fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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plenty of water and willing fish, and a return to Crooked Creek; part one

It’s a day off and I’m awake before sunrise. This time of morning on the West Slope of the Sierra Nevada, it won’t be light until the sun creeps above its soaring peaks. I like it this way. It’s a two-hour drive over Sonora Pass before dropping into the starkness of the Eastern Sierra. It’ll be a murky twilight until I crest the pass.

I shower and dress, gather my breakfast for the road, and quietly close up the cabin. There is just enough light to find my way across the deck and down the stairs. In the pre-dawn stillness, pine needles crunch loudly under my boots.

I pull the car out of the driveway and lock the gate. After two right turns and a left, I’m headed east on Hwy 108. It’s an easy drive this morning. Only four cars on the road, three in the opposing lane and the other only a momentary companion. This is a familiar road, but it’s winding through forests rendered unfamiliar by the need to remove trees killed and now kindling after an onslaught of bark beetles.

There’s no hurry this time. I know a few pockets of the Eastern Sierra. Loosely defined as stretching from Lone Pine in the south to the Nevada state line to the north and east, much more of it remains unknown to me. Secure in the knowledge that I’d hook and land a trout or five – or simply cocky – I had decided that this would be a trip that included explorations that probably wouldn’t include fishing, much less a fish.

Sonora Pass: It’s all downhill from here.

The historical landmark sign at Sonora Pass. The power of heavy snowfall.

It’s become my tradition upon reaching Sonora Pass to stop for a moment. This year, there’s clear evidence of the heavy snows of last winter. One side of the historical landmark sign is leaning about 15 degrees. A few snow fields remain where last year were none. Absent any human traffic, natural noises abound. Birds scurry in the brush. The wind makes that rushing sound that seems to be specific to high Sierra pines. The almost treeless land to the east is lit by harsh sunshine. The west is still in the shadows of the peaks and trees.

Stopping at the Leavitt Falls Vista Point, I look down upon the West Walker River. Even at 7,800 feet, 1,000 feet above the river, I can see that it’s full of water. The first people I see are a few miles down the road – packers at the Leavitt Meadows Pack Station. A short stop at Pickel Meadow Wildlife Area confirms that the West Walker River isn’t ready to be fished.

Leavitt Falls 2017.08.24

Leavitt Falls in the early morning light.

Fog and cows on Pickel Meadow 2017.08.24

Fog and cows on Pickel Meadow.

I drive on. I pass the oddly quiet Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center. A right turn onto Hwy 395 marks the beginning of long, flat roads. It’s still cool enough that steam rises from Fales Hot Springs. Soon I’m through Bridgeport, across the East Walker River, and southbound.

Scattered trees give way to dry high desert. Only in the canyons west of the highway do trees – mostly aspens and pines – find enough water.

South of Mono Lake lies the first exploratory attempt. John, the leader of our little group that’ll be spending a few days terrorizing fish in and around Crowley Lake, suggested a stop at Rush Creek. Originating at about 13,000 feet near Mount Lyell, various feeder streams from Marie Lakes and Davis Lakes combine to form the main stem of Rush Creek, which flows through Waugh Lake, Gem Lake, and Agnew Lake on its way to the June Lake Loop. There it enters and exits Silver Lake, then Grant Lake, before finding its way to Mono Lake.

As a teenager camping at the Silver Lake Campground, mysterious fly fishermen would wade downstream and later reappear with big brown trout. Having never returned to June Lake Loop since then, and since I’d become a passable fly fisherman myself, I thought it was about time for a closer look at Rush Creek. Like many creeks and streams here, Rush Creek is lined by brush dedicated to preventing molestation of fish that might be present. If that weren’t enough to dissuade my thoughts of making of a few investigative casts, the creek – which carries 41% of Mono Basin’s runoff – was filled bank to bank with whitewater, the result of accumulating runoff from last winter’s heavy snowfall over its 27-mile course.

I pull back on to the highway and mull over the idea of returning to June Lake Loop in the future without deciding whether that will be on my own or as the leader of a club trip. Once past the northern turn for June Lake Loop, the miles seem to pass quickly. The asphalt here is smooth and the road relatively straight. It slowly rises and falls, passing through infrequent stands of pines. Unimproved roads regularly sprout from either side of the highway. Calling them dirt roads would give the wrong impression; here they cut into an almost white, gravelly, sandy soil.

