fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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higher and higher (or, personal accomplishment, part two)

The second day of my Memorial Day trip was undecided until I rolled out of bed that morning. A lot of the time, my angling is a solo affair. There was initial hope that Sean might join me — hitting the high country together is nearly an annual affair — but as happens with kids, they get jobs, take on other responsibilities and interests, and simply can’t always get away. Funny how that works: just as a parent gains a bit more freedom, children tend to lose theirs.

Lyell Fork bridges.

Lyell Fork bridges.

A lack of soreness from the previous day’s hiking encouraged the consideration of another adventure, this time one that would harken back to the adventures of the younger me. During the family vacations in Tuolumne Meadows, we’d often hear about the trail along the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River, but a trail I can’t recall ever hiking.

Lingering was nice that morning, but the trail head was about two and a half hours away. I’m pretty practiced at whipping together a lunch and getting the gear ready. The previous day had shown that my Orvis day pack would serve me well, and with only one rod, the other rod pocket kept a water bottle handy. I was on the road about 7:00 a.m. That’s late for me, but today wasn’t to be rushed.

Having traveled the route so many times, it could be said that I’m able to make the drive to Tuolumne Meadows with my eyes closed. But that would be a waste. Though I know what’s around that next corner, each visit offers a new revelation. The Sierra Nevada was called the Range of Light by John Muir for a reason; every view changes, depending upon the season and time of day.

The canyon where I stopped and turned around.

The canyon where I stopped and turned around.

Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of the camping season, but campsites in Tuolumne Meadows are usually still covered in snow or flooded by snowmelt. There was still traffic, mostly comprised of rock climbers itching for that first touch of that unique Sierra Nevada granite, and sprinkled with the usual sightseers passing through on their way to the valley.

I pulled into the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center just before ten. A line of hopeful backpackers wound around the building, but parking was easy to find. Pack secured and confirming I had the proper map, I hit the trail a few minutes later.

The trail was both familiar and unknown. Many high Sierra trails must look the same at the onset. About a mile along, landmarks revealed this was new ground. There were the rusted steel signs pointing to various destinations, the two bridges that lead to the opposite side of the Lyell Fork, and the river itself, meandering through meadows and twisting through and over the batholith that forms the core of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

This is the type of country that refreshes the soul.

Another view, looking down river.

Another view, looking down river.

After a mile, I was alone on the trail. The hike was easier than expected. I was inclined to chalk that up to hard-won improvements in my physical fitness — particularly with a trailhead elevation of 8,600 feet — but later determined that the elevation gain was less than 500 feet. Roughly two miles in I left the trail to follow the course of the river. It wasn’t easy. Down trees, boulders and the Lyell’s long elbows required numerous detours.

Further upstream.

Further upstream.

About four miles along I came to a narrow canyon. Continuing up river would require a long detour. But I had started a bit late, and daylight can be precious when in the wild.

I rigged up the 3 wt. rod and began that slow walk downstream, presenting my fly to suspect water. The river was high, limiting where a cast could be made without immediate drag.

This is the type of country and the type of fish where stealth pays off. I spooked fish with every step. Where possible, I’d cast four or five feet from the bank, with only a few rises to show for it.

The course of many high Sierra rivers is dictated by huge granite outcroppings, creating pools. In midsummer these pools attract swimmers, but this early in the season it was still too cold for such nonsense. I found one such monolith that directed the Lyell Fork almost ninety degrees from its course, creating a deep pool that offered a feeding lane and overhead protection. Up against the granite was slack water, from which decent sized brook trout would intermittently rocket to the surface.

I tend to avoid putting myself in position to hook a fish without an easy way to bring them to the net. A fishless morning, however, changed my outlook. Moving away from the water and giving the fish a wide berth, I quietly and slowly crept to the top of the outcropping. Carefully peeking over the edge, I could see about half a dozen trout about fifteen feet below. Counting on the height to conceal any false casts, I laid a stimulator in the seam that would funnel insects to the trout. A fish rose, inspected my fly, and dismissed it. That was the pattern on subsequent casts.

Offering a break for both myself and the fish, I sat down to tie on an Elk Hair Caddis. That’s all it took. A nice-sized brook trout nailed it and went wild. It jumped like a rainbow and shook its head like a salmon. My excitement began to change to panic with the realization that there was about twenty feet of line between me and the fish and that I had to lead it thirty feet to my right if there was any hope of getting it to the net. It was a thrilling fight for all of about forty seconds, and I did get a good look at what could’ve been about twelve inches of healthy Salvelinus fontinalis before a not-so-long distance release.

Marmot!?

Marmot!?

