Friday, January 30, 2009
Thursday, January 29, 2009
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. May your rivers flow without end, meandering through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells, past temples and castles and poets towers into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkeys howl, through miasmal and mysterious swamps and down into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone, and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across the white sand beaches, where storms come and go as lightning clangs upon the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you -- beyond that next turning of the canyon walls."
— Edward Abbey
Sunday, January 11, 2009
Friday, January 9, 2009
We moved out to the panhandle this past summer so I could teach at WTAMU, my first real job in 29 years. Any move is always fraught with lifestyle changes, large expenditures, and the pervasive smell of cardboard, dust, and tape. We have all adjusted quite well to our new surroundings, new schools, new apartment, well maybe not the little apartment, but hopefully we can find a place to call HOME in the next few months. One of the biggest changes I’ve experienced in our move out west is the lifestyle, the people, the minute differences that many people might not always notice. Being in a crossroads of sorts between five states (New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado), there are an abundance of non-Texans around. Growing up in central Texas, we didn’t see too many people from out of state…it would have taken them 8 hours to get to San Antonio from just about any of the surrounding states. Up here in the panhandle, folks are driving through all the time on their way east or west on I40, what used to be Route 66, the great highway to the West. We also see a lot of “cowboys”. Just the other day, Marie and I were in a store when a guy wearing a cowboy hat, grape smugglers, and vest passed us. Morgan yelled out, “He’s a cowboy!” This morning, while pumping gas, I heard a strange jangling noise behind me that I wouldn’t have been able to place without knowing that a “cowboy” had just pulled up in the stall next to me, towing a gooseneck stock trailer behind his heavy duty Chevy diesel, a tumbleweed stuck to the undercarriage. In the back of the trailer were two horses, one gray and one sorrel, in the truck bed, a blue heeler with one white eye. The noise I heard came from the guy’s spurs as he walked around his truck to top off the oil. That is a sound I don’t believe I have ever heard in San Antonio, College Station, or Waco, unless I was at the stock show and rodeo. These little differences in the people make Amarillo a very different city than those of central Texas that I am more familiar with. Perhaps the most amazing thing about living in Amarillo, besides being a short drive from Palo Duro Canyon, is the sunsets out on the plains. Our apartment sits on the very western edge of town and faces west overlooking a vast swath of open prairie, the only obstruction being a 6 foot wooden fence. As our first day here began to wind to a close, I was finishing up the unloading of the U-haul when I looked out west over the plains and saw the gorgeous sunset. For the next several evenings, I made sure to look out the window or go outside to view the amazing sunsets of west Texas, unhindered by trees, or houses, or hills. I don’t know what it is about that light being radiated from our Sun, refracted by our atmosphere, and then reflected off of the clouds that never ceases to fill me with awe. Last night found us rushing outside once again to view another sunset. Even after four months of seeing the things, we can’t get enough. Amarillo still doesn’t feel like home, perhaps it never will. We will likely move from here in the next several years. Although this city will probably never be home, who can tell for sure though, I will always have a special remembrance of the people and the amazing view to the west as the Earth completes one more revolution.
Monday, January 5, 2009
Have you noticed how quickly things are changing around here, on Earth that is? Last night on the History Channel there was a program called Nostradamus 2012 which covered the topic of the end of days…Armageddon. This show suggested that, according to the writings of Nostradamus, the ending of both the Mayan and Jewish calendar, and the alignment of our solar system with our galaxy’s center on December 21st, 2012, the end is near, or at least an extremely drastic change, a cataclysmic event. In all honesty, I think shows like this are quite silly, but interesting. In fact, I think some drastic change will occur despite the writings of Nostradamus, et al. As of 2005, the population of the
Friday, January 2, 2009
Yet, I still wasn’t a fly fisherman. One winter, after the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department stocked the local pond with rainbow trout, I called up my dad who was living in Albuquerque at the time for advice on how to catch a trout. He offered the usual spinner and Powerbait recommendation, but never mentioned fly fishing. The next day, my kids and I went to the freshly stocked pond and were given a phenomenal little lure called a super-duper by a nice man next to us. We caught 11 trout in the next hour, so when I got home I phoned my dad once more to see how to cook the little things. He didn’t answer the phone, but called back the next morning. I will never forget that phone call. I was excited about the fish and he let me tell my story, gave me a recipe, then said, “I just got back from the doctor’s office and I have a big fucking lump in my chest”. My heart sank. It was the worst news I had ever heard in my entire life. My dad had lung cancer. He died quickly, in a matter of months, at the age of 50. I could no longer call him up for advice on how to catch a fish, or tell him about my third child being born, or that I got that job I always wanted. That was a dark chapter in my life…that black cloud still hangs over me.