Cactus Cooler 2017.08.24

It’s become something of a tradition to stop at the Tioga Gas Mart, after a trip many years ago with Christopher, to indulge in this sugary treat.

I turn down one with a sign pointing to Lower Deadman Creek Campground. It’s about two miles before the turn into a small basin that contains the campground and the creek. Here the chaparral gives way to pines. The campground straddles the creek; four of its thirty sites are occupied, but the abundance of water this year makes half the sites unusable.

I geek gear up, stopping to talk with a grad student who’s studying the geology of the area. He points out where he’s seen stocked fish:the likely places – long runs that curve through the campground. Here, towering pines shade this place, allowing the coolness of morning to linger long past sunrise and muffling the sounds of coffee being poured into a mug, a spoon clinking against a cereal bowl, a father beginning to pack the necessities of camping, the grad student strumming a guitar.

Deadman Creek is much like many Sierra creeks I’ve fished. Its clear water ebbs and flows, tumbling over rocks into bubbling pools and carving out channels under tree roots. I think my 3-weight Winston maybe a bit too much rod for this stream but know its length will come in handy when it comes to poking through the brush that lines the banks of this creek.

I’m here looking for the wild trout that are rumored to be in the upper reaches of Deadman Creek, but I can’t help warming up my casting arm tossing my flies to a few of the human-raised rainbows. My cast is rusty but good enough to lay my flies down on a seam that carries it over a few fish fighting for position in the current. There’s no subtlety about the stocked trout. The lead fish slashes at my dry fly and the other fish scatter. The skunk is off.

The hike upstream makes me grateful that I walk every day. The campground is at 7,800 feet, and I’m headed higher. Half a mile upstream I’m alone. Ripe bitter gooseberries stand out among sage, bunch grasses, willows, and rambling wild rose bushes.

The creek from this point and upstream is no more than three feet wide. I find the wild brook trout that lured me here in nearly every plunge pool and tail-out. There’s contentment to be found in a wild place such as this, and when found it’s the simply being in that place that’s enough.

I turn downstream after about two miles gained in small increments dictated by fishable water. In this canyon it’s either night or day, and during the day there is no sense of time passing in its unchanging shade. It’s just before noon when I get back to the car.

Deadman Creek 2017.08.24

One pool on Deadman Creek that gave up a brook trout, as it should have.

It takes less time to travel the three miles of dirt road to the highway than the 23 miles to the Hot Creek Interpretive site, another place of exploration this trip. I’ve fished the canyon section of Hot Creek, but this section is unfamiliar and different. The unwelcome sight of four trucks already parked in the turnout makes me question my decision to stop here. It’s not a long stretch of water, about 2,000 feet, meandering through fields of sedges.

The reports were true; it’s grasshopper season. I disturb half a dozen every few steps. A dry-dropper setup is my go-to option for Hot Creek. A dry fly – in this case a grasshopper dry fly – to get the attention of fish looking up, and a nymph to get the attention of the greater number of fish hiding beneath Hot Creek’s plentiful aquatic vegetation. This vegetation is partially responsible for making Hot Creek one of the most productive wild trout waters in California, and the single reason it can be difficult to fish. (Thankfully, as a designated wild trout stream, no bait allowed, only artificial flies and lures with barbless hooks, and all catch and release.) Even so, it’s one of the most heavily fished wild trout waters in the state.

Two fishermen downstream force me upstream. The flow’s a bit high, and getting a drag-free drift is not easy. After five casts, I move downstream. On Hot Creek, I favor a mid-stream stretch that offers a clear lane between vegetation, close enough that a raised rod can keep most of the fly line off the water. Maybe it’s a confidence thing, but once I find one of those lanes, I get a few takes. It’s a mix of hits on the dry and subsurface flies, but all come up short.

Hot Creek 2017.08.24

Great day on Hot Creek. Not so great catching.