The tug of that fish — and the fact that I once again was able to fool a wild fish (an accomplishment that continues to amaze me) — made the day seem brighter. I wandered downstream a bit, trying to sneak up on fish in the meadows, and after a few hits but nothing solid, I sat down in the world’s best dining room for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

I met more people on the hike out, followed a marmot for a few hundred yards and lingered here and there. It was another day of personal accomplishment. No knee brace was required and my breathing wasn’t labored like it was last year.

Now, I hope to get back when the water’s lower and the fish hungrier.


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we didn’t know it should have been scary at the time

This post brought to you by the writing prompt† “My Outdoor Scary
from the Outdoor Blogger Network (OBN).

Lembert Dome

The Target: Lembert Dome, 900 feet of granite.

In all fairness, my dad didn’t see it coming. I blame it on the thin air or the simple joy of being outdoors in God’s country.

For more than a few years, my brother, my sister, and I eagerly anticipated a week or more of camping in the Tuolumne Meadows campground. These trips were filled with hiking, fishing, campfires, hiking that was sporadically interrupted by fishing, and that general freedom engendered by nature’s wide-open spaces.

Many hikes started in the campground or nearby, which meant a starting elevation of at least 8,500 feet and often closer to 9,500 feet. Many of the trails were obvious or followed rivers or streams, and were usually marked on the USGS maps dad packed with the space blankets, water, lunches, snacks and other supplies. Some hikes were long and generally flat, others shorter but a bit tougher on the shorter legs of kids. The trail to Lake Elizabeth gained about 1,000 feet in elevation over 4.5 miles. Getting to Gaylor Lakes required rising 600 feet in what seemed like the first mile of the three. (Gaylor Lakes supposedly offered great fishing, but the inhalation of swarms of mosquitoes that rose with every step on the surrounding marshes cut the trip short.)

Lembert Dome — a 900-foot tall mass of granite — towers above the nearby Tuolumne River. From the meadows one can often see tiny people standing on top. Then, one summer, me, my dad, my brother and my sister saddled up and began an ill-fated hike that would take us to the top of the dome on a relatively easy trail, but one that grows steeper as it ascends the backside.

The trail cut through a forest and over a few streams as it traced the lower edge of the dome, then looped toward the back the dome. All the while we gained elevation, but it’s the last fourth of the 2.8 miles that asked the most of our legs. This climb started with a clear demarcation of the alpine zone. Trees became fewer and shorter, some stunted, and soon we stood on granite. Then it got a bit tricky, with some rock scrambling and careful footwork required before we reached the top.

Half Dome Back When 1

Yes, we made it... (This is the original, unaltered photo. Scroll down for a better colorized version.
And where the heck did I get that belt buckle?)

Standing on top of this massive granite dome, where the air seems just slightly thinner, the deep greens of the meadows and trees contrast with a sky of eye-straining blues and snow-capped mountains reaching 11,000 feet or more. We lingered and marveled; maybe a bit too long.

Not exactly the best boots for hiking.

The hike had taken a little bit longer than expected and dad was a tad anxious about getting back to camp dome before dark. From where we stood, the face of the dome didn’t look too steep. It also looked like a shortcut.

We didn’t know that there was a surprising amount of glacial polish and exfoliation, cracks parallel to the surface that develop with expansion and contraction‡. Our Sears Roebuck and Co. boots would have been more at home on a flat construction site and offered limited grip. (You might know these boots; versions are still sold today under the Diehard brand — the ones with white leather crepe sole with a tread best described as small rolling hills.) Baseball-sized rocks and small BBs of decomposed granite tumbled beside us as we picked our way down.

We’d also find out that the stitching and rivets in our jeans didn’t offer much traction. It wasn’t easy to walk down the steep granite, so we controlled much of our descent with the seat of our pants. Literally. We slid on our bums. I think our pants gave up their last threads that day.

We did make it down Lembert Dome that afternoon and my brother and I hiked back to camp with just a bit of bravado. Dad, no doubt, and probably my sister, were relieved.

We were too young to be appropriately terrified worried that day. Now that age has tempered my bravado, when I think about this, I’m suitably scared for that young man. But I’m always glad that he had this adventure.

Half Dome in Color

...and here we are with the color slightly adjusted. (Forgot that Mark was ever so small.)

Looking out from Lembert Dome

Us kids looking out from atop Lembert Dome. Not so scary...

Us on Lembert Dome

My brother, my son, and I made it back in 2011.
This time there'd be no sliding down Lembert Dome's face.


† This prompt was issued a few days ago, but nothing immediately think came to mind, which I chalk up to a lack of adventurousness the preparedness taught to me by the Boy Scouts.
‡ There is no general agreement among geologists as to the exact cause of this phenomenon.