If anything good came out of my father’s death, it was my new found interest in fly fishing. I think of my dad every time I go fishing, and fly fishing lets me imagine what he must have been like at my age catching cutthroats on the Snake with a fly rod in hand and the ever present cigarette hanging from his lip. I bought a fly rod before a trip to Colorado to visit some friends who recently relocated there after their own tragic incident, but I will save that for another story. Kevin, my friend, and I drove the short 30 minutes down Foxton Road to the spot on the North Fork of the South Platte where I first fished for trout with a fly rod. I didn’t catch a thing. It turns out fly fishing is a bit more challenging than fishing with spinning tackle. I did bring along my handy, light weight rod and reel with that ever wonderful super-duper rigged up. I caught a 6 inch brown trout on the first cast to a whole behind a large boulder. I just knew that spot was holding a fish, and sure enough, I caught it in one try. I cast a few more times with the super-duper and eventually caught another little brown before handing the rod over to Kevin. He tried his hand with the spinning rod, but soon got hung up on a submerged rock and we lost our one and only super-duper. We left without catching any fish on the fly rods, but we both were hooked. Lucky for him, he can be on the water in less than an hour angling for the elusive browns and rainbows of the South Platte. I had to settle for large mouth bass and sunfish at home in central Texas. With practice I got the hang of fishing the fly rod, my fly of choice being a black or olive wooley bugger. On most outings I can catch at least one fish in the slow moving, warm waters of Texas, but it just isn’t the same as being in the mountains casting for trout.
Kevin and I fished the same area of the Platte last spring. The river still had a crust of ice hanging over the edge. Chunks of ice from upstream would break off and pass us by on their way down river. On this outing, I finally caught a trout on the fly. We were casting egg patterns held down by split-shot. I made a cast to a likely spot, saw the indicator stop short, and then set the hook. I landed a stunning rainbow trout about 10 inches long. I will never forget the excitement at landing my first mountain trout. The view of the mountains, the chill of the water, the smell of life in the outdoors, these memories stick.
During the fall, my family and Kevin’s met in Taos for a brief visit. The drive was nice, especially on the way back. We of course saw the mountains, seemingly ablaze with golden aspens, but we drove through a gorgeous canyon formed by the Canadian River in eastern New Mexico and saw dozens of pronghorn antelope. While in Taos, Kevin and I of course planned our fishing outing. Before heading to the river, we stopped by the Taos Fly Shop to get our licenses, some flies, and tips on fishing the area. Of all of the wonderful choices available, we picked the Rio Grande Gorge where it meets the Red River of New Mexico in the Wild Rivers Scenic Area near Questa. I have never witnessed a more stunning back drop for a fishing trip. The hike to the bottom was only a mile long, but descended 800 vertical feet. We knew we were in for it when the day was ended. We made the mile hike in around 15 minutes, brimming over with excitement of the fishing to come. We slipped into our waders, tied on a bead head nymphs below hoppers and started casting. Within a few casts I had a hook up, but failed to land a small brown trout. As I worked my way upstream, it was evident that fishing the Rio Grande was much different than the slow moving Brazos back home that I had grown accustomed to. I couldn’t seem to get the timing right, failed to perform a proper up-stream mend, and failed to catch any fish. None-the-less, I enjoyed every second of failure. Kevin, on the other hand, having fished several times on the Platte, was doing quite well. He landed two fine rainbows and a tiny brown. Ah, the envy of the better fisherman. We were too soon chased off by some looming thunderheads heading our way. As we reluctantly slipped out of our waders and packed up our gear, the rain began to fall, but was welcome as it kept us cooled off during our climb out of the canyon. The 800 foot climb back proved to be exhausting, but worth every second. We proudly made the climb in less than 30 minutes…much faster than the allotted 45 the guy at the fly shop suggested it would take. We hurriedly drove back to spend the rest of the day with our wives and children, with another fond memory stored away.
I haven’t been back on the water in months, but the memories keep me going, along with the hope of more trips to the mountains. As the death of my father continues to haunt me, the feeling that he has always been there, on the river banks watching, keeps me going back for one more chance to go fly fishing with dad.