It’s not until I’ve leap-frogged past the two fly fishermen – who haven’t moved since I arrived – that I find more willing fish. Just above the fence that marks the private Hot Creek Ranch property, a number of fish hide in the weeds. A fly placed close enough elicits strikes and, with enough casts to the right place at the right time, it’s inevitable that I land one. It’s a small fish by Hot Creek standards, maybe 10 inches, but satisfying.

The sun’s high in the sky now, suggesting that it’s time to meet the rest of the guys at Tom’s Place, just a few miles down the road. Along the way I pass McGee Creek and Crowley Lake. Both are brimming with water this year, and I plan to fish both.

Part two can be found here.


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back in the saddle again (or, oops, I did it again)

It’s hard to pinpoint when I first decided that I wanted a motorcycle in my life.

There were the summer days zipping about family friends’ property in Nevada City on a now forgotten mini bike, weaving between blackberries and jumping off berms that then seemed to touch the sky.

Then there was the mid ’80s Kawasaki 454 LTD that went up for sale across the street when the kids were young. Impractical and unreasonable at the time but gleaming with well-cared-for chrome.

Over the years, when the brother would visit, we’d spend too much time ogling bikes at the local dealership. I loved the ’91-’03 CB750 Nighthawk and absolutely coveted the ’89-’90 CB500 TT, which now is worth twice as much as it sold for 26-plus years ago.

Finally, it was the lessons of life that urged following through – some might call it giving in – to the wish to experience the world on two wheels motivated by controlled detonation. My license was first stamped with an M1 endorsement in 2007.

Only by chance did I start riding sooner rather than later. It was late December that year when opportunity arose in the form of a 1983 Honda CB650SC. Parked in a neighborhood driveway, the price and condition were right. With my wife’s support of my aspiration, I bought it. I learned a lot about riding on it.

About a year later, my son bought the CB650SC from me and, again, opportunity led me to the bike I dreamed about a decade before, a 1997 Nighthawk. Bought on a whim by the original owner, it sat in his warehouse with less than 4,000 miles. I put another 10,000 miles on it. About half of those miles were commuting. The other half accumulated during local scenic rides that led to the annual trips over Tioga and Sonora passes soon after they opened in the late spring. There was just something about starting in warmish weather at 3,000 feet and climbing into the snow-chilled air of 9,000-plus feet.

The Nighthawk left me a couple of years ago. Being an adult requires accepting change. It was for the better and there were no regrets.

I did miss it. Mostly on those bluebird days, when each run into town or to a movie would, on two wheels and exposed to the world, become an experience. Occasionally, long-festering imaginings of longer trips bubbled to the surface.

It began with “just a stop to look” at a local shop and innocent conversations with salespeople. The main attraction was the new crop of smaller displacement motorcycles, with an eye to finding a bike that might fit most of my wants: fun, light(er), reliable, capable of handling a graded forest service road, and suitable for longer highway trips. The Nighthawk weighed nearly 500 pounds. Less weight equated to more fun. The Kawasaki Versys-X 300 is nice. The Honda NC700X is an interesting idea but was a heavy as the Nighthawk. While thought was given to the 200 cc Suzuki Van Van and Yamaha TW200, both seemed a tad small for everyday riding and much less highway capable.

Then there was the Honda CB500X. It fit right in the middle. It passed the ergonomics test. A mental note was made to arrange for a test ride in the coming weeks.

Then, opportunity knocked, again.

The new-to-me 2013 Honda CB500X.

There weren’t many used CB500Xs on the market. But that one Saturday night I decided to see what might be on Craigslist. There were four. The asking price on three was a bit higher. The fourth was priced right. The ad was simple: “2013 Honda CB500X in good condition.” No photos. It had been posted only an hour before. After a quick email exchange and urging from the wife, a meeting was set for the next day.

The original owner had taken care of it. It did have some scars: a nearly imperceptible ding on the right-side cowl and a snapped right rear turn signal. A test ride confirmed its handling, adequate power, and comfort.

With the knowledge that his wife wanted it gone – he now had two motorcycles – and the necessary fixes, the offer I didn’t expect to be accepted was. In the week since I’ve fixed the turn signal and installed a Vololights license plate frame. (Have to say, my clean installation almost looks OEM. That’s a story for later.)

While I tend to be a proponent of spending money on experiences rather than things, this is one thing that I hope opens up possibilities of many new experiences.


