Porter and the only outside beer, Alaskan Brewing’s Amber Ale. All were good, but absent from the flight was the Spruce Tip Blonde. Told by the waiter, of course, that Spruce Tip Blonde was worth a full glass, it would be the beverage accompanying some pretty awesome fish ‘n chips. Brewed with hand picked Sitka Spruce tree tips, Spruce Tip Blonde offers an experience that begins with an almost flowery aroma of spruce but tastes of a unique sweetness akin to a fruit and/or spice.

If you’re ever in Skagway, the Skagway Brewing Pub is worth a stop for lunch and beer. Or two.

Rotary snow plow #1 of the WP&YRR.

The steam engine of the WP&YRR at the dock.


The Picasa album with all the photos.


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what we saw last week… (2011-10-05)

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