Once on a visit to the McLennan County Library, I checked out a copy of the book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, by Aron Ralston. This book tells the fateful story of a guy who was canyoneering in Bluejohn Canyon in Utah and left behind a little piece of himself in the wilderness. While climbing over a boulder, he dislodged it from its precarious position in a slot canyon. The boulder crushed his hand literally, “between a rock and a hard place”. After five long days of being cold, hungry and drinking his own urine, he ended up severing his own hand with a dull Swiss Army knife, muscle by muscle, nerve by nerve, after first breaking the two bones of his forearm. Following his gruesome self amputation, he proceeded to hike several miles and repel down cliffs where he eventually stumbled upon some hikers who helped get him rescued. Aron Ralston’s story is a wonderful tale in itself, but it was the suggested readings he included in the back of his text that introduced me to my most cherished authors, Edward Abbey and John Graves. Mr. Ralston suggested to his readers that they look into the book, Desert Solitaire, by old Cactus Ed, and Goodbye to a River, by Mr. Graves. So, being a diligent student, I immediately sought these books out. As it happens, Goodbye to a River is a book about my river, the Brazos. Mr. Graves weaves intricate tales of Texas history into the undulations of the river, creek by creek. At the time, in the 1950’s, the US Army Corp of Engineers were planning an onslaught of dams on the Brazos, so Mr. Graves was taking a farewell trip through his boyhood backyard before it was stopped up for good. Thankfully, only one of those dams was ever built, and the Brazos flows freely and proudly through central Texas from Lake Whitney, 20 miles north of Waco, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Prior to his trip, the Brazos had already been damned at Possum Kingdom, a name I have always found amusing, and Whitney. His trip consisted of a solitary three weeks in November down the Brazos in a canoe. He caught fish, hunted ducks, and just otherwise had a grand time on the Brazos. This tale of adventure in a canoe inspired me to eventually purchase a second-hand canoe of my own to begin my own trips on the Brazos. We’ll discuss more of this later. Edward Abbey, the Thoreau of the west, Cactus Ed, the monkey-wrench wielding anarchist, is truly the most inspiring writer I have ever had the pleasure to read. Perhaps his most well known work of non-fiction is Desert Solitaire. This book chronicles Mr. Abbey’s time as a park ranger at Arches National Monument (now a National Park) near Moab, Utah. He describes encounters with snakes, rabbits, clouds, and survey crews while espousing his vast knowledge of the desert southwest and his disdain for the modern-day way of life. His ability to transform his ideology into written word both logically and convincingly is unsurpassed in my, admittedly small, experience with literature. Like Mr. Graves, Abbey describes a very similar farewell trip to a river that he dearly loved as well. Sadly, Mr. Abbey’s river was damned up near what is now Page, Arizona. The Glen Canyon Damn backed up the Colorado River, effectively covering over 80 side canyons which contained beautiful grottoes, hanging gardens, and otherwise irreplaceable natural works of art. Now, the bottoms of these canyons are the final resting place of beer cans and plastic bags haphazardly thrown overboard by careless boaters. Just before the Glen Canyon Dam was finished in 1963, Abbey and a friend took a trip down the Colorado to say goodbye to their river. They similarly enjoyed catching fish and exploring the side canyons of the once great Glen Canyon. The accounts told by Abbey and Graves have forever changed my view of the world, particularly its rivers, and even more particularly, the Brazos River. It is a funny thing how the threat of loss makes us appreciate the things we would normally take for granted.