I spent a bit of time this last weekend getting the feel of the new bike by exploring the old Mare Island Naval Shipyard.


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up close with the WP&YR, Skagway, Alaska

WP&YR Engine

White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad engine in Skagway. Completed in 26 months and finished at the end of the Yukon Gold Rush, the narrow gauge WP&YR climbs nearly 3,000 feet in 20 miles with grades up to 3.9%, two tunnels and multiple bridges and trestles. The WP&YR’s total length is 100 miles and connects the deep water port at Skagway with Whitehorse, Yukon. Close in 1982 with the decline of the Yukon’s mining industry, it reopened in 1988 as a tourism operation. June 15, 2017


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tying flies requires courage

There’s a mental fortitude required to sit down and whip out a couple dozen flies, knowing that too many won’t return to my fly box.

My attrition rate for dry flies is much lower than that of sub-surface flies. Dry flies have an affinity for shrubbery and tree branches but nymphing necessitates aggressiveness. As the adage goes, “If you’re not snagging bottom every once and a while, you’re not fishing deep enough.” Striking at any and all tics and twitches guarantees a strong hook-set in every stick and rock.

Depending on the stream or river, losing at least three flies a day can be expected. But this loss of sub-surface flies – and the hooking of more fish – is the only proof you’re getting nymphs deep enough.

There’s no proof that I’m saving much money tying my own flies. Materials aren’t too expensive, and except for thread and hooks, most of my materials were given to me from other fly tiers, either excess materials or those no longer used because they’ve moved on to something better. But recovery of the initial investment in a vise and the cost of hooks would require I fish more often.

It could be worse. Innumerable blogs and articles will tell you of the advantages to tying flies rather than buying them. Building durability into flies is cited as one big benefit, all it takes is more head cement (more dollars). One suggests using Kevlar thread (more dollars). Or better hooks (more dollars).

The biggest benefit to tying my own flies is the ability to create or duplicate any pattern, specifically those not available in the fly shops near home or on the road. It’s a good guess that all fly tiers have created their own variation of traditional patterns; one of mine is my “confidence” nymphs, a Red-Butt Zebra Midge. A simple pattern inspired by other, more complex, patterns more commonly used in lakes in British Columbia. But it’s often deadly on many streams on the east and west slopes of the central Sierra Nevada.

My flies won’t win a beauty contest, but it’s only the trout’s opinion that matters.

One creek where my flies fool trouts.


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still here

Like all excuses, mine are more credible to me than anyone else. Our finite allocation of time has been consumed by classwork, the usual demands of full-time jobs, visitors from out of town, tending to the house and yard, emergency response training, dinners and events that keep friendships alive, and a purposeful exploration of local places previously ignored because “we’d get there someday.”

That was January, February and March. Three short months brimming with experiences, mostly good, some not so good.

Apart from spring break next week, the coming months will be just as full. We have one weekend day that remains unplanned. That won’t last long. There’s a shipment of Prager port to pick up.

Though the days are full, there’s a slowness – even if just a few minutes at time – encouraged by the bluebird skies of the last week. Brought to life by the accompanying warmth of the sun, our California native landscaping is putting on a show unforeseen.

Native landscaping in California requires acceptance that the bounty of spring gives way to dormancy during the summer. While manzanita, a huge island mallow, salvia and yarrow remain green all year, the vibrant green leaves of blue-eyed grass turn brown and whither. California poppies die off after scattering the seeds that will become their progeny.

But for now, the yard is playground of color visited by lizards, birds, bees and butterflies.

Blooms on Arctostaphylos densiflora (‘Howard McMinn’ Manzanita).

Lamiaceae Salvia leucophylla (San Luis Sage)

Sisyrinchium bellum (blue eyed grass)

Heuchera (‘Fireworks’ Coral Bells)

And now that the windows are open at night, spring is real and summer looming fast.


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the promise of wet weather

Keeping little guys comfy.

Keeping little guys comfy.

The yard was dusted with frost this morning and the drive to the office was made a bit more exciting by a patch black ice on the Petaluma River bridge. California’s in between storms and a chill has fallen from painfully clear skies.

There are now feet of snow in the Sierras – infinitely better than the inches anxiously counted last year – and a new hope. During the last few years of drought I’ve stayed away from my favorite skinny waters, those little streams where Mother Nature passionately paints trout with dazzling colors; wild fish willing take anything above or below the surface that looks like food.

The prospect of revisiting these little guys, who’ve likely faced struggles of their own with limited water, is exciting and worrisome. They’re physically small and sensitive. They’re not “hero shot” fish. And the creeks in which they live are too small to wade and deeply entrenched, with the occasional waterfall and deep scour pools.

Keeping these trout wet presents a problem. Perhaps it’s time to add a small photography aquarium, aka “photarium,” to my kit.

Here’s to hoping I’ll need to.


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this year’s gifts already given

newphew-axeThe best of this year was comprised of the many little moments. How, when during a stay at a vacation house tomahawks were discovered in the garage and friendly competition revealed that a younger nephew and my sister-in-law are aces. Or, time spent with the parents exploring a small arts and crafts show at which dad finds something humorous and for a moment looks like an over-sized teenager, walking while texting.

Like when the rescue dog adopted four months ago bolts out an open gate for the first time. There’s the fear fed from knowing that this little fur ball has wormed his way into my wife’s heart. After walking out to the street, he’s not in sight, with open space to the left and busier roads at either end of the street, and I don’t have shoes on. Then he comes running with that odd but funny gait the moment you call his name. It’s clear he now understands that he’s a member of our pack.

mexico-departureOr that quiet moment when, during our cruise in October, my wife and I simply watched Ensenada slip from view at sunset.

Then there are the friends met; some who seem destined to become enmeshed in your life, some who are only of that moment, but all who add joy simply by sharing time and experiences. I’m a naturally inclined introvert. It’s my wife who, unafraid, strikes up the conversations that bring new acquaintances into our life.

I’m thankful for these times, when the noise of the world is silenced, or at least stifled for a bit. Call it mindfulness, being present or living in the moment, but it happens more than we appreciate. I know that good things, whether events, other living things or simply a landscape, creep up on me. Without speaking of them, without relishing them and giving them life, they quickly wither into the background. The trick is not being blind to them.

Merry Christmas and all the Best in the New Year


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following no plan

Unhurried, we turned what could have been a three-hour drive into an easy-going, day-long expedition. Hours were spent exploring thin blue lines on maps and the unfamiliar dirt roads that would get us to hopefully fishy water. That time was rewarded with wild fish. One of us had to be satisfied with drifting a fly well enough to at least provoke strikes. We stumbled over boulders and walked through cold, clear waters on both the east and west slopes of Stevens Pass. Passed up less welcoming waters and greedily eyed a pod of big fish, fish too smart or wary to tempt. We stayed where we wanted as long as we wanted, and when the urge struck, we again headed east for a few or more miles before searching new water along another dirt road.

Often the best aspect of a destination is the journey required to get there. It’s all the better if that travel takes you out of your comfort zone. That’s now part of the nature of our Bro’ Trip™.

It was during June eight years ago that the rough outline – or at least the possibility – of an annual Bro’ Trip™ took form. Such traditions don’t just happen. They require work.

Back in 2008, our trip was about taking Dad fishing in Alaska, something he’d talked about but never followed up on. We spent four days of fishing for salmon and halibut out of a Kenai River lodge. Today, our Bro’ Trip™ is more modest but still adventures that include discovery and often take us to new places.

We easily throw trip ideas back and forth at the start of a new year before getting down to the real work: scheduling. We’re not retired or self-employed. Mark has two young boys. Side projects – Neighborhood Watch, college classes, and website work for my fly fishing club and the IWFF and NCCFFF (two other fly fishing groups), demand my regular attention. We both try to plan family vacations each year. Mark takes the boys camping and the whole family to various destinations. My wife likes cruises. Thankfully, both our wives support the allotment of some time for brothers to be brothers, and to sometimes act like boys.

After my banzai run up I-5 and the visit with the parents, I met up with Mark and family Sunday evening. He was barbecuing kokanee that was swimming earlier that morning. I was pretty ready to roll out the next morning. Mark wasn’t. It didn’t bother me much that he wasn’t ready. I’ve made a conscious effort over the years to avoiding worrying when it’s not necessary. And it’s definitely not necessary on vacation.