I bought my used canoe in the spring of 2006 and soon was off on my own river trip. In this case it was on the North Bosque River, which is one of three Bosque Rivers that eventually make their way to the Brazos after passing through the dam that created Lake Waco. The other Bosque Rivers are the Middle and the South. Once leaving the damn, the three Bosques simply become the Bosque for several brief miles before it joins forces with the Brazos in a beautiful city park named after the Cameron family of Waco. My first foray on the North Bosque was fairly uneventful. As I remember, it was a cool morning. I think I may have caught one channel catfish on a trot-line to fry up upon my return home. I made several other trips to the North Bosque over the course of the next year. Perhaps the most memorable was one trip in which I took my son and nephew out to float on an extremely flooded river. The put in that I always used was just above Lake Waco, and being that we had an unusually high amount of rainfall that spring, the lake was about 15 feet above flood stage. The water was so high that we put in about 200 yards up the embankment from the usual spot. We soon found ourselves paddling among the treetops. It was quite an unusual experience to know that we were paddling through what just a few months before was just air. The high water forced all of the tree spiders, I am not sure what their real name is, but that is what we called them, to congregate in huge masses so that anytime we brushed against a tree limb, the boat was showered with long-legged spiders that scared the pants off of both boys. I soon grew weary of paddling the North Bosque due to the fact that I wasn’t having much luck with the fishing. Fortuitously, I met a guy named Jason, who was also working towards a Ph.D. at Baylor, had several small children, and shared a love for paddling and fishing. We soon became paddling partners, but struck out for another river. The Middle Bosque proved to be quite productive in many different aspects. The scenery is quite a bit more enjoyable than the North Bosque. There are rocky cliffs, not that high, but nice just the same, at several points along the river. The fishing was much better. It seemed I caught fish on every trip I took, including white bass, large mouth bass, sunfish, and my one and only small mouth bass. One particular spot on the river has a very rocky shore that contained dozens of fossils. We found wonderful specimens of ammonites and clams, and a few others that we couldn’t identify. Our children really enjoyed hunting these fossils, so when the fishing would slow, we would trudge up and down this spot kicking over the rocks in search of new treasures. On several occasions we would paddle down stream towards the lake where the river widens. Once scaring up a flock of hundreds of little black ducks of which I don’t know the name, but perhaps they were lesser scaups. On a couple of occasions we would paddle a very short way up the South Bosque, where it meets the Middle Bosque, but sadly I never explored that river much. At the confluence of these two rivers we found a tree that had been downed by a beaver, although we never encountered any beavers on the water it was exciting to see evidence of their existence in our small neck of the woods. As our paddling experience increased, our interest in doing a longer trip did as well. Soon, in January of 2008, we had an overnight trip down the Brazos planned. We were to put in under the Lake Whitney dam and take out at a run-down RV park 22 river miles down stream in the small town of Gholson. As always, the shuttling of cars and gear proved to be a logistical challenge, but by afternoon the first day we were on the water, in separate canoes, and catching white bass. We caught five in all that day, not a large catch by any standards, but just right for a fish fry in camp that night. The first day’s paddling was very challenging with a stiff breeze coming out of the south that produced small white-caps on the river. The scenery was particular nice that first day and far outweighed the negative feelings we shared about the wind. We passed several seep springs, some hundreds of feet in length, which overhung the river with dangling roots from the trees above. These springs made a beautiful tinkling sound as the drops of water fell to the river below. At one point on the river there were some unusual limestone overhangs that jutted out horizontally from the river bank between 5 and 8 feet above the river. I stopped here to enjoy the scenery, not knowing what this place had in store for me in the future. That first day, we paddled about 7 river miles before making camp at the most absolutely perfect spot. The site we found was sandy, but covered in leaves, which made for comfortable sleeping. There were plenty of dead oak trees around to provide fire wood which gave off a tantalizing aroma as dinner and coffee cooked on its coals. Jason, being fairly new to fishing, had never eaten any fish he had caught. I showed him how to filet the bass and we dredged the filets in a combination of white flour and cornmeal before frying them in a cast-iron skillet placed directly in the fire. Our meal was delicious, with a flavor amplified by the surroundings and the fact that we provided it ourselves. Overnight, a cold front blew in, dropping the temperature into the thirties, but we slept well despite the chill. We were woken early by the sound of something thrashing about in the water. Jason jumped out of the tent believing that the water had risen and was attempting to relieve us of our canoes. It turned out that a duck hunter was just setting his decoys up for a morning hunt just 75 yard upriver from our camp. Being that we had pitched the tent among some oaks, he didn’t see us in the low morning light. Within minutes of setting out his decoys he was blasting away with a shotgun that, had we not be awakened by his thrashing in the water, would have led us to believe we were being attacked. We made a quick breakfast of turkey bacon and egg tacos. Yes, I said turkey bacon. Jason’s wife did the shopping and in her attempts at healthy eating, bought us bacon that just isn’t up to par when compared to the delicious, thick slices of cured pork that I am accustomed to. If given the choice when the fateful day arrives, my final meal will consist of pan fried bacon and eggs. There isn’t much else on earth that tastes better. Soon after breakfast, we were broke camp and got back on the water. We had fifteen more miles to cover that day, with wives waiting at home for us to take over the childcare for the rest of the weekend, so we were diligent in our paddling. With the cold front that blew in came an uncomfortable drizzle that had we not been prepared with waders and rain jackets, would have soaked and chilled us thoroughly. None the less, the paddle down stream was a cold one. We stopped at one muddy bank to cook Ramen noodles which helped to warm us from within. Cold and hunger can make even the simplest food taste delightful. We made it home before evening with plans in the works for another trip. Jason ended up making a few trips on his own, perfecting the art of landing multiple large mouth bass seemingly at will, as I was busy with school and other things. But we did make one last trip that summer before I moved out of the area. Knowing that I would soon be leaving the Brazos Valley, Jason and I planned a short 8 mile float from the dam below Lake Whitney. He brought along his two eldest sons, and I brought along mine. We were all having a great time, but things would change soon after. Lake Whitney, being one of dozens of man-made lakes in Texas, was built chiefly for flood control and hydroelectric power production. Summertime in Texas can be a time of very high energy demand as folks at home are trying to cool their homes from the stifling heat and humidity. Each day, the dam at Whitney sounds three load bellows from warning horns that alert all downstream that the lake is about to open its gates. We heard the horns blowing, knowing the river would soon rise and the current would pick up. We were stopped on a rocky island for a quick snack to keep the kids satiated when the water began to rise. Soon our boys were riding the oncoming water as it flowed through a small depression in the island making a water ride of sorts. Jason’s son was swept downstream in what looked to be fun, but seemed to scare both Jason and the boy. After a ride myself, we got in our canoes and passed over a wonderful standing wave about two feet in height that provided a nice thrill. We fished as we made our way downstream to a campsite halfway to our take-out across the river from the strange horizontal rock formation I alluded to earlier. We set up camp and had more snacks, but soon decided to paddle back up river to fish and float a while longer. My son and I got ahead of Jason, and as we came alongside our campsite, I decided to get a picture of my son in the canoe with the overhanging limestone in the background. Being semi-thoughtless, or just my usual self, I figured I could dump an anchor overboard and take a quick photo with my wife’s expensive digital camera. What I didn’t realize was that canoes, anchors and swift currents down mix well. At first the swift current didn’t allow the anchor to find a hold along the rocky bottom, but it soon did and then all hell broke loose. Our canoe capsized in a split second, figuratively dumping us into the arms of god, with all of my loose gear flowing downstream. The PFD I sat on, instead of wearing, was gone, my two oars were gone, my tackle box was gone, but that was not the worst of it. In a panic, having the camera around my neck, I felt something pulling me down, so I reached for the camera strap and quickly slid it over my head, dropping it to the river bottom. My son was extremely scared as he watched me struggle to cut the rope that attached the anchor to the boat and attempt to swim the boat to the opposite shore, 30 yards away. We both had fishing lures stuck to our bodies, he a wooly bugger in his thigh, me two top-waters with treble hooks on my torso. Jason, seeing that we had flipped hurriedly made his way to our rescue. By the time he reached us I was exhausted and only halfway to shore, so he arrived just in time. He quickly threw me a line and pulled us to shore, about 200 yards downstream from our camp, which thankfully wasn’t still stored in our canoe. He then paddled down stream to recover what gear of mine he could, while my son and I recovered our composure. In all I ended up losing a camera, my tackle box and a hat. I also lost a bit of confidence in myself, but gained a new understanding of the importance of wearing a PFD and lashing all gear to a canoe. In the absence of idiotic mistakes, which for me can come all too often, you never really know what can happen on a river, thus the need to follow the old Boy Scout motto, “always be prepared”. I would add only to that motto, “always be prepared for anything”. That night, after making our way back to camp and quickly cooking dinner over hot mesquite coals as the sun went down, another front moved through, this time bringing with it magnificent displays of lightning and accompanying claps of thunder and blowing wind that almost took Jason’s tent with it. It began to sprinkle a little bit sending us to our tents for shelter, but soon passed and left us dry for the night, although the distant thunder left a nagging worry in the back of my mind about a middle of the night downpour which prevented restful sleep. Soon after the storm passed us, I grew uncomfortably hot due to the fact that our campsite had been baking in the July sun all day leaving heat that radiated from the ground for hours after dark. The heat drove me outside of the tent to gaze up at the stars, being far more visible several miles from the city, which peaked through the remaining cloud cover. In the morning we woke early to muggy dawn. A stroll down to the river, which had receded over night leaving behind a muddy walk to the bank, brought a fantastic display of fat-lipped carp slurping tiny, white mayfly spinners off the water surface. The mayflies where so thick, they appeared to be a mist hovering over the river. After breakfast, we soon broke camp and began our nervous trip, for me and my son anyway, to our takeout at a place called Dick’s, the only company providing shuttle service on this stretch of the Brazos. We said our goodbyes as we loaded up our gear with promises of future, albeit safer, trips some time in the near future. My son is still terrified of a return to canoe travel, but since our move to the Texas Panhandle, I have been longing for another trip. Jason keeps me up to date on his travels, while I yearn for a return to the river I have grown to love.