By midmorning the next day we turned off Hwy 2 and headed down a Forest Service Road toward Money Creek. Like many of the waters we’d fish that week, Money Creek is small pocket. The type of creek that attracts very few people, most likely fly fishermen with self-esteem issues. But its small dry fly water is worth a few casts. We were a bit too heavily armed, perhaps optimistically, with 3 wt. rods. We agreed to meet at the next bend to decide on whether we would extend our stay.

The weather was warm enough to allow wet wading but the water cool enough for the fish. Dense forest shaded both banks, their branches demanded care when casting unless we stepped into the water to make an upstream cast, which is my favorite tactic on previously unvisited water. The first step into the water was mildly shocking.

It’d been too long since I last laid hand to a fly rod, but the old muscle memory came back fast enough to generally place flies where trout might be looking. Without a visible hatch and expecting these to be wild and relatively unmolested fish, both Mark and I had tied on stimulator flies of one kind or another: Mark’s with an orange body, mine in yellow. The color didn’t matter; both were about size 16.

Quick strikes confirmed my guess; the trout were there. However, a lack of hookups suggested my fly was too big.

Mark working his way up Money Creek.

Mark working his way up Money Creek.

The benefit of not being a “purist” allows me to easily adopt strategies that other fly fishermen might frown upon. Rather than replace my size 16 fly, I tied a piece of tippet, about 10 inches, on to the stimulator, onto which I tied a size 20 Elk Hair Caddis. The biggest benefit to this setup is that the larger stimulator would give me an approximate location of my smaller, almost invisible fly.

That’s all it took. Later, Mark reported numerous strikes but not one fish to hand. I had landed half a dozen or so. The largest was about eight inches. It was a promising start. During the day we’d fish other creeks. We’d pass up others, usually because the footing was too treacherous for two not-in-their-prime guys. We found willing fish in the East Fork Miller Creek, before it merges with the Tye River to create the South Fork of the Skykomish River. Other waters on our list included Foss River, Rinker Creek and Quartz Creek.

Just after noon we had run out of easily accessible water and headed over Stevens Pass to make the descent into eastern Washington. We were talking like brothers can and munching on snacks, and the scenery whizzed by. That should have been a clue. The state trooper in the oncoming lane turned on his lights and made a U-turn. I couldn’t see any other cars headed east.

In retrospect, I found it heartening that I didn’t feel my stomach dip or my heart flutter with the realization those red and blue lights were for me. A quick check of my paperwork, an admonishment to slow down, and we were off again.

Mark interrupted our descent toward Wenatchee, suggesting we pull over to check out Nason Creek, which slips in and out of sight of the highway for many miles. This was a spot he’d checked out before. It was a broad, flat bend in the creek, its slow water hemmed in by broadleaf trees.

I half looked for signs of fish. This is the best way to spot a fish. This looking/not-looking – unfocusing on what you want to see – reveals subtle movements at the edges of your vision. Shadows, formerly rocks, start to sway back forth. Just above, the streamlined body. First one, then two, and a third and fourth. I pointed them out to Mark.

Then my jaw went slack and I went silent. An impossibly large trout swims into view. Larger dots along its back suggest it’s a brown trout. It would be former brood stock beyond its prime breeding years, but I’d rather believe it’s a wild and clearly piscivorous fish.

A welcome flight at Icicle Brewing.

A welcome flight at Icicle Brewing.

Before heading into Leavenworth for lunch, we sought out access on Icicle Creek, but hunger, fatigue and unfamiliarity with the area made beer and lunch more attractive. We stopped and walked a couple of blocks to Icicle Brewing Company.

The heat of eastern Washington was unlike anything I’ve felt before. It’s terribly dry. Even a small breeze feels like sandpaper. Shade offers only minor relief.

We lingered while munching on a pretzel, landjaeger and a meat and cheese platter, critiquing the beer and musing about unimportant things. (Who matched pretzels to mustard in the first place?) From Leavenworth it should have taken about 75 minutes to the house in Chelan but construction delays added about 40 minutes. Enough time for Mark to get in a nap.

Chelan was still baking in the afternoon sun when we arrived. We’d bake the rest of the week.